Category Archives: Decline of the Corporates

The battle between authenticity and lies.

brand personality, brand behavior, brand behaviour

Messaging is the last thing a StartUp should worry about.

People tell lies. Brands tell lies.

People have always been skeptical about marketing. Because they are skeptical about what people say.

Marketing was always about messaging. (Most of the brand models developed by big corporations are message focused.)

But how we market should reflect the reality of how people think.

And they think other people talk a lot of shite. And they know brands are run by people. Sometimes some of the more desperate, self-interested, self serving people.

So they think brands talk a lot of shite.

But people can see through that. Just like they can see through people’s lies.

The way we judge a person’s credibility is by their actions and by their overall personality.

We look them in their eye and think: given what I know of this person, and of people in general, does that stack up? We don’t over-think this: it’s intuitive and immediate. We think simply.

I knew a guy who patted everyone on the back and said how much he cared, how much he liked them. But other than talk, he never did anything to make their lives more bearable and he could have. In fact, he prevented it. Because it wasn’t in his interest.

It wasn’t a person, it was a brand, but I wanted to anthropomorphize it to make the point. That’s the worse type of brand.

There was a thug called Hitler who said: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

But he was wrong. He just bullied people into silence. But too much marketing seems to adhere to this idea.

I don’t buy all that old-fashioned orthodoxy about winning friends and influencing people. The snake oil salesman approach. But too much marketing does.

The StartUp advantage is the blank canvas. So be a modern brand. Define your brand by your company actions and personality. What you say will be authentic because the foundations are. It necessarily comes after you’ve got everything else right. Too many StartUps go straight to marketing. That might create temptations to be expedient, to be like the old marketers.

I’ll make a distinction with exaggeration and hype. They can be good. You are selling after all and you do need to present your case in the strongest light. That’s called advocacy. But fabrication is different. Having nothing to back it up is different.

Mark Twain said: “I have a higher and grander standard of principle than George Washington. He could not lie; I can, but I won’t.” It’s up to us. What kind of brands do we want to populate the world in the future?

Your Big Advantage over the Big Boys.

business difference

How StartUps can make the most of the blank canvas.

It’s easy for a StartUp to feel intimidated. To think you are not worthy. To look at the big boys with awe, with all their resources, their profile, their confidence, their relationships. You might assume that if they chose to confront you, you’d stand no chance.

But I’ve worked with them all my professional life and guess what? You’d be wrong.

The truth is that their disadvantages might just outweigh their advantages. Corporations are a complex battle of interests, laden with conservatism. They are risk averse…in fact, worse; often they are decision averse. Often the mindset is: doing something new creates the potential for risk, whereas doing nothing avoids that potential…so stick with doing nothing. And in that environment, that’s actually smart: because that’s how the corporation is often structured, that is the reward mechanic and behaviour follows.

There’s some talk about corporations beginning to be more like StartUps. But in all but the rarest of situations, this misses the point. Corporations are bureaucratic because they have to be. They have due diligence and institutional investors, they have heavy structure, processes, organograms…but more importantly they have a hive of people and a culture.

Legacy system buries itself deep within an organization. You can’t unpick it. You can’t alter the mechanics and expect a new mindset. That’s the wrong way round. (Personally, I believe that once an entity becomes a corporation, it creates the conditions for its own demise. But more on that some other time.)

StartUps have no legacy. They have a blank canvas. They are free to do what they want. And this can be the biggest advantage in the world.

But you have to focus on the areas where this blank canvas can lead to the greatest advantage. That’s not going to be product, or supply chain, or sales, R&D or talent.

The two areas they will find it impossible to beat you are:

1. They can’t think as small as you.

2. And they can’t think as holistically as you.

To the first. You can target a tiny but perfectly formed audience. In fact, you must. Not just focus better but show them the love. Find – or create – a gang. Not an audience, a gang. A gang is about belonging, about having something you are anti and about feeling special. Prove to them that you were designed for them and only them. You can grow from here, not by compromising but by pulling more and more people into that gang.

To the second. You can aggressively deliver your brand concept through every element of your brand. Corporations find it so hard to control this, on a practical level and on a human level. But it’s easy for a StartUp once they think not as a business but as a brand that does business. Change the experience people have when they connect, buy, use and share your business so it captures the uniqueness of your brand idea.

As I’ve written before, Airbnb does this as well as any StartUp. But using an existing brand makes the point more clearly and I’ll use the most famous brand in history, Coca Cola.

We are told the brand idea of Coca Cola is happiness. But you know what, it’s not really.
It’s brown sweet fizzy drinks. Which they then use to lay claim to happiness.

It’s a critical distinction. The product drives everything, not the brand.

Take the brown drink away and what have they got? Nothing. The brown fizzy drink is their legacy system. But what if Coca Cola was a StartUp? What if they had the same blank canvas you have?

How can you build a business around Happiness so it lasts forever, not matter what trends there are in product use? Here’s my back-of-a-fag-packet thinking.

Coke should have started to build from Happiness Factory and position themselves as an experience brand.
Happiness isn’t simply about taste and mouth feel, it’s about entertainment. Coke should have bought Pixar.
They should own theme parks and days out.
They should have acquired/built the play-centre ecosystem that’s growing so quickly in Asia.
They should own handshakes, smiles and jokes.
But they didn’t and they are becoming less and less culturally relevant.
(To be fair, their bar was very high….and their Christmas play is good, you have to give them credit for that. And they do lots of great tactical work like this in the Philippines…but I’m making a point.)

The StartUp lesson is: use your blank canvas to create a branded business – not just a brand image – that reeks difference. Then you can slap that big bully right back in the face.

What StartUps can learn from idiocy

New York City

How operations and profitability cannot get in the way of humanity.

Dear Mr Dean & Mr DuLuca*

Sometimes I wake up on Writing Day not knowing what I will write about. But then, as if by magic, I stumble upon some sort of business idiocy and I thank the Lord/Vishnu/John Lennon for that.

My wife is 7 months pregnant. And we have a highly energetic 1-year-old son. Going to a café or restaurant can be a little stressful.

I first went to Dean & DeLuca over 20 years ago on an early trip to New York. For a boy from the crumbling post-industrial north of England it represented the New York I had dreamed of. I spent more money than I could afford and told people about my experience for years. I’ve been back several times on my New York trips.

So when we saw one in Singapore, we went in and I told my wife about that distant memory.

Very soon it was obvious that’s all it was, a distant memory.
It lacked that energy and ‘click’ of the New York experience, that professionalism and conviction.
The food was average at best and over-priced, in that way you only get in Asia, when companies come in, see the wealth and cynically inflate prices and/or reduce quality.

My wife asked for a glass of ice-water to compensate for the over-salted eggs.
The waiter said he could not give her ice-water, she would have to buy a bottle.
In Singapore it is standard to offer ice-water. Regardless of that, one would expect an upmarket café to have an instinct for hospitality, rather than obsess about the cross- and up-sale, especially for a pregnant lady.
I tried to encourage the waiter to rethink.
He made it clear that he wasn’t allowed to rethink.
I asked for the manger.
He came and said it was management policy not to give ice-water ie. it was policy to drag every last cent out of the customer.
So as the manager, can’t you change it?
No, I’m not allowed.
But you are the manager, right?
Yes, but not that manger, it’s a different, more senior manger.

So the guys who aren’t on the ground tell the guys on the ground what to do at every turn and do it in such a way that it’s going to lead to annoyed customers on the ground.

Meanwhile my pregnant wife remained unquenched and 1-year-old got more agitated, put his hand in the ketchup the waiter had thoughtlessly put in front of him.

To his credit (or once the embarrassment of what he was doing got too much), the manager eventually brought some ice-water. I worry he’ll get a slapped wrist for that.

I’m sure there are various issues you could cite about corporate structures but I’m not interested in those. I bought into – and spoke in glowing terms of – the good names of Dean & DeLuca, the brand.

I’m going to post this on my blog under the title: How operations and profitability cannot get in the way of humanity. You’d think that was so obvious it didn’t need saying. Isn’t it depressing that it does?

I hope this motivates you to address what is both a structural and a policy issue. Give the guys on the ground a chance to do a good job. You might be surprised.

Otherwise, as unassailable as you might think you currently are, those various smart StartUps who seem irrelevant now are going to catch up quickly.

Best wishes

*Dear reader. This is not a real letter. I’m trying to make a point. But it is a real experience. I was going to email them this but then I thought they’ve’ already proven they can’t really be arsed how I feel – and I normally get paid for this stuff so I’m not going to give it away unless it is deserved. But apparently there was a real Mr. Dean, who was from that most venerable of vocations, the cheese merchant, and Mr. DeLuca, a publishing man. I hope the StartUp lesson is obvious: be human, we don’t need any more corporate idiocy.

What StartUps can learn about naming from Computershare

marketing brand names

Naming and the importance of not getting it wrong in a StartUp

I was going to hold off before I had a rant…but I’ve just had a letter from Computershare. And it’s a sorry story, or more like a farce, of the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ variety. But importantly, there’s a strong lesson for any start-up here about brand naming strategy, something that often does not get given enough thought. At it’s simplest, there are two ways to name your brand: either literal (this-is-what-we-do like SingTel or this-is-who-I-am like adidas, names after founder Adi Dassler, Kelloggs) or imaginative (glorious mythical associations like Nike or attractive fruit like Apple, Orange etc…).

Now keep in mind that these guys were pioneers, starting the company way back and took on the descriptive and potentially category defining brand name of Computershare. If share dealing on computers was invented today you’d give your left arm for that name.

I had a few shares in a company I worked for (M+C Saatchi), nothing impressive and I had to buy them at market price – why bother? you say…I know, but at the time I was learning. They’d started at 125p, dropped to 25p in 2008 and when all my old colleagues sold out, I stuck in there knowing it was a competent company and they knew how to run a business, then pretty soon they got back past 125p, climbed up some more and at some point earlier in 2014 got to 350p. I would have felt smart – or at least brave – if it weren’t for the fact that if I was the real McCoy, I’d have bought more at 25p…so that’s something to learn from…or not. If you believe in the company, buy while it’s cheap.

So when it fell back to under 300p, my newfound investment wisdom kicked in and I thought I’d sell a proportion to lock in at least some of the profit, not loads but good holiday money (although I should point out, we are frugal holidayers).

Here’s the story. I sold online through this company called Computershare, who as far as I can tell ‘own’ the dealing of the shares I bought. Soon I got a screen confirming the sale. But apparently not. A week later I got a letter saying I had to send certain documents, otherwise the deal would be cancelled. Not actually cancelled – instead, they would re-buy the shares at the new market rate, even if it was more expensive.

I was travelling and so didn’t get the letter until too late. So they rebought the shares at the market rate. Fortunately, the price had gone down a little, so at least I wasn’t liable for a large gap. But I was pretty annoyed: surely they could have communicated with me in a more timely, 20th century manner. I skyped them (well, I was on skype, they were probably on one of those heavy, black phones from the black and white Sherlock Holmes films). It went something like this (they claim to have recorded it but that’s way too modern, I reckon they used a stenographer…)
Me: You bought shares for me without my agreement. I could have lost serious money.
Them: It’s in the Ts&Cs.
Me: On the sales confirmation page, why didn’t it say something about the fact I hadn’t really sold them until you got the docs, instead of saying ‘sale confirmed’?
Them: I don’t know.
– Surely you have an obligation to make that clear? With all of your competitors it’s done there and then.
– Yes, it should be clear, I’ll look into it.
– And couldn’t you have told me in amore timely manner, so I could have done something about it?
– We sent you a letter.
– But that took two weeks to get to me and I was away. Why didn’t you email me?
– We don’t send emails.
– What??? You are called COMPUETERshare. Surely you have computers and therefore you have email.
– I know, but we can’t send emails to customers.
– What??? You could have phoned me then.
– We don’t phone customers.
– Seriously? OK, I want to complain but I can’t see anywhere on the website where I can email.
– It’s not on there. You be better to send a letter.
– What??? It’s not 1875…!!!

You get the picture. Funny in a desperately sad kind of way.

Still keen to lock in some profit, I sold again when I was back in the UK, at a lower price unfortunately. So I’d lost some profit. I called them, on the telephone, as I think they’d prefer to call it, made sure everything was right & proper and the sale went ahead. And in the absence of any income coming in here in Singapore, it is paying for our accommodation.

Then I get another letter, talking about regulations blah blah, asking me for more docs…otherwise I won’t get the money. But I already have the money. And it has been spent. So I want to get in touch with them from here to see if it’s still necessary. But of course there is no email address on there, no IM, no twitter….nothing that might actually involve a computer and it’s a long way away and there’s seven hours difference.

So tonight I need to find a quill and some parchment and I will pen my response and put it on the next steamer to London. They should get it in Spring.

So what can your average start-up learn from this when it comes to brand names.
First, if it’s a literal name that describes what you do, you have to live up to your name, not just now but FOR EVER. As expectations of computers change, so must you – and back then it was slap-you-around-the-face obvious that computers were going to change. A lot. Your business needs to future proof the name. Or don’t call yourself something you can’t be certain you’ll always live up to.
Second, really think through whether you want a literal or imaginative name. There’s been a movement to the literal this-is-what-we-do names which is largely driven by Google and SEO but also a lack of belief in the emotional nature of brands. But think about the brands’ people love. More often than not, they are named imaginatively and therefore are more emotional. It’s a tough one and you need to weigh up pros and cons.
Third, the more revealing element to this story is that this is a business that isn’t being honest with itself. That goes way beyond naming. With a name like that, you create an expectation. Are you delivering? If not, change and be seen to change. Be brutally honest with yourselves always and you might avoid having a blog post poking fun at you.