Category Archives: Difference

Where the river stands still.

Brand vision
Why StartUps should think about what won’t change (and why customer research is flawed).

As an entrepreneur or strategist, at some point, we will have thought long and hard about how future change will affect the business. But is change as important as not-change?

Jeff Bezos offers us this piece of magic.
“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. …”

Most brand development work I’ve been involved with started with the here & now and then looked at how things would change. Generally, the fact that the here & now might also be the future was perhaps sometimes assumed…but not really explored. No surprise really: we are bombarded by change propaganda by the Self Help Industrial Complex, which exhorts us to ‘embrace change’. But Bezos asks us to embrace What Won’t Change. Change is positioned paradoxically as both a threat and an opportunity for betterment.

But often advantage lies in exploring what others have not explored. So I applied the What-Won’t-Change exercise to my own StartUp concept.

I know that the structural change in the economy will continue.
I know corporate life will be less interesting to more people.
I know that people will want more control in their lives.
I know that therefore there will be more and more StartUps and small businesses.
I know that many of the people who found these StartUps and small businesses will be smart, eager to learn and keen to put time and money resource against things that improve and grow their business.
I know they will look to the internet for this, not to corporations who would traditionally have served these needs. They now expect the internet to do these things.
I know affordability will be critical to these cash-flow concerned folk and this rules out the existing consultancy model, which is outdated and designed only to service big corporations.

Thus, I will focus on helping the new legion of StartUps and small businesses with an online service that is highly affordable.

But I think Bezos would say most of the points on my list are not knowns; they are assumptions. And he’d be right. Let’s look at what he knows for comparison.

“[I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

His knowns are pretty much indisputable. My list is not like his list: it is full of assumptions and therefore it is disputable. Most business decisions though are made against assumptions. The entrepreneurs task is to make an assessment about the probability of those assumptions being correct, based on the facts and information you have, or can find, and – let’s be honest – the instincts you have. That’s the best you can do. And it’s often good enough if you’ve done that task thoroughly. I’m sure Bezos thinks the same way. He doesn’t only build a business around the knowns but also the probables.

This does raise a bigger point though. Some people will demand that you prove the case. I’ve had many clients ask for definitive proof. But you can’t prove it. You never can. Reality isn’t about knowns. The consumer will never tell you want they want in the future. Because, guess what, they don’t know. They don’t think about it. That’s your job. Their job is to get on with their lives.

If you’ve ever actually done face-to-face research, you will see up close and personal that weaknesses of any research method. People are disinterested or over-enthusiastic or guess.

There is no method that can tell you what you want to know about the future. Whilst some methods are better than others, all research is looking in the rear-view mirror, as the saying goes. Even the idea of simulated tests or MVPs can’t avoid this. Their use is in guiding your understanding of the probable. They can’t give you certainty.

In fact, it’s a more informed decision if you focus on what you know about now. When you get too far into change and the future, you too start guessing. A lot. It’s hard not to slip beyond smart assumptions and into flights of fancy. As the T-shirt demands: Where is my light sabre?

When you are a StartUp, you need to be pragmatic. You design for the future but you do it from the here & now. So perhaps the Jeff Bezos StartUp lesson is: Focus on what you know and what you kind of know and leave the future to sort itself out.

Every StartUp should start out to alienate someone.

New companies need difference

How Birdman can inspire StartUps

I saw Birdman last night.

It’s fresh. It’s human. It’s believable. It’s also unbelievable. It’s dramatic. And it is inspirational.

It is so distinctive and inventive; I thought there’s got to be some lessons for any ambitious StartUp…

I like to imagine the creative process when I see a film like that. The narrative I create is full of naïve assumptions about how films get made. I assume the director is the leader, the director of a debate and therefore the ‘starter’…or as John Hegarty of BBH used to say of the difference between agency planners and creatives, ‘the first to piss in the pot’. After that, others take their turn.

So a film this good requires everyone to input but also all those who input to agree on the fundamentals, to pull in the same direction, no matter how brave it feels sometimes. The director creates the terms of the debate. Everyone needs to build from that.

Besides the director, in the centre circle there’s the actors, the director of photography, the producers but there are also those with secondary input like the lighting, editing and set design talent, people who can make a big difference to the output and if they get it wrong can undermine the impact.

Which gets you thinking: as it grows, how do you organise a StartUp to maximise everyone’s creative talent? You need to be clear about who is in charge, who is in the centre and who is secondary…but never in a way that blocks creativity. Everyone needs to be free to make sure their bit lives up to the overall ambition. But there does need to be a coherence, an organising theme, a sense of purpose that drives them and leads them all.

The Birdman ensemble agreed to do something different. Often people asks: what do we want the audience to do? But a smarter question sometimes is: what do we want to do to the audience, to the heads, to their hearts?

That subtle shift of emphasis gives you different ideas.

On Birdman, they seemed very clear how they wanted the audience to feel, as opposed to think. In my imaginary fly-on-the-wall documentary, words on the flip chart would include: shock, raw, exhilarate, confound, occasionally lost, amused, thankful, respected.

But the Birdman folk knew not everyone will like this. The knew some people will feel these feelings: annoyed, let-down, condescended, belittled. That’s why on IMBD there are a lot of 10s and a lot of 1s. Most good films are 7/8s.

I believe often better brands come from aiming for the 10 & 1s. A great brand should seek to excite some but also to annoy others. Who and why will people fall into these camps for your brand? Try writing down 20 thoughts on each.

To get to this point of love and alienation, the Birdman ensemble agreed to play with conventions, stretch them, disrupt them. But what I think it interesting is this: the conventions are there. Just played with/stretched/disrupted. They seem to do this knowingly. In that sense, it’s a thought-through, analytical film.

That’s good learning for a StartUp. A great brand concept should be knowing. It should have thought through the conventions and then played with them. It should be very self-aware about what is doing and what it is doing it against.

Another thing that struck me was the immediacy. There was no set-up, no context, no back-story. It’s just there. Like real life.

For example, within the delivery of two or three lines, we completely get Edward Norton’s character. He has a complete sense of his character’s life. When he speaks, we know the personality beneath. He’s distinct. He’s rounded. He’s entirely believable.

That generally only comes because it’s thought through. It’s analysed. It’s constructed.

Immediacy is key to a powerful branded identify. It’s more credible that way. You want a person to get you straight off. It’s more costly to require repeat visits. And people can’t be bothered.

The thing I take away is this. You need something so well thought through that it’s emotional impact is immediate, and in such a way that it forces people apart, so the people who do like you feel they are part of a special club, of like minded people who are just as ……. (insert the most relevant adverb here eg. smart, stylish, savvy, progressive etc) as they are. And the others walk away moaning about you. But it creates a debate. And that makes noise. Which creates fame.

And now you can guess what gets my Oscar vote when then call me.

(Yes, it’s kind of sad that I’m watching great films and thinking about the learning for StartUps. But I’m with friends. You get the all-consuming nature of this.)