Category Archives: Learning From Other Brands

Chipotle campaign

Why I like it…

The conventions were that fast food dumbed down food and treated their customers as, if not dumb, then definitely apathetic. The did super slow-mo product shots but only it seemed of the product once someone had dropped it, as it bounced up from a plate. Sometimes the ads were dumb but other times, like McDonalds, it could be lovely slice of life work.

But they never had a point of view. They never thought they should say something bigger, more meaningful. They probably thought it was a can of worms.

So Chipotle stole in, took the high ground, and not only provided a counterpoint, they undermined the old guard completely. You either buy into that or you don’t. But it forces you to make a decision. And you either love it or you don’t. People feel something about this brand. And this spot is at the heart of that.

Do online businesses need a brand?

branding-online-businesses

Many online businesses have seemingly thrived without a brand but as we move into the next online era, will this still be possible for today’s StartUps?

I was being challenged, in a good way. The guy had a lot of credibility: here was an online entrepreneur who had been there, done it and had the money in the bank.

He had asked me there because he knew brands were becoming more important online – he had the data to prove it – but he was a committed A/B tester and he was A/B testing my business concept, the one that says online businesses need to be better branded.

“You’re right, brands are important. But always? There are so many examples of great online consumer facing businesses that don’t have a brand…so do online businesses really need to develop their brand to be successful?”

My answer was: Yes…but the right kind of brand.

That needed some explanation. Let’s start with the yes.

The online world is maturing. We are in the Post-Land Grab era.

There is enormous online clutter and it’s only going to get worse as the StartUp energy/bubble continues and expands out across various countries. We are living in the Istanbul Spice Market: everything looks the same, you know it’s all pretty good and everyone is shouting at you.

Nowadays, few people are worried about buying online. People trust online businesses with the basics as much as bricks & mortar brands. Function and utility are commoditized.

The cost of entry is getting lower all the time. Development costs have come down massively, as has the effort required. And the Lean Philosophy has given us the permission to get out there quickly, knowing there is a community of early adopters willing to give us a try.

People are attuned to try new stuff. Everything is one-click away. Loyalty is difficult to find.

New entrants hope to exploit this so they keep piling in. Clutter to the power of x.

Investors pile in. They expect more than a quick ride, the want longer-term growth and confidence that you can keep the customers you have.

For all of these reasons, online businesses need brands, because only a brand can address the issues they raise.

A brand is an expression of difference and so an extremely cost-effective way of standing out from the clutter.

A brand contains the emotional and intangible and so can defend an established business against all the eager and over-excited new entrants biting at your ankles.

But – conversely – a brand is also a powerful tool for new entrants to make a mark in an established market. The distinct energy and personality of a new brand is the most effective way to challenge the status quo, break old consumer habits and create new expectations. Orange coming 4th to market in mobile telecoms. Apple in the face of the dominance of Micorsoft. Ben & Jerries’ youthful exuberance to counter the adult-ness of Haagan Dazs.

A brand gives investors confidence. Warren Buffet talks about making his investing decisions on the basis of a business having a moat. Of all the possible moats, brand meaning, because it is so intangible, is the most ownable and sustainable of them all.

As the StartUp bubble slows – or pops – and usage becomes more habitual, brand moats will become more important in the online world too. And then maybe Buffet, that famously tech shy investor, will embrace the online world.

So yes, online businesses need a brand.

But the right kind of brand. By which I mean…

Brands are not what they were.

They used to support one-dimensional products like shampoo or clothes detergents.

Then products got more complicated. They became the whole business, with multiple services, non-core products, customer support, partnerships and APIs etc. They became a philosophy, a commitment to environmental well-being, a cultural role. People buy all of these things.

The human brain is not selective. In fact, it doesn’t like to work very hard at all.

It doesn’t only listen to the ads and then ignore the rest. It uses everything (usually without actually consciously thinking it through) to create meaning and through that meaning gets a sense of how something differs and whether they like that difference. Brand meaning is created every time a person comes into contact with that business. When they see it, when the use it, when they speak to it – or it speaks to them, when they hear or read about it, when they are in a conversation about it, when they ask something of it and when it asks something of them.

If it doesn’t add up, they’ll notice. And if they don’t, someone on social media will help them along. Despite appearances, people are smart. Perhaps you can fool some of the people some of the time. But they can smell marketing BS a mile off. (It is the most odorous of all BS.)

But that doesn’t make people more rational. People are easily bored and most businesses bore them. We’ve learnt that people want loftier, more emotional leaning. They want their brands to think they can make the world better. Like Chipotle and Lifebuoy. Or heroic. Like Nike and Apple.

What is required of a brand in the modern world is not a summary of a core product but something all encompassing that makes people care, that brings them emotionally closer to you and – critically – is evident in everything you do. Without that coherence, it won’t add up and it won’t be considered credible.

So generally a brand is not a way to communicate your product, it’s a way to structure a business – and only then communicate something.

The take-away for any StartUp is this. The biggest mistake online businesses keep making is to think a brand is advertising or a brand logo. The business is the brand and you need to create a Branded Business.

Innocent Case Study

Why I like it…

Great simple purpose: Live well. Die old.

But a clear a sense of where that can go…and where they can not. That second bit is critical: be clear on what you are not & what you should not do, even if there’s a (quick) buck to be made.

They use their purpose to guide everything, including the hard stuff like packaging that is on-brand.

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 airbnb about brand building

BHAG
Why the StartUp of 2008 might be the brand of the 2015

I’m a nomad. And I force my wife and son to be nomads. Such is the price we pay for trying to do a StartUp. It’s not pleasant but hopefully that will end soon and hopefully it will have been worth it. But as a result, I’ve become an expert in all things airbnb. Now I’m evangelist.

I might even invest if they go to IPO this year. And I don’t do IPOs. They’re all hype, CNBC up-to-the-minute bulletins and over-valuation. They have 700,000 rooms, making them the biggest lodgings provider in the world and the hard business case is strong. But what really excites me is the potential of the brand they are developing and the way they understand what the brand is. This is a StartUp that is just over 6 years old but with the brand wisdom of maturing years.

Sure, they can do brand awareness – they built that very well in the first year or two – but what they’ve always understood better than most StartUps is that it’s the brand experience that matters more than anything. The brand must look good, it must communicate well, it must have solid marketing but a modern brand is not this. A modern brand is the unified rich experience people have when they use any and every part of your business. The brand is everything you do, certainly everything that is visible.

Take the language. They have ‘hosts’. They talk of feeling at home, not of ‘staying’ somewhere. This cleverly positions themselves away from their enemy, the hotel industry

That’s another thing: they have an enemy. The don’t bad mouth them, they don’t need to, but it’s clear that they want to be seen as a genuine alternative, not more of the same. We don’t do that, we do this.

They feel different. It feels like a genuine community. We review hosts. But they review us. We introduce ourselves. We get to know each other. airbnb helps us become short-term friends.

It makes you realise that the booking.com’s and expedia’s of the world might have seemed to offer something new but really are only an extension of the old. They have value but they lack the depth of airbnb and in time I think that will be a problem for them. It’s hard to care passionately about an extension of the old. But the new creates evangelists.

It isn’t easy to avoid being like your competitive set. People huddle together for safety. Often investors, managers and stakeholders like conventions; they call it ‘best practice’. But here everyone has been smart enough to see the value of difference. (That’s something the marketing client community need to learn from as they become more and more convention bound.)

It’s clear what they are against but in terms of what they stand for, airbnb are using ‘Welcome Home’ as a tagline at the moment but Brian Chesky, the CEO, touched upon the broader (and bigger) purpose in a recent FT interview when he talked of ‘creating a world where people can belong anywhere’.

Words are important so let’s break this sentence down.

‘Creating’ tells me that they make a distinction between where they are now and where they want to get to. So it’s a vision, not just a summary of what they do now. It also tells us that it’s unclear what that is exactly. It’s much bigger but not yet defined – and they are clearly comfortable with the fact that they don’t know exactly what this is but do know in a general sense. I’ll come back to this.

‘World’ is clear. They see no limits (other than the world…for now). This is evidenced through their creative output. This is worth commenting on because too many US StartUps think the world is the US.

‘Belong anywhere’ is the substance of the purpose. It implies that, in the current lodging/hotel model, people do not feel they belong and that only the airbnb model can deliver belonging.

This is their benefit: belonging anywhere. The reason to believe is that real people with real apartments/homes provide the product, not de-personalised hotel rooms. This is reinforced through the style of reviews, the nature of the properties and the nicely shot Welcome Home ‘advertising’ campaign running on their own website header and so on. Basically, everything the business does.

But it’s the room to grow in that statement that fascinates me. What other ways can they help people feel they belong?

Later in the interview he touches on what that might be when he aligns with the idea of ‘bring(ing) back the idea of cities as villages’ by making more of all available space. Wow. The high street has lost its humanity; it has become a homogenous block. Imagine a world in which individual businesses had access to the same enormous audience as the current airbnb hosts, an audience willing to try something new, who crave something distinct…you might just see a renaissance of distinct, one off shops and cafes, of cities.

As a brand person, I love this. It’s the kind of idea we’d pitch to clients but often they’d shy away from because it doesn’t talk about the product enough, because it’s too conceptual, too warm and lovely and exciting. Business people still think this stuff won’t sell: airbnb are here to prove them wrong.

What can we learn as StartUps? Lots but the headline is this: look to develop a brand vision that recognizes your competence in a bigger way than is currently delivered. Give it room to grow. Who knows how you’ll see things once the business is rocking?

Why StartUps should be outraged by Christmas

brand consistency

The brain science that shows why consistency helps people understand what your StartUp stands for

If you want to shape the way people understand your StartUp you have to start with the human brain. When you’ve got the spanners out on the day-to-day operations, it may not seem like it but as a business leader, you are a brain surgeon.

We learn through repetition. But the brain has a lot to do. Much of its energy is simply dedicated to keeping us functioning at the most basic of levels – keeping us breathing, our organs operating. Keeping our senses active and responsive puts an added burden on the system. So when it comes to actively thinking about stuff, figuring out day-to-day issues, making decisions…well, that really pushes us to the limit.

So you can imagine how much energy the brain wants to dedicate to figuring out what to buy. Much, much less than traditional economists would like to believe.*

The brain deals with this by simplifying wherever it can. As a boy my mum used to berate me for doing things the easy way (such a mum thing, as if making it harder was somehow better) but clearly that’s what nature seeks to do. The brain is designed to work that way.

The relatively new science of neuroscience has shown that our brains look to create patterns to simplify understanding. This is physiological. As we digest information, synapses fire and as they repeat this process, that information becomes more established in our brains. Or as Steven Pinker, the famed writer on neuroscience, puts it: the synapses that fire together, wire together.

Which is why Christmas is a brand disaster. Christmas is probably the most mismanaged, chaotic and complicated brand construct there is. There have been way too many brand managers trying to get clever with the core concepts, no quality control and clearly no budget restraint. Is it trashy or upmarket? Religious or for everyone? About parties or about family?
Consumer driven or a chance to reflect? Father Christmas, the elves, reindeers, snow, Dickens, Only Fools And Horses, the right potato dish….it’s all over the place. The final nail is, of course, hipster Christmas sweaters. Different synapses are firing all over the place. It’s chaos, like the firework mayhem on a Shanghai street at Chinese New Year.

The Christmas brand is saved though by having not one but two of the greatest brand ideas of all time: a saviour was born on that day and it is a time for goodwill and critically therefore presents to all humankind. (See my earlier post ‘Why Christmas can be an inspiration for StartUps’), And because of that, we let it get away with the bad stuff. We are so engaged in it, our brains make the effort to process and join together this disjointed randomness.

The question you have to ask yourself is this: is your brand idea so strong that it can get away with a lack of consistency? The answer of course is NO.

You don’t have two of the greatest ideas of all time (apart from you at the back, well done) so you have to deal with the realities of the human brain. And those human brains want things to be simple so they can’t stop thinking about it and get on with the important stuff like breathing, running, interpreting the inputs from your senses and so on.

And consistency is the bed-fellow of simplicity. Your job is simple: this is what our brand stands for, told time and time again, maybe in different ways but never in contradicting or conflicting or ways. Christmas though is full of contradiction and conflict (not just the dinner, but the concept).

So don’t do what Christmas does. Learn from the error of its ways and deliver your concept consistently and simply across all of your business.

* If you are dubious about this, please refer to any of the following: Heath on Low Involvement Processing; Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’; Coates ‘The hour between dog and wolf’; anything by Steven Pinker. Or indeed any credible book on how the brain works.

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 from a newspaper created in 1843

Brand building, new business branding, new company branding, entrepreneur branding

How alienation creates loyalty, precision creates personality and you should kill convention.

The Economist launched in 1843. Yes, it is seemingly steeped in Pall Mall’s musty traditions and famous for its printed edition but it is a brand that any smart StartUp should look to for inspiration. It is, without doubt, one the world’s most progressive, coherent and targeted brands. I love The Economist. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. It doesn’t just have a point of view, it has a point of view designed to upset some people.
When they launched, the stated their aim was “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. Clearly, you don’t want to be the unworthy, timid ignoramus.
It’s a brilliant way of not only positioning what you are but also defining what you are not. This then allows them to be clear about not only who they are targeting but also who they are not targeting, are in fact keen to alienate, something they have done brilliantly through advertising. Take a look at this genius. And this.
Great brands often create imaginary tales in our heads and mine is of a Victorian David Niven type editor using his calf-skin gloves to slap an unworthy cad who has just tried to buy a copy of his beloved Economist.
This isn’t simply about separation. It creates a virtuous circle, with users feeling more distinct, more celebrated and it is this that makes them more loyal. That’s the genius of this approach.
How many other brands are confident and brilliant enough to do this? Some b, ut nowhere near enough.

2. As you read the content, it feels like it is from a single person, despite it being the output of so many writers in so many places. That’s perhaps partly because of the legendary Writers Guide every journalist must follow but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of their own humanity, of their emotion. Like The Borg, they’ve become one. They are smart but wear it lightly, with smart asides and witticisms; they are fair, honest even if it upsets, to the point. They know their collective personality precisely. It’s the ultimate demonstration of a unified culture.

3. The brand is the famous one, not the people. The people are invisible. It goes completely against industry conventions – it’s so radical and progressive, I’m shocked to hear it’s always been that way. Wikipedia tells me that the current editor says this is because “(the) collective voice and personality matter more than the identities of individual journalists” and reflects “a collaborative effort”.

4. They quaintly call it a ‘newspaper’. Despite the fact that it is more like a magazine. Despite the fact that newspapers have become so grotty. They wear the word like Marilyn Munroe would have worn a plastic bag.

And the funny thing is; I’m not sure they’ve ever really thought of themselves as a brand in the way that most brands would.

So the StartUp lessons are these:
It’s not just about targeting, it’s about anti-targeting: are you clear on who you are trying to alienate?
Avoid general personality words: what are your precise and distinct personality traits?
Are you killing conventions? Don’t just avoid conventions, undermine them, do the opposite.

Lastly, if you don’t already, you should subscribe because its breadth of cleverness will drag you from your StartUp bubble/cesspit and broaden your horizons and therefore inspire thinking that will make you better at your job.