Tag Archives: Brand Vision

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will be critical to these cash-flow concerned folk and this rules out the existing consultancy model, which is outdated and designed only to service big corporations.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.

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.

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.

What StartUps can learn from what’s wrong with the iPhone 6

StartUp Brand Vision
How conviction ultimately means more to any StartUp than chasing your customer

Apple’s iPhone 6 finally launched here in Singapore. Before we go any further: I so wanted one and we are a 10+ Apple product household. Certainly not boo boys.

I’d read the reviews and quite honestly I need to move beyond my iPhone 3 (I know! I’m so old skool…) I was even excited. I went down there on Day 3, which is pretty active for me. Queues, lots of touching, playing, discussion…

But what I saw disappointed me. So I didn’t join the queue. I thought I’d sleep on it. Cut to a few days later. My bus stop entertainment is ‘guess-the-phone-from-5-paces’. It was an iPhone but I couldn’t tell – and that’s with a beautiful back-lit bus stop 6-sheet next to me.

In the past, it was always easy spotting an iPhone. In recent years – since the decline of Motorola probably – everything else kind of looks the same. Like cars nowadays. The Wind Tunnel research effect, as BBH say: the way consumers in research create a generic average that all market participants follow; after all, who in the corporate world has the bravery to question research….

For the iPhone 6 it’s not just the size, it’s the shape as well. It looks like a phone not an iPhone. It’s been said that this was done for the Asian market. But did you see how many people queued in Shanghai for the previous iPhones?! The Asian market was perfectly capable of loving a unique Apple phone, they didn’t need it turned into the generic to get it.

Maybe they’ve got so big they think the only way to get bigger is to go more mainstream and therefore more generic. But rather then create a new generic (which for me is a key element of their brand coding), they follow what’s there. There’s a view that this is common problem that comes with scale, for example, with investment funds: you get too big to find the great stories, growth flattens, so despite being the market leader you have to follow the market. It’s inevitable, so that argument goes.

Whether they still overtly talk about it or not, much of the the Apple brand power and long-term loyalty/fanaticism is rooted in the spirit expressed by Think Different. It’s by people who think different. And it’s for people who think different. When Lee Clow’s (lovely bloke, spent some time with him when working on adidas) team at Chiat Day produced that ad, they didn’t just articulate a vision, they created a benchmark for the brand to always live up to.

For now though, this isn’t about the broader Apple brand. Not yet anyway. Apple still has a lot of brand reserves, goodwill it can trade on, chances it can therefore take. And I do believe it will do something that will live up to the brand spirit, something mind blowing and game-changing that reminds us why we loved them. Maybe it’s one of the features of the phone that will turn into a new amazing ecosystem, NFC being the most obvious candidate. Or maybe it’s the health play that was being talked about last year.

Despite it being big, glamourous, outrageously successful Apple, there are some clear, simple lessons here for any StartUp.

One, your brand needs to live in everything you do, every product, every touch-point, every experience. Otherwise, someone who should be in your Most Valued Customer segment (ie. in this case, people like me) will start the trash talk…and that soon gets around.
Two, there’s always, always going to be change. The big guys struggle and then the small guys have a chance…hello Xiaomi to name one of several. Brilliant. Be optimistic, you’re in with a shout.
Three, think different, think bold, think you don’t need to please anyone apart from your own majestic vision. That bloke who used to run Apple knew that.