5 Minutes on the Importance of Timing

OK….Go! Question: “What is the secret of good comedy?” As person starts to answer, you interrupt and say “Timing!” Hilarious but it does depend on the delivery. My theme for today – timing in marketing (with good delivery) in under 5 minutes.

I used to use a warm up exercise for training sessions on brands and marketing. I’d get people to call out brands they thought were “Great” and then, with a list that always seemed to include Nike, BMW, Apple etc I’d ask them to identify the characteristics of a great brand and this list would always include great product, clear identity, consistency etc. I always found it an interesting session, what did people think were the most important characteristics, the nuances of each of them (great brands are inconsistently consistent), but after 10 years or more, rarely did anyone come up with some wholly new characteristic of a great brand. Until, in one session, someone said “Timing – great brands have great timing”. We then had a really interesting discussion about this in the context of innovation because we realized that Nike, BMW, apple etc were not always the first to innovate. Sometimes they were, sometimes they weren’t. You think of a great brand as a category leader, but as often as not a great brand would let someone else introduce a new innovation and then, with great timing and great delivery, they would trump it. Apple iPod would be one example of this. The other aspect of timing for innovation we discussed was how great brands innovated just before they needed to rather than just after. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” has always struck me as the most useless of management bumper stickers. Innovate from strength has proved to be a better maxim.

Great timing goes deeper than just when to innovate. The perpetual drive for a brand is to make suggestions to people. “Might I suggest you buy me, perhaps you’d like to think about using me on this occasion, you might like to experience my new flavour, might I trouble you to recommend me to a friend?” We are always trying to suggest to people that they change their behaviour (not their attitudes, that is just a means to the same end) in relation to our brand. If we think of this in human terms – as it always helps to do for fairly obvious reasons – life has taught us that however good or well intentioned our advice to friends and especially family, timing is everything. You have to pick your moment. Your sister is going through a really messy divorce – probably not the best time to advise her on the benefits of a long engagement next time round. Your best friend is celebrating their engagement to the partner of their dreams, probably not a great time to stress the importance of pre-nuptial agreements. You are right on both counts but your timing is off. You get the point. Of equal importance as the quality of advice is the timing with which it is given.

How much thought do we give to this in marketing – really? Financial services – your choice of bank for example – is really only considered on a few occasions in your life – when you leave home, maybe when you get married, when you retire, if you change job – and one sees instances of this being used in the timing of financial services marketing. But what about beer? When is the right time to suggest to someone that they might reconsider their choice (repertoire) of beers? Work I did a few years back, a project specifically focused on uncovering how to influence beer brand adoption, threw up two interesting and actionable findings. Firstly, the best time to suggest a new beer is when people were out of their comfort zone, for example they might be with a new group of friends and/or going to an unfamiliar venue. Secondly, the time to run an on-premise sampling campaign is early in the evening. We had been doing it later in the evening when the bar was full – obviously. Less obvious was the fact that this noisy, high-energy period when people had lots of other things on their mind gave the impression that you were getting a good conversion but you weren’t. In the early evening the mood was lower-key, you had people’s attention and they were more suggestible. So run a campaign where you incentivize barmen to promote a beer only to new customers. Time your on-premise sampling for early evening, perhaps also targeted at newcomers.

A lot of innovation in digital is focused, directly or indirectly, on improving timing – innovations around geo-targeting and content relevant pop-ups for example. Knowing where someone is, what they are doing or reading can help improve your marketing timing. But I make this more general suggestion  – and trust that my timing is right. Get the team together and focus on timing – talk about people’s lives in relation to your brand and your plans. Get under the surface of it, look for the moments, occasions, triggers when your target market is most suggestible and then think practically about how you might, dare I say it, exploit this to your advantage?

Times up.

The Grit in the Creative Oyster

I was working with a brand design team recently, something I have not done for a while. They were at the early stage of the project, just getting to know the market, the cultural context, the history of the brand. I was fascinated by what struck them as fascinating. I should explain they were an international team and while they knew the brand category well from work in other parts of the globe, the country was unfamiliar to them.

They latched on to certain patterns, symbols and rituals they observed in a variety of places. The way the city looked from the air and the shapes of the open play areas in the poorer suburbs, the common use of a particular style of mosaic, the motif in the floor of a disused but historically important part of a factory, a particular ritual employed when serving the brand.

A few weeks later they shared their first ideas and we could all see how some of the cultural observations and especially these unique patterns had inspired what were a really impressive set of designs. They had met the brand brief but they did so by bringing in some fresh unexpected semiotic ideas. There were some pearls and you could see they had come from putting some grit into the brief.

Designers don’t just design from fresh air, a blank piece of paper and some technical skills learned at art college. They can meet a brief but they have to work with more than a brief. The process requires an eclectic magpie approach to produce the seemingly serendipitous outcome. And this in turn demands some latitude, trust and patience on the part of the client.

You can try this if you have the opportunity to work with an interior designer. Show them the space, give them a budget, tell them the feel you are looking for – you can give them some photos cut from magazines to help you. But then give them a picture you really like and might want to hang in the room. The colours will provide some obvious inspiration but the picture will also produce some unexpected ideas. The picture is the grit in the oyster.

You see this in brands themselves. The really great brands almost always have some unexplained yet distinctive eccentricities. These brand foibles can sometimes look at odds with the brand or category when viewed in isolation but as part of the whole they give the brand its character. The homely script of the Coca Cola logo, the communist red star of Heineken, the whimsical jingle of Intel, the odd name and packaging for Haagen Dasz ice cream.

When there is a story behind the foible it adds to the brand mythology. If you are creating a new brand design you can construct some back-story to explain the design (I recall the most pretentious load of twaddle used to explain the inspiration behind the new logo for Toyota some years back, or was it Mazda?). For me it is better to leave things unexplained – let the people fill in the gaps.

What is the lesson in all this? As I have hinted already, respect the brief as an expression of the desired outcome but be very open-minded about process other than ensuring it allows for a wide range of stimulus. Develop an appetite for the unexpected, the little features and ideas that are not logical. Get some grit into the brand and risk a deep dive to find the pearls.

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