How Brands Grow – A Higher Form Of Ignorance?

posted in: Business/Marketing | 0

I came across a quote by Theodore Dalrymple recently. It referred to the increasingly common – and understandable – use of the internet to obtain information on medical conditions.

“Information without perspective is just a higher form of ignorance”

Theodore Dalrymple is the nom de plume of Anthony Daniels, a retired doctor (and the most wonderful writer as any Spectator magazine loyal will know). I can see where he’s coming from. The doctors have years of experience and that gives them the perspective to make the best use of information, both old and new.

It made me think about the increasing amount of information available to marketers. This comes not just in the form of “big data” about the market and the target audience, their profile and their precise behavior in different contexts, but also in the form of new models and theories. The information coming from the latter that interests me most is the information derived from social sciences and an increasing, although admittedly still very limited, understanding of how the brain actually works. And like any rational person I become more interested if it is supported by empirical data.

The ones that interest me less are things like “How brands grow” by Byron Sharp that I have been hearing a lot about. I am not uninterested, just less interested. I understand that Mr. Sharp is quite defensive about his work and any doubters or critics, like my good friend David Taylor, are accused of being luddites, typical marketers who believe in logic with magic and not just ‘scientific evidence’. Well let me help Mr. Sharp brush off any comments I may have to make by declaring right up front that I have not yet read his book, only some of the critiques including those from David. I did however have the privilege of knowing Andrew Ehrenberg and hearing him explain first hand his findings on the relationship between category penetration and average weight of purchase for a large, statistically robust sample of FMCG brands. I am given to understand “How brands grow” is a continuation of Andrew Ehrenberg’s work.

I remember at the time thinking the findings were challenging and profound but, in Andrew’s own words, they really only explained why some brands are bigger. He explained to me that his findings were like Boyle’s Law (pressure of a given mass of gas moves in a constant relationship with volume). It is an immutable law of physics. So I asked Andrew what he thought might be the immutable laws in marketing that would, in effect, compress the volume and raise the pressure (if you follow the analogy). He laughed and said, “I am just a statistician, that is for you clever marketers to figure out!”

What was clear to me then, and is just as clear to me now, is that Ehrenberg’s work was not a theory of how brands grow but an observation about what happens when they do – useful but only up to a point. I suspect Mr. sharp’s book is more of the same – useful but only up to a point.

What concerns me is that in the hands of inexperienced marketers and business people it runs the risk of being a higher form of ignorance.

That said, let me defend the use of information about medical conditions by the general public – I have to for no other reason than the best practitioner of this (or worst offender) is my wife. She would argue, and I will not argue with her, that, at the very least, it enables you to have a better conversation with the doctors. But I support the idea that without perspective and experience it is well short of great insight, which is to say an insight that solves a problem or presents an opportunity – like how to grow your brand.

Let me illustrate what I mean with this old riddle. A man lives in a high-rise block of flats. Every morning he gets up to go to work and takes the lift to the ground floor. When he returns in the evening he takes the lift to the 7th floor and walks up the remaining flights of stairs to the 14th. Why does he do this?

Here are some of the most common explanations offered:-

  • He wants to keep fit
  • He knows someone who lives on the 7th floor and visits them before going back to his flat.
  • The lift is faulty

All are plausible theories (although each can be challenged – if he wants to get fit why doesn’t he walk all 14 floors every other day or indeed every day, if wants to get really fit?).

The answer is that he is a dwarf and he can’t reach the button for the 14th floor in the lift. That is something you would know immediately if you lived in the same building, would have figured out pretty quickly if you were a dwarf and perhaps eventually if you had any experience of dwarves. I would further argue – but have no statistical proof – that a curious, creative, lateral thinker is more likely to solve the riddle.

I will read Mr. Sharp’s book and I am sure I will find it interesting but I doubt it will give me a comprehensive, foolproof scientific model for how to grow brands. Hopefully, it will improve the conversation.

Would I Lie To You?

With one child still left in the nest with a chance to go to Oxford, an article in the Telegraph about Oxford interview questions caught my eye. David Leal at Brasenose uses this question for aspiring philosophy students – “Lie, deceive and mislead seem to mean a similar thing but not exactly. Help me sort them out from each other”. Great question. Even if you had a dictionary it wouldn’t help you. What Mr. Leal wants to see is how you tackle the question for which there is no real answer other than “You can’t, without a context”. As a failed Cambridge applicant (Economics) I am tempted to provide an answer that I might have given in the context of a university interview just to show the opportunity they missed. I applied to Selwyn, a college, I was told, was so poor no-one with half a brain could fail to get accepted. My humiliation upon receiving a firm rejection was thus all the worse, slightly eased by discovering that the friend I made in my first week at Bristol had also tried the same strategy and had also been refused by Selwyn. No names, no pack drill, but you know who you are Charlie K (still one of my best friends).

No, I shall attempt to answer the question in the context of marketing. I will seek to prove that only one of them is unacceptable in the promotion of a brand. In the Oxford question, had one said the answer lay in the context, one would have had to go on to show that who was doing the lying, deceiving, misleading, to whom and with what motivation might indicate nuances of meaning. In marketing we can answer that straight away. It is the brand, they might be lying, deceiving or misleading “consumers”  (people) for the purpose of making profits by gaining an unfair advantage over their competitors. I will argue that in which case, there is really only a difference in acceptability.

It’s OK to deceive your “consumer”, brands do it all the time. We spend millions of $ and engage the brightest and most creative minds to deceive people into believing that our brands are better and will improve their lives. It is not just part of what we do, it is what we do. We seek to persuade them that the smallest of performance difference will actually make any difference, that our brand will make you more of a man or woman, a more attractive and confident person, that it will earn you the respect of your peers and the attention of the opposite sex. Oh yes we do.

We mislead people into thinking that our brands are terribly popular among people who, according to our research, our target consumers will find credible and motivating. You don’t think so? So how many Irish people drink Baileys or Magners, how many Aussies drink Fosters? Did Michael Schumacher really help develop that premium petrol, does he deliberately drive out of his way to find the gas station that sells it to put it in his own car? Do all those starlets actually use that shampoo and derive their self-esteem from it? Do they ‘ecky thump. Are our shoes hand crafted in grottos by little elves, is our whisky lovingly scraped from the wings of angels by men in kilts? Or are they, respectively, knocked out in Chinese sweat shops and distilled as a chemical in something the size and appeal of a school science lab?

These days we twitter and post to create ‘a human face for the brand and to engage our consumers’. A slight deception as there rarely is one human guiding the brand, rather a large cumbersome team acting on behalf of shareholders. You are being misled if you believe we really want to engage with ‘you’ because we care about ‘you’. We only care if there are millions of “you” buying our brand. We engage because we have to not because we want to. The old didactic days of marketing were far easier.

Yes we both deceive and mislead people and revel in the focus group findings and Nielsen results that show we have succeeded.

We are magicians, we simply but cleverly misdirect. We use sleight of hand, theatricality, the set-up (is there any difference between planting someone in the audience or paying George Clooney to flog your coffee?).

But we don’t lie and if we do we get caught, which is probably why we don’t lie. You think this is harsh? I imagine if you had been born 100 years ago you would have been convinced Guinness was good for you and Marlboro cigarettes were part of a healthy outdoor lifestyle too. (I still believe both).

I did not get into the easiest college in Cambridge let alone the philosophy department of Oxford. I ended up a murketeer and in the context of murketing, “deceive” and “mislead” mean pretty much the same thing. They are not just acceptable, they are aspirational. A lie is not acceptable and it’s bad for business. That’s the difference.

Or put another way – great advertising is “truth, well told”  not a pack of lies. (Did I pass?)

That Special Ingredient

posted in: Business/Marketing | 0

Someone gave my wife a 1960 edition of Vogue Magazine (yes you can figure out why but please keep your inferences to yourself) and I could not resist having a quick thumb through purely to check out the Ads. The comparison with today’s Vogue is hilarious – they all feature demure Audrey Hepburn look –alikes. It was interesting if not unexpected to see that only a very few of the brands advertising are even close to famous now. Selfridges had a spread as did dear old Bentalls but most are long gone – any of you ladies wearing Polly Peck tights by any chance, I thought not. But one defunct brand caught my eye in particular. There were two full page ads for Bri-Nylon. I recall in my youth that nylon – bri or otherwise – was heavily promoted and for a while we all aspired to wear this new miracle material, sleep in it and, as Vogue 1960 was featuring, use it for our ball gowns. A few years later it was a by-word for cheap, nasty and smelly. Polyester took over and while seen as the poor mans cotton or wool still finds widespread use but I don’t remember seeing any ads for it anywhere.

Courtaulds were a well known purveyor of materials and there was an ad budget for them as well back in the day.

It got me thinking about the potential for marketing ingredients or components and whether this has any role these days. If people can only ever buy your product as just part of many other peoples’ brands is there any point doing any more than B2B marketing? Is it worth going over the heads of your business customers and talking to end consumers to create some pull, increase your leverage and therefore margins?

Until recently we used to know all about Intel and demand only those computers that had their chips. I don’t hear so much about them now and doubt many people care who makes their micro-chips (do you know who makes the ones in Apple products – thought not). Will we pay a premium for any brand of outdoor wear that uses Gore-tex or just the Northface brand irrespective of what material they use? Who makes the electrical components in your car? Most of you will answer BMW, Ford or whoever has their badge on the car, the rest will simply say they don’t care. Back in the ‘70’s when I used to do a little work on cars I knew all about Lucas, I even knew the relative merits of SU versus Webber carburetors and would pay a premium for Castrol Oil.

Back to the world of tech, are we witnessing the demise of the Microsoft brand? It is still famous but do we care far more for the hardware than the software? Shell and other petrol brands used to advertise heavily and those of us of a certain age can still remember going well on Shell or putting a tiger in our tank with Esso. The Oil brands now market themselves much more on the service station, even the coffee they serve, rather than the petrol you buy. You spent thousands of pounds on your car, one of the biggest capital investments you make, and yet will not drive 100 yards to buy a better petrol.

On the other hand, what is your emotional attachment and loyalty to your washing machine? You cared a bit when you were buying it and were possibly persuaded by the sales person – or on-line reviews – to fork out a bit more for a Miele or Bosch (or anything German rather than Italian or British frankly) but the brands you still care more for are the detergents you use in them.

The question here is what is the chicken and the egg? Did ingredient or component brands lose their points of difference, did we lose our naivety or did they stop investing in marketing (which ain’t just advertising, it is also innovation which delivers meaningful points of difference) just as all the end products upped their investment? The Persil/Ariel versus washing machine example would suggest it is the latter. The white goods industry has always been so f*** up and fragmented and in my experience – somewhat dated I must acknowledge – home of some of the worst managers, and their marketing reflected this. On the other hand P&G and Unilever have ploughed billions into their brands and this money has been invested by some of the very brightest and best managers and marketers.

I once gave a talk on this theme to a group of Shell senior managers. One them, the head of technical development, stood up at the end and said “I don’t think you understand, our petrol is only 3% better and that would never be noticed by anyone”. As a former detergents boy I replied that we would kill for a performance difference as big as that. The trick is to make the difference relevant and important and find ways to explain the benefits and consequences.

“But who on earth would really care?” he came back at me. It is 3 o’clock in the morning and you have to rush your sick child or pregnant wife to hospital in the family car. You have just taken delivery of your highly expensive sports car and are about to fill it up for the first time. An expert explains the savings in service costs and the increased residual value of your car if you protect the engine by using the right fuel.

Marketing starts with differentiation and ends with the investment to make sure the right people know, care and trust. On the way you make sure you create more value than you add cost.

Those are the ingredients for success. If you stop investing in your brand because in truth you have stopped believing in your ability to deliver something different that is worth paying for then you become a commodity.

Legally High

posted in: Business/Marketing | 0

Like many others I suspect, the news that a company in Washington State, USA is launching a range of soft drinks infused with marijuana caught my attention (big time).  http://bit.ly/1nyuFOd

The cheekily named “Mirth Provisions” is, equally cheekily, calling their new drinks “Legal”. There are 3 flavours, Cherry, Pomegranate and Lemon plus Lemon Ginger, which can apparently only be drunk while listening to the Grateful Dead (I made that last bit up, the bit about Grateful Dead not the bit about the Lemon Ginger version which is, they claim, quite a bit stronger).

I’ve been to Washington State but the once, to Seattle, home of Starbucks. I think I may be going back and I don’t plan on drinking coffee. This is the biggest news in the drinks industry since they lifted prohibition. How long will it be before you can pick up a 6 pack at Tesco’s and lose an entire weekend? Soon I hope because Seattle is a bloody long way.

I just love this news because it shows the power of a real product benefit and encourages us all to dare to dream the impossible.

I recall a few years back, in 2002, asking one of the brand managers at Miller Beer what he thought the game changers might be in the future. (I should explain that  Miller was built on introducing Lite (sic) beer which was the first decent product based innovation in beer for generations. It was pushed through to the market by people from the new owners Phillip Morris – it worked in fags, why not beer they figured).

He couldn’t see one coming. “What about when they legalise cannabis”, I asked. He was both shocked and incredulous. But I was the Global Marketing Director so he couldn’t tell me I was being both inappropriate and daft although it was clear from his reaction he thought I was both. My intention was to shake up his thinking so I had some fun with him. “Why not?”, I pressed on. “You do know it’s an accident of history that alcohol and caffeine are legal while cannabis is not. LSD was legal until late into the 1960’s. So why shouldn’t a relatively harmless drug like marijuana be made legal at some point? And if it was how would that affect our industry?” He wasn’t having it. “I don’t know about the rest of the world but it just ain’t going to happen here in the Sates”.

Well it is happening, buddy, and it’s brilliant and it will change things forever. All booze is based on ethanol – forget all the hype and bullshit, ethanol produces just one kind of legal high. Marijuana produces an altogether different high – that is progress in my book. Maybe some marketers like the kind of marketing you have to do when the truth is there’s bugger all difference between your product and any other. Personally I like the kind of marketing you can do when you have something new and different, and yes, for some people on some occasions, much, much, better. Imagine the fun we can have transforming a whole bunch of categories in food and drink. That line was, by the way, very deliberate. We can consume our new products and let our imagination run wild and we will laugh out loud while we are doing it because some suckers are actually paying us to do this!

And of course we will dream of other previously unimaginable product breakthroughs. Cars that run on water, phones that tell you what shape you’re in, clothes with smart fabrics that adapt to the environment, insurance that rewards you for being a good driver based on your actual driving data – hang on a minute, I think all those things are available now. Well, shit, we can imagine a whole bunch more.

Back to the soft drinks with dope, who do you think will be first to get this into their cola, Coke or Pepsi? Here is what I think – I think it will be Coca Cola because they’re big and awesome. And then, with a fabulous sense of irony, Pepsi will launch a cola with cocaine extract called Pepsi coke. And they will resurrect one of the best slogans in advertising history….

Lipsmackin’ thirst quenchin’ acetastin’ motivatin’ good buzzin’ cooltalkin’ highwalkin’ fastlivin’ evergivin’ coolfizzin’…Pepsi coke!

Because it just works doesn’t it? It was a line ahead of its time. I wonder what they were on when they wrote it?

Big Bang Marketing

posted in: Featured Content | 0

Grabber of a headline but probably not what you think. I was running a strategy session in New York last week and I came up with a new opener that worked well in terms of raising the energy level and shaking up the thinking. I got the idea from listening to a programme on Radio 4 the night before while I was fighting to try to get back to sleep. It featured a panel of scientists, including the rockstar physicist Brian Cox, talking about what came before the Big Bang.

This is a subject I had looked at before when I was researching a book I was writing called “God’s Marketing Brief” (it’s on Amazon but I really don’t recommend it unless you too are struggling to sleep at night). Despite the fact that I flunked out of Physics aged 15 years I am actually quite fascinated by the Big Bang. The two sides of physics, the General Theory of Relativity (gravity, light, time etc, the big stuff) and Quantum Physics (atoms, protons, quarks etc, the really small stuff) can explain everything from just after the Big Bang, which was roughly 13.7 billion years ago. When I say just after the Big Bang I mean 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000001 of second after, or 10 to the power of -37 of a second. Now that is not long is it?

Science can also explain quite a lot about where the universe is now and where it is going. The most important thing it supports is that the universe continues to expand, and going back to the Big Bang it was not actually a very loud noise, it was in fact the moment when the universe started to expand. It did so very rapidly at first, explosively fast, so I suppose that is kind of like a ‘bang’.

Bear with me here – I am going to talk about marketing soon. One thing about which scientists speculate but cannot prove is that there may very well have been a series of “Big Bangs” in those very first milliseconds, which could mean, theoretically, that the ‘Big Bangs’ gave rise to an infinite number of parallel universes.

Hang on in there – one last point to make. For reasons that would take too long to explain (alright, I admit it, for reasons I don’t entirely understand) the scientists cannot reconcile the General Theory of Relativity (big stuff) and Quantum Physics (small stuff). They explain the big stuff and the small stuff but they don’t explain each other. That is where String Theory comes in, or as it is sometimes called ‘The Theory of Everything’ (I am not making this up – check it out on Wiki). String Theory poses that little tiny atoms, the really, really small stuff, are not little dots but are long stringy things. But even more curiously, String Theory suggests that there must be at least 10 dimensions – another 6 plus dimensions beyond the 4 we know about (3D plus time).

Relax, we are done with the physics. In fact to lighten the air you might recall that Sheldon in “The Big Bang Theory” is studying String Theory – quite brilliant and quite mad.

So, I explain all this to my folk in the strategy session and invite them to see if it gives them any insights on what we are about to do – which is to develop a new strategy for a recently acquired business.

Well, let me help you, as I helped them.

1. It is worth looking back in time if it helps explain the future but beyond a certain point, the Big Bang, who cares?
2. If scientists can figure all this out surely we can come up with a solution to our little challenge.
3. There probably are a series of parallel universes and there is definitely more than one strategy – so let’s develop a few and choose the best, the one that creates our universe the way we want it.
4. We live in a universe that is always expanding – change is not our enemy it is our friend.
5. We are dealing with two theories of business that cannot be reconciled – finance and marketing. Or rather they can be reconciled but only if you bring in some new dimensions.

I must say it went on to be a very successful workshop although a lot of the credit for that must go to the caliber of people in it and not the facilitator. We did come up with new dimensions and several new strategic options.
If you are interested in knowing the new dimension to our thinking that made the most impact it was the concept of Triple Bottom Line. I’ll leave you to look into that.

But I think I’m on to something with Big Bang Marketing.