Steve Jobs – Patron Saint of Design

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mark1I had been pondering the power of design as a theme for my next post. I know what prompted this – the death of Steve Jobs. Like everyone else, his sad untimely death (we will always wonder what he may have given us in the next 20 years) made me think about his legacy and what lay at the core of it. What was Steve Jobs? He was a visionary, I suppose, in the sense that his vision affected the world we live in but only because his vision became manifest in the products he developed. I’m not sure he had any great world vision per se. He was an engineer – a description that is undervalued in the UK. He was an inventor – ditto. He applied his inventive engineer’s mind not to just any technology but to the technology that makes us work as a society – technology that helps us discover, create, play and communicate. But how to sum him up? I think he was a brilliant designer.

Everything else was just grist to his mill. His legacy is that he designed brilliant products that we all love.
That got me to pondering brilliant design and I was just about to put finger to keyboard when I read Paul Feldwick’s article about aesthetics in the September Market Leader. It is a gem of an article (wish I could attended that TEDx talk it was based on). I was about to lay out my view – hardly original – that brilliant design occurs where functionality and aesthetics meet when I read Paul’s insightful distinction between creativity and aesthetics. I would have in any event pointed out that Steve jobs brilliance lay more in how he assembled pre-existing technologies and in how he edged ahead in terms of functionality but absolutely trumped the competition in terms of aesthetics. Had I not read Paul’s article would I have used the word aesthetics? No, probably not – I’d just have pointed out that Apple products look and feel so beautiful you want to lick them.

Paul’s article gave me more to chew on. You should read it but in essence he makes the case that a) the value of ideas lies in the physical experience they produce (we don’t buy ideas, we buy products) b) creativity has become – or always meant – originality of idea c) aesthetics (perception through the senses) is more important as a driver of preference and choice.
If I were being picky I think Paul slightly downplays the power of creativity/originality in ideas in order to make the case for aesthetics but fundamentally I agree with him. He acknowledges that the semiotics for ‘aesthetics’ are not helpful, particularly in the functional/analytical world of business. I agree – perhaps we should talk about ‘brilliant design’ or maybe even ‘stuff that stands out and looks cool’. The point is that great design – the symbiosis of form and function – should be top of the agenda for any business – it is for Apple and that is why they have prospered.

Some people think Steve jobs was some kind of God. A little hysterical but I think I can understand why – he was a brilliant designer and his designs affected, directly or indirectly, the way we all live. I guess that is God-like.
This is normally the point where I like to get to the SFW (work it out). What should one do with this whimsy? Just before I do I want to make the case for whimsy. Another theme in my mind, one that I intend to write more about, is the need for serious marketers and business folk to spend more time thinking about the human condition. We are being hit by a Tsunami of data – there is so much already here and so much more coming that in future the core skill of business will be to turn data into intelligence (thank you Mike Bayler). It is more important than ever to counter balance this by a tenacious curiosity about what makes us tick as humans and communities. We have to rediscover the philosopher in us. We need to find time to read a great article about the power of aesthetics and not regard it as whimsy. It will make us better in business. One quick piece of evidence for this. Warren Buffet spends more time reading books than analyzing data (he has other people do that for him).

But back to the SFW (figured it out yet?) regarding brilliant design. Learning how to manage the design process is not part of the core training manual – most brand managers are crap at it. I know I was. I am in the process of building a new house. My wife is convinced I will make a hash of it. I am quietly confident because as I have tried to point out my career in marketing has eventually taught me something about managing the design process. Perhaps business should place more importance on developing this core skill in its marketers.

Being a Challenger Brand

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I’m a really big fan of Adam Morgan. I was happy to be asked to review his last book for Market Leader some while back. I described him as the thinking man’s Seth Godin but less good at marketing himself which explains why he coined not just the phrase but the idea of Challenger Brands yet does not get the full international acknowledgment he deserves for this, while everyone the world over knows Seth likes Purple Cows. I also gave Adam and his team the credit for Challenger Brand being an on-going project rather than a once off big bang theory. His books and his work with clients are just the latest explanation of what they have learned so far about being a Challenger Brand. That may sound like a subtle point but I think it is really cool because it recognizes that business is hard with a multitude of variables and a constantly changing landscape. You can’t just give people a 10 point plan to follow to create the perfect brand, you have to work with them to inspire them to want to keep trying and learn a little more with every attempt, every success and every set back.

I was lucky enough to be in a workshop given by one of Adam’s colleagues, Mark Barden, for a client we both work with. They have embraced the idea of Challenger Brand and the workshop was all about working with the team to surface and confront the real challenges (pun intended) in putting this into practice. I was able to sit at the back and just listen to the structured debate (Mark is a very good facilitator) and make notes for the session I was due to give the following day on the same subject. My piece built on the Challenger Workshop since as I explained that I had grown up in sort of a Challenger Brand environment long before we knew that is what it was (Lever versus Procter), had spent many years trying to help businesses be Challengers but using different techniques and in all honesty less specific focus than Adam et al (Added Value) and then trying to lead a global marketing team to raise their game in marketing (SABMiller). This has not made me the oracle but it has certainly given me some different perspectives, one of which is to see it as a journey with no ultimate destination just curious endeavour. Another is that it is a bloody hard journey.

So I thought I’d pass on a couple of my ‘crispies’ (lovely expression for ‘key take-outs’ I picked up from an American). One is quite philosophical, the other is down and dirty.

One of the reasons that Challenger thinking is so hard is precisely because business is geared towards replicating best practice, protocols and procedures. Cost efficiency is driven, and shareholder value created, by aligning a business to streamlined, proven systems. Challenger thinking can feel like driving increasingly fast down the road with your head under the bonnet. One delegate pointed out that Bosses don’t like to be challenged. I don’t agree – I think most do but they are trained to give you a good hard push back. You better have some good reasons to lift the bonnet and suggest some engine readjustment. And we would not respect leaders who constantly accepted challenges to accepted best practice without some hard questioning. I once had a boss like that – he agreed, very enthusiastically with whoever was last in his office and their latest idea. You earn the right to be a challenger thinker if you can present your arguments well and/or can display some real personal risk and passion for your ideas. It is not meant to be easy – if it was easy there would be chaos because for every visionary challenger thinker there are many more ill informed, opinionated twits.

My down and dirty piece of advice – and the one that struck home hardest in my session – is that if you want to change an organization or brand then change what you measure and reward so as to force different behaviours. The emphasis on behaviours and not attitudes is deliberate. As well as being a fan of Adam’s I am also a big fan of Mark Earls – behaviour and copying is what is important, not so much attitudes and their adoption.

To be a Challenger Brand you have to change what you measure as success. And according to Adam, in order to manage the senior politics, you need a “Smoke Jumper” but he can explain that himself.

Do You Learn More From Winning or Losing?

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I was with a very successful former sportsman and national team captain the other day. Someone asked him whether you learnt more from winning or losing. Without hesitation he replied “Winning”. I thought it was a good question especially since in business we have always been told it is OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. We’ve even been told that if you are not making mistakes you are not trying hard enough. Business expects mistakes or at least disappointments. Like sportsmen or women and sports teams, eventually you will lose to a better player/team. Along the way there will be setbacks so it makes sense to learn from them and no sense that you necessarily learn more from winning than losing. In business the desire to question and evaluate is probably sharpened by losing. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is often trotted out as a reason not to meddle with a winning formula.

It is fair to say that in business, if things are going well you just keep going. Only if things fail do you go through the discipline of understanding why they failed. So I figured he was wrong, certainly in business. You learn more from losing than winning.

Business is not like sport and too often sport is used too simplistically as an analogy for business. In business there is no finishing line or full time whistle, you don’t get to drop under-performing players for the next game. In sport there is often no next match – you lose, you’re out. In business, barring disaster, there is always a next game – next years plan. Decision-making and accountability is clearer in sport – in business it is more consensual, more about collective accountability.

The problem is that this sportsman is also a successful businessman and he was quite clear in his mind that learning more from winning applied just as much to business as it does to sport. So I gave it some more thought. I know this guy well and know that he is highly competitive – yes I know all sportsmen are highly competitive but this guy is really competitive, in everything he does. He hates losing, even a friendly game of golf. “I don’t do losing” is one of his favourite phrases. And that is the clue to what he really means. Obviously in theory you can learn as much from losing as from winning. In theory you would learn the most from winning and losing so you can draw comparisons (scientists would support this – they need some experiments to fail). But that is not the point.

Winning and losing are infectious. The more you win the more you learn to win and the more you lose the more you learn to accept losing. What you learn is only as important as your ability to apply what you learn and get the rest of your team to apply it as well. Who wants to learn from losers? Everyone wants to follow winners. And what attitude is most likely to help you win? “Let’s give this a go – it’s OK if we fail because we’ll learn lots” or “We play to win at all costs – I don’t care what we learn only that we win, after we’ve won we’ll think about improving on the mistakes we made”.

Winners learn more from winning – losers learn more from losing, but they don’t learn to be winners.

5 Minutes on the Importance of Timing

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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

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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.