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The Big Brand Bang

mark It took CERN 10 years and several billion euros to build the Hadron Collider with the purpose of recreating the Big Bang, the birth of the Universe. They claim to be getting very close although in fact they may never actually get there, just close enough to be able to understand the absolute fundamentals of particle physics and the creation of life as we know it, Jim.

As a brand marketer would you not want to witness the birth of a brand? Not the launch of a brand, but the birth of a brand in someone’s mind, the very moment when all the attributes, associations and artefacts of the brand collide to form one coherent whole. Nike, Google, Coke all exist now, part of the Universe, and we can only speculate and guesstimate precisely how the particles all came together. To know for sure you have to see (feel might be a better word) the actual physics of how it happens. Does this possibility not excite you, give you a hadron (sic) so to speak – sorry, I just couldn’t resist. Well you can. I know this because I recently did. And you don’t need a multi-billion euro collider.

Enter, as a consumer, a new market – go buy something in a category you have never worked in nor ever previously taken much interest but which suddenly matters to you. I will share my recent experience of doing just this and you will get the idea.

I have what is known in South Africa as a ‘Bakkie’ (pronounced ‘buckie’) – the Americans would call it a truck, Europeans a SUV. It’s a Double Cab, 4 x4 Toyota Hilux, the top selling car in South Africa for very good reasons. It is not bad on the road, sits 5 fairly comfortably, goes up the side of mountains and is built like a very robust lavatory. In the rare cases it breaks down or runs into something harder than itself you can repair or replace any part of it in any remote part of Africa. Mine has now done 40k, barely run-in, and needed new tires. So what brand of new tires should I buy? Not a category I have ever worked in professionally and frankly not very high interest for me – until now. The choice of tire is now crucially important to me, I cannot hide behind what the manufacturer supplied the car with, I have to make a choice. That choice has a functional dimension, I must choose the right tires for the driving I do (70% on-road, 30% off-road). I won’t buy the cheapest as that is a false saving, I must buy the best value. But my choice has a badge dimension as well. If I rock up to my mate’s farm in the Karoo (very beautiful and middle of bloody nowhere) with the wrong brand of tires I will be derided as a wimpy towny (accurate but hurtful nonetheless). I have done well to buy a Toyota Hilux, a car that commands ultimate respect among the people who make full and daily use of a ‘Bakkie’. My choice of replacement tires has the potential to deepen that respect to the level where he might even let me take a turn doing the brai (Bar-B-Q).

I am standing in Tiger Wheel & Tyre, the biggest and most highly advertised of all the many purveyors of tires – guess why – and the very lovely Lizette is explaining my options and the various deals available. I am in luck as there seems to be a ‘deal’ on all the ‘top brands’. I have no idea whether these deals do or do not in fact reflect any true saving, but there is a lot of point of sale assuring me they do plus the gift of a free Bosch power tool should I buy a full set of 4 (as I intend to do). I don’t think the Bosch power tool would persuade me to buy tires if they didn’t need changing nor, I think, to buy a brand that was not my first choice but it would tip a lot of people into changing all 4, the sensible but not essential thing to do (they wear and drive much better if they are all new but you can sometimes get away with replacing just one pair). Anyway, this is not about understanding the real time effect of promotions, this is about the very moment when a brand arrives in you head, not as disassociated scraps and particles but as a coherent whole. Lizette is now asking me what brand I would like.

I can see the various brands of new tires on display. I recognize some names – Continental, Michelin. There is one Japanese make I’ve never heard of but, hey, it’s Japanese as is my cherished Toyota Bakkie.

“What about the BF Goodrich All Terrain?” I enquire tentatively. “A very good choice” Lizette replies without hesitation. Would she have said that about any of the big name brands? I don’t think so. She seems very capable, has already advised not to spend the extra money on the more expensive fully off-road tires so I trust her, and there is something about the smile she gives me. It’s a knowing smile. Choosing BF Goodrich, it seems, has impressed her.

Let’s examine the particles that existed in my mind. I had heard of BF Goodrich and had noticed them on the kind of SUV’s that mean business – the ones with extra jerry cans, winches, snorkel exhausts etc. The reason you notice BF Goodrich is because the branding is very prominent, a big chunky white logo, and the tread is also very distinctive. A few years back I had briefly flirted with the idea of buying a Land Rover Defender to which the previous owner had fitted BF Goodrich. This was talked up by the dealer as a selling feature – “The previous owner loved this car and really looked after it, look, he even fitted Goodrich”. In other words the previous owner had paid extra to have the new car, not just any car but a Defender, upgraded with more expensive tires.

I am not 100% sure but have a feeling that BF Goodrich are American. The yanks know nothing about cars but when it comes to trucks and the tires that go with them they do have a certain reputation.

And then there was the price – the BF Goodrich were quite expensive, not unaffordably so but noticeably so.

“I’ll take the BF Goodrich”. “Would you like the white lettering on the inside or outside” Lizette enquired, apparently it makes no difference which way round the tire is fitted. Guess which I chose.

Distinctiveness, (relevant) opinion-leader endorsement, country of origin, price, coherence (tread, logo, name, function and badge), multiple points where the brand has touched me and a degree of familiarity, a sense that you are not the only one, that maybe the brand is becoming more popular.  The Big Brand Bang.

As I pulled into the car park of my local just as a car-mad mate was also arriving, the new tires (on my 3 year old car) were instantly noticed. “Decent set of boots, China” he said appreciatively.

I can now tell you with total conviction that if you have a choice in tire for your SUV there is only one brand to buy – BF Goodrich. A brand is born  – in my mind.

PS It turns out that BF Goodrich are now owned by Michelin –would that have made any difference? Who knows. Big Bang Brand Architecture – but that’s another story…….

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Justin Bieber and Persil

mark1 Back at the turn of the Millennium the venerable Jeremy Bullmore delivered a lecture to the British Brands Group entitled “Posh Spice and Persil”. Victoria had apparently declared at an early age that she wanted to be more famous than Persil and Jeremy took this as his theme to expound the importance, and the magical mystery, of brands to CEO’s. I wasn’t there but like many thousand others I read the transcript. I had heard him talk before about the powerful quality of fame that brands have which, if nothing else, will create preference. When found at the heart of a coherent, yet never fully definable, set of relevant associations it can drive loyalty to a brand of soap powder or baked beans (or at the very least deep, deep inertia).

Was he the first to see celebrities as proper brands? Who knows, probably not, the notion was becoming popular and even back then it was clear the Beckham brand was being managed (and to great effect). I recall many years earlier hearing Peter York (aka Wallis, he of Sloane Ranger fame) liken brands to soap opera stars. We like them because we know them yet every now and again they can surprise us. Product brands hope to surprise us in an appealing way, celebrities often surprise us in a disappointing way that has them reaching for Max Clifford’s number on speed dial. Anyway, my point is celebrities started to realize they were like Persil and more recently Persil et al realize they need to learn to be more like celebrities. They envy their social media status, their content, their multi-media ubiquity – their loyal following. Brands want to be newsworthy.

I am in Cape Town, as I write, and my wife and son are off to see Justin Bieber tonight at the impressive Green Point stadium. The whole city is buzzing, young Beliebers have been camping out all night to get the best spot in the Golden Circle, the traffic tonight will be awful. Justin, I am sure, will be amazing. What a great brand he is, if you happen to like his music, which I don’t.

But here is my point – one I intend to focus a lot more on in my writing, in terms of the marketing technology businesses I am investing in, and for the occasional client I am advising. Justin is a lot more than a strong brand. Justin is a global media channel. This diminutive 17 year old crooner has 45 million facebook followers (his most recent post attracted 2.5 million likes in an hour, I just checked) and 21 million Twitter followers. ”Baby” has been watched 750 million times on Youtube. His total album sales since 2009 are only 12 million – I say ‘only’, obviously this is good going but can’t you see? His music is not the product, the numbers are tiny in comparison to his audience, his reach and frequency. Justin – or one presumes his agent – is amassing a valuable portfolio of investments in social media platforms like Spotify and other internet start-ups. Because Justin can make or break a social media platform. Because Justin is the Social Media Platform. And then there’s Lady Gaga, Oprah, Jamie Oliver, WillIam etc etc etc.

If Justin tweets today that he is wearing his favourite white jacket that he insists is washed in Persil and only Persil wherever he is in the world, a gazillion young girls and future mums will be hooked for life, more than any campaign dreamt up by Jeremy’s and Persil’s old agency JWT could ever have achieved. Am I just pointing out the obvious and age-old power of celebrity endorsement? No, I am pointing out that with his endorsement comes a global audience of his making and under his control, one that will amplify the message with their own audience via re-tweets and likes.

Celebrities are the new media platforms and Social Media is their prime weapon. The top/smart celebrities are managing themselves not just like brands but like social media platforms. And here is just one thing that interests me about this. Most of the technology start-ups I talk to are very keen on securing brand support. They want to charter with the Persils, Cokes, Nikes, Samsungs as their partners because they are the ones with the budgets and inferred credibility. Some are now realizing that if they charter with celebrities (which in Justin’s case means he wants equity in the business) the brands will follow. But the reverse is not true.

Jeremy my old friend – it’s gone way further than any of us could have imagined. Justin Bieber is not just bigger than Persil, he is bigger than commercial TV. He, or more realistically he and all the other savvy celebrities, may end up being bigger than facebook.

So should brands be looking to celebrities for clues about the new model of branding and brand communication? Perhaps, but more importantly they should be looking at celebrities the way they used to look at ITV and have started to look at facebook. Persil and all the other big brands need a Bieber strategy and budget.

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Which Brands are Winning the Medals?

mark4 I am very scared of using the ‘O’ word in case I’m infringing some IOC regulations and will provoke litigation from their venal lawyers, but you know what I’m referring to. At the time of writing we are nearing the end of the first week of London 2012 and I don’t think it’s too early to start asking which brands will carry off the medals. How, as a brand, do you win a medal you might ask? Well I am setting the rules and they are very simple – you get a Gold, Silver or Bronze if your brand emerges much stronger, stronger, or a bit stronger as a result of the London 2012 Olympic Games (there – I’ve said it, do your worst). You get a lemon if, by my judgement, you should have saved your time and money and steered well clear.

Let’s start with the obvious – the sponsors. There are three levels in case you didn’t know. You can be a Worldwide Partner, a London Partner or a London Supporter. If I asked you to name more than two in any category you’d struggle. In fact there are 11, 7 and 7 respectively so there are a few lemons to be awarded.

I’m going to give both Adidas and Omega Gold – this is the greatest show on earth, it’s all about time and sporting kit so however well or badly you might have activated it, however much it cost, well done. Rolex does Wimbledon, Omega does the Olympics, Nike do, well, just about everything else, Adidas does the Olympics. Perfect.

I’ll give Coca Cola a Silver – it is arguably the best brand in the world, it has supported unarguably the best event in the world for years now and they always seem to do it with class.

Bronze for P&G – some nice ads, I suspect some good awareness and saliency scores (you can bet the boys from Cincinnati will analyze the numbers more closely than any games official for any event) and I reckon they will have added some warmth to a corporate brand that has lacked it. Bit like the British gymnasts – unexpected but a nice result.

Lemons for just about everyone else, but especially McDonalds and Cadbury. What were you thinking when you signed the contract? About as smart as an Arms dealer sponsoring Amnesty International. Do you need the awareness – No. Does it in any way relate to your brand values – No. But what about Coca Cola, couldn’t you say the same thing about them? It’s not fair! No, it’s not fair but that’s the way it is. Coke can get away with it, they have heritage, they do it with class and actually yes I can imagine many of the athletes, from China even, enjoying ice cold Coke pre and post an event. It’s an authenticity and status thing.

Now let’s move beyond the obvious brands – there are many other reputations to be enhanced or undermined by the London Olympics. What about the personalities?

I award Gold to Boris Johnson and David Beckham – I think both will emerge much stronger brands as a result of these Games. Boris is really starting to look like a future PM and dare I say it, World Statesman. Like all great brands he has added something new to the mix in his category, politics – humour, honesty, the ability to make the odd mistake, own up to it and be liked all the more for it. In David Beckham we are witnessing the transition from Football Icon to Sport Icon, almost a national treasure.

Silver for Stella McCartney and Danny Boyle –they’ve been brave, they too have added a whole new dimension to their reputations, well done.

Seb Coe – Bronze. Why? I just think we admire him a bit more but we don’t like him any better. I confess this is very subjective – I always preferred Lennon to McCartney and I always liked Ovett more than Coe. Mind you, if Boris, Seb, Cameron and Miliband went head to head for President of the UK the day the games finished, might that be the result, Boris first, Seb second…..?

Of course we don’t have a President, we have a monarch, indeed we have the monarchy. They don’t compete in anything or seek election to anything or sell anything (except Britain Plc) so I can’t award a medal. Pity because it would have been gold. (And I’m a Republican).

I’d like to award a Lemon or three to some nations but am far too scared to name names or explain why. There are many reasons why the Olympics are the greatest show on earth but central among them is the coming together of nations in the universal appeal of sport and sporting values. Nations competing in the Olympics can reinforce their brand perceptions, they can worsen them. If I was the marketing director of a country – and I think every country should have a marketing director that is not called Head of Tourism of Chief Spin Doctor – I’d see the Olympics as an amazing opportunity to promote the brand. I think some national brands will emerge weaker after these games and it has got nothing to do with who won most medals, just the way they won them and the way they, officials and athletes handled themselves. But there is one Gold that should be awarded to a country/city brand.

My final Gold goes jointly to London and Great Britain – worth every penny it cost.

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Going Native

mark6 The hottest topic in media (advertising, marketing – take your pick) is Native Advertising. It seems everyone is going native when it comes to their brand spend. This wild enthusiasm is only matched by the total confusion about what exactly is Native Advertising. There are a bunch of definitions flying round. The most all-purpose definition is probably something like “Brand promotion messages or content on the internet that fit so well into the context in which they appear you hardly know or care whether you are being sold to”. So this will span everything from Google Adwords (ads appear alongside natural search results in exactly the same format) to sponsored stories, videos, images, music on respectively facebook, youtube, pinterest or spotify and their ilk.

Native can include the internet version of an “advertorial” – an on-line publisher will include some story about a brand in their normal content flow, some bloggers will simply get paid to write stuff about a brand or company. These are supposed to be clearly indicated but many are not and many would claim that no-one cares. If it is a good read, it is a good read, and it’s not like you paid for it. The Red Bull case study gets trotted out over and over again. Red Bull promote its energy drink by associating itself with derring-do – whether Formula One Sponsorship, Extreme Sports or some bloke parachuting from a great height. The point about the latter is this specific, fully Red Bull funded, stunt found its way into a gazillion blogs and newsfeeds on the web. Good old fashioned PR? Well yes, but specifically designed and presented for the on-line publishing world.

What is behind all this? Simply a frustration with banner ads. I’ve mentioned before that advertisers have done the same thing in digital that they did when commercial TV came on the scene. They adapted what they knew for the new medium (in the case of TV they ran radio ads with pictures, in the case of on-line publishing they ran press ads) rather than learning new tricks or at the very least re-learning and reframing old tricks.

Advertisers’ willingness to pay for banner ads here, there and everywhere allowed any old crap blogger to make a bob or two out of their sites and gave major off-line publishers the false idea that they could recreate their business model on-line. But what is the one dominant feature of on-line? You can measure almost everything and pretty soon everyone has figured out that “You have more chance of surviving an air crash than clicking on a banner ad”. Native advertising works better, brands and agencies are prepared to pay more for better results, the trend has caught fire. There are new agencies who know how to do it, new platforms that know how to get it out there, new opportunities on every major social media site, all looking to cash in with numbers and metrics to back up their case.

The old guard will say – as they always do – that there is nothing new here. With the right connections, budgets and brand stories you could always lean on editors and journalists to big up you brand. The Gold Blend ads (I know I am going back a while here) worked because they were a brand relevant 30 second soap opera that got flighted in the ad break of, yes, a soap opera. How native is that? What is the difference between sponsored content and event or celebrity sponsorship?

As soon as attention and eyeballs move away from one activity to another, brands will eventually find a way to shoe-horn themselves into that new activity be it watching TV, surfing the net, keeping up with friends and trends or playing games. Yes fundamentally it is the same game but scale, data, algorithms, real-time metrics, fragmentation, pace of change and user empowerment make it a game with new rules and new potential to win or fail.

I try to keep pace with all this and am lucky enough to spend most of my time with people who know a lot more than me because they are out there building new marketing tech businesses. One person I keep up with on a regular basis here in Cape Town is Will Mellor. He is better known (and he is very well known) as Seth Rotheram, the alter ego he created for his blog site, 2Oceansvibe. Except when he started the term blogging had not been created and the software did not exist. He began posting pictures of the Camps Bay in-crowd with amusing little stories and gossip. He started to add cool lifestyle content he found on the internet. In those days he had to take the site down and then reload it every night because there was no WordPress. His popularity and unique visitors grew, he could start to get all manner of freebies and some cash to talk about brands, events, restaurants. No-one cares he is getting paid because 2OV is just such a great read and the first place to go to find the funniest and sauciest stuff on the net. He has also always featured brands and magazines for which he does not get paid simply because he thinks they give his brand the right vibe. He then launched an on-line radio station, relaunched the blog as an on-line magazine and is currently re-naming and rebranding all the neighbourhoods in Cape Town – the Hoods Project – and in the process creating a whole new geo-cultural cluster.

Will, aka Seth, has not just understood celebrity he created one, he was blogging before we knew what blogging was, he turned this into the new model for on-line publishing and is at the forefront of on-line media. And yes – he has been making money (funding his lifestyle) with native advertising long before the rest of us went native. He is the ultimate local/global and now micro-local. If he was in London or New York he’d be mega rich and famous. But as he says – work’s a sideline, live the lifestyle.

And the lifestyle is good in Cape Town, at least for the some of the natives.

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Brand Newsrooms

mark3  A really interesting read from Taulbee Jackson about the pointlessness of Brand Newsrooms. It caught my eye (in the very excellent Digiday) because I had been taken with this idea ever since Chris Satterthwaite told me about it, which was probably 10 years ago. This was of course well before the Social Media phenomenon. Chris’ idea was that every week stuff happens that brands should react to, latch on to, spin off, in order to keep a consistent brand message fresh and relevant. He used the analogy of the Newsroom, a place where all the brand people and their communications partners should meet to review what they had done, what was going on and what they should do.

Although I have spoken about this to lots of people over the years, as I’m sure has Chris, I wasn’t aware that anybody had actually tried it. So now here is Taulbee’s blog post which implies several people have and that it doesn’t work. You can read the piece but in summary he cites several reasons why it doesn’t work, the first of which is quite controversial – brands are not in the content business and should leave it to the professionals. His other reasons for the foolishness of this model strike me as “been there, tried that” realism. The approval process for brand creative is too cumbersome and consensual (compare that to a hard-assed editor), brands are lousy judges of good content (he thinks these days only the audience is), and overall it implies an agility and speed that brands simply don’t have.

Interestingly he does not mention, at least not explicitly, the main concern that I always had, namely the rigidity of the brand budget and planning cycle. This kind of “fast on your feet, learn quick, fail cheap” culture requires you to be very vague not only about where you will spend your brand budget but when and how much. I reckon you’d need to keep about a quarter unallocated with the flexibility to overspend if you were getting the results. If a story is getting traction and pulling an audience a Newsroom will very rapidly divert a lot of their resource to it. I presume they keep a number of outside broadcast units and journalists on stand-by ready to fly to Korea, Syria or “wherever the story takes us” as CNN boast. Brands are not able to react that way unless they are owner-managed like, say, Virgin (or is the brand Branson?). I suppose that might be what Taulbee means when he says corporate-owned brands have all the flexibility of a three-legged elephant.

Nevertheless, I am left feeling that while he may be right, brands are not good at behaving like a content generating newsroom, they bloody well should be, especially in a social media world. They should be good at earning media through interesting, on-message, content and stunts. They should react to what is happening and what is breaking and, where possible, latch their brand on to this. Brands should be able to keep a big chunk of their budget unallocated – perhaps not unallocated in terms of the brand objectives, which can be set in advance, but to the activity that might best achieve those objectives. There should be consistency of purpose and message but not delivery. And in order to achieve all this they must meet often, grab the insights and learnings and apply them quickly, with a fast and decisive approval process.

Other brands do this – celebrities, sports franchises, news channels, political parties – why not the brands that are supposed to be the epicenter of great marketing? Is not the realization that they can’t the fundamental proof we needed that the traditional brand management model invented by P&G nearly 50 years ago is well and truly buggered?

I think Taulbee Jackson may be right, he speaks with authority, but it is wrong that the idea of a focused but fast-reacting brand newsroom doesn’t work. It should do and I would argue in this digital, technology, rolling global news stories, social media age it has to.

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You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone

mark4 Best course Unilever ever sent me on was one on advertising (that’s what we called it back then). It was a 2 week residential course held at a very swanky hotel in the home counties which was great for a hard-up twenty something but that wasn’t what I meant. There were three things that stood out for me. Firstly, the course was 50/50 Unilever brand managers and agency account execs. They weren’t literally our opposite numbers but they were our peers and they all worked in what we referred to as the ‘club agencies’ i.e. the select big agencies Unilever used. Secondly, they managed to get a stellar selection of the brightest and most experienced people in advertising to come and talk to us. Finally and most memorably they made us do a role reversal project where we were given a creative brief and had to give our response to a judging panel of the senior agency stars. My syndicate’s brief was how to promote the Great British Pub, the client being some fictitious industry body and the background being that the pub trade was down and many, especially the village pubs, were closing.

I can still vividly remember our ads. We set up a series of situations such as a couple getting engaged, someone scoring 180 at darts, a guy getting a big promotion, high emotion occasions when the only place you wanted to be to celebrate was your local pub. But as the people in these situations looked around them their pub faded and they were left celebrating on their own because the pub had gone. The pay-off line was “The great British Pub – get there before it closes” (back then all pubs closed at 10.30 pm, hence a double meaning). Cut to same people now happily in their local pub sharing their moments. Classic advertising technique, depict a world devoid of whatever it is you are advertising to dramatize the unique benefits. We won the top prize, as it happens.

I felt a bit like that in Terminal 5, Heathrow, last week. A visit to HMV was part of my pre-flight ritual and now I was looking at a boarded-up space where HMV used to be. Should I be surprised? On more than one occasion last year I returned home with CD’s and DVD’s I’d bought at HMV only for the family to inform me they’d already downloaded them. How stupid did I feel? And yet I would still have spent time in HMV last week because I enjoy browsing a record store. Trouble is browsing doesn’t pay the bills for HMV (or Jessops).

WHSmith have announced they are to go back into CD’s and DVD’s – smart move, but is that the future for WHS? The last place you can go to buy occasionally what you most often buy on-line. I remember asking an American friend who was returning to the States after a few years in the UK what he would miss most. WHSmith he replied, he and his family loved the high street store but like me he couldn’t put his finger on why. It doesn’t exist in the States and has a unique bunch of ‘stuff’ was the best he could do and like me he is a career marketer.

Pubs contracted in numbers for years, just like high street retailers, but have recently enjoyed something of a revival. The reason for their decline was easy to see. Cheap booze in the supermarket, drink driving laws and a fundamentally male-oriented offer in an increasingly female/family oriented world. What saved them was not some cute bunch of ads that reminded you about what you used to like without ever really putting a finger on why. What saved them was keeping some elements of their unique magic but then fundamentally re-engineering the offer – more/better food, more choice and diversity, more unisex.

I think HMV could have done the same, in fact I think they were trying to do precisely that but clearly it was too little too late. Pubs found an offer that for most people on some occasions could not be equaled at home. HMV needed to find some things – product, service, experience – that beat on-line shopping for most people on at least some occasions. In their case they also needed to find a way to migrate to some kind of synergistic off-line and on-line offer. John Lewis seem to have managed that well as their results show. I’ve used them a lot recently (furnishing a new flat) and they hit a great sweet spot for range/quality/price, with well-motivated, helpful staff (we all know why – they own the business). I sometimes look on line and go to the local store to buy. I sometimes browse the store and then buy on-line. I sometimes buy on-line and go to the store to pick it up. Simple, brilliant.

What is the future for WHSmith? Could it be as simple as putting food and drink into the mix – coffee shops in bookstores seems to have worked and food worked for pubs? Maybe that plus some other unique in-store experience and a symbiosis between on and off-line. Who knows?

But I do know I miss HMV and I’d miss WHSmith if they were gone.

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Earning Trust

mark1  There has been a development in the “what lies at the heart of marketing’ zeitgeist over the many decades since marketing began – which as we know was long before it was actually called marketing. It started with trust. You branded something (literally in the case of cattle) with your signature, a logo or name, so people could recognize it as the one they knew and trusted because, and this will never change, people don’t trust what they don’t know in everything except religion.

I won’t go through all the various marketing zeitgeists – I am not old enough to have experienced all of them first hand and too old to recall the ones I did with any accuracy. So let me just pick out a few. When brands became disintermediated – e.g. you chose them yourself off a super-market shelf rather than had them commended to you by a shop –keeper – USP became quite popular. Marketing was all about creating a unique point of difference. Somewhere along the line it broadened into a value proposition and this was believed to have some kind of emotional/functional ying and yang.

More recently, in the dawn of the “everything is a brand” age, we came to focus on the brand story and the brand ideals. The PR folk claimed this was good old reputation management but nobody listened to them because their ‘brand’ was somewhat tarnished by the likes of Max Clifford and Alastair Campbell.
I recall a brief rally around the idea of Love Brands. Marketing was all about delight and love and exceeding expectations. Hard to argue with that other than perhaps to point out that 99.999% of brands are picked through inertia, hunch and familiarity rather than love (as opposed to only 50% of life partners).
Right now I’d say engagement is the mot du jour. Marketing is all about creating engagement – less through didactic, interrupt and repeat marketing communication and more through what brands actually do and how it gets reported in social media. Earned media is brand engagement’s marketing pay-off.
What’s coming next? What is going to become the ‘focus of marketing’, the ‘when it boils down to it, this is what marketers really do’ consensus among the chattering marketing classes (who chatter quite a lot).

Might it come full circle back to trust? The focus of marketing – apart from getting more people to buy stuff more often for more money or perhaps as a means to this? – might become earning, sustaining and building trust in a world that is increasingly mistrustful, or to dig a little deeper, in a world where trust increasingly comes from ones large and growing social cohorts and decreasingly from just about everything else. You can’t trust anything or anybody these days.

Forget the establishment, the police and politicians, they are a complete busted flush pretty much worldwide. Celebrities lie like a cheap suit, some trusted family favourites have been revealed as kiddy-fiddlers. Every month brings some new story about drugs or corruption in sport. Newspapers have the morals of a gutter-snipe and the self-discipline of a recovering alcoholic in a brewery. BBC Director Generals resign having betrayed the trust of license fee payers. For goodness sake, even Tesco, the pinnacle of successful British Business, have been caught selling horsemeat in burgers (which as it happens means lots of young girls realized their secret dream of getting a Little Pony sadly without ever knowing it).

All around us trust is breaking down faster than Kate Winslett at an awards ceremony. You can trust what you read on Facebook or Twitter but very little else. Apart from, I would hope, your favourite brands if they are well managed by good marketers with good values and reflexes. (Regular readers will both know that this is a favourite theme of mine – good marketers have good reflexes).

Job one of a marketer is creating, deepening and widening trust. If I was running a large marketing department these days (unlikely I’ll grant you) I’d have that in a big sign above the coffee machine (or the Fusion Vendor). And when asked whether this is just a ‘point of parity’ rather than a ‘point of difference’ (assuming they were familiar with Kevin Keller’s simple but powerful positioning approach) I’d say point of difference. That is not because I am 100% sure it is, it may not be enough in itself to drive preference, but rather because a) it is more than enough to support inertia and b) if you get complacent and dismiss it as ‘housekeeping’ you risk losing it.

The challenge of being a Trust Manager not just a Brand Manager is that it has to be earned in lots of ways over a lot of time. It cannot be asserted. It requires that hardest of things, consistency, and this has to be maintained in a fast fragmenting and disenchanted world that pays more attention to the modern day equivalent of the ‘bloke down the pub’, i.e. social media, than anything else.

Trust me. I’m a Doctor. Well not since Jacko’s experience does that carry any weight. How about, trust me, I’m a Brand manager?

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Management Speaks

mark6  Bear with me. Just take a few moments to read the piece below that popped up in my inbox this week.

“Dear Mr M Sherrington,

All of us at South African Airways (SAA) Voyager know that in this highly competitive travel industry, customer service alone no longer guarantees customer satisfaction. Modern advanced practices, such as customer experience and relationship management, have been adopted by many airlines across the world. These practices – which only a few years ago were largely considered mere concepts – have today become a requirement for customer retention programmes, and require superior technological systems and business processes as enablers.

Long-term relationships are of paramount importance to us, and we have acknowledged that by investing in a tool that will enable us to greatly enhance your experience in dealing with us, at all contact points, and not only the call centres. Enhancements such as these allow us to be effective and align ourselves with the best in classs.

Over the last few years the complaints, suggestions and survey feedback we have received from you – our valued members – have indicated that in order for us to exceed your expectations, information technology upgrade had become necessary. We have listened, and we are proud to announce that on 7 October 2012, SAA Voyager will be moving all business processes to a new, modern-technology customer relationship management (CRM) system.

When sourcing the new system the following specific objectives were top of mind: service speed, flexibility, accessibility, efficiency, increased value propositions and enhanced customer experience. We are, therefore, excited about the improvements that the new system brings about as indicated below:”

So let’s pick out the salient points.

The travel industry is highly competitive and great service does not guarantee customer satisfaction. Well. I beg to differ – I think it does. I think most of us to look to a service business to deliver great service, that’s why they are called Service Businesses.

The competition seem to be using some new fangled stuff called customer experience and relationship management – well the sneaky bastards! That’s just not fair but I suppose if you can’t beat them….

We are going to use a tool (where from, B&Q?) to deliver service at every contact point – see point above about Service Businesses etc.

Over the last few years we have had complaints so we’ve decided to upgrade our IT. Years you say? – no flies on you then.

You are a valued customer and so we are going to deal with you using a CRM system  - how interesting, is that what the cabin crew use as well, a CRM system, or do they just do their job professionally with a nice attitude?

When sourcing the new system – they didn’t commission it, design & build it or even just buy it, they sourced it. Did they maybe outsource it? Who to or who from I wonder?

We not only decided it had to be faster, more flexible and easier to use – as opposed to some new IT system that is slower, more rigid and harder to use, do you know people in the NHS? – it also had to deliver increased value propositions and enhanced customer experience. I’m a career marketer and I’m still not exactly sure what is meant by a value proposition. I’ve seen the expression used in various marketing briefs but I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve seen it in consumer copy. And yes thank you for enhancing my customer experience, but would you like to be a little more precise?

The author – well it’s his/her name at the bottom – is one Manoj Papa, Head of Department, Voyager (the SAA Loyalty Scheme). Manoj my friend a) come up with a better title and b) in future try to resist using an internal management document as consumer copy. Think about maybe briefing a copywriter. I know you have a largely business audience but that doesn’t mean they want to read an excerpt from what I can only presume was your Board Proposal to justify all this money you’ve spent on the new IT.

I’m no copywriter (the prefix ‘copy’ might be redundant here) but here’s my 2 minute attempt to say what you need to say if you intend to clog up my inbox.

Hello Mark,

Allow me just to take a minute to tell you that dealing with SAA Voyager has just got a whole lot better. We know we were not up to scratch before, and if you had problems I apologize, but please try the new system, it’s much easier and faster. Once you’ve tried it, I’d welcome any comments you have, good or bad, about this or any aspect of our service. So just click here and try it out. My email address is at the bottom.

Best wishes,

 Manoj Papa, Voyager Director (the buck stops here)

There you go Manoj, how hard was that? PS Make sure your copywriter uses spell check – para 2, “best in classs????”

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What’s the Plan Then?

mark1“The best laid schemes o’mice and men gang aft a-gley” said the famously wise Jewish Scottish poet Rabbi Burns. For the non Rabbinnic Caledonians it means shit happens or more politely, your best laid plans often go astray. And yet I bet most of you are knee deep in it – planning that is, not manure. For it is that season – the planning season. That time of year when earnest brand managers everywhere are busy finalizing their marketing plans, and supporting budget, for next year without even knowing exactly how this year will turn out. It can be like shepherding – dark and lonely work but someone has to do it. The business needs a plan, how else can it function as a well -integrated, coordinated team; how can the CFO make accurate predictions on shareholder returns; how can HR calculate the bonus pot; how can manufacturing plan their Capex?

Everyone knows it’s a thumb-suck, everyone knows that an annual plan is an arbitrary planning period geared to shareholders not the natural ebbs and flows of markets where short term can mean a few weeks and the long term should be thought of as several years. So we compensate with FUF, SUF and TUF – first updated forecast, second updated forecast etc – and the better businesses simultaneously update their rolling long term plans, typically 3 years.

Since most see themselves as marketing businesses, which amongst other things mean they try to make what they can sell not sell what they can make (profitably), the heart of the annual business plan is the marketing plan. It should be a market/consumer centric plan not a finance/manufacturing/distribution centric plan. In reality it is an iterative plan. It iterates between functions – “You might very well think that’s what you can sell laddie/lassie but this is what we can produce so go homewards to think again” (for some reason I am convinced all production people are Scottish). “Listen lad, we will not be committing ‘owt more t’city than a 6% increase in EPS so trim your bloody budget” (and all CFO’s are from Yorkshire). As the last point shows the annual plan also iterates from the top down, from the bottom up and then top down again. The boss/CFO gives an indication of what they would see as a good result for next year. Sales and Marketing work upwards from every piece of marketing data and distribution outlet to show what might be achievable, they haggle a bit and then the boss sets the target and the plans are constructed within this parameter. Or something like that.

The Annual Plan is then written up (many of you will be busy doing that right now so how come you have time to read this?). It is presented to the higher bodies (Global normally has a voice in a multi-national matrix organization). It is tweaked, plumped and trimmed until lastly it is signed off. And there it is until FUF, SUF or until manure happens. I say manure because manure can produce higher than expected growth or a worse than expected smell.
Beyond mere topicality – ‘tis the planning season – I highlight all this because I see the annual plan as potentially the enemy of good marketing. It really is an unhelpful time period for most businesses other than agriculture, which is indeed governed by the annual seasons. A year is neither short enough nor long enough to encourage the right marketing reflexes. A rigid budget can stifle innovation – ideas do not work to a timetable. It is fine to have a well thought through game plan, just as the good sports team do, but you have to have the flexibility to move swiftly to Plan B or C or even some totally new plan depending on what works and what doesn’t.

I’d love to see marketing plans that leave a third of the budget uncommitted – some real wriggle room with which to seize the initiative. But apparently finance won’t let you. As it happens, I’m not sure I believe that. I think the problem lies in the lack of predictability or measurability of marketing and I think it might change in the future. It already has in some areas of digital marketing. Pay Per Click campaigns are the best example where the budget is deployed on a “learn fast fail cheap” basis that allows for more budget to be generated for campaigns where the ROI proves to be best.
Something to ponder while you knock out the spread-sheets and power points for next year’s plan. See if you can find ways to exploit the fact the plan will surely go astray. Be bold, ask for some wriggle room, commit to some stretch targets that can justify the release of more budget. Think about how to integrate experimentation and ROI.

Come on – are you a man or a mouse?

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Can You Empathize with Facebook?

mark4I am sure by now you have all seen “that ad” – the Facebook Ad of course, the one done by Wieden & Kennedy, Facebook’s first ever ad. What is interesting is that I would bet most of you have seen it either as part of someone’s blog or on Youtube, in other words, virally and not in paid-for broadcast media. There’s progress for you, it might even be irony. What is even more interesting is that it has been received with the kind of interest normally reserved for a new iPhone and about as much warmth as the new iPhone 5, at least as far as ‘industry experts’ are concerned. Generally people seem to be a bit disappointed with the Facebook Ad.

I get the impression that everyone is piling in to share their point of view, mostly lukewarm or negative as I say, about the Ad. I even got an email from a client and friend (yes I still have them, clients and friends, not so many these days but still one or two) who shared some of the debate going on in his organization about the ad and asking my opinion.

Here is what I told him. Firstly I find it hard to judge an Ad when I don’t know the brief. How I can conclude it was successful if I do not know what they were trying to achieve? Actually that’s not true. None of us find it hard to criticize an ad if we don’t know the brief, we do it all the time, so maybe I should have said we shouldn’t judge until or unless we know what the brief was.

That said I have worked with W&K, have a huge respect for them but know that very often they write their own brief. They have in the past, politely or not so politely, told the client that they are wrong and spelled out what their brief should be. I know this because Dan Weiden told me as much and because I experienced it first hand, not once but twice. On the first occasion they were right and we were wrong. They then produced a campaign that was nothing short of brilliant to a brief they wrote themselves. The second time I told them, not so politely, that either they followed the brief or they could f*** off. They then came back with some work that was not so much on brief but took the brief to a level we had never imagined. Nothing short of brilliant again. The brands in question were Miller High Life and Miller Lite in 2003, you figure out which was which.

So anyway, I am going to assume that W&K wrote their own brief for Facebook and I am going to speculate that Dan was heavily involved (I could be wrong on both counts). I am further going to speculate that they concluded the following:-

1.    The Ad is aimed at the 6 billion people who do not use Facebook (those that do use it require it neither to be explained nor promoted)
2.    Against a background of the movie Social Network, IPO’s, share prices, world domination etc the key task is to make people see Facebook as a natural progression of how we as humans build, and live in, communities.
3.    Ergo the task is to position Facebook not as technology or a big business brand but just a natural, inclusive, everyday thing to use.
If I’m right – and I may not be – then the Ad does not seem so bad, but maybe not so great either. I interviewed Dan once for a film I was making and listened to him explain, wisely and convincingly, how he saw brands and advertising.

He made three big points:-

1.    People mostly want to get some idea about who is behind the brand, what they believe in, their values.
2.    Throughout history we have enjoyed sharing stories – brands should tell a story.
3.    But at the end of the day an Ad should stir the emotions. His precise words were “Just f***** move me Dude!”

So let me look at the Ad against Dan’s own criteria. It tells me something about the people behind Facebook and what they believe, not a whole lot but something. It tells a bit of a story although I am not sure people will entirely get it. But it didn’t much move me dude and I’m one of the 6 billion.
The big question is why did Facebook feel they needed an Ad? I think I might have done something different, I might have quite literally told a story about the development of community and the power of empathy based on communing. If you haven’t seen this then you are in for a treat, Jeremy Rifkin’s film about ‘The Empathetic Civilization’.

Or maybe the fundamental challenge for an intangible brand is to make it tangible. Maybe Facebook should have spent their money on doing real things with real communities to position themselves as a natural extension or facilitator? Who knows? What I do know is that Facebook, and W&K were on a hiding to nothing. Because in the marketing community we are better at criticizing than we are at empathizing.

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