On brands and branding

July 23, 2018

What is a brand and why do so many organisations spend so much money asking very smart people to dedicate so much time to them?

Way back when, brands were logos and colour schemes.

Kellogg put his signature on his cereal boxes and they stood out from all the other mid-western cereal companies because it was a sign of commitment to quality…if someone put their name on the product, they were vouching for it.

A brand navigational tool or heuristic to get something with consistent quality.

When you’re in a new city, you feel a sense of home when you see the colours and logo of your favourite chain of coffee shops – because you know what you’re getting. Familiarity and consistency in a strange land.

Since then, the idea of brand has become associated with tag lines – Nike’s “Just Do It” is the most famous – that belie a commitment to a higher purpose.

As the industry tries to push upstream, the higher purpose becomes the thing marketers and marketing start to focus on..

As AdWeak says, tortilla chips don’t sell chips, they sell “togetherness”.


The most biting part of satire is the truth.

So when did marketers start selling “togetherness” instead of selling tortilla chips?

Because I’m not buying togetherness. And I doubt you do either.

I am a fan of the Kahneman System One/System Two thinking – that the decisions we think we make rationally today were made emotionally many years ago. And I see how brand plays a part in this. Like the coffee house example. The decision to go into that shop was made, by or for you, many years ago and cemented over time.

I am a fan of the Byron Sharp philosophy – creating memory structures through repetition around distinctive (brand) assets. And obviously a consistent, frequently repeated brand plays a key part in this. For our coffee house, the saliency of associating colours and squiggles with great coffee combined with the physical availability of being able to actually buy some coffee.

What I don’t understand is why we still think a strong brand is indicative of a product people want to buy.

Because for my money, a great product is the best leading indicator of a great brand.

Not the other way around.

The coffee house has a great brand because it has a great, consistent product.

I look at the new breed of modern, progressive companies.

Apple. Google. Amazon. Netflix. Uber. Tesla.

Many folks would say these are great brands. And they would be right. Now.

But before they were great brands, they were great products.

Building a great brand was never the goal. It was a byproduct of the actual (great) product.

The role of marketing is and was to expose as many people as possible to the great product, tell them why its so great and then sell as much as possible for as much as possible.

Ultimately, the old maxim is true:

Nothing kills a bad product faster than great advertising.

If only we knew what this inherently tells us: no matter how great the advertising, it will never lead to a great product. The logic only goes one way.

A brand is a decision maker on the margins.

I’ll have that cereal/chocolate bar that that chap put his name on. I’ll turn left to go to my favourite coffee house in a strange city rather than right to the one I’ve never heard of. I’ll default to that thing that reminds of a feeling when I was younger.

That makes me feel comfortable.

If all this is true, what does this mean for advertising and marketing?

Does this mean we should no longer strive to create distinctive work? Absolutely not.

Does this mean we should no longer strive to build an emotional connection between the business and  its audience? Of course not.

Does this mean we need more specificity in our work? Yes.

We need more specificity on why one product is better than the other.

On who the ideal consumer is and, more importantly, why that consumer should spend their hard earned on this, not that.

On what success truly looks like and on the best way to achieve it both now and in the future.

It’s a lot more work to come up with that level specificity for the whole advertising ecosystem. It means you can’t default to “make the brand relevant”. It means you have to fight for a real problem to solve, then fight even harder to get the solution…and then harder still to make something that is distinctive enough to stand out to the target audience.

What are the components to great storytelling?

May 7, 2018


It seems like storytelling is all the rage these days. Marketers, communicators, sales people, journalists, trade pubs. Everyone is a storyteller these days – and everyone is advocating for telling great stories. Just like we all (present company included) advocated for “making great content”.

But its never that simple. What is a great piece of content? What is its role? How does it move people, and how does it move people along the path to purchase?

I spent a few days last month with a client thinking about not just the importance of story telling, but the core components of how to tell a great one. The types and genres of stories we tell have come a long way since Shakespeare. The Bard had a choice of two storylines – between a tragedy (extreme suffering for the main character, like Hamlet) and a comedy (a happy ending, usually marriage as in a Midsummer’s Night Dream)

Nowadays, we have a lot more to chose from and its important to look at the core components of how we can tell a story both personally and from a brand perspective. Here are some the things we came up with:

The audience – the way you tell a story and even what story you want to tell is totally dependent on who you’re telling the story to. I wouldn’t have told a bawdy tale from a university night out to my grandparents, but I would relish telling it to friends from school. If this post-social world has taught us anything, its that businesses need to be focused on their audiences and serving their needs to move the business forward.

The location – just like audience drives the story, so does location. An Irish pub is going to play host to a very different type of story than a boardroom or a living room. For me, this one speaks to channel planning and selection – not all stories belong on all social platforms.

The delivery – everyone has a different story telling style; some are animated and boisterous while others are soft spoken, still as a board and every bit as compelling. Just like the others on this list, the right delivery depends on knowing your audience and what they will respond well to. In the business context, I’d equate this to format planning – do you need a piece of film (long? short? medium?) or an article? A pretty picture with a killer line or a multi-part execution? Static or immersive? The story you tell and the way you deliver it makes a huge difference.

The emotions – I want to do a bit of a deep dive into emotional resonance because it gets misused and is often a crutch for weaker strategic thinking but the emotions you want to evoke are a huge part of finding, constructing and telling a story. Do you want the audience to be awed, do you want them to be energised and motivated or do you want them to be sad? For businesses, we don’t need to guess – Karen Nelson-Field in her book Viral Marketing has done the work for us and the most important thing is that you play on emotional extremes if you want to have impact in your storytelling, if you want your story to travel, so to speak. To whit, focus on any emotion but make sure you can evoke the extreme end – as with most things, you don’t want to be in the middle.

emotional resonance karen nelson field

The story teller – of course, the person telling the story is a key component. What is the point of telling the story in the first place? What are your motivations and what do you hope to accomplish? What do you have authority and legitimacy to tell stories about? Each business is different – some audiences seek out stories from certain businesses while other businesses need to push their stories into the lives of the audience. Which one are you? It makes a big difference.

Structure – as we talked about stories, I was reminded of the way Pixar creates a framework for its own stories. Like most good stories, it is simple, timeless and endlessly malleable.

It looks something like this:

Once upon a time there was a _________

Every day _________

One day ______ (this is called the inciting incident)

Because of that _________

Because of that _________

Until finally _________

pixar storytelling rules

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like a pretty good brief for a long standing narrative that a business can tell about itself, its origins, its motivations, its place in the world and how it wants to make the lives of its users/consumers/audiences better.

So there you have it; the six key components to good story telling:

  • Audience
  • Location
  • Delivery
  • Emotion
  • Storyteller
  • Structure

For more practical advice on telling great stories for your business, get in touch and we’ll see what we can come up with together.


What is an insight?

February 7, 2017

This post was first published on Hill + Knowlton Strategies. More on that change in my life later!


What is an insight?

They are the things upon which multimillion (billion?) dollar decisions are made.

That entrepeneurs bet their careers and family’s lives on.

That companies are founded on.

That political leaders stake their reputations and campaign on.

But what, really is an insight? For me, the best way to define an insight is to paraphrase entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, of PayPal fame, and say that every insight is a secret. And as with all secrets, the less people who know about it, the more powerful it is.

This especially hits home for all strategists. How long do we toil through data, through focus groups, through online behavior and through popular culture to find those secrets? How overjoyed or relieved do we feel when we find one – and how much do we subsequently protect it, polish it and decide how best to use it.

But not all secrets are the same. As we talked about this within H+K, we identified five core types of secrets or insights that we use to solve our client’s business problems.

Those we discover on our own: this is the classic secret where one person’s brilliance, persistence and intuition leads to a completely new discovery. Thiel calls this the Pythagorean secret and eventually they cease becoming secrets and start becoming convention.

Those that are commonly held but that we chose to use in unusual ways: this is the act of taking an insight from one industry or category and applying it to another. Insights gleaned from years of pitching media relations stories can be used to reshape a brand strategy. Insights into the purchase journey of buying a car can be applied to that of buying term life insurance.

Those that only we can see or understand thanks to data and analysis: this is what I would call the “Moneyball” secret. The answer is staring us in the face, if only we can interpret the data properly and get over our own inherent biases to realize that On Base Percentage (Hits + Walks) is more valuable than slugging percentage (which measures power).

Those that allow us to reframe a problem or belief. Our WPP colleague Rory Sutherland brilliantly reframes the spending of six billion pounds to shave 40 minutes off the Eurostar journey by simply making the journey infinitely more pleasurable – through the use of models and vintage wines.

Those that we can combine to make more powerful. Like the five mechanical lions coming together to form Voltron: Legendary Defender (my son’s current favourite show), the act of combining many small and powerful secrets together makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and allows us to solve bigger problems for our clients.

The definition of insight is something we can, and have, debated for days. However, the inarguable truth is: if you want to forge truly meaningful connections with consumers or stakeholders, your communication needs to be rooted in an insight into their lives, their needs and their behaviours…and your business’ role therein.

Planningness 2013 Highlights

June 2, 2013

I believe it was Eric who turned me onto the Planningness conference and the prospect of a hands-on, working conference where attendees actually, y’know, interact with other attendees to do work and collaborate sounds incredibly appealing. I would very much like to give it a go sometime but in the mean time, here is a nice wrap up of some key ideas from this year’s edition.

2011 Planner Survey

September 19, 2011

Very nice global survey of planners:

The hallmarks of bad strategy

June 28, 2011

Strategy can, and does, mean vastly different things to vastly different people. A good strategy is absolutely priceless which is why there is such a demand for excellent strategic planners in the advertising world. The flip side is that bad strategies, along with being ten a penny, can really kill your business, brand or campaign.

Which is why I really like this list, from McKinsey’s Strategic Thinking team, on what makes for bad strategy:

Failure to face the problem – to solve a problem, you must really hone in on and accept as an issue, the root issue you’re facing.

Mistaking goals for strategy – goals are great, but understanding exactly what is needed to acheive those goals is just as important. “Winning” is not a strategy. I liked this quote:

A leader may justly ask for “one last push,” but the leader’s job is more than that. The job of the leader—the strategist—is also to create the conditions that will make the push effective, to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.

Bad strategic objectives – either in the form of a (“long term”) laundry list or a “blue sky” restatement of the desired outcome.

Fluff – restating the obvious and often with buzzwords in a superfluous and unnecessary wordy, perhaps even pontificating style. Just like this bullet.

So what is “good strategy”, and how do we get there?

According to McKinsey:

Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes. It also builds a bridge between the critical challenge at the heart of the strategy and action—between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives that a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competencies.

There are some core components of a strategic plan, according to McKinsey, but do not mistake this list for the “fill in the blanks” templated approach which, along with the “inability to focus”, is one of the reasons for bad strategy in the first place:

  • A diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.
  • A guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
  • Coherent actions: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy. I imply from this that measurements of success are vital in all strong strategies

Pretty simple stuff. But as Seth says, simple is scary.

The perils of bad strategy – McKinsey Quarterly – Strategy – Strategic Thinking.

Do You Have Your Own Style?

February 23, 2011

One of the things I’m looking to develop professionally is my own style and philosophy when it comes to working in this space. I know clients have their own individual problems we’re looking to solve but I also know that clients, especially in the social media space, are looking for someone who knows how to solve problems based on experience and who can approach things the same way each time, and not have to “catch lightning in a bottle each time. I don’t want people to look at a client project and “know” that I worked on it, but it would be nice to know that, over a body of work, there was a hint that the same principles were applied to each issue.

While I don’t have this style or philosophy totally figured out just yet, it’s interesting to see that others have, and that they have put a name to it.

via adliterate, an excellent planning blog in the UK.

State of the Planning Nation in 2010

November 30, 2010

Via Annual report | The Planning Lab.

I’m constantly interested in the post-digital world (or at least the concept of the post-digital world) these days. As Faris Yakob once told me on Twitter “Planning is planning. Ain’t no flavours”

Two Planning Tips

May 7, 2010

I found this study  of colour and how each gender described it, fascinating.

Colour Analysis Spectrum

A great reminder of how the same thing means different things to different people. Know your audience!

xkcd via John Dodds.

Secondly, the top 20 planning blogs are:

01. advertising lab
02. Noah Brier dot Com
03. Nick Burcher
04. We Are Social
05. The Musings of An Opinionated Sod
06. Only Dead Fish
07. brand new
08. adliterate
09. The Curious Brain
10. Herd – the hidden truth about who we are
11. Adspace Pioneers
12. Get Shouty
13. 180/360/720
14. russell davies
15. Servant of Chaos
16. Mike Arauz
17. Make Marketing History
18. Talent imitates, genius steals
19. The Hidden Persuader
20. Interactive Marketing Trends

from Plannersphere Top 20 – May 2010 – MisEntropy. Enjoy

What Social Followers Want – eMarketer

January 25, 2010

Interesting stats from eMarketer – why do people follow brands in social media? Clearly deals are first and foremost in consumers’ minds. After all, we are in a recession and we are selfish species:

What social followers want

I’m disappointed to see that interesting or entertaining content is third on this  list. I believe branded content is the future of marketing but I guess this is also an opportunity – there is just not a lot of good content out there being produced by brands.

From a more philosophical standpoint, I’m very much encouraged to see that consumers follow brands which they already buy from – that emotional connection is starting to be formed and consumers are feeling a sense of ownership over the brands they choose.The more “skin in the game” the consumer has, the more likely they are to buy from you.

What Social Followers Want – eMarketer.

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