Sunday, March 16, 2008

The glory of the irrational

It’s a bit of a contradiction that the things that I find most captivating in culture are the ones that should never have happened.

As someone who works in strategy it is quite often easy to see the insights and read the motives behind the things that you see around you from ad campaigns to party political manoeuvres to public art. Generally the logical path that strategic thinking guides you down will land you in a territory that you can read retrospectively and learn to expect the outcomes prospectively. Ironic then that the most interesting things, to me at least, are those where it appears like there was some kind of strategic malfunction or mutation so that what you are seeing logically should never have come about because it just shouldn’t work. It’s even better when the outcome clearly does work. Does this mean that a strategy free project has a better chance of producing something special? Maybe in the chaos there will be lots of costly misses but the hits will be more original and culture changing.

My view would be that this is not the case. Instead I would look at it the other way round and say that if something does work in its execution then there is always a reason. The people who created it may not have fully appreciated this for themselves, more likely they were just living it out. As an example an artist such as Picasso or more likely still a band such as the Beetles could probably not have explained at the time why their contribution was so important as we can now. But these reasons why, are real and can be decoded. This may be done very badly or the theory develop over time, but still there is somewhere a truth about why something had the effect that it did.

If this truth is out there when we look back in hindsight then it must also be possible to seek it out in advance and act according to what you think it must be. That’s what any strategy should be looking for. The fact that so often the strategy gets it wrong or worse still seems to net out in the same ‘seemingly’ logical place as every other attempt is not a problem with the ambition and is instead just human error. Being ridiculous for the sake of it, or different from anything else, or exactly the opposite of the likely strategic response, could all be good recommendations. If they could be justified against all the insight and information available they could justify a freakish offspring that confuses or amazes or stands out from the general order of life. In an environment where it is getting harder and harder to be heard and people more and more adept at demoting things of low importance from conscious view, its not a bad line to take. So here’s to the sublime in the ridiculous.

Above is my first example. In a world that acts upon the intellegence of the lowest common demoninator and that shys away from every possible issue or threat that someone raises in a meeting, the chance of getting a piece of public art signed off that is based on a chaotic confustion of traffic signals in the middle of a round-about should never have made it to fruition. But happily it did.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

“Moving from a brand image brand to a consumer experience brand”

Just found this little discussion piece. Think there is some interesting points about a new starting point for brand communications...
Brand image as a business driver is an outdated model for understanding how consumers relate to companies and brands.

It relies on an old assumption that was probably wrong when it was designed (primarily in agencies) and certainly is getting less and less right. This assumption is that brands can deliver a brand message in mass media and that this will in itself create brand love.

It was probably always wrong because it does not get a couple of fundamentals about the way that people understand, absorb information and gain ‘experience’ of the world around them.
Actually we react not to what people say but by what they do. Actions speak louder than words. The medium is the message is the way to explain this in a cultural or brand context.

It is certainly getting less and less right because a couple of the key pillars that drive it are breaking down. People do not have to listen to brand messages and do not consume the channels that deliver them in the same way. The only stuff that gets through are the things that people choose, things of value to the individual. Ads can be dialed down or ignored more and more easily because generally they do not offer anything of value.

On the other hand what is valued is the consumer experience that is delivered. Whether this be in a direct product related way such as help about how to use a product, or in a more extended general way such as an interesting project that involves them or captures their interest at least.

For this reason it does not make sense to think first about brand narratives or personality – the big brand message that could work as a piece of advertising… Instead the starting point should be to think about the consumer experiences that the brand delivers within and between every communications touch-point.

What kind of experience would this be?

Experience is how we learn stuff so what do you want to teach?
Experience is something we participate in by choice.
Experiences are live, lived and real things in our lives rather than brand image which is the big unknown incalculable
Experiences happen in destinations – retail and digital spaces
Experiences tie products and brands together
The experience of using a product should be married to the entire experience a brand gives... i.e. if your product offers creative thinking tools then so should the brand through every thing it does.

“So decide what you want the consumer experience to be and then work up and outwards from that”

Monday, March 03, 2008

The New Substance Economy

I have been off with the flu for the more than a week which gives you plenty of time to think off the beaten track. The notion that has been occuping most of my thoughts about the future of branded companies is the revolutionary affect that climate change will have on business. To try to think ahead about what the innovations are that will offer the win wins that are needed i.e. a way to do business in a sustainable way which in turn will offer a commercial advantage that will cause that company to make money and grow its goodness.

This is a big ask when so many of the ambitions of business seem to be set in opposition sustainability. The most obvious of these is the desire for producers to sell more and more of their produce with the ambition to dominate the market that they are in and with a view to opening up new markets in which to dominate in the future. There are obvious ways to make the making of things far more sustainable – it must be possible if a raw material intensive company like Innocent or M&S can make claims to be carbon neutral. If these kinds of companies do well then the model that says make more and more stuff is fine if that new product is taking share away from other products that do not work in a sustainable way. But generally this core need to shift ever greater volume is in some industries going to be challenged.  If people start to question simply consuming and disposing of things quickly and cheaply (as we must expect they will,) and also the regulations and trading efficiencies of being a company that relies on this business model become harder (as we expect they must,) then you have two very clear limitations on this way of doing business which could sweep in like wild fire in the next ten years or so. The internet was a revolution but initially it was seen simply as way to sell more and more products with greater efficiency – an extension of the normal day to day practices into a new channel. It was nothing when compared to this notion that even the basic way that most companies make money is being brought into question... that goes right to the core. So what can be done?

In the last few decades big consumer branded companies have shifted the focus away from the manufacturing side of their business which they now buy in from outside suppliers ‘just in time,’ and by the cheapest and easiest means possible, while they focus attention on marketing. This means understanding markets and consumer desires as well as trying to physically manufacture these things to create markets for those outsourced products. So if you go one step further and actually remove the product itself from the equation can it still be made to balance? Common sense would say not but if you think about it the idea of a company that focuses on services and consumer experiences rather than selling physical products is very normal.   It is also very much easier to make it work against the context of higher cost and more restricted production environments and lower consumer demand for carbon intensive products.

The idea of the experience economy is not new and there have been some things written already about the potential value of using this approach as a response to climate change, but it has not been fully adapted and expanded into this area. Nor has a framework been created to show companies how to seek out and monetise these new forms of value. There is strong research that shows that the purchase cycle of shiny new products makes people far less happy (even unhappy,) when held up against experience driven purchases. Branded companies who unlock this new type of value will by this account succeed in making their consumers more happy than those that rely on physical material based models which is in itself a compelling consumer based reason why these transitions should be successful now even before the strongest effect of a quickening climate change economy take hold.

Scoping this opportunity could be an important step to create a path to smooth this transition from the old carbon intensive physical kind of value creation to these new kinds of economic substance. I am going to have a think about what this framework would look like but at the moment it is fair to say that there are a couple of basic principles that I think will apply.

-The brand marketing function will need to take a lead in their development and execution
-They will be people centric and based on all the different types of cultural value that people can experience

But I’m sure there are more… Anyhow the ‘NEW SUBSTANCE ECONOMY’ seemed like a good name for this new kind of value.