Are you selling a brand or a product?
Are you selling a brand or a product?

Whether to focus on promoting a product (or service) or the brand is a question that often comes up with clients. Is it better to focus on the attributes and benefits of the product? Or the ethos and values of the company behind it?

In many quarters, the latter approach has a bad reputation. It is often seen as lofty and idealistic; not rooted in commercial reality. Yet there are plenty of examples that prove otherwise.

In 2002, Honda launched a bold new approach to their advertising, starting with a television commercial entitled OK. This was followed by their Perfume and Banana press adverts. And then in 2003 came their Cog television advert. These talked of a company philosophy, not the features and benefits of Honda's cars. Yet by December 2003, less than two years later, annual sales had risen by 22%¹.


John Lewis have just launched a major new advertising campaign focusing on the partnership structure of their company. This strategy has served them well. Between 2012 and 2015, following the introduction of their now-famous Christmas television advertising, sales increased by 37%².

Focusing on the brand isn't right for everyone and therefore people are right to question the commercial validity of this approach. Many have had their fingers burned. So when should you focus on the brand and when should you just get on with selling a product? Our work is often about finding the right question to answer. In this case, the question is: Is your brand anything more than your product or service?

To understand what I mean, let's return to Honda. The agency team that worked on the campaigns said this: "We'd never encountered a corporate culture like it; maverick; feisty; inventive; still behaving as though their unpredictable engineering genius of a founder was stalking the corridors looking for engines to tweak. They were frustrated that this fantastic culture never found its way into the advertising. They really wanted a positive engagement with society. The Power of Dreams was true. It sprung directly out of their culture, not from a series of global focus groups, and that kind of human truth about a company was a powerful weapon."²

When people try to promote their brand and fail, it is often because they lack authenticity. A purpose or why has been invented in a workshop, but it's not a truth that permeates through every corner of the organisation. A wonderful image can be projected through communications, but if this doesn't ring true when people deal with customer service or experience the product then it will quickly fall apart.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was on the brink of collapse. One of the first things he did was create an advertising campaign, which he launched internally, saying: "Our customers want to know who is Apple and what is it that we stand for. What we're about isn't making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. Apple's about something more. Its core value is that we believe people with passion can change the world for the better. What we're going to do in our first brand marketing campaign for several years is to get back to that core value."³ The campaign they launched was Here's to the Crazy Ones. And it worked because it was true. It encapsulated the values Steve Jobs stood for. It was the vision he pushed through the business. And it was something every Apple customer knew to be true when they used one of the products.

Patagonia are a more current example. They've recently launched a campaign called The Dam Truth4 about how damaging dams and reservoirs can be to nature and the environment. This is far from a token CSR initiative. Yvon Chouinard's book, Let My People Go Surfing, details the lengths he goes to push his vision through the business. He details at length how they embedded their ethos and values through a series of philosophies: product design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, human resources, management and environment.

Promoting something bigger than a product or service can be immensely powerful. Honda, John Lewis, Patagonia and Apple prove this. But it has to be authentic. If it isn't, then it's far better to focus on the features and benefits of the product or service. But in the meantime, start work on building a vision internally. This will take time; it won't deliver results overnight, but one day the company might just be able to advertise like these great brands, and experience the same commercial returns.

— RG

Previous post

POV*: Build a marketing culture, not a department
POV*: Build a marketing culture, not a department

Great brands used to be built with blockbuster campaigns. The next generation of global brands are being built entirely differently. Their language is not reach and frequency but customer experience and new ways of thinking such as growth hacking. Understanding not just what they do, but how they do it, is central to unpicking their formula. To emulate them, marketing strategy must move from being the output of a department to an organisation-wide culture.

The death of blockbuster marketing
Creating a marketing campaign used to be like making a movie. It would be planned months, if not years, in advance. There was a linear process of: research, communications planning, creative development, more research, production, implementation and evaluation. Each stage of the process would take weeks, if not longer. Significant levels of resources were deployed for every element.

The risks were like making movies too. William Goldman once said of the movie business: “Nobody knows anything. Even the people in charge. It’s all a big gamble.” Despite all the research and pre-testing, it was impossible to mitigate the risk. Significant sums had to be committed to media and only when this had been invested were the returns known.

For years marketing departments and their agencies were built around this blockbuster model. Creative and strategy teams were used to having time and people aplenty for every brief. Team structures had hierarchies. Processes had checkpoints so key decisions could be referred upwards. The system was built for big-budget productions, not speed or agility.

The advent of digital media turned everything on its head. One of the interesting manifestations of this is Millward Brown’s Annual league table of global brands. It still includes names like Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Disney and Nike. These are brands that were built in the old way, with blockbuster campaign after blockbuster campaign. However, it also contains brands like Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Zara and Amazon. These have been built in a completely different way. They’ve become global superstars in a fraction of the time their predecessors took. How many blockbuster campaigns can you recall for these brands? Identifying what they do differently is central to understanding the future of marketing.

A new mindset—Growth Hacking
The strategies being deployed so successfully by these brands are not as simple as embracing digital media. For example, many brands are currently shifting significant proportions of their budgets into content. Yet,

“In YouTube or Instagram rankings of channels by number of subscribers, corporate brands barely appear. Only three have cracked the YouTube Top 500”
(Marketing, April 2016).

Simply contributing further to people’s levels of marketing saturation is not going to yield success. To emulate their success it’s vital to understand how the new generation of brands are behaving, not just what they are doing.

One technique that sheds light on the different approaches of tech brands is growth hacking. The term was coined by Sean Ellis—a tech veteran of Dropbox, Eventbrite and numerous others—who wrote a 2010 blog post on the subject. The concept has spread throughout the tech industry and is covered comprehensively by Quick Sprout.


From all that’s been said and written about growth hacking, a number of elements stand out as being central to this philosophy:

1. Clarity of focus
Growth hackers are totally focused on growth (user acquisition) to the exclusion of all other objectives.

“Every decision that a growth hacker makes is informed by growth. Every strategy, every tactic, and every initiative, is attempted in the hopes of growing. Growth is the sun that a growth hacker revolves around”
(Quick Sprout, 9 August 2016).

This is not to say that marketeers never share this goal, but they typically will have a broader range of objectives. For example, increasing frequency or stemming a decline in users.

2. Monopolise small communities
Despite the necessity to grow fast, many tech companies do not have the financial resources of established global brands. Although many of them are relatively well fi nanced, their budgets do not stretch to global advertising campaigns. This forces them to focus on much narrower target audiences. Instead of seeking a small share of a large audience, they focus on monopolising a smaller one. One example is Etsy. The online marketplace for crafts was founded in 2005. Although eBay was already well established, Etsy’s founders spotted an opportunity to focus on a community of anti-consumerist crafters in the US. They built a loyal following amongst this audience and it was these advocates who then powered further growth through word of mouth. Ten years after it was founded, Etsy’s IPO valued it at $3.5 billion.

3. Iterate fast
The huge increase in the volume and frequency of interactions between brands and customers was covered in our last POV* piece on positioning.

Adam Sweeney of London Strategy Unit, talks about microinteractions:

“Brands as ubiquitous as Amazon, Nike and Starbucks have realised that every tiny moment that a user wants something—whether it’s to log in, to go for a jog, to relax—is a moment to assist, impress and even delight them in giving them something they want, when they want it.”

Growth hackers embrace this philosophy. Aided by their digital toolkit they are able to deploy a huge volume of activity at a rapid pace.

4. Harness data
With Growth hackers, data is not something that’s confined to the research department or used to justify activity during the end-of-year review. Analytics is central to everything they do. Everything is monitored to understand what works and what doesn’t. Split testing is used wherever possible to ensure activity is completely optimised. The insight gained is used to repeat what works and ditch what doesn’t.

These are some of the ways in which growth hacking is said to differ to traditional marketing. However, it’s debatable whether these techniques are fundamentally different to the activities of a modern marketing department: particularly the most progressive ones where big data, real time and personalisation have been truly embraced. The most interesting aspect of growth hacking is something else. And it’s something most brands have yet to get to grips with.

Culture as marketing strategy
The difference between growth hacking and traditional marketing can best be understood by looking at the outputs rather than the process. Two of the best known examples of growth hacking include:

As a small start-up, Airbnb needed a cheap way to promote their new service. Craigslist is an established website for classified advertisements with a huge user base, particularly in the US. Airbnb developed a hack that allowed rentals listed on their site to be automatically posted to Craigslist. This dramatically increased the exposure for their brand and led to exponential growth.

Struggling to find a way to promote their new email service, one of the Hotmail team suggested they automatically add a message to the bottom of every email sent using their service. It simply read: “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail”. Every time anyone sent an email they were promoting Hotmail’s brand, which kickstarted huge growth.

What’s interesting about these examples is that marketing is not something that happens to the product at the end of the process; the product is the marketing. This shift in focus is similar to the one currently taking place in customer experience in many sectors beyond the tech industry itself. Brands are realising that a great experience is great marketing.


In the US, $83 billion is lost each year due to poor and inconsistent customer experiences (IBM: The State of Marketing 2013). The advent of social media makes the fallout from poor customer service even more pronounced. The experience of British Airways highlights the issue. After the airline lost Hasan Syed’s father’s luggage he tweeted “Don’t fly @BritishAirways, their customer service is horrendous”. He then paid around $1,000 to promote the tweet, which resulted in 76,800 impressions and 14,600 engagements by the following day (Raconteur, 8 September 2015).

On the flip side, KLM are one of the brands demonstrating the power of a great customer experience. To highlight their Lost and Found service they created a video starring a dog called Sherlock. The loveable beagle accompanies staff as they tidy the aircrafts once passengers have disembarked. If any items have been left behind, Sherlock and the team track the owner through the airport and return their lost property. To have an important or treasured item returned like this is way beyond most people’s expectations of great customer service, which is reflected by viewing figures for their video—currently over 22 million on YouTube.

What’s emerging is the need for marketing to stop being confined to a single department. Marketing needs to be re-understood in its original form, as a business-wide management process. The way a marketeer thinks about understanding, attracting and retaining customers must become a philosophy that runs across every department within the business. In essence, a marketing culture should run across the whole organisation.

Stating this is easy. Delivering it is harder. It requires extensive coordination across all departments in the business—from the shopfront and the factory, to the social media and call centre teams. It requires investment in supply chains, internal systems, mobile, website and data analysis, amongst others. Many of these areas have been far from the traditional domain of marketeers. 

Building a marketing culture
A number of brands are starting to take practical steps towards creating a marketing culture across their organisations. John Lewis recently promoted their Marketing Director, Craig Inglis, to the new board-level role of Customer Director. He will now oversee the end-to-end customer experience. Agencies too are creating new roles. Bartle Bogle Hegarty now have a Chief Experience Officer.

Adam Powers explains that:

“The changing landscape means that CXO must seek out additional partnerships beyond the chief marketing officer. Whether it’s with the chief innovation office, chief technology officer or others, these new creative collaborations are critical to the customer-centric business transformation that every chief executive must surely be seeking”
(Campaign, 18 September 2015).

But developing a business-wide marketing culture isn’t just a case of believing that a couple of key promotions or hires will do the trick. Indeed, marketing-centric cultures actually begin (or end) way beyond the most senior marketer. Peter Drucker’s famous quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast” contains an implicit challenge to those at the top: make sure you’re doing everything you can to foster the right beliefs, values and behaviours amongst your entire team, as in the end the buck stops with you.

For leaders looking to establish a marketing culture, three issues stand out as needing focus.

Firstly, be clear about what a marketing culture means to your business. Some businesses— FMCG or life sciences for example—are highly innovation driven. For these organisations, a culture of marketing might focus on discovering unmet consumer needs. Other businesses— retail or financial services for example— are built on customer service. A culture of marketing might focus on improving the operational elements that govern their customer service to enable them to deliver an experience that surprises and delights. Agreeing clear objectives based on an understanding of what drives success in a business is critical.

Secondly, accept that the journey is going to be long. Shifting from product- to customer-centricity requires more than a few workshops. In the case of the innovation-driven businesses highlighted above, everything from sales interactions to back-end data and CRM systems are going to have to be reimagined, their role interrogated and new operational plans laid out and implemented. This is potentially many year’s work (although quick wins will likely be achievable along the way). Accepting and articulating this upfront helps with both budgeting and team management. It will also force detailed discussions about whether the shift is right for the business, and what sacrifices the company is willing to make.

Thirdly, ensure that incentives are aligned to desired outcomes. A few years ago, a leading FMCG manufacturer was seeking to establish a business-wide culture of digital marketing excellence. They invested a great deal of effort in briefing and training their teams, but 12 months later were dismayed with the results. The reason? Existing marketers were given bonuses based on TV link test results; sales teams on key account growth; and customer service agents on call times. Not one department had any incentive to drive the change that the business sought. Realigning incentives to different outcomes is rarely popular work—people tend to have ways to ensure the existing systems work well for them—but it is essential if you want to motivate people to perform in a certain way.


At a wider level, one of the key questions as businesses move in this direction will be whether confining marketing to a single department is still the right approach. Some of its core functions might break out and become disciplines in their own right—research, product management, social media, campaign execution, for example. But marketing strategy will be elevated to a position where it has a much broader influence across every single function of the business—from the design of the product to the way it’s delivered to customers. In doing this marketing will have evolved from something done by a department to a culture or philosophy that’s practised by the whole organisation.

There’ll be many practical obstacles on the road to achieving this, but those brands that do so can look forward to a successful future.

—RG & PL

This piece was written in collaboration with Phil Lewis, Co-founder of London Strategy Unit and Director of Strategy at Albion. Phil now runs Corporate Punk, a business that challenges ambitious businesses to destroy barriers to innovation, growth and business happiness.

Previous post

An electric shock
An electric shock

On July 25 1965, 17,000 adoring fans gathered in anticipation at the Newport Folk Festival.

The star-studded concert was playing out perfectly.

Hillbilly singer Cousin Emmy had just performed “Turkey in Straw”.

Up next was a 24-year-old Bob Dylan, who had already written one of the anthems of the freedom movement: “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Introduced by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan strode on stage in a bright orange shirt and black leather jacket with a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar dangling from his neck.

Dylan, who was always chatty and cheerful with his audience, didn’t say a word.

His fans were expecting his usual stripped-down acoustic set, but he took to the stage backed by the five-piece Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Just the night before, Dylan had got together with the band and rehearsed until dawn.

He wanted to try something new. Something different.

The band thundered into an electric rendition of Maggie’s Farm.

Dylan leant into the microphone: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” his vocal almost drowned out by Bloomfield’s piercing lead guitar.

It was aggressive in tempo, distorted, raw — and above all, electric.

The majority of the fans looked on in confusion.

Legend has it that festival organizer Pete Seeger was so outraged that he grabbed an axe and tried to smash the sound system.

To many it was a musical betrayal: Dylan had abandoned the authenticity of folk for the glamour of rock ‘n’ roll.

This wasn’t the folk purist people had paid good money to see.

“Bring back cousin Emmy,” cried sections of the crowd.

The boos were intense.

After twelve minutes and just three songs, Dylan and the band unplugged and left.

That’s when the place went completely nuts.

And although he returned to play a further couple of acoustic numbers, for many his performance was an act of sheer heresy.

He didn’t appear at Newport again for another 37 years.

But it was to be a pivotal point in the history of rock music.

Dylan had turned everything on its head: proclaiming his artistic independence, demonstrating the poetic possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll.

And while fans in England a month later still booed and cried “Judas”, it wasn’t long before audiences got on board and eagerly followed Dylan into the mainstream.

His next rock album, Highway 61 Revisited, was hailed an instant classic and “Like a Rolling Stone” became his first hit single.

By the time his album Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966, the majority of former critics had been forced to admit that his switch to electric instruments hadn’t subdued his knack for writing rebellious songs.

Creative businesses talk a lot of differentiation and disruption.

But how often do they plug in and turn it up to eleven?

Favouring slight difference over blowing the doors off.

To be truly creative you need to take risks.

And sometimes that means being comfortable with an unpredictable outcome.

If Dylan had conducted, and listened to, research after his ’65 Newport appearance, he would never have blazed a high-voltage trail into rock history.

If he’d listened to Peter Yarrow, who had tried to convince Dylan to warm up his audience with a few acoustic numbers and explain that he was going to try something new that he’d been working on, there wouldn’t be documentaries and books dedicated to that summer’s night in 1965.

Like Dylan, creative businesses (and clients) have a duty to avoid dilution.

Say no to compromise and do stuff that stops people in their tracks.

People will remember that.

As Bob Dylan penned in Maggie’s Farm: “I try my best, to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”

Be brave.

Develop a distinctive voice of your own.

Now that’s electrifying.


Cousin Emmy doing her thang

Bob Dylan doing his

Previous post

Out for a duck
Out for a duck

Sir Nigel Gresley was an imaginative man.

A gifted inventor.

Probably the most famous locomotive designer associated with the London and North Eastern Railway.

He designed arguably the most famous locomotive in the world: the Flying Scotsman.

And as well as being a great engineer he had an eye for beauty.

Designing engines with muscle and elegance.

The attractiveness of his locomotives were not wasted on the advertising department of the LNER at King’s Cross: many of his engines appeared regularly on posters, luggage labels and booklets.

Anywhere the company could take advantage of the locomotives’ impressive good looks.

But when LNER were able to prove that their engines were not only safe and stylish but very, very fast, they had a real marketing property on their hands.

On the 3 July 1938, driver Joe Duddington climbed into the cab of the Mallard: an A4 class locomotive with sweeping art deco lines.

Joined by fireman Tommy Bray, and the inspector, Sam Jenkins.

Attached to the engine was a dynamometer car full of charts and instruments to record their speed.

Turning his cap back to front, Duddington took the helm and they started their outward journey from Wood Green.

Resting at a siding in Barkston, thoughts were collected and packed lunches eaten, as Jennings and Bray made the fire up, right to the doors of the firebox.

The train left at 4.15pm, rising through Peascliffe Tunnel and on to Barrowby Road Junction, where the line levelled out on the way to Grantham.

Work on the line meant that the train slowed to 24mph temporarily then gradually picked up the pace, passing through Stoke Tunnel and heading uphill towards Stoke summit.

Passing Stoke Box at the top of the climb, Duddington gave the Mallard a head of steam at 85mph.

And she jumped to it like she was alive.

After three miles the speedometer in his cab showed 107mph, then 108, 109 …

Before he knew it the needle was at 116mph.

Bray and Jenkins shovelled frantically.

Duddington nursed her through Little Lytham at 123mph.

The excited passengers in the dynamometer car urged her on.

And then for quarter of a mile they all held their breath as they reached previously uncharted speeds of 126mph.

The Mallard had booked her place in history, clinching a new world record for steam locomotives.

So it feels very fitting that a statue of Sir Nigel Gresley should be commissioned by the Gresley Society Trust.

And unveiled at King’s Cross Station next year: the 75th anniversary of his death.

A seven-foot-tall bronze figure of the man, created by sculptor Hazel Reeves.

And here’s the clever bit: he has a bronze mallard duck at his feet.

An inspired idea.

A duck that will make people stop and take notice.

A duck that will help spark interest in the story of how the Mallard broke the world steam record.

A duck that will mark out this statue from the plethora of other statues celebrating the great and the good around London, and make people remember it.

Without the duck, it’s just another statue of a kindly old gentleman.

But it appears that’s exactly what a minority of trust committee members would prefer: to remove the duck, because it may invite ridicule and detract from the dignity of the statue.

So after widespread consultation with their president, vice presidents, members and Sir Nigel’s family, the duck is no more.

That’s the danger of design by committee: you’re rarely going to please everyone.

Compromise can lead to watered-down designs or strategy that everyone likes (or can live with), but that no one really loves.

Which will be picked up by your audience.

Your audience aren’t always as interested as you think they are.

You need to make them sit up and take notice.

It takes daring to be different.

Different doesn’t need to be wacky.

It should be salient and meaningful.

It should stick something in people’s memory banks.

Relevant difference is a calculated risk.

But far too often people fear too much what will happen if the risk is taken.

But the question should be: what are we risking if we don’t take it?

Because if your brand doesn’t provoke a reaction then it’s the equivalent of a kindly old gentleman.

Hold your breath and give your brand a head of steam.

And don’t let your best ideas be out for a duck.

- DB

Previous post