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

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Creativity happens in the shower
Creativity happens in the shower

I’ve always had my best ideas in the shower. Or when dropping off to sleep. There’s a scientific explanation for this. One which can help us design our working practices and environments to be more conducive to creativity.

In my previous post I looked at how we all have the capacity for creative thinking because we all have a left and a right brain. When we’re given a problem to solve, the left brain logically considers the various possibilities. When no solution presents itself, brain activity shifts to the right hemisphere, which allows more unexpected possibilities to be considered.

An idea occurs to us when a new configuration of neurons forms in the brain. Giving the brain some downtime aids this process. During relaxing activities, such as taking a shower, more alpha waves radiate from the right hemisphere. Studies have shown that until these waves are produced the brain will be unable to solve insight puzzles.

So, time to relax is important, but we can’t all work permanently from our showers. Another aspect to consider is fresh perspectives. These can help the brain to form connections that it may not previously have considered. In his TED Talk, Steven Johnson explains that throughout history ideas have tended to come from places where people from different backgrounds are likely to have new, interesting and unpredictable conversations.

Many of the world’s most creative businesses have applied this principle to their office designs. At Pixar, the toilets, kitchen and other communal facilities were purposefully placed at the centre of a circular office so that everyone would be forced to bump into people from different departments. They wanted to foster chance conversations. In our own office, we’ve covered the walls in magnetic sheeting and everyone sticks up work-in-progress rather than keeping it secret on their computers. This encourages spontaneous comments and observations.

Team composition is another important principle. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University, Illinois, explored this by studying Broadway musicals. He evaluated 472 different productions between 1945 and 1989, measuring the “social intimacy” of the teams working on the productions. A team that had worked together several times before would have high social intimacy. His work showed that musicals with low social intimacy were more likely to fail because the artists didn’t know each other and struggled to share ideas. But equally, when the social intimacy was high, success was also compromised. Uzzi concluded that creative collaborations have a sweet spot: “The best Broadway teams had a mix of relationships. These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant they could interact efficiently, but they also managed to incorporate new ideas.”

This doesn’t mean we should all work in a constant hubbub surrounded by colleagues with whom we share medium social intimacy – or at least not all the time. Periods of lone working are as important as serendipitous interactions. Steven Johnson gives the example of Darwin, whose autobiography says that his theory of natural selection arrived in a Eureka moment while sat in his study. However, a scholar named Howard Gruber went back and looked at Darwin’s notebooks. He found that Darwin had the full theory of natural selection for months and months before his claimed epiphany. He had the concept, but was unable to fully think it through or articulate it. Great ideas often fade into view over long periods of time.

Susan Cain, in Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, highlights how difficult it can be to find time for ideas to gestate in the modern world: “Calls, texts, emails … even when we’re alone we’re never really alone any more. In the old days a two-hour train journey might be a time when a manager would sit and think about some issue or other they’d put on the back burner, or just let their mind roam over how the business was doing and what they could improve. Now, there’s no reflective time.”

Jason Fried’s TED Talk highlights a similar point. You cannot ask people to be creative in 15 minutes. To think deeply about a problem and be creative you need long stretches of uninterrupted time. Yet offices are inherently places where people are interrupted a lot. While open-plan offices and meetings can help foster creativity on one hand, there is also the need to allow the time and space for solitary working.

Everyone has the capacity to be creative, but by thinking about our workplace design, collaborators and working practices, we can all unleash more ideas within our organisations.

–RG

References:

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain
  • How Flashes Of Inspiration Work, Wired
  • Where Good Ideas Come From, TED Talk, Steven Johnson
  • Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work, TED Talk, Jason Fried
  • Work With Strangers, Wired

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Science says everyone can be creative
Science says everyone can be creative

For much of history, creativity was characterised as a moment of genius occurring to a gifted individual. Our industry has done much to reinforce this view. Certain jobs are labelled ‘creative’. And by inference, others aren't. Typically the creative jobs are the artistic functions: art directing, graphic designing and copywriting.

Science now provides us with a better understanding of creativity. It shows that our understanding has been limited and that we could make much better use of the creative talent in everyone.

Robert Wiesberg of Philadelphia’s Temple University has used experiments and case studies since the early 1960s to show that creative thinking is in fact a process of problem solving.

What differentiates it from any other thought process is that the outcome is a creative one. So creativity is not a process, but an outcome.

Design thinking has gained a lot of prominence recently. The principle being that the thought processes used by designers can be applied to solve a wide range of problems.

Viewing creativity as a problem-solving process is something we focus on within our work and culture. Our website contains a quote from Einstein, who said that if he had 1 hour to save the world, he’d spend 59 minutes defining the problem and 1 minute developing the solution.

If creativity is a process then understanding how we apply ourselves to this process is crucial. We all have two hemispheres within our brains – often referred to as right and left. Each of these performs different functions. The left brain is verbal, logical and analytical. The right side is visual, intuitive and holistic.

Mark Beeman has researched and written extensively in this area. His work shows that there are two modes of thinking that we can apply to problem solving: insight and analysis.

Analysts tackle problems in a methodical way. At any time they can explain where their thought process is up to and what their best current thinking is.

Insightfuls produce answers through what appear to be eureka moments. But in reality these are the result of subconscious thought processes. As a result, people who think in this way either have an answer or they don’t.

People are often characterised as either left-or right-brain thinkers and indeed we all have a natural tendency towards one or the other thought processes. But we all have the capability – if nurtured – to do both. The best ideas result from applying both thought processes. Insightful thinking is best suited to idea generation. While analytical thinking is required to critique and refine ideas.

By understanding our natural tendencies, we can become more conscious about how we think and therefore how creative we are. While this is fine in theory, how easy it is in reality is a different matter.

The important thing for our industry is understanding that a scientist, engineer or strategist has as much capacity to be creative as someone with an artistic skill set. As the breadth of skills needed to build brands expands, it is vital to recognise this.

Within our own business, the creative concepting process is a true collaboration between designers, writers, strategists and clients. While everyone may not have the capability to visualise an idea, all of us have the capacity to produce the all-important moment of insight.

– RG

References:

  •  How To Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, And Discovery, Kevin Ashton
  •  Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer
  •  Want A Eureka Moment? Choose A Deadline, John Kounios, Wired – May 2016

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The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family
The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family

The Questions We Asked goes behind our work and gives an insight into the issues or opportunities our clients were grappling with prior to briefing us. Sarah Dunning, CEO of The Westmorland Family, takes up the thread:

We’re a second-generation family business. Mum and Dad were and still are hill farmers just outside Tebay in Cumbria. In 1967 the M6 was being built through the corner of their farmland. The government decided there was to be a motorway service area at this point and my parents, in their 30s and keen to get on, made a bid to build and run it. They won the bid and in 1972 they opened Tebay Services northbound.

Westmorland-Family-Grade-66

Over the next 30 years they grew the business and in 2005 Dad handed over the reins to me. The challenge for me was to retain the DNA of the business whilst redefining it for a new generation. It is easy to feel between the devil and the deep blue sea – you don’t want to be the one that destroys the work of the past generation but you know you must be bold if you are to move it on.

We formed a new leadership team and agreed that we wanted to grow and that another motorway service area seemed like the logical step. It took seven years to plan but we finally opened the northbound side of what became Gloucester Services in May 2014. So in the last 10 years we have gone from a local Cumbrian business employing 450 people to one with businesses 300 miles apart, employing 1,000 people.

Westmorland-Family-Gloucester-Shoot-04

One of the decisions you have to make as a business is when to bring in external expertise. This can be difficult, especially when it relates to your core brand, but that’s sometimes when you need it most. In 2012, prior to opening Gloucester Services, we were discussing problems that were strategic but also creative. Squad were a small and young organisation, they knew our business and had some empathy with it and they came with both a strategic and creative background. And so we set about working together.

There were many questions at that time, which tended to pose themselves in the order that the problem arose. One of the first ones was what to call our new services in Gloucestershire, partly because we had to invest a lot of money in motorway signage. However, in trying to answer one question, we often found that we couldn’t do so without first answering a series of other questions. It became apparent that the initial question wasn’t always the most important one. Often there was a question behind the question that we needed to address first.

It became clear that the most important first question to resolve was what the brand stands for. Our ethos, which sat at the heart of the business, was very much about being a Cumbrian family business that had grown out of the farm and remained tied to it. However, we had to square this with our desire to grow the business and specifically with the opportunity we had to build a business in Gloucestershire, which inevitably would take us out of our own Cumbrian farming community. This dichotomy extended to many aspects of our business - our product offer, our buildings, our branding - so we had start with some fundamental questions.

Should the buildings in Gloucestershire ‘feel’ like Tebay Services? Should the food be from Gloucestershire, or should we bring some from Cumbria?

We knew our businesses couldn’t be ‘rolled out’ as Costa, Pret and M&S are. It’s much harder to grow a business this way, because each business has to be bespoke. It also means we’ll never grow to be a giant as some businesses do; but perhaps that’s a good thing – there is something to be said for staying smaller and true to purpose.

However, whilst Gloucester Services should have its own personality, as distinct as Tebay Services, we wanted the customer to feel that they were still siblings, albeit not twins. We had to consider how the buildings and landscape should read back to our identity. We wanted to capture the essence of our Cumbrian businesses but re-express it in an appropriate way for a new build. So whilst both feature heavy timber and stone, and feel quite earthy in their way, we exchanged the agricultural and rustic approach of Tebay, for a more contemporary and sleek design.

The Westmorland Family Gloucester Services-Shoot-50

So how could we create a brand and branding that ties together our businesses with a recognisable thread, yet preserves that character and independence of them?

I have always believed that a business’ ethos should be the compass for every initiative and every innovation you undertake. Only by doing this will the customer understand what you are about. It is not enough to articulate your ethos (even if you can) but you have to deliver it through every touch point because some things are better felt than articulated.

Delivering it through every touch point is quite involved for us because we have around 100 acres of space, about 15,000 product lines and 1,000 people working in the business. We have 10 million customers a year through our businesses and our aspiration is that each one will leave with a sense of what we are about. I have no doubt that we regularly fall short of this aspiration, but we have to keep on trying.

So how could we make sure our branding was present but with a light touch - not like a rubber stamp?

To see how The Westmorland Family’s questions were answered, read the case study here.

Sarah Dunning and RG gave an extended talk based around this article at the 2016 Family Business United Annual Conference and the Cumbria Family Business Conference at Rheged the same year.

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