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Ignorance is good

Many marketing teams so hate being defined by the original purpose of the business in which they work that they would rather see it do the complete opposite
Reversal can happen as a gradual drift with no one watching
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Of the four main protagonists in the recent Top Gear meltdown, three came out badly: Clarkson losing his job for “crossing a line”, Oisin Tymon finding himself on the receiving end of both a punch and hate mail for having got in the way of it, and the BBC hunkering down to decide its course of action in the dismal knowledge that it would draw fire no matter which decision it reached.

The fourth protagonist, emerging largely unscathed, was what we laughingly call our hospitality industry, a Yorkshire outpost of which had set the wheels of conflict in motion by failing to nourish its paying guests in the middle of a weekday evening.

What kind of hostelry denies hot food to weary travellers at an hour of day which, in Paris, would be aperitif time, and in Barcelona would be roughly the equivalent of afternoon tea? A British provincial one is the answer. The Simonstone Hall Country House Hotel, where the Top Gear crew were housed, is by no means unusual in shoving the posh plates into the industrial dishwasher and dispensing only bar snacks after 9pm. Once outside London, ‘The kitchen is closed’ is a phrase that we’ve all learned to dread.

Even so, these provincials took it a bit far. They had accepted the, presumably lucrative, business of an entire BBC crew. Never mind any special pandering to famous names, couldn’t they do their homework, learn that such crews often work late and return ravenous, and arrange for later sittings of the hotel’s “fabulous dining experience”?

Nope. Gone nine. Chef’s off.

The hospitality industry is thus a wonderfully graphic example of the tendency of whole brand categories to drift so far from their original purpose as to become an expression of its exact opposite. What Clarkson and crew walked into was the ‘inhospitality industry’.

Consumers walk into this kind of cynical marketplace reversal every day. Convenience stores should be just that, putting the things you buy most often – the milk and eggs – at the front. Instead, they impose inconvenience by placing them at the far end of the aisle, so you are tempted to buy more on the hike. Service stations long ago became no-service stations, forcing you to queue up to pay after you have filled up your own tank.

Reversal can happen as a gradual drift, with no one quite noticing the self-serving steps that eventually slide into a 180 ̊ pivot. Frequently, though, it is deliberately and openly precipitated by marketing teams who seem curiously determined not to be defined by the original purpose of their category. Pick any brand that solves problems for consumers – analgesics, stain-removers, pest control – and you will find marketers who will visibly flinch if you use the term “problem-solution brand”. Their brand pyramids and onions will be replete with notions such as ‘freedom’ or ‘empowerment’ – with the p-word strictly forbidden.


This yearning to be at the opposite pole may explain marketers’ ubiquitous love for Unilever’s ‘Dirt is good’ laundry positioning, despite its varying performance around the world. You can’t get more opposite than that, so every marketer out there wants their version. Why doesn’t it occur that the answer might lie in their version of ‘Washes whiter’?

For brand-owners, the danger in the trend to reversal is that it leaves a soft, unguarded spot exactly where the brand’s heart should be. Entrepreneurs don’t have to do anything clever to attack; they can just set about providing and celebrating the very thing that consumers come to the category for.

The upshot is this: the most valuable marketers to any given brand are the ones with no prior experience in the category, and even then, only for the first six months. In that probation period they will make the same kind of assumptions that consumers do, and will ask the obvious questions, such as: “If we run hotels, why can’t we focus on making guests feel more comfortable? Why can’t we greet them personally, instead of just putting a welcome message on the room TV screen? Why can’t we let them spread out round the hotel when it’s only a third-full, instead of cramming them on the same floor of the same wing?”

Ignorance is good. Sadly it doesn’t last; the newcomer will quickly be acquainted with the way things are really done, and the road to reversal will be irreversibly broached. This is why brand guru Adam Morgan insists on the presence of what he calls “intelligent naïves” for his “challenger-brand” workshops (see panel). They’re smart enough to ask good questions, gutsy enough not to care if they seem obvious, and ignorant enough about the category not to fall in with its learned habits and biases.

If someone on your team suggests bringing in a little outside ignorance, or setting up a brand-team exercise to look at the category in the way that consumers do, devoid of the curse of knowledge, don’t dismiss them too quickly. The answer I counsel is: “Be my guest.”

Intelligent naïvety

Intelligent naïvety is a concept devised by Adam Morgan, as part of his programme for the development of challenger brands. The principle is that smart people from outside the category are more likely to ask fundamental, upstream questions than people who already know the rules. Here are some intelligent naïves.

Carolyn McCall When the former chief executive of Guardian Media Group took the top job at easyJet in 2010, there was no shortage of doubting commentary. “Some old media luvvie”, was the verdict of rival Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary. McCall used her lack of aviation experience to ask fundamental questions, improving staff ratios, building the airline’s business-customer base, and quadrupling the share price. No one’s doubting now.

Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry Ryan was an adman, Lowry a chemical engineer. Between them they created the phenomenally successful Method cleaning brand. The process involved asking the kind of innocent questions that wouldn’t occur to sector professionals: “Why do cleaning products have to look so horrible? Why does ‘green’ have to mean your things won’t get clean?” Method’s revenues catapulted to $100m in 10 years, and the brand is now owned by Ecover.

Adam Crozier The Scot arrived at ITV from Royal Mail in 2010 with no prior experience in the broadcasting industry. During his five years as chief executive he has taken the business back to its roots as a “big, mainstream, populist” entertainer, reinvigorating the group’s production arm and reducing reliance on ad revenues. Operating profit has surged from £364m in 2010 to £651m in 2014.