Look, there are two ways to get ahead and generate breakthrough thinking in this world that we call branding or brand strategy. One is to find better answers to the usual questions.
We all know what they are….and we probably all sense that there’s only limited extra competitive edge that can be squeezed out of them. The other way to go is to ask a different, a better, set of questions.
We’re going to look now at five infrequently asked questions: questions that all of us should ask on behalf of the brands in our charge, but hardly ever do; questions that can lead to genuine strategic innovation, closer consumer bonding, and more authenticity in a world where humbug is ruthlessly exposed and integrity is all.
Infrequently asked question No. 1 is about integrity: What should we stop doing now in order to stay true to our values? The point is to get alignment between the lofty things that the brand says about itself in those company reports or brand keys, and the way it actually behaves in practice.
For example, Starbucks has always been proud to display its tenets of social responsibility.
But a few years back, these provided a focus for attack by activists who accused the company of exploiting Third World farmers. The problem here was the complexity of the supply chain. The exploitation was happening two or three links back.
Starbucks responded well. It ordered a complete review of its supplier relationships. It clarified the social and environmental criteria that it would demand. And it stopped dealing with suppliers that wouldn’t meet it, or who wouldn’t demand it in turn of those further back. It stopped feeding the problem. In doing that, Starbucks strengthened its values integrity. And it was good action to take. But it’s whole lot better to ask question No 1 before activists and consumers do.
And they will. Today, there’s nowhere to hide. You’ve got pressure groups intent on exposing corporate hypocrisy. .
You’ve got bloggers fed damaging stories by company insiders.
You’ve got guerrilla film makers. But most of all, you’ve got a more critical consumer. They’re more ethically aware. They’re taking an interest in the supply chain. They demand authenticity and will give back loyalty to those that provide it.
Phoneys, on the other hand, have an unpleasant fate awaiting them.
On to Infrequently asked question No. 2. How can we make this product worse?* But look, there’s an asterisk. And what this one says is: *In order to fund breakthrough innovation.
This is the question that entrepreneurs seem to ask intuitively, the one that helps them sense when a product or service is over-designed in some way, but lacking in other, more important, ways. What they do, is they strip out the things that could go – even if they seem sacrosanct – to pay for a big innovative leap in an area that consumers value more. They make the product worse, to make it much, much better.
The classic example of this is furniture retail. When your grandmother bought a table she got a table.
When you buy a table you get a sheet of laminated polyboard, four legs, a bag of screws and a page of hieroglyphics. The product, in so many ways, is worse. What you get in return, is the fantastic design of Ikea at prices that, even in absolute terms, are probably lower than your grandmother paid.
This question – how can we make our product worse – comes to us by way of the Insead academics Kim and Mauborgne. It’s part of a complete process they call Value Innovation. It aims for innovative leaps so dramatic that they completely change the dynamics of a market.
So here’s what it’s not: it’s not the tinkering that usually masquerades as innovation in most big brand companies.
There isn’t time to cover the whole theory here, but the original paper is well-worth checking out. As is the example that they use.
Accor Hotels were looking for ways to gain share in the low-price hotel market in France. The result was Formule1. Here’s how the concept underperformed the competition.
Average room size was smaller and you always got a standard, characterless space. No wardrobe - just a pole in the corner for clothes. No receptionist after six. No nice lobby area. No room service. The money saved was spent on better sound-proofing and much more comfortable beds. Which meant a dramatic improvement in the area that customers really valued: a good night’s sleep at a low price. By making the product worse, to make it better, Formule 1 ran away with the market in France and are now busily taking on the world.
Infrequently asked question No. 3 comes at product improvement from a different angle: How is our category currently letting people down? This isn’t about unmet consumer needs. It’s deeper than that: it’s about looking at how the category quietly mis-serves people in ways of which they are not really aware. Every category has its accepted norms, its nod-and-a-wink deceits and illusions which are deemed OK, since no one seems to notice or complain. In fact category norms that let people down are so much taken so much for granted that to uncover them you have to un-learn your category, and look at it afresh like a complete naïve.
That’s what this brand did. For 15 years Staples was the leading office supplies retailer in the US. When growth slowed in 2000 it did a simple thing: just followed shoppers round the store and observed. And they were amazed to find that every day Staples was making things really hard for its customers – navigation, queuing, ordering, everything. But the reason no-one noticed was because Staples was just conforming to accepted retail norms.
Like this one. The things you need to buy every day, the milk and eggs: where does your supermarket put them? Right at the back, so you have to walk past all those other tempting shelves and end up buying stuff you never went in for. Category norm. That suits the company. But let’s people down.
So Staples broke the norm. They’ve got their equivalents of milk and eggs – which their customers have to buy frequently. So they moved them from the back of the store to the front. It was part of a whole raft of initiatives to make things easier for customers. Never mind the lost sales from letting customers get in and out fast. Staples earned something bigger: the respect as a customer champion for breaking a category norm. They also earned the commitment of employees. Because when the company is willing to make a financial sacrifice in order to deliver on its promises, it sends a powerful message internally.
Staples has shot past its competitors in the market, and it’s done it by building strategy and communications around a single word, which should please Moray. But if they do ever succeed in actually owning that word, let’s not forget that it was because of a question they dared to ask, and the initiatives they dared to take.
Infrequently asked question No. 4: What’s in our customers’ photo albums?
Whether they’re physical or digital, the same principle is at work: edited lives. And the point of the editing is to present to the outside world, and to themselves, the image of their Idealised Self. Never mind the day-to-day evidence – this is who I really am.
The Idealised Self is the most interesting thing you can know about your customers. It’s part of the psychological theory of Possible Selves from Markus and Nurius, and you can track it down in their seminal paper.
But here’s a graphic way to envisage it. Bit like a tube map. Start from The Actual Self. That’s the everyday reality. Nobody wants to make the journey backwards, to Worry-state Self; everyone makes the mental journey to Fantasy Self, but in only day-dreams, not in reality. The journey that people are powerfully motivated to make is the one from Actual Self to Idealised Self. From tired, working mother to an attractive woman in control. From single, slightly awkward young man to single, urban guy with a bit of edge. From 55 in years to 45 in looks.
It’s a bit like going from Holborn to St Paul’s. Not a long way but sometimes difficult. The role of a brand is to help people, both practically and symbolically, on that journey.
That starts with targeting. There’s no point targeting the Actual Self, because it’s being deleted in your customers’ minds the way they’d delete a photo. Steve Henry used to say ‘describe the consumer as though you like them’, to foster a bit of empathy. But that’s still a static description.
You’ll achieve more empathy if you describe the consumer journey. It’s always the drama of a personal journey that makes us empathise with people in films.
The Sanctuary is a brand that’s built its offer around the journey to Idealised Self. Its customers are actually tired, working mums with barely a second to themselves. The Idealised Self is the calm attractive woman in control.
The whole brand offer is based around The perfect hour of Sanctuary. At a high-order level, the brand champions the right of women to take that one hour to themselves. At the product level it offers beauty rituals, with spiritual and emotional benefits, that take a woman on a one-hour journey to her Idealised Self.
With the trend towards ethnographic research techniques, brands are getting almost too good at knowing what customers are really like, warts and all. But it’s far better to know who they’re trying to be. The photo album is the place to start.
Four questions down, one to go, and it won’t be lost on you that there is a theme running through them. These are questions that stimulate improvement at the level of the product or service itself. The first three questions totally so, the fourth one partly so. And it’s not lost on us that this is an APG conference and that many of you will be planners working in communications agencies. So how do these infrequently asked questions relate to what you do, in your day job?
Well there’s an obvious answer to that. Everything communicates. Everything communicates, including – especially – the product or service itself.
It was striking to see this spelled out as though newly discovered in a quote on Campaign’s lead story a few weeks back.
This was Marc Sands talking about the relaunch of The Guardian:
“You will not be able to tell where the newspaper ends and the marketing begins.” But consumers have never mentally separated a product from the marketing. And of course, consumers are part of the marketing through the way they talk about the product. More so now than ever, with word-of-mouth accelerated by modern connectivity. Since clients are looking to planners to become more fluid in the way they think about communications channels, then it is legitimate for planners to bring their imagination and insights to the one that drives all others. The product or service itself.
In practice that would mean spending less time at the shoulders of agency creative teams… and more time upstream with client R&D.
It would mean gaining more than a passing acquaintance with client company disciplines like operations, HR and, so help you, corporate finance. And it would mean being willing to pose the most infrequently asked question of all:
What gives this brand its right to exist? Is it a brand that brings something genuinely new and better to people’s lives, that kicks down category norms, that will make financial sacrifice to stick to its values, that helps people on their journey to Idealised Self, that gives something back to society? Or is it just another lacklustre, undifferentiated phoney, trying to get by on flimsy supports like ‘brand personality’, taking up space and resources in an increasingly oversupplied commercial world? And if the answer to that is found wanting, it means sitting down to decide what to do about it – at the substantive level of the product or service – not just out there at the level of the ads.
And if we in the marketing services industries have the courage to ask that question, then I predict two things will happen. One, our professional lives will become riskier, as some clients turn round and say, get off my brand.
But on the other hand, our lives will become more rewarding. Because we’ll find ourselves making a real difference to the world of brands. And, on a good day, in some small but meaningful way, a bit of positive difference to the world. Thank you