December 30, 2007

All I Want For Christmas

As I wrote in my most recent post, this down-time over Christmas is proving hugely productive in terms of some of the ideas it's prompting for work on my return to the office in early January.

(I know I should be switching off completely but it's extraordinary the thoughts that come unbidden to my head when I'm settling down to tackle the second layer in the chocolate box).

Watching the response of my children to Santa's presents in particular has sharply reminded me of the crucial difference between 'need' and 'want'. As marketers, we're often tempted to ask what our customer needs in much the same way as the conscientious parent wants what's best for the child. The child (and the customer) are quick to recognise how this lofty attitude leaves everyone feeling beyond reproach and it's not uncommon for the child to tell us what they 'need' (when they're really describing what they 'want'): 'I need those expensive trainers so that I can play well for the team'.

U2's Bono nails it when he sings: You say you'll give me a treasure just to look upon it...a river in a time of dryness...when all I want is you.

Meanwhile, there's a clever Bank of Ireland ad that suggests that the bank knows how to play this game too with students looking for a loan.

It's terribly important, of course, that we make offer to others with a keen eye on what they need but we mustn't forget that the market makes its choices based on what it wants rather than on what it needs. Naturally, when both 'want' and 'need' stand happily together, we have the makings of a marriage made in a blessed space but when the two fall out, it's 'want' that usually comes out ahead in any post-nuptial settlement.

As both marketers and parents, our first instinct is to go to the more rational place occupied by 'need' and this can only be a good thing in a world where 'want' is more inclined to the one-night stand than it is to the long-term relationship. But we'll find ourselves jilted fairly sharply if we don't ensure that 'want' is catered for too.

It's not only the parent knows the loneliness of the hollow victory that's achieved when 'need' wins out over 'want'.

December 27, 2007

Busman's Holiday

Since I pulled on my brand-coloured glasses some years ago, there's a danger that this time of year is something of a busman's holiday for me. This really is the season when brand is king and as gifts are exchanged and unwrapped, it's rare to see one emerge from under the tree without a famous label of one kind or another attached.

In some ways, this proliferation of brands makes choosing easier rather than more difficult. My own children are able to construct a list for Santa that's frightening in its detail (my own childhood bulletins seem hopelessly vague by comparison) and it's now possible to do all the shopping for Christmas astride a search-engine with credit-card in hand.

One thing that hasn't changed though is the importance of the 'thoughtful' gift. My eldest was in tears yesterday because Santa hadn't brought him all that he'd asked for (in fact, Santa and Mrs. Claus had exercised considerable discretion in choosing what they thought were more suitable presents for a boy of his age) and he agonised whether his own behaviour hadn't been up to scratch in the lead-up to the holidays.

Over the years, many of the family tiffs I've witnessed (or been a party to) have revolved around someone (not always a child) reproaching the bearer of gifts for choosing something unsuitable. There's even a seasonal ad that plays on the trials of choosing well for someone else.

Those of us on the receiving end seem to place extraordinary store on the capacity of the giver to choose something for us that matches our expectations and heaven help the one offering a gift that somehow misses the target. On the other hand, when we get it right we seem to prompt a gratitude that seems just as out of proportion.

Sometimes, it's clearly not just the thought that counts.

December 16, 2007

Standing Out In The Crowd

I'm just back from a visit to Milan, which truly is a city where brand is king. Although I could never be accused of being a fashionista, I was amazed at how many labels I recognised on the streets around the Quadrilatero D'Oro (the Golden Quad); from Italian giants such as Gucci, Armani, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana to Chanel, Yves St. Laurent and Ralph Lauren and even relatively minor names like Penny Black, Camper and Mandarina Duck.

What's even more remarkable is how easily I distinguished between one label and the next. The only brand I own from those I've listed is Camper; I'm not sure I've even been inside a shop belonging to any of the others. Yet, despite my relative ignorance, I find myself almost on first-name terms with each of these fashion blue-bloods.

I'd struggle to say which of these brands is 'best' but I don't think I'd have much difficulty in telling you which brands I like and which I don't. This always strikes me as one of the most useful features of the brand, this ability to stand apart from rivals that have so much in common when it comes down to traditional features and benefits. The brand allows the customer to home in on something other than a list of distinguishing characteristics and make a choice that's based on a much more complex set of ingredients.

As business-owners, we're challenged to move our own offer beyond a simple list of 'reasons to do business' and on to something much more engaging for our customers. Otherwise, we'll find ourselves lost in the dazzling array of the high street where personality and attitude count for so much more than earnest application.

December 08, 2007

The Spoonful Of Medicine

So, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down? Not always in my experience. I have a colleague who typically prefers to leave a bitter-sweet taste in the mouth.

Recently, he loudly upbraided me for some minor detail I'd overlooked before slipping in some sweet praise for the job I'd just completed. No sugar-coating for this patient. Instead, the castor-oil of complaint was deemed a more palatable taste than the more syrupy praise it masked. At the same time, there was no doubting the sincerity of his appreciation. I just had to work my way past the dose of bad-tasting medicine he administered first.

It's funny. You'd think this wouldn't be to my taste. But I find that I much prefer this over the more saccharine flavour of other exchanges in business which leave me doubting the sincerity of what I've just been told. Or worse, they leave me wondering if there's some distasteful truth being kept back that's going to upset me further down the line.

I think it's much the same for others. Too many brands spend their time sweet-talking customers when our preference is for a more honest, if sometimes unpalatable, exchange.

It's no good to us if the sugary treat proves over time to be the more bitter pill to swallow.

December 02, 2007

The Jury's Out

So what happens when you put the cat in amongst the pigeons?

There's been much talk here in Dublin amongst property-watchers, hoteliers and mainstream business punters about what's happening at two of the city's most prestigious addresses. A year or two back, a local property-magnate pounced on two hotels, Jury's Ballsbridge and the neighbouring Berkeley Court, which sit on some of Dublin's prime real estate, and announced his plans to build towering commercial and residential complexes on the new site.

Whilst the city briefly mourned the imminent passing of two of its venerable old dears, the news was generally received with the coolness of a populace that has grown well-used to the march of progress and shows a growing reluctance to step into its path. Attention soon moved elsewhere.

However, just recently following the closure of the two hotels and the selling off of their goods and chattels, planning permission for the proposed redevelopment plans was refused. Our hero promptly sent his planners scuttling off to revise his scheme and then announced his plans to briefly re-open the two hotels as 'bed-factories' with all of the services outsourced.

This prompted real consternation amongst hoteliers who naturally wondered what impact this sudden and unexpected glut of hotel rooms at cut-prices might have on the market. It doesn't help that these rooms are on offer at two addresses which formerly enjoyed five-star ratings.

This confusion really challenges the strength of the other brands in the market. A significant reference point for both seller and buyer has shifted into an unfamiliar position and the market doesn't quite know what to make of it.

It's likely that those brands that took their bearings from the bigger players will struggle most to make sense of the new status quo. It's equally likely that those who set their own standards and pitched to the market on their own merits will adjust quickly to the new scenario.

Times of uncertainty offer a whole new challenge to both the market and the individual players who do business there. It seems to me that there's a lesson in there for all of us.

November 24, 2007

Walk This Way

I took a walk on the wild side during a visit to my client, Temple Country Retreat & Spa.

Each morning, Temple's Declan Fagan leads a short stroll around the working farm, which is very popular with guests. During the walk, he likes to point out things of interest and remind us to notice what's going on around us - from the steaming pats and flattened grass where the cattle lay down for the night to the sudden flash of colour on the ivy leaves as they catch the sun. He gently encourages us to walk more naturally and return to the easy roll from the heel striking the ground through the ball of the foot to the toe and on again.

Once we're walking again with our eyes at the natural level of the horizon and our shoulders loose and easy (rather than in the hunched-up, head-down style that we city-dwellers seem to prefer), he calls our attention to what's beneath our feet and invites us to feel the difference between walking over mud, loose gravel or fallen leaves.

As he described on Thursday how the feet gather information and the body makes adjustments as it receives the new intelligence: a tweak here, a nudge there; it struck me that we need to find a way for our brand to walk more naturally in much the same way. We often walk rough-shod over the ground in our business, and are so intent on getting to where we're going that we're unable to meet the eyes of our customers or pick up on the market intelligence available to us as we cross the terrain. To our unthinking feet, mud, loose gravel and fallen leaves are all the same, and we march on without a thought for what's going on with our customer.

I like Declan's observation that the body knows what to do based on what it senses and his suggestion that a more natural walking-style puts us back in touch with the raw intelligence that can guide our actions. As brand-owners, we can ask what we need to do to feel the ground beneath our feet and walk again with the rolling gait of the countryman - even as we make our way through the crush of the marketplace.

November 18, 2007

A Bridge Of Sighs

What is it with little boys and trains?

Those of you who are familiar with Dublin will know that our city has been one great building site these past few years, with diggers burrowing into the earth and cranes stretching above us wherever you look. Just now, I was travelling on the motorway which encircles the city and came to the place where our light rail system, the Luas, is being extended further into the suburbs.

Workers at the site are at the delicate stage of building the new bridge which will span the motorway and, as I passed underneath, I was surprised to find myself thrilled at the sudden image that came into my head of the glittering Luas tram racing across the motorway on its impressive new railway bridge. Now, even as a boy, I was never as heavily into building things or playing with trains and cars as others so I was quite taken aback by the depth of feeling which the image prompted.

I often find myself thrilled by something in which I apparently have no great interest and it can be puzzling to catch myself hanging on to every word of a lively radio discussion on a topic that seems irrelevant to me.

I shouldn't be surprised though. When I was cutting my teeth in branding, I was lucky enough to work with one of the great figures of Irish advertising, Bill Felton. Like all enthusiasts, Bill liked nothing better than to chew the fat around his favourite subject and often declared how advertising works best when it talks not only to the person who has an obvious interest in what's being advertised but to the part of everyone of us that thrills unexpectedly to the beauty or speed or grandeur of a thing.

Bill calls this part of us 'the place in the heart' and his iconic ads spoke emphatically to the part of us which is carried away by the sight of a pint of Guinness settling or the Budweiser Clydesdales heading for home through the snow. Now, I'm not an obvious candidate for publicity around building or transport but the partly-constructed Luas bridge spoke somehow to a place in my heart and surprised me with the intensity of both the image it conjured up and the sense of delight that followed.

I think we often underestimate this depth of feeling when we come to build our brand. When I meet clients who are enthusiastic about what they do, I'm always moved by the images they paint and the places they describe in their more unguarded moments.

When we talk about what we do with the same intensity as children bring to their activities, we can find ourselves speaking to that place in the heart of others where our passion is shared, if even briefly. This can be a very powerful place in which to make our pitch. I believe it's a place that can be found in pretty much every business activity and one where we should be taking our customers if we're serious about building real rapport.

November 07, 2007

Two Bald Men

When I was a child, it was common to hear a certain type of argument dismissed as being like 'two bald men fighting over a comb'. With my own hairlines receding faster than the Sahara desert, I'm not laughing quite as hard at the image that conjures up as I once did.

It came to mind recently as I read KZero's intriguing 5 Rules For Virtual Brand Management, where I learned that avatars in Second Life, the '3D online digital world imagined and created by its residents', were vying to purchase expensive virtual cars to park in their online digital driveways (Second Life's residents sadly haven't yet imagined or created virtual highways on which to really open up their new machines). Meanwhile, real-life brands such as Adidas, Nike, Oakley and the other usual suspects are doing a roaring trade in that other world.

I've heard people in the last couple of weeks marvel at what they see as the foolishness of those who would pay top Linden dollar (Second Life's currency) for simulated brands to sport in their second life online. At one step it seems foolish, but when I recall the games of make-believe that we all played as children, it begins to make sense. A writer once noted that there is nothing as serious as a child at play and it's not unnatural that we want to bring that same seriousness to our play as adults in the make-believe world of Second Life.

In fact, you could argue that once any object moves beyond mere function and we shell out the premium required to wear this branded shirt or drive that branded car, whether on or off-line, we are anyway behaving more and more like those two bald men scrapping it out over a comb.

November 03, 2007

No Branding Required

Recently, a colleague in my business network (let’s call him Mike) came to me and suggested that as my regular pitch to the group made sense, he would like to hire us to work with him to build his brand. I was delighted. Like anyone else, I love a new piece of business and the opportunity to work with a colleague that I greatly admire was hugely appealing.

But as we teased out his reasons for branding, it quickly became apparent that he had no real need of our services. Mike has built a successful business around his very personal delivery of a professional service. For his customers, Mike is the brand. They love the way he does business. They trust his personal touch, his obvious commitment and attention to detail. They feel safe with him, which is terribly important when it comes to the nature of his work. Given the choice, they would deal with nobody else.

For many business owners, this state of affairs would leave them feeling trapped and unable to grow the business. But it suits Mike down to the ground. He likes working alone. He wants to grow his business piece by piece and has no wish to hire someone else to work alongside him. He has secured the financial future of his family by taking out insurance against serious illness or death. He is largely irreplaceable but that seems to work for him.

I quietly wondered whether his being irreplaceable worked as well for his customers as it does for Mike (what if he falls under a bus and they are obliged to deal with someone else?). He agreed that, as extra insurance, he would identify a colleague who might make a very good ‘second-best’ and could pick up the pieces in his absence, if the unthinkable happened.

Apart from that provision, we agreed that it made no sense for Mike to go to further trouble and expense to build his brand. The truth is, he would get little return on his outlay. It would probably amount to a vanity project.

There’s little point in investing in branding services if yours is a business best delivered by you personally and you have no wish to grow beyond that. For your customer, you are the brand and it is likely that you, and you alone, know best how to deliver it.

October 29, 2007

Cleaning The Streets

On a recent visit to our own notorious Red Cow Roundabout, I saw something that will be familiar to motorists at busy traffic junctions in cities across the world. Washcloths and wipers at the ready, some enterprising lads had decided it was high time that visitors to Ireland's busiest crossroads had their windscreens cleaned whilst they sat in line waiting for the lights to change.

I must say that I noted their arrival with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I admired their initiative. These sponge-bobs looked like international workers and I was inclined to applaud their get-up-and-go in an economy where the native Irish shun many of the more menial jobs. But on the other, I found myself anticipating where this might all be headed. Whilst these lads were cheerful and not inclined to insist, I could well imagine how it might play out some months down the road, when the days are darker, a little more persistence is called for, and a single, female motorist might find their approach threatening. I know from experience elsewhere that the authorities are quick to discourage the new roadside entrepreneurs as their unregulated activities are seen to contribute to the climate of 'fear and loathing' that often mars urban spaces. I recall that Messrs. Giuliani and Bratton made the squeegee boys the first target of their zero-tolerance strategy in the belief that they and other roadside hawkers were the forerunners of the forces of disorder on the streets.

And whilst the Red Cow Roundabout is a byword for traffic delays, it is not yet known as an unsafe place to stop your vehicle. If the experience of other jurisdictions is anything to go by, the appearance of the squeegee boys is not something that the local authorities can simply ignore.

October 21, 2007

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes

There's nothing like a meeting with customers to straighten out your thinking from time to time.

On Friday, I called in to our local primary school to present to the sixth class assembly on brands and how they work. In many ways, it was like trying to teach my grandchild to suck eggs! As a parent of three tweens, I'm quick to moan about how beholden they are to the brands that are flavour of the moment. But the gathering of twelve-year-olds was quick to point out some truths about the influence of brands in general (and not just on tweens and teenagers).

Whilst we adults are inclined to be a little more coy about our preferences and motivations, I was reminded how almost all of us make our choices based on brand. Try weaning a middle-aged golfer off his favourite brand of golf equipment and clothing or a young mother off her choice of push-chair and you'll have a battle on your hands. I reckon much of the arguments in the home of the newly-weds or newly-moved-in-togethers revolve around which brand of ketchup, butter and marmalade make it into the fridge. The same domestic arrangements come under great scrutiny from the parents (whether in or out of law) and the young woman is often judged on her choice of brand of cooking oil or domestic cleaner whilst the young man is quizzed over his preference of car or power-tool. Like it or not, our choice of brand seems to say something to the world about who we are and what we stand for.

In many ways, we adults are in denial. This was brought home to me as I listened to the radio later in the day. TV personality, Lloyd Grossman, was interviewed on the prevalence of celebrity brands in the world of cooking and radio-host Matt Cooper was perplexed at how Grossman, who is not and doesn't claim to be a chef, had developed a very successful range of soups and sauces. The twelve-year-olds would not have shared his confusion.

Matt Cooper seemed to believe that successful brands were built on expertise. They are not. Or at least they rarely are. More and more, successful brands are built on credibility and influence (and the appearance of expertise). It is the same in the school-yard. My tweens challenge me on a whole range of issues when I am in conflict with the 'experts' in their own circle of friends and influencers. They would not be surprised to know that Lloyd Grossman has fashioned a highly-successful range of soups and sauces out of the credibility prompted by his television profile.

It is not only school-children who must be more critical of the opinions that are presented as expertise by brands and those who champion them. None of us likes to be seen as gullible. We are all of us susceptible to the charms of the brand but our vanity and intellectual pride often has us in denial that we fall under that same influence.

October 16, 2007

A Personal View

Here's a gratuitous use of a glamour shot if ever there was one!

I read in Superbrand's CoolBrands publication that "the humanising of branding in the pursuit of enduring and profitable customer relationships is now firmly at the heart of almost all modern business strategy." The writer suggests that this 'humanising' (what an awful word) is simply an extension of the old ad agency parlour game 'If our brand was a car, what would it be?' as a way of arriving at some meaningful understanding of what a brand's about.

I think he's got it the wrong way round. I believe that as customers we are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of doing business with inanimate objects or faceless corporations. Our first instinct is to look deeper and assign personal qualities to the product or service. Not only do people buy people, but people are really only comfortable relating to other people and not to cold, lifeless objects. We've been at this since the beginning of time but some in the advertising industry have only cottoned on to it in the last few years.

Whilst they asked 'If our brand was a car, what would it be', the most popular cool brand of them all (at least in the UK) was quietly being much more than simply a brand or even a car. The much-loved Aston Martin (see! that glamour shot wasn't so gratuitous after all) is seen by those in its thrall as full of personality and attitude (although the CoolBrands people seem to believe it's all about heritage and style). Heritage and style are only part of it. The great and the cool brands - the Superbrands list includes iPod, Bang & Olufson, Google and Amazon - typically exude great personal charm and charisma that leave the soulless and the emptyheaded products on sale elsewhere trailing after.

October 06, 2007

The Free Lunch

So, there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Well, I was invited to one on Friday and left it well-fed but wondering how the whole thing around perceived value plays out when something is offered for nothing.

A couple of times a year, I'm a guest of the Hong Kong Ireland Business Forum when they host a dignitary from the city that was my home for ten years back in the nineties. I've been attending for the past four years or so, and in that time, I've never once been approached by anyone there to talk about how my experience of running a business in Hong Kong might be useful to others in the forum. Or how I might build on my own links to do business there. As a result, I attend now for reasons that are more sentimental than businesslike. On top of that, the other guests are always an interesting mix and the chat at the tables (although only occasionally about Hong Kong) is usually good fun.

Whilst I suspect that we're invited more as bit players to put on a good show for the visiting bigwigs, this is a real missed opportunity for the Forum which is in danger of devaluing the potential for business between the two economies (as well as the individual contributions that could be made from around the room). I'm not suggesting that the Forum charges for lunch but they should seek a premium of some sort even if that's by way of purposeful dialogue.

In the same vein, there's an ad that runs on local radio here that insists that good advice should be 'free, free, free'. Unsurprisingly, I don't agree. I can't recall what they're promoting - and even if I did I'm not sure I'd tell you as I'd hate to think that I somehow gave those clowns more publicity - but it's expertise of one kind or another. Free expertise.

I find that free advice is usually ignored as the one receiving it puts no value on it. And although it sometimes seems a clever way to attract new business, it almost always results in a lop-sided relationship where it's more give-than-take for the business owner. Which leads in turn to the resentment, begrudgery and corner-cutting that leaves neither party truly happy. It's one of the reasons we at Islandbridge don't participate in tender applications that usually amount to nothing more than free consulting.

When it comes down to it, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Someone somewhere has to pay for it.

The music group Radiohead know this. They're releasing an album In Rainbows and inviting buyers to pay what they want for it (queries on 'how much?' are answered with 'It's up to you' and follow up queries with 'No really, it's up to you') which has led to some in the press suggesting that they're giving it away for nothing. But it's not for free. Radiohead are tapping into the deeply respectful relationship which they enjoy with their fans and it's no surprise to learn that the average price being paid for the album download is US$10. The Radiohead fan knows that nothing of any worth is for free and the group's confidence in the goodwill of their fanbase looks like being rewarded (in addition to attracting heaps of well-deserved publicity).

So don't fool yourself that you can offer a free lunch and get away with it. Even though a generous invitation to dine or take advice at your expense is always tempting, the issue of perceived value must be tackled by the brand-owner as it sits right at the heart of the positioning of the brand in its market. If left ignored, it can quickly devalue the business in the eyes of the customer and leave the owner out of pocket, resentful and feeling like a mug.

September 29, 2007

Three Blind Mice

I read recently (thanks to my morsel-a-day from Delancey Place) of Blind King John of Bohemia who "loved fighting for its own sake, not caring whether the conflict was important. He missed hardly a quarrel in Europe, and entered tournaments in between, allegedly receiving in one the wound that blinded him."

Barbara Tuchman (who wrote A Distant Mirror, the book from which the piece is taken) suggests that "fighting filled the noble's need for something to do" and was his substitute for work, eventually leading to the establishment of tournaments where he might re-enact the fighting role that had been made redundant by government and diplomacy.

There is, of course, something in this that echoes the need for twenty-first century business men and women to do fake battle in arenas as far apart as the corporate box, the online coliseum or the golf course. For the brand owner, it might be useful to remember that not too far below the thin veneer of corporate respectability beats a heart that sometimes yearns for a fight just for the sake of it. Businesses that recognise and feed this need (rather than scoff at it as "silly boys' games") will likely find that concerns around budget and rationale play little part in the purchase as far as the buyer is concerned and make for a relatively easy sell.

And with his or her bloodlust sated, it's also far less likely that the 'workless noble' will need to pick a fight elsewhere.

September 23, 2007

Bear Essentials

Whilst the new ad campaign which has Paddington Bear giving Marmite a try (instead of his usual Marmalade) is both charming and, I suspect, effective, I must confess to having mixed feelings about the rewriting of classic children's stories to suit the commercial agenda of one product or another.

Conscious that there is something a touch fuddy-duddy in my reaction, I just about resist throwing up my hands with the cry 'Is nothing sacred?'. I know we can sometimes be a little precious about seeing our favourite performers, teams or even theatres fall into the hands of advertisers (witness the current griping about the naming rights of Lansdowne Road although the Irish rugby team are doing their bit to make sure that this isn't the only thing to disappoint the loyal rugby fan right now). But am I alone in finding that there's something just a little disturbing in seeing classic storylines make way to opportunities for product placement in much the same way as many of the new stories being told in film and games?

Although I'm not a big fan of the Paddington Bear stories myself, I do know that I would be troubled to read that the hero of 'I Am David', my own favourite children's book, was to make his epic journey across Europe to rediscover the taste of true butter rather than be reunited with the mother he hasn't seen since infancy. And I would imagine that there would be uproar at Hogwarts if Harry were to endorse a 'muggle' brand in the course of one of his adventures.

Let's stop the spread. I'm not sure where to draw the line but I am inclined to issue a stern 'hands off' to advertisers everywhere when it comes to the childhood stories that we take with us into our adult lives as part of who we are and how we make sense of the world. Let Paddington Bear stick to his marmalade and let the makers of marmite peddle their spread elsewhere.

September 16, 2007

Simply The Beast

I've been meaning to include these very simple but eye-catching stencils that Brooklyn Zoo used to promote their attraction.

Animal shapes are so familiar to us from childhood and this creative placing of stencils over various backgrounds - trees, fences, paint-splattered walls - around the city lends them the perfect touch of the exotic. Just like the animals themselves.

What a great way to tap into something so ingrained in our experience and have us look at it in a whole new way.

September 09, 2007

Curtain Raiser

"Moon River, wider than a smile,
I'm crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
wherever you're going, I'm going your way."

I sat back in the Savoy Cinema in Dublin waiting for the programme to begin and enjoying the soundtrack of classic music from films such as Breakfast At Tiffany's, The Pink Panther and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

This is by no means as unremarkable an experience as it sounds. Here in Dublin, The Savoy is alone in this. Other cinemas play live radio or canned contemporary hits before the show begins which somehow misses the point. Cinema is already competing with so many formats for marketshare that it seems silly not to make more of whatever natural advantages it enjoys.

Cinema has the opportunity to be the main event in a way in which radio does not. My old colleague, Sandy Dunlop, used to remind me that the experience of sitting with dozens of others in the half-darkness of the cinema with the light flickering from the screen is a direct descendent of the storytelling around the campfire that was once the main feature in the life of a community. The Savoy Cinema is drawing on the shared experience of a modern film-going community in playing its sound-track.

This apparently unremarkable choice has a powerful impact. It reminds its paying customers that this is unmistakeably cinema, an experience that draws us in and holds us in thrall in a way that its competitors simply cannot. Meanwhile, the other theatres blur the line between what they have to offer and what is readily available elsewhere in the world of downloadable multimedia.

The Savoy does this at no extra cost. This is true of a great many brand initiatives. They are less about extra spend and much more about on-brand choices, choices that remind the customer that this is a distinctive offer, separate from those other choices available in the market.

As I sat there in the half-darkness, the Savoy whispered soft but clearly in my ear that it is a cinema that stands apart from the rest. Naturally, I'll be going back.

September 02, 2007

Something True

Gathered at the feet of the legendary Pierce Turner with perhaps a hundred and more others at The Village in Dublin last night and marvelled again at my being there at all. Whilst he doesn't finger the world of branding as such, the man that Hot Press Magazine described as 'Joyce with a voice and Yeats on skates' is scornful of much of what passes in modern life for getting on, driven by the constant 'pep-talk' of business. Instead, he champions a gentler, uncalculating life that is content to be an end in itself and resists the measure of the progress report and the balance sheet.

As I sing the words, I sometimes feel like a fraud or a fugitive from another regime. To read the newspapers and magazines of that other world, it's as if there's no place for anything that's not Premier League, global or franchised. The Village on Saturday night is a far cry from Premier League. There's little that's slick or hyped about Pierce Turner and yet he enjoys a rapport with his ragtag supporters that the big players can only envy (even if they are likely to sneer at his takings at the door).

Most of the businesses that I'm lucky enough to work with are brands that live in a place that's closer to Pierce Turner's '3 Minute World' than to the stadia of the global players. Most are vendors working closely with a loyal group of customers to build something substantial. They resist the temptation to hype their offers, preferring instead to build a business that's based on a genuine exchange between buyer and seller.

If you are to believe the headlines, these are the 'forgotten' businesses, yet they are more real for their customers than many of the celebrity brands that strut across mainstage.

Just as there is something true about a Pierce Turner gig in a three-quarters full Village ("this is my song...and I'm the boy to be with"), there is a brass tacks certainty in the honest exchanges that take place on shop-floors in tens of thousands of small businesses across the country and in millions more across the world.

August 25, 2007

Backchat Or Sweet-Talk?

'Our waitresses pinch back!'

Last week, I visited local retro diner Eddie Rocket's with my family and was reminded how much I enjoy their particular sassy brand of communication, especially the signage. Dotted around the walls are notices telling diners: 'Be nice, you might have to work here someday', 'In case of fire, pay the bill and get the h*@% out of here' and 'Be patient, gourmet food takes longer'.

You could argue that, in the words of the old wisecrack, 'I didn't come here to be insulted!' ('No? So where do you usually go?') but there is something charming in the irreverence of the one-liners that proves highly popular, not only with our family but with the dozens of teenagers and other families around us that help make Eddie's one of Ireland's most successful franchises.

So why do we go there to be insulted? I've long believed that the popular notion of the customer as king is flawed as it suggests a subservient relationship between seller and buyer. Instead, I think it's much more important to ask what role the customer (or situation) demands of the seller and to play that to the utmost. At Eddie's, it's clear that we like it when the seller is sharp rather than honey-tongued.

In part, it's because it matches our own sense of the type of service likely to be found in a classic American diner of the '50's. It's also charming when a brand doesn't take itself or its customer too seriously. Eddie Rocket's is quick to remind us that it's only American-style food after all; but with the assurance that what it does, it does very well.

Here, the customer isn't always right. Instead, Eddie's works hard on building rapport rather than old-fashioned respect and allows its customers to kick back and enjoy hospitality diner-style. And judging from the happy buzz during our recent visit, it's apparent that Eddie's does offer a cure for the summertime blues.

August 11, 2007

The Latest Squeeze

I was quite taken aback at the supermarket during the week to see that local soft drink-maker C&C has launched a pure orange juice under its traditional Club Orange brand. Club Orange once enjoyed great kudos here in Ireland as one of the few local brands to beat Coca Cola into second place anywhere in the world. The brand prides itself on using real oranges to make its fizzy drink and makes much of the 'bits' of real fruit that it contains.

For me, it's more than a 'bit' of a stretch for a fizzy drink brand to offer a natural fruit juice - although perhaps no more so than McDonald's addition of salads to the menu or Coca Cola's flogging of natural water (although at least the drinks giant doesn't do so under its flagship label). At the very least, it plays as a clumsy effort to sugar-coat the unpalatable evidence of the effects of soft drinks on health (whether teeth, tummy or artery).

Or maybe it's more of the same addiction to all sorts of spurious spin-offs that afflicts brand-owners in all walks of business? When asked by our clients to bless such tenuous extensions, we brand them a 'bridge too far'.

What do you think? And what's the most unlikely addition to a brand offer that you've seen over the last while?

In Brand We Trust

Trust me...

So which brands do you put your faith in to do what they promise?

The Reader's Digest Trusted Brands survey of 2007 doesn't throw up too many surprises (Most Trusted Mobile Phone: Nokia; Credit Card: Visa; Cereal: Kellogg's etc) but I was intrigued to see that the Most Trusted Petrol Retailer in the UK is not one of the traditional oil company giants but one behometh that has wandered in from another category entirely: Tesco!

How can a relatively new entrant outperform players with track records going back, in some cases, well over a century? We tend to think of trust as being something that builds up only over time (which is one reason why antique brands are so keen to parade founding dates and fathers in front of customers) but the evidence from customers in the UK suggests to me that petrol retailers there with significant heritage to draw on have seriously botched the whole issue of trust.

Tesco, which doesn't make any grand claims about quality and is often a convenience or price choice, has somehow managed to take the trust it's built up through its supermarket business and elbow its way to the front of the line at the petrol pump.

I can't see Kellogg's allowing a blow-in brand from another category the same opportunity. At the same time, Tesco's trumping of the category incumbents suggests that customer trust is more fragile than we imagine.

August 07, 2007

The Cream Of The Icebox (2)

Both Kevo and Emma raise interesting questions about how and when we use a brand in their comments on my most recent post.

Kevo points to the contrast between the regular Magnum consumer (in elasticated waist pants no less!) and the slim and dusky beauties in the advertisements. There's a similar irony in the beer-bellies that flesh out the replica jersies that have become such popular fashionwear for sports fans here in Ireland (and across the water in the UK). I remember locals in Hong Kong liberally dousing precious cognacs in Coke (much to the horror of the brand-owner).

I guess we don't always have a say in how our customers use our brand (as Burberry learned to its cost).

Meanwhile, Emma wonders whether her preference for an ice-pop reflects poorly on her.

I don’t think so - it probably speaks of a certain innocence (or may just be a matter of taste). I still enjoy Cidona (the local apple-flavoured soft drink) for its connotations of childhood holidays – but I do think Magnum has somehow positioned itself as a ‘serious’ choice.

Perhaps Emma would choose Wibbly Wobbly Wonder when out with girlfriends and a Java Magnum when on a working trip with colleagues?

What do you think? Do you have a portfolio of brands from which you choose depending on the occasion?

August 06, 2007

The Cream Of The Icebox

How do you switch off when you take a break?

Some years ago, we made the mistake of holidaying in our own country (Ireland) where, apart from the poor weather, I found it difficult to completely switch off thanks to the almost hourly reminders of my working life through newspaper, radio, billboards and overheard conversations. In particular, I found any mentions of brands that I was working on or alongside heavily distracting.

Since then, we've holidayed overseas, typically in France, where the change of language and scenery offers a good, easy-to-access balance between the novel and the everyday. Once we step off the plane in France, I have the impression that I've left all professional responsibility behind me on the tarmac in Dublin. Any thinking that I do around brands over there tends to be of the daydreaming sort.

Snoozing by the pool this summer, I basked in the background sounds of children making their choices at the refreshment booth and marvelled at how comprehensively Magnum towers over the ice-cream market in France and elsewhere. When I recall my own childhood, a time when ice-creams were sold as childish treats and the only adult choice in the refrigerator was choc ice, it seems extraordinary that it took so long for a brand to capture some of the more sensual and grown-up flavours of the treat.

Within my own family, I've seen how Magnum has firmly established itself as a brand of arrival, something you qualify for as you grow up. This summer, my youngest graduated from the ice-pops that had previously been his favourite poison to Double Chocolate Magnum, and I heard the talk of similar rites of passage echoed by other parents and children as they made their way to the kiosk and debated their purchase.

Magnum's more recent advertising for its Java flavour plays explicitly to this sense of ritual, makes for a brand that has truly carved out virgin territory for itself in the forest and leaves behind those of its competitors who wish to stay playing in the sandbox.

July 29, 2007

Flying The Unfriendly Skies

I'm just back from holiday discourtesy of Ryanair, the low-fares airline. I usually reply to complaints of their legendary poor service with a certain impatience. After all, we can hardly accuse the brand of being misleading. Everything about it screams of where you stand as customer in the pecking order.

So normally, I pay the low fare and take my chances. But I was struck yesterday by the more sinister side of the brand and its cheapskate values. We had paid a little extra to secure priority boarding and smugly made our way to the head of the line. As we stood waiting to climb the gangway at the front of the plane, there was a hurried consultation between cabin crew and groundstaff. The steward then indicated that boarding would be by the gangway at the back of the plane instead and the fairly orderly line broke ranks in an 'every man for himself, to hell with women and children' dash down the tarmac. Once inside the plane, the pushing and shoving continued as we battled to keep families together and secure good seats.

I sat in my seat shaken and not a little ashamed by what had been unleashed in me and my fellow passengers. I looked around and saw a mix of decent people like myself who had been reduced only seconds before to a selfish rabble.

Ryanair would probably argue that they had nothing to do with what happened but I can't help feeling that there's something in the brand that brings out the grasping and the mean-spirited in us all. They lead and, I'm not proud to say, we follow.

As a family, we've resolved not to fly with them again. Whilst their low prices are tempting, and they can certainly be credited with shaking up a complacent industry and opening up a whole range of routes, there's something unhealthy in the pressurised Ryanair that leaves me sick to the stomach.

I'll pay a little extra for the basics in courtesy that I get elsewhere and fly friendlier skies instead.

July 14, 2007

Brands Across The Water

In a recent Business Common Sense, Denny Hatch suggests that tourist boards should partner with overseas museums to promote tourism to their country. He thinks they should choose museums exhibiting related art or artifacts on the basis that "People that go to museums love art, have spare time and often plenty of spare cash. Many of them travel incessantly and are constantly on the prowl for ideas of new places to visit."

This is something I saw our own development agencies use to great effect in the '80's and '90's when Ireland was an economic backwater struggling to raise its profile. I'm not sure whether it was policy or not as arrangements seemed quite informal but it wasn't uncommon at the time to attend an Irish trade or enterprise event that had more going on from a cultural point of view than any other. Against a backdrop of Irish nostalgia for the 'old country', those first handshakes and 'what-are-you-havings?' set the scene for much of what followed.

Mind you, that same informality played sweetly to the brand Ireland values that our salesmen were plugging across the world. Once the link had been made, they could get down to the horse-trading of inward investment, joint venture or whatever.

I believe we often underestimate the social side of a brand when we go to market and I see those same salesmen as bold pioneers who played a much greater part in our economic success than we give them credit for. I think there's a lesson there for smaller brands who want to extend into new territories. A social route (which often crosses nicely with a sporting or cultural exchange) allows us to make much greater inroads than a more direct approach.

July 07, 2007

Sticks & Stones

I see that Mentos are offering visitors to their site the services of Trevor, your own Mentos Intern who you can have carry out a range of tasks for you including: 'call you in sick to work, prank call your friends for you and tell you how wonderful you are'.

Now, I don't want to seem too po-faced but I can't help but see this tendancy for companies to jump on a more sophisticated version of the British public-school brandwagon (with its glorious 'fagging' tradition) as a bad thing for both customer and brand-owner. This is not too far away from the nasty strain of bullying that has crept into parts of the online space and I wonder whether it's because that particular playground is as poorly supervised and regulated as the traditional public-school quad?

Nor is it clear to me how this particular venture fits the Mentos brand positioning (although I appreciate that the business may be 'minting' it in terms of visitors, brand awareness and confectionary sales). Tango went a similar route with its 'happy slapping' a few years ago and suffered when the phenomenon made its way into the real world.

I don't like bullies and it seems to me that too many brands go for the cheap thrill of tormenting the smaller ones in a bid to win some easy popularity.

What do you think? Am I taking some harmless fun a little too seriously or will this "all end in tears?"

June 28, 2007

King Of The Castle

A colleague asked me the classic marketing question a couple of days ago: ‘What makes the Islandbridge take on Brand Direction different from the others?’. I floundered about briefly looking for the killer line, one that would leave our competitors trailing in the dust, before coming to my senses.

I’ve long believed that the search for a unique selling proposition can be a very distracting and costly wild-goose chase for a small business. When you think about it, we’d all of us struggle to sum up in a neat formula what’s different about the important relationships in our lives, whether with soul-mates, close friends or old friends. In our personal lives, we tend to resist hype and the superlatives that marketers use would sound cheap and empty in our mouths. Young children might argue with one another that, ‘My dad is the best footballer etc’, but we generally grow out of that.

I think the ‘What makes us different’ question can distract us from the business of building on a relationship with our customers and should be replaced with: ‘What role do we play in our customers’ lives and how hard do we work to play that role effectively?’. I do believe it’s important for us to have some sense of what we do differently from our rivals but generally suggest that we keep it to ourselves.

In our own case, I like to believe that the answer to my colleague’s question lies somewhere in our commitment to keeping the brand relationship real (and therefore more effective). But I also know that a trotted-out formula will only briefly impress a prospective client. Our typical buyer is much more likely to look for signs of a willingness to roll up our sleeves and get their brand working for them than to be charmed by the slick patter of marketing-speak.

In most instances, actions really do speak much louder than words.

June 19, 2007

Play It Again, Sam

I caught the tail-end of the game between local Gaelic Football rivals Dublin and Meath on Sunday and rushed to read all about it in the papers on the following day. Now, this isn't the first time I've caught myself doing this. What is it about reviews that has us turning the pages to see what someone else has to say about our experience?

Earlier today in a meeting with a client who's building a hotel here in Dublin, I was reminded of this and wondered again about the power of review. And not just the review of an expert but any skilful retelling by another of something I've just seen, heard or felt for myself. I think that this replay effect can be used very successfully in building up the story of a new brand, especially in prompting word-of-mouth to move at a quicker rate than usual.

A new business can't always afford to wait for things to move at normal pace and retelling the experience for a happy customer is likely to prompt them to revisit it for themselves as well as giving them something to say if they're inclined to tell someone else about it.

As a brand-owner, you might ask yourself what opportunities there are to review your own brand experiences and whether this is something you might use to good effect in driving word-of-mouth.

*Note for our overseas readers: Irish Gaelic Football teams play to win the All Ireland Championship and receive the Sam Maguire Cup, affectionately known as Sam.

June 13, 2007

On Your Marks

I’ve been amused by much of the uproar over the recently-unveiled (or unmasked!) brand mark for the London Olympics. Whilst I always remind my own clients that their own choice of mark is likely to be informed by a mix of the objective (‘that’s a well-made and distinctive mark) and the subjective (‘I like it!’), I find it difficult to see a case being made for either position in the London 2012 offering.

The suggestion by the design team that the mark somehow stands for something and that we must wait to see it animated before we rush to judgement seems to me to be patronising at best. The people of London, in particular, as ‘client’ must be able to see some design merit in the mark in order to like it – otherwise, it is going to be difficult for them not to feel like the stark-naked emperor of the old story setting out on a marathon whilst the world watches on and waiting to hear the incredulous cry from one small boy in the crowds that line the route to the finish-line.

Confidence in a mark is everything. The last thing we need when presenting our credentials is to feel in anyway undermined by them. Given what we’ve seen so far, I can’t imagine that Londoners will be able to escape that sinking feeling regardless of how well other aspects of the Games are delivered or presented.

June 03, 2007

Come Out To Play

Game on?

Over the past few weeks, Contagious Magazine has reported on a couple of highly successful promotions by Orange and Red Bull in the UK that invite the audience to come out and play.

Whilst games of one kind or another have always been used by brand-builders to raise awareness and have customers engage with the brand, these particular games seem to me to tap into something elemental in the human spirit. Orange are offering tickets to the Glastonbury festival for those who predict where in the field a real-life bull will be on a particular day at a particular time - a sort of Spot-The-Bull update on the once-popular print game that's now played courtesy of video cameras and GPS.

Meanwhile, Red Bull have taken up the invitation of Facebook (what Contagious call "the clean and intuitive alternative to MySpace") to offer their variation on the traditional game of Rock Paper Scissors which they call Roshambull.

Why do these games in particular strike me? In large part because I can see our long-dead ancestors playing something similar around a campfire to while away the time whilst dinner was cooking: 'I can foretell from which part of the forest the hound will come' or 'Bet my shadow-animal will best yours'.

There is something about play that we sometimes ignore, particularly in the business-to-business (B2B) space where we mistakenly believe it has no place. The play that happens between a customer and the brand makes for a powerful connection that seems to operate at a primitive level and reaches deep to lean on what market research guru Clotaire Rapaille refers to as the "reptilian hot buttons", the part of us before the contrived and intellectual, the place from where our decision-making comes.

Rapaille argues that as a researcher he looks beyond the intellectual and the emotional to find that place where it all began for us, and suggests that brands that speak to the instincts of that place are the most effective.

We have seen something similar (although I don't like to see it in terms of 'reptilian hot buttons') through our own Smile Conference where we make much play on the word 'smile' and where delegates respond to our feedback form 'Smile or Frowns' with word-play, pictures and smilies of their own to let us know whether they found the event useful or not. This playfulness seems to allow for a frank and affectionate exchange that I don't believe would be possible if we were to take a more sensible, 'businesslike' approach.

What do you think? Which B2B brands do you know that successfully invite the customer to come out to play?

May 29, 2007

White Smoke & Mirrors

A recent mail from Brandchannel included news on a charity, Habitat For Humanity, and a piece on some of the branding issues facing private military firms (old-fashioned mercenaries to you and me).

I'm not sure whether the juxtaposition was deliberate or not but it reminded me of one of the things I almost always have to address with a new client: the notion that branding is somehow a cloak and dagger activity, some machiavellian art practised behind smoke and mirrors.

Whilst it robs my craft of some of its mystique, I'm quick to point out that branding is a tool like any other in business and one that can be put to work selling deep-fried food to overweight children just as readily as it can work on behalf of a homeless project. In the right, or the wrong hands, it's a powerful tool for positioning and for change and whilst I'm against the NRA on issues of gun-control, I do believe that brands are a generally a good thing (they make our choices simpler for one thing) and that every business-owner should have one.

But then, you'd expect me to say that!

May 20, 2007

Love's First Kiss

I met with new colleague John Austin of eBrand for a coffee during the week and we got talking about the importance of that first meeting with a prospective client or supplier. We agreed that too often this first encounter sets the stage for an unequal relationship that doesn't do either partner any good in the longterm.

If the client sits back with arms folded and says, 'Impress me!', the chances are that what follows will take the form of a beauty parade and a relationship in which the one finds it difficult to unfold those arms and the other struggles to come down off the catwalk. In the same way, if the supplier sets out to seduce the client into a relationship, that liaison is always likely to have undertones of insincerity and manipulation.

It always seems to me that the 'first date' in any relationship is hugely important and that the savvy buyer and seller should set out to make it a meeting of equals. The smart buyer in particular should look carefully at the overtures being made by the brand seller and ask, 'Is this the type of relationship I'm after?'. A seller who dangles glittering incentives in front of me is always likely to take me for a dupe whilst one who seeks to lure me from another relationship that works is unlikely to have my best interests at heart.

In the same way, the buyer who flits from one brand to the next according to this introductory offer or that giveaway is not likely to stop with me for long.

So whether we are buyers or sellers, we should ensure that we get to behave on our 'first date' as we'd like to go on and that we set the stage well for the relationship that might follow.

May 11, 2007

Marrow Envy & Other Stories

I went along to the marvellously-named exhibition of Kevin McSherry's illustrations at the Alliance Francaise here in Dublin yesterday. The pictures included two which we (Islandbridge) commissioned - one is the signature image for this blog over to your right whilst the other was our new year greeting card for 2006 - and I enjoyed the buzz of seeing them displayed as part of a collection that celebrates (and often pokes fun at) Irish business life and culture over the past number of years.

I also heard with dismay that the Irish Times, which has featured Kevin's and other great Irish artist's work over the years, is to largely discontinue using illustration.

I think this is a great shame. In addition to capturing difficult ideas that might otherwise escape the reader, illustration provides for great warmth and humanity, something that the great newspapers and magazines of the world have long recognised. What a pity that our national paper of record is abandoning this classic art-form in favour of the often-humourless and two-dimensional graphs and stock imagery that now seem to grace their pages.

May 05, 2007

Reds & Blues

As I write, boxing fans the world over are being whipped into a frenzy by the make-something-out-of-nothing fight between De La Hoya and Mayweather. Of course, there's nothing new in this. Sport has always been about much more than the game being played out on the park.

Watching the European Champions League soccer match between Chelsea (owned by the Russian Abramovich) and Liverpool (recently taken over by Americans Gillette & Hicks), I was struck at how the game played like one of the bad Rocky movies of the '80's (yes, there was a good one - the first).

Once upon a time, we loved to pit the doughty American against the remote Soviet. Mind you, there is a glaring weakness in the analogy in that Chelsea wear blue and Liverpool red; nevertheless...

Chelsea, under a manager who grows more and more isolated by the day, seemed to approach the tie with a bleak and humourless contempt both for the opposition and the game of football itself, whilst Liverpool sought to box above their weight and rely on bottomless courage and energy (and precious little skill, if we're honest) to overcome the grim leviathan. Viewers were once again presented with a classic confrontation which drew on the earliest storytelling.

This seemed to prompt an untypical bias amongst the TV pundits at RTE (who can usually be guaranteed to offer a fairly even-handed analysis of the game) and they were adamant as the game progressed to a penalty shootout that each of them wished to see the plucky underdog win.

This power to oblige us to take sides is what makes story so very powerful and is something that brandbuilders might weave into their own framework if they truly wish to influence the viewer.

April 29, 2007

Soldier, Soldier

I've been greatly amused at the very different approaches that our party-leaders are taking to woo us in the lead-up to the General Election here in Ireland.

The one in possession, Bertie Ahern, continues to play the 'man of the people' card that has served him so well in previous contests. His challenger, Enda Kenny, on the other hand, has produced a more business-like contract for government which seeks to highlight the broken promises of his rival and appeal to the growing disillusionment of an electorate in what has largely been seen as a marriage of convenience between the existing government coalition partners.

Enda's very modern pre-nuptial agreement may be showing up Bertie's nod and a wink approach as that of a smooth-talking but ultimately unreliable suitor (if recent opinion polls are anything to go by) and it will be interesting to see whether his clever use of the marriage analogy will deliver success for his brand of politics come voting time.

April 20, 2007

All My Own Work

I'm just back from a break near Barcelona where the change of pace had me seeing the world through different eyes. We sat and watched some sand sculptors on the beach at Sitges and I was intrigued at how passers-by on the beach-front promenade (many of whom were apparently workers taking a stroll on their siesta-break) stopped to admire the extraordinary work and dipped their hands into their pockets without any further prompting beyond the customary, strategically-placed hat (although one sculptor had added a 'Saving To Buy A New Ferrari' note in the sand which drew lots of laughs and probably a few more euro).

Whilst the sums on offer were not huge, I was struck with how easily we part with what commentators like to call "our hard-earned cash" in the face of creativity and beauty. These same commentators would seem to suggest that we must always have our hard-gotten gains prised from our reluctant fingers but it seemed to me as I sat idling on the beachfront that we are just as likely to happily show the money when we are delighted by what's on offer.

This suggests (to me, at least) a shift in how we might approach the whole selling / buying business for our brands and seek out ways in which we might effortlessly charm a contribution from the pockets of our customers.

April 08, 2007

There Were These Two Guys

Friends and colleagues of mine will know both of my conviction that the great brands build personal relationships and of my own personal affection for the Apple brand. Both conviction and affection are reinforced in Apple's latest series of Online Ads where the personalities of PC (anxious & neurotic) and Apple (low-key and laidback) are neatly contrasted as they discuss a range of functions and operations:

PC: "I get a little nervous when they mess around with my insides."
Mac: "What do you mean? Isn't it just straightforward?"
PC: "Not really. Like a lot of PC's I have to update my graphics card, my memory's major surgery."

Whilst Apple's strategic brand direction has really only paid off for the company in the last few years, the company has always taken a personal, perhaps surprisingly low-tech approach to its advertising and these ads are worth watching for anyone curious as to how they might capture the drama of a brand's relationship with the customer in their own business.

April 01, 2007

Are You Looking At Me?

A reminder that our attention is fast-becoming the most valuable asset of all comes courtesy of Contagious News that Blyk , the 'pan-European free mobile operator for young people, funded by advertising' has just announced collaborations with some of the world's best-known brands, including Buena Vista, Coca Cola and L'Oreal Paris.

If at first glance, this appears to have nothing to do with smaller brands, particularly those of SMEs, I suggest you look again. Most small businesses have a strong relationship with their customers and an ability to ask for attention thanks to the trust they've built up. I've seen this at work in our own company, Islandbridge, where customers often ask for introductions to our other customers or events.

Perhaps it's time we considered how this attention might translate into opportunities for us and our customers to offer the commodity part of our proposition for free whilst charging (others!) for the privilege of talking to us and the group we have gathered around our brand.

On the other hand, does anyone else share my own misgivings that this simply catapults us into a Minority Report-type world where every visible surface is given over to advertising of one kind or another and every relationship is up for hire?

(Notwithstanding the claims of Antti Öhrling, one of the masterminds behind Blyk that, "The fundamental principle is that advertising never interferes with primary function of the phone. If you do it in the right way, it's not just how much [advertising] can you tolerate—it's something people find useful and fun.")

March 31, 2007

Good For Goodness Sake

I was at a networking event in Dublin earlier in the week where specialists from The Referral Institute offered tips on how to make more of your network.

The early part of the day was presented by Mike Macedonio, best-selling author of the book Truth or Delusion. One of the networking myths Mike sought to defrock was the traditional 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' (which he suggested should read more along the lines of 'Do unto others as they would have you do unto them').

I was reminded again of how poorly a christian education prepares us for the world of marketing where the good man often goes unrewarded whilst the charlatan prospers. Don't for a moment think I'm suggesting that we cast off our morals when we don our marketing hats but we are likely to be disappointed if we see virtue being its own reward in the way the old maxims suggest.

Just as Macedonio suggests, the marketplace usually demands much more from us and I think that, whilst we may start with doing things well, we must move beyond plain goodness if we are to succeed commercially.

March 24, 2007

Let The Games Begin?

I read an interesting piece in Fast Company magazine recently on the Wisdom of Gamers, which suggests that a new type of intelligence or facility is emerging in the generation that plays electronic games as readily as it does street and field games. This confirms what I've seen in my own children and the ease with which they move around virtual worlds in contrast with my own painstaking progress (which has me wondering if I am coming too late to this place and whether this new intelligence is simply beyond me).

Over the last little while, I've heard too that educational planners are looking to draw on the different way that gamers build understanding and acquire skills to add to the more traditional classroom-type learning in our schools.

This raises some important questions for brands. How will the new learners make sense of what we have to offer? What are the building blocks of meaning in this new world?

Whilst I believe that our audiences are unlikely to completely abandon the ways in which they learn about their world for the new game-led intelligence, it's clear that brand story will have to adapt to the new click-and-go thinking that is challenging the more traditional stick-and-ball learning that we did as youngsters.

Hold on to your thinking-caps! We're in for quite a ride.

March 19, 2007

Watered Down Starbucks?

I've been following the intriguing exchanges between Starbucks' partners and fans following the release through Starbucks Gossip of an internal memo reportedly issued by the brand's founder Howard Schultz.

Schultz argues that many of the decisions he and his colleagues took in order to drive the ferocious growth of the brand have resulted in "the commoditization of the Starbucks experience". This confirms my own rather uncompromising take on how brands work. I don't believe that great brands necessarily make things easier for us as brand-owners. Instead, they insist that we take difficult decisions that support our relationship with our customers.

You could argue that as a brand-owner, Schultz can do what he likes with his brand (although many of his partners seem to disagree) but it's even more refreshing than the finest Mocha Frappuccino to hear him admit that some of those short-term decisions may have hurt the brand over the long haul. Too often, brand-owners hope that, like Dorian Gray, they can make choices that damage the brand and somehow live happily ever after.

March 10, 2007

Jumping On The Brandwagon

I've just come from watching the rugby on TV and am disappointed with the tenuous link which Ulster Bank are trying to establish with the game through their current series of ads. They're quite funny in their own way - they have various people roaring, celebrating or heaving rugby-style in everyday situations in order to be part of the action - but they say nothing that connects the brand in any way that really matters with a game that's becoming more popular by the week. And that's surely the point of such an association?

You can contrast this with the elegant series of ads from Bulmers / Magners that likens activities in the orchard (the home-ground of the brand) to familiar gestures on the field of play: for example, tamping down the earth at the base of a young sapling in the manner of a place-kicker teeing up for a kick at goal.

What a pity! Tapping into the story being told through one success by linking it with your own story is a powerful way to forge a connection with your customer and this strikes me as a wasted opportunity by the bank.

March 04, 2007

Slow Train A-Coming

I've been travelling a great deal by train over the last few months and, during a recent trip to Limerick, managed to briefly mislay my return ticket. When I arrived at the station to report my loss, I was told that I needed to buy a replacement single ticket (at close to the price of my original return). I was also told that I could apply for a refund if my original ticket re-surfaced later.

Sure enough, it turned out that a business colleague had mistakenly taken my ticket as well as his own (don't ask, it's a long story!), and I made enquiries about a refund. That's when the fun began: Had I had the original ticket endorsed? No, it sat unused inside my colleague's pocket whilst he made the return trip on his own ticket. Ah sir, you should have had it endorsed. But no-one said anything to me about having it endorsed. Anyway, I can provide receipts for both my original and replacement tickets. Ah yes, but you might have bought a second ticket for someone else etc etc.

Things went on in this vein for quite a while longer. My appeal didn't quite fall on deaf ears but they were certainly hard of hearing. I was invited to submit a written application and it turns out I might get a refund if my application happens to fall the right way up on someone's desk.

The rail company are kicking up quite a fuss in public about the great progress they are making in rebuilding the railway. But before making tracks for public recognition, they might begin by showing a little faith in their own customers; surely the first stop in any brand-building exercise?

February 24, 2007

Don't Look Down Now

Denny Hatch hits the nail on the head again in his most recent Business Common Sense when he compares the contempt shown for the customer in a great deal of direct mail with that of the fictional Harry Lime character in Graham Greene's The Third Man:

"Victims?’ he asked. ‘Don’t be melodramatic, Holley. Look down there,’ he went on, pointing through the window at the people moving like black flies at the base of the Wheel. ‘Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—forever?

If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—without hesitation?"

Of course, this attitude isn't confined to direct mailers but can be found in all sorts of business-speak. It always seems to me that a smart business-owner can steal a real march on the competition simply by displaying a little respect for the customer.

February 17, 2007

Dreams & Songs To Sing Or Low Lies?

I read a report in today's paper of a talk being given by a postgraduate, Liam O'Callaghan, which sets out to debunk the various myths that have grown up around the Munster rugby team. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the Munster team has emerged as one of the best-loved sporting brands in this part of the world.

Apparently, O'Callaghan plans to reveal how, despite the team's reputation as a unique collective representing a distinctive brand of rural, rugged decency, a significant number of the team attended fee-paying, private schools rather than learned their trade under the rather more public and much less privileged shelter of a hedge-school.

Some Munster fans are apparently up in arms at the perceived slight but I think they may be missing the point. Very few brand stories stand up to the scrutiny of the historian but the Munster myth-makers have shown a particularly deft sleight of hand in weaving some loose facts and fictions into the brand we know today. In contrast, their counterparts at my home team of Leinster have struggled to match their own narrative to the demands of producing a successful brand on and off the pitch.

Perhaps the proof of the Munster myth (if any such proof is needed or possible) is to be found in the belief shown by players and supporters alike as they set about their business of making it real where it matters: through the deeds of this new generation of sporting heroes?

February 12, 2007

The Bigger The Better

In a previous post 'Ah Mr Brand, We've Been Expecting You', I wondered which of the ingredients in the traditional James Bond franchise were essential to the brand. I read an excerpt today from Simon Winder's 'The Man Who Saved Britain' (courtesy of the resourceful Delancey Place) who suggests that "In the hierarchy of reasons for Bond's endurance his villains perhaps stand the highest". He goes on to say that "this sense of tremendously clever men, caged in by the dreariness of the diurnal, planning vast and devastating schemes more for their own pleasure than for any rational enough, in my view, to justify Fleming's literary career".

I think Winder is on to something (and it's perhaps no accident that Pixar's The Incredibles, which enjoyed sensational success at the box-office, tapped into the same villain-source for its Syndrome character). Maybe there's something in there too for the everyday brand which must conjure up a compelling nemesis or run the risk of being dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow.

February 05, 2007

When Your Bowl Overfloweth

Whilst Superbowl Sunday isn't such a big deal in this part of the world, most of us are aware of how it's as much a centrepiece for Madison Avenue as it is for the ball players (for more brand-related humour, see
Skydeck Cartoons)

I haven't heard yet which ad came out on top in this year's competition but it always strikes me that this sort of scramble for attention offers a distorted take on how best to build a brand (rather like looking to celebrities for tips on happiness). Although Apple's 1984 Superbowl advertisement has become the stuff of legend, the rest of us should probably look to more local and modest successes for examples of campaigns we might reasonably emulate.

January 28, 2007

Sticks & Stones

I hear that Bostonians are kicking up a stink because the new owners of one of the city's institutions, the Ritz Carlton, are renaming the hotel as the Taj Boston and (as locals see it) tossing out some eighty years of tradition and local pride.

But what's in a name? You could argue that it's only natural that the Mumbai-based Taj Group wish to brand the hotel to reflect their own pride of ownership. Or that business-entities change their names with such regularity that this local storm in a teacup will soon pass.

However, I'm not sure that this particular storm is easily weathered. Landmark brands, whether places, products or services, almost always stand for something more than legal ownership in the minds of their customers and hospitality brands in particular need to tread very carefully in this contentious space.

Here in Dublin, the much-loved Shelbourne Hotel, was lumbered with clumsy (and forgettable) tags of ownership by some of its more recent landlords but I understand that its newest owners are calling it simply The Shelbourne, which should ensure at least that it will keep its place in local affections following its current facelift.

What's your take on this? Which of your own favourite brands have you seen renamed at the cost of your loyalty?

January 20, 2007

Across The Great Divide

I've been amused at the hullabaloo over soccer player David Beckham's extraordinary deal and especially tickled at the venom with which it's been greeted in some quarters. It's true that the football fan in me is offended at the notion that this one-trick show pony is putting himself out to stud at rates beyond the wildest dreams of some of the game's true thoroughbreds but as a marketer I can only stand back and applaud.

I believe football stepped across the touchline onto a very different playing-field whenever it first adopted the play-for-pay of professionalism and Beckham's prodigious leap to legendary status (as a brand rather than a footballer) sees him playing the rules of this newer game to perfection.

In my experience, business owners are often offended at the ability of their own lesser-talented, lesser-conscientious competitors to secure dazzling contracts or build lucrative markets. They say quite rightly that it isn't fair. But the marketplace by its nature isn't fair. As business-owners we ignore this at our peril.

If we are to succeed in business, we must play the game by the rules of the marketplace where the race isn't to the fastest or the best but to the one who most appeals to the market (the 'fairest' only in beauty-contest terms). Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, fastest, fairest and best in their own sports, understood this and have managed to charm both the amateur enthusiast and the sharp-eyed professional in us.

So which side are you on? Do you think it's possible to play-for-pay and retain corinthian values? Or, like me, do you believe that once a sport chooses to go professional then the rules of the game change forever?

January 09, 2007

Look Who's Talking

A brand called ‘you’?

Time magazine’s choice of the individuals who are “building community and collaboration on a scale never seen before” (yes, that’s you and me apparently) as its Person Of The Year for 2006 suggests that some traditional notions of branding were turned on their heads during the year just past.

This would seem to be borne out by the lightning-quick move of online brands such as YouTube, Bebo, MySpace and Second Life to the centre of the worldwide stage and the value that another whiz kid, Google, was prepared to put on YouTube when it purchased the company for $1.65 billion during the year. However, despite their impressively-quick ascent to the top of the pile in 2006, we will probably need to wait another while before acclaiming these as great brands rather than precocious players who have simply made the most of their first-mover advantage.

For more on the past twelve months as seen through brand-coloured spectacles, please visit: Brandwidth 2006 – Year In Review

January 03, 2007

White Christmas?

Like most of us, I'm just emerging from the belly of the Christmas and New Year celebrations and find myself inclined to wonder just what we were up to exactly over the last few weeks. I don't wish to jump on a bandwagon to mourn the passing of the Christian meaning of Christmas but it's difficult to see that there's anything left at all of any significance in our public celebration of the ancient feast. Whatever about what goes on behind closed doors, it felt to me that on the streets and in the shopping malls we were simply going through the motions.

Just before Christmas, Declan Kiberd in his Irish Times column suggested that "what was most romantic in Christianity was its openness to the stranger". Some of that romance, which I remember myself from happy Christmas returns to Ireland when I lived on the far side of the world, certainly seems to be missing now as we retreat to our castles to celebrate with a chosen few. Despite Shane McGowan's 'Fairytale of New York" topping a number of 'Best of' polls over the holidays, there is little evidence to suggest that we have turned to the strangers in our own streets to make them welcome at Christmas.

If the experience of other immigrant cities is anything to go by, it strikes me that we might look to the 'strangers in a strange land' among us when we next celebrate Christmas and enter into a spirit which is much older than the token feasting and exchange of gifts of the past few weeks.

Bah humbug..? What do you think?