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.