December 31, 2008

All I Want...

I don't know if you're like me but sometimes I struggle to ask for what I really want. Instead, I like to beat about the bush. Maybe it's an Irish thing?

While I really like the idea of Giftag, the recently-launched application that allows you to pull together a registry-style wish list of things you'd like from across the web, I find myself reluctant to add things to the list for fear I'd appear greedy or demanding.

Whatever about adding low-ticket items, I can't ever see myself putting something really expensive there: "He wants what? Where does he get off asking for something like that...Does he think we're made of money?"

Nor am I too sure how I'd casually let it drop to people that I've started a list (apart from mentioning it in a blog!): "My birthday's coming up. You might like to check out my Giftag list...". No, I just can't see it. It all seems very forward.

While I was catching up on podcasts over the holidays, I heard Gary Koelling of Giftag being interviewed by Albert Maruggi in the Santa Uses Giftag! episode of the Marketing Edge and was especially taken by the generous spirit in which Giftag has been developed.

Apparently, Gary works for the Best Buy chain of stores in the US and whilst it might have been tempting to develop Giftag to include only items available through Best Buy, they took the decision to make it a universal application because (and I'm loosely paraphrasing here) 'Best Buy is a social company...if we're making the promise that we're gonna make life better for you, what advantage is there in our making it so you can only use it for Best Buy? We know full well that we're not the only place our customers shop!'

I like that! That works for me...

...although maybe Gary and his colleagues will have to develop 'AhNoYouShouldn'tHave', an Irish version of the application that somehow allows me to ask for what I really want without appearing to do so.

December 19, 2008

Naughty Or Nice?

Knowing how Santa divvies up the good stuff at Christmas, you'd think that we'd all want to be on his nice list. But I must confess to mixed feelings when I received greetings from Naughty Or Nice?, the seasonal site from Bloom and its partner agencies, that tagged me as something of a goody two-shoes and sent me the angel wings to prove it.

As word spread about the site, and more colleagues began to shower me with greetings, I found myself secretly hoping that the next one would label me just a little bit naughty. Because naughty is much more fun, isn't it?

Whilst Bloom certainly knows that the devil gets all the best lines (there's something more than a touch creepy about their resident Santa), it's something that other agencies are inclined to forget, particularly when it comes to campaigns around smoking, insurance fraud or the like. I read recently how research suggests that anti-smoking messages on cigarette packs are likely to encourage a certain proportion of teenagers to take up the 'naughty' habit.

Whilst we might like to be secretly on the side of the angels, there's a part of us that likes to be seen to break bread with the devil and his kick-ass friends.

So you can imagine my delight when one colleague finally broke the trend and put me on the naughty list.

Although I do hope that the real Santa doesn't get wind of it!

December 09, 2008

Hear My Saab Story

I haven't heard the expression 'eaten bread soon forgotten' in quite a while (it was a real favourite of my brother's when I was growing up) but I was reminded of it as I stood on the forecourt of my Saab dealer earlier in the week.

Four years ago, I bought my first new car there and was so thrilled with the experience of driving away in my brand new Saab (Imagine! My very own car, ordered in especially for me!) that I had thoughts of little else. Earlier this year, I bought there again. My experience of the brand had been very good and habit as much as anything else brought me back to the same dealership where I swapped my three-year old for another new one. Again, I only had eyes for my latest purchase and paid little attention to anything else as I sat behind the wheel and soaked up that new-car feeling.

Earlier this month, I received my notification that the car was due its first service and I duly brought it along to the same people who had sold it to me almost twelve months earlier. All went well until I asked the attendant to let me know how much it would cost to repair or replace a door-handle that had been slightly scored in a close encounter with a car-park wall. I was told that I could have an estimate but would have to pay €100, which was deductible against the final cost should I choose to have the repair or replacement made.

I couldn't believe my ears. The same people who had previously sold me two cars worth tens of thousands of euros each were charging me €100 for an estimate on the repair of my more recent purchase. For an estimate? What were they thinking?

It's not often I'm lost for words. At the same time, I'm not confrontational by nature and can be slow to speak up when an unpleasant exchange is in the offing. So I said nothing.

At least until now.

As it turned out, the mechanic who prepares the estimate was unavailable so the dealer was unable to give an estimate. I drove away in my newly-serviced car feeling newly-fleeced. No-one stood on the forecourt to wave me off but they should have done for they're unlikely to see me again.

What are Saab doing, allowing a local dealer to dent the brand in this way?

Car-makers and car-dealers who sat back and took orders in the boom times are going to have to do a little more than learn how to upsell or cross-sell (or whatever they're calling this estimate-charge) now that customers are no longer queuing up to buy.

It's a buyer's market out there and this buyer is taking his business elsewhere.

December 02, 2008

All That Glisters...

What is it with Nissan Gold Standard?

On the surface, it kind of makes sense: A network of Nissan dealers setting new standards for second-hand cars and guaranteeing "quality, reliability, excellence and peace of mind when you buy a used car". Scratch that surface however, and the shiny veneer wears thin.

Because, you see, a Nissan Gold Standard car may be a Ford. Or a Mazda. Or a Toyota.

Because Nissan don't mean a Nissan Gold Standard Nissan car. They mean any car that's been put through a "rigorous multipoint check" by a Nissan dealer.

Which means you might get a Nissan Gold Standard Toyota car or a Nissan Gold Standard Volkswagon car. Which tells us more about the standards of a Nissan dealer than it does a Nissan car.

But didn't selling cars on the basis of 'quality, reliability, excellence and peace of mind' go out with other quaint advertising gambits like promising '0 to 60 in under 6 seconds'?

And don't NCT (National Car Test) testers also put cars of a certain age through a "rigorous multipoint check" every couple of years?

So what do I get when I buy a Nissan car, new or used? The Nissan Gold Standard sells me an impressive promise of dealership. But it confuses my sense of what makes a Nissan car.

Because almost every car nowadays is sold to required standards of quality, reliability and excellence and the Nissan Gold Standard suggests that every car is somehow born equal (dangerous if you're planning to persuade a buyer on the merits of a new Nissan as against one of its competitors) or can be made equal once a Nissan dealer puts their shine on it.

But the Nissan Dealer is forgetting something that everyone else knows: All of the elbow grease in the world doesn't turn base metal to gold.

November 21, 2008

Stepping On Toes

I was hugely tickled to read in yesterday's
Irish Times
of the uproar over at the BBC where a 'non-dancing Mickey Rooney' (AKA John Sergeant) is stepping down from the BBC's flagship dance programme Strictly Come Dancing for fear 'that I might win the competition'.

The show follows the now-familiar format of ousting one dancer per week and the strictly too-serious-for-their-own-good judges are outraged that the public continues to vote for a contestant based on his personality rather than his dancing prowess. Naturally enough, this only encourages the public and Sergeant has taken the decision to waltz into the night as he thinks his winning might be a "joke too far".

Brand-owners often trip over themselves in the same way as the BBC judges by mistaking the basis on which the public makes its buying decisions. More often than not, the customer votes with their feet according to the appeal of a brand rather than its technical excellence. The brand-owner can rail against the poor judgement of the customer but is missing the point.

As business-owners, we can't argue our customer around to our perspective; instead we must sell to their standpoint. Too many of us tread on the toes of the shopper by rattling on about the features and benefits of our offer, whilst they're just looking for someone to gaze into their eyes, whisk them off their feet and dance the night away.

November 06, 2008

Obama & The Brand Of Opportunity

I have to admit that the outpouring of emotion from the far side of the water has these brand-coloured spectacles misting up more than just a little.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the euphoria of the last day or so has hit these shores with such force. After all, the tides that ebb and flow between the fortunes of brand America and our own sense of who we are here in Ireland run much deeper than the surge of investment money that has flowed into our country and watered our recent economic successes.

And whilst we sometimes like to assume the age-weariness of our European neighbours and look down on the adolescent eagerness and excesses of our American cousins, in truth we're much closer to Boston in spirit than we are to Berlin. But it's not only the Irish who share a sneaking rapport with the boundless optimism of the American dream. For hundreds of years, countries across the world have sent their huddled masses, yearning to be free, to her shores.

After all, the American dream tells a story that crashes onto the shore with a force that can literally take the breath away. And even the stoniest heart thrills to its sweeping narrative arc of rags to riches.

The wave that Obama rides is one that's been waiting to crash for some time now. Brand America, which is founded on the principles of hope and freedom, has suffered badly during the last number of years. There's been a jaded cynicism at work which has paid lip-service to those founding virtues and callously pursued political and commercial agendas at their expense. For what is America without its optimism, its sense of a goodness that wins through in the end?

Despite that optimism, America has long denied many of its people the freedoms it promises as a birthright. More recently, even hope has been abandoned in the name of homeland security. Meanwhile, those at the wheel have been in denial almost throughout. It's as though Nike had responded to the reports of slave-labour in its factories with some convoluted excuse that the end of 'Just Do It' had somehow justified the means. For many, Brand America's promise had become a bad dream.

So, of course the response to Obama's triumph has been pent-up. Of course it's over the top. Brand America (and those of us in thrall to it) have been waiting for almost a decade to utter a heartfelt 'Yes We Can'. Optimism sustains the entrepreneur in all of us and optimism has been in short supply during these troubled times.

Whilst Obama and the rest of the world face rough waters ahead, there's no doubt in my heart that we can navigate them much more successfully if we steer by the promise of hope and freedom that stands at the gateway to Brand America.

I won't end with a 'God Bless America'. That really would be over the top.

But you get my drift.

October 28, 2008

One Small Misstep For Man...

An American friend sent on quite an extraordinary video link that puts me right at the heart of the election battle being fought out across the water.

They say that our favourite sound is the sound of our own name and, even as a non-American, there's something thrilling about seeing Gerard T. in the thick of that country's momentous action.

I've written elsewhere of the power of making our ordinary, everyday deeds somehow extraordinary or epic. Even the most private of us sometimes likes to imagine that our role is being played out on a world stage, that our heft is out of all proportion to our puny strength and that we too can impact on the course of history. No-one likes to feel that they don't matter.

A brand often helps us play such a role, to find a place to stand where we can move the world. Personalised messaging on this scale should prove invaluable in helping customers stand that little bit taller. There's a great opportunity there for both brand-owner and brand-buyer alike.

October 18, 2008

Please, Sir, I Want Some More

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds; and then clung for support to the copper.

The assistants were paralysed with wonder, the boys with fear. "What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.

"Please, sir,' replied Oliver, "I want some more."

The reaction of many of our politicians to the credit crunch and newly-arrived recession has me gritting my teeth. It's not so much the threat of half-rations that sticks in the craw but the humble pie that they insist forms part of our new diet.

There's more than a touch of the rather too well-fed Mr. Beadle in both Mr. Cowan and Mr. Lenihan as they lecture us for the over-indulgence of the last decade. The suggestion, not so subtly made, is that we've all been on the pig's back and it's high time for us to pay for our greed. In an instant, the same politicians who crowed over the success of the wonder economy are turning on those who worked hard to make it happen.

Maybe it's the circles where I move, but I've seen little of the gorging at the trough that they imply. I'm not suggesting that we've all been slaving in the workhouse but, in the main, our colleagues and clients have been working hard for a fair return. We'll tighten our belts if that's what's needed but we can do without the doling out of financial measures as though they were medicine, a sort of antacid for a greedy populace who's eyes have grown too big for its stomach.

I'm not surprised that our politicians and their well-nourished friends in property and finance are suffering more than a little heartburn. But I do think it a little rich that they rush to the same conclusion as their not-so-honourable predecessor Mr. Haughey and tell us that "we've" all been living beyond our means.

Please, sir, keep your nasty medicine for yourself.

October 10, 2008

Cafe Society

I've got mixed feelings about the Starbucks brand but I really like what they've done in their latest in-store poster campaign.

I say mixed feelings because my early experience of the brand in New York and other American cities was really good and I saw much to admire in the business philosophy and practices of a hardworking and thoughtful enterprise. Back in boomtown Dublin, I wondered why Starbucks hadn't made the short hop across the Irish Sea from England where it also seemed to enjoy considerable success.

When the brand did arrive here in Ireland, I was hugely underwhelmed. Where its overseas counterpart is smart and crisp, the Irish Starbucks seems sloppy and dishevelled. My abiding image of Starbucks in Dublin is of tables left stained and littered with the debris of the not-so-recently departed visitor.

All the while, many of the independent local coffee-shop brands deliver a much sharper offer and service that really put it up to the global blow-in.

On top of that, you may be surprised to learn that despite what I do for a living, I share with my countrymen something of an in-built suspicion of the big brands (and their shades of colonialism) so am reluctant to give them too much credit.

But Starbucks current posters, which proclaim 'WE'RE BIG on responsibly grown, ethically traded coffee' and 'WE'RE EVERYWHERE working with farmers to improve their coffee quality and standard of living', skilfully make a virtue of their enormous size and reach in a climate where many of us inclined to subscribe to Seth Godin's Small Is The New Big.

Through their smart messaging, it seems to me that Starbucks make a strong case for Big Being The New Small.

October 03, 2008

Did Not. Did Two.

Following on from yesterday's post, I happened upon this from Benjamin Franklin which kind of sums it up a lot better than I did: "Many a long dispute among divines may be thus abridged: It is so. It is not so. It is so. It is not so."

October 02, 2008

Right, Left, Right, Left, Right, Wrong

Try to see it my way...

It's funny how a chance remark from a child can lead to a discussion on the timeless battle between good and evil.

As we were driving to his game on Saturday, my nine-year old gave me the heads-up on a dinosaur (whose name I've since forgotten), started quizzing me about the ages of pre-history (Ice, Stone, Bronze and the rest) and asked how long each period was before Biblical times. As I foostered about, trying to recall the bits and pieces of information learned and then half-forgotten, it was obvious that I knew a lot less about pre-history than he did.

As we talked, he seemed especially struck by the difference between the information which scientists deduced from physical evidence of earlier times and the details that emerged from the oral traditions and writings of the ancients around the time of Christ. It was a short step then to a conversation about how we might judge the reliability of evidence that's offered to us by those who have a particular world view, who urge us to see things their way or, as they would have it, the right way.

Our conversation came to an abrupt halt as we arrived at the pitch and Louis joined his team-mates to warm up for the game but my mind was racing now. Why are we so insistent that others see things our way? What is it in us that leaves us squirming when we're asked to leave our minds open to two or more possibilities for any length of time?

I say 'tomato', you say 'tomahto' but very few of us are inclined to leave it at that. More often than not, we fiercely believe that our way is right. I say 'tomato', you say 'tomahto', but you're wrong!

Deep down, we seem to have an extraordinary need for moral certainty in our thinking and our choices. Even those who preach laissez-faire can argue violently on behalf of that particular choice. It's as though we're hell-bent on making the world fit our way of seeing it.

This has important implications on customer choice. If there are two ways of looking at the world (my way and the wrong way), then it's vital that we make sure our offer is on the right side as far as our customer is concerned.

Otherwise, there's a real danger that our offer will be cast into that place where there is endless torment and gnashing of teeth. Anyone who doubts this need only sit at our (Irish-French) dinner table when the merits of tomato ketchup versus mayonnaise are being vehemently argued (the sauce of all evil...).

Or listen to the heated exchanges between advocates of Apple and Microsoft in the online world. Or Pepsi versus Coke, Macdonald's against Burger King... you could call it taking the moral high-brand.

Right, left, right, left, right, wrong.

The truth is that as we quick-march our way through the world, we're not simply keeping step, we're often stamping out imagined heresies and threats to our way of seeing the world.

The truth is..?

OK then, try to see it my way...

September 20, 2008

Brands Shifting

Run for your lives. It's going to blow!

Watching the upheavals in world markets, particularly in the banking sector, it's hard not to arrive at the conclusion that much of the hysteria comes down to a deep mistrust in many of the individual brands standing on the fault-lines.

The queues of people at the cashier desks, removing their money to somewhere safer, certainly don't seem to buy the assurances of those at the top that everything is going to be alright. The mood in the streets suggests that no-one really believes what they're being told and that the once-dormant evasions and half-truths of the past have erupted, with confidence hurtling downhill faster than those in the financial institutions can run.

When you consider the vast amounts of money that have been spent in winning our affections, it's shocking to see how quickly things come tumbling down, and how many of the banks stand isolated and vulnerable.

Where is the bedrock? Much of what has been built is foundering on the sands of self-interest. None of the banks is emerging as a bastion of integrity and good sense.

For those whose savings or business fortunes are tied up a financial house, there's no comfort to be found in the shadow of a teetering giant that might collapse following the next eruption.

Am I being over-dramatic? Again, think of the ads with which we've been inundated over the past years and ask yourself how many of them were concerned with building trust. How many of us truly believe that our lending institutions have our best interests at heart? Even the better of them seem to enter into shadowy arrangements that strike us as having more to do with speculation than investment.

Almost certainly, once the tremors have subsided, we'll hear how we've all over-reached ourselves and words like 'prudence', 'frugality' and 'caution' will be bandied about by the financiers. But there was little caution shown by those same leaders and politicians when the markets were at their height.

In the aftermath, the real challenge to the financial brands is not to lecture us on our spending habits but to build instead on solid rock and earn the trust of a deeply suspicious public.

September 09, 2008

When The Brand Is Quicker Than The Eye

Roll up, roll up, snake-oil for sale!

A study conducted as far back as 1963 seems to confirm the popular view that much of the business of branding is about sleight of hand.

Each day, the good people at Delancey Place send on what they describe as 'eclectic little excerpts' from various books and articles on almost any subject under the sun.

A recent excerpt, which was taken from Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives, cites how expectations seem to colour our taste:

"In 1963, three researchers secretly added a bit of red food color to a white wine to give it the blush of a rose. Then they asked a group of experts to rate its sweetness in comparison with the untinted wine. The experts perceived the fake rose as sweeter than the white, according to their expectation.

Another group of researchers gave a group of oenology students two wine samples. Both samples contained the same white wine, but to one was added a tasteless grape anthocyanin dye that made it appear to be red wine. The students also perceived differences between the red and white corresponding to their expectations.

And in a 2008 study a group of volunteers asked to rate five wines rated a bottle labeled $90 higher than another bottle labeled $10, even though the sneaky researchers had filled both bottles with the same wine...

Proof, if proof were needed, that branding is just one more gimmick in the bag of the snake-oil salesman.

But, like any instrument, branding can be used to very different ends: Misdirection in the case of the fake label but help and guidance in many others.

Once, at a conference, I chatted with someone who played a role in the recruitment and training of staff for Spar convenience stores here in Ireland. Now, I've never been a fan of the Spar signage. Even as a child I found it ugly and crude. However, my colleague told me about the care that Spar take in choosing people to work in their shops; how they recruit young people, who are cheerful and friendly, live locally and are at school or college. He insisted that these criteria meant that a Spar shop assistant offered a particular brand of helpfulness.

Until that time, I had passed by our local Spar shop with my nose in the air, determined not to darken the door of a monument to bad taste. However, shortly after I met this brand champion, I found myself entering the local Spar to make a small purchase. To my surprise, I discovered the youngster behind the counter to be as friendly and obliging as I'd been told. For the first time, I was able to look beyond the crude exterior and see what was behind it. I've since become a regular visitor to Spar.

Misdirection on the one hand, help and guidance on the other.

In the right hands, the brand plays its role in making the business of selection much easier for the customer. When handled clumsily or dishonestly, it can deceive and mislead.

The real power of branding is apparent when it's used well: for both buyer and seller life is simpler, as the brand skilfully directs customers to where they can get what they want, when they want it and at a price they're happy to pay.

I guess it's time for me to get up onto my soapbox...

Roll up, roll up, brand-direction for sale!

August 31, 2008

In Trust We Brand

Branding's for sissies!

Whilst polite colleagues rarely put in in those terms, it's evident that many business owners consider branding as being on the fluffier side of commercial practice.

Otherwise, it would be a given part of every business plan, rather than something that's often tagged on only when an enterprise doesn't seem to be making the right impression or is losing ground to strongly-branded competitors.

I've written elsewhere of the real impact a brand has on business success, not only in terms of market share, but on the costs of doing business. For example, I've suggested that a strong brand relationship relieves the business-owner of the pressures and costs (financial and otherwise) of being perfect. However, much of what I've written has relied on my own experience or anecdotal evidence from our own customers rather than independent research backed up by numbers.

Well, The Speed of Trust, a recent book by Stephen M.R. Covey seems to offer the backup that I've been looking for. I haven't read the book yet but heard Stephen talk about it at length on the always-useful Duct Tape Marketing Podcast.

Stephen says that the speed and cost of our transactions with customers are always affected by the levels of trust that lie between us and that there is both a trust tax and a trust dividend depending on those levels. His research shows that companies that enjoy high levels of trust (with stakeholders, colleagues and customers) outperform others where suspicion reigns by almost three to one. Now those are impressive numbers.

I like Stephen's use of the terms 'tax and dividend' as I find that it draws a notion that can be dismissed as soft across to the harder edge of business. I've always been a big fan of the writing of Stephen's dad, Stephen R. Covey, in particular The Seven Habits Of Effective People; so am looking forward to reading how he builds on that in The Speed of Trust.

In the meantime, if any of my readers have got to the book ahead of me, I'd love to hear what you make of it.

For you know what they say: 'When the going gets tough, the tough get branding.'

August 26, 2008

Not So Much Tanned As Red-Faced

Whilst on holiday recently ("No, I'm not going to say where," he said mysteriously), I came across news of a survey by Boots UK that revealed that the 'high-rise Costa Blanca resort of Benidorm has been named the most embarrassing place to go on holiday, followed in quick succession by Tenerife, Ibiza and Magaluf.'

Apparently, the coolest places are Paris, New York and Portugal.

Given the business I'm in, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that even our choice of where we spend our down-time reflects on who we are and what we value although I wonder how many of us plump for one place over another simply based on how it's going to go down in the office afterwards.

In the spirit of Myles Na gCopaleen (who memorably proposed a service where professional readers would go through the books in your library that you'd never read and rough up the covers, dog-ear the pages and make pretentious notes in the margins so that you could make it appear to guests that you were extremely well-read) and with the wide range of online tools available to us now, perhaps some enterprising opportunist will furnish us with pseudo holiday experiences (including heavily-doctored family snaps and fantasy restaurant names and menus) that will save our blushes at our 'uncool' choice of holiday destination and allow us to boast instead about our wonderful two weeks in Portugal or the latest hot spot du jour?

Give us a break! Refreshed after switching off for two weeks from my own world of branding, I'm beginning to wonder whether there's anywhere we can retreat to in the modern world that doesn't come labelled with connotations of taste and status?

As for my own holiday destination..?

No, I'm not going to play that game. Let's just say that it didn't feature at either end of the cool-scale.

August 03, 2008

Do The Chinese Love Their Children Too?

Just as the 1978 World Cup in Argentina comes to my mind when the football competition rolls around every four years, so too the Moscow Olympics this last week in the lead-up to Beijing 2008. I was fifteen when it seemed half the world decided to boycott the Olympics in the old USSR and my memories of that time are very vivid.

Despite much of the political turmoil and hostility around Beijing's Games, the time when the world was divided east and west by a Cold War seems more than a lifetime away.

Some time after Moscow 1980, Sting recorded a song Russians in which he wondered 'if the Russians love their children too?' Back then, the Soviets (alongside all of the others on the far side of the Iron Curtain - even that expression seems quaint now) were remote and unknowable. In the absence of familiarity, we were free to think all sorts of awful things about them.

The connections made online these days make such remoteness almost unimaginable. Apart from a relatively small number of places like North Korea and Albania, we feel we know the people in other parts of the world and, even when we don't understand everything about them, we don't doubt for a moment that they love their children too. Even in some of the more critical reports of the Chinese authorities at this time there isn't any suggestion that they lack basic human feelings; some of their actions may be monstrous but we don't conclude that they are monsters.

As we grow closer to others around the world, it would be easy to believe that there are no longer foreign countries, that everyone speaks English (or at least understands it) and that we can move effortlessly from one place to another.

But even between two people who share a common language, there can be culture shock when we move from our home place to somewhere else. There are times when even those who live nearby to us can seem alien. They think differently, they don't look at the world in the same way we do.

So what's that got to do with brands and branding?

Well, brands have a remarkable ability to ease that passage from one place to the next. The power of the great brands is to bridge the gap between the familiar and the unknown. Business-owners often underestimate the importance of making this happen and can leave their visitors stumbling about looking for direction.

Whilst those visitors may not doubt that we love our children too, they can quickly conclude that we are unsympathetic in other ways - unfriendly, unhelpful or unprofessional - and break for the border back to the home country or to other, more hospitable, places as quickly as they can.

So as the Games begin, why not brand your way to a greater connection with your customers.

July 26, 2008

Troubling Times? Consider This...

Some time ago whilst visiting London, I passed by a construction site which had the usual mix of safety signage and notice-boards affixed to the hoarding. But one notice in particular stuck out for me. It announced that the building company at that site was a member of the 'Considerate Constructors Scheme'.

A member of the Considerate Constructors' Scheme?

My first reaction was to laugh at the idea, as it conjured up images of burly brutes in safety-helmets and high-viz vests outdoing each other with 'After you! No, after you...Bill, I insist you go first' and 'Sorry son, is that draught bothering you?'

Not to mention steaming mugs of tea in great paws with pinky finger delicately crooked.

But the notion has stuck in my mind ever since and once I stopped smiling long enough to think it through properly, I've grown convinced that it's a great idea.

Someone, somewhere, has clearly recognised that builders have a reputation for thoughtlessness and instead of pretending it wasn't true or hoping it would go away, decided to grasp the nettle and publicly tackle both the problem and the perception.

Intrigued, I investigated further and found a Considerate Constructor Scheme website which didn't feature a weather-worn and tattooed Miss Manners but did include a How To Be Considerate section, which in turn had a Code of Practice and Checklist ('How have those affected by the site's activities been identified and have they been informed about the site's activities?'; 'Are road names and other existing signs still visible?').

How about if this were extended to other trades and professions: The Good Listener Taxi Driver Scheme; The Plain Speaking Politician Programme; The On-Time Service Engineer Plan?

Seriously though, pretty much every line of work comes with its own baggage in the mind of the customer. People working in communications like me often have a well-earned reputation for spinning: gilding the lily and employing smoke and mirrors to mislead or manipulate (not to mention mangling metaphors!). Perhaps we need our own Tell-It-Like-It-Is Scheme?

In these challenging (OK, OK, troubled) times, there's a great opportunity for each of us to tackle whatever perceptions undermine our customer's confidence in what we do and make a real virtue of our courage. In an environment of great change and upheaval, the seller who doesn't hide from the truth is hugely attractive.

Money-back guarantees work in this way. So does Java Republic's resistance to the "pressures that see most roasters mass-producing crap coffee with no regard for growers, roasting techniques, or flavour." How about a property developer that admits to the sharp practices that dog that particular sector?

Ask yourself: What are the fears that niggle in the mind of my customer?

Rather than pretend they don't exist or hoping that the customer doesn't notice, why not grasp those particular nettles and uproot them in plain view of your customer? And then publicly commit to being the exception they can trust.

That's a powerful message in these troubled times and one that would truly set a business apart.

July 20, 2008

This Brand Is Our Brand

A recent article on Brand Channel remarks on the links between the values of New England writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and some successful brands from that part of the world. Ben & Jerry's, Stonyfield Farm, Burt's Bees and Tom's of Maine all reflect the concerns of such writers with nature, simplicity and stewardship of the land.

I'm not sure you can trace similar links between the writers of Ireland and the brands which have emerged in recent years. I know that various promoters have borrowed lines from our writers to use in marketing material from time to time. For example, Aer Lingus used to have lines of poetry woven into the fabric of their seating at one stage, whilst it seems that every other restaurant in Ireland likes to echo GB Shaw's "There is no sincerer love than the love of food." But that's not quite the same thing. Our popular brands seem to draw on other sources of inspiration.

When you consider the popularity of Irish writing in all parts of the world, it's remarkable that more brands haven't emerged from the tradition. Maybe the breadth of Irish writing doesn't reflect a world-view in the way that the writings of Thoreau and Emerson seem to?

Or maybe these brands are yet to come? Given the easy eloquence of our tradition, perhaps the recent development of a highly-socialised world of brands means that Irish brands will meld local and global in a way that few others can (with the probable exception of Indian brands which might draw on a similar tradition of celebrating the universal in the particular)?

For businesses working in places where communication is king, this would seem to offer a real opportunity to build brands which might enjoy the same kind of popularity as the brands of New England.

Maybe you know of some that are already headed that way? If so, why not let us know about it.

July 13, 2008

For All You Are

Alistair McBride of Cultural Capital, who regularly corresponds with me off-blog, sent on the latest Sunday Times advert, which features Peter O'Toole and suggests that it's "clever and touching without being schmaltzy or sentimental." He also wonders aloud how it fits with the Sunday Times brand.

I agree with Alistair's take on the ad. I also think it sits well with the Sunday Times' branding overall.

News reporters in many shapes and forms set out to determine the significance of an event. Serious newspapers naturally aim to cover events of truly epic importance in the great scheme of things whilst the tabloids are often accused of inventing significance for minor happenings.

As Patrick Kavanagh observed, "Gods make their own importance", and the serious papers, thanks to their preoccupation with 'the facts', are often accused of being stuffy and boring.

Like its readers, the Sunday Times sees itself as a serious paper, and O'Toole's tongue-in-cheek attachment of epic importance to events in his own life is quite charming. Naturally this works because O'Toole is seen as a serious actor and there is a nice play between the dramas professionally acted out on stage and screen and those played out in his own mind and in his own life. Here is a god who is making his own importance and comes across as anything but stuffy and boring.

For me, this is very nicely done.

July 06, 2008

Nothing But The Same Old Story?

At Islandbridge, we like to say that we work with brands that ‘live happily ever after’. That talk might seem a little naïve or clumsy in the current climate when much of the talk is of unhappy endings. What place is there for the storyteller in a world where the monsters under the bed are just waiting for us to turn out the light?

Driving on the gridlocked streets of Dublin in the early July rain with the radio bringing news of economic gloom, doom and echoes of the dark days of the 1980’s, the classic Paul Brady line popped uninvited into my head: “It’s nothing but the same old story”.

There’s more than a touch of gleeful spite in much of the “We said it would all end in tears” commentary which suggests that the sins of the greedy and the insatiable are inevitably visited on the children of the boom economy.

But, as we see it, it’s anything but the same old story. It’s easy to forget that the opening lines of many of the success stories of the past twenty years were heard in an Ireland that had been in a deep economic sleep for hundreds of years. They were dismissed as fairytales, the never-neverland imaginings of the naïve and the foolish who needed to open their eyes to the harsh realities of the grown-up world.

They said it would all end in tears. But, of course, it didn’t.

It’s true there’s a certain naivety in every entrepreneur and small business owner. We still believe in happy endings. And then we work hard to make belief come true.

There are other narratives at work besides the self-pitying one of the naysayers. Lots of them. So let’s switch on some lights and chase those monsters out from under the beds. This is the time when strong brands come into their own. We may be sitting a little uncomfortably right now, but I invite you to stand tall and tell your brand story.

And where to begin? Like all the great stories: ‘Once upon a time...’

June 29, 2008

Name Dropping In Style

Thanks to the wheelings and dealings of commerce, it's not that unusual for a brand to change its name in order to meet corporate requirements in some way. Nor is it unusual for the name-change to be handled awkwardly, even ungraciously. Business-owners often show scant regard for the way in which we unconsciously register the names and other labels that help us make sense of the vast array of choice that's available to us across the board and blunder about insisting that we see the world their way (rather than ours).

I've written previously of the dog's dinner that's being made of the Campbell's / Erin Soup swap, whilst Halifax seemed to think that their changing-of-the-guard from Bank of Scotland, Ireland should be greeted with fireworks and street-party delight by the humble citizen-customer.

But I really like the way that Zurich has announced the change from Eagle Star to Zurich on posters across Ireland. I haven't been able to track down an image to show you what they've done but will add one to this post when I get the chance. The posters feature well-known personalities from various walks of life (such as Gordon D'Arcy, Samantha Mumba and Pete Postlethwaite) who tell us the different pet names and nicknames they've gone by in the past. The implication is clear and the point elegantly made: we most of us have introduced ourselves to others using different labels over the years depending on the context. Sometimes we outgrow a name, sometimes we only use it amongst close friends.

Over the years, I've variously been called Gerard (parents), Ger (close friends), Gouger (sister-in-law, then rest of family), Gau Jai (Hong Kong Police colleagues) and GT (business colleagues). I also, briefly and unwillingly, went by the name God at school (thanks to my very appealing habit of ordering team-mates around the football pitch rather than on account of any divine soccer skills).

The way in which Zurich has gone about it is really very attractive. They've neatly avoided any suggestion that the 'old' name, Eagle Star, is being abruptly terminated. Instead, they've invited us to get to know the business by it's new name whilst positioning the change in a way that makes great 'social' sense.

Of course, they stylishly imply, I don't introduce myself at a business meeting as either Gouger or God - so why should they?

June 15, 2008

Catching Fallen Stars

Oh no! It appears the Irish are politically incorrect.

I wrote in a previous post about how we Irish seemed to be dithering over our choice in the Lisbon Treaty referendum. Well, I was wrong. It was apparent in the final days leading up to the decisive No result (and in the reactions afterwards) that those who came out to vote felt strongly one way or another.

It's up to the political pundits to pick over the entrails of the contest and tell us what it all means but it appears through my particular shade of glasses that the biggest failure of all was that of Brand Europe. As a business-owner, I'm often guilty of seeing things from the point of view of the economy in which I do business, but it seems others around me were prepared to look deeper and question the impact of a more streamlined but perhaps less accountable method of government on our role in Europe.

Despite studying both the wording of the Treaty itself and the commentary in our media a lot more closely in the last couple of weeks, I'm not sure that it was quite as black & white as champions of either hue would have us believe. Whilst a Yes vote was almost certainly a vote for Europe, I don't agree with the suggestion that a No vote was somehow anti-Europe. We'll hear a lot in the coming days about the 'ungrateful' Irish who are seen to bite the hand that feeds but my reading of it suggests that the No vote represents a failure above all for Brand Europe to relate effectively with its customers.

Too often, those who speak for the brand adopt a lofty and patronising tone. Too many times, those who act on its behalf appear to ride roughshod over the practical and common-sense concerns of the people who stand in their way. Just as well-meaning governments worldwide are often clumsy in their choice of phrase and heavy-handed when they take action, our European political leaders have failed to convince us that they act in our best interests.

Much has been made of the argument that we don't have to understand fully everything we sign up to (if that were the case, they say, we'd never board a plane or take out a mortgage); however, none of us would sign up to something if we didn't fully trust the intentions (or competence) of those behind the document requiring our signature.

One of the real powers of a brand lies in its ability to make the small print something of an irrelevance. It's designed to make choice that bit easier. Some would argue that branding should have nothing to do with something as fundamental as a decision on the future direction of a community of hundreds of millions of people. But people don't choose as they should, they choose as they want to.

And branding has a whole lot to do with offering people what they want.

June 02, 2008

We Who Hesitate

Who to believe?

We're in the throes of leading up to our referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and the Yes and No lobbies are out in force.

Our Commissioner in Europe for Internal Market & Services, Charlie McCreevy, has a well-earned reputation for straight-talking and he recently suggested that we don't have to read the proposed formula from start to finish to come to a decision. I've made a couple of half-hearted attempts to get to grips with the text so I'm naturally inclined to agree. Anyway, to this layman, it's not simply a question of understanding what's being proposed; there's the whole problem of getting your head around its true implications.

Christine often accuses me of being a fence-sitter. It's true. I'm challenged by being too able to see the merits of both sides of any argument. My head goes back and forth as I watch the serves, strokes and returns (front and backhand) of each of the players, and whilst I sit high on my umpire's chair, I'm reluctant to make a call.

Like many others, I'm sure, I'm inclined to shake my head in frustration and focus on the character and personality of the players instead. For me, here's where the real power of a brand comes into play. Too often, whether it comes to our choice of the shape of Europe (dahdah!), or secondary school for our children or conditioning shampoo, we simply don't have time to read the small print. Hey, sometimes we can't even find time for the bigprint. Instead, we look to the brand to guide our choice.

Here's the difficulty when it comes to the Lisbon Treaty. Neither side has much to recommend it and there's a real danger that this time out, it's going to come down to people's natural inclination to say Yes or No. Whilst I don't believe our vote is so much a question of whether we're for or against Europe (despite the efforts of the politicians to break it down neatly to this simple choice), I believe that just like the options weighed up in the supermarket aisle, it's going to come down to that rather simplistic view.

So how's that going to work? Unlike in other countries, where a contrary point-of-view is almost a birthright, I think that in the absence of a clearly branded choice, the Irish will follow our natural inclination to be agreeable and vote Yes.

There! I'm off the fence. How do you think it will play out?

May 23, 2008

I'll Tell You What You Want (What You Really, Really Want)

So what’s in a label?

Many years ago, when we lived in Hong Kong, Christine and I had German friends who worked from an office in their apartment selling products for a large European multinational. One day, the husband announced that they were leaving Hong Kong to return to Germany. “But,” he assured us, “you don’t have to be too upset, because we’ve arranged new friends for you to take our place when we’ve gone!” He went on to tell us that another German couple were to take over their business and apartment and we could just take up with these new friends where we’d left off with our old. We could be sure that they would do everything in their power to ensure that the transition would be seamless. And the clincher? “You won’t even have to change the numbers on your speed-dial!”

Now, I know their intentions were good, but neither Christine or I liked to be told to transfer our affections from one set of friends to another, regardless of how efficient the arrangement.

I’m not so sure of the intentions of marketing giant Premier Foods who seem to be tinkering with our affections in much the same way. The company recently announced their plans to retire the Campbell’s soup brand in this country and to sell all of its soup products in Ireland under the name Erin. Their marketing director tells us that this is “a welcome chance to consolidate the Erin brand as a super brand across the entire Irish soup category.”

Of course, customers just love consolidation. And, like Christine and I, they simply adore being told what to do. In order to disguise the switcheroo (or mask the sleight of brand), Premier assures us that their “most important focus is reassuring the consumer that the recipe inside the pack is exactly the same”. Next, we’ll be told that we don’t even have to change the numbers on our speed-dial.

To add to the confusion, Premier followed up the announcement with another. It’s now planning to close its Irish production plant in Thurles and will switch production of its heritage Erin brand (Erin being an archaic term for Ireland) to England. But, we can be sure that the recipe is still the same. That is, an American (albeit much-loved) recipe made in England under an Irish name. Ah, that warms the cockles of the heart alright.

Honestly, I think Premier’s sleight of brand will land them in the soup. In their case, it does exactly the opposite of what it says on the tin – and I don’t think customers will buy it.

Oh, and our new German friends? We got on famously with them, just like our old friends had planned...

May 18, 2008

Fair & Foul Weather Friends

I was heartened to hear that whilst Tourism Ireland expect visitor numbers from the USA to Ireland to drop this year given the economic climate and the weakness of the dollar, they are re-doubling their efforts and bettering their spend in that market.

So often, the temptation in troubled times is to batten down the hatches and hope to ride out the storm. Whilst it's not necessary to spend like a sailor on shore-leave in order to make it through choppy seas, there is huge value in investing in a market when everyone else is running for cover. Tourism Ireland seem to be getting the balance right.

Like people, markets have a memory too, and the evidence is widespread that brands which stay the course in bad times are rewarded with full-sail success when the fair winds return. Even so, it requires quite a resolute head to stay above deck, keep both hands on the wheel and face into the storm when the short-term forecast seems so bleak.

Staying with the seafaring analogy, I commend her courage and wish the good ship Tourism Ireland and all who sail with her godspeed and safe passage.

May 10, 2008

Heart In The Wrong Place

The big news around here this week concerns Diageo's announcement that it plans to shut down its breweries in Kilkenny and Dundalk (where it makes Smithwicks and Harp respectively) and scale back production of Guinness at its St. James' Gate site with the loss of 250 jobs. Whilst politicians and economists rushed to analyse the impact on the workforce, I wondered about the effect on the three brands.

A sense of place is more important for some brands than for others, but it plays a huge part in the marketing of alcoholic drinks. Certainly, the visitors who pour into Dublin make a great deal of sampling a pint of the black stuff in the town where it's made. But whilst they remain in thrall to the notional origins of their favourite species of brand, consumers in general seem to be concerned less and less with where the product is actually made.

We drink Indian beer brewed in England, wear Italian shoes produced in China and watch London soccer teams made up of players from every corner of the world apart from London.

And yet a sense of place continues to be truly important. But not just any place. We're less likely to buy a Chinese brand of shoes made in China than we are an Italian 'original'. That short step from one workshop to another is a step too far.

So maybe it's more about what the place stands for in our minds? Despite the dilution of the ranks with day-trippers from elsewhere, the Kop at Anfield remains synonymous with knowledgeable fans and Scouser wit. Those blow-ins over at Old Trafford meanwhile (whilst drawn from the same gene pool) are seen as ignorant and dull by comparison (not to mention overly-fond of their prawn sandwiches). And, regardless of the quality of workmanship and standards of production, which may in reality exceed anything made in Switzerland, few of us would have much time for a Latvian branded watch.

So are the moves to different production sites likely to misplace the affections of loyal Smithwicks, Harp and Guinness fans? What do you think?

April 26, 2008

Cabin Crew: Disarm Cynical Passengers

In general, I like to travel but have been back and forth to London so often over the past couple of months that I've seen more of airports and aircraft than I care to in that time. I always choose Aer Lingus over Ryanair, despite the fact that the grand old lady of Irish aviation is a little down on her luck of late.

She does her best but there's always that air of quiet desperation about her that translates into hiccoughs on boarding, not- irregular flight delays and the strained-smile of understaffed service. But give me her inefficiencies any day when compared with the competing service of the obnoxious upstart.

I was reminded of this forcibly on Friday when I boarded the plane just ahead of an elderly man on crutches. Two of the Aer Lingus crew abandoned their welcoming post (or security detail, depending on your point of view) to help the man to his seat, settle him in and stow his sticks safely away. Then, despite the fact that the plane was still boarding with arriving passengers, one of the stewards offered to make the man a cup of tea.

I almost lost it. She might have left her best years behind her, but the old girl had it in her yet. I found myself strangely moved by the simple courtesy. No doubt airline procedures had tea-making much further down the line of priorities (and just before perfume-hawking) but the crew-member recognised this man's need for a cup of tea and acted on it.

A line I heard years ago from Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin sprang to mind: "It's not in the nature of the soul to abandon its home." I'm not sure quite what that line means, even in this sense, but I thought there something essential about the steward's gesture that harked back to another time, when Aer Lingus was the soul of Irish aviation and travel and my twentysomething-year-old self thrilled to the sight of the uniform as I made my way home from far off places.

Old-fashioned courtesy had not abandoned its home. I was completely won over by the simple offer ('cabin-crew: disarm cynical passengers and make ready for flight').

Mind you, I was brought back down to earth with more than the bump of undercarriage on tarmac when my return flight was delayed four hours with little explanation. But still, something of the sweetness of the gesture remained.

April 20, 2008

Naming And Shaming

Call me naive if you like, but I was astonished to read that the owner to the rights of Terence Conran's business name had described Sir Terence as a 'clever designer but maybe not a brilliant business brain". Now I know that name-calling is often part of the argy-bargy of big business, but I think that Chris Pinnington of Euro RSCG really should know better.

Terence Conran (the man, not the business) apparently left the rights to the name Conran Design Group behind him when he fell out with his boardroom colleagues some years ago and set up his own Conran Holdings company. Those rights were subsequently sold to Euro RSCG, who now wish to develop the brand globally. Sir Terence apparently doesn't approve and objects on the basis that "It's nothing to do with design or integrity, it's simply that they can make money out of it'.

Now, whilst his apparent surprise that someone in business is pursuing gain rather than design excellence or integrity might mark Conran down as someone with a less-than-business-like brain, I'm more surprised at Chris Pinnington's insistence on drawing our attention to it.

Surely part of the value in the Conran name lies in the entrepreneurial savvy which attaches itself to it thanks to the original owner's pioneering approach to design? Whilst Chris Pinnington might privately doubt that savvy, it doesn't make any sense for him to blurt it out during a very public spat. It seems to me that his own remarks betray the type of business brain that knows 'the price of everything and the value of nothing' to quote someone who knew quite a bit about branding (that's Oscar Wilde, the original of our species).

I suggest that Pinnington might learn the importance of being silent on this issue.

April 11, 2008

Deadly Buzz

The Seven Deadly Sins Of Branding

The recent discovery of a philosophical tract (Summa Brandalogica) amongst the personal effects of a prominent 17th century Venetian merchant has revealed that branding is not the latter-day phenomenon that scholars once believed.

Of particular interest is the section that deals with the Seven Deadly Sins of Branding (in the order immortalised by Dante in his Divine Comedy):


Lust is the excessive craving for the pleasures of the body. The lustful brand promises instant gratification, neglecting to mention the inevitable consequences on your health and well-being. ‘Eat, drink and be merry’, it says, ‘for tomorrow we die’; although the slim, happy and well-adjusted models that appear in its advertisements never seem to hint at the degeneration which follows.

Tell-tale signs?
Sweet, seductive and accommodating.

Most likely to say:
“Go on, you know you want to”

…leaving the customer feeling:
Gullible and sick to the stomach.


Gluttony is the voracious desire to consume more than you need. The gluttonous brand is insatiable, gorging on customers even when it’s full to bursting. Suddenly, it’s all over the place, wolfing down resources and gobbling up competitors simply because it can.

Tell-tale signs?
Licking its lips and permanently hungry.

Most likely to say:
“The more the merrier…”

…leaving the customer feeling:
Jaded and disillusioned.


Greed is the desire for material wealth at the expense of others. The greedy brand is always looking for an opportunity to fleece the customer. Exorbitant fees, hidden charges and punitive terms and conditions are its stock-in-trade and it preys on the vulnerable and the unwary.

Tell-tale signs?
Rubbing its hands and scheming.

Most likely to say:
“Sucker! There’s one born every day”

…leaving the customer feeling:
Exploited and used.


What is it?
The slothful brand steers clear of anything that looks like hard work. It just couldn’t be bothered to make an effort, usually because it’s part of a cosy cartel arrangement. The only thing that goads the lazy brand into action is a threat to its monopoly position, when it blusters on about its huge contribution and makes a great show of activity.

Tell-tale signs?
Lumbering, slow-moving and unable to adapt to a changing market.

Most likely to say:
“Honestly, I just couldn’t be bothered”

…leaving the customer feeling:
Deeply frustrated


What is it?
Wrath is the fury that’s born out of not having things go your way. The angry brand believes theirs would be a great business if it weren’t for the customers. Often, they keep this raging discontent bottled up until the last minute when they explode and unleash a barrage of insults and threats.

Tell-tale signs?
Pent-up, muttering under its breath and ready to explode at any minute.

Most likely to say:
“I swear, if I have to listen to another person…”

…leaving the customer feeling:
Fearful and intimidated.


What is it?
Envy is the grieving over the good fortune of others. The envious brand is begrudging and resentful, and bitterly disappointed when the customer chooses to go elsewhere. Brand envy measures success in terms of its ability to trump other brands and desperately covets their customers.

Tell-tales signs?
‘Me too’ ambitions, cheap gimmicks and gratuitous comparisons with what’s on offer elsewhere.

Most likely to say:
“Anything they can do, we can do better”

…leaving the customer feeling:
Duped and manipulated.


What is it?
This is what the ancients called the sin of ‘inordinate self-love’ and was often seen as the father of all sins. In brands, it translates as self-importance, born out of the deluded belief that the world revolves around you and what you have to offer. For the proud brand, it’s all about ‘me, me, me’ and the poor customer hardly gets a look in.

Tell-tale signs?
A monopoly position where customers are treated as little people, somehow beneath notice. If they don’t like it, they can lump it.

Most likely to say:
“If I ruled the world…”

…leaving the customer feeling:
Small, mean and unimportant.

Let he who is without sin…
We know gossip ranked highly on the naughty lists of the medievals too but we’d love to hear from you if any of these sins call to mind brands in the public eye that you believe are deadly sinners.

Cast the first stone by leaving a comment on this blog. Go on, you know you want to...

April 06, 2008

A Rogue By Any Other Name

My daughter thought the whole thing hilarious. The story behind the resignation of our first minister was being debated on the radio and Lara asked me to tell her what it was all about. I said that questions had been raised about unexplained payments into his bank account which in turn raised the spectre of bribery.

Lara considered this carefully for a minute. Then she giggled. "What is it?" I said. "Bertie," she said, "that's a funny name. And Ahern. Bertie Ahern. He can't have done much wrong."

It's not only my daughter who thinks so. Commentators have been picking through Ahern's political career and marvelling again at how he managed to get away with things for so long. Even on the heels of a great deal of dirty washing being done in public through the tribunals, the prevailing public attitude seems to be one of exasperation rather than anything else.

It's just hard to get angry with him. Despite the fact that he's clearly a sharply intelligent man (I've heard him speak off-the-cuff a number of times in person and have always been impressed by his ready wit), he seems to deliberately cultivate the impression of being somewhat gormless. My daughter's reaction is quite typical. Whilst political opponents ranted and raved these past few months as they tried to get some mud to stick, the man in the street seemed quite bemused by the whole affair. "Poor old Bertie," we thought, "he mightn't have been too clever about how he arranged his financial affairs but he can't have meant to do anything wrong."

This is an interesting tack for a political leader to take. The more usual approach is to play the hawkish statesman, the suave charmer or the wily wheeler and dealer. Bertie chose hapless innocent instead. And almost everyone from my daughter to the voting man in the street was taken in by it.

There might be a lesson there for any brand-owner who's inclined to take what seems an obvious route to the top. Sometimes, force of personality, personal magnetism or razor-sharp mind aren't required to win out. Sometimes, as Bertie has shown over the past ten years and more, amiable likeability is all that's needed.

March 29, 2008

The Adventures Of Johnny Bunko

I don't usually lead with the title of a book I haven't even read but this one is too good to pass up. I heard an interview just now with Dan Pink (new to me but well-known to the readers of Wired Magazine, I believe) who was plugging his new book The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, a career guide delivered in the popular Japanese comic-book manga style.

Dan told us how almost a quarter of items in print in Japan are in manga, and readers aren't confined to the teenagers who typically choose this form in western countries. Nor is the style confined to amusement. Books on topics as wide-ranging as How-To guides, business education, history books and political tracts appear in manga.

This struck a real chord with me. Regular readers will know that over at Islandbridge, we use Kevin McSherry's illustrations to help bring our own business offering to life (in fact, that's Kevin's 'Jack The Giantkiller' illustration playing a blinder at the top-right of this blog). Recently, I've been trying to push this further and have been exploring with my colleagues over at Create Design the possibilities of using imagery to capture how a company might picture itself and its brand.

It seems the world is a-buzz with this thinking right now. A recent Fast Company article, The Napkin Sketch, describes how a number of companies in the US are looking to the depth and warmth of hand-drawn diagrams and doodles to help capture strategy and process.

I believe there are great opportunities in going this route - and not just as an antidote to the awful clip-art that litters our reading and viewing material. I'm not quite ready to campaign on the streets for this but I am going to do all I can to encourage our own customers and collaborators to consider using illustration (in the broadest sense) to breathe a little life into how we capture important discussions, ideas and messages.

I'd love to hear from you if you know of other places we might look for inspiration and resources. Let's see if we can't do what Kevin's pictures do for our business and draw a crowd of business people eager to bring their brands and businesses to life through illustration.

March 22, 2008

Perfectly Awful

Perfectly awful? As the hero used to exclaim in the old comic-books when confronted by something that didn't make sense: "Uuh, what gives?"

Well, here's what gives: Some of the feedback to my previous post (Brand Me, I'm Irish) reminded me of a project we'd worked on some years ago when 'perfectly awful' was just what was required. As brand-owners, we often confuse personal taste with what's right for our brand. The two aren't necessarily the same.

On this particular project, we were working on a brand which drew on a certain Irish-American nostalgia for the 'old country'. When the time came to commission a christmas card for our client, we turned to a copywriter to pen a greeting. He got back to us with a sentimental verse which I found 'perfectly awful' - one which very definitely wasn't to my taste but was just right for our client. And, much more importantly, for our client's customers.

In this instance, my taste didn't matter. In fact, there was a real danger that it would get in the way. I'm not my client's customer and it would have been a huge mistake to play to my preferences. Toadying to the owner's personal taste has been the downfall in many a marketing campaign. Or to the fancies of their husband or wife. How I choose to decorate my home should have no bearing on how my client fits out their reception area. As my children will happily tell you, my taste in music is unlikely to appeal to an overwhelming proportion of our clients' customers.

Apparently, here in Dublin, one of the most cost-effective way to reach a certain audience is by advertising on the DART (one of our local rail systems). But very few companies choose to promote themselves in this way because precious few advertising executives travel in this way.

Some time ago, we had a client who confessed to a horror of red and directed that it be ruled out from the start in the design of their new visual identity. Guess the colour of the very successful identity that was finally produced? That's right: Red! The designer looked closer at the audience for our client's business (and at the business itself) and concluded that the forbidden colour was just the right one for the new mark. Thankfully, she had the courage to challenge our client's thinking and the 'perfectly awful' outcome was the right one.

Which, funnily enough, was to my own taste.

But then, in that particular case, I am my client's target audience.

March 17, 2008

Brand Me, I'm Irish

Regardless of where in the world you're reading this (and you'd be surprised how well-travelled my mother is...), you're unlikely to need reminding that today is St. Patrick's Day, which is celebrated everywhere in many more than the proverbial forty shades of green.

Over dinner on Saturday, illustrator Kevin McSherry reminded me that in Ireland we can be harshly elitist in our definition of 'Irishness'. Those who put down their roots in the fertile soil of England, America or Australia are in turn put down by the native Irish as 'plastic paddies' who 'try too hard' to prove their claim to their heritage.

What a pity that we're so narrow-minded. Our cousins across the water have no difficulty in making the American dream all-embracing. This generosity throws our own pettiness into sharp relief. We've been blessed with an appeal that reaches far and wide but are in real danger of squandering it through a misguided sense of purity or authenticity.

This is a sad failure of hospitality. There's not much point in throwing the best parties if our guests are left pressing their faces up against the window, looking in on the merrymaking.

Apart from the social faux pas (that's Irish for putting your foot in it...), there's a huge opportunity being missed to confirm our unique role in the commercial world. No other country has its national day marked in such a memorable way. Our politicians rightly recognise that, come St. Patrick's Day, it's access all areas for a statesman with an Irish accent. This allows us a word in the ear of kings and kingmakers across the world.

Never mind countries, few other brands own a day in the way Ireland does March 17th. Perhaps only Coca Cola comes close in its association with Christmas. We cannot afford to shut the door on those who want to join in the celebrations. Just as the United States appointed Lady Liberty to guide the way to the American dream, we must set our own light in the parlour window for all those who want to join in our unique brand of revelry.

March 09, 2008

There Are Lies...

On talk-radio during the week, I heard a caller describe how she'd been duped into giving her credit-card details to a fraudulent website, after which a series of unauthorised payments had been made. Since then, she'd been unable to make contact with anyone through the telephone number given on the site.

By her account, there was little to be suspicious about in a well-presented website that offered tickets to international sports events, recorded an address close to Victoria Station in London and apparently counted many well-known businesses amongst its clients.

I suspect I'd have fallen for this particular deception too. All the little details seem to add up (the mention of an address close to a well-known and reputable landmark strikes me as a particularly delicious stroke).

But what astonished me in the course of the discussion was how both she and the talk-show host seemed to hold out the hope that everything would somehow work out and that it was all one big misunderstanding. The clincher seemed to be that the company behind the site was a 'family-business, which has been offering this service for over twenty years'. Even when taken amongst all of the other lies that had been pulled apart during this woman's efforts to track down the people who had taken her money, this deception had somehow remained intact. Victim and counsellor alike seemed to think that wicked deception was somehow beyond a family business.

But ask anyone who's fallen foul of a family firm that goes by the name of Borges, Corleone, Kray or Soprano about family values and you'll likely hear some very unfamily-friendly language in return.

Now there's a lesson in there for any of us who are building brands at a distance (and not only for those of us who are inveigled into handing over our financial details to plausible strangers). In telling the truth to our customers, we can learn from the lies that crooks tell as they wangle their way into our confidence.

Clearly, a sense of permanent location helps; as does some reference to a shared landmark (the old school-network seems to work particularly well in this way). But the thing that seems to reassure us most of all when we're introduced to someone for the first time is that they have ties to the community. And what stronger ties than family ties?

When we buy from someone we don't know, we must be quickly able to situate them in our own landscape. Otherwise, their 'foreign-ness' gets in the way of our building trust and we turn instead to the angel we know or devil we think we know.

March 05, 2008

Try To See It My Way

A recent article in the Irish Times describes how "in Canada, the Government phone book is organised by products - birth certificates, driver's license, childcare etc", rather than by Government Department as we do it here in Ireland. Anyone who's ever battled their way through a directory trying to guess the proper department home for an activity will appreciate the thoughtfulness of the Canadian Government in this respect.

But governments aren't the only organisations that tend to organise the world as they, rather than their customers, see it.

I've worked in the past with many brands who present their offer in terms of how they produce rather than how their customers consume. People in the food industry prattle on about ambient temperature and chill cabinets and imagine that their customers share their view of the world. Those offering financial services have their customer jumping through all sorts of mental hoops trying to get a handle on matters that need only concern the number crunchers who design the products.

One of the simplest, but most powerful, exercises I do with my own clients is to invite them to step into the customer's shoes and consider the world from that vantage point. It's extraordinary the impact this can have on their thinking.

Try it for yourself. The world looks very different from over here - or from over there, for that matter. The job of the marketer is to see the world in a number of ways and reconcile the demands of the various stakeholders in a single offer that makes sense for the customer.

Because if it doesn't make sense for the customer at the point of purchase, it doesn't matter one little bit how beautifully it adds up for the business.

February 23, 2008

Barney Branding

How come so many brands insist on making nice?

I'm doing some service work for a client and stripping down a brand that was engineered some time ago in another workshop. I'm up to my elbows in feel-good terms and sentiments which leave me feeling anything but positive about the brand. Gooey expressions of love and understanding ooze out of every part of the motor, leaving a right mess on the floor that someone's going to have to clean up.

There's a creeping tendency towards creating well-meaning and inoffensive brands that's especially pervasive in the lifestyle sectors. In these worlds, everyone's a wellwisher. We're all shiny, happy people just wanting to get along.

There's a touch of Barney in these brands. Remember Barney, the purple dinosaur beloved of children of a certain age?

Barney's great! If you're a three year-old. But most of us outgrow Barney, and opt for characters that better reflect the different shades and struggles of life instead.

"I love you. You love me. We're a happy family" makes for compelling children's television but palls a bit when you reach a certain age. Yet many businesses insist on being Barney brands, airbrushing out much of the stuff that makes life difficult, frustrating and challenging (oops, even that last one's become a Barney-word). In doing so, they erase the stuff that makes life compelling.

Of course, we want to believe in happy-ever-afters, but not at the expense of a little reality. The really great brands know what it's like to live in the real world and promise a happy ending by tackling the difficult bits head-on. The other brands just melt away in a puddle of grease when things get rough.

February 17, 2008

What Goes Round

I've been hearing quite a lot lately about the people at 37 Signals, whose web-applications (you may have heard of their Basecamp and Highrise products) are proving very popular with small business owners across the world. Jason Fried, one of the founding team, was interviewed on the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast recently and delighted me by praising a competitor and saying that he "liked to see others do well".

This prompted me to look a little harder at the 37 Signals offering (something produced by someone with an attitude like that has to have something going for it) and I was even more pleased to see on their website that 37 Signals aims "for the software sweetspot. Elegant, thoughtful products that do just what you need and nothing you don't". Digging a little further into the site, I came across a blog entry from Jason (see, I feel like I'm on first-name terms with the guy!) in which he describes some 'simple things I've seen this week that make me smile'. This just gets better and better.

Whilst a cynic might dismiss 37 Signals as hopelessly naive, I'm emboldened to try and get to grips with the software they're peddling. Usually, I feel as though the techies are laughing up the sleeves of their cool T-Shirts at hopelessly inept me. But not these people. It's great to see a brand-owner who's prepared to be so open and generous in his approach to the world. It's not surprising that the word-of-mouth on their offering is so positive. I'm sold.

(Oh, for the record: some of those things that made Jason smile included 'a shopkeeper sweeping the sidewalk in front of her store', 'a squirrel deftly de-shelling and devouring a peanut' and a 'handwritten letter'. For more, go directly to the 37 Signals Blog ).