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 ).

February 10, 2008

And The Brand Plays On

The Munich disaster of 1958, in which many of the brightest of the Busby babes perished, has been everywhere in the news this past week. Most poignant of all has been the reminiscing of the survivors, including the legendary Bobby Charlton, who described how he had lost not only team-mates but close friends in the crash.

Away from the personal tragedies that littered the runway, for many of us (including this life-long Liverpool fan) it was the spirit of what survived the crash that has much greater significance and makes it something that we remember fifty years afterwards. For out of the wreckage of 1958 came the club that would become the first English team to win Europe's top football prize some ten years later. (As a Liverpool fan, I have particularly fond boyhood memories of the local shopkeeper who had to replace his flag proclaiming 'Manchester United: The Only English Team To Win The European Cup' with another when my own team won their first of a series of European Cups in 1977).

Despite the loss of some of their finest talent, Manchester United rebuilt to create another golden generation, which included some of the greatest players in their history. Mind you, it's not an accident that those triumphs were achieved under the hand of Matt Busby, who recovered from his own injuries in the crash to rekindle the flame a decade later.

I often wonder how many other brands would survive the loss of their brightest talent. I have a theory that the managers of the great brands could be lost in one fell swoop and be replaced in the short term with some bright customers who would continue to steer the brand safely through the months that followed. Now, naturally enough, this situation couldn't continue indefinitely but for some time afterwards the customers would be able to make decisions about behaviour and communication that would continue to be true to the brand.

A loyal customer can tell immediately when a piece of advertising works or falls flat. The brand-manager meanwhile often has other things in mind that can cloud judgement. The spirit of the great brands is as indomitable as that of the manager who hauled himself from the wreckage of Munich to light the candle that would guide another generation. It's no accident that Matt Busby attracted to the club players who would understand the manner in which they were called upon not only to win but also to thrillingly entertain.

This clarity of purpose is missing in too many brand-managers and it's up to the brand-owner first to make sure that the spirit of the brand is both understood and honoured by those entrusted with its well-being and success.

February 03, 2008

The Curse Of Knowledge

I heard an interview recently with one of the authors of the book Made To Stick, written by Dan & Chip Heath. This book is causing quite a stir in business circles in the US and one of the brothers (I can't remember which - bet they hate that!) talked of something called the Curse of Knowledge, which I thought very important.

The Curse of Knowledge afflicts us when we know a lot about something and struggle to put ourselves in the shoes of a listener who may not know as much (or care as much) as we do about it. This strikes me as especially important for brand-owners who often assume that our customers are as familiar as we are with what we have to sell to them. The Heath brother (Chip or Dan, you take your pick) suggested that ideas that stick in the marketplace are those that relay to customers no more and no less than they need to make a choice and don't assume their expertise.

This makes sense. We can't expect our customer to be a specialist. We're all of us familiar with the over-enthusiastic or seriously-intense salesman who tries to browbeat the cusotmer into making a purchase. Sometimes, that salesman is us! If we were to look a little more closely, I think we'd see that we can be afflicted with the Curse of Knowledge which dooms us to the failure of telling a lot but saying very little that's relevant to our customer.

What's your area of specialist knowledge and how do you curse your business relationships with it?