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.