April 30, 2009

Smelling The Coffee

Here's a clever idea that's new to me and suggests that someone has woken up and smelt what's needed in an industry that's under particularly intense pressure to stimulate supply.

It seems the smart people at Julia Ross (I'll confess this is the first I've heard of them), invite a panel of temporary staff to attend their offices each morning for a breakfast, which means they're on the spot if a client calls in with an urgent request. I got a call to introduce the service and immediately pictured these smartly turned-out temps ready to gulp down their coffee and drop their pastries at a moment's notice just for me.

It almost made me wish I had a need for a breakfast temp, just so I could call Julia Ross on the hotline and have someone come to the rescue.

Over to you: What brand new thinking have you seen lately that's impressed you?

April 19, 2009

Ben There, Dunne That

I've been listening with a sort of horrified fascination to the recent set of radio ads by Ben Dunne, offspring of the super-marketing family who owns Dunne's Stores.

Ben, who also runs a number of fitness gyms, has recently opened an art-gallery and insists on selling art with the same style as he's flogged baked beans and gym memberships in the past. His latest promotion is an auction at the gallery and Ben (who also insists on doing his own ads) tells us that there's no reserve price on artworks and boasts that this is how art should be sold.

These latest ads give us a clue as to why this force of business thinks he knows best, for he tells us that his own Mum gave him all the encouragement he needs when she told him, "If Dunne can't do it, it can't be Dunne."

Well, Ben's done it alright and whilst I'm slow to wish any entrepreneur a poor return for his efforts, I can't help but feel that this stack-them-high and sell-them-cheap approach to art can't be a good thing for art or artists in the long run. I know some galleries can be guilty of gilding the lily when it comes to valuing artworks, but this alternative makes for grim listening and scarcely promises cheerful viewing.

Ben might insist that a visit to the gallery will lift my spirits but they plummet every time I hear his leaden tones hawking his latest wares on the cheap.

Over to you: Do you think art should be sold like tins of beans?

April 11, 2009

Book Review: Branding Only Works On Cattle

This book on branding is a peculiar animal.

Argumentative, poorly organised and with a distracting number of typing errors, it makes for a difficult read. Which is a real pity because author Jonathan Salem Baskin has a number of very useful things to say about the world of branding. But he’s the annoying boy in class, the show-off who’s so determined to make the rest of us sit up and listen that we’re in danger in missing out on many of the sharper observations he has to offer.

Baskin begins by announcing a shift in the world of branding, a new heresy to the established orthodoxy, and declares himself its high priest. However, for much of the early part of the book, it seems that the orthodoxy he’s challenging is ‘advertising-as-branding’ as practised by large agencies, rather than branding itself, which can distract from the value of much of what he has to say.

But the real challenge is his assertion, repeated throughout, that his represents a brave new world of thinking. I’m not so certain that much of his thinking is new; it’s just that those who ply their trade in the great shop-windows of the world largely ignore it. For many business-owners, much of what Baskin has to write will seem common sense.

After dismissing most of what passes for branding as useless (aha! he thought that might get your attention), Baskin proposes a new behaviour-based model instead. He argues that most branding activity is geared towards achieving results that have little to do with sales and suggests that, “corporations ask nothing of branding other than glorified name recognition”.

He accuses branding professionals of failing to distinguish between communications success and commercial failure and of resisting the only measures that truly matter for branding: behaviours that lead to sales. For Baskin, “the starting point of branding, should be the end-point of your business strategy: selling stuff”. This makes great sense, but it’s hardly new.

What is more novel is Baskin’s suggestion that “maybe branding is a structural approach to the enterprise as a sustainable, adaptable one-room branding and marketing machine”. He goes on to liken the successful brand to a swarm of bees or hive of ants “consciously alert and buzzing with behaviours”.

Now this is very interesting stuff indeed. Because he sees branding as being based around a series of events that make or break the enterprise, Baskin suggests that brands must adapt to the experiences of their customers in the same way that certain insects respond to changes in their environment. Apparently, bees and ants don’t communicate in a ‘let me tell you what I’ve just learned’ sort of way; instead, they react to the behaviours of others in their group and adapt their own behaviours accordingly. Baskin says that brand-managers must move beyond telling their customers what to think and behave instead in ways that lead to measurable outcomes.

Baskin then produces his trump card and suggests that the best way in which to interact with customers through the brand is to adopt the models used by the gamers who make and play alternative reality games. These game-plans have five elements that he thinks are relevant to brand management: Goals (or payoff), Context, Narrative Flow, Tools and Winners & Losers. He believes that successful companies are already using these one way or another and argues that for them “branding is experience, and the behaviours look a lot more like playing a game than engaging with any traditional branding campaign”.

Finally, Baskin puts down the failure of brands in the twenty-first century to the shortening of what he describes as a “brand interlude”, the period between expectations and experience. Back in the old days of traditional brand-management (which Baskin likes to compare to a séance where branding clairvoyants called out to the ether for signs that their diversions were working), it took much longer for woolly assertions to be found out. Now, thanks to the speeding up of communications, this interlude has grown shorter and shorter, meaning that brands that promise one thing and don’t deliver on it get found out much more quickly.

If only Baskin had taken his own advice and produced a book that made it easier for his readers to get to the good ideas and take action on them. As it is, this book is a struggle to read and only a few hardy souls who are prepared to see past Baskin’s clever-boy routine will make it through to the finish.

Branding Only Works on Cattle: The New Way to Get Known (and drive your competitors crazy) by Jonathan Salem Baskin

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 978-0470742570

(This review first appeared in Marketing Age, the magazine of the Marketing Institute of Ireland).

April 07, 2009

Tribal Lovefare

Shortly after St. Patrick's Day, economist David McWilliams posted on the opportunities available to us through the extensive Irish diaspora: Going Tribal Will Save Us From Economic Oblivion. According to McWilliams, the challenge for the Irish State is reinvent the relationship between Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

I was reminded again of the power of the tribe and the connection to the homeplace last Saturday, when I went along to see the Erris Player's excellent production of Synge's Playboy of the Western World in Dublin's Liberty Hall. It seemed that the whole of Mayo was there and the first appearance of each actor on stage was greeted by a delighted murmur of recognition and, presumably when a more notorious local character arrived, by a smattering of applause.

Many years ago, I used to see similar connections maintained in Hong Kong at Chinese New Year when families returned to the Mainland to visit relatives in the home place or when they gathered for the sweeping of graves in April.

Some time later, I was able to make great inroads into the ad agency world in both New York and Chicago as I piggybacked on introductions from Irish-Americans and often found myself no more than two degrees separated from someone I wanted to meet (this was in the days before LinkedIn and the various social media sites).

David McWilliams has a point when he suggests that "the next chapter of the Irish story will involve harnessing Irishness and turning our worldwide family into the greatest commercial network the world has ever seen." Last month, with my colleagues at the Smile Conference, we launched a Facebook Failte campaign, to encourage Irish people all over the world to send a personal invitation to a friend or colleague to visit Ireland during 2009. The campaign has started slowly but is beginning to build momentum. (As we're on the subject, why not drop along and issue your own Cead Mile Failte?).

McWilliams is also right when he suggests that the Irish, like the Jews (and, in my experience too, the Chinese) enjoy a natural advantage in terms of the spread of our diasporas.

But wherever you're from, ask yourself what you can do to link in your brand to the tribe that connects you and millions of others to your homeplace.

April 03, 2009

Another Problem To Solve For Mr. Dyson

We've just bought our first Dyson and it's a beauty. No doubt about it. Looks the business and runs like a dream.

Naturally, I was keen to see how Mr. Dyson talks the walk and his little booklet 'The Story of Dyson', which accompanied our new toy (sorry, serious cleaning machine), didn't disappoint.

I learned how the man who 'likes to make things better' started out designing a barrow, the Ballbarrow (which goes where "no wheelbarrow has ever gone before") before going on to design the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner. I also read in the section 'Another Problem To Solve' how it took three on-board computers, 50 sensory devices and 60,000 hours of research to create efficient, methodical robot cleaning. Another section told me that "the people at Dyson who design products are called 'engineers' (because) to Dyson, 'design' means how something works, not how it looks."

So far, so very impressive.

Then, following the instructions on the packaging, I went online to register my purchase.

Now, the people at Dyson who design the website can't be engineers because the site neither looks well nor works well. In fact, I'm not sure it works at all. I was taken brusquely through a sequence of web-pages (many of which were subtle variations on the last) before arriving at a page where I could enter my details. I filled out the form and pressed 'Submit' - and then nothing. No onscreen confirmation. No email thanking me for registering. Nothing.

Unsure whether I'd registered successfully or not, I called the local number instead and spoke with a very helpful woman who completed my registration and then advised me that my proof of purchase was all that was required to qualify me for service and certain parts under my warranty.

What a pity that Mr. Dyson's carefully designed brand experience didn't extend to my visit online. I don't expect his engineers to spend 60,000 hours (or even a fraction of that) crafting an online registration process but this simple exchange, made convoluted and frustrating, briefly soured my infatuation with our new beauty.

Over to you, Mr. Dyson.