Saturday, February 27, 2010

Are writers the real visionaries?

I've spent most of my professional life writing stuff for one reason or another. Speeches, editorials, strategy papers, government submissions, adverts, the list goes on. Occasionally, inspired pieces that I have written has been presented or published under other people's names. Some of it has been recognised with 'quote of the week' in mainstream media, or speech material originating from me has been published word for word in major publications under someone else's byline.

Now this is not a gripe session. This is the lot of any writer-for-hire, but what astonishes me is the number of these things that I have written without any briefing at all on the subject from the person who will ultimately 'author' the document. No input to the vision, no indication of their line of thinking. There are writers all over the place who experience the same thing. At the highest levels, the entire visions of governments and multinational corporations are scribed by some humble, nameless subjects in the dark recesses of the executive - visions they dream up over a good glass of red or three at home.

There are a few exceptions. In the early days, our prime minister, Kevin07 penned his own speeches. However, I suspect he's running short of time to do that now he has to don the overalls and crawl through ceilings to check out dodgy insulation installed by shonks cashing in on the GFC-inspired vision to insulate a million Australian homes. Thank God I didn't write the speech announcing the vision behind that program! Meanwhile, former climate change lieutenant, Peter Garrett, is no doubt burning the Midnight Oil to ensure the Japanese whaling fleet is far enough offshore to prevent Kev commandeering a spare harpoon to train on him.

But back to my point - how much of the vision that ultimately charts our destiny, whether in business, government or local community life, is actually created by people we don't even know? How many of our venerated community and business leaders would be rendered mute by both lack of vision and writing skills if it weren't for the squadrons of former journalists creating for them?

No wonder a lot of us end up in creating the values and vision behind brands.

Brand at the pinnacle

I recall reading a survey of senior executives circa 2006 in which the overwhelming majority named brand as their #1 priority in running their businesses. I subscribe to this view, that the CEO's primary role is to act as guardian of the brand. But what exactly does this mean?

To the superficial thinkers on brand that I seem to regularly encounter, the interpretation of this is that the CEO becomes responsible for the "trivial", touchy-feely aspects of the business - commissioning logo design, approving advertisements and dreaming up catchy taglines. Clearly this is not the case.

Brand embraces everything that is important about a business - its reputation, sound governance, corporate social responsibility, being an employer of choice, excellent financial management, stakeholder relations and so on. I have said this in different ways before, but have been prompted to reiterate the case for placing brand at the pinnacle of business priorities, thanks to a meeting that I attended only last week.

It was a meeting of a number of large organisations to discuss the creation of a collective brand under which to promote a common set of values and execute strategy. The meeting was relatively successful, except I noted one thing. The discussion about commercial opportunities was virtually divorced from the discussion about associating through a common brand.

It was clear to me that the common brand values were the key to identifying the commercial opportunities that could be pursued. In one instance and, I must say, no one else seem to realise its potential, I resolved a discussion by identifying that the outcome could easily be determined if we first dealt with the question about what values they might share as a branded collective. The reaction? Yeesssss.... but let's get back to what we were talking about.

The lack of apprecation for the power of brand in shaping strategy and crystallising thinking, particularly among businesses that are clearly sub-scale in terms of promoting brand through mainstream media, is extremely frustrating to me. Brand has nothing to do with whether you have a logo, although I believe recognisable symbols are important in this visual age. Its role is far more fundamental, defining the way you conduct your business and interact with internal and external stakeholders and customers.

That's why CEOs should be the guardians of brand and ensure that every business decision is viewed through the prism of whether it is consistent with the fundamental values enshrined in its brand. Failure to do this results in dissonance in the marketplace and, in modern society, that disonnance is amplified through 24/7 consumer access to information and even services. The corollary, of course, is that consumer empathy can be amplified in the same way.

It just requires business to place brand at the pinnacle of its priorities and see the way it can transform and simplify strategy, staff engagement and customer loyalty.

Having let off this week's frustration, I'll try to reintroduce humour into my next missive...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Brands that signal a mid-life or mid-wife crisis

Hey! It's my birthday today. Won't tell my age, as it would involve too many disclaimers to the effect that a) not over the hill; b) not on life support c) still have hair d) the list goes on!

But birthdays often produce opportunity for reality checks and this morning was no exception when I opened my presents. All items of clothing, but they all told a story. Most significantly, they raised questions about brand affinity as one slips through the gears, but hopefully not down the stairs, towards the inevitable.

So here's the items and what they say about where I'm at in life:

A hoody by The Hurley Movement. The thing to know here is that I love surf gear, even though I might look a bit sad in some of it these days. But, driven by that knowledge, my wife and mother-in-law (!) ventured into a surf shop to seek out some wardrobe enhancements. These are people disconcerted by a series of ripples in Port Phillip Bay. Even surfing the internet is a scary proposition.

My reaction to the reveal - ecstasy! That was until my wife started to question what The Hurley Movement might be. Was it indeed an ecstasy-fuelled culture? Did wearing it mean I had to buy paint in spray cans? Did we have to put a 44 gallon drum in the back garden, light a fire in it and hang out a la East LA?

I thought it might be related to Liz Hurley and the way she moved in 'that dress' long before Hugh Grant's brief sojourn into a bit of 'street culture'. I checked it out on the internet. To my alarm, the brand seems to have no cult or even culture. No mention of Liz. A bland rather than brand association. But it makes my wife edgy and it looks kinda cool. Maybe I'll become a hoody cult figure!

Board shorts by Rusty. Rusty made his name in breakthrough surfboard design, then branched out into clothes. I like that. Here's a brand with a history and therefore some real cred. My wife thinks the boardies are a bit too over the top for me. That's great too. It shows I still have the mongrel in me (non-Aussie readers translate as 'rebel').

Gazman long sleeve casual shirt. It's actually not a bad shirt. Gazman is an Aussie brand my wife thinks suits me. Some of it does, but I see other 50-year-olds wearing it and I'm not sure I emotionally belong in that space. Nonetheless, it looks pretty good and there's no Gazman label on the outside to give anything away (what happened to the 80s when we wore out clothes inside-out?).

All in all, a a pretty successful morning, with a marginal victory for my refusal to accept I am no longer the fantasy of the women getting sprayed in Coppertone oil on Surfers Paradise Beach. Or was that my fantasy? Earlier in life, I admit I did cop too much Queensland sun. Perhaps it fried my brain as well.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A term I hate in marketing

Phew! Am I opening a Pandora's Box or what? I am involved in a major project at the moment and all I hear is the cliched mantra "Under promise and over deliver". I hate it with a passion!

Who thought of this? It's the best excuse I've seen for setting low expectations and then expecting customers to break out in rapturous applause when you deliver the mediocre. What's wrong with setting high expectations and delivering on them - or even exceeding them? From a brand perspective, I admire companies that communicate to me that they expect a lot of themselves, their products, their service - that they set the highest benchmarks for their brand.

If you have any marketing/branding terms that you hate every time they crop up in meetings, comment on them here. Let's out the cliches! Even better, drop a comment on any great lines that you have come up with. You never know, you may have just come up with something that becomes the hated cliche of tomorrow, but at least we'll know who to blame!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Grunge" retail cranks up the profit

Having just waxed lyrical about how good it is to see LVMH committed to leadership by design, the zero-design retail brand, JB Hi-Fi announces a 29% lift in half-year profit. Leadership by chaos in Aussie retail reigns supreme!

JB Hi-Fi is an Australian discount retailer focused on selling leading and not-so-illustrious brands at the cheapest prices. Its logo design... well.... its logo is the sort you'd expect from a $2 shop. The sort of thing one would knock together in the back room if uncertainty about the viability of the business dictated minimum investment. For those who haven't witnessed what I'm talking about, here is the JB banner

JB Hi-Fi has turned the chalk board special into a national icon. The store in Melbourne's CBD frequently drapes that black polythene sheet you normally use to line your planter boxes in its shop front window, with painted white specials writ large - similar to the internet banner only more basic! This serves the dual purpose of advertising the specials and turning the window into another wall against which you can stack all kinds of audiovisual equipment cheek by jowl in a manner to make audiophiles ashen-faced.

Step inside and it's visual overload. Bins of peripherals, CDs of all vintages, and walls of amps, speakers and flat screens. Noise levels are amazing as the amps crank up to drown out the customers and customers in turn ramp up the vocals to drown out the amps. It's competition at its finest. Audiovisual chaos through which customers navigate their way to lower prices.

No matter what you think of it, JB Hi-Fi is a retail phenomenon, striding from profit to even higher profit - a GFC-proof leviathan that's taken grunge retail national. It's unpretentious retailing, stacking money in the bank as high as it stacks the brands that it sells. The financial analysts love it as much as the bargain hunters.

And this is the difference between JB Hi-Fi and LVMH. JB Hi-Fi lives off other people's brands. It recognises it is a low-cost channel with an identity. It delivers big brands at low prices and nothing more. And note that I say 'big' and not necessarily 'best'. Not for JB Hi-Fi the audio brands for the purists. Leave that and all the overheads of specialist advice and service to the niche operators.

So you see, there is design within JB Hi-Fi's chaos. Their design lies not in their logo or presentation, but in their strategy. They are the anti-establishment member of the retail establishment. They exist to do volume - both audiovisual and financial. More blast for your buck. Nothing more and nothing less. I've already dwelt too long on this .... next reader please!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

LVMH - letting creative flourish

I read an article over the weekend about LVMH's (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton's) approach to ensuring ideas leadership in product development and corporate culture.

The key point was that instead of creating a corporate structure and then recruiting bods to fill the holes, they identified talent, hired and then allowed that person to carve out a niche for themselves within the company. This ensures that the business makes attracting the best available talent its Number 1 priority to ensure that it stays ahead of the pack in creating new products for its generally well-heeled clientele.

Another interesting observation was that the company ensures creative teams remain small - no design by committee. Its rationale is that the bigger the creative team, the more compromise and the greater the propensity to design products to the lowest common denominator i.e. pleasing everyone, qualified to comment or not and, in the end, standing for nothing.

To those who might argue that 'of course they can do that, it's reflected in their prices!' I would say there is no reason why this approach cannot work for any brand that knows its marketplace. All LVMH is demonstrating is that it clearly understands its history, its customers and its future success.

I have questioned before why organisations insist that every department that wants to 'have a say' in the way things are written, presented and marketed, gets it. LVMH clearly believes, as I have said before, that this is counter-productive to the creative process. It merely stunts thought leadership in areas of product design and new business opportunity.

There was a long period when I was involved in the auto industry where new vehicles were 'clinic-ed' to death. Design leadership was trashed by public viewings of proposed new models - only for the business to find out that the clinics merely resulted in style-compromised vehicles that looked out of date on the day they were launched.

The successful companies are those that lead the market in a considered way, guided by the best talent they can afford. I have never worked for LVMH but, if they are true to their PR, good luck to them for daring to lead.

Apple's MobileMe - the real game changer

There's no doubt the iPad's launch reinforces Apple's positioning as an innovator. But it does something more than that. From a commercial perspective, it has the capacity to suck people into the growing power of Apple's vortex, drawing them into a new world in the Apple 'cloud'. It's the natural environment for all our thoughts, memories and shared secrets. It is also an infinitely expandable universe of raw materials mined to inform, entertain and lose ourselves. It reaches 300 million people who already own Apple mobile devices.

The iPad is merely a gateway to Apple's core business, which is now largely driven by selling virtual consumer goods created for us by an eclectic mix of musicians, producers, journalists, artists and, maybe, marketers. Why maybe? Simple. Most of us haven't even worked out how to engage our companies and clients in the social media world, let alone the digital jungle of Apple's rapidly developing universe.

That is why Apple's transition to content provider for cool digital devices tailored to receive it is genius. Apple has worked out the best way to engage its customers is to build a world for them into which they can embed their daily lives. To own the jungle is the most elegant way to tame it, control the way it is used and by whom. And if you don't believe this is happening, consider that Apple is reportedly building the world's biggest data centre in Catawba County, North Carolina - the home of Apple's MobileMe internet 'cloud', where millions already store personal photos and documents and integrate their communications.

The challenge for us is to carve out our role in this world. Perhaps we should sponsor new apps, form partnerships with specialist apps creators, or develop unique and engaging content that people might even buy! At a time when most of the stuff created for traditional channels like television is crap, I believe this will prove an enormous challenge for the marketing business. To cut through a jungle, you need a machete - insight, sharp words, opportunism, improvisaton and, most of all, relevance to the lives of Apple's cloud people.

Welcome to the world of Web 3.0 defined and owned by Apple! MobileMe is the ultimate app. For a growing number, it is the internet.