Inevitable | Why user experience means 21stC brands need to learn to be chosen
Andrew Bent, Creative Lead at The Zoo. Google EMEA
Issue 37 | December 2015
The Excellence Diploma was created by the UK's IPA to be its pinnacle qualification, a sort-of MBA for people in advertising fascinated by brands.
The course is chaired by Nick Kendall, former worldwide head of strategy at BBH and now partner with Kevin Brown at Bro-ken.
In Issue 36 of Directory, we published Nick's foreword to "What Is A 21st Century Brand?", a collection of some of the best Diploma essays of the last ten years.
All students are encouraged to master their own point of view in a written thesis, entitled "I believe...and therefore..."
Andrew Bent signed up for the Diploma in 2015. What has made him unusual, if not unique, among the Diploma scholars is that he is a creative by trade. He is also a Googler, which means he is working each day at the very cutting edge of digital communications. It gives him a rather different perspective to many, a perspective we are pleased to share here.
I believe... 20thC brands allowed consumers to make quick, fundamentally emotional choices between similarish products during regular purchase decisions they would rather not have invested cognitive energy in. I also believe it is self-evident that the strongest native 21stC brands are built on a mix of corporate culture and consumer experience of a product representing a genuine step up from what has gone before, rendering those regular choice moments obsolete.
Therefore... instead of building memory structures people hardly know they have, to influence choices they don't care about, brands need to become worth choosing in a world of relentless technological innovation and changing shopping and media behavior.
My Milsom Street Moment Of Truth
One day in September 1997 I walked into the Midland Bank branch on Milsom Street in Bath. This was not an important day to me at the time but what happened that day might just be crucial for the future of building brands in the C21st. I'd just started my degree and had recently switched my current account from the bank my parents had signed me up for when I was eight, Lloyds, to the Midland. As I recall the reason for the switch was because the Midland were giving away free young persons railcards and a credit card with a fifty pound limit(!).
But it's not the impressive introductory giveaways that I want to write about. That day I'd walked into the Midland branch in Milsom Street because I had a cheque to pay in. I hated paying in cheques because you had to fill in a fiddly 'paying-in slip' by copying numbers from your bank card. For one reason or another I could never do this first time and would regularly get through three or four attempts before successfully filling out a slip correctly.
But that day in Milsom Street, instead of frustratingly ripping up attempt after attempt I had a revelatory experience. The Midland Bank staff member behind the counter offered to fill in the slip for me. I remember feeling genuinely blown away by the idea that banking staff could be there to help, or that a bank could think of its services from the customer's point of view at all. This story doesn't reflect well on the kind of customer service you could expect at Lloyds in the 1990's
Despite a total rebrand (The Midland Bank became HSBC in 1999) and a remarkable list of banking scandals over seventeen years of hugely changing personal circumstances, I've stuck with the same banking provider ever since. Now, however revelatory that experience on Milsom Street in September 1997 was, the honest reason I have never changed is probably because I just don't care about it that much. Maybe I should. Maybe a bit more concentration on my banking needs would show there's a much better deal for me out there somewhere, that HSBC are letting me down in some major way. But I'd rather invest that time and energy in the rest of my life than in maintaining a constant vigilance over the quality of my banking provider. And that one moment in Milsom Street in 1997 won me over enough.
Enough to override eighteen years worth of exposure to advertising from other banking brands, that's for sure. And it's not just me, according to research by Consumer Focus 75% of consumers in the UK have never even considered switching their current account.
"...just 7% of people have switched their current account in the past two years, compared to 31% who switched energy providers, 26% who switched telephone providers and 22% who switched insurance providers." Consumer Focus
Just like my banking needs, most brands are not really that important to people. It's the great contradiction at the heart of brand building that it's because brands are not important that they are so powerful. If your choice of shampoo or bleach brand was more important you'd dedicate more cognitive investment to the decision. So much of current brand building hinges on that mythical moment when you're stood in front of a supermarket shelf confronted by a choice of similar products, which you don't really care about. Instead of making a considered, rational, time-consuming choice based on actual product attributes you make a quick, easy, fundamentally emotional one based on some vague associations you have deep in your subconscious about the brand. (2)
P&G, the largest marketing spender in the world, calls it the 'First Moment Of Truth' or FMOT, and their whole marketing approach is oriented around it. (3)
Importantly with banking, as opposed to say shampoo or bleach, I don't have to make a new purchase decision every time I need it. I signed up years ago and, barring a catastrophic failure in service and a small number of significant life events, I simply don't have to think about it again. Shampoo consumers face an FMOT every few weeks, banking consumers maybe a handful over a lifetime.
I believe that changes in product innovation, shopping behaviour and media consumption mean that more and more categories will become more like banking than shampoo, including shampoo. This has sweeping implications for how brand building might need to change.
Ive not Jobs
Steve Jobs said an awful lot of things, which started an awful lot of thought pieces, especially on brands and brand building. But I've always loved this quote from Jony Ive, the designer who gave Jobs the beautiful, elegant products to present so inspirationally:
"So much of what we try to do is get to a point where the solution seems inevitable: you know, you think "of course it's that way, why would it be any other way?" Jony Ive
While Jobs was expounding his desire to change the world, pointing Apple's brand towards ever loftier associations, Ive wanted to design products which were so simple they would seem obvious, inevitable.
'Simple' and 'obvious', terms which don't sound very ambitious. How many creative ideas have been rejected by Creative Directors because they're simple and obvious? And today we find ourselves in an environment where brands, inspired by visionary CEOs like Jobs, are reaching for ever greater meaning:
But I would say if you're going to take inspiration from Apple, then you should be taking inspiration from Ive rather than Jobs. Simple isn't easy and the obvious is often only obvious when someone points it out for you. Simple and obvious is what you need to be obsessed by if you're going to over deliver a rewarding user experience.
I suppose it's possible to disentangle what definitively constitutes the brand from the product, or the brand's performance from its sales, or the brand from the advertising; I just don't feel it's a particularly useful thing to do. At a recent lecture, Russell Davies showed this illuminating graph aligning Apple's world beating, record breaking market capitalisation growth with its general advertising creative strategy.
How do you go about separating the brand from the product from the advertising from the sales here? What would be the point? It's no coincidence that Jony Ive is very much a product person. His focus is on the user experience and, way more than big blockbuster advertising, it's the user experience which has become the primary expression of the Apple brand.
Maybe an 'inevitable brand' is one that understands that rather than its promotional material its ultimate expression is in the consumer experience of it.
So instead of asking 'what is a brand?' maybe the more interesting question might be 'what is a brand for?'
In that context, I want to look at a classic example of how a brand achieved huge success in the 20thC and then see how changes in product innovation, shopping behaviour and media consumption mean that how the brand succeeds in the 21stC will need to be significantly different.
It's the taste!
According to former Fallon Chairman Laurence Green, "PG Tips is the daddy: a campaign and a case study which, frankly, taught us how to do our jobs."
Commercial television launched in the UK in September 1955 and PG Tips was one of the very first brands to realise this new medium's potential. In 1956, with the debut of the PG chimps they began thirty-two years of full-on entertainment.
But it wasn't just immediately popular. It had immediate results:
"From '56 to '58 the brand went from number four to number one and has never really looked back¬." Nigel Jones, formerly Head of Account Planning at BMP DDB
And more than that, those two things were directly related. So when customers stood in front of a supermarket shelf in that FMOT moment they were subconsciously thinking..
"..PG Tips is the one that makes me smile when it comes on the television. It's the one that reflects my own history, it reflects our lifestyle..." Paul Feldwick, formerly Worldwide Brand Planning Director at DDB
Consistency was THE key reason the campaign was so successful over such a long period. They always used the chimps, they all had the same humourous tonality and they always invested heavily in TV advertising to maintain a consistent share of voice.
But the most fascinating thing to me is just how little this had to do with the actual product.
"The success of the campaign is even more remarkable when you understand that PG Tips didn't really have any great functional advantages...When people taste tea blind then basically they can't tell the difference between different brands. But if you tell them what the brands are they'll tell you that PG Tips tastes much better than other teas." Les Binet
So, instead of the brand being defined by the user experience of the product, the user experience is utterly transformed by the power of the brand. And that power was created almost entirely by television advertising.
PG Tips even missed the boat for the biggest product innovation within their category over the period: the teabag.
Tetley launched the teabag in 1964 and PG did nothing for four years, waiting to see if the new-fangled things worked or not. When it was clear teabags were a hit, PG Tips finally launched their own in 1968.
"For the next three years they actually didn't spend as much as Tetley but by 1972 they were brand leader in the teabag sector of the market...and all down to the added value that the brand already had. And I think this was testament and proof again that added value can beat NPD innovation." Nigel Jones
The conclusions are unavoidable:
1. Product Innovation: the product was at best secondary to the brand and, possibly, almost incidental. PG Tips were even able to easily ride the significant disruption of Tetley's product innovation purely because of the strength of the brand.
2. Shopping behaviour: customer preference, and therefore their FMOT decision, was defined by their emotional connection to the brand. During their regular choice at the supermarket shelf shoppers reached for the familiar and likeable.
3. Media consumption: the brand was almost entirely built on the success of the TV advertising. And the advertising was successful because it was a) entertaining enough to become famous and b) broadcast over a very long period at a consistent share of voice.
However, how the PG Tips brand achieved success then is now in flux and up for grabs.
User experience trumps brand awareness
Today, I believe that inevitability all starts with the product. Technological change is only going to get faster so 'jumping to the next curve' will happen more and more often in more and more areas. That's inevitable.
I remember clearly the first time I used Google. I had been using the internet regularly from 2000 and like many people at that time, the first brand I turned to online was Yahoo. Yahoo had done the traditional thing, building brand awareness through television advertising. But it was an extremely frustrating experience. Time after time I knew the website I was looking for but no matter what combination of keywords I used, Yahoo wouldn't find it for me. If you didn't know the exact URL, you were stuffed.
I was moaning to a colleague about this when he leaned over my keyboard and typed www.google.com into the browser. Google gave me exactly what I was looking for first time and I remember thinking, "Oh, so this is what I'll use from now on."
Google.com became my homepage that day and has been ever since.
User experience trumped brand awareness that day. And Google didn't feel the need to advertise on TV until 2010, twelve years after it had started and by which time it was already established as one of the world's most powerful brands.
Back in September 2006, MySpace had all the buzz thanks to breakthrough music acts like The Arctic Monkeys and Sandi Thom. But actually using MySpace was an exercise in masochism. The user experience was atrocious. Every page would be laid out differently, music would start playing without permission seemingly from nowhere and your eyes were assaulted by an ugly kaleidoscope of animated GIFs. Then Facebook solved all these issues with its news feed, giving members a consistent, reliable experience which people flocked to.
Again, the greater awareness of MySpace was trumped by the better user experience of Facebook.
Google and Facebook are of course exceptional examples of online tech brands but even the beer market is being dramatically disrupted in the 21stC. And not through new players employing outstanding advertising but by craft beer breweries focused on the taste and provenance of the product.
Brewdog founder James Watt has said, "I would rather take my money and set fire to it," than spend it on advertising. Instead of being dreamed up in a marketing department or advertising agency planning meeting, the Brewdog brand has grown organically out of a mix of corporate culture and user experience.
In his presentation 'Usability Trumps Persuasion,' Russell Davies is explicit about this issue. Developing a brilliant product is hard. Developing a parity product and marketing it well is simply easier, which is why it is the default position for many organisations. He asserts that developing a brilliant product just got 'way easier', mostly through technology, and that "digital transformation is inevitable." McKinsey's agree:
"From 1965 to 2012, the "topple rate," at which they [incumbent companies] lose their leadership positions, increased by almost 40% as digital technology ramped up competition, disrupted industries, and forced businesses to clarify their strategies, develop new capabilities, and transform their cultures."
In the 21stC, every brand should assume that disruption is not only inevitable, it is imminent. Thus the question every brand should be asking itself is, 'How can we put ourselves out of business?"
It's a hugely counter-intuitive thing to do but if Kodak or Blockbusters or HMV had thought the unthinkable, then they might still be around. Kodak actually invented digital photography but insisted its core business was in film.
The company's journey from peak sales to bankruptcy was less than a decade at a time when the brand was one of the strongest and most recognizable in the world.
But not all innovation is directly related to the product. Sometimes it's in the way you deliver it. And that brings me to the second transformative element...
According to recent Havas Media Groupresearch, "Most people would not care if 74% of all brands disappeared for good." This chimes with the Ehrenburg-Bass conclusion that consumers don't perceive the supposed differentiation between brand personalities.
Havas's message is that brands should aspire to be in the 26% segment. However I would say that it's that 74% where the brand is currently doing the most work.
Sainsbury's creative agency AMV BBDO have identified a phenomenon they call sleep-shopping, and I believe it is crucial to how most brands work.
They spent a day following shoppers round a Sainbury's supermarket, asking them questions as they went. The answers to the questions were one thing but the most interesting thing was that they were able to answer them at all. Craig Mawdsley, Joint Head of Planning at AMV BBDO, was struck by how easily the shoppers were able to both navigate the store and answer odd questions about what they were doing and why. AMV even experimented with sending a man dressed as a gorilla into stores to see if shoppers would notice. Most of the time they didn't.
They were able to do this because the shopping itself involved so little cognitive investment, they simply didn't have to think about it that much. That so much of what found its way into those trolleys and baskets were products which would be indistinguishable in a blind taste test against Sainsbury's own label equivalent but also commanded a typical 30% mark up is testament to the power of brands when we're not paying attention and we don't care.
It's what 74% of brands are really all about. Regular FMOTs where we disengage and outsource our decision-making to an inbuilt autopilot.
But what if you never had to shop for products you don't care about at all? What if physical availability was completely bypassed? What if all the products you sleep-shop for were simply delivered to you by a subscription service, whenever they ran out? Could a brand ever become more simple, obvious, inevitable and deliver a better user experience than when it can replenish itself?
This is the promise of Amazon Dash Buttons: connected devices which replenish your grocery needs with the push of a button. At first this looks like a market leader's dream, Amazon have been careful to only feature the most recognizable brands on their material. But Russell Davies recognizes the threat this represent to brands big or small:
"The scenario that always pops into my head is this: You install a Persil button on your washing machine. You use it three or four times to order some more Persil...Then, one time, Amazon sends you a message saying 'we do our own washing powder now, it's a bit cheaper and just as good, should we send that instead?'.* You'd probably say yes, wouldn't you? I would. Enough of us would. Goodbye billions of pounds of 'brand value'.'"
Now what happens when digital assistants like Siri or Google Now take care of shopping for the 74% of brands we don't care about? What happens when most mundane purchase decisions aren't made at a shelf but by an algorithm? So all those carefully constructed brand associations and memories we barely realise we have, the emotional autopilot which actually makes so many of our shopping decisions, doesn't get to influence our choices?
Subscription services have the potential to be utterly transformative in so many areas. Über is another example of a dominant, native 21stC brand, which has only turned to more traditional advertising after becoming well-established.
Once you have Über on your phone, it's just a matter of time before you stop saying 'taxi'. More than loyalty, for Über users it quickly becomes a monopoly.
If brands are powerful because they make our purchase decisions easier, then how powerful will subscription services be by completely eliminating them?
Now imagine combining the power of that subscription service with some serious, next curve innovation. With your car sitting unused for 95% of your day, and expense meaning that fewer and fewer young people see the value of even passing their driving test, let alone owning a car, imagine when Über combines its on-demand service with self-driving shuttles. If you think this is fanciful just watch Jalopnik's video of a self-driving Tesla negotiating the streets of New York. (https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=3yCAZWdqX_Y)
This is where 21stC brands need to be, over-delivering on an innovative user experience to a subscribed customer base.
The implications for the future of advertising are significant
Calling time on Bill Bernbach
Bill Bernbach, often credited with inventing modern creative advertising, said:
"If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic."
But there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that it's 'being noticed' which is academic. Advertising can work perfectly well whether it's noticed or not.
Highly informed by Daniel Kahneman's type one and type two decision-making theory, in 2001 academic Robert Heath, with support from advertising practitioner Paul Feldwick, proposed that advertising works by relying on 'low involvement processing' rather than by opinion-altering persuasion:
In a 2005 article Jon Howard-Spink explored the case of an Amoy 'Straight To Wok' Noodles ad, which no-one noticed and yet undoubtedly it worked:
"At the end of the day, people were aware of exciting new news from Amoy – just not where they had heard it."
So, though pretty much everyone agrees that outstanding creative work does outperform the norm, crucially wallpaper no-one notices can work reliably well. This is because most broadcast advertising works by building associations and memory structures you are hardly aware of in the emotional, non-rational part of your brain, which then influence your purchase decisions precisely because you don't care.
I would say that in the 21stC, invisible advertising will not just be invisible it will lose all possibility of effectiveness as well. If advertising is to work, it will have to be famous. In the future, the only effective advertising may well be the stuff that people choose to engage with.
If you don't believe that this will have a huge effect on the quality of material created in the name of brands then just compare two pieces of video for the P&G brand Always.
People chose to watch the D&AD Black Pencil winner #LikeAGirl on YouTube 60 million times.
At the same time, the Ultra Sanitary Towels commercial ("5am, I'm still out, AND it's my period!") was created knowing full well that its efficacy depended entirely on investment in share of voice.
We're talking about a world where that second type of advertising simply goes away. This is a win/win because not only will advertising get better, we have every reason to believe it will get more effective as well.
For example, Dollar Shave Club burst onto an unsuspecting world in March 2012 with their YouTube video, 'Our Blades Are F***ing Great'. The video quickly racked up 20 million views and launched the business. So many viewers were interested in learning more about this new subscription service, which delivered blades to your door every month, that the website broke.
To me the DSC brand epitomises the 21stC brand because (a) it is a subscription service, which bypasses the FMOT moment, and (b) it has been promoted by a highly entertaining video which became famous not through excess share of voice but because people chose to watch and share it.
In the 20thC, brands depended on sleep-shoppers, whose brains happened to be remarkably influenced by advertising, which they often barely noticed.
And all this worked brilliantly as long as the shopper didn't care. In fact, it worked precisely because the shopper didn't care. Brands were powerful because they made the regular purchase decisions we don't care about easier.
But all that may change very, very soon.
Products or services which represent a 'jump to the next curve' will come more regularly and disrupt more and more markets. Therefore, if a brand does not set about trying to 'put itself out of business', someone else will.
I also believe that sleep-shopping may soon be a thing of the past. Soon you may not think at all about your low involvement purchasing decisions.
If shopping fundamentally shifts from shelf to subscription, then your brand needs to be actively chosen. Nothing could be more inevitable than a brand, which simply replenishes itself.
In a world where invisible advertising will simply be invisible, and where share of voice is now irrelevant, brands must create advertising which people will choose to watch and share.
Which all boils down to a fundamental change to the nature of the brand, from a tool to help us make a huge number of choices we don't care about to something which facilitates a small number of active, deliberate choices based on consumer experiences which are so rewarding that people will genuinely love choosing.
I have no idea whether these changes could genuinely be called inevitable, but I hope Jony Ive would approve of the sentiment.