The Pendulum Has Swung Too Far
Nick Kendall, Founding Partner Bro-ken
Issue 36 | September 2015
Nick Kendall is the former Global Strategy at BBH, now a Founding Partner with Kevin Brown at the brand ideas consultancy Bro-ken. He is also partner in The Garage – the start-up incubator- alongside Sir John Hegarty and Tom Teichman helping entrepreneurs who want 'to build great brands not just a great business'.
This essay is a revised version of Nick's foreword to "What Is A 21st Century Brand?", published by the IPA to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the IPA Excellence Diploma. The Diploma is one part of a series of professional qualifications created by the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) for the UK industry since 2003. The Diploma follows on from the Foundation and the Advanced Foundation Certificates, which were the brainchild of Stephen Woodford, who dedicated his Presidency of the IPA between 2003 and 2005 to raising professional standards in advertising.
The Diploma has been called the MBA of brand building. What are brands; what is their value to a business; how should ideas be used to build brands in today's world; how should marketers and their agencies organise themselves to be able to do that?
The Diploma is a programme of instruction and self- learning which is aimed at those individuals in our business seeking to master their own point of view. All students finish off their studies with a written thesis entitled "I believe...and therefore..."
"What Is a 21st Century Brand" is a selection of 20 of those "I believe..." essays, pulled together in one provocative volume. In editing the book, Nick thought it only fair he should write his own version of "I believe..." and Directory is gratified that he has agreed to share a slightly modified version of his thoughts with us.
I grew up believing in brands
At its simplest I believe in brands.
I have spent most of my career thus far sitting at the feet of messrs. Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty.
Baked, even beaten, into my thinking from an early age (I was 25 when I joined) was an unwavering belief in the power of brands and advertising's unique role in building them.
Every pitch I did over those twenty seven years would step back first to define the client's business challenges, then step forward to define the vision that would solve them . Only then would the brand idea be introduced. A brand idea that was never a script, never a one-off execution.
In the early days, I remember we presented ourselves to clients as part of the manufacturing process. The BBH building was designed and pictured as a 'creative factory', its role 'to build intangible value'. We pitched ourselves at the front of the process, not the back, as integral to the product as the designer building innovation into an Audi. John Bartle's favourite proof of the value of brands was the Coca-Cola/Pepsi blind taste test (where famously Pepsi wins in the blind and Coca-Cola wins in the branded test, reversing the results completely). For John it was proof of the power of emotion in shaping how we perceive and read the world around us.
Our 'go to' brand diagram therefore was a simple 'rational/ emotional' yin yang, with the brand's vision at the centre and the rational support and emotional benefits either side. Since those early days I have seen keys, onions, pyramids-a-plenty but that simple BBH yin yang brand diagram stripped down and enshrined the simplest definition of a brand. It was enough to drive the rise and rise of Levis, Audi, Axe/Lynx etc. And it is enough for me.
My belief has grown, not wavered.
As my experience and knowledge deepened, so did my respect for the value of brands.
I learned of a brand's ability to sustain a premium, its ability to secure loyalty, to resist competition and reverse the power of distribution. In short, I learned the value of brands to business as well as to consumers. It is easy to forget that during my time I have seen brands become as much a part of balance sheets as any other asset.
And, as the world around me changed, I have seen the uses and benefits of brands multiply. Brands are marvellously adaptive tools. Intellectual Swiss Army knives with a built-in updateability.
For example, as the economy has become global, I have seen brands give clarity, consistency and leadership across different countries and different stakeholders as well as across different brand and consumer histories. As markets have shifted to service and experience propositions I have seen brands being used to shape and engage company culture as well as consumer culture.
I have seen brands become platforms for innovation as single product brands became, by economic necessity, multi-category.
As the world has gone digital, I have seen brands become networks and communities, offering peer-to-peer support and added value services to its members. In our connected world, I have even seen brands become the living conscience of companies, where transparency is a given and sustainable consumption is a must.
In short, I believe brands have utility not just as communication organisers but as alternative CEOs. Brands can supply vision, a compass to guide a business, a living expression of the contract between company and consumer, a tool to shape the experience of the whole business not just a blind taste test, involving all stakeholders not just consumers.
In particular, I believe in Brand Ideas
I believe not just in the power of brands but also in the power of Brand Ideas. Indeed, I should confess, I love them. I love ideas. Not executions (though I love them too) but big, fat Brand Ideas; the bigger the better for me.
So though I am a planner by trade, when I am asked for my CV, I show my 'book' of the Brand Ideas I am most proud of. Why take Liberty's? The Original Jean, The Cream of Manchester, Dedicated to Pleasure, Keep Walking,
Dirt is Good.
I do this not just because I love creativity but, more importantly, because I feel they are the ultimate proof of whether, as John Hegarty puts it, I have managed to turn 'intelligence into magic'. For me this has to be the ultimate job of the individual in our business and is the ultimate role for, and value of, agencies.
If our first job is to help lead client to a clear Brand Vision, I feel Brand Ideas have a special value beyond the articulation of brand on paper because of three critical qualities:
• First, they are the epitome of distillation and reduction.
In a world of over-choice, they picture the choice for the consumer precisely and swiftly. They are the haikus of brand management and I love haikus.
• Second, Brand Ideas have a public tangibility that any amount of brand diagrams and videos cannot capture. Brands on paper are abstract. Brand Ideas out in the real world are concrete. If brands are conceptual glue, then Brand Ideas are tangible superglue.
They are by definition 'public' and therefore accountable for what they promise. That is why the broader media so often hoists a company by its own Brand Idea. There is no place to hide, no way to fudge with a Brand Idea.
• Thirdly, Brand Ideas by definition are required to engage and be felt in order to cut through. A brand idea might take months to develop (maybe too long?) but they take only moments to enter the head and then live in the heart forever. And that is why I believe in the true leadership power of the Brand Idea to motivate, unify and inspire where charts and insight and brand keys have not. I have found people, internally and externally, tend to prefer to work with an idea, not an explanation, with an emotion not a rationalisation.
It is these three qualities I believe that make Brand Ideas a unique business tool in our consumer-empowered, over- choiced, lazy, even cynical world. I do believe that 'Yes You Can' still change a market with a great brand and a great Brand Idea.
If I am sure I believe in brands and Brand Ideas, I am less sure whether market forces agree with me.
So far most of what I have said is uncontroversial. So let's see if we can go a little further and create a little more debate.
Even as I/we all admire and proselytise the power of brands and Brand Ideas, I believe market forces beyond our control are pulling us away from putting those beliefs into action.
Sometimes I fear we are in danger of becoming an example of the modern day 'cookery shows as porn' inversion. Apparently we spend more time watching them than actually cooking. Maybe we are beginning to spend more time talking about brands and Brand ideas than actually building them.
Indeed, I would go further and argue that those forces are pulling us into focussing on the short term and the tactical versus the long and broad. In so doing these forces are pulling us from our core added-value role as partners with our clients, building brands and ideas for the long run.
The market forces at play are manifold
For me there are manifold forces, all acting together, all interacting to seduce us away from the long and the broad effects of what we do.
In the broader environment, I see the rise of economic theories in books like Simenson's and Rosen's 'Absolute Value', books that focus on purchasing as a wholly rational process and brands as losing their purpose 'in a world where (nearly) perfect information exists'. I love that '(nearly)' in the title!
I see the rise of business commentators such as James Surowiecki of Wisdom of Crowds fame claiming in his New Yorker column that the 'economic value of brands, traditionally assessed by the premium a company can charge, is waning'. And our beloved Wired magazine picturing brands as a kind of emotional con that allows companies to 'live off past performance'.
In the media environment, I see the rise of just-in-time targeting, which allows us to focus on those 'in the marketplace now' versus those in the future or on the periphery as onlookers.
I see the rise of interactivity that has inevitably drawn our focus onto the final part of the consumer journey into purchase; the final click and the fulfilment of demand versus the creation of it.
I see the rise of promotional offers as a share of total budget. I recently read an article in HBR by Teixeira, reporting that promotional budgets in 2013 were 2.5 times bigger than advertising budgets as opposed to being evenly matched in 2000.
In the research environment I see the rise of research and data tools that focus on the intermediate or immediate effect of any idea. For example, the definition of success around 'share growth in the next six weeks' or the use of dwell time and click through rates and 'likes' without
any reference to their long term value. In the business environment I see the rise of accountability and the need for proof driving us to focus on what we can measure most easily, no matter how often we warn ourselves against doing it. I see the inexorable rise of 'next quarteritis'!
In the management environment I see the rise and rise of a focus on efficiency (particularly in Western, mature markets) in managing costs and resource across all aspects of business but including marketing, again with the inevitable focus on tangible short term measures.
I see the rise of procurement on the back of this drive with its focus on unit costs and norms leading to an atomistic approach (as Stephen King put it) versus holistic, and a focus on implementation and execution hours versus quality of input and long and broad advice.
I see the decline in the average tenure of brand managers and CMO's leading to stop-and-start management. I see discontinuities in the average length of agency/ client relationship, which has dropped in length from seven years and two months in 1984 to just two years and six months today.
These are just some of the market forces I see at play. I am sure you see others.
Together I believe they almost build to a kind of perfect storm of short-termism. Each occurrence reinforces and encourages the others in a kind of vicious downward spiral where we end up managing the HERE and NOW versus the LONG and THE BROAD.
I believe the forces of the market undermine our belief in the long term. I believe these forces combine to create foreshortened horizons. Ask most people in today's brand management world, either client or agency side, and they will admit to a sense of 'constant running', even panic, and the dominance of the next deadline. The opportunity for perspective happens only occasionally in one off away- days, only to be swamped again quickly on return into the real world of these market forces.
To be clear, the forces do not mean to do what they are doing. Each of these forces is a necessary part of the business world we live in today. Indeed many, particularly the rise of data and interactivity and the digital distribution of content, are wonderful opportunities. They are not malevolent 'agencies'. We are simply the victims of the economic 'law of unintended consequences.' variously ascribed to either Adam Smith or 'Murphy', depending on how serious we want to be about it.
To be equally clear, I am not an 'either/or' kind of guy. I believe in 'and'.
Any modern practitioner and professional and any modern agency has to build the mindset, skills and capabilities to COMBINE and BLEND these new forces into their thinking and ideas. They offer us a new golden age of communication where we can create things people want and inspire people to want them, where we can create intangible brand loyalty and the most innovative R&D programme in the world, create desire and fulfil it, target users and potential users efficiently, create emotion and action. In summary to manage the long and the short, the broad and the particular.
But the pendulum has swung too far
So I am not trying to go back. To put Pandora back in the box. But I do believe the pendulum has swung too far. When Kevin Roberts, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the world's most famous agencies, stands up in front of a room of senior business leaders at the IOD and proclaims brands and big (brand) ideas are dead ...
'Brands have run out of juice. Now the consumer is boss. There is nowhere for brands to hide....the big idea is dead. There are no more big ideas. Creative leaders should go
for getting lots and lots of small ideas out there'
...then I worry.
And when young Diploma delegates follow their leaders and herald the end of strategy and the triumph of tactics, or suggest that long is just a series of shorts and that we should light lots of small fires and see what happens etc etc etc, I guess I am not surprised.
Maybe we just love anything that proclaims the death of something, that headlines a paradigm shift. We love a good shock to the system. But I fear the market forces are becoming us and our own views. They are becoming our beliefs.
I believe we need brands and Brand Ideas even more not less. In a fast-moving world, in a fragmented world, in a short-fix world there is, I believe, a clear and present danger that 'the centre cannot hold'; that people become confused, that things do not add up , that nothing lasts and consequently that nothing should be built to last. We fall into a kind of existential brand anxiety.
I do not know about you but in this world my answer is to look for things that can create coherence and clarity, that can create meaning, that can integrate a broken world.
I do not think I am alone. Our audience needs them too. Indeed, I would argue for bigger, not smaller ideas. Bigger in terms of both their strategic role within business and bigger executionally.
Think of what a brand idea is ideally required to do in today's business world. An idea today needs to be inspiring enough to create demand and agile enough to exploit it.
It needs to be emotional, functional and social. It needs to engage inside and outside to create loyalty. It needs to spark communications across channels and innovation in product and service. To achieve this it needs to be baked in to the business idea and become more than an executional tool - more a culture-shaping tool.
In my book, in anyone's book, that is a big idea. Call it by any other name, it needs to smell as sweet. It needs to do the heavy lifting. It needs to be a bold, brave, beautiful, bountiful BIGGER Brand Idea.
Think of how good an idea has to be to be noticed in our world....We live a world of over-choice.
We normally think of over-choice in terms of brand or product choices; the apocryphal 25,000 lines in a supermarket etc. But we also live in a world of over-choice of things to engage our minds and hearts with; an over- choice of entertainment and content. Certainly we live in a world of over-choice of ad messages. Not only TV and print but everywhere we go, either literally or digitally we are hailed and trailed by commercial messages.
The environment in which ideas need to swim is almost certainly polluted.
...and how hard an idea has to work to be respected and/or liked... Now think about the barriers and standards that an idea has to overcome in order to earn a 'like', as it were.
One of the essays in 'The 21st Century Brand' is titled 'I believe brands need to be more superhuman'. It refers to Ogilvy's famous quote, 'the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife'.
The essay observes that the quote is now out of date, not because of its sexist undertones but rather because it is now truer to say 'the consumer is not a moron, the consumer is a marketing expert'. An expert that has been managing their own brand and their own comms and social profile all their life.
The point, therefore, is that a 21st century Brand Idea has to do a lot to impress someone who is expert already. Indeed you have to do something better than what
that person can do or even dream of doing. Something superhuman.
Other essays pick up on this 21st century need for an 'extraordinary' idea or even, as one author put it, 'the spectacular', meaning extravagant beyond sense or reason. The recurring example is the Red Bull 'Felix Jump' from the edge of space. This must be the biggest expression of 'Red Bull has wings' that anyone could ever think of. In short, the original idea but BIGGER.
...and think how an idea needs to engage... There are many definitions of a modern brand in the book from 'brand as religion' to 'brand as game'.
The theme that stands out overall is that in an age of consumer empowerment the brand's role is not just about trust or identity or personality, it is as a focal point for a community of interest. It is about a shared passion. Be it an idea about sport or food or first-time mums or just getting together at Christmas, the consumer voluntarily joins in because it is for their benefit and not because they have been duped by false emotional promises.
In this context the demand on an idea is not just to be liked.
It is to galvanise and orchestrate that community and to create a stage on which it (the community) can experience and share things together.
In short the idea becomes a catalyst of shared values or shared knowledge, of shared utility or of a common social cause.
This is not just saying an idea has to be good enough to be shared, critical though we know that to be. Rather it is a demand on the idea to be inherently powerful and social enough for a community to rally around and feel a shared purpose with it. Again the Red Bull idea springs to mind with its ability to inspire spectacular leaps from space but also leaps from Brighton pier or Go-Kart madness amongst its community of adrenalin-seeking 'Bullers'.
Think of these pressures and I defy you to conclude that the answer is smaller ideas! So I repeat, I believe brands need bigger ideas not smaller ones. I would argue that in our world, brands and Brand Ideas are needed more and more to glue things back together both conceptually and tangibly. We need ideas to fix things.
And therefore... All those years ago, when Stephen Woodford asked me to create and run the Diploma at the IPA, I could not resist his charm. But I must admit, neither could I resist grabbing my chance to keep the faith.
By focusing on brands and how to bring them alive as Brand Ideas, I do hope the Diploma helps in some small way to swing the pendulum back into equilibrium.
Not everyone can have the pleasure of learning from messrs. Bartle Bogle and Hegarty. But they can all study the shared texts, learnings and case histories of the great and the good in our business. And they can all be encouraged to consider what they believe.
On this tenth anniversary of the Diploma we have gone some way to starting a new Brand idea Movement. I would like the movement to grow broad and long. Broadly, by extending the Diploma around the world and around agency groups, inspiring many more future leaders. And, in the long term, by Diploma member inspiring Diploma member one by one, team by team, agency by agency.
And of course I also hope the book inspires you, dear reader, to think about what you believe is the value of brands and Brand Ideas to the industry and agencies that deliver them.
In doing so, I believe we can tip the balance back to our future.
Join the debate at http://whatisa21cbrand.tumblr.com
'What Is A 21st Century Brand' Available on Amazon. Or from Kogan Page at www.koganpage.com Use the code MKTWBLAD to secure a 20% discount.