Every nice girl

Nice girls, sailors

I’ve talked before about my amazing Maths professor at Bristol university, Dr Mayberry, and in particular about his dissection of the phrase ‘every nice girl loves a sailor’. Is it: “For each nice girl, For each sailor, the nice girl loves the sailor”, or perhaps “For each nice girl, there exists a sailor, such that the nice girl loves the sailor”? Each of these possibilities, and I recall there being many more, was written out in logical notation. The point was, I suppose, that language is sloppy, logic is not, and… you know… be careful.

Perhaps the most infuriating lack of care is when a marketing person gets hold of a ‘unifying idea’. And the best example of this was a former employer (I was an adopted child in a marriage of the shotgun variety), who shall be know as XYZ Corp.

Two sorts of super smart people worked at XYZ’s massive head office, it seemed to me at the time. Type A went and did complex acquisitions. Type B went around behind them explaining why such and such an acquisition was ‘strategic’. This is all well and good of course, you can’t possibly announce you’ve just bought companies for the sake of getting bigger, or to conceal and distract from some other failed corporate activity. Protocol dictates that for a period of at least one year, all involved will pretend they were genuinely in love and not remotely drunk. After a year, it’s time to start arguing over who owns the CD collection and what you’ll tell the kids.

Anyhow. The rightness or wrongness of corporate mergers is not the point. The point is the mangling of logic which often ensues. For XYZ, faced with integrating a digital design consultancy with a company that made things with flashing lights, the story was that we were both ‘information’ businesses.

I suppose we could have just said we were both in the sales business, or the bullshit business.

Aside from the pure bravado of this manoeuvre, which is breathtaking, the most amazing thing about it is that it sometimes worked. People would nod along, half asleep in meetings. The air would be punched at sales conferences as we discussed how ‘information’ was that the heart of our growth strategy. The fact that not a single employee understood a word of it was not discussed.

And XYZ corp were certainly not alone in this madness. I’ve seen all sorts of companies stitched together on the thin understanding they are about ‘results’, about ‘communication’, or shared a ‘passion for customers’. Someone once tried to tell me our digital agency (a different one) should merge with a bill stuffing company because we were both ‘about customer data’. This last one must have taken a supreme effort of self will to keep a straight face for. Equally brazen, and potentially more incoherent, I once heard that a music retail company was ‘already a social network’ because people used to socialize ‘in their stores’.

If your objective is to make two things that aren’t equal sound equal by positioning each at the end of a similar sounding definition, then you have only served to slightly weaken our ability to communicate. And if it’s your job as a branding agency (who I believe have to take at least most of the blame for this sort of behaviour) to do this, then I fear you’ve not responded candidly to the brief. Go back and tell your client it doesn’t all fit neatly together, and that’s not the end of the world, so long as you can create customer value. There are other branding strategies than ‘one big brand’, there are worse things than being diverse. Namely being incoherent and self-obsessed. And if your client doesn’t want to hear that then let them hire someone else.

Two tribes


A side effect of the digital revolution has been the closing of the perceived gap between product thinking and communications thinking. Not always with desirable results.

Watching these worlds collide has long been a fascination for me, as they are such distinctly different approaches, require such different skills and temperament and are typical bought by distinct clients.

Yet, they have much in common too.

Whilst the staff are rarely transferable between the disciplines, they are very much the same breed: recognisable by their dress, their attitude, their enthusiasm, their intelligence and creativity. And the technical tools and techniques used are often similar too: creative briefs, Photoshop, brainstorms and so on.

Many other worlds use these tools and techniques. You might find PostIt notes and Adobe in packaging, PR, management consulting and other parts of the professional services world, but you’re unlikely to find an agency that does Packaging, Consulting and PR products. Or, at least, one that does it well.

One reason why we see so many try to combine the art of the digital communicator and the art of the digital product developer could be that a single company that could do both could create, launch and grow digital products without need for external support. That’s a powerful dream. Although I don’t know how often it has been fulfilled in reality.

By treating these two disciplines as if they should be accomplished in a single place, do we run the risk of losing the best of each, and the opportunity to properly assess how elements of each would enrich the other.

Let’s look at the two things and see what, if anything they can contribute to the other.

And this is the hard bit. How do we capture the heart of each discipline succinctly, without jargon, and in a way that practitioners can both agree with for themselves and understand for the other.

Skill One: experience of the thing
Product designers (and that’s a pretty broad church) are responsible for developing the thing itself. The more obvious (if not easy) part of this is in developing things that the end consumer will love, that they will find intuitive, rewarding and so on; a thing that users will continue to want to use. In this case the user’s relationship to the thing is more or less obvious. The user experiences it directly. Of course, that doesn’t mean that each user has the sample experience, even if they all see the same thing. Experience depends on the user’s skill, the user’s context, the task the user is trying to achieve. As Lou Carbone puts it, the experience is not related to what the user thinks of the thing, but rather, how the user feels about themselves once they’ve interacted with the thing.

The science of trying to design for users despite their differing skills, context and so on, is quite well developed using research to understand and group people, using tools like user journeys and personas to codify them. Whether it’s a bottle opener or an app, we also need to push product developers to consider the aesthetic as much as the function of the product. The impact on the user can be equally impacted by emotional triggers in the product, not just how successfully it can be used to achieve a task.

Meaning is – of course – socially constructed. And so understanding how objects will be interpreted and understood, should understand this social context, norms, reference points etc. I’m sure owning the first gas lamps was a sign of being cutting edge. Now it would be a statement about being traditional. How do we compare the effect of owning and iPhone in New Jersey with owning one in Shanghai, and so on. When done well, a measure of this social context of use, and of understand the meaning derived from objects, is included in the definition of user experience.

Skill Two: communication of the thing
Modern communications skills are no less important or complex than the skills required to design a product in the first place.

By definition, this is not a design of a product which is directly experienced.

At the heart of it, the communicator is trying to precondition the audience to have a different reaction to the product (or service) and is doing so in the absence of a direct experience of the product. In fact, it is odd for communications about the thing and the thing itself to be present at the same time (think of those awful brand posters in Barclays branches or adverts for Rank Screen Advertising).

How can external stimuli change how we react to stimuli, real or imagined? Fundementally, it must help the receiver to create links amongst their understandings of meaning. It is a process which results in new associations. What is it that makes Prada posh or Pepsi-max precocious. These are truths which have been created by marketing.

In order to do this, a communications designer must have some grip on the inexact art of stimulus and response. Why is it inexact? Because meaning is ever mutating and audiences are not amorphous. If I talk about ‘pretty little colleens’, it is a phrase which some will recognise exactly (it has been a lyric in a pop song), others will recognise generically (Colleen taken as stereotypically Irish name), and others (those called Colleen) will identify with specifically. Your distance from the various references will impact on the extent to which you understand it at all.

So to a real degree, the communications planner must understand how embedded and related these social norms are and construct their message to match this.

So arguably meaning/context is even more important for communications than it is for product.

At the same time, the communicator is most often working to do a lot in a very short time frame, whether the turn of a page, or the 10 watched seconds of a 30 second TV commercial. This has led to lots of techniques focussed on gaining maximum traction with minimal transaction: big ideas, single minded proposition, visual identities and so on.

In contrast, product designers are often working to reduce the amount of time consumers spend with their offspring and making each moment delightful and uninterruptive.

I think all of us who have seen the inner workings of the development of a truly phenomenal advertising campaign, are in awe of the planners and creatives who can translate such a disparate context in such a challenge medium into so much meaning. Guiness’ surfer,  VCCP’s years of work for O2, the great Levi’s ads.

But why would the people that do one of these things be good at the other, and for what reason (other than commercial) would you want both under the same roof?

What I’ve seen is people from each discipline trying their hand at the other. This has rarely ended well. And, worse, I’ve seen managers from one discipline try and manage the other, but without changing their approach. This never works, except in the pitch room where all is roses, and the only possible impact of crushing together ying and yang, of fusing these atoms, is a joyful integration and 5% off the cheque.

I’ll wait for a braver clever agency person to show me the way. Perhaps even in the comments. Go on, you know you want to.

Another day, another dollar


Robin sparks some interesting rants over on Advertising 2.0, in response to a frankly bizarre set of comments published in Campaign about how twitter can be used by brands.

The debate appears to be over whether brands should tweet and how – should they pretend to be real people or inanimate objects, funny characters or abstractions?

Not suprisingly many respond by dismissing twitter out of hand as nonsense (echos of ‘this internet thing will never catch on’), others talk about how no brand belongs on the microblogging site.

It seems that – to me at least – first off, we are fundementally misunderstanding the important but indirect social role of brands, and secondly that the twitter ‘debate’ is no more and no less than than the debate we used to have about brands and websites all those years ago in the ninetees (on which Amelia has been passing some suspiciously tweet-length thoughts).

Look at this. It’s a Bovril website. With a breath-taking circularity of irony (or perhaps secret plea for help from a web designer), the site’s strapline (and perhaps the brand’s slogan) is ‘give me strength’. And, indeed, what on God’s earth is the point of all this? And who thought it was a good idea (apart from the agency that created it)?

Don’t get me wrong, once you’re there, it’s quite nicely done, graphically interesting etc. But why would anyone ever go there? Even if it wasn’t difficult to use, I still wouldn’t treat it as my number 1 source of information about Bovril itself (that would be Wikipedia), Bovril recipes (is that a thing?) (I’d start in Google and since the site isn’t search engine-friendly, it doesn’t show up), outdoorsiness (ditto, you’d never get there and if you did you wouldn’t stay long because of the thiny veiled comtempt for this audience), or even gurning cows. It’s just bizarre.

Anyway, brands on twitter are all just like that: pointless, unless they manage to be interesting, useful or entertaining. And not all brands can be those things every day, using content.

I’m sorry, I don’t want to ruin the party. But don’t believe your agency when they give you this nonsense. Coca-cola office furniture making jokes is just not as funny or interesting as even your least funny mates, no matter how clever it sounded in an agency brainstorm.

We do not need a detailed study or deep meditation to tell us this. Clients: when you’re first reaction is to tell the agency ‘don’t be so bloody stupid’, trust your feelings.

The other question is, conversely, do brands have no role in social networks? After all this pointlessness, it would be easy to conclude that they have none. But I believe this is an entirely different question. Brands are massively important in social networks. But they are a method of communication not an issuer of communication.  They are talking points, they are social tokens, they are items of self expression. And, of course, this is not just true in a digital setting.

To entirely steal from Seth Goddin, to turn this effect to their advantage, brand managers must make their brand interesting to a vocal audience. Providing genuine uility can amplify this effect.

This is why Barack Obama and Stephen Fry can be interesting brands on Twitter but Starbucks and Vauxhall can not. Is it really that complex a distinction?

Spot the obvious mistake

What’s wrong with this picture?


Well apart from the fact that their advertising is clearly so laser-guided that they’re shoving the ‘your ad here’ ad up to their entire market, there’s only one item on the page you can’t ‘prioritize’ (dig or bury) yet it’s likely to be the only item on the page that people will want to remove. Why not collect this data at least – perhaps it could even be passed off as a piece of that much over-discussed and underdone ‘customer engagement’. ‘We tried to get brand X to engage with your customers and they interacted with it… by telling it bugger off!’.

And not like this either:


On with the show

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine

Aside from the usual rubber chicken and three-inch-wide movies, most of my long flight yesterday, and a rather intimidating trip on the A-train into Manhattan, was taken up with reading Lewis P Carbone’s Clued In.

This amazing book provides a method for understanding customers, products and brands that not only fits the classic American hospitality industries of the 70s (which is where Carbone’s own interest was kindled by his work with clients including Disney at Epcot) but the new moves away from mass-communication and towards brands and reputations. His system doesn’t need re-invention for the noughties. It comes millennium proofed, with massive relevance to the new consumer and even the way digital interfaces must work.

And it is incredibly accessible. It’s amazing to see ideas that have been washing around my brain half-baked given a clear articulate voice.

Carbone starts with the premise that the accountants and management consultants have caused us to lose focus on a key fact – that the “value” our companies produce must be measured in terms of what the customer wants not just the bottom line of pounds and pence. Sound obvious? Well look what’s happening to the airline industry. In the name of low prices, we now have to put up with non-predicatable pricing models, literally no service on the (low cost) flights, being bumped and moved around, fighting over chairs  (on EasyJet) and being routed through multiple stops. Carbone points to JetBlue and Southwest who have both consistently posted profit in a market which is otherwise falling apart. Southwest publicly explains their philosophy for business

More than 30 years ago, Rollin King and Herb Kelleher got together and decided to start a different kind of airline. They began with one simple notion: If you get passangers to their destinations when they want to get there, on time, at the lowest possible fares, and make darn sure they have a good time doing it, people will fly your airline. And you know what they’re right.

As Carbone goes on to say, it’s not precisely about having a good time (flying on any low-cost carrier is not going to be a week at the Four Seasons), it’s about feeling good about the time you’re having.

And here we get to what I think is the central insight. The question brand marketers often ask is “how does you customer feel about the brand”. Ask a customer that question and you will get an abstract post-rationalised answer back. Instead, Carbone suggests, we should focus on how the customer feels when they’re interacting your brand. The negative feelings that we have when companies who provide poor customer service are actually negative feelings about ourselves that have been created by the experience.

For the experience to work, it must be authentic and it must connect on an emotional level as well as a functional one. He points to a survey which shows that defecting customers are likely to say they are “satisfied” on customer service score cards (i.e. not “dissatisfied”, “neutral” or “very satisfied”). To bread the sort of customer advocates we need nowadays, we need to be aiming for customers who thoroughly enjoy the whole experience and come to expect a fantastic experience on future vists; customers who enjoyed your experience so much that they are willing to put their own reputations at stake and recommend it.

As a brief  aside, Carbone is looking at established retail chains so does not dwell on purely funtional issues, assuming that all outlets achieve “hygiene” levels of service. Obviously, this is far from being the case online, where far too many mistakes have been made in the name of emotional design).

Where’s this working in practice? Taking roughly equal sellers of a commodity product – Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donughts, Carbone shows that the product itself is a small part of the value proposition, with a focus on customer experience driving the lion’s share of the value. Krispy Kreme sells more (of essentially the same thing), at a higher price, with less advertising to a more enthusiastic audience.

He maintains this is possible in any market or scenario, showing how it’s been applied even in emergency rooms int the US and in the development of campus sports facilities.

My old boss had a great epxression about all this. Traditional wisdom has it that “If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves”. Kim Conchie’s version was

If you take care of the pennies, you’ll end up with a big pile of pennies

Businesses that drive ‘shareholder value’ by cost-cutting and commoditising their product will end up with a bigger and bigger share of a smaller and smaller market, as new entrants, redefine their products around customer expereince.