Necessity: The Mother of Invention

Part 2. The people and brands that inspire us to go the extra mile

Isn’t it extraordinary how we humans develop superhuman capabilities in the face of daunting Few people really know what they’re capable of until they have been motivated to explore their limits. The pandemic inspired many apparently ordinary people to do extraordinary things, from those responsible for the fastest ever vaccine development programme to airline cabin crews taking on the challenge of frontline healthcare. In Part 1 we looked at how we humans can develop superhuman capabilities in the face of seemingly daunting threats, reflecting on how technological advances in aircraft design in the two decades of 1931-1951 (incorporating WWII) were dramatically quicker than throughout the five peacetime decades of 1967-2017. But do we need a crisis to release our superhuman potential, or can we be inspired to achieve extraordinary things by a great leader or, more particularly, a compelling brand promise?

Brands that inspire superhuman potential…

We know that inspiring brands, like inspiring people, have the power to motivate. Moreover, brands with an inspiring leader at the helm often achieve the most powerful results of all—brand values snap into sharper focus when lived and modelled by the chief that espouses them, intensifying the brand experience for customers and employees (it can, of course, be similarly polarising for rejectors for whom the leader is the very personification of the brand they have come to loath!). 

Two brands that deliver against these criteria are Apple and Tesla.


Since its inception in 1976 Apple has accumulated generations of dedicated followers with an almost religious zeal for new product announcements. The level of pride in owning a new Apple product has always been legendary (just search ‘Apple unboxing’ on YouTube) and that passion is shared by its employees. Apple is a perfectionist culture that was personified by its single-minded founder, Steve Jobs, and perpetuated by the conviction that ‘we’re here to put a ding in the universe’ with clever thinking, iconic design and pure simplicity; customer satisfaction is not engaged enough for Apple, it strives for ‘joy of ownership’. 

The organisation structure is as simple yet radical as the product and the company takes an entrepreneurial approach to product development with employees enjoying a high level of freedom and flexibility but a high degree of accountability. Every live project has a Directly Responsible Individual (the DRI) who is personally answerable for it. This generates a sense of ownership and responsibility with teams focused on comparatively few products at any one time, before moving, together, onto the next one. Apple’s ‘focused excellence’ approach means that every job is done brilliantly, by not diluting effort across several jobs only the highest quality products are launched (and if others are delayed, that is a price worth paying). By elevating design quality to iconic levels it has heightened the desire for its products, making every rival look and feel ordinary by comparison. Idiomatically, rather than follow the traditional approach of hiring a star designer, Steve Jobs created Apple’s own star by raising the profile of its talented British design chief, Jony Ive. He designed Apple stores to resemble art galleries to celebrate the latest Apple sculptures. Packaging became as exquisite as the products inside them (empty boxes are collector’s items). Ives’ numerous celebrity appearances and awards culminated in his receiving a knighthood in 2006. Sir Jony Ive is Apple’s knight in shining designer armour and the ultimate expression of how Apple inspires superhuman levels of performance. He succeeded in putting a ding in the universe—with an Apple logo on it! 

It is this single-minded approach, inspired by a passion to deliver the values the brand promises, that sets such extraordinarily high expectations of Apple employees. And they repeatedly do whatever it takes to deliver. The result is new generations of customers experiencing the ‘joy of ownership’ that Jobs dreamt of and which has continued to make Apple the iconic brand it is today.


Elon Musk is Tesla. An ambitious force of nature that makes the impossible possible and hauls the rest of the world into the future. It is not a place for the feint-hearted, the pressure is intense and demanding. Musk regularly overpromises to the world, then holds his employees feet (along with his own) to the fire to deliver. Employees frequently claim that everyone has to work harder than they would at any other company in the world, but they also claim to have done the best work of their lives at Tesla—even if some leave exhausted.

Musk believes that it is his job to be intimately familiar with the company’s operations and puts himself, physically, in the middle of the action. He leads by example and lives out Tesla’s three brand pillars of Boldness, Openness and Sustainability. He is driven by a conviction to make a global impact and audaciously puts the planet before shareholders. This ethos is embodied in the products and is also manifest in his making innovation patents public—demonstrably putting principles before profit.

Tesla owners are as dedicated and enthusiastic as its employees. They frequently participate in product development and testing, making them feel genuinely invested in the brand and its success. Their loyalty and advocacy levels have been sustained at such high levels that Tesla has never sought to invest in marketing—even with a range of cars starting at $38,000. 

Over time, the brand’s commercial performance has become as spectacular as the cars. Since its launch in 2008 it has brought electric vehicles into the mainstream, completely transforming the way the world thinks about them. The big motor manufacturers were quick to dismiss Tesla as an eccentric niche, today it is worth more than the worlds top seven car companies combined. The Tesla brand is driven by a bold vision, bigger than itself, to create a better, cleaner and more sustainable future for the planet. Tesla’s refusal to accept the status quo, its obsession with reinventing products and sectors from first principles rather than following any existing industry practices, are pure Musk, but have been the means by which the firm’s outrageous ambitions have consistently been delivered. 

He and his staff systematically over-deliver on their conviction that nothing is impossible. If Tesla can claim to have changed the world it is because its employees, mentored by Musk, achieve more than anyone else in any other company.

Superhuman overachievement is always possible… at a cost

The quest to go beyond and deliver what was previously thought impossible seems to be as much a characteristic of a single-minded brand (especially one with an uncompromising culture driven by a larger-than-life personality) as it is of a national crisis or global pandemic. The cost is that such brands can be intensely polarising for customers and employees. But any distinctive brand is defined as much by those it rejects as by those it attracts—Apple and Tesla command a premium precisely because their distinctive values, exemplified by their products, give them an emotional appeal that sets them apart. How many employees of GM or HP do you suppose feel as motivated to overachieve each morning as their equivalents in Tesla or Apple? How proud do they feel when someone asks them who they work for? Have you seen how a Tesla or Apple customer glows and gushes when asked whether the Model 3 parked outside, or that cool new Mac on the desk, is theirs?

Is a personality-driven brand necessary to achieve superhuman results?

There is nothing quite like having a brand brought to life by an inspiring leader (Branson, Dyson, Disney, Roddick, Chanel, et al). Apart from making the brand values easier to relate to, their personal value means that they usually have the power to take, seemingly irrational, risks that would terrify most boards or shareholders. This courage of conviction has been a vital component in the growth of both Apple and Tesla, both of which have endured troughs in shareholder confidence. But it is now a decade since the demise of Steve Jobs and Apple has shown that its brand values are sufficiently well defined and firmly-entrenched to be sustainable without the personal driving force of its founder. Indeed, its market value has risen tenfold over this time to make Apple the world’s first $3 Trillion corporation. Significantly, its employees remain as fanatically-eager to overachieve as ever. 

Unfortunately, the magic of most entrepreneur-led brands starts to fade when the founder is no longer leading them, or when they sell-out to bigger groups (few of which truly understand how to sustain brand values). But Apple has convincingly shown us that, with a zealous commitment to resolutely-held brand values, sky-high expectations can continue to be met thanks to the superhuman efforts of team members—without or without a charismatic chief to model them.

The challenge for boards and shareholders

More people than we might have thought are capable, with the right motivation, of achieving things that go above and beyond normal expectations. It need not take a crisis to unleash they potential. They need a purpose that stirs their emotions and propels them to over-deliver, to be voluntarily immersed in a shared culture where they can believe that their efforts can change the world. 

This is encapsulated in a promise. The promise we call a brand.


Necessity: The Mother of Invention

Part 1. Capitalising on a Crisis

Isn’t it extraordinary how we humans develop superhuman capabilities in the face of daunting threats? Our ingenuity becomes  boundless, teams unite with common purpose to crack the most resilient challenges with urgent haste. We even become more caring, community-spirited (NHS-clapping) versions of our former selves.

We rise to the challenge…

The last year has, for most of us, been one of the most challenging in living memory. We have seen superhuman acts of courage and determination from doctors, nurses, carers, centenarian fund raisers and more. Meanwhile, medical researchers have created, developed and tested vaccines faster than anyone dared hope, then rolled them out across the nation at a similar pace; meanwhile, home delivery services have expanded to enable food and provisions to reach every corner of the nation and web developers have launched new solutions ways to enable home working and socialising. Even the most resolute office-dwellers have risen to the challenge of working from home and adapted to holding meetings on-screen via Teams or Zoom (something many would ordinarily have refused to entertain). 

Plato was right. Necessity has always given birth to invention.
It’s in our DNA. Wind the clock back 80 years and we can see another example of it in action (especially for an aviation enthusiast in lockdown).

In 1931, the Hawker aircraft company’s latest front-line fighter for the Royal Air Force was the Fury. Designed by a brilliant young engineer, Sydney Camm, it was the RAF’s first fighter capable of exceeding 200 mph and could climb to 10,000 feet in under 4 minutes. Then, as war loomed, Camm’s team worked round the clock to redesigned the biplane around the latest Merlin engine and reconfigure its canvas-skinned structure into a faster monoplane, called the Hurricane.

Together with the Spitfire, it gave the RAF air superiority in the Battle of Britain. As the war went on, the relentless pace of innovation continued and, by 1942, Camm’s team launched the all-metal ‘Typhoon’ with an engine twice as powerful as the Hurricane’s enabling it to fly at over 400mph.  

By 1951, just 20 years after launching the pre-war Fury, Camm’s  team had created a jet fighter that could fly three times as fast and climb seven-times as quickly to twice the altitude.

Then we relax…

Just as extraordinary, perhaps, is the ease with which, when the threat subsides, we default to ordinary human equilibrium—as if nothing had happened. 

So, as the world breathed a sigh of relief after the war, aero engineers set about putting military advances to civil use and, by 1952, the first jet airliner, the de Havilland’s Comet went into service. Unfortunately, it had to be grounded with technical problems—the kind of problems that would have been quickly exploited by a military rival in wartime, but for a commercial rival in peacetime the urgency was lost. Boeing spent six years in studious contemplation before finally launching its rival jet airliner, the 707. It was then a further nine years before Boeing introduced a smaller derivative, the 737, for short-haul routes. 

Since its launch in 1967 the 737 has developed comparatively modestly—can you spot the difference? What’s more, after more than 50 years in production, the latest model is actually 60mph slower than the original.  

Who would have thought that the superhuman ingenuity in less than a decade of crisis would be followed by decades of technological torpidity in the era of plenty that followed.

It is sobering to reflect that, had the 1952 Comet airliner been based on a 50 year-old airframe it would have been a hot air balloon (the Wright brothers not having mastered powered flight for another 4 years). 

Reigniting the spirit…

We have seen that crises, particularly the shared fear of a common enemy, are powerful human motivators (as George Orwell warns us in ‘1984’). We instinctively go further if we’re fighting for survival but, without such an imperative, most of us will settle for doing enough to get by comfortably—which, if you are in an organisation seeking innovative solutions (and which of us is not?), seems like a waste of potential, doesn’t it? So, as we emerge from the current crisis, how can we sustain the spirit that has sparked some of us to go that extra superhuman mile over the past year—or reignite it if we have been sidelined by lockdown? 

One approach, of course, is to wilfully contrive a workplace so stressful that it triggers employees’ elemental survival instincts. This might, potentially, work in a totalitarian ‘work or starve’ regime, but is hardly relevant in free markets (though, arguably, some seem to have tried). The traditional capitalist solution is one of bribery—rewarding high performance with, say, cash bonuses. Sadly, this has proven, in the long run, to be barely more sustainable (and a lot less effective) than the first approach, because the impact tends to fade over time and the reward becomes the norm (one reason why directors’ bonuses have ballooned as companies compete to attract and retain high performers). Over time we get used to a bonus and it becomes a hygiene factor for the function, rather than the motivating factor we need to go beyond it. So, what are the motivating factors that will make a difference? 

It could be that the answer lies in our feeling part of something something ‘bigger than ourselves’, something that captures our imagination and drives our ambition, inspiring us to go further? Simon Sinek might describe it as ‘finding our why’. It happens when we are engaged with a company, cause or purpose (let’s call it a brand) with which we feel an emotional connection. A brand that gets us out of bed in the morning, that we would support even if we weren’t being paid to. A brand that reflects and encapsulates the mission and core values of the organisation we work for—as opposed to a set of promises dreamt-up by the marketing team, then superimposed upon it. A brand that lives in the HR director’s domain as much as the Marketing director’s, that consistently shapes and reflects both culture and communications and which employees can relate to as readily as customers. Organisations like this are rare, but they do exist. Not surprisingly, they frequently attract the best talent, who often do the best work of their lives while working there—you might say the brand becomes their chosen necessity. And, for all their flaws in other respects, such organisations buzz with dedicated individuals giving birth to inventive ideas that might just change the world. Incidentally, before he died, Sir Sydney Camm was planning the design of an aircraft to travel at Mach 4. The man who, aged 10, had been inspired by the Wright brothers first flight never stopped inventing.

Who are the people and what are the brands that continually inspire us to go the extra mile? What is their secret?See Part 2

Appleied Technology

How Apple makes hard technology soft and cuddly

People love cats. Cute, cuddly and low-maintenance, they’re doted on by young and old everywhere. Of the 600 million across the world, roughly half are domesticated, with the rest being wild and feral. At which point, we are reminded that they are among nature’s stealthiest and most aggressive creatures: hunting, and killing whatever might look like a tasty snack, or just fun to pick-on. 

It was, in fact, for their forensic rodent exterminating skills that cat ownership grew over the centuries to what it is today—although we might prefer to overlook their undomesticated side when pouring bowls of vegan cat food for our purring friends. It’s hard, then, not to marvel at the brilliance of the ancient Egyptians (assuming it was they who tamed and domesticated wild cats into today’s people-friendly pets) as we stroke Tiddles before letting him out to stalk the garden. 

Curiously enough, today’s information technologies can be a bit like those wild, undomesticated cats: capable of extraordinarily impressive performance, especially when understood by trained experts who fully appreciate their potential. They can be similarly user-unfriendly, too, if they are taken home untamed. Anyone who has experienced the pain and frustration of trying to persuade a promising new piece of ‘life-changing’ technology to connect to, say, a slightly incompatible broadband router will know the feeling; or, perhaps, attempted to pair a device with their smartphone only to find themselves talking into into a neighbours baby monitor. Perhaps, like me, you know just enough to dig yourself into a deeper pit as you stumble through the settings armed with DNS, DHCP, IP and MAC addresses before realising you’ve entered a lion’s den and need that trained expert back to extricate you before things get more serious.

So, when Steve Jobs determined that Apple’s products would be driven by a single-minded focus on simplicity, creativity and humanity he was on a mission ‘to put a ding in the universe’  (his words, not mine) by making high technology cuddly and accessible for the world. It was a tough challenge, but Apple’s $2tr valuation today would indicate that, like the ancient Egyptians, he was onto something. By maintaining a laser focus on human benefits (rather than technology for technology’s benefit) and user-friendly simplicity, Apple promises to create elegant and desirable products that people will smile at and love. That promise is, in essence, the Apple brand. Unlike most other technology brands, Apple stands for a purpose that transcends industry categories and gives it licence to roam into other spaces where clever technology has the potential to be tamed, domesticated and made lovable. What might, today, be appreciated only by trained experts and too daunting for the rest of us to manage, could, in the future, be the focal point of a new Apple product launch. Think how Apple Watch has opened-up wellness, leading to healthcare which, in time, might extend to smart remedies in partnership with healthcare service providers and pharmaceutical brands. Similarly, Apple Maps might pave the way into new travel and mobility services from smart taxis to driverless cars. The Apple brand could even extend its financial services offer by domesticating investment strategies, unlocking the wealth potential of stock markets from the preserve of trained experts to anyone with an Apple device and a will to invest.

There will, of course, always be jealous rivals and technology-minded consumers who will claim that Apple products are over-priced and underspecified, that you can buy better for less elsewhere. But that rather misses the point. That’s not why the Apple brand exists. Most other technology brands are driven by a quest for technological advantage and the desire to be first to offer it—rather than finding technology-driven solutions that offer simple, relevant and usable human benefits. Just as no one ever bought an iPhone because it offered the most dazzling technology for the money, I wager that few buy an Samsung or LG because it didn’t. To stretch the analogy, there may be faster and more potent breeds of rat-catchers out there, but only when they can be reliably house trained and made as user-friendly as Tiddles might they be worthy of our affection.

However you look at it, when a company’s brand is worth around $352bn (second only to Amazon as the most valuable in the world), you know that it is evidently engaging the hearts and minds of a lot of people a lot of the time. Which is what great brands do (something to contemplate as you close your iPad after reading this and put the cat out).

The Brand Inside

Are you overlooking your most important audience?

There is an audience group that is disproportionately powerful in building long-term value for your brand, a group that carries greater influence than any influencer, opens more gates than the most yielding gatekeeper and is better able to make investors smile than Warren Buffet on a unicycle!

Now is the perfect opportunity, as we emerge from the lockdown, to take a deep breath and carry out a systematic review of our brand and marketing strategies. In particular, to assess how our audiences might have changed over the past few months. We will, probably start with an analysis of existing and former customers before we consider potential new customer groups. Then we’ll review the various influencers and traditional gatekeepers before, maybe, thinking about investors and shareholders. But before we go any further we should stop to consider an audience group that, for most companies, probably outweighs all others in its power to change the fortunes of the brand.

This audience is, of course, our own employees; and there has never been a more critical time to inspire and motivate them with our brand purpose. Everyone who works in the name of the brand ought to be a living, breathing representative, and enthusiastic advocate, of it. That means being as excited about it and as convinced of its benefits, as its most loyal customers. But, honestly, how much time and attention have we devoted to engaging those inside the company with the values that define our brand outside it? If our brand values are the heart and soul of our marketing programmes, should they not also be the driving force to unite and motivate our staff at a time when a great many are feeling distanced, even disconnected, from that heart and soul?

Various studies have shown that companies whose employees believe-in and live-out their brand promise have a greater sense of shared purpose. This is something that is not just motivating to employees (and customers) but increasingly compelling for new talent—who are more passionate than ever to seek-out ‘purpose-driven’ companies whose values they can identify with. Indeed, PwC’s recent ‘Workforce of the Future’ survey, found that 88% of millennials (who will represent 75% of the global workforce by 2025) want to work for a company whose values reflect their own. It should be no surprise, then, if the war for talent is increasingly won by organisations where the purpose and values promised by their brand are enthusiastically engaged with and lived-out by their employees (Google, Apple, Patagonia, John Lewis,  Prêt-à-Manger, etc. being a few notable examples).   

Now, if you are a marketing chief you might, at this point, be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a call for what HR refers to as an EVP and so not, strictly, within your remit. And, if you are an HR chief, you probably haven’t even read this far because you think this is about brands and, therefore, marketing and so is not for you either.

But, even before recent events, it was becoming increasingly obvious that developing separate parallel value propositions for customers and employees was an oversight caused more by traditional management silos than good practice (tantamount to the CEO having one person choose a shoe for their left foot, then repeating the process with someone else for the right one—but never really questioning whether they ought to match!)

So, how do you go about creating a coherent brand-centric, purpose-driven culture?

At the risk of making it sound sound deceptively simple, the key will be to express and sustain the three fundamental components of your brand promise: distinctiveness, relevance and consistency. Now that the brand is no longer the preserve of the marketing department it must be relevant and differentiating for everyone. The distinctive values and attributes that define our brand should be the ones that shape our organisation’s cultural norms—those, often unconscious and undefined, shared ‘rules of belonging’ that characterise our workplace. We need to show how they can be relevant to everyone, then lead by example, demonstrating how they can become a familiar and enriching part of what it is that makes our organisation unique. Our goal should be to make the brand truly relevant to our staff and a source of pride for them.

  1. Use your brand’s distinctiveness to motivate your employees
    It might be worth refreshing the answers to a few existential questions: Why does this brand exist at all? What are the essential needs that it satisfies and the value that it delivers? How is it, or the way it is delivered, unique and different from anyone else? Above all, what are the values and purpose at the heart of the brand proposition? Even if you have already these from a customer perspective, a few working sessions with staff will help ensure they not only get it but have a chance to add value to it (who knows, they might provide fresh insights you hadn’t thought of). Now encapsulate your purpose into a set of actionable behaviours that all employees can share. Base these on, say, six differentiating core values which, when delivered through employee behaviours, will help differentiate your brand from any rival. These should not be ‘hygiene’ factors that everyone should be delivering (e.g. honesty, commitment, trustworthiness, etc.), rather they should be a distinctive combination of properly-focused motivating factors (e.g. pride in a distinguished 120 year history, commitment to the environment supported by an ethical supply chain from grower to consumer or, maybe, being supremely agile and adaptable to change, etc.) that will genuinely set your brand apart.  
  2. Make your brand feel relevant to your employees
    There must already be some shared ground or your employees wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be working for you. The single most vital way you can heighten the relevance of the brand values is to lead by example. This starts at the top, your board members, partners and leadership team must be seen to champion the purpose and values that you have captured in your brand promise. Its relevance will snap into focus as the redefined cultural norms cascade down and across the operation—especially if you recognise and reward individuals for living the values (as opposed to merely hitting short-term commercial targets). It goes without saying that all external marketing communications should consistently uphold and reinforce the same brand promise.
  3. Be consistent in applying and recognising your brand values
    Define clear markers to maintain the consistent delivery of the values and don’t allow them to be compromised. Depending on the values you want to reinforce, behavioural change could include anything from speed and efficiency of response, more (or less) flexible working, commitments to training or team-building, social, environmental or fitness initiatives with all, or some, of these incorporated into individual KPIs for personal appraisals. Remember, also, that when times get tough (such as during the recent lock-down) it is the brands that hold fast to their purpose that stand out and reap the long-term benefits (think back to the examples suggested earlier). The true value of a principle is tested when there is a cost at stake. The moment a brand makes compromises by putting short-term profits before purpose, the world sees the façade crumble and all those carefully crafted communications look like cynical marketing bluster. Brand-building is a long-term mission, shrewd investors hold their nerve in the short term to reap the best returns later.

This is, of course, little more than a potted overview. There are many more layers of detail, with dedicated tools and models that help make the process as intuitive and rigorous as you could want.

Suffice to say the ultimate prize should be a substantial increase in the long-term value and loyalty generated by your brand across ALL of its audiences—including the prickliest shareholders (or holding company) whose ruthless focus on short-term returns often snuff-out long-term, value-building initiatives. Just imagine, if the brand-driven thinking that used to live exclusively in the marketing department were, ultimately, to inspire the imagination of the finance department we might even see more of the long-term value creation of which Warren Buffet so heartily approves. 

Which sounds like an easier way to make shareholders smile than persuading Mr Buffet to ride a unicycle!

Building Trust

Would you trust a pharmaceutical brand with your life?

These are interesting times. The speed with which the threat of COVID-19 has swept the world has made the issue of our health —as individuals, societies and nations—our number one preoccupation. 

We are in the unusual situation where we face an unknown threat and our only way to manage it is through trial and error. Where once we looked to the experts for a definitive answer, we now realise they are learning along with the rest of us. 

But it’s because of this lack of certainty, rather than in spite of it, that trust in medical scientists is more important than ever. We are being called upon to trust in their advice, trust that they will come up with the right answers and trust that any ensuing medical response will be effective. Pharmaceutical companies are also in the difficult position of having to marry promise to pragmatism. While individuals and governments clamour for answers, these brands understand that there will be no immediate solution. In the meantime, in the absence of solutions, they will need to find other ways to sustain trust; how they do that will have long-term ramifications for their brands, far beyond what COVID-19 holds. 

Now might be a prime moment for a pharma brand needing to build consumer confidence to step forward and prove its mettle

The evolution of trust 

The first challenge is that the global populace has become less trusting overall. There was a time when we trusted the establishment, when the voice of the BBC was sacred, for example. Today, there is scepticism. We have lost our trust in government and other authorities, for a variety of reasons, leaving people unsure where to place their confidence. Often, it’s brands that have taken over where the voice of authority has failed. In fact, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 41% of people agree that brands have better ideas for solving problems than the government. Pharmaceutical companies used to enjoy a level of unequivocal trust. The ‘white coat’ prevailed – the advice from the scientist in the Colgate advert was accepted without question. We still trust Anadin to do what it says on the box, but even our trust in pharma brands is not now without its caveats. 

How do brands earn trust? 

The way we think about brands is not dissimilar to how we think about people. Factors that earn our trust in them should, therefore, not surprise us. Brands we trust tend to be: 

  1. Those that are on our wavelength. Brands can be like familiar friends, they can relate to our needs, empathise with our perspective and tell us what we want to hear.
  2. Brands that tell the truth and are true to their word (even when we’re not looking). They have earned our trust by consistently delivering against their promises and not letting us down.
  3. The brands trusted by those we trust. If a good friend, valued expert (a doctor perhaps) or impartial observer whose opinions we value trust it we are more easily persuaded.
  4. Those over which we can exercise control should they fail to deliver (the promise of a money-back guarantee, the power to refer or maybe seek redress from a higher authority, etc.)

Pharma brands during a pandemic 

With the UK in lockdown and the establishment showing the strain, an anxious public is keener than ever to discover and hold firm to who and what it can trust. Now might be a prime moment, then, for a pharma brand needing to build consumer confidence, to step forward and prove its mettle. It would certainly appear that some have done just that, such as by spontaneously volunteering to turn their labs and resources to testing for COVID-19 and prioritising research into possible cures. 

But words must be followed through with commensurate actions if such acts of apparent altruism are not to trigger the consumers’ now finely honed scepticism nerve. How exactly is the firm helping and how consistently is it behaving across the rest of its business dealings? With the power of the internet and a surfeit of time for sceptical minds, there really is nowhere to hide–transparency is not only critical but inevitable and failure to deliver against public promises will not only be held to account, but could jeopardise future trust. 

The right communications are now more critical than ever, even the geniality (and not just the credibility) of the experts chosen and cited by pharma brands will have a part to play in building perceptions of the brand’s bearing and trustworthiness. There is also the challenge of being artful in communicating appropriately to those with different interests, without appearing disingenuous when these appear contradictory.

Playing on different wavelengths, while maintaining everyone’s trust, can be challenging at times – such as reconciling the imperative for complete transparency against the assurance of absolute confidentiality. Ultimately, this will be the litmus test for pharma brands that have been assiduously gathering and jealously guarding customer data. Who will have access to it? How will they use it? Can they be trusted to safeguard it? Brands in the sector might also consider aligning their goals at a time like this. It is when rivals link arms and behave in a truly open and honourable way, working towards the same goal, that the world sees how much they genuinely care about making a difference. 

The transition from masters of chemistry to
processors of data 

In the not so distant future we will all be using smart wearable devices that can track not only body movement, temperature and heartbeat, but blood pressure, oxygen and glucose levels. They may even track markers of an existing medical condition, in real time, with the accumulated data combined with personal information (such as bodyweight and family medical history) to create a detailed profile which, aggregated across a database of millions of other users, not only tracks our current health, but anticipates our potential future health profile. 

Drug dosages will be personalised to our precise biological needs, with reminders to take them and prompts about side effects. New supplies of medicines (in personalised dosages) will be ordered automatically – perhaps in customised polypills, containing several medications in one capsule. Geo-positioning and access to our emails, social media feeds and diary, will also enable them to anticipate our medical needs – as well as alerting us if we enter a location where a medical risk is anticipated (while providing advice on how to protect ourselves). 

These new technologies will massively improve the effectiveness of medications, as well as reducing waste (in the UK, unused drugs worth an estimated £150 million are thrown away each year, in the US the figure is nearer $2 billion); over time the wearable device is likely to become a lifelong embedded microchip and personalised medications will be 3D printed and machine dispensed. Best of all, many potential conditions will be avoided altogether. 

The challenge for pharmaceutical brands, however, is that they must undergo a radical transformation from being trusted as masters of chemistry, to processors of data. Although we have, over many years, come to trust them with molecules, the industry has yet to earn our confidence in treasuring our private information – the digital imprint of our life.

In the here and now, COVID-19 is all about maintaining confidence while the industry powers up to find a solution. But then as it gathers more and more information about its consumers and works to provide deeply personalised treatments, consumer trust will be built on the whole package, the company’s legitimate need to hold data, what it does with that information and in whose interests those actions are. 

First published in Pharma Times, magazine, May 2020  
(Keith Lucas writing as Strategy Partner, Superunion) 

Music Matters


For most of us music is an inescapable facet of everyday life. We all listen to it. In fact, on average, most of us spend around 18 hours each week actively doing so and many more hours passively consuming it in our living environment.

Extensive research has shown how important a role music can play in influencing our emotions, our mood and even our purchase decisions.

So how exactly does music affect us?

Music makes us feel better  

Certain types of music can stimulate the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain—which can make us feel happy and contented while regulating anxiety and stress. It also releases noradrenaline, which is a hormone that invokes feelings of euphoria

Rhythm and tone affect our emotions. More specifically, our hearts sync to the rhythms we listen to. Slow, reflective music, for instance, slows down our heartbeat and causes us to relax. Conversely, when we listen to fast-paced music it stimulates  more energetic neural activity, invoking feelings of excitement.

Similarly, if we are experiencing a stressful time, listening to angry-sounding music with an aggressive tone can actually help us release any internalised emotions. When we feel sad or contemplative, listening to soft, melancholic music can have a cathartic effect by helping to draw-out and express what we are feeling.

The power of suggestion

Humankind is remarkably good at recognising, and subconsciously responding to, information that follows recognisable patterns. We intuitively connect familiar motifs and sensual cues to make quick, instinctive judgements. Music provides some of the most powerful and evocative sensual cues of all and can trigger remarkably potent inferences based on unconsciously-learned associations.

Here are some examples:

  • The first few bars of a particular march from Mendlessohn’s opera ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ immediately evokes a wedding ceremony
  • A short extract of Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’, or a few seconds of a seasonal favourite by Wizard or Slade, immediately suggests Christmas
  • The sound of bright (slightly distorted) musical chimes playing a traditional tune will, for many, immediately evoke an ice cream van (and Mr Whippy?)


When several sensual cues are in harmony they become mutually reinforcing and collectively point, with greater certainty, towards the same conclusion. Such sensory clues are deemed to be ‘congruent’ and as more such cues are gathered our subconscious mind tends to expect new information to follow the same pattern. If, for example, you invite someone out for a romantic dinner they will take-in the soft lighting, the candles on the table and perhaps the alluring scent you’re wearing; in the corner a harpist is gently playing ‘Claire de Lune’ by Debussy. These cues are all seamlessly congruent, each reinforcing and in harmony with the others.

Incongruence is caused when a new cue fails to fit the expected pattern. If for example, your romantic evening is suddenly interrupted by a heavy metal band tuning-up in the next room, the arrival of a loud party of diners on the next table, or by an unpleasant smell wafting in through the window, the spell is broken and the conscious mind kicks-in to challenge and correct the subconscious assumptions. Incongruity makes situations harder and slower to comprehend because it forces us to actively process information, which demands conscious effort, rather than accepting it subconsciously.

Music can reinforce fluent behavioural associations

Restaurateurs have long known that classical music can influence customers to choose more expensive food and wine and to savour it for longer; whereas up-beat pop or rock music can encourage people to eat more quickly and move-on.


Pic4bA recent US study found that music can be  even more  directive. Diners in the study were given a menu offering a choice between an Italian pasta dish and a Spanish paella dish. Traditional Italian music was played on the first night and traditional Spanish music was played on the second night. Although the Italian dish remained the preferred choice on both nights, the number choosing the Spanish paella doubled on the second night (from 17% to 34%). Of the 300 diners participating in the study only two had consciously noticed the effect that the music might have had in making their decision.

A similarly designed UK study observed the effect that background music had on customers choosing wine in a retail store. A shelf was arranged with French and German wine carefully matched for price and quality. Traditional French (accordion) music or traditional   German (Bierkeller band) music was played as customers chose their wine. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, while on German music days 73% was German. In other words, customers were three or four times more likely to choose wine that matched the music than wine that did not.

Once again, only 1 out of the 44 customers questioned at the checkout mentioned music having been a factor in their decision-making. Nine out of ten of those asked specifically whether the music had affected their choice said that it definitely had not.

The behavioural influence of the music in both cases was enormous, but customers neither noticed, nor even believed, that it had any effect on them


Congruity is more important than likability

Do you ever go into a restaurant, bar, hotel or retail store and wonder how or why the background music was chosen? In many cases it seems to have been randomly selected according to the taste of the manager, rather than for its fit with the environment.

Another study, this time conducted in Germany, has shown that, after being ‘at the right volume’, the most important consideration when judging the music for a particular environment (e.g. retail space, bar or restaurant) is its perceived aptness, or ‘congruity’ with the environmental experience. In fact this was found to be four times as important as having music that was ‘liked’ or ‘popular’ (even by the manager). In practical terms this is best illustrated by an expressed preference for traditional Indian music by diners in Indian restaurants across London—none of whom had such music on their smart phones, nor would any of them ever choose to listen to listen to it any other context.

Music and brands

A brand is the perception of a promise that lives in the minds of its audiences. The strength of these perceptions is a function of the number of ‘congruent’ clues that coalesce into a promise with clearly defined expectations. One of the most important sources for such clues is any music associated with the brand. The emotional response to such music shapes our perceptions of the brand and, when it is congruent with the brand values, serves to reinforce the brand promise. Over time the brand may even become synonymous with the music—take, for example, the ‘Flower Duet’ (from the opera Lakmé by Delibes) and British Airways, or ‘1,2,3,4’ by Feist which still evokes the launch of the Apple iPod Nano from 2007, while   the drum solo from ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins is inextricably linked with Cadbury’s chocolate. Those with longer memories may still recall the image of a Peugeot 405 driving through burning cane fields when they hear ‘Take My Breath Away’ by Berlin, or the line “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” when they hear Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ even though neither has been seen on TV or cinema screens for over 25—the music for each having been remembered for considerably longer than any other aspect of either brand.


How the right music can help build your brand

As we have seen, the right music can be used to provide additional clues about a brand, giving it a stronger and more enduring appeal without audiences even consciously realising. It deepens emotional connections and underpins core values by reinforcing the brand experience customers have instinctively come to know and trust.

If, however, we contradict or rupture what is currently assembled in their mind they may consciously reconsider their understanding of the brand and maybe even reject it.

Brands are like people…

Imagine, if you will, that your rather conservative grandmother hated jazz music.  She had never seen the point of it and frankly could not understand anyone who did. For as long as you can remember, she had always hated jazz music.

Then one day you find her listening to Jazz, nodding her head in pleasure and tapping her foot in rhythm… you ask her what she is doing and she looks up and replies:

“Hey, I’m just getting into the groove with my favourite music. You have to hear this trumpet solo, I’ve always loved this number…” 

You would have every right to feel confused. Perhaps a little annoyed—even cheated. The person who you thought you knew so well is behaving in a manner that defies your understanding, because it is incongruent with your expectations. Now substitute the figure of your mother with a brand with which you feel a particular empathy and with whose values particularly resonate with your own.

That is how it feels when a known and familiar brand behaves out of character, for example by being identified with the ‘wrong’ music!

Incongruity damages trust in brands, just as it does with people.

They capture your audience’s emotions

Neurologist, Donald Calne has observed that:
“The essential difference between reason and emotion is that
reason leads to conclusions, but emotion leads to actions” 

Rational arguments, therefore, may be a vital component in convincing your audience to make the right decision, but emotional responses are the essential component that enable them to believe that they have made the right decision. Music can play a vital role in generating the emotional appeal your brand needs by reinforcing its distinctiveness, creating empathy with its target audience and maintaining a consistent and familiar experience.

How to choose the right music?

There are many models, tools and approaches that we can use to determine the music that best fits the purpose and values of a particular brand. In the light of our recent research in this sector, and for the sake of discussion, we will look at three top-level themes most pertinent to a destination or service brand targeting international business audiences.

We will call these:

  1. Country music
  2. Tribal Music
  3. Mood music

1. Country Music 


For some brands ‘country of origin’ is a key component of their distinctive identity (e.g. Harrods, Volvo, Chanel, Fosters, Victorinox, Muji)






Questions to consider:

  • How important is the country of origin to the appeal of my brand?
  • How can I leverage the appeal of national music to add value to the identity of my brand?
  • What kind of national music is relevant? How and where can it be used to reinforce the appeal?

2. Tribal Music 

Pic7People naturally cluster into like-minded or culturally-aligned ‘tribes’. These may be defined by a shared lifestyle, religion, demographic or perhaps an expressed preference (for a football team… or musical hero or genre)

Music can become the cultural signifier of choice for some devotees of a particular artist, band or genre and it becomes an important part of their own identity (e.g. goths, rappers, etc.) or image (culture vultures, etc.)

This can be polarising, as music that strongly connects with one tribe can seem quite repellant to another…

Questions to consider:

  • To what extent do my audiences cluster into distinct music ‘tribes’ or genre types?
  • How can I leverage the appeal of particular music to add value to the identity of my brand?
  • How can I segment my audiences to provide each group with the music they will best respond to?

3. Mood Music 

Pic8Music has a powerful ability to set the scene in any situation and the right choice of mood music can be critical to setting the right tone.

The starting point is to define what mood is being sought.

Do we want people to be attentive or put at ease?

Stimulated or relaxed? Should they feel challenged, enthused and expressive or reflective, thoughtful and earnest?

One of the most powerful ways to get the mood right is to start by getting the music right!

Questions to consider:

  • How do I want my audience to feel emotionally?
  • What do I want audiences to remember about the character and implied ‘mood’ of my brand? 
  • How can I leverage the different effects that different kinds of music can have on my audiences and use this for different purposes at different moments?


  • Music is a widely appreciated and powerful means of communication which can strongly influence choice and preference.
  • Choosing music that fits is much more effective than choosing music we like.
  • The right music will build distinctiveness, relevance and consistency for our brand as well as reinforcing its instinctive, emotional appeal.
  • Music that empathises with national or regional identity can be particularly powerful for some brands. The culture of the audiences should also be carefully taken into account. Finally remember the mood and emotional ambiance that you are seeking to create.
  • From today make a point of listening to the music that surrounds you and question how it could be better… after all, music matters.

The Right Brain Drain?


20 years ago there was a hot topic in marketing circles:
Will management consultancies take the place of advertising agencies?

In November 1997 Campaign magazine published a feature under the title: ‘I’m only a client but…’. It argued, from a client’s perspective, that consultancies were confidently outclassing agencies in the boardroom, not just analytically and operationally but strategically in the area of brand planning. Above all, their professional credibility, outside the creative cloisters of the marketing department, was more widely appreciated, as was their ability to command robust fees for intelligence and intellectual guidance (without a creative execution in which to hide them—a traditional agency tactic).

Plus ça change! The topic seems as topical today as they did then. Given that the feature was mine, I thought I would look again at the subject with the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight.


Of course, much water has passed under the marketing services bridge since then. The evolution of agencies (and the umbrella groups that operate them) has been steered partly by a quantum shift towards what has become known as ‘digital’ and partly by tighter client budgets, combined with higher expectations of cost-efficiency and accountability.

But while agencies may have become leaner,  more serious and arguably less hedonistic places to work, they remain as focused as ever on producing inspiring ‘right brain’ creative solutions from the pencils (now made by Apple) of the brightest creative talent they can hire. The days of the national TV network spot might have passed, but creative teams remain as ambitious and competitive as ever to make their mark and to win the admiration of their peers (formalised by annual industry jamborees in Cannes and elsewhere), agency ‘suits’ gush proudly to their clients who, in turn, glow with satisfaction as they mentally add another accolade to their CV and re-plot their career trajectory.

The drama and emotion of this ‘right brain’ culture, whether by default or design, has remained a significant factor in differentiating agencies from their consultancy interlopers and may be the key factor in assuring their future survival.

The great cultural divide

In essence, the archetypal consulting mindset is set on adding demonstrable value through intellectual solutions that will direct, shape or reconfigure a business to meet its corporate objectives and, ultimately, enhance shareholder value. As Bain Consulting puts it: “our mission is to help management teams create such high levels of economic value that together we redefine our respective industries”. Consultancies typically research and determine best practice then stress-test potential solutions to destruction before they are implemented—along with the performance metrics needed to monitor and demonstrate their impact. When the engagement is complete, it will become a case study on which future best practice is based. It will then be tagged and filed for global reference across the firm.

The agency archetype, by comparison, has licence to take a somewhat less empirically-grounded and more imaginative approach. In their quest to deliver emotionally-engaging creative solutions they are expected to demonstrate the courage of their convictions (rather than their analyses) and even champion seemingly uncertain solutions because they are ‘exactly the big idea the client needs’—even if the client does not yet know it. When they get it right the impact can be game changing and the client’s investment will be returned many times over. Or it may not.


An article in Forbes magazine recently claimed that ‘Consultants Are Eating The Agencies’ Three-Martini Lunch’. The analogy is evocative but I venture that a three-Martini lunch is about as alien to the cultural milieu of most consultants as a Boots Meal Deal would be to Don Draper. We might humour the metaphor, however, to illustrate the cultural contrast between consultancies and agencies. Suppose you were a marketing director intent on enjoying a bowl of lunchtime soup and that the choice was between a consultancy and an agency. The consultancy would be a bit like a dependably good, masterfully-blended soup from a reputable team of chefs at a decent establishment in a comfortable part of town. They know exactly what you came for, every ingredient has been certified, you get precisely what they promised and leave feeling confident that you got what you paid for and the cost was justified. The agency, on the other hand, would be the soup of the day from a highly creative, if slightly unpredictable, gastro boutique in an edgier part of town. The ingredients are artfully chosen and come together with varying degrees of success, there is rarely a dull moment in the kitchen and the the chef’s potential for culinary magic is legendary. On a good day you will be so enraptured that you’ll want to tell the rest of the world. On a bad day you just hope no one sees how much you’ve just paid.

The changing professional landscape

But times are changing. The gulf that once divided the two worlds appears to be eroding as the functional gap between their services is bridged. After years dipping their toes into the water consultancies are now jumping in with both feet. Whether they sink or swim is, ultimately, another story but there are some important reasons why their moment has come. Here are some of the key drivers for this:

  1. The rising predominance of cloud-based enterprise software (Microsoft 365, Salesforce, Oracle, etc.) has meant that technology-focused consultancies (notably Accenture, IBM, Cap Gemini, etc.) have seen a steady shift in client focus away from the analysis and management of client systems towards the implementation of e-commerce solutions and the provision of digital content and services.

Impact: agencies experienced in developing the digital content needed by clients have become irresistible targets to consultancies keen to integrate these functions into their client offering.

  1. Marketing chiefs no longer see traditional communications channels as stand-alone activities, rather they are integrated into a spectrum of activities virtually all of which, from data analysis to customer relationships, are now managed and tracked digitally. In fact they are equipped like never before to track the returns on every marketing investment, at every stage in their customers’ journeys from a galaxy of digital communications platforms and applications to traditional broadcast media. Perhaps still more seminal is the enhanced ability to pretest creative concepts which can now be more quickly, accurately and economically rendered and assessed before they are rolled-out. This helps dispel some of the agency world’s traditional mystique and reduces the client’s former dependence on an agency’s ‘black box’ of experience and intuition for creative counsel. As the obstacles to integrating an agency’s activities into the rest of the marketing programme are overcome, so the reasons not to incorporate these activities into an integrated portfolio of services that the consultancy can manages, also fades.

Impact: Consultancies are already measuring and managing all manner of wider digital activities for clients. Now that marketing communications activities have become easier to integrate it would seem illogical not to do the same with them.

  1. Most client organisations need to be able to think and act with ever more seamless global integrity. The major consultancy groups are equipped to deliver client services of a similarly global nature with operations that are consistently and systematically coordinated, have low internal inertia and which complement the needs of their clients. Most agencies, if they have an international network at all, are rarely consistent across them and, in many cases, comprise a patchwork of variable local capabilities held together by a squirts of corporate glue from the parent group. If a consultancy could credibly extend its offer to include high-quality, strategically-aligned and creatively-consistent communications solutions as part of its global service, it would have an extremely compelling client proposition.

Impact: Global clients looking for properly-integrated global solutions are driving consultancies to find ways of incorporating the services currently provided by various local agencies, networks and groups.

  1. Perhaps one of the qualities most highly sought in business over the past decade or so has been ‘innovation’. A McKinsey study reported that 70% of senior executives rated ‘innovation’ among the top three drivers of growth for their companies. It is, by definition, the act of finding new ways of doing things, seeking fresh perspectives and novel approaches. Being innovative, essentially, means harnessing creativity. Consultants instinctively analyse, research and interrogate to determine best practice proven by precedent. Agencies do the opposite, they intuitively generate inspiring new ideas that could never have resulted from deductive analysis. In fact, so inspiring are some of their best ideas that, even though they might not strictly answer the brief, they are simply too good not to be used. Which begs the question: would a client wanting an innovation workshop be better served by a lamentation of left-brain consultants or a radiance of right-brain agency types? Yet it is consultancies who are often tasked to address the need for business innovation. By acquiring more right-brain resources they could become cerebrally ambidextrous—the best of both worlds.

Impact: Consultancies are keen to access the kind of creative and intuitive thinking that agencies have always mastered. They can leverage it across a range of business services and they know their clients will pay for it (NB: they can also package it considerably more profitably than an agency could).RBD_3

Little wonder that Anatoly Roytman, MD of Accenture Interactive for EMEA, was recently reported as saying that he wanted Accenture to become the world’s biggest digital agency, adding that: “CMOs have to think about more than advertising and communications in a connected world that is going through digital transformation… brands need an agency to manage the whole consumer experience and every touchpoint along the way, from the inception of an idea to developing and designing a product, building awareness and then selling and distributing it… Accenture Interactive can be this new breed of shop… we are close to being able to do the entire spectrum”. But it is not a one-way street. Agencies, too, have  much to gain from joining forces with consultancies. Most notably the promise of C-suite credibility which has long blighted agencies’ client standing, from this comes the opportunity to influence the strategic thinking that leads to the brief and the potential to leverage this to climb out of the tightening marketing implementation niche into which they have allowed themselves to be squeezed. Recent revelations about major FMCG cut-backs will intensify the imperative to find solutions. In such circumstances long-held objections to partnering with consultancies might give way to the need for change to survive.

So is it just a matter of time before marketing services agencies morph into divisions of management consultancies?

It would probably look that way through the lens of a consultancy. From their perspective it would appear to be a logical progression, with all the concomitant cost-saving, efficiency benefits and growth opportunities. Indeed, rumour has it that Accenture has already made overtures to WPP with potential collaboration, perhaps even a merger, in mind.

The fly in the consultancy soup?

RBD_5Creativity (unlike the analytical prowess, intellectual horsepower and rational analysis that we associate with ‘left-brain thinking’) is a uniquely fickle human talent. To thrive it needs nurturing and encouragement. Great creative ideas often lurk among ridiculous ones, they may even depend on them to get noticed, they can come from the most unexpected places and might only snap into focus after other, more promising-looking ones, have been eliminated. Creative agencies are built around incubating them, it is their raison d’être. They indulge artistic temperaments, giving them licence to navel-gaze for days with nothing to show before finally, all being well and often at the eleventh hour, they are presented with something that brings a tear to their eye (preferably in a good way). Consultancies, for all their extraordinary capabilities in adding structural value and implementing outstanding solutions across the rest of the client’s business, simply cannot and never will work this way. Their engagements are well-planned, their time carefully monitored and their thinking critically appraised while their deliverables are tested and quantified (and rarely cried over). To incorporate more ‘right-brain’ thinking into their offering would mean being willing to embrace a fundamentally different management approach to sustain it. The evidence suggests that if it were that straightforward it would probably have happened years ago and agencies would be a legacy of the past. Anecdotally, it has been suggested that those agencies that have joined consultancy groups gradually take fewer creative risks and start to become more like their owners.

We have all seen, heard or read about creatively-inspired boutiques, studios, restaurants, musical instrument makers, luxury goods manufacturers, car makers, et al, who have been taken under the wing of well-meaning, if over-ambitious corporate parents promising to improve and expand them, only to see their creativity stifled by management incompatibilities and their creative lifeblood drained away. Yes, it can sometimes work, but often it does not. The challenge of creativity, then, lies in the culture.

It’s the culture stupid 

RBD_6As WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrel recently commented “it is much harder to scale creative than technology… one is more science and one is more art”. Creative thinkers need the right conditions to be fruitful and rarely blossom in a rigid, results-driven culture like that of most consultancies. Sorrel knows that maintaining a positive agency culture is a prerequisite to getting the right results, hence his strategy of ‘horizontality’ (encouraging independently-managed agencies across WPP to work together as one). The emphasis here is one of lateral cooperation (which preserves autonomy and creative integrity) rather than vertical control (which would impose restrictions that would stifle creative thinking). Contrast this with the stance of Accenture’s Roytman who is reported to have said that: “[agency holding companies] have got a big, big challenge. To ensure you have the correct set-up, when you have so many [agency] brands that are not collaborating, that are not integrated, it’s very difficult. They have to collapse themselves and create one P&L”. This kind of rationalisation sounds eminently practical for a manufacturing or distribution empire, but could risk compromising the cultural sensibilities on which agencies depend.

Of course agencies can and must be rationalised and merged from time to time, but to do this fruitfully often involves a measure of ego-massaging, personal assurances and face-saving title-aggrandising if more is to be gained than lost by the disruption. Even WPP, which is well practiced in such change, handles agency rationalisation with caution: “To make an omelette, you have to break eggs and I think you risk breaking too many” said Sir Martin after coming under pressure to be more radical in rationalising the agencies in his group. The functional and systematic approach typically taken by most consultancies’ would probably break as many eggs as necessary to arrive at the structure deemed to be most efficient—it would also be less likely to take account of the soft needs of particular talents on which the future value of the agency relies.

Maybe one of the reasons why the most creative agency groups have the most complicated structures is because they have evolved around the creative talent that lays the golden eggs which hatch into remarkable solutions. Rationalising them into high-efficiency creative delivery systems might be the equivalent of turning them into creative battery farms, which may indeed be more productive in churning-out eggs but, to borrow Mr Sorrel’s analogy, it is likely to result in a very large, but bland and forgettable, omelette.

Nurturing a creative culture

Creative agencies are not unique in their need to nurture the creative talent that becomes lifeblood of their future success. Innovation is at the heart of companies like Google, Apple, Starbucks and Dyson, all of which have been eager to resolve the cultural incompatibilities between running a systematically-planned, international operation—with all the control needed to maintain corporate efficiency–while also fostering a creative environment that values and rewards creativity. Each has invested heavily in developing distinctive solutions, from physical space (Jonathan Ive’s Apple Park circular campus in Cupertino: “the most creatively inspiring office building in the world”) and cultural environment (Google has been fostering links between its new London operation in Kings Cross and the neighbouring Central St Martins School of Art to be in: “one of the highest concentrations of brilliant, creative people in London”) to developing a corporate mindset willing to take risks on potentially ruinous new product initiatives (Starbucks closed down 7,100 stores to retrain its baristas and ran a ‘Tweet-a-Coffee’ promotion offering free coffees to customers’ friends, or Dyson’s ‘Animal’ cordless, bagless, vacuum cleaner which launched at more than twice the price level of its established competitors). They work hard to break down rigid internal structures to accommodate smaller operating units with greater freedom to explore new ideas without the distraction of short-term financial imperatives. The antithesis, you might think, of a consultancy culture where the norm is to rationalise everything put it into one P&L. Just to be clear, some of my best friends are consultants and consultancies are where some of the most intelligent and capable people I have ever worked are to be found. But they are different horses for different courses than agencies.

RBD_7As Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy recently quipped: “The most vital thing in an ad agency, is that you have a culture where its okay to fail, a culture wherein you can make stupid suggestions and still get promoted”. Perhaps consultancies will, one day, create and sustain such a work culture.

Only when, and if, that happens will agencies be a thing of the past.

Once upon a time there was a brand…

gorillaA recent advertising campaign for a certain low-cost supermarket made me smile. It used a tried and tested formula involving a taste test between two similar looking products, one a known and trusted, premium Swiss chocolate brand, the other their own-brand alternative. Discerning chocophiles, after declaring their devotion to the Swiss brand and confidently asserting their ability always to recognise it, are flabbergasted to discover they actually prefer the taste of the supermarket product. It makes me smile not because of its novelty or insight but because it succinctly illustrates two of the key factors of successful brand management.

Promise: make a clear and compelling brand promise to attract the right audience.

Delivery: consistently deliver against that promise to maintain enthusiasm and build loyalty.

No matter what the brand or sector, if the promise is insufficiently relevant and differentiated in the target audiences’ minds they can hardly be expected to maintain a preference for it, particular if a competitor comes along with what appears to be a brighter, shinier proposition. Similarly, however compelling the promise, if your brand fails to deliver against it, they will not stay fooled for long.

The image of lipstick on a gorilla, as an analogy for a brand pretending to be something it isn’t, often seems to strike a chord (visit our website and you’ll see what I mean). Perhaps we might extend the analogy by imagining the customer as a fairytale prince (which should, in itself, prove cathartic) and that the brand is the princess of his dreams with whom he wants to live happily ever after (brand loyalty personified).Q1

We can then think of the brand in the guise of one of the following caricatures:

1. A princess 

A compelling promise, perfectly delivered

The ingredients for a long-term relationship. But remember, there are other princesses being preened to distract the prince, so keep an eye on them and give him no reason to look elsewhere.

2. A gorilla dressed-up as a princess

A compelling promise, hideously delivered

All that pretence will be worth nothing when the prince finds out the truth. She needs a fundamental transformation. Fast. Otherwise she’ll get dumped and, when word gets out, her reputation will be ruined.

3. A princess in a gorilla suit 

An unappealing promise whose delivery might exceed expectations.

There is little point in exceeding expectations if those expectations are so low you that you don’t get invited to the ball (er, shortlist). With so many tempting alternatives on offer what self-respecting (and a little image-conscious) prince will take the risk? She needs nothing less than a total makeover, a fresh aroma, sparkling conversation and a confident smile.

4. A gorilla

An unappealing promise, hideously delivered.

Best not to waste any more time or money on this one. She belongs in the zoo, not the ball.


Of course, such caricatures exaggerate to make a point. But perhaps you will recognise some aspects of them in your own brand? The second and third analogies are particularly apposite for most brands. For example:

Your brand might lean towards being a gorilla dressed-up as a princess if:

Trial is high, but loyalty is low (delivery fails to live up to expectations)

The experience surrounding the brand is underwhelming or inconsistent with it

The brand promise erodes or shifts from the one that originally attracted them

Your brand, similarly, be something of a princess in a gorilla suit if:

It has relatively few customers but the ones it has are happy and loyal

Potential customers are reluctant to take a risk and give it a try

It is hard to win distribution even though it is arguably better than its rivals

So, could that supermarket chocolate bar be likened to a princess in a gorilla suit? Well, if what she offers really is as satisfying as the glamorous rival she is ‘aping’, then yes. If, on the other hand, we are being conned with a false promise, she really could be nothing more than the gorilla we always suspected. You’re the prince. You decide!

What’s in a Name?

Desert_Fox “How do you do?” said the smartly-dressed man with a refined German accent, “my name is Günter”. We continued with the meeting and Günter immediately engaged with intelligent, well-articulated arguments and persuasive insights. Perhaps, with hindsight, I just imagined it but he seemed unusually keen on robust, but good-natured, confrontations with his colleagues usually with a mischievous glint in his eye. We broke for coffee. “I suppose you already know Herr Dr Rommel?”, said my neighbour, I found myself locked in a firm handshake with the smartly-dressed man. “Günter Rommel” he announced “How do you do?”. Suddenly, it all made sense, he must be related to the great Erwin Rommel, ’The Desert Fox’, the famously brilliant German Field Marshall and I had been exchanging verbal crossfire with him only moments earlier. The meeting resumed and, despite my resolving not to, I found myself exercising perhaps a little more caution than before, I was more conscious of not being wrong-footed and I confess to feeling even a trifle intimidated.

I have not seen him since and, to this day, remain unsure how, or even if, Günter is related to Erwin. But I am certain that after having assumed such a connection in my own mind, it made a difference to my interpretation of his personal standing. Even in a firm where everyone is trained to dissent equitably, names have the power to affect expectations, imply associations and remind us of past experiences, because names signify brands. And a brand is, essentially, a promise that shapes what we can expect of a person, a service or a product bearing its name.

Names are, of course, meaningless until they are imbued with particular values and associations. What would the names Apple, Google and Facebook have meant to earlier generations? Yet they currently rank among the worlds most valuable brand names. Ironically, the values your brand stands for might be totally at odds with what your name might seem to promise. ‘Carphone Warehouse’, for example, has carved a distinctive position for itself in customers’ minds, based on its being a convenient and affordable outlet to get a deal on a mobile phone or broadband package, none of which really has anything much to do with ‘carphones’ or ‘warehouses’ (any more than ‘Blackberry’ suggests a personal organiser or ‘Axe’ a deodorant).The naming conundrum becomes still more complicated when brand names get together, perhaps as a result of a merger, acquisition or in some kind of promotional partnership. While Disney + Pixar, Rolex + Wimbledon, Visa + The Olympics have become harmonious brand cocktails, Chrysler + Daimler Benz, AOL + Timer Warner and Snapple + Quaker Oats left bitter tastes in the mouths of brand owners and customers alike, primarily because what looked good for the organisations on paper took no account of the values the brand names actually stood for in the minds of their customers. One escape is to create a new brand canopy, like ‘Diageo’ or ‘Mondelez’, and hide autonomous brands beneath it. The challenge here, though, is to create meaning from nothing, and such brand canopies usually remain wilfully anodyne and soulless for fear of standing for anything too distinctive. The most effective solution is, of course, to genuinely and deeply understand the essential soft value factors associated with your brand (not merely the hard operational factors) then seek to complement, or at least safeguard, them in any planned partnership. Even apparent dissonances like Rolls-Royce + BMW (which worked rather well on hard operational factors, but could have been a catastrophe on soft value factors) can be deftly accommodated with subtle understanding and careful attention to positioning, implied endorsement and brand architecture.

Like it or not we, and the firms or organisations we work for, all have names laden with associations – particularly among those most familiar with them. And that goes for professional services firms, charities and the civil service as well as more widely-known consumer brands. The question is what do these names trigger in the minds of their audiences and to what extent are you managing them. A brand is a promise. What’s yours?naming_q

Oh and if Günter Rommel ever gets to read this, my middle name is Montgomery.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

mallWho can fail to be touched by the withering into extinction of the great British high street and, to a lesser extent, its anodyne successor the shopping mall? Retailers are closing-down and shops are being boarded-up as ever more of us choose to do our shopping online.

And it is not that difficult to see why. Online shopping, for most of us, is a lot more convenient, it is quicker, cheaper and offers far wider choice without having to leave the comfort of our own home. This is particularly the case for products that are bought on specification (electrical goods, cameras, computer equipment, etc.) where it is easy to research and read reliable reviews before buying exactly the right product at a considerable saving over a retail store. Few of us would miss the ‘personal service’ that surrounds the purchase of such products which, to be honest, usually amounts to some spotty youth reciting a sales script before trying to flog you a product protection insurance you don’t need.

Sadly, it was only a matter of time before the likes of Comet and Jessops were squeezed out of existence. Q1But what about the other sectors coming under pressure, in particular, what about clothing? Surely few could have predicted that so many of us would be buying clothes online to the extent that we now are? After all we need to try clothes on, to check the fit, the colour, the fabric? Yet the market for some online clothing retailers has been booming (not just the Asos phenomenon, but the rise of niche players like Coggles, Boden, Joules, etc. as well as the online offerings from high street retailers), it seems that more of us than expected are willing to take the risk and order clothes before actually seeing or trying them first.

closingIt might have been an inevitability waiting to happen, but the growth of this market points to something more than passive acceptance. It suggests a degree of discontentment with the former retail offering which is better satisfied by the new online providers. Perhaps high street retailers have hastened the revolution by failing to offer what their customers were looking for, giving their online competitors important footholds in their markets? So what exactly have they been getting wrong? Three things: choice, service and trust.

Firstly, choice. The British high street lost its individuality years ago, 80% of shops are chains selling identical merchandise everywhere (most of which they now also sell online). But a more insidious reason why the choice on the high street is rather predictable, is that retailers are inherently risk averse. They seem more interested in looking over their shoulder at what their competitors are doing than looking ahead at what the customer wants. So, if an item appears to be selling well in store A, store B (its key competitor) is desperate to have exactly the same item, rather than taking a risk on a different item the customer might actually prefer. The exceptions are the more visionary and innovative retailers who know what they stand for and how to engage their audience (Primark, Majestic, Poundland and John Lewis spring to mind) as well as the specialist independent retailers run by knowledgeable entrepreneurs, who know their customers’ needs and use their expertise to source merchandise that cannot be found in the chains. Although they are lamentably rare in the UK these days, some are now setting-up online where they can reach a wider, if less personal, audience.

Secondly, service. With a few exceptions, notably John Lewis (again), most UK retailers have become woefully slow and unwilling to help customers. Ironically, these days if the size/colour combination you want is not available in store most retailers will suggest you order it from their website rather than going to the trouble of getting it in for you. Even the former national post-Christmas of queuing for a refund at M&S has become a guilt-inducing ordeal with much tutting and shaking of heads before a refund will be conceded. Is it any surprise that John Lewis is bucking the retail trend, its loyal and satisfied customers keep coming back almost entirely because of the superior service they receive.

Thirdly, trust. With a few exceptions (notably John Lewis, yet again), we simply don’t trust retailers that much anymore. Do we really believe that suit was ever priced at £525 before it was marked down to £399, before being slashed to £249 and finally £199 in the ‘Blue Cross’ clearance sale? Would the store own-up if they knew that the chinos they were selling so cheaply were being churned-out by a sweat shop in Asia? And when we see ‘Bond Street’ or ‘Saville Row’ on a label why are we not entirely surprised to find, on closer inspection, a concealed tag confessing ‘Made in India’ (or some other location miles from London)?

shirtsWell, the web-based retailers ought to have an easy lead with the first point and there is certainly a lot more choice available online. But look more closely and you would be forgiven for thinking that the UK retailers who have set-up online seem to have taken their conservative me-too mindset with them, because they just seem to offer a bigger variety of the same things. Take men’s clothing and smart work shirts in particular. They are fairly regular, staple purchase, easy enough to browse on a website and most men know their collar size and sleeve length, making them an ideal product to buy online. The rise of online shirt merchants such as Charles Tyrwhitt, T.M. Lewin, Hawes & Curtiss, (et al) are testimony to this. But peruse their initially-impressive arrays of merchandise and it is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu. Whatever one offers, they all offer. Where are the distinctive products, the fresh ideas, where is the innovation? It need not all be pseudo Paul Smith edgy, but must it all be so pseudo M&S bland? Part of the defence from such would-be genteel brands is their desire to maintain longstanding appeal built on classical British understatement, conservative taste, discretion and so on. But really, are they not all offering undifferentiated substitutes for one another? Have they not, in fact, created a commodity market for themselves where price becomes the primary differentiator (3 for £60 or 4 for £90?).

With respect to the second point, service, despite their remoteness, most online clothing retailers leave their their high street counterparts in the dark ages with hassle-free returns, refunds and helpful online assistance. This is where the bricks and mortar retailers ought to have the upper hand. But it is, for the most part, an opportunity missed.

Finally, integrity. Once again, this ought to be an area in which the high street retailer should shine. It doesn’t, but, frankly, neither do the online operations that we were just looking at. For example, they all offer a wide range of shirts all of which seem to be permanently reduced from £75-£85 to £25-£30. In one example, a newly introduced design for this season (see inset – and, yes, this brand new ‘slim fit blue dogtooth’ really is about as innovative as it gets) has, supposedly, been launched with a price tag of £85. No sooner has the stock arrived and it is slashed to £29, or you can have 4 for £90 (which, based on its make-believe starting price, is practically a buy 1 get 3 free deal). But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, they are probably worth £85 aren’t they? After all, that is what you might expect to pay for a genuine Jermyn Street shirt isn’t it?
JermynAnd these are genuine Jermyn Street shirts after all, the website says so, the label says so and they have a store in Jermyn Street. Well, the basic cut and construction of the shirt are, apparently, based on traditional designs (as, to be fair, are those in most shops), but the shirts are, allegedly (it is all rather hush, hush) made in places as far from Jermyn Street as Turkey, India, China and Vietnam. Not that we necessarily mind that much, especially if it keep the price affordable, but surely honesty is the basis of trust (ask John Lewis!).

Given that the target market for these products is supposed to be well-educated professional men, how long will they go along peddling the pretence? Probably until a better proposition comes along to displace it.

Q2Perhaps if the high street hadn’t opened the door with its complacency, online retailers might not have stolen so much of their market – particularly the clothing market, which no one would have predicted a decade ago. But just as their predecessors’ introspection, lack of vision and inability to engage and inspire customers sealed their fate, is there not a risk that the same attitudes could, unchecked, yet come back to haunt the online generation?