Friday, 11 April 2014

Bother and Trouble

I don't often witter on about my secret life as a children's author here, but I hope I'll be excused a little indulgence. My second retro-style adventure for 9-12s, Trouble in Teutonia will be launched at Brooklands Museum on Thursday 17th April and the website has been live since yesterday.

I suppose it's what you'd call a brand extension, and Stefan Lochmann has done an excellent job. The challenge was enough similarity with Burmeon - the retro adventure look - while creating a unique 1957 Cold War world for Teutonia .

It's jam-full of jolly japes, jaunty jalopies and - um - jetty jets.

If you're looking for Trouble, you're in the right place.

Monday, 7 April 2014

You are what you lead?

The hullabaloo in the last week over Brendan Eich, the ex-CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, has got me thinking about the role that senior executives play when shaping a company's public perception.

I don't want to get into Mr Eich's views, especially those that lost him his job, but I believe there is a strong need in these days of transparency for senior executives - and maybe other employees - to give careful thought as to whether their personal views and opinions are compatible with the values of the company they work for.

Brendan Eich has been called everything from "horribly bullied" to an "obnoxious homophobe" recently but I wonder if he would have been under similar pressure to step down if he had worked in a more conservative industry - arms manufacture to take a silly example, or the automobile industry to take a more realistic one.

Back in the last century, you had your Mission Statement and Brand Values on the wall of the boardroom and no-one paid them much attention. Only rare exceptions when it came to CEOs could really be said to be living the values of the company - Anita Roddick, or Richard Branson for example. Or Ingvar Kamprad (above) - an interesting case, who certainly makes a point of living a low cost life but came on very shaky ground for a company that believes in democracy and diversity when certain aspects of his early life were revealed.

These days it's difficult to hide and companies must ensure that their senior representatives fit culturally with what the company is about. And the onus is also on the executive him/her self. If you're used to a luxury lifestyle, IKEA probably isn't the place for you. Nor is Procter & Gamble if you're an animal rights activist in your spare time.

The Eich case isn't that simple, as Brendan Eich founded Mozilla himself.

Even so, he should never been offered the position of CEO, or accepted it.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The age of Big Insight

The age of Big Data has been upon us for some time, with marketers and advertising rightly excited about the possibilities that the amalgamation of data - particularly "found data" in terms of the digital detritus almost all human beings leave behind in their daily lives - gives us.

If you've been in this game for some time, as I have, you may remember the thrill that accompanied econometric models in their early days. These were going to tell us the secret of how advertising worked and what made people buy our brands. The econometric models are very useful, of course, to help marketers interpret the past, but alone they cannot predict the future. And a badly conceived or interpreted model is worse that none at all.

Every time such a model is presented, I find it useful for the agency to re-iterate what correlation actually is, and what it isn't. At college, I had "correlation does not imply causation" drummed into me I don't know how many times. It's like this, if A and B are correlated:

A could cause B
B could cause A
A and B are the consequences of a common cause but one does not cause the other. So, sleeping in your shoes does not cause headaches, even though instances of the two events are correlated. One look at our friend above can tell you the underlying cause.
There is no connection between A and B - the correlation is coincidental.

This is just one of the factors that Tim Harford considers in an excellent FT Magazine article about Big Data and the potential pitfalls in its interpretation. We must beware that the errors we make with more manageable data sets are not simply compounded as the data set gets bigger - for example, via sample bias. And, in the end, the human factor in terms of insightful interpretation remains key. His closing sentences sum this up very nicely:

“Big data” has arrived, but big insights have not. The challenge now is to solve new problems and gain new answers – without making the same old statistical mistakes on a grander scale than ever.

Monday, 31 March 2014

A lost world

A discussion about football over the weekend prompted me to get out the only World Cup programme that I possess - from Mexico 1970. And, once the argument was resolved, as is my wont with printed ephemera, I starting glancing through the ads.

You have to bear in mind that the ads would have been bought to a target audience of young men, possibly with young families as a secondary audience, in those strange days 44 years ago. So there's lots of stuff about cars and automobile-related brands: British Leyland, Fiat, Esso and Mobil. And the odd 1970 hi-tech ad (such as the one for a company called Vines of Trafalgar Square, who made film projectors, in 16mm and 8mm.)

Children were catered for, with ads for Raleigh, Action Man (in his World Cup Kit) and Chelsea ("The girl with the groovy gear" "the up-to-date dress-up-dolly") - funny, she never featured in my childhood!

But the overwhelming impression is of ads for tobacco. B&H takes the back cover, Player's No. 6 proudly presents its prices and Wills Golden Virginia takes us into a pub scene. It's straight out of The Sweeney, with its dartboard and expanses of polished wood.

Given that such scenes will not be appearing in the programme for this year, I realised what was missing. No food and drink, especially of the fast variety. No McDonald's. No Pizza Hut. OK, they had not been introduced to the UK at this point. But no Coke. Not even beer.

Maybe the anti-obesity crusaders have got a point.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The new luxury

Showing off used to be about conspicuous consumption of luxury brands and articles - my car, my house, my yacht. But these days it's more about the conspicuous experience and the sharing thereof on Facebook - my perfect family diving in the Maldives. And the luxury brands are being appropriated by the movers and shakers in the developing markets. It just takes a ski holiday in one of the classic resorts of Old Europe to see how times are changing.

But a new form of luxury is emerging - discreet luxury. Actually, I am sure that this has been there all along - people who furnish their homes with family heirlooms or one-off antiques rather than the latest bling-bling. And much of this is, like the antiques, previously-owned.

A perfect example is Byronesque, conceived by ex-M&C Saatchi planner Gill Linton (we do have our uses!). Described as "Designer vintage fashion for the subversive and androgynously chic", this has nothing to do with twee floral frocks or polka-dot blouses. Most of the pieces offered on sale are from the 90s (which is worrying for an oldie like me!) and can set you back - like the Vivienne Westwood coat above - thousands of pounds.

But for someone looking for exclusivity, this has it all: it's democratic and accessible in terms of not having to make your way to a snooty shop in Bond Street, but the prices naturally count most mere mortals out. Uniqueness and style are there by the metre, sustainability is built-in.

And, every piece comes with a long story attached. Just like the family heirlooms.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Ode to Cillit Bang?

Brands have long been a part of popular culture with name drops in books and songs, placement in TV and cinema, as well as sponsorship and the new branded channels springing up via social media.

But what about the higher echelons of culture? Well, Andy Warhol was certainly the master when it came to elevating brands to pieces of art, but it's difficult to think of many examples involving the written word.

Paul Walton, the founder of The Value Engineers, is a man who loves brands - and loves poetry. I was delighted to see that British Airways have published some of his work in their Business Life in-flight magazine. These four poems are wonderful little gems and capture the essence of the brands they are dedicated to far better than some dreary Brand Onion. How can you forget Marmite's plea "for a holiday somewhere medium and bland?" Or Branston "charging to spike the maiden salad Like some Brontean ravisher..."?

So come on, brands! How about appointing a Brand Laureate or a Brand Writer-in-Residence?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Burning your brand at the stake?

I read an interesting piece from Trendwatching recently entitled Heritage Heresy, about the increasing acceptance of brands that play with, subvert or even explode their own heritage. I'm not sure that it's a new trend or a necessity: something that brands over a certain age may simply have to do as a matter of course as parts of their heritage become irrelevant. Probably the most extreme example I can remember was Butlin's in the UK literally blowing up their dated Hi-de-Hi style holiday camp in a spectacular TV commercial to make way for the more contemporary Holiday Worlds.

The practice is alive and well today, whether it's Moet Hennessy launching sparkling wine from India or Versace bringing out a collection based on cheap street copies of their designs - or even Edeka and Supergeil.

A confident brand can always do this, especially if being playful, a little bit anarchic or subversive is tucked away in its character somewhere. It's about knowing when you can break the rules. The kind of brand that can't - or won't - do this is the sort that has to have a huge manual full of "our brand must always..." and "our brand must never...", because the brand is so bloody complex that no-one can understand it intuitively.

In a lot of this, it's not what you do, but how you do it. So, when IKEA launches a rather more pricey collection, it's called Stockholm, and done in a Scandinavian Design way.

Maybe people worry that messing with your heritage will destroy your brand. They worry about "eroding brand values," "alienating the loyal consumer" and "speaking with one voice". But these are exactly the things that could lead to a long, lingering death for the brand, because it has simply become dull and predictable.

And these days, if you don't play around with and subvert your brand yourself, there are enough other people out there who will.