Thursday, 20 November 2014

Best use of (negative) space

I have to admit to loving logos. Not all those horrid swooshy ones, or whatever you get from 99designs, but clever, artfully designed logos with an idea - and a meaning. Or several meanings.

There's a wonderful collection of 40 brand logos with hidden messages here (care of oomph! who have a pretty good logo of their own). Some I've seen before, some are new to me. Some are just brilliant, like the Shelter logo with the "h" made into a house - so simple. Or the Baskin Robbins logo with its pink 31 in the middle. Or, seeing as I'm in Germany, the super Kölner Zoo logo above, complete with cathedral using up the negative space.

All good communication, from logos to TV ads, works best when there are layers of meaning for people to discover. These may work at the subconscious level and quite often the creative people involved will be consciously unaware of the symbolism that they have built into the design or ad. This is because most good creative people work with symbols instinctively, without any dreary analysis of the "which stimulus can we throw into this to trigger X response" sort.

But of course those layers of meaning are in the eye of the beholder and it's worth checking that your brand new logo doesn't have too much unintentional undesirable meaning. There are plenty of logos with hidden swastikas or dubious sexual acts to be seen in the internet, too!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Spirit of Christmas Present/s



It's time to dust down the baubles, pull on your Rudolf onesie, grab a mug of mulled wine and sit blubbing your eyes out to the latest Christmas ads. Well, if you're in the UK, that is.

As usual, John Lewis have come up with a tear-jerking spot, begging the usual question of whether this isn't actually part-funded by Kleenex. This year it's a cute kid and an adorable penguin called Monty (we know the name from the film title on YouTube. Not sure if it's clear if you're just watching on TV in the old-fashioned way, though.)

I suspect that retailers all over the world are now asking their agencies to "do a John Lewis" and there's certainly a touch of John Lewis schmalz in the latest spot for Tchibo:



But I wonder. Are Germans just as susceptible to this annual weep-fest as us Brits? Have a look at this Christmas spot from Otto, Germany's leading mail-order/online retailer. It starts very much in the John Lewis vein with cute kid and dad. Wistful music. Jingle bells. But then what happens?



When I first saw this, I thought it was dreadful. All that Christmas magic and father-son bonding destroyed by the only spoken line. But then again, it reminded me of the reality. A few years ago, children were writing Christmas Wishes at our local Christmas market. The heartfelt pleas for "my Oma to come out of hospital" "World Peace" and "for my parents to stop arguing" were joined by my son's contribution: "everything from Lego Star Wars."

Maybe in a pragmatic country like Germany, Otto are right. Forget all that misty-eyed tra-la-la about homemade presents and cute kids who put others' wishes before their own, or who have such a brilliant sense of make-believe that a toy penguin becomes real. That's all it is - make-believe for people nostalgic for Christmases that never were. Otto can provide what will really make your offspring's eyes light up - and with the minimum of bother.

But that doesn't stop me dreaming of a white Christmas.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

An element of surprise

"A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve, which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless." - Charles de Gaulle

Who doesn't love surprises? From Christmas Crackers to Crackerjack boxes, our childhoods are packed with little surprises. There are whole brands, such as Kinder Überraschungsei that are built on the idea of surprise.

I think we are surprised less and less as we grow older, which is a shame. And many brands these days are so intent on the pursuit of consistency and transparency that they forget surprise. The media we look at suggests the possibility of surprise through its sheer quantity, but the reality is different. All those headlines from Buzzfeed, now mimicked by what used to be quality dailies which claim "You Will Be Amazed" are tempting, but I find myself increasingly unamazed. Algorithms aren't terribly good at surprising, either. And reading this fascinating article by Tara Hunt, you'll see how so many YouTube videos use identical tropes (to use the hip word of the moment) /are formulaic (to be truthful.) And here are my thoughts about surprise from a couple of years back.

Trendwatching have picked up on this in their latest Trend Report: "Accustomed to now long-entrenched control, transparency and endless choice, in 2015 millions of consumers will find light relief in pursuing just the opposite."

I'm not sure about "light relief". I think that surprise - delivered through novelty and innovation in product, communication, service, pricing and all the rest of the marketing mix is key to keeping customers and potential customers "excited and breathless." 

Friday, 31 October 2014

Oh, DO be vague!

On a recent trip involving Frankfurt airport, I was convinced for a moment or two that David Beckham was launching yet another male fragrance, from the posters featuring his still boyish good looks and a square blue bottle. However, on closer inspection, I was taken aback to see the word "Haig." David Beckham is the so-called "Brand Partner" for a new whisky brand from drinks giant Diageo, called Haig Club.

I remember Haig whisky from the slogan "Don't be Vague ask for Haig." I seem to recall beermats with this slogan in my parents' cocktail cabinet, amid the bottles of Bols and Gordons. The whisky market has been in need of resuscitation in the UK for as long as I can remember and I expect that the launch of Haig Club is Diageo's bash at doing just that. But I'm not really sure that it's the right way of going about it.

There's a film commercial shot by the inevitable Guy Ritchie, featuring Beckham and his jet-set pals swanning around Scotland and other exotic locations in kilts and beards.



I can't say I am convinced about David Beckham as a "Brand Partner" for this launch. I am sure that most people would not go further than the assumption that he's launching a new fragrance. Beckham is fine for anything to do with football, fashion and perfume, but whisky? Couldn't they have found someone, um ... Scottish?

Then there's the claims and copy for the new brand. It's a "rediscovery" of something called a single grain whisky, which the cynical might see as a way of charging an exclusive price for something that's cheaper to produce than a single malt whisky. It's described as "a fresh clean style that showcases butterscotch and toffee". Eh? Since when was butterscotch and/or toffee fresh? And there's a few lines about how to mix the stuff if you're not quite up to the "light, clear and extra smooth" taste neat - "choose another from our exciting range of signature serves." Ugh. On top of all this, a ghastly nannying statement: "At the heart of HAIG CLUB lies a clear message of responsible drinking...It is important, therefore, that those who enjoy HAIG CLUB do so responsibly and in moderation."

Maybe I'll eat my words, or drink them, and this is the perfect way to attract youngish non-whisky drinkers into the category. But it just feels too plastic, too marketing-speak, too desperately trendy to appeal to me.

I like whisky. But part of the joy of whisky for me is authenticity, history, being treated like an adult, mystery, potency.

I like my whisky vague.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Art of Thought

There are a few words that I have an unexplained aversion to - and one of these is "process". I don't know why, but it always conjures up horrible Powerpoint slides with boxes and arrows. It seems to suck the magic out of anything. I don't like the expression "creative process" or worse still "process for generating insights" as both of these seem to imply that one day, both could be turned over to a computer.

So digging back through my old psychology books, I was pleased to see that one of the seminal essays on creativity, written in 1926 by Graham Wallas (above) is entitled The Art of Thought. Wallas studied the writings of scientists such as Poincare and Helmholtz, to arrive at a theory of how creativity could work. The stages he defined were:
PREPARATION: focus on the subject or problem
INCUBATION: whereby the subject is internalised into the unconscious and nothing appears to be happening
INTIMATION: where the creative person has a hunch that something is coming
ILLUMINATION or INSIGHT: the idea bursts forth into consciousness
VERIFICATION: conscious elaboration

I was particularly struck by a quotation from Hermann von Helmholtz, the German physicist, speaking at a banquet on his 70th birthday, about the incubation phase:

“happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table. They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.”

It's the incubation stage that suffers most in the current day and age. Compelled to be "always on" we turn to the internet when we have a free moment - sometimes using the excuse of "finding inspiration". But we should have more faith in our own internal capacity for inspiration.

Incubation requires time and space.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Maps and Metaphors

I read a very interesting blog post by Martin Weigel on his Canalside View blog recently, in which he argues for scrapping the "brand as human" metaphor in favour of a new metaphor more applicable to the 21st century - "brand as software."

The argument goes that human personality traits don't really differentiate brands and quotes Guy Murphy: "the democracy of information has allowed consumers to focus on more rational and "real" aspects of the product itself" - the observation here that a string on one-star product reviews can destroy even a strong emotional brand.

It's a thought-provoking article and well-worth reading, as are the comments relating to it.

But maybe I'm not geeky enough, or simply too old, but I didn't feel an overwhelming urge to adopt the "brand as software" metaphor.

A few reasons. First of all, I have never bought this "brand exists just in the consumer's head" stuff. All brands, as far as I am aware, exist in the world as products or services. I can't think of any brand that has no concrete products or services attached to it. And surely getting the product or service right was always the basis. In all the various models and metaphors that I have had the dubious pleasure of using over the years, all of them had some sort of stuff about what the brand is or does, or benefits, or attributes before you got onto all that airy-fairy personality and values stuff.

And, in the end, although metaphors may help marketers to think about brands, we shouldn't be held prisoner to them. And brands and marketers are different. Some brands may suit the software metaphor,  if it simplifies the thought process. Others not. Some marketing people like all those pyramids and onions and keys. Others find them self-indulgent intellectual you-know-what.

The map is not the territory. It's one way of looking at it. You use the right kind of map to suit your purpose.

I wonder if "brand" has ever been used as a metaphor?

Friday, 10 October 2014

Googlephobia and other German idiosyncracies

I had a visit from my insurance rep today. A personal visit. He knocked my door, came in and sat down in one of our armchairs. I offered him a cup of coffee and he chatted me through the various changes to my policies. Although I ended up signing on a dotted line that was on one of those nifty digital gadgets, it was otherwise to all extents and purposes like a visit from the man from the Pru, fifty years later and in German.

Yesterday I tried to get into my National Savings and Investments online account. Oh dear. When I set it up I had to remember a picture, a phrase, the answer to five or six silly security questions plus concoct a password containing at-least-one-but-not-all-of-upper-case-lower-case-symbols-blah-blah. It all ended in tears (or swearing) and a wait on a customer call line.

Personal, face-to-face relationships with private customers have not died out in Germany. I am sure that a lot of it comes from the natural German resistance to doing too much online, and a general risk-aversiveness.

Sometimes the bureaucracy, rules and regulations and wariness of just doing it drive me nuts. It must be a horror to try and set up a business in Germany, especially anything that's online-based. Just look at the pickle that Uberpop got themselves into here.

But a lot of it stems from a very real concern over privacy of the individual and openness on the part of companies, which can't be a bad thing. In my encounter with the insurance man, although I invited him into my home, I have the impression that my financial and household details are just between me and that firm, not floating around for all to hack into. And that the company won't have disappeared next year.

Although Germans still seem happy to use Google's services, the company has become something of a bogeyman here, described as octopoid by some. The cynical may say that it's the old-guard Germans, stuck in the 20th century with their reliance on manufacturing who don't want the cool geeks from Silicon valley snatching their business.

But I think we can all learn a bit of cautiousness from a people that spent 60 years under state surveillance of one sort or another.