Thursday, 18 July 2019

Aufschnitt 1: A bluffers guide to social media Sept 2006

I've discovered a bulging file of cuttings in my office amongst the clutter, and instead of chucking away the lot, I'll be sifting through them to give one or two of the best, the worst and those of particular significance eternal digital life in a new series on this blog.

Welcome to Aufschnitt! This is approximately translated as "cold cuts" and is what invariably greets you at the breakfast table of a German hotel. Which of my collected cuttings are still tasty morsels, and which are well past their sell-by date?

The first in the series is A bluffers guide to social media dated 28th September 2006, written by Antony Mayfield, who I see published a book in 2010 entitled "Me and My Web Shadow."

Why did I save this?
I wasn't really "on" any social media in 2006, although I expect I read the odd blog. I distinctly remember thinking that social media was something I ought to know about, but wasn't relishing the thought.

What is remarkable
Absolutely no mention of Facebook or Instagram whatsoever, although Google, YouTube and iTunes get name-checked. And, although social media are described as "online media", this would have meant someone sitting down, probably indoors, accessing the internet via a PC or Mac. Mobile was still very much the future.

What there's no mention of
The dark side of social media - the faking, the trolling, the bullying, the addiction. The shared characteristics mentioned - participation, openness (meaning accessibility), conversation, community and connectedness - still ring true today, but are tempered by experience.

Thirteen years later, social media has become such an integral part of life that it no longer requires a bluffers' guide.

Monday, 15 July 2019

You put the words right into my mouth

One of the biggest mysteries to me as a writer is this paradox: when asked what they're looking for above all else, literary agents and publishers will talk about Voice, and specifically, fresh new voices.

Yet most of the recent novels I've read recently have felt as if they could have been written by the same person - or even the same AI algorithm. There's very little out there that feels original in terms of Voice (if you must) or what used to be called style.

The homogenisation of language is observable wherever you turn. From novel straplines /Three painful secrets. Two passionate hearts. One forbidden love) through to clickbait headlines through to comments on social media through to newspaper articles.

And in the world of advertising, as this excellent article by Shai Idelson makes clear.

Predictive text is partly to blame, and worse still, what I call assumptive text (all those "Happy for you" "Congrats! Let's catch up" "What an achievement!" suggestions that pop up on something like LinkedIn).

But at the root of it is human laziness. It's so much easier to click on an off-the-shelf suggestion than think up something original and personal.

Please - let's not allow the richness of the English language (or any other language, for that matter) to be reduced to the superficiality of emojis.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Cruel to be kind

When I worked at Saatchis, the phrase "brutal simplicity of thought" was often used. Whether applied to strategy, media or creative ideas, it meant, in the end, hard-hitting advertising.

These billboards from Cancer Research UK are a brilliant example. It's a campaign to make people aware that obesity is the second biggest risk factor for cancer after smoking. The government has been effective in taking measures to reduce smoking, so the charity now wants to put on pressure to tackle obesity.

What could be a better stop-you-in-your-tracks-idea that mocked-up cigarette packets with the brand name "obesity"? Subtle it's not, but it's very clever, and can't be missed.

But "people" (as the news headlines always say) have been complaining. The complaints centre around "fat-shaming" and "weight-stigma".

Now, this isn't a fashion ad, or a cosmetics ad, or a diet ad. It's public information from a charity to raise awareness. It's neither sexist nor racist. It's the continuation of a campaign that has already proved very effective in raising awareness of the link between obesity and cancer.

Next time I hear ad people talking about the need for "bold" campaigns, I will remember this one.

Friday, 28 June 2019

The European Brand Contest

If the man (or woman) from Mars turned up on this planet and looked at a table of worldwide brand value rankings, they'd be forgiven for thinking that the USA was the only country that knew and understood how to build a valuable brand, with perhaps a little competition from that young upstart, China.

Take the BrandZ ranking table, for example. 13 out of the Top 15 brands have their origin in the USA, with numbers 7 & 8 pushing in from China to create at least a little break in the domination.

But then, at position 16, comes SAP, making this the most valuable brand from Europe.

Here are Europe's Top 10 valuable brands:

1. SAP  (Germany) Technology +4%
2. Louis Vuitton (France) Luxury +15%
3. Deutsche Telekom (Germany) Telecom Providers +7%
4. Chanel (France) Luxury NEW
5. Hermes (France) Luxury +10%
6. L'Oreal (France) Personal Care +9%
7. Vodafone (GB) Telecom Providers -8%
8. Gucci (Italy) Luxury +13%
9. Mercedes Benz (Germany) Cars -9%
10. BMW (Germany) Cars -9%

Germany leads Europe in the world of branding, with a mix of cars, technology and telecom. For the moment, anyway. But just look at the growth rates of those French luxury and personal care brands.

Maybe there is something German brands can learn from the French. Those brands prove that you don't have to be a young US or Chinese tech-y brand to enjoy double digit growth.


Monday, 17 June 2019

Big idea from a tiny brand

It's the season of Fests on every corner here that cracks off on the 1st May and sees us supplied with outdoor food, music, drink and fun until the early Autumn. I'm not usually on the lookout for great examples of branding during these events, but it's always an added plus to see a clever piece of marketing.

The Apfelweindeckel above is from Kanne Ebbelwoi (for the uninitiated, that's how those round here pronounce the word Apfelwein). The slogan is nice, but (I expect) pinched from somewhere. What's really clever here is the slogan in conjunction with the logo illustration, which is at first sight a traditional Apfelwein Bembel.

But look at the design more carefully (possibly difficult if too much Apfelwein has gone down the hatch) and you'll see that it's a map of the world. Neat, neat, neat.

I couldn't find out much about Kanne Ebbelwoi from the internet, apart from the possibility that they are what is called a Besenwirtschaft or Straußwirtschaft, a peculiarly German phenomenon which is a seasonally-open little pub or drinking place, usually on the premises of a vineyard or cider-press, that sells its own wine, along with small snacks.

I'll leave you with a couple of pictures of such places - can you imagine anything more delightful on a sunny afternoon?

Friday, 14 June 2019

Comic consultancy

I sometimes wonder if people in the marketing and advertising business have as much fun as they did years ago. It does all seem to have become terribly serious and worthy, with the only source of amusement Tom Fishburne's excellent cartoons.

But every now and then I see something that I wish I'd done. This time, it's Waccenture, a parody of all those smart-arse consultancies:

Turning the obvious into insights, customers into data-points and creativity into algorithms.

From the ghastly stock pictures, to ample use of placeholder text, to clickbait "insight article" headlines quoting phoney research, to the "6-D Process", it's just a little too close for comfort.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

How green is your alley?

I sometimes wonder just how green environmental activists are in their everyday lives, or whether the collective will disintegrates when it comes to everyday behaviour. Do Fridays for Future teenage activists all religiously sort out their rubbish and avoid unnecessary packaging? I'm not convinced ;)

When it comes to helping solve the world's problems, brands can and should play a role.

The obvious role is perhaps in the big actions which draw attention to issues facing people and planet. For example, Le Grand Defi, which took place at the end of May. Rather like a glorified version of a school class tidying the playground of rubbish, this event set to draw attention to the fact that the Mediterranean represents only 1% of the world's marine waters but contains 7% of the  micro-plastics in the world's seas. The event was a race for swimmers and kayakers to collect plastic rubbish from the sea.

But arguably the more difficult task is to ingrain a new way of behaving into people's lives. More difficult, because this isn't about a collective noise for a day. It's about every individual, every day of his or her life.

There have been plenty of news reports about Waitrose Unpacked this week. This is a trial where you can refill your own containers with anything from pasta to beer and wine to cleaning materials (hopefully not mixing them up). But it's only in one store for 3 months. Imagine the enormity of the task of rolling that out nationally.

Let's hope it's a task the supermarket is prepared to invest in, and that the initiative is more than a PR stunt.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Silence of the brands

"If you can't find something nice to say, keep your mouth shut" is good advice, in my view, for brands (or the people running them) as in life.

I'm generally not keen on brand communication that's based on the "slag off the competition" strategy. There are a few rare cases where this is done well, but in the usual scheme of things, it ends up sounding like bitching. Or politics (if there is a difference).

Maybe that's no surprise these days. In the days of people "demanding" that brands have values, a purpose, stand for something and/or take a stand, and gushing and cooing all over the latest trendy issue-based film, maybe it's no wonder that some brands - who just want to sell their loo cleaner/razors/fast food - get a bit narked.

For example, if you're up against Starbucks, you may well lose patience with all the politically-correct ballyhoo that could possibly take some of your higher-minded customers. So you might be tempted to put out a message that reinforces what you are all about, plain and simple, while also taking a swipe at all that political purpose conversation codswallop.

Which is what Dunkin Donuts have done: the VP Brand Stewardship has put a message around social media - "it's donuts and ice cream - just be happy." As reported in the (conservative) magazine Human Events.

Part of me kind of agrees with the sentiment, but the cynical part has a question.

In this day and age, maybe refusing to go political is a political stance in itself.

In a world where free speech is OK, so long as it's the right political hue, and where brands are encouraged to take a stand as long as it's for something in the liberal-left arena, maybe a brand like Dunkin Donuts looks at its customer heartland and decides that the safest way to get those people on side is to take a swipe at the competitor, knowing that it's not the coffee that's up for criticism, it's the politics.

I prefer my brands strong and silent - doing what they do best, without taking potshots at others.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

You can't put customers anywhere

The notion of "customer-centricity" has always seemed an odd one to me, and one of the hugest gulfs between what brands and companies rattle on about via their websites, and what they actually do in the day-to-day.

I have nothing against "customer-centricity" if it means providing goods and services that customers need or desire, and ensuring an excellent experience before, during and after purchase (or similar).

But shouldn't businesses be doing this as a matter of course?

Didn't we move on, in the last century, from a production-led world through a sales-led world to a marketing-led world?

Why do companies have to boast about "customer-focus", "true customer-centricity", or "looking through a lens of customer-centricity"?

Possibly the worst cliche of the lot is the one about "we put the customer at the heart of our business." Apart from having an aversion to customer/consumer in the singular (if there is just one, it's easily understood and controlled), I find this yet another example of the arrogance of brands - or I should say, the people behind them.

The whole phrase suggests a glorified game of piggy-in-the-middle, with the (single) hapless customer pushed into the centre of an organisation by an omnipotent brand, then held there trapped while balls fly over their head. The reality is that no organisation can "put" any customer anywhere - they will come of their own accord if you get your marketing right. And then move onto the next thing that takes their fancy.

I mentioned the 2019 Workforce Purpose Index from Imperative last time:

People are more likely to report being fulfilled when they perceive that leadership makes employees a higher priority than customers.

This makes so much sense. With your employees, you stand a good chance of:

Reaching them in the first place.
Knowing and understanding them - at least in certain aspects of their lives.
Building a relationship with them.

And with employees who are not just engaged and satisfied, but fulfilled too, you stand a far better chance of fulfilling your many individual customers' needs and desires, too.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Blooming Amazing!

There used to be a joke that BA stood for Bloody Awful, and I have to admit that I found the official ad to celebrate the centenary of British Airways this year, if not completely awful, then certainly underwhelming.

Retailers, airlines and other service brands are highly dependent on their people. Employee Engagement is often spoken about in conjunction with Purpose when it comes to brands with a significant public interface. But is Engagement enough? I read an interesting document from Imperative - The Workforce Purpose Index 2019 recently, which puts forward the notion that perhaps we should move on from Employee Engagement to Employee Fulfillment. Probably not a bad thought - "Engagement" for me has connotations either of busy bees or toilets. The report also contains a radical suggestion - "put employees before customers" - which is definitely worthy of discussion at a later stage.

Cut back to BA, and I was delighted to discover another idea to celebrate the centenary. To me the film above - and the idea behind it - couldn't say more about the ingenuity, creativity, dedication, skill and teamwork of BA people. 

BA Quality Engineer Lyndon Ooi is also a composer, violinist and leader of the BA Colleague Orchestra. He has taken the Flower Duet aria from Delibes' opera Lakme, that everyone associates with the airline, and composed/arranged 10 variations to take the listener through 10 decades of the airline's past, present and future.

What a supersonic idea - blooming amazing, in fact!

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Past my sell-by date?

Last week, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. There, in my local REWE store was a giant array of wine bottles, on sale for the price of €1 each. Just in time for Mother's Day, I thought. I started rummaging through the bottles, slightly embarrassed that I appeared to be the only customer with any kind of enthusiasm for these bargains. There was a lot of dross, but also some good-looking labels, possibly past their best but certainly worth taking a chance on at that price.

Amongst my haul were three bottles of Schloß Johannisberg Gelblack Riesling 2015, which my Vivino app tells me normally retail at around €15. I felt almost heroic, rescuing these wines of noble pedigree from the rummage sale in a one-pig town where hardly anyone would recognise their class, quality and heritage.

The experience, for some reason, brought to mind an article I'd read about ageism in the ad world, particularly in relation to creatives. It's by Madeleine Morris, who has formed a Society of Very Senior Creatives to strike back at feeling of being "invisible and expensive."

Normally, when I'm feeling bright and chipper, and have plenty of work, I don't take too much notice of these articles about ageism, in the same way that I take a lot of the sexism articles with a pinch of salt. I get the feeling that such articles send out messages about how I should be feeling and what I should be experiencing, and there's a slight sense of victimhood about it, which makes me uneasy. I'm sick, for example, of hearing that "women over 50 are invisible in the media" - turn on any medium and you're likely to see Angela Merkel or Teresa May within the first headlines. I think planners may have it easier than creatives in general - it's easier to play the "wisdom and experience" card when you are a strategist.

But sometimes, when I'm having one of my pathetic days (and I do have them), when people don't reply to emails, when I come up against closed doors, when I hesitate about filling in an application form as I know some algorithm has been set up to chuck out anyone born before 1970, then I do start to have nagging doubts.

We drank the bottles of Riesling at the weekend, by the way. The first was distinctly musty and I began to get depressed.

But the second, and third - we couldn't stop at two - were deliciously splendid - in their absolute prime.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Gordon(s) Bennett!

You can't beat a good G&T, and it has long been a tradition in our family to knock back one or two on Christmas Eve. It's always been Gordon's and Schweppes, mainly because, until a few years ago, that's all you could lay your hands on in rural Germany.

When the gin craze started, both here and back in Blighty, I felt a little smug, but also pleased that gin was becoming more available as an alternative to the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz. But as time went on, I wondered about Gordon's and how it would fare. The brand did seem to feel a bit staid and dusty in comparison to all the new pretenders to the throne down at the Gin Palace.

But while all those new pretenders are trying to outdo each other on authenticity and pedigree and  credentials, Gordon's have gone unashamedly for the mass market. It's a move that I am sure will rake in the sales short-term, but what will it do for the brand?

I tried Gordon's Premium Pink Distilled Gin  the other day and rather wished I hadn't. It tastes of sickly strawberries, a bit like what they call Gummibärchen here. It has absolutely nothing to do with what I know as Pink Gin, beloved of retired navy officers, Royal Air Force heroes and people from Somerset Maugham stories. That was made mixed with Angostura bitters.

But back to the sweet new abomination. It is promoted with a rather questionable nod to authenticity: Inspired by Gordon's original 1880 pink gin recipe.  That's on the bottle. On the website, however, it's slightly different: Inspired by an original Gordon's recipe from the 1880s. This makes it clear enough that this concoction has precious little to do with any original recipe for Pink Gin. Most of the "usual suspect" 21st century descriptors are used: "crafted" "balance" "blushing" "berries" "vibrant."

This stuff is undoubtably enjoyed by overgrown girls at Ladies' Day and the Gin Bar down at the Brexit Arms, and I am sure it will rake in some good short-term profits. I can't help thinking, though, that they might as well have put a unicorn on the packaging instead of the traditional wild boar and been done with it.

Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I think Gordon's have sold out.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Just right

Sometimes advertising and communication ideas feel just right. Perfectly simple and hit exactly the right spot. No more, no less.

That is how I feel about the IKEA campaign The Lagom Collection from Proximity London. What's clever here is that it's not about products as much as ideas - ideas and inspiration being as much in the IKEA DNA as the unmistakeable product range. And of course, the Swedish concept of Lagom fits beautifully to the Swedish retailer. The simple executions reflect typical IKEA style and that quirky lateral thinking humour.

Finally, the message of reuse, recycle, repurpose couldn't be more spot-on for today, culturally. IKEA may have been responsible for the perpetration of a "throwaway" mentality in days of yore, and, yes, you could argue that this is another example of Homegrown Problem:Solution advertising.

But when something is done with such charm and aplomb, that would surely be churlish.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Accentuate the negative?

I've always found going into a T K Maxx store rather like stepping into a Baz Luhrmann musical. You're not quite sure what will happen, but it will certainly be vibrant and colourful and over-the-top. The latest ad in a series of quirky films for the store uses the creative ploy of turning doubts into full-blown dance-til-you-drop "definite dos."

It's an off-the-peg creative strategy, to turn potential negatives into unique positives for the brand, but the execution is definitely made-to-measure for T K Maxx. It's completely in brand character, and there's never the risk of the brand taking itself too seriously.

Which brings me to my second exhibit. Carlsberg. The Orson Wells voiceover "Probably the best lager in the world" signed-off one of the classic campaigns of the 70s, 80s and beyond. That "probably" was a word that said 10,000 other words - understatement, wry humour, self-deprecating amongst them.

But what have the Carlsberg marketers and their agency partners done now? Taken a classic advertising line at face-value, re-brewed and redesigned their product and all that goes with it and "launched its most ambitious and honest consumer facing campaign ever." The line is now:

Probably not the best beer in the world. So we've changed it.

This article by David Mitchell sums up much of what feels simply not right about this approach. As he says, "Probably the best lager in the world didn't feel like a serious claim - it just made you fond of the brand because it was humorous."

Fond of the brand - that's what marketers want, isn't it? Instead of the understatement and wry humour, will all the hand-wringing and hair shirts and po-faced blah-blah about honesty and higher purpose really lead to people having a little place for the brand in their heart, at least now and then?

Probably not.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Fighting with Algorithms

LUSH UK announced last week (on social media, of all places - Instagram, Twitter and Facebook) that they would be stepping back from social media. The reason? Social media is making direct conversation with community and customers more difficult: We are tired of fighting with algorithms, and we do not want to pay to appear in your newsfeed. If you want to talk to LUSH UK, from now on, you can do it through live chat on their website, email (remember those?) or by - shock horror - picking up the phone.

There is a sense of disillusionment with the internet in general these days, particularly in terms of authenticity and trust. Should people really trust in the stars? This article illustrates the prevalence of fake ratings (I am reluctant to call them reviews) which isn't just an issue for cheap electronics: business books are No. 3 in the "highest % of fake reviews Top 10". Presumably because the people who write and market them also know how to manipulate the system, and have the cash to do so.

Are we really heading for The Inversion, where the internet becomes more bot than human, not only numerically, but perceptually, too?

With an author named Max Read, this article has really made me wonder.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Cheers to Purpose!

Like Brexit, the debate on the subject of Purpose seems to be on an ever-loudening crescendo. Sticking the word "Purpose" into the headline of an article that's about something completely different is guaranteed clickbait for the marketing community, in the way that "digital" was a decade ago.

And, like Brexit, both sides - as this is what it has become - are capable of persuasive argument and rhetoric.

My own view is that, in many of these articles, the language is wrong. The use of the words "higher" and "beyond" and "above" suggests a judgement that purpose is noble and profit is dirty.
Whereas surely they should work symbiotically?

A brand does something positive for the individual user. This can be practical, cognitive, sensory, emotional, or some combination. Some used to call this the benefit.

And that brand - or business - does something positive on the collective level - for the family, community, society or the world. For many brands and companies, this was always so, but maybe not vocalised. Changes in the world, in society, and in technology mean that this collective positive contribution - purpose, if you like - is becoming an imperative, rather than a nice to have.

It doesn't have to be about the UN sustainable goals. It doesn't have to be a "cause." It doesn't even have to be totally exclusive to your brand or company, as long as you do it in your own distinct way. But I believe it does have to relate back to the product or service your brand offers, and what it does for the individual.

A good example, for me, is what the brand Carling have done in the UK. 3 pubs a day there close their doors for good, and with the high level of Beer Duty in the UK, that will continue or worsen.  A movement has started via Britain's Beer Alliance to celebrate the positive role that Britain's pubs play in individual lives and communities: Long Live the Local

As part of the movement, Carling have produced a music video with the band Slaves, who started in pubs, which looks at the role pubs - and beer - play in music and creativity as well as community. It's not high and mighty, yet reflects brand belief and values, moving from the individual to the community.

Mine's a pint, thanks.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Only Marmite can do this

Probably the only good thing about the whole Brexit circus is the creativity it has unleashed from comedians around the globe. I have advised friends here in Germany that the best way to understand Brexit is to look at the jokes, not the news.

I'm not a fan of brands hi-jacking current affairs stories, mainly because the attempts are often done in haste, aren't funny and seem opportunistic.

But for Marmite, I'll make an exception. This ad couldn't be more on-brand if it tried.

Like Brexit, Marmite is peculiarly British, not understood by foreigners and extraordinarily divisive.

And it gets my vote, every time.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

AI: Master, Servant or Something Else Altogether?

The use of AI in the entertainment industry has been the subject of a number of posts here - there's Creative Direction by Numbers  and Why advertising may be the last refuge for creativity - and if you put my entire blog through your super-advanced AI platform, you'll doubtless find many more.

I was talking with a friend about the publishing industry recently - and how new novels seem to be identikit these days - from the reviews ("heartbreakingly sad yet life-affirming") through to the interchangeable cover designs. Many new novels seem throwaway and forgettable - with a superficiality and lack of edge that suggests they are the literary equivalent of the selfie.

Films seem to have gone this way a long time ago, and this week, I read an interview with the CEO of where, yet again, I got the impression that entertainment is increasingly data-driven, and not necessarily in a good way. The company "have successfully developed a quantitative model of how various narrative structures drive performance for movies, trailers and marketing campaigns." And here, I'm assuming "performance" means pure commercial performance, not awards or reputation won, or whether the film will go into the annals of history as a classic.

Here again, if you look at the entertainment example given on the website, the analysis is all about "what were" and "what have been" - that is, the old rearview mirror method of predicting the future based on the past. A self-perpetuating system.

No creative person needs evidence derived from AI to understand that what people find interesting is a balance between "known" and "novelty" - nor can AI really help you to get this balance right for any particular individual. It's part intuition, part good judgement plus a large sprinkling of luck.

In contrast, another AI agency,, presents a different philosophy. Less concerned with Hollywood (although I am sure Hollywood could benefit from this approach) and more with brands, this agency makes it clear that expertise in AI and expertise in people work hand-in-hand. The blog post Why we should embrace bias gives another perspective to the one that suggests bias is a negative in research that AI can help eliminate. It's well worth reading, with some points dear to my heart - "No objective truth", "Data is not reality" and "People make decisions, not data". I particularly like the quote from Gary Smith )"The AI Delusion"):

While computers are very good at discovering patterns in data, they are useless in judging how best to apply them in the real world because they lack human wisdom and common sense.

AI is best used to accelerate and augment human intelligence, not substitute for it.

I'm jolly excited by AI - in the way that I'm far more excited by a springboard than a straitjacket.

Friday, 29 March 2019

More than a destination

This time last week, I was whizzing down the slopes of the sunny Dolomites, enjoying a swig or two of Lagrein, munching my way through a Speckplatte and generally admiring the marvellous efficiency of the ski lifts.

I have blogged before about destination marketing, but the South Tyrol, and the way it is marketed, is far more than a destination. The remit of the marketing stretches beyond tourism to agriculture, food and wine and now natural products, for example, in the health and beauty category.

At the heart of it is the umbrella brand created for this unique region, which was originally created and launched in 2005, and has evolved further since. The idea behind it all, or the essence of South Tyrol, if you like, is about "symbiosis of contrasts." Now, that might sound rather intellectual-bullsh*tty (and I am translating from German and Italian here) but it makes a lot of sense. In South Tyrol, Alpine meets Mediterranean, spontaneity co-exists with reliability and there's the best of both nature and culture. It shouldn't work, but somehow it does.

The logo is based on a real Dolomites panorama, and the colours are chosen to reflect the contrasts and variety. It's used from a quality sticker for apples through to livery for trains:

I even saw a ski-lift or two sporting these colours!

Normally, a dual-language brand expression could be a challenge. But, in another example of "symbiosis of contrasts", the use of both Italian and German adds richness rather than complexity.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Busy doing nothing

The two most over-used words in emails have to be "sorry" and "busy". Here's a typical example from an email I received the other day:

I hope you  are well. sorry for the delay in getting back to you we are extremly busy at the moment. (sic)

On the face of it - OK. I suppose an apology of sorts and an answer are somewhat better than the wall of silence I've been experiencing lately. When exactly did "no response" become the new "no", anyway?

But let me scratch below the surface of those copy-and-pasted words. And all I can see is a lack of respect. You assume you and your colleagues en masse have got far, far more on your plates than I could possibly ever dream of, silly me, and that throwing in a quick "sorry" will make it all OK. You can't even be bothered to check your spelling or punctuation.

Things are frantic
I'm rushed off my feet.
We're inundated.
I just can't spare the time.

What the heck are all these people doing with their time? Everyone has exactly the same amount of seconds, minutes and hours as the next person.

My suspicion is that they are composing this sort of gobbledegook:

Just a quick reminder - we'd love to know more about the experience you recently had with us during your payment experience.

I am sorely tempted to ask them about their "feelings" during the questionnaire-composing experience. This was all about paying a bill (a necessary evil that takes a few seconds) for goodness' sakes, not a round-the-world cruise!

I read an excellent blog post by Richard Huntington yesterday, about deep thought vs. all this headless chicken-style busyness, presumably prompted by the requirement to be "agile."It's about "getting to the bottom of things rather than staying on top of things."

I know I've been guilty in the past of using the "b-word" but I think I'll make it taboo from now on.

Along with "just", "quick" and "sorry" - when it's not meant wholeheartedly.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Book Branding Part 2

In my last blog post, I talked about Author Branding vs. Book Branding, and today I'm going to launch something rather special that's been waiting in the wings (or the hangar) ready to fly.

If I'd decided to go down the Author Brand route, I expect I would have put something together that would have ended up looking like every other Author Website, with a few fun facts about my schooldays, how much I love cake and how many cats I have (none).

But I decided early on that people aren't that interested in me, rather in getting a glimpse into the world of my books: characters, cars and planes featured, links and more. And all my websites do allow a little bit of author-ego indulgence as I'm not completely immune to the lure of the limelight.

The original idea for the look of the website came from Stefan Lochmann, the designer. In the stories a 21st century boy, born into the digital age, travels back in time to the mid-20th century. In the same way that the book design reflected an old book "found" in an attic, Stefan wondered what an "analogue website" would look like.

The idea translated into the websites for the first two books, each reflecting the specific setting and atmosphere of each story, but with the central idea of an "analogue website" made up from signs and materials from those times. So here, for example, we're whisked into a Cold War winter of 1957.
Website for Trouble in Teutonia

As with the book covers, the websites all reflect the essence of the book series: The Past is a Dangerous Country, and play with the digital/analogue theme as well as each having its own individual feel and atmosphere.

The latest story, The Al-Eden Emergency, is set in a 1966 Middle East and Swinging London jetpunk world. There's a preview shot at the top of this post to entice you in, and I can now proudly present the finished website.

Just be careful you don't tread on any scorpions!

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Book Branding Part 1

I've mentioned a few times how the concepts of Personal Branding and its subset, Author Branding make me shudder and squirm, which may seem odd for someone with a background in marketing who is running a (slightly bedraggled) literary career on the side.

Looking back at those posts, I found a phrase that turned the shuddering up to full-blown convulsions: "curating and sharing a version of yourself." What the heck is that supposed to mean?  Was Ernest Hemingway occupied with "curating and sharing" a version of himself once he'd spent precious hours and dollars with some snake-oil salesman intent on "discovering his personal brand"?

I'm in the throes of launching a third book, and I rather proudly posted the photo above. A social media acquaintance praised the "great branding" and the comment made me wonder - how did that happen?

I certainly didn't spend any hours or dollars with snake-oil salesmen. Neither did I run off to construct a key, or an onion, or a pyramid, or trawl the thesaurus to find 3 or 4 adjectives to reflect the essence of my brand.

But I did realise that, unlike the narcissistic generation that fall prey to the marketing gobbledegook, I hadn't created an author brand, I'd created a book series brand.

This wasn't a Powerpoint boxes-and-arrows process. The brand had evolved organically and intuitively.

It had started with the story, and from the story, the cover. What kind of image and design could reflect what this book was about: A Boy's Own Adventure for the 21st century boy - or girl. I briefed the publisher with this picture, amongst others:

That went some of the way, but together we decided that the book shouldn't merely look retro, it should look and feel "found," as if a youngster from today had discovered it in an attic, or an old toy-box. We were lucky to have a super illustration, a composite of some of the elements of the story - a ferocious tiger, a Sunderland Flying Boat, and the young hero with his RAF officer "Grandpop" peering through some jungle vegetation. The first goes at design took the route of comics - bright colours and power-packed typefaces.

But, we hummed and hah-ed. It looked action-packed, and retro, but maybe too reminiscent of Commando Comics. And they were great but unashamedly trashy. Would people - especially young readers - get the irony?

I went to a different designer who tried a different approach - to get the "found book" feel in the cover design, with muted, slightly yellowing tones, and less in-your-face graphics. The publisher was inspired - and chose paper quality and colour, as well as the matt cover finish to complement the design.

When it came to the second book, a pattern was set - the illustrator had two characters, an aeroplane, a beast (which would also appear on the spine) and action to play with, in a very different setting. The strap line came almost as an afterthought - I stuck with "The past is a dangerous country" because I couldn't think of anything better. And it was growing on me.

With the latest book, things could have gone pear-shaped. My publisher didn't have the time or resource at that point to see it through, and the original illustrator was no longer available. But we had built up enough "branding" by now for the designer and I to understand what was needed. The illustration is of a slightly different style, but this reflects the focus on older readers and a more complex narrative structure as the series evolves. The consistency in the two characters in action, the creature and the aeroplane remains.

What's interesting is that it was only with the third book that I realised I had a brand. And it wasn't just to do with the stories themselves, or the alliterative titles, or the "found book" design and style. I had a strap line that summed the whole thing up: "The past is a dangerous country."

If we must talk about brand essence, then that strap line is it.

My next blog will be about creating an "analogue website." Keep your wireless tuned.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Time Lapse Tech Disruption

This wonderful little film that has been doing the rounds is one of the best demonstrations of the pace of change that I've seen.

I've blogged here and here about this subject, comparing the top brands from one decade to the next, but seeing 18 years in just over a minute before your very eyes really brings it to life.

Maybe the most extraordinary thing is that it's only really the last 10 years that have been so completely crazy - up to 2009 or so, things are relatively stable, until Google and Apple, followed by Amazon and Facebook push their way up.

At this rate, I wouldn't even like to guess at what will happen by 2020, let alone 2029!

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

The Bauhaus of the 21st century?

Last week, I went to the exhibition Moderne am Main 1919 - 1933 at the Museum of Applied Art, here in Frankfurt. This is timed with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar, and showed the influence of Bauhaus design in the Frankfurt region.
The Bauhaus sought to unify art, craft and technology in all-embracing design for a new human being, a new way of living, "adapted to a world of machines, radios and fast cars." (Walter Gropius)

The exhibition was fascinating, and what became abundantly clear as I made my way around was that, in the words of the Museum "... if the Bauhaus was modernism's academy, Neues Frankfurt was its workshop."

If the photos above remind you just a little of IKEA, then you are not alone. There's currently another exhibition running, this time at London's Design Museum entitled Home Futures: Living in Yesterday's Tomorrow which takes again, the theme beloved of the Bauhaus - the merging of architecture, technology and everyday life - over the last 100 years. And the collaboration partner in this case is none other than IKEA.

I haven't been to this one, and probably won't get a chance, but would love to see the installations which examine the concept of home, for example, Uninvited Guests "... a series of connected smart devices tracking diet, health and sleep and intrusively offering advice on self-improvement." Yikes.

The Bauhaus movement arose in a time of change as electricity was becoming commonplace in everyday homes as well as cities, an industrial age, but also an age of increased connection via radio and telephone. IKEA conquered the world as the information age was born, with its democratisation of design.

With the digital age and its promise (or threat) of artificial intelligence, augmented/virtual reality, 3-D printing, cybercurrency, autonomous vehicles and all the rest upon us, I wonder who or what will be illuminating us on how to live? Who will be the real architects of the Smart Cities? Bauhaus was a design movement, IKEA is a retail brand. It's likely that the new Bauhaus will be a platform of some sort - social media, mobility, healthcare, retail, technology - who knows?

But will there be human beings behind (or in front of) the platform?

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Happy Hybrid

In the autumn of 2018, I celebrated becoming the owner of two passports – and thus two citizenships – German in addition to my native British. I’ve always enjoyed being something of a mongrel, and I believe that in the future, having experience of both cultures, languages, and ways of doing things will stand me in good stead for whatever life throws my way.

Designer dogs
At around the same time, I signed a publishing contract for the third in a series of retro-style adventure stories for 9 -12s. And this signature would also lead me towards a new status, this time as an author – what I believe is called a hybrid. Nothing to do with roses, or vehicles, or designer dogs with funny names, but rather an author who is both traditionally and self-published. But before you start imagining the story of an author bravely “going it alone” after enjoying the dizzy heights of publication by one of the Big 5, let me gently remind you of what you already know: every path to publication is different.

My “traditional” publisher couldn’t be less conventional. And my “self-publisher” has often been described as a Rolls-Royce.

Boy’s Own adventures for the 21stcentury boy – or girl
Although I’ve written fiction on and off throughout my life, it wasn’t until I’d completed a fourth novel that I decided to take this publication business seriously. This particular story was inspired by my father, who’d been an RAF pilot during the Cold War years. When my young son started asking questions about the granddad he’d never known, a delightful question whizzed its way into my head:  what if a 21stcentury boy, born into the digital age of smart phones, Google and virtual reality could meet a hero of the analogue age, and experience all the adventures of those days?

Cue a reimagining of the Boy’s Own-style adventure story for the 21stcentury boy – or girl. I did have interest from one or two agents, but in the end, it was a competition run by a small press (Earlyworks Press) that was my stepping stone to publication. The Bother in Burmeon was published in 2012 by Circaidy Gregory, an Earlyworks Press imprint. Two years later, a sequel – or is it a prequel? – saw my young hero whisked back in time for another adventure with his Grandpop, this time in Trouble in Teutonia. For both of these titles, I’d enjoyed the creative freedom an author has with a small publisher – I had considerable personal input into the cover design and the look and feel of the book (carefully produced to reflect the retro-style) as well as writing the story. A drawback of a smaller publisher is that marketing budgets don’t stretch further than a few posters and flyers, but the advantage is that the author has licence to do their own thing. I had great fun contacting my old chums in advertising and design for the websites and the YouTube trailer.

Going it alone
The next book was rather a long time coming, as work and family life gobbled up much of my spare (writing) time. My publisher gave an enthusiastic but non-committal response to the story in theory as I crossed my fingers and got on with polishing. But after a few months, the woes that can beset a small press became more and more apparent. Lack of time and resources. Other priorities necessary simply to keep afloat. Promises made to other authors way in front of me in the pecking order. A decision deadline came, and I was advised it would be better for me to find another publisher or go it alone.

I have to admit this flung me down in the dumps. 2018 wasn’t my greatest year.

For the rest of the story, please continue here 

Friday, 15 February 2019

Should advertising always be a mirror?

I read an excellent article this week by Graham Booth, entitled Why your advertising should be MAD. Graham presents a reel of 15 ads that he's helped to create during his 30 years' experience and comes to the conclusion that all of these - though very different  - have something in common: a genuine creative idea. The ads are well worth a look, and I'm sure even someone not employed in the ad industry could say, with confidence, what the idea in each is.

By contrast, we're surrounded these days by idea-free advertising, as I bemoaned a couple of posts ago. But, as Graham says, "every ad should aspire to be more than the strategy put on screen, or the brand purpose spoken over generic visuals, or some reflection of the 'real life' of the consumer." Looking at his 15 ads, he remarks that they all employ metaphor, or exaggeration, or contrast. None of them "tell it straight." Hence the title - Make Advertising Drastic (or Daft, Dangerous, Dada ...)

But Graham is just an account man turned researcher. What does a creative director say?

Here's a creative director getting a bit mad, too, but in another sense. I suppose you do get mad when you have someonething telling you that you don't exist. But I do wonder when and where all this "demanding to be reflected" business started. For someone creative, it seems to be taking things terribly literally. I am sure that Graham Booth had plenty of respondents in his group discussions saying they didn't like the ad because the woman on the storyboard had blonde hair, and they've got dark hair.

"Representing diversity" is not a creative idea.

How does this creative director know that the woman in the trainers/chocolate/car ad isn't lesbian? Is sexuality of any relevance whatsoever when you're selling floor cleaner, anyway? Shouldn't we be looking at finding universal human truths that unite us, instead of being divisive?

I vote for getting away from these real life ads (which all look like what we used to call "mood videos") and get creative, and MAD.

But if you're going to do real life, do it well. This ad from Coke is a terrific example and, I'd say, uses a slightly MAD mirror.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

On (and off) the road

In the light of the recent UK advice to parents about restricting children's screen time , I was interested to see a new idea from Volkswagen's Amsterdam-based agency, ACHTUNG!

When I was young, car journeys inevitably involved looking out of the window, either aimlessly, or possibly in conjunction with an I-Spy book or a game of something like Pub Cricket. But these days, children probably don't even know if the car has windows, so intent are they on peering down at their screens.

But using an idea rather like Pokemon Go, the new location-based app, "Road Tales" (Snelweg Sprookjes) combines real-life objects with the imagination of children's authors and the young listeners and viewers to create personalised adventures - for example, a tunnel may turn into a rocket.

An imaginative idea that's entertaining for the 4-11s, useful for their parents and will add to the perception of the VW brand as both family-friendly and innovative.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

This septic isle?

Thirty years ago, at the beginning of my planning career, I was working in the most famous agency in London on "the world's favourite airline." I don't think I need to name either.

Three decades on, that airline is celebrating its centenary (or at least the centenary of one of its predecessors). And, for the first time in six years, has created a brand campaign. Described as "a love letter to Britain" the ad shows scenes of BA employees getting ready for the centenary flight, as well as a cast of celebrities and everyday passengers travelling on the flight.

Nice as it is, I find it rather underwhelming. It's meant to show the creativity and pioneering spirit of Britain but there's nothing creative or pioneering about this ad. It's derivative of the Nike "Londoner" ad as well as any number of films that were put together for the 2012 Olympics (I expect Britain will continue to milk that one for ever, rather like the Battle of Britain or the 1966 World Cup). And where is the famous British humour? A no-show, apart from a weak joke about tea. What exactly is the idea behind this ad? It comes over rather like a safety video without the safety bits.

It's not clear whether this is an ad for Britain in general, or for the carrier. Is it meant to make people feel good about British Airways, or Britain?

I know I'd feel better about Britain if I had a clearer sign that despite all the Brexit crap, the spirit of innovation and creativity is alive and not just well, but kicking.

Like a commercial that will still be remembered in thirty years' time.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Tickling the funny bone instead of pulling on the heartstrings

What I would call "cause marketing" - anything that tries to elicit a behavioural change on a social or environmental issue - is something I've spent rather a lot of time whingeing about on this blog.
Plinky piano music, "social experiments," dubious "insights" - I have had a go at them all here.

This week, I've been pleased to see at least two ads where their creators have looked at social issues, but used real insight, cultural awareness and clever observation in the development of the creative strategy, then executed with charm and humour. One is  DIVERSish for the Valuable500, created by AMV/BBDO, above, and the other is a completely different audience and issue - Eat them and Defeat them, from ITV and Veg Power, created by Adam & Eve/DDB.

I do hope this is a change in course from that cheesy morass of sentimentality we've been seeing in recent years.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Macho Metamorphosis

I'm not going to wade in with my tuppence worth on the Gillette ad, suffice to say a couple of things. It's yet another prime example of this, employing the good old Procter & Gamble problem-solution formula, with a bit of band-wagon-jumping thrown in.

In addition, it's more ammunition for those who consider "Purpose" per se at best a fluffy marketing buzz word. But isn't it time to distinguish between "purpose-driven ad campaigns" (take a popular social issue and churn out a film that will polarise opinion/get lots of YouTube hits) and "purpose-driven brands" (everything the brand does is driven by its unique purpose, which is related to the product/service/experience the brand offers).

I wonder what Unilever make of their arch rival's attempt? I first blogged 3 years ago on the Lynx/Axe turnaround in the direction of Find Your Magic. Here's a Lynx film from a little while ago as part of the brand campaign:

I find the Lynx/Axe approach infinitely better than Gillette creatively,  but to me the strategy still feels awfully generic. It could have been hung on any number of brands targeting a broad audience of men. I fear that "male empowerment" will become as much of a cliche as "female empowerment" has become for brands over the last few years.

I do wonder whether the vogue for this men/women marketing en masse isn't just a little lazy.

Take this man:

He's famous for not holding back the tears.
He's done brilliant things.
He's even done heroic things.
But he's also been accused of sexual assault and racism.
He has (or has had) a number of mental illnesses.
But he has probably done unacceptable things just for the heck of it.

People are complex, and putting all men/women in the same box with a big "toxic" or "victim" label on it doesn't get us anywhere.

I'd like to see brands looking to their product, service, experience and values to find their unique purpose, and using that to drive all they do. And it doesn't have to be about the latest Twitterati issue.

If your brand does have a large proportion of men in its user base, how about looking at some masculine values that may be due for a revival (or maybe they never went away): courage, honour, strength, grit, decency, loyalty, respect.

Or are there no more (brand) heroes any more?

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Unchain your brain?

Photo from Francis Frith

I would imagine a New Year's resolution to work less, or at least work more productively when you're sitting at your desk, and unchain yourself from the desk(top) now and again, is a popular one this year.

There's even a movement, with the clever title Wednesday Offternoon , led by psychologists and behaviour change experts, to encourage companies to give their staff an afternoon off mid-week. It's not the full four-day week, but a step in the direction of increasing productivity and happiness in the workplace, and decreasing stress.

An admirable idea, but the cynical part of me suggests that the "free" afternoon will be used catching up on all the dreary bureaucratic must-dos that overwhelm the 21st century workplace, with its obsession with form-filling, controls, assessments and so on.

But looking around at semi-rural Germany, where I live, in some ways the glorious "Wednesday early-closing" days that I remember from my early childhood have never really gone away. There are shops in our town who still have early closing on Wednesdays. Many have a lunch break - which can be up to two hours - and it's not so very long ago that almost every retail establishment closed its doors at 13:00 sharp on Saturdays. Schools still finish at lunchtime, and the majority of workers seem to knock off on Fridays at mid-day, judging by the state of the roads at this time. 

Is this a quaint leftover from the past, a stubbornly analogue way of working that doesn't quite fit in the 24/7 always-on digital world?

Or have the Germans maybe known all along that efficiency only comes from giving it a rest now and again?  

Monday, 7 January 2019

The constancy of change

Just before Christmas, I commented on a post by Paul Feldwick, of The Anatomy of Humbug fame.  He'd compared two quotes about young people and advertising, over four decades apart:

Audiences these days, especially younger millennials, are super adept at seeing through cheap efforts to sell to them. If brands want to engage they need to be authentic and subtle.
Andrew Mole writing in Campaign Sept 2016
The under-30 generation loathes sham and hypocrisy... ‘tell it like it is’ is the touchstone.... more wit, honesty, verve, self-deprecation and irreverence.
Lee Adler writing in Business Horizons, February 1970

Can you spot the difference?

As I was in the midst of the annual deluge of innovation and trend reports, almost all of which start with some commentary about the "pace of change," I asked Paul whether he knew of any quotes from way back then about the extraordinary pace of change. He pointed me in the direction of this:

Whang! Bang! Clangety-clang! Talk about the tempo of today - John Smith knows it well. Day after day it whirs continuously in his brain, his blood, his very soul.

You can read the rest of A.B. Carson's 1928 description of an ad-man here.

There's a certain amount of arrogance in thinking that we live in times of greater change than ever before. But even the ancient Greeks knew that the only constant in life is change. I should think John Smith and his colleagues back in 1928 believed that the the electric, jazz world of the 1920s was "peak change" or whatever expression they used. 

As I read yet again about autonomous this or that, gameifying whatever, cryptocurrencies, smart cities, extended reality, voice technology, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and all the rest, the real world outside continues to confound the shiny new world of the future where everything works on demand. 

Maybe it's a fall of snow that makes everything grind to a halt. Maybe it's artificial stupidity instead of artificial intelligence. Things don't work, things get broken, unpredictable stuff happens.

Annoying, yes, but charming too, in the way that perfection lacks soul.

OK, time to scurry off to catch that train.