Thursday 24 December 2020

Comfort and Joy


A Christmas Story by Charles Rebel Stanton

Comfort and joy may have been in short supply this year, despite many of us forced back into our own comfort zones for rather too long. It's been clear that for brands, too, communications have been created with something of a "walking on eggshells" mentality, with concern over tone-deafness and misreading the mood of the nation. 

This somewhat restrictive approach, worrying about getting it wrong rather than determination to get it right, has led to a lot of bland, joyless and strangely soulless advertising and other communications.

Maybe it's time to stop thinking about advertising's role to reflect the world as it is, and start thinking about its role to entertain and present the world as it could be. Or another world completely.

Joy is a good start, but joy always feels a little bit sanitised and homogenised, like a choir of over-zealous evangelists. Especially when it pops up in a marketing plan which eulogises over making each touchpoint a "joyful connection".

I hope next year, advertising can dust down its entertainer's glad rags. Not merely joyful, but bringing us belly-laughs, mischief and mirth. Witty repartee, farce, a subversive smile. Whimsy, euphoria, glee and giggles. 

That's how to sell stuff, in the end.

Monday 14 December 2020

What's Swedish for Goodbye?


Last week, it was announced, amid much over-use of the word "iconic", that the IKEA Catalogue was going into retirement after 70 years' sterling service. I thought I'd take the opportunity to dig out my collection which probably isn't quite iconic, but does span four decades - and sits in an IKEA box upstairs in my IKEA-furnished office.

The first catalogue I have is from 1990:

This pre-dates my arrival in Germany, but I saw plenty of the black, deep blue and purple look for interiors in my first few years here. Check out this black leathery office:

The first catalogue that came legitimately into my postbox (I suspect I saved the 1990 deep blue horror from a clear-out at the IKEA offices at some point) was the 1997 edition - still in DM, note.

 Many items from this catalogue featured in my first flat here in Germany - and some survive, handed down to my son, who set up his first flat a year ago. Think they call that "circular economy" these days. The catalogue also featured what I think was the first PS Collection:

Bauhaus, eat your heart out! Moving into the 21st century, and the year we set up house - 2004:

I bought several items from this Kingdom of Children collection - note: no pink Princesses:

In 2010, the catalogue shrank a little in overall dimensions, but the cover took an expansive approach:

Which brings me to the latest example I have - behind the times as ever, I only have the 2020 edition, not the very last one:

I am sure there will be people who will be pleased to see the back of the IKEA catalogue. Well, here you are. Note the LACK table's decrease in price from 1997 (DM) to 2007 to 2010. 

As they say in Sweden:

 Hej då!

Monday 7 December 2020

A brand with a view

 I've always been a little queasy about the idea of brand loyalty, for reasons outlined in this post from 2013. Relationships, loyalty, Lovemarks - the whole tra-la-la. Interesting enough as an analogy, maybe, to kick off thinking, but in the end, brands ain't people. You don't get much back for your investment of faithfulness and duty.

Amazon demonstrate this again and again, despite all their claims to be the most customer-centric company in the solar system, or whatever it is. I've been writing book reviews for at least a decade and a half, and once reached the dizzy heights of being a Top 1000 reviewer, which I mistakenly took for recognition from my book-loving chums at Amazon. This year I was brought down to earth. My reviews, in English, of English language books, are no longer accepted by the UK or US sites. 

Why? It's transactional - and illogical. I spend buckets of money (yes, I know, I'm not proud) for Kindle books, but this all goes over the German site. So I can only post my reviews there. OK, not the end of the world, in the great scheme of things, but it makes me feel a touch miffed. 

Still, despite evidence to the contrary, the brand-as-human business isn't going away. In the last couple of years, it's taken on another form, which is possibly more alarming than all the brand-as-best-friend, brand-as-enabling-partner tosh.

Call it brand activism, purpose campaigning, venturing into the social and cultural space (why is everything a space these days?), taking a stance, having a point of view - brands are turning up the righteousness level on the virtual latter-day sandwich board of what should surely be re-named "political media".

This is bad enough, and of course you can ignore most of this guff, but the alternative is presented as "staying silent" or "bland corporate statements" - an implication of "if you're not with us, you're against us."

Well, I'd say this isn't the alternative. For me the alternative is to put the creative and media money and effort into creating distinctive, entertaining, useful or informative communications that sell the brand and grow the business.

Brand values are one thing, although whether these are distinctive is up for debate. Who doesn't want to have integrity and honesty? But a point of view? A human being has a point of view. A brand is not a human being, despite all the useful analogies. And as for the people who work for that brand - well, they are likely as not going to have different points of view. And this is a good thing. 

Insisting on a party line for a brand is absurd - and will only serve to make the world a dull place indeed.

Friday 27 November 2020

Lockdown Liebling


After nearly nine months of on-and-off lockdown, and all those brands doing amazing pivoting while being there for me personally every minute of the day, which one has stood out for me as my own Covid champion?

Although it may not have been good for my liver, Jacques' Wein Depot has definitely been good for my soul. 

I'm wary of pushing the "brands are like human beings" analogy too far, but this is surely one brand where I'll admit to having a relationship (and my husband is well-aware of the fact). 

While I'm aware that, like many other brands, I could go online with Jacques', part of the appeal is that the relationship is 90% analogue, real life, or whatever you like to call it. Yes, they do gather data about what I've bought which results in freebies and birthday bottle and suchlike, but I don't have any permanent, alarming reminder whizzing around on my iPhone. The newsletter is paper and comes through the post, and I can read it at my leisure.

I love the combination of dependability, knowledge and little surprises. I've collected a lot of freebies over the years. Some I use, while some sit in their boxes looking pretty. They are always appreciated.

Of course, I buy plonk at the local supermarket, too. Sometimes even good bottles of wine from a trip away (what's that?) or another wine warehouse - but I always come back to Jacques'. Even though there's no tasting there at the moment, and you have to shuffle around in masks.

And perhaps, the strongest connections with a brand are through personal experience. An event at which the brand played a small, but important part. Earlier in the year, having had a Weinwanderung cancelled, I had the madcap idea of a Eurovision Wein Grand Prix - a stagger around local countryside with wine from six different European countries - Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France.

Without doubt, it was one of the best days of the year so far. (Italy won, by the way).

It's cheers to my lockdown hero brand, and happy first Advent Sunday to all!  

Saturday 21 November 2020

Email Mayhem


The past couple of weeks have been pretty packed as far as work goes. I'm certainly not complaining, but the focus on getting stuff thought through and done made me realise just how much time I've spent in hungrier days reading other people's stuff rather than doing my own.

I started a sorting and culling action for the email newsletters that I've subscribed to over the past couple of decades and it has been liberating - like the feeling of clearing your wardrobe and realising a few weeks or months down the line that no, you don't miss any of that stuff or regret giving it away.

I'm not sure how many marketing/brand-type newsletters I was signed up for (in addition to all those from retailers, publishing services and other hobbies-related stuff). But it's certainly multiples more than the 5 or so I had back in 2009 when records on the current laptop begin. Back then, I was getting, say, one work-related email newsletter per day of the working week, which seems quaintly handleable. 

My culling criteria were completely unscientific. I decided anything that appears on or near the weekend in my inbox is bad manners and likely written by workaholic desperados I don't want to know anyway - the sort of lost souls who haunt LinkedIn at the weekend. So sorry, any US-based companies who think they're hitting the Friday morning spot when in fact it's late afternoon here. 

Then I used gut reaction. Is this a newsletter that causes a sinking feeling when it flops into the inbox, or one I'm keen to open? 

The sinking feeling can be caused by design (difficult to read), too much content (those newsletters that link to 8 or 10 or more articles are out), clickbait headlines, or re-hashed and repetitive content (some words are simply a huge yawn).

If I had to name two favourites, they'd have to be Contagious - whose newsletter was one of the five I received in 2009 - and Good Business' Friday5. Both of these have a handleable number of items - someone has made choices over what to put in and what to leave out. The newsletters have a distinct house style and the topics covered have a clear focus. 

I'll leave you with a screen shot of the Contagious newsletter from 11 years ago - 24th November, 2009. Unfortunately the links don't link any more, but it's fascinating to see what topics marketing people were mulling over back then: reports are offered on Mobile Apps, Branded Utility, Goodvertising (which must have morphed into purpose-driven brand communications at some point), Social Media (what that?) and Branded Entertainment. 

But nothing on email newsletters - were they missing a trick?

Sunday 8 November 2020

Days of Hope

I've noticed that my blog has become slightly serious and grumpy round the edges of late. And that it's been ages since I've done what I used to love doing - finding an ad that's got a really good idea behind it, and singing its praises.

Well, here we go - two campaigns via the agency Quiet Storm as part of the Create not Hate initiative. This has the aim of bringing more young people from ethnic minority backgrounds into the creative industries.

The "Racist Dinosaur" campaign was created by Jet Harris and Le'vaughan Smith, who are both 16, and I think from Merton, which is my old stamping ground in South London.

Then there's another great idea - "Racism is ridiculous" based on a "What If ...?" question - in this case, what if dogs were racist?

Barks & Spencer is inspired! This campaign was created by 22-year-olds Finton Hurst and Mariana Gonzalez. 

What do I like? Well, where do I start? Both campaigns are packed with insight, cleverness and mischievous humour. And they are both based on a simple idea, the "What If?" question in one case, and the idea that racism is a dying relic from the past, summed up by the clever endline "Make Racism Extinct" in the other. A recipe for effectiveness.

My hope is that the ad agencies will encourage more of this, more doing and acting. And less making pompous statements about giving people voices and letting them see themselves in ads (which is incredibly patronising), issuing sanctimonious reading lists and ticking boxes to keep the inclusion and diversity police happy.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Two tribes?


I've mentioned the work of More in Common before - in Germany, for example, where we see what are thought to be the traditional "fault lines" of society - like East: West - aren't, really.

I'm often mildly irritated by the attitude of the London-centred UK ad community and how out of touch many people in agencies seem to be with the rest of the country. A problem we don't have to such an extent in Germany as the ad industry isn't so concentrated into one city - and advertising was never on a self-important pedestal in the way it was in the UK. As an aside, I remember thinking that I'd be considered a more interesting and acceptable dinner party guest here if I worked selling insurance.

I don't like to sing a report's praises until I have read it, but I've had a look at the executive summary of Britain's Choice (launched on Monday 26th) and it has certainly whetted my appetite for the full Monty, all 291 pages of it.

The sound-bite that I'm sure will hit most people first is what we sort of knew all along - that there's a group "Progressive Activists" who are around 5 times more likely to post political stuff on Twitter and other social media than any of the other 6 groups. So, if you're using a research method that relies on what "people" are saying on social media - particularly if the topic is political - then it's likely the research will be biased.

But that aside, there is plenty in the report to give me hope. The seven groups are described as the fragments in a kaleidoscope - they are drawn together to form patterns around issues where there is common ground. 79%, for example, are proud of the advancements the UK has made in equality between men and women.

Both "hate speech" and "political correctness" are seen to be problems by the majority.

And most want to see a Britain that is hard-working, environmentally friendly, compassionate and honest.

Hooray for that.

Meanwhile, the two tribes can go on bashing each other's filter bubbles over on Twitter to their hearts's content. 

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Top of the Tortoises


There's a whole new area developing in assessing how good companies are performing on the triple bottom line. The latest new Index looking at how good companies actually are (in every sense of the word) is from Tortoise Media - The Tortoise Media Responsibility 100 Index

This index takes the FTSE 100 and rates these on indices relating to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, across the two broad areas People and Planet. There's a full detailed transparent methodology link included on the website for those interested in the nitty gritty and yes, of course, there is a degree of judgement in terms of how the indices are derived and weighted. 

Always worth bearing in mind.

Looking at the results, Top of the Tortoises this year are:

1. Unilever

2. Severn Trent

3. Diageo

4. AstraZeneca

5. BT Group

There are several things I like about this index - first of all, there's the "talk" and "walk" division - what the companies are committing to, and what they are actually doing. And I believe both are vital. Companies that simply donate a bucketload of cash to a trendy cause on the spur of the moment aren't in it for the long-haul, usually. 

It's good to see the top five from a complete mix of sectors - retail & consumer, engineering, pharma and services are all represented. And yes, it is the FTSE Top 100 which is generally about established companies, but it's encouraging to see all the Top 5 were established in the last century (with roots going much further back, in some cases) - these are certainly not "new kids on the block" who have social and environmental responsibility baked-in from the beginnings.

What I'd really like to see accompanying this is a "Hare Index" of growth to see if the third part of the triple bottom line really does go hand-in-hand with the other two to the finishing line.

Friday 2 October 2020

Back to Business

I recently read a document that was recommended via one of the world's biggest and most influential planning communities. It was called the Visibility Brief and has been produced by a well-established US agency. The brief is described as a "bias firewall" to be used in the creation of "more representative cultural goods". 

Using the search function, I looked for the following words in the brief:

Objective. Sales. Growth. Creativity. Effective.

None of these words have been used at all in the 19-page document.

This experience is similar to one related by Steve Harrison in his excellent book, can't sell won't sell

Steve wondered how he could help his clients in the coming recession, and what role in general the creative industries should take to keep the economy afloat during these "challenging times."  In June this year, he emailed the D&AD asking for a reading list of How To books or articles - useful stuff such as Advertising on a small budget, Writing copy that Sells, Creating a website that generates sales, How to plan media, How to write a brief and generally How to go about developing effective advertising in any medium.

The only reply he got was an "out of office" one.

However, the D&AD subsequently posted a couple of reading lists on their website: one of #staycation reading (rather heavy), replaced by 85 assorted sources to "educate yourself" about BLM.

These examples are symptomatic of the way that the ad industry has lost the plot and taken its eye off the ball, the main theme of can't sell won't sell

Reading this important book over the last couple of days, I realised that these ideas have also been at the forefront of my thinking over recent months.

The ad industry has become side-tracked and distracted away from its core business. One factor behind this is that agency people - particularly managers - are becoming increasingly less divergent in the way they think, and the values and opinions they hold. A consequence is that UK TV ads are markedly more annoying and less enjoyable than they were a couple of decades ago. They're also far less likely to be funny. And it goes without saying that this has consequences for effectiveness.

With a huge recession already kicking in, now is the worst possible time for this to be happening.

I strongly recommend this book - it's highly topical, funny, sharp, credible and readable.

My only little quibble (planner alert!) is that there isn't enough here about brand-building as driving long-term revenue, profit and general prosperity as well as short-term immediate sales effects produced by advertising.

It's given me a kick in the ivory tower for when I get too up in the clouds about purpose (I have my own views on purpose, here). I do hope that advertising doesn't become a completely dirty word, and that everyone in the industry can get on with what we do best - and get back to business.


Monday 28 September 2020

Having it all (or as good as)

When I was a 20-something bright young thing starting in advertising, the women's magazines of the time were full of articles debating whether we women really could "Have It All." One person who has made a pretty damn good job of it is Rita Clifton, CBE. She's someone I can look at and say - yes, she's both personally and professionally fulfilled and very much still at the top of her game. Rita is the author of a new book, entitled Love Your Imposter.

I worked with Rita Clifton in the late 80s and early 90s at Saatchi & Saatchi London. She was my boss on the British Airways account. Reading Rita's book was like leaping into a rediscovered video-tape in a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland fashion: I was back in the crazy world of yuppies and Concorde, shoulder pads, strange new-agey gurus and The Only Way is Up.

Rita always spoke a lot of sense, but never in a preachy kind of way. She led by example, and what an example she was! Reading this book was like listening to her chatting - so different to many business books, with warmth, openness and a sprinkle of self-deprecating humour pervading its pages.

The honesty - and specifically, that you have to work and understand the language of finance to get to the top - is just one appealling aspect of this book. Rather than the glib advice to "be yourself", Rita is very clear that you have to stretch to get on, that there is a skill to knowing when to toe the line, when to fit in and when to stand out, and an art to getting yourself taken seriously. (Oh, those memories from my early career days on being lectured about "gravitas" - not from Rita, I hasten to add). The chapters on finance and numbers were a well-needed kick and reminder to me that I must always keep one eye on solid ground even if the other is floating up in the ether of visions and purposes.

I'm less of a fan of personal branding and the whole personal development shebang than Rita is, but maybe that's telling in itself. At a few points in the book, I had little aha moments about where I've gone wrong, and toppled off the career ladder a couple of times. I even wondered if I have a reverse imposter tendency now and then. The book certainly gave me food for thought, and encouragement that it's not too late, even now ...

I know that Rita worked bloody hard and made sacrifices to get where she is - and this success couldn't happen to a brighter, friendlier and all-round-good-egg sort of person. Thank you, Rita, for giving me the belief that I could make it - even if in the end my choices in life took me in another direction.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Why can't we live together?

At the end of 2019, I blogged about reconciliation, in the hope that 2020 might be the year, both on the political front and in the world of marketing, that we might be able to reconcile differences, establish common ground and move forward on this basis.

Unfortunately, the common ground that came upon us was something we hadn't wished for - a rather nasty and persistent virus.  The first couple of months did see some pulling together against adversity, which I think gave me renewed hope in humanity and what we can achieve if we work with what can unite us and leave divisiveness behind.

But unfortunately, the old divisions have crept back and new ones have come to the fore. And yes, I do believe that without differences and a certain amount of friction and tension, there's no progression, but in the world at large as well as the microcosm of marketing, there still seems to be a lot of black and white thinking going on.

Binary debates in marketing Source: Martin Weigel

Rather than aligning myself to one camp or another, I've learned along the way that the truth about these things usually involves "a bit of both", whether its human and machine, purpose and profit or brand-building and activation.

There a super article from Tom Roach here, which looks at the false choice between long- and short-term marketing or brand/performance. The approach is to harmonise short-term sales and long-term growth, with "share of search" as a promising metric to predict market share that both camps (if we really have to have these camps) can get behind. Thus selling "both immediately and forever" as Jeremy Bullmore put it.

Mark Ritson has summed all of this up rather well in his article about "Bothism" - the rare capacity to not only see the value of both sides of the the marketing story, but actively consider and then co-opt them into any subsequent marketing endeavour in an appropriate way.

And yes, I do have The Beatles and The Stones, Oasis and Blur in my music collection. As well as a lot of other weirder stuff, which is another story.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself


In the lead-up to the US Election, the fear-mongering has long since started. Of course, playing on fear has been the weapon of choice for propaganda and political campaigns since civilisation began. Alarming visions of the future should you not vote for us and they get in.

And what better time to play the fear card than now, when most people of the world have just reason to be utterly terrified if they stop too long to think about it.

Fear is one of those nasty psychological levers that's also given advertising and marketing a bad name. It's used in more subtle ways, of course. It used to be fear of what the neighbours might think, fear of not keeping up with the Joneses, fear of being a failure.

Fear of problems you didn't even know you had.

These days it's fear of everything from not being popular enough on social media, through to saying or doing the wrong thing regarding social issues, through to completely ruining the planet for future generations due to lazy, selfish and thoughtless behaviour. On top of all the other fears.

A lot of this fear ballyhoo must come from the culture and worldview that pervades many organisations (maybe more so during these times, when people are genuinely frightened for their livelihoods). The acronym  of the VUCA world is still very much in evidence - as well as the advice on how to arm yourself against it via the alternative VUCA (Vision, Understanding, Clarity & Agility)

Sensible advice. And yet, it all still feels like there's a war on, that everyone is in mortal danger, that we need strong generals and superior firepower. I recently read Empire of the Sun, and the way that young Jim manages to survive the war in the internment camp is to relish it. I thought about my own spin on VUCA here, where volatile becomes spontaneous, uncertainty becomes surprise, complex becomes diverse and ambiguous becomes enigmatic.

Should we be taking it as a given that uncertainty is always bad?

As C.G.Jung put it,

…I had the feeling that I had pushed to the brink of the world; what was of burning interest to me was null and void for others, and even a cause for dread. Dread of what? I could find no explanation for this. After all, there was nothing preposterous or world-shaking in the idea that there might be events which overstepped the limited categories of space, time and causality.

Thursday 27 August 2020

Data, information, knowledge and wisdom

Photo by Martin Schitto, July 2020

Would I rather be knowledgable or wise? Can you be one without being the other?

I see a kind of progression, according to synthesis level, from data to information to knowledge to wisdom.

In a preamble to one of their articles The School of Life picked up the distinction between knowledge and wisdom, suggesting that knowledge is the accumulation of facts, figures and theories, while wisdom is the further synthesis of this knowledge with experience.

Knowledge can be forgotten, while wisdom can't.

Knowledge is specific to subject and context, while wisdom is universal and timeless. 

Regarding the latter point, many moons ago, I did my A-levels following my Cambridge Entrance Exams (this was a bit topsy-turvy, but that's always been my way). I had to swot much more for the A-Levels than the Cambridge Entrance Exam as these were more about regurgitating my knowledge - the structure of DNA and how it all worked, for example. For the Cambridge Entrance Exam in Biology, you'd get asked something like "What is the importance of water to life."

I've written a post or two about A.I, and I fancy that a machine these days may have fared better in my Biology A-Level than I did. I don't discount the idea that a machine could be described as "knowledgeable" - why not, if we already describe machines as "intelligent"?

But I doubt that we'll ever have a machine that is wise in the way that a human being is.

I'd welcome a change from thinking about "data-driven insights" to "the wisdom of insight".

The rather pensive photo of me in my cellar pub had me philosophising, about the Road to Excess and all that stuff.

I know I'm doing something wrong as I don't seem to have cracked the "wealthy" bit of the healthy, wealthy and wise thing, although I'm not sure wisdom brings wealth these days.

Maybe it's a case of "Late to bed and late to rise makes a (wo)man happy, healthy-ish and wise"?

Saturday 15 August 2020

Method in Madness?

There was a time early in my agency career when creativity just happened - in a mysterious way - and questioning how the the creatives got to their ideas was likely to earn you at best a sarcastic riposte, and at worst eternal banishment from the creative floor.

Of course, we had a high-level idea of how creativity worked, but on the whole we were interested first and foremost in cracking ideas that fit the brief - and if they were really cracking, the brief could be made to fit ;)

These days it's all very different. There are no mad geniuses prowling the second floor and throwing typewriters out of windows. We're all team players, and openness and transparency is all the rage, including the tedious, usually post-rationalised blow-by-blow thought process of how you arrived where you arrived. I blame all this Design Thinking gubbins - the thought of scrums and sprints gives me the heebie-jeebies - it doesn't sound agile to me, rather completely exhausting.

Creative processes are described in flow charts and icons:

Occasionally with a few disembodied arms and hands - or brains - to add the "human-centric" touch:

Can I be the only one that feels as if these standardised processes lead to standardised ideas?

Even in a completely different world - literature and fiction - authors seem only too keen to display their working on social media, usually in the form of a forest-slaying over-abundance of Post-It notes:

I really don't want to read that novel, however it turns out.

My favourite representation of the creative process is this one:
I take a deep breath at this point and tell myself that it's a good thing that there are different ways to approach creativity and as long as I'm not forced into one of these flow-charts of Post-It proliferations, then let it be.

Adobe Create have come up with a rather nifty tool (not a process) to discover your own creative type.  No surprise that I was the Visionary (who looks like the lovechild of a cactus and a cucumber - well, that was a surprise).

And, for things to go pretty swimmingly, I have to get together, not with a cactus or a cucumber, but with a Thinker.

Who I am sure comes armed with a stack of flow-charts and a catering pack of Post-Its.

Friday 7 August 2020

Digital Quackery

 I am sure that one of the career paths we're going to see developing in the next few years is that of the Digital Nutritionist. This may seem as bizarre today as the idea of someone with no recognisable talent called an "Influencer" earning millions did a decade ago, but hear me out.

The whole idea of Digital Nutrition has been waiting in the wings ever since we started talking of "digital content" (the word still reminds me of stomach contents, so point proved) and "digital consumption" as well as "news feed" and all the other nutrition-related analogies. As I have said before, the whole digital space (aaarrrggghhh!) is one that we started by surfing or exploring, then became happy to stumble and bumble around and finally we've ended up in a passive state of being "served" or "fed." Of course, many of us have overdone it and had to resort to some form of "digital detox".

No surprise that the last few years have brought a plethora of reports and articles about the dire consequences of digital overload to our health and well-being, broken only by a short period at the beginning of lockdown where the internet and all things digital were hailed as a saviour in dark times.

The next logical step is to ask the question: does digital consumption have to be detrimental to our health and well-being per se? Or can we draw an analogy with analogue nutrition (if you like - I mean actual food that you shove in your mouth)?

This article introduces the work of AeBeZe Labs - see also the website from Jocelyn Brewer. It's all about Digital Nourishment, Digital Hygiene, Healthy Digital Diets, Digital Pharmaceuticals. 

OK, I studied a bit of pharmacology and I know that we release mood-altering neurotransmitters (Serotonin, Oxytocin, GABA, Endorphins, Acetylcholine et al) in response to stimuli, which could be watching a film, listening to music, reading an article. And usually one transmitter will alter the mood of most people in a certain direction: calm, happy, motivated, focussed or whatever.

But the flaw is that we all have different tastes and reactions. The awful caterwauling that was Justin Bieber plus Ed Sheeran (who on earth had the grotesque idea of throwing these two together into a studio?) that I heard on the radio this morning might well send some into oxytocin-drenched raptures, but it sent me into an extreme fight or flight reaction.

Bodies are rather more standardised when it comes to what is good or bad in terms of nutrition. Minds and souls certainly aren't.

And, finally, how do you account for good old-fashioned non-digital media in all this? I'm talking about books, be they penny dreadful potboilers, or highbrow works of literature.

Tuesday 28 July 2020

Give them all a rest

From the days of the much-maligned Brand Onion (which occasionally shape-shifted into a pyramid, or a key, if you were at Unilever), I remember very few specific good examples.

But I can remember the endless debates:

Is X a functional benefit or an emotional benefit?

Does this go in Personality or Values?

What's the difference between an attribute and a benefit?

Is this meant to be how we're seen now, or where we want to be?

Fast forward a decade or two, and enter Kipling's "honest serving men" - or some of them - in a glorious glowing Golden Circle. It was all going to be simple - chuck out those endless debates and start with Why?

I've noticed in the last few years that those "honest serving men" are getting about a bit. Almost every presentation on a process or strategy is peppered with Hows and Whos and Whats.

However, the debates remain:

Do we mean Who or To Whom? (The grammar fanatics love this one!)

Is that the How or the What?

Is When important?

And in this article by Thomas Kolster the author (previously a proponent of Pupose and Why?) suggests that it's now all about the Who a brand can help people to become (so a kind of Who in the future). A brand is a coach, helping people "be more, do more, see more, experience more!". This Who "focuses on the role you can play enabling their beliefs and dreams, whereas Why focuses on your organisation's beliefs and dreams."

The "honest serving men" have done a sneaky pivot from a circle to an arrow (perhaps still golden?). Why has disappeared and taken Where with him:

This all feels suspiciously like a return to "what's in it for me" - or a simple statement of what your brand does for people - benefit, if you like.

Kipling's poem continues - and this is not often quoted -

But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine to five,
For I am busy then ...

I think he had a point, and don't intend to discuss the Whys and Wherefores ;)

Saturday 18 July 2020

Travelling hopefully

One description of the current "coming out of COVID" phase that particularly rings true for me is that we're all teetering on a tightrope between hope and anxiety. The anxiety is a form of constant fear of the unknown, acknowledging that we simply aren't as in control of anything as we once thought we were.

I felt this tension as I booked up my first trip back to the UK recently. Travel and tourism is a category that is arguably the most disrupted by COVID, and also one of the most disrupting to the planet. That brings a double tension into play - should I really be making this trip, not just for my health, but for the health of the planet?

I've had flurries of emails in the last few weeks from airlines, rail companies and hotels. These all take much the same form:

Inspiring the hope: talk of renewal, freedom, reopening. New journeys and destinations. A world waiting to be discovered. Wanderlust. Beckoning pictures of azure waters, golden beaches, midsummer mornings in the far North.

And at the same time, reassurance to calm the anxiety: #WeCare, worry-free travel, safe and comfortable, relax, protection, well-being, flexibility, hygiene, Bring Me Home promise.

I suspect the way we travel will change permanently, as it did after 9/11, and there will be no going back in terms of the new safety measures introduced. But I also wonder if there will be a going back in the way that travel is regarded - instead of "jumping on planes" and "ticking off the bucket-list" I agree with James Bidwell of Springwise who says that travel and tourism will continue to contribute massively to diversity, cultural understanding, education, a global outlook and to contribute to a more harmonious and peaceful world for all. 

I see a future for travel and tourism which is more conscious, and goes back to a certain degree of exclusivity - that travel becomes a privilege, not an automatic right. And if the excitement and magic of discovery returns, that can only be a good thing. 

I paid double what I would have done last year for my ferry crossing and don't begrudge the price.

I'm hoping it'll all be plain sailing and will see you on the other side!

Monday 6 July 2020

So long, spontaneity?

When I first came to Germany, back in 1996, one of the strangest aspects of culture shock was what I called "unspontaneous dancing". I'd been alerted to this to some extent in Austrian ski resorts, but this still couldn't prepare me for the weirdly robotic and joyless spectacle of what the Germans call Disco Fox. The low point had to be seeing a couple grimly going through the mechanical motions to Smoke on the Water. It was enough to make me want hail a taxi to the airport and hop on the first plane back.

Of course, these days, hailing taxis and hopping on planes seem like quaint memories of the past. We have all read enough articles showing how the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated trends in behaviour that were going on anyway. I commented already some years ago about the reduction of (positive) surprise in our lives, both online and offline.

It's apparent in communication and keeping in touch, where phone calls are scheduled, both business and private, and even meetings with friends are organised with the precision of a military operation - aided and abetted by all sorts of apps and software as well as both virtual and real assistants, planners, coaches and organisers.

Even before the crisis, the entire travel, hospitality and leisure industry was going this way with all-important checks on TripAdvisor, and extensive online research even for a trip to the pub. Serendipity was already on its way out of the window for many people who pooh-poohed the "real god of travellers":

All the strangeness, all the distinctiveness of a country will utterly escape you as you are led and your steps are no longer guided by the real god of travellers, chance. - Stefan Zweig, 1926 'To Travel or be Travelled'

After all, who needs strangeness? These days, "stranger" equals "danger" more than ever.

As the world emerges from lockdown, it's clear that chance should play as small a role as possible. It's a world where everything should be controlled, scheduled and traced. Safety and security have become idealised virtues: stay safe, safe spaces. Safety is what is known. Or what we think is known, that is, predictable. And we are armed with templates, frameworks, algorithms and tools to  box in, clarify and capture anything that might care to be numinous, elusive or inexplicable.

But, I wonder. While jumping on planes with gay abandon and merrily ticking off bucket-lists might become a thing of the past, maybe more conscious travel and the knowledge that things don't always go to plan may just open a door to discovering things off the beaten track?

And with social distancing the order of the day could those standardised dance moves foxtrot their way back to the 1980s and make room for something a little more inventive and expressive?

Monday 29 June 2020

Your business is none of my politics

When I was a bright young thing in my 20s, I joined the ad agency that had put Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives into power. I never worked on the Conservative party account personally. I wouldn't have refused (as I wouldn't have refused working on Silk Cut at that point) although I would have found it quite daunting. I don't know if everyone who worked on the account had to be staunch Tory supporters, or whether a few wild cards were brought in to challenge and play devil's advocate.

It may seem odd to younger readers, but I didn't necessarily know the politics of my colleagues. I knew what their favourite tipples were, which films they'd seen, their favourite bands and possibly who they'd slept with last Friday (if the office gossip machine was working). But politics and religion weren't discussed. Not with workmates and certainly not with clients. Salary was another thing. You didn't go blabbing about it - maybe that was a deliberate ploy from management in general to avoid transparency and fairness. Maybe it was what we thought at the time - decency and respect, and an avoidance of vulgarity. Or, I expect, a bit of both.

The world is a different place today. I've been spending more time on LinkedIn and a couple of Facebook groups for brand and communication strategists.

To be honest, these online places sometimes feel like snake pits.

Should "we" be buying so-and-so marketing guru's book, given his "uneducated" or "offensive" tweets on a completely different theme?

Pushing of pdfs, books, "voices" to follow and other assorted resources to "educate ourselves" so that "we" finally "get it."

People being sworn at, generally harangued and told they have "issues they need to work on" if they dare to say that (maybe) strategy isn't political.

Everything from hate to food has become politicised.

You could be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into the desperate-to-impress anarcho-extremist- nihilist group in Fresher's week. I sometimes wonder why on earth these people are working in advertising agencies and for-profit organisations - surely it's all just a trifle hypocritical?

My politics have evolved in the last thirty years. I have achieved some reasonably dizzy heights in my career as well as fallen down in the gutter a couple of times. I've learned from that. But I still don't think I need to talk about who or what I vote for with clients, let alone complete strangers on the internet.

It's not about bravery, or speaking up. Nor do I want to avoid being uncomfortable. A certain amount of discomfort helps growth, I know that.

But it is about understanding people - whether clients, customers, people you're communicating about your brand with. You don't know what they've been through, what their views are, what their experiences are, what makes them tick. And the best place to start for understanding is common ground - something you can agree on as fellow human beings.

From there on you can agree to disagree - a phrase I hear only too seldom these days.

Wednesday 17 June 2020

Dirt is ... oh, hang on

Time goes quickly when you're enjoying yourself. It was over two months ago, at the beginning of April, that I wrote a post about the gush of information and opinions about the New Normal. Well, now we're in the midst of the beginning of it (I think).

One question was which mindsets and elements of behaviour would be carried over as restrictions ease. Would the whole world remain obsessed with hygiene, for example?

Certainly, hand sanitisers and soap-related products have taken a huge hike in sales. The emails that the travel companies are sending me now on resumed services are full of #WeCare and Safety First, and providing masks and cleaning seats, tables and armrests, with links to cute little films should you need extra reassurance.

But what about all the other microorganisms that are killed off in the process? Have the role of the good guys - the gut and skin microbiome - in developing immunity been forgotten?

I have a theory, which could be complete nonsense, but might be one explanation why Germany has not been as hard-hit by the virus as the US and the UK. I wrote a couple of articles in my early years here expressing what I saw as a cultural difference between the Germans and Anglo-Saxon cultures in their approach to use of "hard" chemicals in household and garden, and the preference for plant-based remedies and cures in personal health.

Maybe the Germans are just more in tune with their germs - good and bad?

Sunday 7 June 2020

We and me

One thing I need to get round to is a revamp of my website, which is hopelessly out-of-date from a technical and user-experience point of view. And the photos probably don't - ahem - reflect how I look these days. I had a look at it recently to see if the content was also in need of a total rejig - and surprised myself.

It still makes sense.

I'm reading Jung again in the form of The Red Book, a generous and apt gift from my college chums, and I'm rediscovering a lot of what must have influenced my worldview as I started my career and has stayed with me ever since.

The idea of the personal and the collective - Jung applied this to the unconscious but it has a universal application:

For every brand, each individual has a different personal experience of that brand. We must try to understand the collective elements of the brand that we have as shared experience in order to develop communications.


There are elements of brands that are personal to each of us in the way that we perceive brands, and there are elements that form the brand's collective unconscious that unite the users of that brand.

I was pleased to see this theme taken up in an IPA essay entitled The Wide and Narrow of It by Omar El-Gammal from Wunderman Thompson. The author stresses that brands are not built through carefully constructed communication plans that we as marketers somehow control but through the we (shared cultural experience) and the me (personal experience). Thinking about the cultural and the individual is a good way of looking at brand growth.

The collective, cultural, call it what you will would always be my starting point to understand the essence of a brand. I believe that humanity has more in common than that dividing us and it's here that I'd start to find how my brand can be relevant to a broad section of the human world yet still maintain its own individuality and uniqueness.

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Searchlight Brands

We're on the road to recovery. We're re-opening, re-setting, re-inventing, navigating the new, emerging at the other side, un-pausing the pause button, writing the post-COVID playbook, re-discovering and probably re-pivoting too.

The challenging times are far from over, though. At least, that's what the flurry of articles and webinars and thought pieces and workshops on what brands should be doing now, in this "recovery phase," would have you believe.

I do hope that we as marketers won't make the same mistake twice. Only a few of weeks ago, marketing managers all over the world noticed that their carefully thought-out and quickly pulled-together "we're here for you, we'll get through this together" commercial was exactly the same as the next one. Especially when the internet wags pointed it out to them.

The mistake was that people were so desperate to demonstrate empathy with what people were going through in lockdown that they forgot (or were too nervous of being insensitive) to show how their brand, services and products could play a role.

I hope that brand communication coming out now will see a return to lighthouse brands - or maybe in the mobile day-and-age, Searchlight Brands. Instead of vague expressions of empathy, a bolder statement of how your brand inspires how people might like to live tomorrow.

Of course advertising should be based on empathy, but an empathy that comes from the brand:

What does your brand do for people, and why?

What's unique about your product/s and service/s?

What is your brand's particular voice, attitude and way of seeing the world?

And the litmus test is always: could this piece of communication come from any other brand?


Friday 15 May 2020

Is there a template for authenticity? Or novelty?

Lockdown cliche that I am, I'm been listening in to a few seminars recently. To do with work and to do with my rather bedraggled attempt at being an author. This week's seminar from The Society of Authors promised to combine both - the topic was Marketing your Books.

I did pick up a few tips and once I'd got my head round the idea that the speaker was talking more about what I'd call sales, I was happy to listen in to learn what I should really be doing to sell my books - getting an email newsletter together.

I won't be doing that, though, for a simple reason. Sales is not the prime objective of my marketing. And it's for this reason that I found the tenor of the talk slightly depressing:

There are no new ideas in marketing

All marketing is a numbers game

Just copy from those who are doing it well/properly

This flavour of marketing is something I've touched on before, in relation to creativity. Here, and here. The idea that with a mix of templates, frameworks, tools and algorithms, you can create by formula. And I've discovered a myriad of websites that can churn out content to promote your book, from Canva to BookBrush. And yes, I probably will give them a go, and stick it on Instagram to see what happens. Although I'm not sales-driven, I'm never going to say no if someone wants to buy my books. Of course not.

I am sure I could find a antique-looking map background and possibly some representation of a scorpion and create a nice little promo for my book. But I fear it would get lost amongst all the samey coffee cups, socks, flowers in vases and shabby-chic backgrounds that one sees in book promotion.

The map would not be the genuine article of the place that inspired the book, from the early 1960s, still encrusted with a hint of desert sand.

And the scorpion wouldn't be a fluffy one.

The thing is, there's more to marketing than numbers.

There is magic, mystery, creativity, novelty, authenticity, surprise.

And none of these things are available via a template.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Home Comforts

Looking back over the last six or seven weeks, the main thing that's struck me is the rediscovery of  the comforts of your own home. I'm talking about a particular group of people here, who may well have pooh-poohed their home in healthier days, or even denied that their home consisted of something as solid as four walls. The younger amongst this group like to think of themselves as Global Nomads, the older as International Business People or Liberal Elite Citizens of the World. Many of the Marketing and Advertising community belong (although belonging isn't really their thing) to this group of "Anywheres". It's a group who can, on occasion, have a slightly sneery and condescending view of those who are - let's say - more rooted.

A fascinating report came out last week from, who have been chronicling the passage of lockdown and beyond more-or-less in real time. Last week's issue looked at enjoyment - how people are talking about pleasure, treats, joy and fun. And so much of what they found related back to home comforts, from TV binges to Burgeoning Booziness.

What have termed Age of Nostalgia is only too apparent in a Facebook news stream cluttered with photos of dog-eared albums as yet another friend takes up the challenge (I would personally find running up Ben Nevis a challenge, or jumping into the North Sea on New Years Day, but there you go).

I listened to a webinar where Steve Challouma, the General Manager of Birds Eye talked about growth of 60% for Fish Fingers, and 120% for Chicken Nuggets - comfort food has leapt out from under the duvet to reclaim its place in our stomachs, and therefore hearts.

The booze story with all those Quadrantinis and Furlough Merlots is well-documented.

And, in a Society of Authors (virtual) Tea With ... event, author Joanne Harris admitted to reading Georgette Heyer in the bath.

In the UK at least, all of this cosy, nostalgic, naughty-but-nice, keep the home fires burning stuff will cumulate tomorrow in an outbreak of Stay at Home VE Day Street Parties.

And there will be no excuse from the (former) Global Nomads and Elite World Citizens not to join in with the jollity.

Because now we're all grounded.

Monday 27 April 2020

Going overground

One of the better articles I've read about Post-COVID-19 culture is this one from Sturm und Drang. What I like here is it's not someone pontificating about the New Normal (groan) and "what we're all going to be doing/thinking" but instead outlines some of the key tensions that will be in play:

Online and Real World
Health & Safety and Getting out and living for the moment
Personal Freedom and Group monitoring
Self-reliance and solidarity
Humanity and nature

One thing that is certain is that the COVID-19 crisis will accelerate transformation and movements that are happening anyway. Take the first of Sturm & Drang's tensions - the shift online. Music and film and gaming were being created and played from bedrooms, our lives were becoming increasingly streamed and the couch potatoes and nerds were inheriting the earth.

People are learning to live without coffee to-go, or anything to-go for that matter. There's a certain power in having the world of work, leisure and everything in between at your fingertips, from the comfort of your four walls.

Maybe there will be a massive, irreversible shift online in all spheres of life.

Or maybe not. In the two world wars of the last century, entire young generations had their freedom curtailed by having to do their duty and go out and fight, or otherwise work night and day for the war effort. For the current young generation, COVID-19 is their war.

People of my generation used to bewail the fact that being confined to their bedroom was no longer a punishment for a teenager.

But maybe it's beginning to be. Days and weeks of unrestricted online access. Not just that, but parents, grandparents, teachers all invading the online world of the young: from making idiots of themselves on TikTok to hi-jacking YouTube for serious learning. One can sense an urge to rebel, to get out. Not going underground, but overground into the wild world of the Internot.

Perhaps this is another trend that will be accelerated by the crisis.

Who knows, maybe the young will spend their summer like Richard Jefferies' Bevis:

"It was living, not thinking. He lived it, never thinking, as the finches live their sunny life in the happy days of June. There was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground."