Monday 25 October 2021

A lemming’s life on automatic


One of my favourite topics on Extrawurst is how human behaviour is changing in relation to the internet and due to digitalisation. There’s a progression from intrepid surfing to good-natured stumbling to passive feeding - although this current phase tends to be reframed by advertisers in terms of “being served”, conjuring up visions of waiters, bow ties and silver salvers, rather than geese with tubes down their necks. 

I recently read a presentation which looked at this progression with reference to one aspect of behaviour: driving and navigation. Back in the 1990s, this was an analogue process involving maps, atlases and route cards, with the co-driver fully in control - and probably responsible when anything went wrong. Although I still blame our 1995 off-road adventure in Bryce Canyon National Park, testing the hired saloon car to its limits, on a misleading map rather than navigational incompetence on my part.

Moving on to the 2000s and the first navigation systems - very much a digital support which the driver could attend to or not as they saw fit. The navigation system in my 2006 Audi was almost impossible to set up and involved a CD, which of course was rapidly out of date. Quite often, I didn’t bother and drew up a route card, especially if venturing outside Germany.

In the 2020s we’ve moved from the driver/navigator as pathfinder right through to being digitally led and following blindly. The presentation makes a lemming analogy, of which more later, but you get the point. Unquestioning, submissive to the machine, following the orders. And in the future, this won’t just be the navigating side of things but the driving too.

Now some of this is all well and good. Digitalisation makes life easy, so you can concentrate on other things (although I always wonder what other things those could be). But I do worry that each time I enter a new destination, the compass in my head becomes a little less on the ball. I still like to do stuff from first principles: get the old map out and see roughly where I’m heading for. In the last century, labour-saving devices reduced the drudgery of washing and cleaning by hand, but is mental labour-saving, where the cogs of the mind grow sluggish through lack of use really a positive development?

Can pandemic-acceerated digitalisation be seen - in some respects - as a kind of instituationalisation in which we get lazy, start seeing responsibility and independence as burdens, and stop making our own choices?

For brands, there seems to be value in creating mental and physical availability combined with the feeling that the customer has made a conscious choice for that brand, rather than “being served” what an algorithm computes that person might like. And with some brands/categories, the scarcity/discovery/unseamless/difficult to find route could also be of interest.

By the way, back to those furry creatures. The “mass suicide” is a not-so-urban myth. The observed behaviour is more to do with migration - dispersal to resolve population density - and a few accidental deaths in the process. Nature’s way. 

Thursday 7 October 2021

Let the force be with you


Every couple of months, it seems, a must-read book about business as a force for good is launched. Although we’d discussed topics such as sustainability in relation to our clients’ business back in the 1990s at Saatchis, the real eye-opener for me came in the form of a book called, simply Good Business, which came out in May 2002. Maybe I paid attention to this one as I knew the authors. Or because I had a toddler at the time, and was thinking a little more deeply about what makes the world go round and, indeed, what kind of world he’d inherit. Or possibly because, post-9/11, my own career was in danger of toppling into the abyss.

That’s all history now, and one of the book’s authors now runs a remarkably successful and Good Business, under that very name. I looked back at the book’s write-up on amazon, and found this: In this radical manifesto for capitalism, the authors argue that it’s time for companies to start becoming the solution to the world’s problems and stop being seen as the cause ...

Fast-forward through 2013 and Who Cares Wins by David Jones, meaningful brands, responsible capitalism, doing well AND doing good. And on to the Brand Purpose era, led by Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn by Afdhel Aziz and Bobby Jones (I have always wondered about the “Like” in that title).

And this week, a new book (or maybe not just a book, but a movement) has launched: netpositive by Paul Polman and Andrew Winston, with the subtitle how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take. The website and publicity for the book, sorry, movement, talk about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the urgency for businesses to step up and work with governments and NGOs to tackle worldwide problems. There’s a net positive readiness test (I particularly like the thorny issue/elephant in the room which asks: Do you seek to pay a fair share of taxes that contribute to collective prosperity in the communities you operate in?)

I will read the book, which I hope goes into a bit more depth than the publicity material, which focuses rather on “runaway climate change and rampant inequality ravaging the world” when actually capitalism has made a huge contribution to the UN’s No. 1 goal “No Poverty” over the years. I am hoping for a reasoned argument of shareholder AND stakeholder responsibility. And why some of the tech companies who are hailed as shining examples still insist on building obsolesence into their products.

Hopefully, if we are talking about the world, the book will be translated into, for example, the Chinese languages and Russian, too.

I often wonder why, if we’ve been talking about reponsible capitalism for years, the same arguments are used by successive authors. Perhaps the clue is in the subtitle, and it’s about responsibility.

Companies aren’t courageous. People are

Monday 4 October 2021

RETROWURST: Top Euro Brands October 2003


This month’s Retrowurst, from October 2003, is one of those lazy ones where I didn’t bother writing anything particularly original, but instead chose to rehash a report from someone else. In this case, Interbrand’s Best Global Brands.

Interbrand won’t be revealing their top of the pops until 20th October, so we’ll have to make do with last year’s ranking to see who’s still in and who’s definitely out. 

In 2003, 8 of the Top 10 brands were of US origin, and that’s now 7 out of 10. However, two of the three non-US brands are from Asia-Pacific, with only one European origin brand in the Top 10. Nokia is long gone, so this year it’s Germany which has that honour - with Mercedes at No. 8.

European-origin brands aren’t doing badly as far as the Top 50 goes. In 2003, there were 4 German-origin brands in the Top 50 and 2020, there are 7. The usual suspects from the auto branch, or mobility, or whatever it’s called these days, plus SAP, Allianz and adidas. 

France had 2 brands in the Top 50 in 2003, now there are 5 - from the luxury/fashion/beauty side of things (those old stereotypes live on) - oh, and AXA too. (Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermes, L’Oreal)

UK are no longer in the EU or the Top 50 brands, I’m sorry to say.


I thought I’d refrain from writing anything about the Oktoberfest this month and turn my attention to something of more general European interest. While looking through Interbrand’s League table of the Top 100 Global Brands for 2003, it struck me that, despite the trend to globalisation, we in ‘Old Europe’ are actually best at doing what might be expected from the old stereotypes. Indeed, glancing at the list reminds one of all those ‘heaven and hell jokes’ which preface every other newspaper article about Europe - ‘heaven is where the police are British, the cooks French, the engineers German, the lovers Italian and the Swiss keep the time. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks British, the engineers French, the lovers Swiss and the Italians keep the time’ - or however the thing goes.


Before I get onto what I mean, I’ll just preface this by giving a few provisos about the Interbrand Top 100 table- first, it’s about global brands, so to get onto it, your brand must be over $1 billion, it must be global (with at least a third of sales outside your home market and good distribution across all major continents) and you must have publicly available marketing and financial data (which excludes big players like Visa, the BBC and Mars). Secondly, the brands are listed in order of Brand Value- a complex calculation in which Interbrand take a large number of difference forces and influences into account to work out how much a brand is likely to earn in the future, discounted to a present value based on risk. So we are not talking anything simple like sales or awareness here.


Some general observations about the Top 100- it is dominated by US origin brands, as one might expect. Eight out of the Top 10 brands are US, covering categories as widespread as soft drinks (Coca Cola), software (Microsoft), entertainment (Disney) and tobacco (Marlboro). The Top 5 brands are all US (Coca Cola, Microsoft, IBM, GE and Intel), with Europe first making an entry at number 6 with Nokia. The Far East, in the form of Japan, makes its first entry at position 11 with Toyota. It’s actually surprising; perhaps, that the top brand from Europe should have the (relatively) obscure homeland (to us Brits) of Finland. In fact, without wanting to sound rather unpatriotic, Great Britain does not figure as prominently in this table as we would perhaps like. Maybe we’re not good at global brands but, as a country that prides itself on the quality of its marketing and advertising, particularly in relation to some of our European neighbours, we don’t seem to cut it in the global arena. The Germans, for example, have four brands in the Top 50, including Mercedes in the Top 10. The French have two brands in the Top 50. The only brand from GB in the Top 50 is HSBC at position 37- successful though HSBC undeniably is; it is hardly top of the wish list for ambitious marketers or advertising agencies hoping to produce stunning creative work.


So, onto the stereotypes. I’ll start with the Germans, as this is an Extrawurst. In the Top 100 for Germany are Mercedes, BMW, SAP, VW, Adidas and Nivea- so very heavy on the cars and technology with a bit of sport and wholesome body care in addition. Scandinavia boasts three brands in the Top 100; Nokia, Ikea and Ericsson- to be expected from thinly populated countries with huge pine forests! For France, we have the expected mixture of luxury goods, beauty, food and drink with the Louis Vuitton, L’Oreal, Chanel, Danone, Hermes, Hennessy and Moet & Chandon brands. Italy is fashion, fashion, fashion with Gucci and Prada. With Nescafe, Nestle and Rolex, the Swiss are heavy on chocolate and watches. The Netherlands have a rather mixed bag (but somehow appropriate) of electronics, oil/exploration and beer - Philips, Shell and Heineken are their brands in the Top 100. And, finally, the combination of banking, exploration/oil and journalism topped up with booze (HSBC, BP, Reuters, Shell, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker) could only be British!


What is there to be learned from this? Firstly, I think it says that provenance is important, even in these days of globalisation. One way of looking at it is to use your national stereotype to your advantage in creating your brand- Lufthansa is one of the most preferred airlines in Europe for short-haul due to people’s perceptions of its absolute punctuality and reliability but loses out to the Far Eastern carriers on long haul, where service is a more important deciding factor. Or, alternately, cause disruption by creating a brand that is unexpected, given your national stereotype- who knows - maybe an Italian engineering giant or a Swiss range of ‘love toys’ could top the Top 100 yet!----------------------------------------------------

Of course, the big change is that the tech brands dominating the Top 50 were still in Kindergarten back in 2003. It’ll be interesting to see if and how the big German brands reinvent themselves over the next decade - or whether they’ll be history, like those Scandi mobile phone brands from the early days of the 21st century.

P.S. HSBC did feature in my last post with their advertising, so maybe I was a little hasty dismissing them as unlikely creative fodder - or maybe it’s a sign of the times