Sit on your brand-hands

David Mitchell – the Peep Show star, satirist, and Observer columnist made a neat point about branding in this recent piece

Now, David Mitchell isn’t actually a big fan of branding, certainly not logos, and who couldn’t agree with him about the “nascarization” of sports sponsorship (where shirts, cars, rackets, golf bags are crammed with sponsors’ logos like a heaped plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet.)  David doesn’t call it ‘nascarization’, probably because it’s a horrible word from the world of branding, but I’m happy to offer it to him for free.

No – it isn’t this, or indeed David’s reaction to Roger Federer’s ‘F’ logo, which I find interesting.

It’s his observation of the pressure to conform, to second-guess, to play to the masses,  that last week led a faltering Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to join-in with a Mexican Wave at Wimbledon.

“There was nothing distinctive about the Cambridges’ Mexican waving. It was just blandly normal…if they seem too normal, more of us will question all the free stuff they get. They need to maintain a distancing glamour; without seeming stuck-up…”

Most of all – it’s not the conformity, per se, but –

“With the royal waving too, I think it’s self-consciousness that makes me squirm. You can sense their doubt, the slight panic: “How will this look? How will it look if we don’t?””

Compare this with the confident old MCC buffers, Mexican-wave-refuseniks to a man, sitting resolutely in their chairs as the ‘wave’ passes the clubhouse at Lords cricket ground, who “are unafraid to assert their difference, as are the people who boo them.”

They remind us, those old boys in the clubhouse with their steadfast adherence to pomposity and Panama hats, that – when it comes to brands – our job is to remove choice. To be unafraid of some ‘boos’, confident that others are cheering all the harder.

When we develop a brand’s position, identify it’s difference, assemble it’s identity-wardrobe and lexicon, it isn’t out of some avant-garde artistic determination to be different, for different’s sake.

It is to make a distinct connection, to own unique ‘territory’. But it is also to build that internal self-confidence of the brand, so that the “ooh, how is this going to look?” knee-knocking panic doesn’t come-up. Because, as we know from all other walks of life, nothing attracts like self-confidence. And because –

a. you’re leading, not following (it is your own unique territory, after all)

b. you know you don’t have to (never will) please everybody. That you’re ‘more right’ for some by being ‘not right’ for others.

So next time, when they’re all waving, sit on your brand-hands.




How do I like my KitKat? Strong & D.A.R.K.

Another day, another “our brand is strong” claimant. Yesterday, the boss of Thornton’s sought to reassure: the closure of 180 stores was a strategic development, part of a three-year plan, their brand was ‘strong’.

Of course, this could be right. This could be the beginning of a period of focus, on their Differentiation. Because that’s the essential foundation of brand strength.

When we talk about brands – what is ‘strong’?

Let’s start with the balance sheet: and calculate this in sterling, dollars, euros or yen. You get to see your ‘strength’ when someone buys your company. Or you try to raise capital.

For now, I’m going to stick with confectionery. (My sweet obsession is already out-there).

As Evan Davis showed, in this week’s wonderful Made In Britain programme, in 1988 Nestle bought Rowntree’s at £2.5Bn.

That was two and a half-times its pre-bid price, and at more than eight times its net asset value (the tangible stuff – factorys, plant & eqpt etc).

So we’re left with the Rowntree’s brands, KitKat in particular – valued at £2Bn.

Worth it? Nestle think so. They have been able to grow profitable revenues – largely through global distribution (deepening, not broadening, the KitKat brand) – to easily justify the valuation.

So, how do you get strong?

You build it. And like building anything – there’s a sequence. Steps to follow.

And the first steps?

Differentiation. Differentiation. Differentiation.

Young & Rubicam set this out a long time ago. Two Dimensions – Brand Strength, and Brand Stature. I like to re-label the components as D.A.R.K. As in DARK arts.

Brand Strength is made up of D – for Differentiation (owning a distinct Position), and A – for Accuracy (relevance to a clearly understood / targeted market).

Brand Stature is R – for Renown, and K – for Knowledge.

To build a brand – you grow Brand Strength, and then Brand Stature. Secure your Position, and then make it famous.

Misunderstanding this leads to so many of the frustrations I encounter with brand-building brandowners: like –

“we spent a fortune on PR (to get our name out there) and what?…nothing.”

All you’ve probably done, I say, is jump straight to ‘Renown’, and gotten people to ask “I’ve heard of your thing, but what’s special about it? For me?”

Or, you’ve successfully created a ‘category want’ by getting Accuracy ahead of Differentiation – and prompted the response “I need your thing, but not necessarily YOUR thing.” Like – “I now feel I want a disposable pen, just not necessarily a Bic.” You’ve created a commodity response, or you’ve helped to create a category for your competitors, without claiming your spot within it.

The tough news: you have to keep working on your Differentiation, as you bring in Accuracy. And then you have to maintain your Differentiation and Accuracy, as you develop Renown. Then add Knowledge.

The good news: do this right, and you get a £2bn ‘break’ like KitKat did.

Re-Positioning: Herculean, but no Myth

A recent post in Marketing Week declared the Myth of Re-positioning.

Not only is Re-Positioning sometimes essential, it is certainly not mythical. Just hard, Herculean graft.

I do agree that ‘lipstick on a pig’, ‘jogging-pants on a clunking fist’ (ah, if only my photoshop skills were up-to that image) overnight transformations are hollow, but you can move a brand’s position. (Yes We Can).

Your brand’s Position is the Idea – usually one-word – which your consumers / clients / electorate use to name the file on their mental desktop. (apologies to Al Ries for any paraphrasing).

With or without our help, this happens anyway. If we’re lucky / work hard – we get the chance to influence this Filename. By determining the One-Word we’d like to own, and working to create meaningful content for our brand, which gets ‘filed’ in there.

We determine the One-Word by examining 3 overlapping circles: Our (target) Consumers’ WANTS, Our Competitors’ Gaps, and Our Capabilities.

Our Position lies in the overlap. Spot-it, Claim-It, Own-It, Build-It.

But…none of these ‘circles’ is fixed, over time. Competitors, once we show our hand, may try to seize our territory. Wants can change (though we try to find the enduring-ones.) And, our Capabilities can grow (or diminish).

The point is: just as we can work hard to create our Position, we can work hard to Re-Position. Because sometimes we have to. Because the circles have shifted.

Gordon Brown didn’t have time. No do some brands. But with resourcefulness, and sometimes resources, it can be done.

When’s the last time you gave a sick-kid a bottle of Lucozade?



Thornton’s: Stick to Get Unstuck

Thornton’s is closing stores. [What is it about The High Street that makes brands go all squiffy? I read / overheard once that White Stuff, as part of its brand management, NEVER opts for High Street. Always one-street-removed. White Stuff is a Good Brand. Correlation / Causation?]

Thornton’s is closing stores. Now, I’m not an impartial observer, here. We created Burnt Sugar (partly) to have reverse-polarity to Thornton’s.

And I’m sure Thornton’s has a whole bunch of stuff to deal with. Store rents, franchise model, major-retailer shelves as well as their own.

Still. Maybe that’s the point. When we’re building and growing a business, all sorts of ‘opportunities’ arise. Stretching into a new category. Collaborating with another brand. Licensing our brand. 


When it comes to brands – Breadth makes us messy. Depth makes us Meaningful. You say ‘No’ more than you say ‘Yes’.

You can grow, of course you can, just grow more deeply. You can extend, just know your Position. Your Word. The one you Own. In the mind of your consumer.

Thornton’s have been the decadent /everyday / grown-up / child-like / traditional / modern / mass / artisan / chocolate / sugar / confectioner.

“Chocolate Heaven since 1911”. “The Art of the Chocolatier.”  “More thought goes into Thornton’s”.

Decide which you are. Indulgent. Artist. Considerate-Giver-of-Warm-Hugs.

My belief is, until they find their Position – it’ll be a sticky mess.




There's a Story in your Voice

[this appeared first on cubesocial at]


If Twitter is a cocktail party, it’s one where the lights are down low. Like, it’s almost dark.

So now, in this hashtagged room, what we say (our ‘content’) and how we say it (our ‘tone’) become the strongest of our brand-signals.

And these 140 character or less gestures will lead some people (the ones we want to speak to) our way, and they’ll let some others know that we’re not for them.

Just like any real cocktail party (the ones I’ve been to anyway), there will be someone declaring their opinions loudly, forcefully and – if they can – from on top of a step they’ve found. And there will be people listening. There will also be someone speaking in a clear, quiet voice – intriguingly, perhaps conspiratorially – and there will be people listening to them, too.

The point is – we need to know our TOV, or Tone of Voice.  And this – like anything else we do in our businesses, with our brands – should be deliberate. Thought-through.


If we’ve had expert help in creating our brand guidelines, our TOV will already be encoded. If we haven’t – here’s two simple pointers.

Be distinct.

Just as Nicole Kidman would be horrified to step onto the Oscars red carpet in the same dress as Cate Blanchett, even if it is a marvellous little Dolce e Gabbana number – so, our brands’ ability to find a target, and become famous, must begin with distinctiveness. Our differentiation.

At its most sophisticated – this is part of Brand Positioning. Finding a sweet-spot, where we can be something meaningful to our clients, customers and consumers. Certain that this spot on their mental desktop is ours alone. We own it.

In the same way that Pepsi is forced to wear blue, because Coke stepped out first with an entirely red wardrobe, we must – at the very least – listen to the other voices in the room and select an alternative. Otherwise we are just flattering others with our mimicry, or we are white-noise.

The Quick Fix: try examining the Brand Archetypes – here’s one person’s take on these

(These are as crude as the Seven Basic Plots of Storytelling, but we’re being a bit crude here.)

Identify who the others are. Identify who you most naturally are. Maybe because you have an affinity with one of the brands they reference. Go with that one. Now we have a basis for our brand identity. And how we are going to speak.

And to those who say (and they do say) – “a distinctive Tone of Voice can alienate…”, I say “Good.”

Say it once, and say it loud: Brands Remove Choice. Brands are all about removing choice. Products increase choice, brands take it away again and in so doing, they help us to find what is right for us. And because someone has taken the time and effort to make it just right for us, we are prepared to reward them for that. With our loyalty. With more money.



Pick a Step.

We’re all familiar with the idea of ‘being talked-down-to.’ Well, when it comes to our TOV, just like that guy in the cocktail party, we have to decide how high to climb – relative to our audience.

The TOV steps look like this:

Here are three pieces of brand copy:

“It deserves a little respect” [Green & Black’s]                                                     PARENT

“One Day You Will” [Glenfiddich]                                                                             HIGHER AUTHORITY

“Hello. We make lovely natural fruit drinks…” [innocent smoothies]            CHILD

Sometimes, brands choose their step based on the norms – like luxury goods tend towards Higher Authority (“maybe, someday, you too could look like this”). Other times, they are electing to buck the norm. To make this one of their ‘rule-breaking’ points of difference.

Again. Make a choice.

So that your clients and consumers don’t have to.


Bootstrapping for Growth

[this blog appeared in Entrepreneur Country]


I wish I’d kissed him. As I stood up from our meeting and came around the desk, I wanted to say thanks, maybe shake hands. Instead, I watched my exuberant-self move into the personal space of the bank manager and – what the hell was I doing? – stretched my lips towards him. And for a brief moment he started to pucker-up, ready.

We didn’t kiss. One of us, I’m not sure which, blinked – and the fragile emotional bubble just burst. We smiled awkwardly and he left. And the wonderful loan [overdraft, actually] was still on the table.

Still, I wish I’d kissed him. If I’d followed-through in such a dreadfully inappropriate way, he probably would’ve ripped-up the overdraft agreement and stormed out.

And we would have just had to carry-on in the same, capital-constrained way we had been, for a bit longer. Bootstrapped.

Bootstrapping isn’t some Calvinist hair-shirt-and-underpants concept. Nor is it tortured artist starving in a garret. It is about running your business on little or no financial capital, and instead consuming loads of your personal human capital. [sorry, Ariadne – you get a look-in later on].

Most of us, starting a business – don’t have a serious plan to be the market leader. We’re Challengers. And, as eatbigfish [those chroniclers of Challengerdom] say, if you’re not the Market Leader, you have to be the Thought Leader.

And Thought Leadership comes from Resourcefulness, not Resources. Soon as you recognise that your entrepreneurial journey starts with thumbing a few lifts, the greater your chance of discovering some of the unconventional thinking that will confound those Market Leaders.

Too much capital isn’t so much an embarrassment of riches (I’m not embarrassed by richness), as an encumbrance of riches.

Here’s some Stuff That Doesn’t Cost Anything –

Branding by selling

We found all the buyers for our brand’s early (right placement) distribution – while selling at a market stall. I think the buyers even paid for those first samples.


Libraries are full of wisdom. So is the internet. So is Twitter. You can now carry out qualitative market research easily and for free.


Curiosity is heightened in that “there’s nothing else for it, I’m just gonna stand in the aisle / train platform / trade exhibition and watch people” environment. Thought Leadership needs curiosity.


Ideas are hampered by too much money. You start to think there’s only one way. The moneyed way. Except, that’s what THEY are doing.

Of course, there will come a time when capital-for-growth is right.

How do you know when’s right? In my view, you’ll have turned down the offer a few times before you take it up. And then you’ll probably find some ‘cash plus guidance’ option to be a useful intermediate stage.

Even the tech-geeks – once the biggest bubble-blowers – are showing this inclination. Check out models like HackFwd – clear funding, close community of mentors…

…and a shiny buckled-up BootStrapping ethos.


Why be creative? Why try? Sure, if we’re in the arts-world it’s maybe purely expressive, or to summon feeling in us, the audience / reader / gazer.

The rest is about Improvement. Making stuff better. Insight to Ideation to Innovation. Oh, and with Imagination.

Here’s another ‘I’: Iteration. And one I just made-up: Idea-icide.

Professor Steve Jones, the evolutionary biologist, gave a talk a few years ago at The Hay Festival. [I’ve looked hard for an online link, can’t find one, so I’ll try and describe.]

A bunch of scientists in the Unilever labs at Port Sunlight were searching for an improvement. To a depositor which sprayed something onto something. It was a nozzle. They were looking for a Nozzle Solution. [sorry.]

Their start point was a conical nozzle. It was nozzle-shaped. But for some reason it was sub-optimal. So, they applied a logical process of adaptation, changing the bore-diameter, using their knowledge of physics and flows – that kind of thing. Not much change.

Then, someone proposed an alternative approach. A dozen nozzles were tooled, randomly, disruptively – these things looked like a collection of Queen Anne chair legs. And they were tested. The best performing were kept, the others discarded – killed.

The ‘winners’ were then ‘bred’ to generate a new generation – and the testing and killing was repeated.

After a few generations, a nozzle had ‘evolved’ which outperformed anything else they had reached through the application of physics. It looked baroque, ornate. You would never have thought it would work at all. But it was the best.

I don’t get asked to fix too many nozzles. But I do keep coming back to this story every time I am given a problem to solve, creatively.

Our world is incredibly complex. There are a lot of moving parts, variables.

In the intro to is latest book “Adapt: Why Success always Starts With Failure”, Tim Harford tells us of Thomas Thwaites’ attempt to build a toaster from scratch. Not assembling the parts. Making the parts. Like mining iron-ore, smelting, that sort of ‘from scratch’. Along the way, Thwaites learned how complex our world is. That one of the most taken-for-granted appliances – one that a child could quickly grasp the workings-of – is made of over four hundred components. Minerals and metals are extracted from around the world, dragged from the ocean-floor, to help us make bread crispy.

Most of the problems I work-on aren’t toaster-related. Or nozzle-like either. But they are complex. They require all the ‘I’s mentioned, above. Especially Idea-icide.

When I was a client and brand-owner, I used to hate it when agencies would present me with three concepts. Why three? It’s not like it’s a Magic Number or anything, is it? Mostly, if they were honest, this was a bracketing-exercise. Sandwiching the concept they liked between two less-liked ones. Like an amateur Derren Brown trying-out a suggestion-technique.

What I wanted to see / smell / sense, were dead-ideas. Idea-icide. Little-Darlings – killed through testing. And one idea, left standing.

Let’s apply our creativity not just to generating ideas, but to testing our ideas, and to killing them. Randomised Trials. Prototyping. Design-thinking of the sort IDEO practise. Harness the crowd.

Stand them in the wind-tunnel and let the failures fall.