Joseph Nye on the future of power

I’m a bit of a sucker for the complimentary programme of public lectures that are staged at the London home of the RSA (that’s the Royal Society of the Arts, Science and Manufactures) which is why I’m sat in the Great Room waiting to listen to Professor Joseph Nye.

Prof Nye is the chap who coined the phrase ‘soft power’; an idea that was popular within the Clinton administration in the 1990s and – despite the hawkish interlude of the George W Bush presidency – has retained favour under Obama’s administration too.

He’s an influential policy thinker who, as well as enjoying a distinguished academic career, has also served as Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs in the Clinton Whitehouse (and was tipped to have become John Kerry’s choice for National Security Adviser had the Democrats successfully secured the Presidency in 2004).

So he knows his international relations onions, and he’s been thinking about the future of power and the dynamics that will affect it in the 21st century and beyond. In a 30 minute précis of his latest contribution to the debate, ‘The Future of Power’, Prof Nye talks about two significant trends affecting governmental power in the future: ‘power transition’ and ‘power diffusion’.

Power transition

Power transition, Prof Nye suggests, is historically familiar: the ebb and flow of the power relations between nation states, blocs and empires founded – historically at least – on the back of relative military and technological superiority and, more recently, though the deployment of ‘soft power’ (the degree to which values, culture, policies and institutions are employed to attain the outcomes which nations seek).

While Prof Nye accepts that the emergence of Asian global powers – i.e. China and India – will be a significant feature of the narrative of post-21st century historical analysis, he doesn’t readily subscribe to idea of an ‘absolute decline’ of US power as result. Instead, he sees a relative decline in US power in the face of these emerging powers and relative decline, he argues, does not amount to the same thing as absolute dominance of China.

Power diffusion

Now this idea really interests me because it is already confounding traditional models of international power relations and diplomacy.

Diffused power characterises the way in which individuals and non-governmental organisations can more easily gain access to technology and therefore consume, contribute and influence the global flow of information.

By harnessing access to ever cheaper means of communication – like mobile networks, networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, and media platforms like YouTube – geographically or socially dispersed individuals are able to congregate around ideas and events fomenting movements that acquire global influence and power.

The application of diffused power is diverse; its spectrum encompasses terror networks like Al Qaeda, hackers like Anonymous, freedom of information evangelists like WikiLeaks, activists like The Tea Party and globally networked business corporations.

The Arab Spring, Prof Nye argues, is an example of how near-universal access to communications technology helps transform a flashpoint event into an apparent social and political movement in a region of the World.

And this access, he suggests, has created an additional dimension in international power relations – a fluid, unpredictable and chaotic strata of non-governmental actors whose emerging influence on domestic and international relations is likely to perplex governments in the years to come.

Three deserving Webby nominees and a bit of Brave New Talent

Not only were the nominations for the online world’s equivalent of the Oscars – The Webby Awards – published yesterday but, by happy coincidence, The Telegraph’s Tech Start-Up 100 awards were held in London yesterday too.

On the face of it, these are unrelated events, but four of the nominations in both the Webbys and the Start-Up 100 lists featured in our 12 Links of Christmas 2010. These are the links that we con­sid­ered to be enjoy­able, enlight­en­ing or just plain inter­est­ing last year and published in December 2010. (Here’s the 2009 12 Links too.)

Coincidentally, the RSA Animate talk by Dan Pink, which we featured in our ‘Are you motivated by what you think motivates you?’ post, also received a Webbys nod, whereas our 12 Links preference was for the RSAnimate version of David Harvey’s talk on The Crises of Cap­i­tal­ism. Either way, RSAnimate is a deserving Webby Award nominee as far as we’re concerned.

The great thing about the Webbys is that there are two gongs available per category: one awarded by a judging panel and one based on a public vote.

And with the voting site now live for The People’s Choice awards, we thought we’d do our bit to gently nudge you in the direction of clicking in favour of the nominees featured in our 12 Links of Christmas 2010.

So here’s the nominees that caught our eye last year, why we picked them and – therefore – why we’ll be voting for them:

1st link of Christmas: Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown (here’s the video)
8th link of Christmas: Sam O’Hare’s tilt-shift film The Sandpit (video at the top of this post)
12th link of Christmas: OK! Go’s This Too Shall Pass (here’s the video)

Sticking with the 12 Links, but away from the Webbys, social recruiting platform Brave New Talent was last night named as runner-up in the education and recruitment category of The Telegraph’s Tech Start-Up 100.

We first posted about this remarkable project back in July 2010 after listening to the founder, Lucian Tarnowski, speak about the idea at a tweet-up in London.

It’s a genuinely innovative idea which, as we posted at the time, is ‘effect­ing a change in the way in which busi­nesses, and a gen­er­a­tion of tal­ent emerg­ing from the nation’s schools, col­leges and higher edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions, can connect.’ That’s why it made our 12 Links.

Finally, this post also gives us a chance to namecheck Pete Matthew, founder of video-based financial education site Meaningful Money which, in February, picked up the Professional Adviser Financial Education Award for 2011. Meangingful Money was our 7th Link of Christmas and here’s why we included it among our 12 Links.

You can see the full list of nominees for the 2011 Webby Awards here and vote for The People’s Choice here.

The difference between brand and branding: Part Three

I like fountain pens.

I’ve always preferred to write in real ink and I’ve tried out plenty of makes and models.

For many years I settled with a Lamy Safari but, even though the Lamy is an exquisite writer, I was in the market for a family heirloom to hand down to one of my sons.

Lamy’s top-of-the-range pens didn’t strike me as sufficiently ‘heirloomy’ and, having tried out a Montblanc Meisterstück (picture, right, by Freimut) once or twice, I’d set my heart on it.

The trouble is that Montblanc pens are expensive, so I waited and waited and squirreled away money until I could justify the expense.

Meanwhile, whenever I found myself close by a jewellers which stocked Montblanc, I would take a couple of minutes to gaze wistfully at the distinctive Meisterstück’s black resin and platinum shell oozing gravitas while it twinkled away behind the glass in a pristine window display.

By now, I was investing more than simply money in this writing instrument: I was lapping up all the visual and written communication cues conveyed by the branding, and assigning the object with a kind of significance and meaning that Montblanc could only dream of.

(But, then, what else should I expect from an object that’s been ‘hand-crafted in the European tradition’ and is ‘meticulously crafted from the finest materials. Every single part is subjected to scrupulous inspections. Montblanc guarantees the quality of materials, faultless workmanship and flawless operation’?)

The day finally came when I’d saved up enough to part with a good deal of cash for my very own Meisterstück.

But, within a matter of hours of purchasing it (and following years of patiently waiting of course), I was irretrievably disappointed with my investment.

The nib wasn’t as responsive as the Lamy Safari and, either because the flow of ink was erratic or the nib actually leaked, my fingers were smothered with ink. (I even have ink on my fingers from writing those three lines that appear in the image at the top of this post.)

Knowing that nibs can take a while to adapt to the writer, I gave the pen a few weeks.

Still no joy.

So I followed all the suggested methods offered in the exquisitely produced Montblanc booklet, which came with the pen, and sought advice from the people in the shop where I bought it. But nothing seemed to work.

Of course, it would be entirely reasonable for you to point out to me at this stage that, more likely than not, I was simply unlucky. The pen I bought had slipped through the net. I could send it back to Montblanc to be repaired. Or get a refund.

And you’d be right.

What’s more, Montblanc do promise to remedy any problems with their pens at no charge at all within the first couple of years of purchase.

But an antipathy towards Montblanc has kicked in; all the trust and goodwill I placed in the brand in order to buy the pen in the first place has evaporated.

Both you and I know that, sooner or later, I’ll send the pen off to be fixed because:

a) I still don’t possess what I set out to obtain: an object worthy of the stature of heirloom; and
b) I realise that I’ve just been unlucky and feel sure that Montblanc will be able to remedy the problem.

But, at the moment, I’m too disappointed with my experience of the brand to seek another encounter with them anytime soon.

It’s not the branding that’ll kill you

I’ll admit that Montblanc are unlucky to be the subject of this post but my purpose is to illustrate the distinction between brand and branding, and not to vent frustration at Montblanc.

I’ve used it as an example because it helps to demonstrate that, no matter how expensive a brand’s product or service may be, each of us invests more than just cash in the veracity of a brand’s claims; we place enormous trust in them.

For instance, you trust a brand to ensure that the ingredients in its baked beans contain ingredients that are good for you and not harmful, you trust a car manufacturer to build a vehicle that’s mechanically safe to drive on the roads, you trust an electrician’s knowledge, experience and expertise about wiring to avoid the risk of electrocution the moment that you flick a light switch on and you trust water companies to refine sewage so that it’s fit to drink again.

In the case of a fountain pen, I trust Montblanc to know how to manufacture a pen that works.

Once a brand’s got over that utility hurdle, its branding has to help me reach a transactional point by persuading me to spend money on their brand of product or service rather than a competitor’s.

In Montblanc’s case, the consequence of using a pen is the same whether you’re using a Bic biro or a Montblanc. But, since a Bic biro isn’t much of a family heirloom, this is where Montblanc’s beautifully executed approach to branding kicks in; without question Montblanc’s brand communication helps convey ideas of a hand-crafted, meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation.

Montblanc’s branding persuasively conveys the idea that each pen is lavished with the personal attention of craftspeople at each stage in the process of its manufacture.

The videos detailing the stages of production at Montblanc’s site, for instance, seek to underline the ideas of meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation. The video production values themselves even suggest this: big close up shots of the process conveying the idea of meticulous attention, the flawless elegance of the fading in and out of frames; the fact that each frame bathed in soft-focused golds, silvers and black.

So Montblanc’s branding is brilliant (in fact, it’s a meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation). It plays an essential role in the brand’s architecture of persuasion; it carries implicit promises that are intended to support the explicitly stated claims made by a business. It helps mould perception and serves to set expectations.

It’s just that – well – my pen doesn’t work properly.

Brand = (Perception + Expectation) – Experience

In the second post in this series, I argued that part of the confusion between the distinction between brand and branding probably lay in the fact that businesses lean so heavily on branding to do the legwork.

But the problem is that branding is a passive element of brand experience: it performs a functional role and helps convey ideas but it can’t answer back. Most of the the other elements, on the other hand, are active; they involve people or interaction.

So, while a brand’s visual identity and branding can contribute to a positive brand experience, it can neither fulfil the promises that it conveys or moderate the expectations that consumers set for its goods or services. Only the active elements of the brand – the bits in which people and products play a role – can do that.

And, wherever people are involved, there’s a risk to the equilibrium between your expectations of a brand and your experience of it (which is why, in general, creating a great service brand experience is arguably a good deal tougher than a product one).

That’s because branding is simply a component of one of the four elements that comprise a brand – its communication. And only alongside what the brand offers (its product), how it enables you to obtain it (its environment) and the way you go about doing what you do (its culture) can a business successfully convey a core idea which makes its brand’s goods and services distinct from another brand’s.

I’ve illustrated the dynamics affecting Montblanc’s brand reputation as a Venn diagram below.

So it’s not that Montblanc’s branding is intentionally misleading because it isn’t. The brand’s problem is that its branding conveys a promise of meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation. That brand idea can’t be sustained by branding and communications alone; it must be consistently expressed within the manufacturing of it products, within its retail presence and by the people representing its brand.

In other words, every facet of its operation must be meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless if it is to match the expectations conveyed by its branding.

Those are dizzyingly high standards for any kind of business operation, especially when you consider that most Montblanc pens are probably not sold by Montblanc people. The brand operates a number of its own retail outlets but most of its retail distribution is through authorised retailers over whom Montblanc has no direct control.

But, as a consumer, none of that matters to me.

No matter how many hands my pen passed through, it was faulty.

In my case, Montblanc’s branding made promises that its brand was unable to fulfil.

And that’s the difference between brand and branding.

Are brands assuming the mantle of quasi nation states?

Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve become fascinated by the apparent parallels between the dynamics of nation state building and statecraft, and the transnational behaviour and attributes of global and networked brands; in particular, the Google v China skirmish and the more recent tensions between the US State Department and Attorney General and WikiLeaks piqued my interest.

Even though Marx warned of the globalising effects of capitalism, something else appears to be going on here because it’s not just economic capital that is transcending geographic borders; it’s ideas and movements too.

Somehow, populations of people – and not just business brands – are emerging as brands too; often their apparent power is unrelated to their scale.

This necessarily means that the nature and governance of brands as global actors, and their relationship and alliances both within and beyond the boundaries of nation states, are of real significance to future global political, social and economic stability.

You’ll have seen from those blog posts at NewTradition’s site that these episodes revived distant memories of my university days; specifically, of the ideas that were dealt with in Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’.

So I re-read Anderson’s book and, once I’d done that, I dug into Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Nations and Nationalism’ and collection of essays on ‘Globalisation, democracy and terrorism’. (To be frank, I’ve read more academic texts in the past year or so than I did throughout my University career.)

And I’m left with the nagging concern that the revolution in communications technology – and it’s worth bearing in mind that Anderson considers the ownership and mechanics of media to have been vital to successful nation building – is creating the conditions in which a new kind of nation state can be conceived: ‘brand nation states’.

Whether there is such a thing as a brandnationstate, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure if brands can genuinely transcend geographic borders and deploy the kind of diplomatic muscle that nation states are able – and, just as often, are unable – to.

I’m not sure if dispersed populations of people, who congregate under the auspices of a brand, really do wield the kind of power and authority that nation states – with their military, legal and governmental instruments of enforcement – do.

I’m just interested to test the ideas. So I’l be digging a bit deeper into the topic.

How to bring a brand to life

How can you help the next generation of great British designers understand the way that their talent helps businesses build brand reputation and successfully communicate the spirit of a brand through visual, practical and environmental design communication?

That was the question senior lecturer Mike Bond (one half of the design partnership Bond & Coyne) invited me to address during a lecture to a group of final year students at Kingston University’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture last month.

The slide-deck (above) includes the visuals I used from that lecture (an annotated excerpt of which I used in the recent post ‘Do marketing communications teams have a future?’). In fact, as regular readers may realise, it’s a mash-up of three previous presentations that I’ve produced but with an eye on the practical application of the content plus a couple of twists.

Although it’s intended for an undergraduate audience, it’s likely to be just as relevant to to the owner of a small business or a head of marketing because it offers up two frameworks by which to easily and practically:

  • size up a brand’s character by breaking it down into its component parts (by unashamedly touting the beautifully simple model offered by Wally Olins in his book The Brand Handbook); and, once you’ve done that
  • suggests some design principles that you can apply to brand communications which are just as relevant to a routine e-mail as a they are multi-million pound advertising campaigns.

I’m also posting it now because it’s relevant to the final instalment in my series of posts on ‘The difference between brand and branding’. (If you missed them, see Part One and Part Two.)

Given the audience it was intended for, the visuals introduce you to the Olins model and then walk you through a workaday characterisation of how ideas are moved from one person to another via media.

After that, it offers up examples of the events and innovations that have disrupted the continuity of traditional communication and what the consequence is for brand design communication, before setting out four principles for brand communication and associated practical examples.

During the lecture, I offered the group a real-life example against which they could test the brand dimensions of the Olins model and the design principles I’d suggested by asking the question ‘Where next for HMV?’

But you could drop any business or brand into this slide, though; even your own.

All you need to do is consider a single-line core idea (expressed in terms of what consumers gain from you being around and not what you or your business gains), then how that idea is reflected by the way you go about doing business (using the four dimensions offered by Olins) and, finally, how you stack up against the four design principles that I’ve suggested.

If you’d like me to talk through the slides, and assuming there’s an audience for it, I’d be happy to try out a Zipcast for the first time.

If you’d be interested in a Zipcast, just e-mail me, tweet me at @mrianthomas or @NewTradition_, or post a message at our Facebook page to let me know.

The difference between brand and branding: Part Two

Picture: Vittorio Sciosia

If you read my previous post you’ll know that it was suggested that I put together a blog post which helped explain the difference between brand and branding. I set out to address the question by saying the distinction between the two was that

  • branding enables people to recognise and understand how to navigate your business’s goods, services and organisation;
  • brand is the con­sequence of how you go about doing what you do.

In this post I’ll dig a bit deeper into the suggested definition of branding.

The cautionary note is that I’m attempting to explain the distinction and why I think there’s ambiguity over the difference. I’m not claiming to be providing an exhaustive definition of either or both!

Having said that, let’s clear up one fairly common misapprehension straightaway:

A logo isn’t a brand

It’s a brand mark.

And a brand mark is symbolic; it is applied to visually mark out the boundaries of a business’s territory and clearly distinguish it from alternative providers of similar goods and services.

(In fact, the word ‘logo’ is popularly assumed to derive from the Greek word ‘logos’ meaning a character or symbol which represents a word or phrase.)

No matter how sophisticated marketers like to think that we are these days, it’s a practice that’s as old as the human race itself.

As a species, it seems, we just can’t help marking what belongs to us, whether it’s conveyed as a brand mark on a product or is emblematic of a nation of people in the form of a flag; whether it’s a sheep’s fleece branded with a farmer’s initials (which explains the tenuous connection with the image at the top of this post) or a sign over a shop.

Each of us has also been given our own brand marks by our parents – our names – which we uniquely express via our signatures.

So, for businesses, effective brand marks serve to symbolically represent the provenance of an entity – whether that’s physical, intellectual or virtual – in a manner which is both unique and distinctive enough to distinguish itself from comparable alternatives. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they have to be beautifully designed.

In fact, for a business, what really matters is the capacity of a brand mark to help existing or potential consumers of a business’s goods and services to recognise the business and react to its presence, preferably in a positive way.

Whether they do respond to it positively or not will depend, not on its brand mark or branding per se, but on what that brand mark or branding represents – and that’s the brand thing.

So if that’s a brand mark, what’s branding?

Where they’re used, brand marks generally form part of a suite of branding elements – like the use of colour, fonts, physical materials, pictures and imagery or iconography – whose application to items like packaging, print, stationery, physical space and signage is governed by guidelines.

Despite the fact that application of branding enables businesses to mark out the boundaries of their territory, its principal purpose is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to find their way to a transactional point – whether that’s a transaction involving money, service or information.

Branding translates your business and what it does into something that is meaningful, understandable and useful for the outside world.

If the branding elements are applied appropriately and consistently wherever consumers encounter it, not only will they encourage recognition and understanding of the relevance of a brand but, over time, it may be possible to acquire a branding state of grace – consumers intuitively recognise your branding whether the brand mark is visible or not.

But branding isn’t confined to just one of the five senses, the other four are fair game too.

For instance, have you ever walked past a Subway? It’s got an instantly recognisable and distinctive aroma hasn’t it? In fact, you can often smell a Subway before you see it and recognise that there’s a Subway nearby.

And how about Play-Doh? Or Crayola crayons? (You may not have encountered the last two for years, but you probably just
recalled the smell.)

What about the little Intel jingle? Or the repeated use of music in radio and TV advertising by brands like LloydsTSB or British Gas?

No matter the extent to which individual businesses go to to hammer their point home, the principal functional purpose of branding is to clearly mark out the boundaries and areas of its territory and help consumers find their way to a transactional point.

But in performing its function, branding also has the capacity to convey emotional attributes too. And this is where the muddy waters begin to appear which, I’d argue, contribute to a misapprehension about the difference between brand and branding.

So what were the reasons that led branding to be used in this way?

The changing marketplace and evolution of branding

Once upon a time, businesses were geographically confined and media was all but non-existent. However, in Europe, the industrial revolution changed all that.

Innovation in transport and communications opened up the opportunity to both find new ways of sourcing materials, making and doing things, as well as trade your business’s goods or services in more than one location.

(It’s always worth remembering that businesses like Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco all started out as a single shop or market
stall – Sainsbury’s in Drury Lane, London (right) and William Morrisons’s market stall in Bradford. Jack Cohen’s Wall Street Market stall in Hackney, London, later became Tesco.)

By doing so, you were pitching your business’s stall elsewhere in the midst of established competitors who already offered the same goods and services that you did. At the same time, new names were popping up on your patch in your own marketplace.

That opens up a new front in the competition for attention, even among customers whose patronage you had previously enjoyed.

When that competition for consumer attention extends beyond the boundaries of your physical environment – thanks to the proliferation of both national and international broadcast and print media, and increased trading across international borders – the accompanying commercial clamour and noise presents you with two problems: how to secure a distinctive and sustainable reputation and – if it’s your intention to do so – how to grow your business.

In the face of increasing competition, the recognition of your business via its brand mark is one thing, but helping consumers understand what it represents is something else entirely; it could be the difference between buying or not buying your brand’s goods and services.

The likely source of confusion: The road to emotional branding

Let’s suppose your business couldn’t consistently compete on the basis of price. It had to be able to convey ideas on which it could compete and which consumers would instinctively recognise and value; things like quality, originality, service, support and innovation, for instance.

Of course branding can’t, itself, make the slightest bit of difference to the intrinsic value of a good or service, because it only serves to represent those qualities by helping express what a business does.

(To assuage the designers who will disagree with that last statement, I’m talking strictly about branding here. In the next post I’ll be arguing that a consistent characteristic of great brands is their pursuit of brand principles, of which interaction design is one. But brand identities are a consequence of this and not the catalyst.)

But what branding can do is seek to influence people’s perception of a brand.

It’s how, for instance, the branding approach adopted by Dorset Cereals helps it encourage consumers – based on today’s pricing at, at least – to part with a couple more pence per 100g for its muesli compared with, say, Alpen’s original Swiss recipe product.

On your next trip to the supermarket, why not pick up both brands of cereal and compare the two based just on their respective approaches to branding?

Compared to the Alpen packaging, you may notice that the texture of Dorset Cereals’s packaging is slightly rougher – suggesting an ‘earthier’ quality compared to Alpen’s smoother packaging.

You can’t see Alpen’s muesli but you’re invited to look at Dorset Cereals’s product thanks to transparent windows cut into the packaging – conveying the idea that this brand is both focused on the nutritional content of its product and proud of it too.

Finally, the text mimics a typewritten face and is impressed into the outer packaging (just run your fingertip across the type) which – whether you realise it or not – suggests each box is carefully packaged and not mass produced.

Admittedly that’s a pretty cursory analysis of the packaging, but do you think the branding of the Dorset Cereals product pulls its weight in conveying what’s distinctive and unique about the brand? Is it enough to contemplate parting with that extra couple of pence per 100g?

Whether you like muesli or hate it, the example serves to show that branding design possesses the capacity to roam beyond its functional role and encompass an additional role – employing the senses to convey emotional ideas about the brand it represents.

The use and abuse of branding as a means of conveying personality

It’s this capacity of branding to convey emotional ideas that’s given rise to the idea of ‘brand personality’.

And, since a brand’s personality is a fictions of its parent business’s imagination, it’s also where the worlds of fiction and reality either harmoniously converge or discordantly collide.

Throughout this post, I’ve been careful to say that branding serves to help convey functional and emotional ideas about a business in order to translate and articulate how its brand of goods and services help a waiting world. The problem is that branding can also be used to portray its brand of goods and services.

The moment a business lays claim to human qualities like ‘values’ and ‘characteristics’, and seeks to reflect those qualities through its branding, it is treading a fine line between conveying the characteristics it really possesses and portraying the ones that it wishes to be seen to be associated with.

The only problem is that the way people seem to be, and the way they really are, can often be poles apart. And businesses can be just the same.

The temptation within businesses is to articulate a brand reputation to which they aspire and immediately deploy all elements of their marketing communications armoury – including branding – to portray acquisition of that position without even embarking on a strategy to change the way they do business.

But changing the way you appear doesn’t change the way you are.

And its the superficial application of branding to portray one thing rather than convey another, that is probably where the confusion over the distinction between brand and branding stems from.

It’s been compounded by the fact that – in the scrap for consumer attention that is intensified by the scarcity of available space in traditional media – businesses opt for promotional content which carries claims that are littered with hyperbole and neologisms: to be first, to launch something new, to improve on something, to be award winning, to claim superiority over a competitor.

So I’d argue that – until recently – it’s been all to easy for businesses to let its branding do the legwork and portray characteristics of, for instance, originality or innovation, rather than go to the effort really being original and innovative.

But branding does not maketh the brand. Consumer experience is the ultimate judge of the way brands really do business.

And the shift in the communications landscape – which I’ve illustrated previously in this presentation at Slideshare – is already changing the ability for businesses to fall back on presentation to do the heavy lifting for sub-optimal operation.

Branding can no longer be relied on to sustain reputation.

And, in the next post, I’ll pick on a brand in order to illustrate exactly how its branding appears to promise more than its brand is really able to deliver. By doing so, I hope to conclude the epic journey to explain what I consider to be the difference between brand and branding.

The difference between brand and branding: Part One

I hadn’t anticipated that we’d use our blog as a Q&A but Emily Davis tweeted us the other day suggesting that a post about the distinction between brand and branding wouldn’t go amiss.

Emily said she felt that, anecdotally, there was some confusion about the difference between the two and my own experience suggests that she’s probably right.

In fact the misapprehension about the distinction brand and branding is almost as commonplace as the misapprehensions about the distinction between ‘marketing’ and ‘promotion’, and ‘public relations’ and ‘media relations’.

How may times have you sat in a meeting where someone talks about marketing and you know they really mean promotion? Or talk about PR when they mean media relations? How many times have you said it yourself? *holds hand up*

But back to the difference between brand and branding…

Continue reading “The difference between brand and branding: Part One”

Are you motivated by what you think motivates you?

We’re currently working on the design of an employee communication programme so, perhaps selfishly, this animation of Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA in January 2010 is remarkably useful in considering the configuration of communications in a way which delivers a sense of fulfillment and purpose for an internal audience.

But if you take a look at the video of the talk, Mr Pink offers some stark conclusions about the role of financial incentives as a means of motivating people; conclusions which seem counter-intuitive to the way incentives within brands and businesses are organised today.

For instance, Mr Pink points to plenty of evidence demonstrating that financial incentives tend, over time, to lead to lower levels of productivity and performance. In contrast, however, when software developer Redgate trashed the traditional financial bonus scheme, sales actually rose. And how can it be that Wikipedia and Linux have proved so successful when their very existence is due to the time and goodwill invested by individuals who receive no financial compensation whatsoever?

Continue reading “Are you motivated by what you think motivates you?”

Do marketing communications teams have a future?

I was intrigued to read this post by Paul Worthington at Wolff Olins blog earlier today. Especially the idea that he raises in the third and fourth paragraphs where he poses two questions: what is it that really makes Google Googley (to paraphrase the idea) and, if its usefulness does the brand trick all on its own, does this challenge presumptions about the elevated status of brand?

(Focusing on those two paragraphs doesn’t reflect a lack of interest in the whole purpose of the post, by the way. I’ll be very interested to see the outcome of the exercise that Paul’s describing and the conclusions that Wolff Olins draw from it.)

It’s a similar train of thought to my post a year or so ago on signature interaction and chimes with ideas like Alex Bogusky and John Winsor‘s Baked In.

However, the reason I was all the more intrigued by Paul Worthington’s post was because, yesterday, I delivered a lecture about Bringing a brand to life to an inspiringly sparky group of final year students at Kingston University’s School of Art, Design and Architecture.

During the course of the lecture, I ran through my favourite model of brand dimensions offered by Wally Olins – whose name still adorns Wolff Olins’s own business although, these days, Olins is chairman of Saffron Consultants – in his brilliant book The Brand Handbook.

I’ve posted the relevant visuals from the lecture at the top of this post but the gist of it is that I introduced the group to the model, then took a look at the things that were affecting the traditional process of manufacturing marketing communications – the financial crisis and the loss of consumer confidence in general corporate behaviour, the rise of mobile platforms and devices, and the advent of the social web – and then came back to the Olins model again.

In the process of doing so – both in preparation for the lecture and during it – it struck me that the status of marketing communications teams as an organisational function is not just fragile; instead, the prognosis for them appears to be terminal.

So too is the traditional nomenclature for product or proposition marketing.

It seems counter-intuitive to me that traditional organisational structures can persist in the face of a radically changing communications environment in which the consumers of their products or services exist. That’s not to say that specific expertise in communication or product design isn’t required, it’s the general approach to organisation of that expertise that isn’t required.

In other words, it strikes me that if – as Bogusky and Winsor suggest – we are entering an era where marketing communications and product development are ‘baked in’ to a product or service, then the only thing that organisations need to concern themselves with is cradle-to-grave interaction design. Gone is the need for permanently embedded professional cohorts and in comes a flatter, more agile, mash-up of multi-disciplinary approaches resembling project management methodology – in terms of gathering and dispersal of expertise – but with its focus on outside-in experience rather than inside-out requirements.

So it is difficult to see how, as organisational entities, the disciplines of marketing communications and product marketing can avoid convergence with customer service and information technology; especially when – to consumers of their products and services – the boundaries between those functions are indistinct and irretrievably intertwined.

For instance, is a response to a comment posted by Joe Public on a brand’s Facebook page promotional? Or is it simply a question for customer service? Or one for PR, or even a web team? The reality is, it’s likely to cut across each of those disciplines in one way or another.

In fact, it is already becoming difficult to see the join between products and services among leading brands whose reputations have, historically, been as product manufacturers.

Where, for example, does the iPhone stop and its functionality as a service start? And at what point in the consumer journey does Apple stop being a product manufacturer and transform into a retailer?

To use the well-worn comic device: ‘How many marketers will it take to change a lightbulb?’.

‘Possibly none.’

Not a joke, though; potentially a truism.


Why Starbucks is crafting the perfect branded blend

Starbucks. Now there’s a business that knows where it’s going.

The latest evolution of its brand visual identity – revealed late yesterday evening (as far as the UK is concerned, that is) – is the kind of project I really admire.

Not just because I like the elegance of the design thinking that is evident in the latest brand visual ID, but because this identity is the consequence of serious and significant reflection within a business seeking genuine synchronicity of its business and brand strategy. (In fact, I’d be very surprised if people within Starbucks even make a distinction business and brand strategy; Starbucks business is its brand and its brand is its business.)

This evolution of the brand visual identity is not about Starbucks branding, it’s about what Starbucks’ brand stands for for millions of consumers, worldwide, now and in the future.

Clarity of conviction and purpose

As a business, Starbucks has clearly considered its future role in the lifestyles of global consumers – or the ‘Third Place’ referred to in the Looking Forward to Starbucks Next Chapter post by chairman, president and CEO Howard Schultz – and the capacity of its brand to be sufficiently adaptable to earn the right to play a role in those lives.

That’s why the statements from the business and the initial design visuals ooze strategic conviction, confidence and consensus. I believe that they believe what they’re saying. And what convinces me of that more than anything else is the fact that the redesign was executed primarily by its in-house design team; a team which dared to drop the text off the logo. That’s evidence of a business navigating a strategic route of stunning clarity.

The decision to go in-house has been rewarded in spades. What Starbucks design team has been able to produce is both decisive and carefully considered, expansive in ambition and sensitive to its heritage.

Any brand consultancy would have loved to have been associated with work that resulted in such a clear sense of direction.

The simple but smart idea to release the Starbucks ‘Siren’ from its cell-like roundel and restrictive ‘Starbucks Coffee’ text not only begins to realise the potential of the Siren as an iconic branding device, but it also offers deft nod to the brand’s Seattle seaport heritage. (Yes I know it may not seem so ground-breaking but, trust me, it is a stroke of design genius.)

Of course it may strike many people as odd to drop the reference to Starbucks Coffee from the logo altogether, but that reaction tends to reflect general understanding of where the brand is positioned today. I’ve no doubt the Starbucks name will appear as text in close proximity to the Siren brandmark but, overnight, the business has given itself the freedom to roam simply by taking a subtle but symbolic step.

What will be very interesting, is what other words become associated with the brand mark in the future – and that’s what this change is all about.

And besides, Starbuck’s decision to drop its name as an integral part of the brandmark may be bold but it does have positive precedents: Apple’s decision to drop ‘computer’ from its brand visual identity in 2007 (thanks to Tim Baker for posting that link on Quora, by the way) was a move intended to achieve a similar outcome to the one that Starbucks is aspiring to. In order to reflect the changing nature of its business and to give its brand the best possible shot of fulfilling its potential, Apple subtly but symbolically shifted its emphasis.

As well as elegantly seeking to resolve the constraints of Starbucks brand association with coffee shops, this latest evolution of the Starbucks visual identity has all the characteristics necessary to prove both a resilient and adaptable branding device for myriad media formats. The strength and simplicity of the Siren design will translate beautifully as a hallmark in print and packaging, an ident on web video content as well as an illuminated sign above a store.

Addressing a new communications landscape

In November 2009, I published a post at MRM’s blog that made five predictions as far as the state of brands and branding were concerned. I suggested that, by 2012:

  1. Only three communications disciplines will matter: live events, interaction design and conversation
  2. Momentum behind ‘storytelling’ will gather, ousting traditional ‘campaign-led’ push promotional marketing
  3. Sustainable reputations will be built on the quality of interaction with a product or service; conversation about interaction will drive new adopters of your product or service
  4. As they become micro-media channels, ‘other people’ will become at least as influential as traditional media commentators
  5. Debranding will gain popularity as brands seek to create characteristic brandavatars – a means of creating a signature brand interaction akin to human personality traits both online and offline

Starbucks brand has a considerable stake in each of these five disciplines. And while the latest incarnation of its visual identity is not debranding of the order of its 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea style store, it is, nonetheless, evidence of a further shift away from rigid branding conventions towards new and more adaptive branding traditions. Ironically, the net effect of loosening the grip of the branding is likely to be an enhanced brand in terms of scope, scale and reputation.

Frankly, Starbucks is pursuing a fascinating strategy that has served as a catalyst for a beautifully crafted evolution of its brand identity. It’s the synchronicity of the pursuit of business and brand strategy that gives the business every chance to more easily adapt to whatever the future holds in precisely the way it hopes.