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.

Is the ‘new’ Gap logo a PR double bluff?

Here’s a thought.

What if the uproar about the Gap logo redesign (above) that’s occupying the blogs and tweets of the design community – and beyond – is an elaborate ruse to buy Gap more attention?

It’s an idea that my colleague at NewTradition, Maxine Cameron, was musing about earlier and I floated in an exchange of tweets with Crispin Heath of Team Spirit.

Here’s the thinking: Let’s accept that the brand visual ID refresh and rollout really is a car crash in slow-motion. Why would a brand as experienced as Gap make that kind of misjudgement?

Now consider the attention that the brand is beginning to gain by releasing the logo, sporadically, world wide and allowing it to be ridiculed, lambasted and – in some instances – alternatives being offered up. (I particularly like the tongue-in-cheek sideswipe by id29 (pictured below) posted at Under Consideration’s Brand New site earlier today.)

Then you add into the mix the curious post by Gap at its Facebook page where it says:

Thanks for everyone’s input on the new logo! We’ve had the same logo for 20+ years, and this is just one of the things we’re changing. We know this logo created a lot of buzz and we’re thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding! So much so we’re asking you to share your designs. We love our version, but we’d like to see other ideas. Stay tuned for details in the next few days on this crowd sourcing project.

What if Gap are just seeking to build anticipation and then reveal to the world a brand spanking new ID which the designers of the world fall in love with?

Risky, but it might just work.

And, even if it’s not the strategy that’s in play, there’s still time, Gap. There’s still time.

What do you think?

One minute sentiment tracking survey: BP and you, Round Two

You may remember that, a couple of weeks ago, I invited people to contribute to a survey about sentiment towards BP and politicians associated with the Deepwater Horizon incident.

Before I publish the results, I thought it would be interesting to ask the same questions once again to see how sentiment may have shifted.

Given the fact that BP are cautiously optimistic that it has capped the leak, today seems like a pretty good day to pose the questions.

So, if you’ve got a minute (because that’s all the time it should take to complete), I’d be grateful if you could click here to take survey.

Thanks very much.

What’s eating Leroy Stick?

There’s been a good deal of attention paid to the spoof BP public relations tweets at BPGlobalPR over the past few days.

To be honest, I tend towards the view that it’s a cheap shot to satirise the environmental catastrophe that has engulfed (sorry for the pun) BP – never mind the commercial crisis that it has created.

Despite being less than enamoured with the motivation of the BPGlobalPR idea, I did find the thinking of the guy behind the tweets – Leroy Stick – fascinating.

He has penned a post at Gizmodo (thanks to Marci Ikeler for tweeting the link at @marciikeler by the way) explaining what motivated him. His perspective on brands and their relationship with wider society is really interesting.

Nostalgia and the brand consequences of Blitz spirit

The apparent popularity of this retro-typographical gem – Keep Calm and Carry On – offers at least two useful insights about the mood of the UK population at the moment that are relevant to PR professionals:

Familiarity breeds content: There appears to be a general hankering for a future that mirrors the in-it-together-leave-your-backdoor-open-all-day aura that surrounds late/post-war Britain (think ‘Skegness is so bracing’ or destination creative like ‘Scarborough’ posters).

Blitz behaviour: The relationship between the individual and state – and ‘trusted organisations’ – is changing as I type. People are seemingly increasingly happy for other people to take care of them, and they’re even happier to know that someone else has the wherewithal to do it. It’s a mood which, arguably, mirrors the spirit of The Blitz and entitles organisations with the right to do so to adopt a paternal tone a la ‘If you have to take a long train journey…’. The consequence is a greater sense of national collective purpose rather than individualistic pursuit, and this is already proving significant in PR terms.

Familiarity breeds content

The need for the familiar and reassuring is evident in the revival of fashion and advertising icons – the Cadbury’s Caramel bunny, the Virgin 25th anniversary ad where you clock the 80s brand names, the superbly evocative Jack Daniels ad copy and creative at tube stations at the moment, the photographic direction of Aviva’s star-studded rebranding ad campaign. On the high street, it’s the crossover between 40s/50s inspired fashion and continuing 80s new romantic revival. Now I don’t claim to be an expert but Trendhunter’s piece on Jackie Kennedy as well as this post from Drapers Online illustrate the point.

Even the Obama campaign used a typeface that was created by Eric Gill in London in the 1930s and whose imagery offers a respectful nod towards folksy American painter Norman Rockwell.

Basically, these are culturally familiar cues from two distinct eras for directors in creative agencies and fashion houses who are likely to have grown up in the 1980s, and whose parents reached the age of majority in the 1940s/50s.

In other words creatives are pandering to bygone and ‘better times’ cultural cues that they believe encourage people to think that there is calm and continuity somewhere out there, and everything’s going to be OK. If brands can strike that chord with consumers, or encourage people to dress like everything’s OK, everything will feel OK.

Blitz behaviour

Pretty much every Obama speech I care to listen to or read, appeals to a spirit of collective responsibility in times of great anxiety – his victory speech last November is a case in point. Take a look at two passages of the victory speech at, particularly the passages titled ‘Victory for the people’ and ‘One nation, one people’. He referred to it again on Tuesday when he announced his budget plan. Just take a look at the ‘pull’ quote in the BBC piece on the budget plan.

What’s different about the tone here – in contrast to ‘Keep calm and carry on’ – is that, whilst the sentiment is the same, Obama’s not ‘telling’ people to participate he’s inviting participation. He’s going to have to draw on the goodwill generated by popular participation to push the budget through Congress as well. This is probably why Obama’s working the circuit at the moment on shows like Jay Leno’s and by using formats like online town hall meetings.

Obama’s attempting to seek to engage the public while Washington insiders continue to operate along habitually traditional methods: Obama’s for the people, ‘special interests’ aren’t.

In PR terms, evidence and acknowledgement of broader social responsibility ought to be dead centre of communications strategy at the moment, and for some time in the future. I tend to subscribe to the view that we’re going through an epochal transition from Reagonomics to social and economic citizenry, and brands that don’t recognise that it’s not about ‘you’ but about ‘us’ are going to appear distinctly ‘disconnected’.

To illustrate the point, I’d suggest that the outrage over Fred Goodwin and his pension is less about the money than his apparent lack of willingness to participate; Fred is not taking his fair share of the pain and anxiety of the ‘rest of us’. There’s a ‘distance’ between Fred and latent sentiment among the Great British Public.

If Fred forfeited his pension rights, he’d do the entire industry a PR favour. But Fred – a bloke who, until now, has been applauded and rewarded for single-minded individualism – continues to behave as an individual in the face of the collective spirit of the Blitz (even though every leading politician who’s willing to win a headline has invited Fred to hand back even some of the money). So Fred’s not ‘digging for victory’ like the rest of us; he’s not taking part. Fred’s demonised himself.

What’s does this mean to for brands?

This collective spirit has emerged at precisely the same point in time as the arrival of a hugely significant dynamic if you manage a brand or its communications function – digital social media. The availability and accessibility of these technologies, particularly mobile technology, is likely to revolutionise brand management – especially in service industries.

The fact is that social media was a trend anyway, but the social dynamics of the recession, the emergence of a ‘one nation’ President of the US and the emerging ‘spirit of the blitz’ appears to be giving it additional traction. The significance to marketing communications is apparent. Some influential thinkers have begun to claim that the vast investment in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, and even the sacred cow of ‘segmentation’, are – to be honest – a load of money-spinning IT-inspired rationalist claptrap.

As a rule, I can’t stand ‘management’ books but this kind of heresy is more sociological than anything else so it’s a) interesting and b) is covered in books like Herd by Mark Earls and Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein. Aside from having one word titles, both allude to an emerging spirit of mass collectivism and changeable mass behaviour and – importantly for PR people – the influence of ‘other people’ or single simple steps on the behaviour of groups of individuals that lead to changeability.

The upshot is that brands that fail to realise the potential of these technologies, or underestimate the potential power of them, risk a withering reputation.

So for brand managers in service industries: Your communications strategy must enable customers to take part in your brand in order to create a ‘reservoir of goodwill’ to draw upon when ‘other people’ put your reputation in jeopardy. (Nucleus’s IFA Board and claims of IFA ownership, for example, represents a ‘goodwill’ strategy.)

And for PR agencies: You’re ideally placed to advise clients on the appropriate communications strategy to adapt to shifting and changing mass behaviour because, no matter what an ad creative ‘tells’ you, your PR proves it. (Ad creative ‘sells’, the consequence of PR is that people ‘buy in’)

For the future: For traditional media: Right now, sites like Twitter and Facebook are caricatured by traditional media channels, partly because they don’t really recognise their potential but, mostly, because media owners know that they represent a major strategic threat to their businesses. Even the Guardian was at it yesterday, despite the fact the Guardian, like the BBC, no longer regards itself as a ‘newspaper’ but a content and platform provider – see Guardian ‘Open Platform’. It’s the principle of the underlying technology and the speed with which people are adopting it that is the significant behaviour, not the opinion of the media. People are voting with their feet (or fingertips).

For ad agencies: The message is becoming more significant than the media employed to promote the message because – if service brands can get people to participate and achieve sufficient ‘buy in’ then the need to ‘sell’, and so advertise in its traditional sense, diminishes.

For operational marketers: Technology like Twitter equals customer self service and free market insight – known as ‘crowd sourcing’ – because a) customers can help one another use your product or service; b) it helps you understand what elements of your service you need to improve and so you can reduce traditional customer support costs, and c) It serves to foster a perception of improving and responsive quality of customer service. (Online banks are a first generation example of customer self-service, whilst sites like Trip Advisor are examples of second generation crowd-sourced service brands).

A sobering lesson for traditional media and media relations

Why this is significant is that the traditional media model – which has been the stock and trade of both marketers and media relations types until now – is being turned inside out by the capacity of new media channels to influence agendas via active participation rather than passive reading or viewing.

So it challenges media relations advisers and brand marketers alike because ‘other people’ are potentially more significant to your reputation or brand than media that was traditionally the route to manage these things. The trouble is that unlike the past, where sources of issues are generally predictable (newspapers, publishers websites, broadcasters, talking heads), today you increasingly don’t know who the ‘other people’ are, where they are and when they’ll pop up.

To employ a distasteful analogy, it’s a latter-day cultural Al Qaida.

Dependence on traditional media to – firstly – act as the conduit of your message and, secondly, influence the legitimacy of it, is under threat from apparently invisible user-generated and distributive new media networks that exist because people participate – Facebook, Twitter, Bebo, Myspace, Tripadvisor, getsatisfaction, lastfm etc.

For example, when the US press called the New Hampshire Democratic primaries for Clinton, they called it early and wrong because they relied on predictable sources and methods to judge its traditional indicators like polls, canvass data and ‘intuitive’ commentators. They missed the non-traditional media employed by Obama to galvanise and influence voter behaviour. They missed the point that simply through his use of a mosaic of new media, Obama signalled two things to potential voters – not just what he said but how he chose to engage voters in the message.