Branding in a connected world

The world we live in today, and far more so into the future, is super connected, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc … The list is endless. And with this connectivity comes challenges, certainly in the world of branding. The challenge is huge, after all, it wasn’t that long ago that a disgruntled member of staff could at best go to the press, see if anyone was interested, and probably only be able to warn their friends about any wrong doing. Or if a customer was dissatisfied with their purchase, they may use some word of mouth to spread their pain, but other than that, they all too often couldn’t do much at all. But times have changed, and now people have hundreds of channels to spread their opinions, sentiments and before long those words will spread, and very fast.

What this means is that companies now can’t just state what they are, preach their vision and mission and their values to their customers, or make unfounded statements about their brand messages – how they are there for their customers, or how the quality of their products far outweighs that of their competitors. These days they have to make sure that their brand is lived right through to the end result, so that people can see for themselves that their product IS better than their competitors, or that they ARE there for their customers. Therefore branding has a different role, well in honesty it is the same role, it’s just that the values and strategy that they define now has to be honest and true, and they have to be lived by these companies, not just mantras to sell more products.

What this does today, is mean that your average decent branding agency needs to go further than what they have in the past, not just create brand strategies that give a company a clear brand direction, they need to help them build their future, define strategic brand pathways, knowledge sharing, reward programmes. Sure, most larger companies have these in place, but I rarely see these working in harmony with their brand strategy, and intertwining these with the overarching brand and what that brand is telling its customers is imperative.

So, given that the task for branding agencies today is far harder than it has been in the past, what else is there to think about? Well, the challenge is knowing how a brand is looking in the actual world, building and reading measurement tools, and effecting channels, such as social media, direct media, advertising, product etc.

So the average agency these days needs to know what channels to understand, that could be Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pintrest, Tumblr, all kinds of forums and blogs, it’s getting tougher, more complex and more challenging, but I suppose that is the nature of branding, for every new tool that makes life easier, comes something that makes life harder, and we are starting to understand that knowing ‘us’, knowing our ‘customers’, ‘where’ our customers ‘talk and share’, ‘listening and learning’ we can build better companies through better branding.

The brand of a Nation

Recently I was kindly invited to a 40 year celebration for the UAE held at the Millennium hotel in West London.

The event for me and my eldest daughter seemed at an outsiders view point, abstract and maybe a little strange, but only really because we didn’t get sub titles with the speeches, and as it was a celebration for the nations 40 years since creation and uniting of the Emirates, it may have been a little strange to even have Westerners there.

However, I have to say that both myself and my daughter really rather enjoyed the experience, unfortunately cut short due to other commitments. Its hard to say why or what made it so unique, but I suspect that it was that we was actually getting a rare glimpse at the genuine way people feel about their country, and in simple terms – passion.

I have spoken on the issue of nation branding a few times, and it is always a fairly complex subject, but this actually made me think about what it is that the UAE has done to create such a great difference to nation branding compared to so many other GCC countries (not all, but many). So what HAVE the UAE done so differently? and why are their people so proud and content?

I cant really say exactly, neither am I (or is anyone really) qualified to, but I am going to offer my opinion:) – They are a nation that has grown out of wealth, one that has in a sense a form of democracy, or rather a constitutional federation as opposed to a dictatorship, and as a nation it has mostly seemed to look after and listened to its people. It’s oil wealth has been invested back into the country and thus shared among its people, plus having low income tax has been a big advantage to its people. I think though what is also at the heart of this is not only the wealth that they have achieved and shared, but also that they have managed on the one hand to embrace Western design influence, but on the other encourage and evolve its own rich history and culture, keeping hold of its roots.

Nation branding, like any other kind of brand, comes down to a few key areas, the most important is that it needs to start from ‘inside’, it needs to start with what the nation stands for, what’s important to hold onto, and how the country is actually run and the decisions it makes, therefore how a country treats its people, how it deals with its growth, what events it sponsors and celebrates, all have an impact on how a nation feels about its own brand.

I think a way of summarising what I am saying here is that hearing people speak proudly about what their country does for them is the biggest and most powerful way to build a nations brand, and the only way to get people to do that is to invest into that country, either via education, support networks, a health system, events like F1, football etc and essentially leading by example, showing people that the way a country is run is an example of how people should act.

Well thats my thoughts on it anyway, happy to hear people’s views.

Brand revival and the art of nostalgia

Is it unusual that companies in recent years have started to roll out older brands that have for some reason been scrapped, or ‘parked’?

Well not really, there is apparently a hark back to the past in times of austerity or harder days, for some reason people look back to the ‘good ol’ days’ for that feeling of well being. While at the same time, companies are looking for newer cost saving products to launch into the market, having to fork out less marketing spend whilst targeting the nostalgic purchaser, plus lots of potential free PR! why wouldn’t you?

I wonder what would happen if penguin started selling classic books printed and produced from a press from the 50s?, ok right now with the mass growth of Ebooks it’s possibly the wrong time, but in 5 years time I wonder if people will start to tap into that nostalgia buzz? Restaurants have been relying on this from the earliest of times, it’s called atmosphere, people like to dine in elegant and beautiful locations, take for example Les Trois Garçons, a rather special restaurant in East London that manages to mix nostalgia, with art, abstract connections and even the grotesque. Somehow it works, for some reason people love to reflect and wonder. I have even found it mixed in office environments, where offices start to build spaces with interesting antique furniture, bringing together the past with the present.

I do really enjoy moments of nostalgia, it’s a strange feeling, bringing back feelings from yesteryear, reflective, retrospective imagination, theres something in there somewhere, and maybe there should be some new and really exciting brand revivals that work really well in this arena.

Lets think of some brand revivals in recent years shall we – the Fiat 500, the VW Beatle, the Mini, Triumph motorbikes, the Chopper bike, the Whisper chocolate bar, Golden Nougat cereal, Air Jordan, Converse, Biba fashion house, Puma and Adidas trainers, Arctic Roll!, the list goes on, and all have some feel of nostalgia, or at least something magical that people connected with in the past.

As is I mention above, I am a bit of a lover of nostalgia, in fact over the years I have collected vintage packaging, from the Tufty Club government safety awareness campaign (something for the older UK reader), to Airfiix, to Prince Albert cigaret papers, to Matchbox, and some other less known brands. Personally though, although I love many of these revivals, and many have managed to connect the past with the future, certainly when it comes to engineering. I do wonder what it would be like if someone was brave enough to bring back a product from the past and use the same visual brand approach to shelf based packaging that it started with back in their ‘hay day’. There are some cereal based brands that do this ‘ok’, or at least get close, although I do wonder if they miss the mark a little, I’m referring to say something like Scots Porridge Oats – close, but could be better I think.

I sometimes also wonder if cinema has missed a potential opportunity, after-all, if your over 30 you only have to hear the Pearl & Deal soundtrack to get those memories flooding back! Imagine if we went back to making cinema a ‘night out’, having the interval, people selling ice cream, the whole atmosphere of the traditional ‘great night’ of cinema – where has that gone?

And finally, do people remember the following brands – Clackers, Wantney’s Party Seven, Ford Capri, Action man (yes, still around I know), Pearl & Dean, Top of the Pops?

So… what brands do you miss, what would you bring back?, why? and how would you do it?

Branding agency to change the world

Branding agency changes the world? ok, so its a big statement, and let’s face it, no branding agency is going to change the world single handedly, but maybe it isn’t as silly as it might sound.

Many people view the branding agency cynically, and why shouldn’t they, after all, it has been the branding agency that for many years has been used by many people as a method of selling products full of rubbish to children, products that have clogged up the countryside with litter, clogged up peoples arteries with saturated fats, in fact to many it would seem that the branding agency is the weapon of the larger corporates to tell lies to the masses.

The good news is that this isn’t going to happen as much as time goes on, at least not as long as Google isn’t controlled by governments, Twitter is the voice of the people, and Facebook is the home of global communities, and any other new platform. And let’s face it, there are ever more ways to communicate with the world, with newer platforms for sharing and talking.

In the past it was too easy for larger companies to retain their stake and control their revenue by controlling the market, if anyone had anything bad to say, their voice would soon be stifled. But with so many open platforms, and so many people getting instant access to the masses, means that larger companies have no choice other than to hear their customers, and change accordingly – or face pretty quick losses of share value and dwindling profits.

We have seen this phenomenon, at first I wasn’t sure how effective it would be, but after watching many publicly raised issues, and watched these corporates value drop, you start to realise it works, and that the public do have power, the kind of power that is natural, as opinion is like a ship, it takes many voices in its sails to move, but once a breeze of change hits and it starts to turn, it’s impossible to stop, no matter how great the work by a branding agency.

So how does this relate to a branding agency changing the world? well, in my view, branding and what a branding agency does is still the only thing that people can use to tell one product or service from another, and what the values of that brand stands for, so in reality, it’s not just how great a logo looks, but actually deeper. It’s what’s behind the brand and what a branding agency does that counts, yes of course a brand needs to be exciting visually, but more than that, it has the power to change companies from the inside. In fact, branding is the best way of doing this. Yes it does take internal communications, campaigns, training, recruitment etc. but who knows more about this world than a branding agency?

So from my view, branding is about making organisations right from the moment it brings someone in, from the inside to the surface, from the surface to the customer – joining all the dots. It can only operate in this way, any other way will only mean failure, and this is fundamental to what a branding agency brings.

A branding agency for today

The typical branding agency from the past (or at least a more professional branding agency) have focused on the standard mission, vision and values approach. And yes, this works well as it understands what a company stands for and aligns the brand around this. However in practice over the years, I have noticed a few things that happen, firstly, the client starts to feel engaged in the process, they get excited and start to get more involved (all good), however, in some cases I see that as they start to get to understand our processes and get more involved, they stop focusing on the end result and start to refer back to the work, aligning to what are they are today, or what they want to achieve, and the client gets more and more drawn into the process. And while it is good to get the clients attention and involvement in the branding process, it isn’t so good for the branding agency to loose grip of the end result.

It’s interesting when I look more holistically at the results of the bigger and more established branding agency – I wont mention names, you start to see that once they become well known for what they do, they start to be trusted by companies and brand managers, who acknowledge that they don’t actually need to sculpt the end result for themselves, they trust the branding agency to make recommendations, and then from here reap the rewards of this. The result from these branding companies is more arresting, vibrant and produces braver brands, and once these brands are out there in the world, they start to grow and form new brandleaders, brands that others can only hope to follow.

So, to be a really great branding agency, the answer is in the branding process, making sure that you educate the client in how brands work, how his brandworks and how his demographic will be inspired by a new brand. The branding agency I work for today, Garden, in my opinion, has been educating companies in this way for many years now, it’s in recent years that clients have seen us as a more conceptual branding agency, with strong strategic anchors. In fact one of mybrand strategists often refers to us as being creatively driven and strategically anchored, and I like this description as it is accurate and what I would suggest otherbranding agencies should aim for, after all, you should never be different for the sake of being different, or so strategically aligned and ‘safe’ that you loose anybrand personality.

In summary – be brave creatively, take care to align your brand to the demographic, educate the client, don’t let go of the brand. Oh yes, and of course all this happens if you have a great design team – a branding agency for today.

You can’t replace good design

To me there seems to be a great number of branding or creative agencies out there that try to convince corporate and retail companies that the answer to their dreams is in knowledge and strategic logic, which sure has a great deal of substance, but many of them seem to provide the knowledge while delivering slightly better than weak creative solutions.

What is amazing is that the magic of great design is rarely built with numbers. The magic of great design is created by talented designers, indeed they need to know why they are doing what they are doing and what the opportunity is, and it’s by bringing these two skills (creative and strategy) together that creates amazing things, but you would think that more agencies and consultancies would understand this more, not use statistics for excuses for bad creative.

Made in – Culture and the Art of branding

At Garden we have had the benefit of working on many cross culture branding projects: from telecoms in the Middle East, to Sri Lankan teas, to UK supermarket brands. We have faced challenges understanding all the complexities with Arabic and Cyrillic typography and also understanding cultural differences, political issues and much more.

There is one thing though that I have found intriguing over the years. It is how some societies are consistently proud of their country or their culture, and as such seem to portray a great nation. It would be interesting to see how does this happen? Is it because the government represents its people in a particular way? Or because of the condition of the economy? Does history has to do with it? And does any of this come down to brand or branding?

There is a time in the UK when the Made in Britain symbol stood for something. It meant quality production values, high value engineering etc – and therefore the brand mark of the Union Jack was hugely influential. At the same time, the symbol for Made in China, or Made in Taiwan was frowned upon, a brand of cheaply made products that people where very cynical about. Is that the case today? I’m not so sure it has the same meaning anymore.

There are some powerful and well-respected brands in China these days. There are also brands that are known for value, quality engineering and innovation. Over the past twenty years, innovation, grow, and improvement are within reach of many other nations. Now the famous and esteemed Union Jack has started to fade in the light of some very good newcomers. So where does this leave the UK? Is there a risk? Can we repair the damage? And can we approach this issue in the same way as a branding project?

If you agree with the fact that branding isn’t just a logo, like I do, you will then see that perhaps there is a connection. Good brands should always adhere to values. Do countries do as well? Well I think so. Good brands have always branding engagement programs. Do countries do as well? Probably, if you consider some politics that promote getting people back to work… Good brands have a clear level of differentiation. What about countries? I think they should.

It would be an interesting experiment to see how a branding agency would tackle branding a nation – not just the logo, but how that nation thinks and feels about itself – completely from the bottom up. Let’s start with immigration, not necessarily with a view of control: we will ask what is its policy? Does this align with the nation? What is its employment program? How flexible is it culturally, and does this align with its past and its future? What are its values? And what is its mission and vision?

Then there is control of implementation, how can we maintain a single focus, how can we express the same messages, without people feeling uncomfortable about the confines of this approach.

Of course it is all rather silly, but I can’t help wonder if there is a way that we can bring back some of the pride back to Britain, some of the quality control, some of the focus – is this something a branding agency could do? I would love to at least think about it some more.

Know your client

Knowing where you can take a brand and where the risks are, by Garden.

The typical branding agency these days tends to mimic the competition, but good quality agencies, or a branding agency that knows what it is doing, will know that it needs to do several things. Firstly it needs to find a single and honest relevant point of differentiation, a point that is a benefit to the customer. From here it should live and breath this core, from recruiting, training, experience packaging, promotion advertising, website design – everything that it does, from the ground up, needs to express this key point.

Once you know what this core element is, and once you have started to build this, you need to know where you are aiming for. There are several ways to develop a brand, from pushing the boundaries right out, and creating a brand that gets market attention, or you can build the brand more carefully, mimicking the competition. When I say mimic, what I mean is, to establish how the competing brands are approaching the market, and placing their brand in a way that doesn’t build any risk. Of course it always depends on the situation, is it a first to market offer? is it an established brand? does the brand cross borders and cultures? does it have a shelf life? such as 3G, is the brand representative of a new product or technology? is it representative of an establishment, charity etc. Understanding these areas, and what the audience is looking for or expecting, allows you to target that audience with relevance and interest.

A truly good agency will know how to channel into any area and disrupt in the best way, never going beyond acceptable, never sitting in a place of too much comfort, but always leading the field. The risks here are that by going too far ‘out there’ you create the potential of risk, you allow your competitor to target you, to change the course of the market etc, and you simply don’t want to risk a brand in that way anyway. That isn’t to say that it wont be inspiring, or intelligent etc, it just means it needs to follow the right direction.

When we re branded a world famous telecom, we needed to know what the company was about, what the benefit was for the customer, and what was believable as a brand shift. There was a new competitor coming into what was once a monopoly market, and that competitor was going to come in hard and high, in that they would be fun and cool and aggressive in this space. Knowing this and expecting this approach allowed us to stay calm, mature, and focus on the core of our offer. If we had tried to make them look young and cool, it simply would have been too much of a shift. We knew that we had to create a brand that would be respected, admired and aligned to the benefit.

We managed to do this with great success, so much so this company is now one of the most successful telecom brands in the world, certainly for the region they are in, and today they have an offer that works over 20 counties.

So what I am saying here is that any branding agency that operates at the level that an agency should, needs to know where there clients offer will sit, they need to understand this place very well, they need to know what their competitor brands are doing, where their brand will go, and how to sit in this space and create an offer that shines, that is rich and expressive, that shakes a market up, but doesn’t alienate.

The art of branding, is learning about your clients offer and their world, skills that only really come from experience and capability, things that any good branding agency should be able to achieve.

Branded content and the art of storytelling

Branded content has been taking a prominent stage for marketeers across the globe, not happy with the results of traditional advertising, marketers have realised that there is a much more powerful approach to getting products into the consumer mindset.

Branded content though has some challenges; managing multi channel campaigns, creating content, getting content out there, all can be tough. However, if achieved, the results are excellent, and a way for companies demonstrating and parading themselves with confidence. Where as traditional advertising was/is about building audiences with entertainment, then paying to interrupt the audience in the hope of doing it enough to etch your name into the viewers brain, of late advertisers have moved on, and mostly understand that by making the ad an entertainment piece in its own right is far more powerful than the traditional product demonstration. In other words, engage the viewer, make the viewer smile or fill them with wonder, and they will be happy to embrace your offer – the power of likability.

Branded content takes this to a new level; content that has its own followers, its own reason for people to watch, read and enjoy, builds willing, and indeed, truly engaged viewers – this is the fundamental difference, people who are absorbing the offer willingly. Of course, this won’t mean that viewers will automatically purchase your product, but you are shortening the distance consumers have to travel to convert, i.e. they all ready know you, they probably like you, and so when given a choice they are more likely to purchase or engage your brand above and beyond others that follow the more traditional process of ‘interruption’.

Our partner agency Nomad have been doing just this for some time now, creating branded video content for their clients that is far more powerful than traditional advertising. I spoke to Co-Founder Phil Griffiths recently about this subject. He commented, “We are finding these days that our clients are becoming smarter and smarter, and this area of our business is growing better than any other. Yes we are still creating commissioned Television content and corporate communications pieces, but our role is evolving. Now we are responsible for helping our clients plan and build digital and broadcast television video content strategies and campaigns, that carve out large channels of consumer action; with people happy in the knowledge that they are being sold to, because they are not there because they have to be, they are there because they want to be”.

I asked him how they do it, what makes them different, Phil explained – “The key is story telling. Too many, focus solely on the client. But it’s just as, if not more, important to cater for the platform or publisher, and ultimately the audience. We know video, we know the channels, we know our customers and how to speak to them, so things seem to be starting to snow ball, which is really exciting for us right now”.

This approach isn’t new, but is a developing sector, and it isn’t easy for companies to just start doing it. It requires a lot of knowledge and experience, but with the right team, the results can be much greater per buck, dirham, dollar or pound, and this area is growing and building. I would suggest if you are looking at building a branded content campaign then why not get in touch with the Nomad team to branded content.

Technology and branding, shaken or stirred?

What do you prefer? Do you prefer a perfectly blended combination, or a separate approach to your branding and technology fields?

When we look at big brands today, every one of them has one thing in common. They all leverage the tech available to them, be it through websites, new gadgets or using electronic kiosks in shop aisles with spot lights highlighting their chocolate. There’s even a fridge out there right now that leverages the (albeit limited) power of the Near Field Communication (NFC) tag to send you notifications when you’re out of milk. The tech is easy to create, and really doesn’t cost much either. By programming an NFC tag to essentially “weigh” items in your fridge, you’ve gone into the market with a cool modern fridge and have set yourself apart from everyone else by making it a smart fridge.

You can start with a strong brand, but if you wish to make yourself stand out from the crowd, you need to innovate. The innovation doesn’t need to be huge, even if it’s as simple as coding an NFC tag to tell you the ingredients of a ready made meal when you log into the app, definitely not difficult. We’re in a world now where small quality of life tweaks make things more streamlined for our hectic lifestyles.

As a developer, I find it difficult to separate the two fields, they’re both reliant on each other. On one side, I want a good brand, on the other side, I want my life to be easier. Companies that understand this ultimately come out on top. A perfect balance between ease of use and strong brand, not too much of one, but not too much of the other, a good combination.