Just published by the UK marketing society: how the PM ( and Dominic Cummings) can make the party one that people want to vote for
My copy of The Economist now comes in a see through non-plastic wrapper that is “100% compostable” and can be “put in the food waste bin”.
An example of “leadership thinking” you might think (from a brand that prides itself on foresight)
But, in truth, The Economist had no choice but to make this change because six months earlier competitor magazines had come similarly wrapped (like the Saturday issue of The Guardian). Not to have responded would have made The Economist seem cloth eared and leaden footed by contrast. (As we know from Behaviour Science, we humans make comparative not absolute judgements.)
Brands have to scan the horizon and work out what changes in culture to they need to respond to (and preferably get ahead of them). The moment of danger comes when a competitor crystallises a cultural trend into a new product or service. A trend that is “in the air” and widely reported in the media becomes an emerging social norm. Then the comparison questions crowd in quickly-what are we doing on this issue? Before you have responded, the same questions will be asked on social media about your brand.
Another example – EasyJet recently sent me an email saying:
At 05:20 this morning, easyJet flight EJU5841 took to the skies and made history. Because starting today, we will offset the carbon emissions from the fuel used for every single easyJet flight, domestic and international.
You would have to have been living in a cave (and not know who Greta Thunberg is) to have missed this particular hot issue for the airlines- known to be major producers of earth heating emissions.
Now do this little test. Do a google search of “which airlines are …”. Google guesses that your question is going to be (top of the list) “which airlines are carbon neutral”. So, the question is already being asked. How long will it be before the likes of BA have to respond? If another brand announces that it too will be carbon offsetting its flights then BA will have to develop their policy or look off the pace.
Modern culture is full of traps for the unresponsive. Trends are easy to spot, but when does a trend turn into a new norm that you simply can’t ignore? Failure to respond can devastate your reputation. Just ask Prince Andrew who seems to not to have understood that the “Me-too” movement, crystalised by the Harvey Weinstein affair, might be relevant to him. He got sacked by The Queen.
What traps lie ahead for brands in 2020? Ideally you want to get ahead of a trend because that is what leaders do. But life is not so simple. “Events, dear boy, events”, as Harold MacMillan said of politics, can throw off the best laid plans. Such is the speed, pervasiveness and uncontrollability of modern media, brand management is becoming more like politics. Facebook (and Big tech in general) understand this and even hire ex-politicians like Nick Clegg to help them plan their communications.
To be protect their reputations, brands need to do scenario planning. A tip: imagine how a competitor might seek to enhance its credibility and relevance through a major product or service innovation that is “on trend.”
Challenger brands and start-ups represent a clue to the future as ideas at the margins can move to the mainstream especially if they are picked up by the bigger players
The question of environmental protection is now right at top of the agenda- no surprise there. But how will it play out in individual markets? Brands should play this thought experiment. Here are a couple of thought starters: –
London: has been energetically building cycle lanes but has precious few electric buses. (I breath in a lot of fumes every day) The Chinese are way ahead in manufacturing electric buses. Orders for electric buses from the major UK cities could create a strong domestic industry- and not just imports from China. An issue for one of the mayoral candidates to champion?
Grocery retailing: I have just put out the weekly bins, which were crammed with the packaging by-products of shopping at my local supermarket. The 5-p charge has been a signature success in reducing the use of carrier bags (albeit initiated by government). But where is the next big move coming from? Experiments in new no packaging stores might represent (part of) an alternative future? Try Googling “no packaging stores near me” to gauge how fast this trend is moving
Scenario planning is a healthy exercise for brands as it forces them to look at their business “from the outside in” and therefore anticipate possible futures in which they will be more in control of events rather than victims.
It has been a good year for training – mainly because i have been able to concentrate on topics that I find most interesting and for which I have been able to develop new knowledge inspired by my time at Google and a decade working on Behaviour Science ( starting with the late lamented COI in 2008). See the My training courses tab for details
I am becoming one of those people who shouts at the TV screen.
(I suppose it was inevitable – it comes with age along with hair sprouting unattractively from ears and nose and busy eyebrows. I haven’t developed the full Denis Healey – but i can see the direction of travel).
My ire is aimed at the commentariat who come on Newsnight, who seem to be mostly in a state of moral outrage. Cue plenty of pomposity and posturing about what the government does from groping to proroguing parliament – and in particular Dominic Cummings.
Cummings is often presented as an evil genius. He is not – he is just an advertising strategist with an effective communications idea.
If Newsnight was to invite branding and advertising experts onto their sofas they could lay it out more analytically for the viewers. But they tend to prefer journalists who are good at understanding todays headlines (and the nerdy details of today in parliament) but poor at the techniques of developing a long term brand positioning. Besides Journalists of the BBC type tend to look down their noses at Adfolk.
This is a pity because advertising strategists are not prone to either moral outrage or bien pensant snobbery. Rather, they deal with people as they really are and work back from there. Lets try that then:-
Start with human truths
People are not much interested in the arcane details of how parliament or the law works. They are busy. In their personal lives they have to go to work and get stuff done.
All Cummings has done is to spot that this is how people feel. He ( via Boris) uses parliament as a stage to confirm that it is an odds with how most of us have to behave to get through our lives.
He has done this through classic, brutally simple, brand positioning thinking that has three characteristics 1) a positioning that is easy to remember 2) that boxes in ( or “depositions” ) the competition and 3) (important this) is rooted in a widely accepted truth
The simple positioning: The tories will deliver on the will of the people
De-positioning the competition as: A confused group of interests that can’t get anything done except frustrate progress
The truth: Three years on from the vote parliament has stopped progress.
My point here is not – is this right or wrong? Just- is it effective? It is and that is why Cummings is hated. (He is also shy-is my guess- and given to covering this up with a carapace of aggression – which does not help)
Can The Labour Party mount a counter communications strategy ?
Labour now is too introverted and bound up in its own internal battles and bureaucratic structures. It used to be good at communications strategy in the Blair/Campbell era- but both these men are now so hated The Labour Party cannot learn from them.
Corbyn and MacDonald look and sound like machine politicians of the pre Blair era. And in their attempt to fight Cummings they have fallen back on old, and distinctly retro, campaigning techniques. They have, late in the day, come up with a simple strategy. But is it any good?
The simple positioning: We are the real representatives of the people
De-positioning the competition as: “posh boys” or the rich elite or a conspiracy of the rich elite ( an idea proposed on Newsnight by Paul Mason)
But a really good communications strategy has to have the ring of truth about it to take root and have longevity. This one -apart from being a throwback to the era of smoky rooms, long sideburn and flared Trowsers- doesn’t. All political parties have posh folk. Far from hating Eton, labour front benchers like their children to go to elite fee paying schools.
As for Mason’s conspiracy of the elites: this is a desperate attempt to re-present some city folk, who are shorting the pound, as something more sinister. Conspiracy theories have a long and disreputable history and are almost always the product of a fevered imagination. This one is not going to fly.
Try “the truth well told” instead
What should Labour do? Try something truthful. Truth is the bedrock of a really good strategy. “The truth well told” is a good way to think of an effective strategy. This is what journalists often miss – as they tend to think of adfolk as people who hoodwink the public
The truth is that Brexit is a really complex and there is no “getting Brexit done” – even if the government gets an agreement through, it is just the start of years of negotiations. Without a deal – even more negotiations. We will be locked into an endless depressing cycle that will most likely lead to the breakup of the union. That is a really sad and unnecessary future.
I would start there – start calling it as it. The public will respect you for it
What do all the following have in common ?
Love it or hate it (Marmite)
Probably the best lager in the world (Carlsberg)
and this famous ad for VW:
They are all highly successful examples of the pratfall effect
which is this:-
Displaying weakness increases empathy and like-ability.
Imperfection and making mistakes are the stuff of our daily lives – and so we are more likely to identify with the person or brand that says, well, I am prone to error too.
The real-life sense of contingency in the word “probably” makes Carlsberg’s line effective. If the line had been -” The best lager in the world” that would be merely boastful and unrealistic – the sort of thing that a pompous corporation might say rather than tongue in cheek line that you might hear in a bar
Perhaps some errors are too big to admit, which might explain why Tony Blair won’t do so about WMD and the Iraq war. His god complex stops him from doing so. He is never never wrong. (Nor is Jeremy Corbyn – another man with a god complex)
But it might also explain why people are not prepared to listen to Blair about Brexit – even though he is the most coherent politician on the topic I have heard so far.
Today comes the news that Sir Martin Sorrell is back in the market and competing again – he has set up “S4 capital” to acquire companies. This comes just weeks after leaving WPP.
There is something smelly about this – Sir Martin, it emerges, has non-compete contractual terms that were not extended to employees of the group. The board and the chairman of WPP have questions to answer.
Sir Martin aggressively enforced the contracts of departing employees – the founders of Adam and Eve had to pay £750,000 when on gardening leave. When I resigned as CEO of red cell advertising I received a letter accusing me of breaking the terms of my contract and trying to steal a client ( Wales Tourism Board in fact). I was very surprised as this was a) not true and b) easily refuted. WPP withdrew the accusation. But it was indicative of the aggression of WPP’s employment lawyers – and it came from the top.
I think this what can happen to very successful people: they get so detached from normal folk that they no longer think that the normal rules apply to them. “Taxes are for the poor” said Leona Helmsley. Now it seems that non compete contracts are for the rank and file not the top people