Category Archives: Branding

‘PEAK FUD’ AND WHY BETTER ISN’T ENOUGH ANYMORE

Generating news, comment, opinion and sales bumff around technology has forever been predicated on the notion that anything featuring extra bells and whistles is a mark of progress.

But the “buy this new one cos it’s better” adage is unravelling. Having fed off the harvest of technology innovation for so long, it’s inevitable that we now start plunging down the slide of diminishing returns. More and more new technology will be for technology’s sake.

6th Gen vs. 4th Gen

I’ve happily used the same iPhone 4 for the last four years, and the intervening technological progress really isn’t worth it. My wife just ditched a stone-aged Blackberry and would have got an iPhone 4 too if anyone still sold them. So an iPhone 6S joined the family. My assessment thus far is: it’s basically the same phone as mine (cue screams of derision). Yeah. It is.

Apple’s communications machine always talks like the company is changing the world, but this is damned difficult when it doesn’t have much proof. You can see the effort it’s taking. The latest iPhone TV ad tries conspicuously hard to spell out the crucial differences in its latest generation, presumably because so few of them are self-evident. The idea that “everything has changed” is a bit of a stretch.

We’ve seen this before with toothbrushes; one of the most barren wastelands of innovation known to mankind. The poor wretches who market toothbrushes (let me remind you: plastic sticks with brushes on the end) must be lurching between states of terrifying panic and amphetamine-fuelled desperation. After all, these are the same class of marketers who list ‘Aqua’ as an ingredient in a pharmaceutical product, because ‘Water’ is too passé. They’ve found the only conceivable way to make up for toothbrushes’ inherent lack of innovation is to accentuate meaningless new mini-features to the level of near-parody. This nonsense is stunningly observed by Mitchell & Webb in this classic sketch from 2006.

Back to the real world, and the same complete and utter desperation is plain as day when you watch the latest Samsung phone ad about its three-sided display. There are two striking aspects about this advert:

  1. Unless you’re a phone geek, you have to watch the advert a few times to work out why the advert consists chiefly of a phone rotating very slowly while being shot from every angle (it’s to demonstrate that the display area actually goes down the sides a bit)
  2. It offers no practical applications for what the hell this capability is useful for

Is this the technological equivalent of ‘the science bit’ in cosmetics commercials? Or maybe it’s like the sultry, sexily lit glamour photo of luxury cars. Regardless, the phone-maker is so bereft of practical applications for their innovation; we’re invited to gaze longingly at it under the microscope. As if that’s enough.  And it isn’t…

But what if those are the only innovation cards you’ve been dealt, marketing hack!? Will you instead be tempted to turn to the tried and trusted tactic of FUD…?

Prepare for Peak FUD: Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt

Increasing numbers of technology products are sold on the back of FUD, because it so gracefully obscures the meaningful reasons for buying. You’ve heard of Peak Oil.  Well prepare for a steady escalation toward ‘Peak FUD’, where fickleness and negativity fill the vacuum created by gaps in innovation. But be careful with FUD-slinging, because:

  • It can make the FUD-slinger look foolish when the negativity is baseless
  • Communicating negativity on a prolonged basis can cast a shadow on your brand reputation
  • It shows a lack of confidence; that your product is low on innovation
  • People are rarely that stupid

Vauxhall has just introduced a new innovation, called OnStar, to its new cars. But I didn’t know any of that when I sat down to watch TV last night, and their new advert came on.

If you haven’t seen it before, play it up until 0:10.

The first thing that strikes you is that it’s been made in German, and dubbed into English. Bad start Vauxhall. Or should I call you… Opel, hmm?!

Audiences are already cynical when ads come onto their tellyboxes, but they reserve a special measure of contempt for dubbed ads. I for one prepare myself to scoff at whatever pretence they create.

But this isn’t the issue here. The issue is the message.

Straight away you’re compelled to associate with the guy and his car, not the spotty kid next door. The kid has come over to ask some questions and talk to you about the technological showstoppers that may be missing from your prized motor. By 0:10 I’m honestly, truthfully thinking the man is going to reply saying: “Aah shut up kid, I don’t care about any of that guff, I’m off for a spin” and then the ad will cut to him tearing up the autobahn, waving to his mates out the window as he passes through a few (German?) piazzas, before finishing up taking a lovely lady home with him and sticking two fingers up to the kid peering furtively though the curtains.

But no. Roll the clip on. It turns out that the kid is an agent of FUD. He’s cooler and smarter than you. Don’t you feel stupid that your car isn’t equipped with a load of technological gubbins (Vauxhall OnStar)?! OK so they offer the smallest scintilla of benefit; barely able to register any enhancement to your life, your driving experience or the pursuit of human advancement. But that’s not the issue. The issue is who you haven’t become. Look now (at 0:15) as a younger, hunkier, happier and more successful looking man emerges to get into his car; a car so apparently dripping with Vauxhall OnStar goodness that he’ll live a life that the other bloke wouldn’t dare to dream. Be like him or you – you loser – will be consigned a hapless Luddite who just drives his car places and phones people on his phone and lacks the imagination necessary to press buttons that bounce personal data off satellites. Surely, surely you want to be that better person?

Nah…

This is a warning to the marketers in the B2B technology industry. If innovation slows down then practical applications and benefits are going to be evermore granular and harder to find, but never more important.

Don’t resort to FUD. FUD means you’ve run out of ideas.

FUD makes you the irritating know-it-all in a car commercial.  Or worse – his toothbrush.

GIVE VERBOSITY A SNIFF

Next time you are on a plane, get the duty free brochure and marvel at the most florid and inflated copy you will find anywhere (outside one of my own blogs).

For me, anything will do when I really need something to read. I will avidly digest every advert inside a tube carriage, including terms and conditions at the bottom. I have been known to sit in a hotel room waiting for Mrs Dev to finish getting ready, reading the fire drill instructions and every single bottle in the toiletries bag. I think it’s because I associate with whoever wrote these things, and I’m looking for errors and tautologies so that I can mentally high-five my own razor intellect.

Very sad, I know.

Anyway – back to the duty free brochure. Pick a bottle of perfume or aftershave and read its 50-word stanza, which invariably goes a bit like this.

Verbosity by Shanelle

Confront the factory smog of your existence with the splendid tones of emmenthal, shagpile carpets and smoky bacon burps in this sanctimonious ode to aspiration. Embrace your passion and be heralded by angels of destiny on your journey to the neverworld of you, and the banishment of forgotten ages past.

On the face of it, this is complete bollocks. However, looking more closely you can see that this is in fact extremely expensive.

What is the intrinsic value of a bottle of perfume? A nice piece of mass-produced glass in an attractive box, containing an ethanol-based formula of synthetically manufactured scents. Being generous – and having done zero research into the matter – I’m saying that’s worth £2. In fact, £2 can’t be that inaccurate if counterfeit perfumes can be sold for a tenner by people prepared to go to prison for being caught.

Our bottle of Verbosity will cost you £45 for a small bottle, but a bargain £70 for one twice the size. That’s one hell of a margin. But we’ve forgotten all the marketing costs – and there are A LOT of marketing costs. Why? Because you can’t just rely on stupid people and rich people (and the golden combo: stupid rich people) to sit up and take notice. It needs a ‘story’ so that the hordes of temporarily distracted sane people will also engage.

This idea that people don’t just buy a product, they buy the story that goes along with the product, is absolutely fascinating. Fascinating because it requires intelligent people to be so bored and uninspired that a splurge of what we’ve scientifically established as “complete bollocks” will drive them towards making a purchase.

Our Verbosity description tells you absolutely zero about what’s in that bottle and 100% of legally permitted nonsense that the manufacturer has optimised to make you want to buy. OK, so you’ll have a squirt of it before you actually hand over your money, but by then the seed is planted.

Looking at the wider fashion industry – and specifically the premium end of the market – you find other examples of storytelling. As you might have already gathered, I’m not the sort of person who spends more than £100 on a pair of jeans. I think £100 is too far above the intrinsic value for a hardwearing garment intended to cover my lower half. I’ll go £60-70, which is pretty far above it too, but then the pair is still likely to be of far better quality, colour and cut than your Asda-esque garb. I buy this from a standard shopping centre outlet. My jeans have NO STORY.

If you want a story with your jeans, then check out Hiut Denim. Here’s a snappy bit of prose describing one of their product lines: Selvedge.

Selvedge is an investment. Ours is from Kuroki, the artisanal Japanese denim mill. Woven on a 1959 loom. 100% indigo dyed. Unwashed 14.5oz.

The key difference between this text and Verbosity is that Hiut’s is a succession of facts about the product. But aren’t they INTERESTING facts? You can’t help feeling “Oh my God, the jeans I’m about to buy were made on a 1959 loom from Japan, not some 2006 French junk” or “Whoa – 14.5oz – that is way cooler than any of that inauthentic 410 gram rubbish”. A little too pretentious for a Gap wearing tight arse (no pun intended) like me, but still very engaging indeed.

All of it builds a story, and it fits in wonderfully with the company’s website and its clubby little nuggets of information, hipster steampunk photography and general “vibe”. I dare say the actual products are lovingly and professionally produced, and that the people at Hiut believe in what they’re making a good deal more than the cynics at “Shanelle”.

The big question is – what can you learn from fashion marketing and communications that you can apply to a business-to-business environment? In my view, you learn almost nothing. B2B marketing needs personality, and DOES involve aspirations, but never in the realm of people’s personal aspirations for how they want to be perceived. Go large on this approach in a B2B environment and I’m sorry but you risk insulting your audience.

The story approach that makes a difference in fashion products is only really relevant in B2B when you’re explaining the background to the people at your company. But not all the time. I’ve worked with hardware distributors and components manufacturers and these aren’t places where your purchase has got much to do with people. A software developer or cybersecurity consultancy is different, because you’re buying people when you spend money with them.

No B2B copy must ever be devoid of humanity, simply because humans will read it. Take this blog for instance. What you’ve been reading so far is basically a roundabout way of ingratiating myself to people who work at businesses. I may or may not have failed in maintaining your interest, but I really can’t afford to insult your intelligence.

I’ll cover more on what B2B should include (rather than shouldn’t) in future blogs. For now, there must be something else to read…

SLOW MARKETING

I can’t abide airy-fairy marketing nonsense, but I do love a rhyming ditty. Hence I have come up with this:

“A brand should take a stand.”

I’m not giving advice about buying tradeshow booths here. Nor am I pumping any more molten excrement into the already steaming and heavily laden bandwagon of brand philosophy.

No. What I’m talking about is resistance; resistance against the pace that marketing is played at. I’m advocating thoughtfulness and purpose, but also unhurriedness and inevitability. Don’t mistake this as a charter for just chugging along or a manifesto for the festering. Damn it people, we need a strategy for slowness.

Slow food, slow travel, slow parenting – the whole slow movement is a fascinating concept, founded on the simple calculation that rushing around trying to get it done fast makes the end product markedly crapper than if you took your time. So why not slow marketing?

I interviewed an experienced PR Account Manager for a job once, and can still remember being completely taken aback when he introduced the notion of a three-year PR plan.

Having worked in an agency environment for so long, working exclusively in the very fast-moving technology sector, I scoffed at the idea and probably pontificated at him about ‘the quick and the dead’ and the realities of needing immediate results for extremely demanding clients.

Since then, things have only gotten faster and busier. New social media platforms, 24-hour TV news cycles, computers in everyone’s pockets, an explosion in rich media content… everything points to instant gratification both for the fee-paying corporate client of PR and communications services, and for their buyer audiences.

I thought that interviewee was talking garbage, but in fact it was me with his head in a bin. How far can you genuinely succeed with a six-month strategy, a two-month plan or a three-week campaign? You can measure progress and you can evaluate results, but if it’s the brand we’re talking about then you’re not giving yourself enough time to convince real human beings to impart trust and display curiosity. You can barely get them to click a link, and when they do we tell ourselves it really matters.

If you Google ‘Slow Marketing’, you could soon end up encountering the kind of (very nice) people who may or may not have done far too much acid in the 90s, have never had venture capitalists breathing down their necks, and whose idea of ‘putting food on the table’ is a split decision between having blueberry or cranberry jus to accompany the venison course.  Some cool ideas though…

But, to my mind, slow marketing doesn’t have to be a socks-and-sandals revolution. You can add the following slow principles into your marketing and communications thinking and benefit… er… pretty much immediately…

  • Remove the imperative from calls to action. Instead of ‘Buy Now’ and ‘Register Today’, treat your audience like sentient beings by encouraging them to think about the proposition. Go the whole hog and create a button labelled ‘Sleep On It’ and make sure nothing but zzzzzzzz happens when anyone clicks.  Seriously!
  • Stop changing straplines. If you spent enough time getting it right, stick with it. For ages…
  • Broadcast less, engage more. Use social feeds to ask what’s going on, what people want. Talk with your community, not to it…
  • Put your experts in the front line. No one gets to speak to anyone integral to the product in a dirt cheap supermarket or fast-food joint, but they do at a premium priced farmer’s market stall or upmarket restaurant.
  • Plan longer.  Build for the long term and your structure will last.

WHAT DOES A FREE iPHONE SAY ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS?

Whenever Apple releases a new consumer device, that’s the top prize giveaway that gets hawked on all the 3 m2 exhibition booths at trade shows up and down the land for the next six months. Unless you’ve been living under the earth’s crust these past few weeks, you’ll know that Apple just released the iPhone 6. I’ll bet a decent proportion of the shipments made in its first quarter will end up in these promotions.

As the company giving it away, you look relevant as well as fairly generous. You look like you understand that people want what’s new, and that this is going to attract people to give you their contact details and enter.

But it’s a bit lazy isn’t it? I mean it lacks a certain amount of imagination. It isn’t such an issue when the product is still very new – IP Expo is just a fortnight away and iPhone 6s will legitimately be a pretty hot draw – but when you get caught deep in one of the dusty recesses of Apple’s product roadmap, the best you might rock up with at CloudIT 2016 will be a iPod that everyone’s pretty much already got.

I like the prizes that communicate what the business is all about; that tie in with a theme for the event and why that company is at the show touting for your business. It makes it easier for the booth staff to explain the promotion, easier and more logical to express the value proposition behind the promotion ahead of the event, and a much better way of extending the mindshare of the prospects you engaged with when you follow up weeks, months or even years afterwards.

However, even these themes can get a bit tired can’t they? I’ve been to more IT trade shows that I’ve had cooked dinners (well, almost) and this is my top three laziest trade show themes:

  • The Formula One car. Someone knows someone who can get a replica F1 car from 4 years ago onto your stand for only £2k. It means you can talk to prospects about your ‘performance’. The giveaway is a driving experience. Some exhibitors will even dress their stands with dead-behind-the-eyes ‘promo girls’ to hand out leaflets.
  • The Casino: Whether it’s a three-metre diameter replica Wheel of Fortune, or just a cheap roulette set from Argos – you can pull off the Casino theme for any budget. Great if you want to talk to your customers about risk, or about being ‘a winning business’. Get really switched-on croupiers to articulate your product message, or be an idiot and hire promo girls to wear something ridiculous and… er…. hand out leaflets.
  • The Character Actor: This is where the entire premise of your theme is based around a well-known or entirely contrived character that you pay some actor about £150 a day to become. In my time I’ve seen a robot, a zombie, a quick-draw cowboy, a superhero called The LAN Man, a 12st 8lb (i.e. NOT fat) Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine, and a rather ill-advised (given the political situation at the time) ushanka wearing ambassador from the ‘People’s Republic of Hackistan’. Who knows who the agency will send on the day, but if they are the next Michael Sheen then it might just pay off. The trick here is to keep it professional at all times; it loses its lustre when you’re queuing up behind Batman while he asks for a VAT receipt for his overpriced Egg Mayonnaise sandwich.

When it all ties together, you succeed in communicating something that’s bigger and more logical and enduring that the sum of its parts. At least the companies employing the themes above are trying to think creatively, in spite of their lack of imagination. It’s almost tragic when you walk past a ghostly exhibitor booth with just two guys, a laptop, a glass bowl with a few business cards in it, and a little sign saying “Would you like to WIN the LATEST iPhone!”

Some colleagues far cleverer than me came up with a great idea for a trade show many years ago that we called ‘collars and cuffs’.

The client was a distributor of IT security products and the challenge they’d identified was that there were a lot of security solutions out there which were extremely large and expensive, and this made it difficult for reseller partners and their customers to know they weren’t overspending or ‘overspecing’.

The client’s objective for the show was to meet as many prospective reseller partners (and their customers) as possible. The stand was going to cost upwards of £30,000, so what they really wanted was to set-up meetings before the event and run a schedule, rather than relying on passing traffic to make their return on investment.

The idea was to send everyone on a pre-bought mailing list of prospects a collar or a cuff from a Savile Row shirt maker. We had a big box of these offcuts provided by the shirt company so must have mailed out about 500 to the best contacts along with a letter than explained how a meeting at the upcoming Infosec event would show them ‘how to be fitted for a tailor made security solution’ and allow them to ‘get the rest of this shirt’. The mailer – and the email equivalent that went out shortly after – had a great response and the client did a good job of following it up. The result was a packed schedule in time for the event itself.

The stand was dressed like a tailor’s shop, with real tailor’s mannequins and real tailors (from the shirt company) measuring up the prospects. The cost of the incentive was easily managed because the client could take a decision – either before the event or right there and then with the prospect in front of them – whether it was worth the £80 cost of the shirt to bother having the meeting.

Conversely, when you choose to have big prizes and give them out at random you don’t get to manage your returns so well. At least ‘break the safe’ and other similar games genuinely are random. The amount of times I’ve witnessed a company fix the prize draw by going through all the business cards to discard competitors, staff, irrelevant job titles etc., to identify the prospect of greatest value is testament to just how few prize draws are played straight.

Anyway ‘cuffs and collars’ got rolled out for a few clients and events, before the theme became a little tired and other companies caught wind of the idea.

People still talk about the company who did it first though, and remember as much about the proposition behind the promotion as the promotion itself.

That’s what I call good communication.

ODE TO ALDI

I’ve worked in marketing for 15 years so I understand how brands work. It always fascinated me whenever you got a bunch of marketing people together in a room how quickly they’d start waving around their favourite examples of brands ‘getting it right’, and ‘showing how it’s done’.

I’ve often felt a bit of a fraud in these situations, because the elephant in the room of course is that ‘brands’ might just be complete bullshit. Don’t get me wrong; having a recognised and trusted brand is immensely valuable. What I’m saying is that if anyone is going to be completely immune to the brand ‘snake-oil’ and other sleights of hand that influence mere mortals into their buying decisions, then it really should be marketing people. Us lot should be buying stuff for every other reason than ‘brand’.

Alas no. Recently I listened patiently to a very learned marketer – who once ran his own successful practice and now advises others on how to do it – harp on about his predisposition toward Howies clothing. Being shockingly unfashionable, I hadn’t heard of them. I’m sure they are very good, and my subsequent glance at them online has told me all about their environmentally conscious approach to high quality apparel for the outdoorsy.

But I’ll be honest, it bothered me; the way he was talking, it seemed as though he liked them because of several back-story/vibe/feel/brand related reasons, and the quality of actual product was incidental. On this basis the entire room nodded sagely that ‘they had a great brand’.

Now this is how brands succeed of course, we all know that. I just felt a bit disappointed that he’d been blissfully duped, along with the non-marketing hordes, despite being extremely well equipped to cut through the bullshit and just buy a decent set of waterproofs at the right price.

This was going to be a blog about how much more astute I am than anyone else in my wariness of all things ‘brand’ – but it doesn’t turn out quite that way.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a tight-arse and this does mitigate against paying a premium for something with no tangible value.

But that’s not why I love Aldi. And I mean, I LOVE ALDI.

I love the way they don’t employ anyone to keep their car park tidy, because if they did then their grocery prices would be very marginally higher. I love the lack of abundance, so that they won’t have any fresh meat left by about 2pm on a Saturday because they already sold it all – not for environmental reasons you understand, just because waste equals cost. I love how they sell random cut-price stuff that you ‘might’ need – alongside essential groceries – rather than do what the other supermarkets do and sell you insurance and mobile phone contracts which are of course just someone else’s service but sold to you with a built-in profit margin. I love how they almost literally throw your shopping at you in order to get as few checkout operators as possible to process as much shopping as possible.

No, I don’t love Aldi because of the money. I think I really love them because of their brand.

Aldi’s advertising campaign: “Like brands, only cheaper” is so brilliant it takes my breath away. It speaks to a target audience of educated, affluent people who KNOW that they are being stiffed on a daily basis by ‘brands’ – and giving them an alternative. And what do they back this up with in their positioning? The Which? Supermarket of the Year (two years running) message. Brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

The last word goes to Waitrose and Asda, both of who are under pressure from the likes of Aldi, Nisa and Lidl. And how do these big boys all publicly refer to their nascent competition? As ‘discounters’… What a carefully chosen word that is. It infers that their competitors’ prices won’t always be so low.

Clever, but will it be clever enough?