Tag Archives: marketers

‘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…

TO THE MARKETING MANAGERS

Here’s to the marketing managers – the cajolers and the wranglers

The ones who make the deals, who smooth the bumps in the road

The problem sorters, the burden shoulderers

Here’s to the organisers; the fixers

The type of professional who looks at Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction sorting out the aftermath of Marvin getting shot in the face and says: “I could do that. Hell, I DO do that.”

You guys can get people round the table…

Here’s to the arse-kickers, the action takers, the bullshit detectors

Who know how to plan, and know when the plan needs to go out the window

Here’s to the swans, serenely floating along, while furiously paddling like hell

Who ‘get’ it, but rarely get the credit for it

Here’s to the hustlers, the ones with a knack for finding budget

Who know all the tricks, and when to use them

You are the motors and the motivators. You don’t give up. You see it to the end. You get it out the door.

And I’m not just saying that.  I mean – where would we all be without you?

Gorging on Christmas Content

The earliest journalist content request for a Christmas related article I got this year (from Peter of Rowing & Regatta magazine) was the 23rd of June.

Print magazines continue to use Christmas to jostle with each other on the newsstand. Even for those mags distributed on controlled circulations, it’s a time for bumper issues, annual round-ups and free giveaways. It’s also the time for most yearly subscription renewals, and that all-important December issue is the last make-or-break chance to make a genuine impression. However, there are less print magazines now than ever, and so the proportion of corporate communications being funnelled to buyers through that channel is getting marginalised.

The typical method of reaching the corporate buyer remains email, and again we see Christmas emerge as a common theme for content. You’re more than likely to receive some of these in your inbox in the run up to Christmas:

  • The ‘instead of burning carbon to send you a Christmas card, we thought we’d email you this’ seasonal greeting
  • The ‘lessons from 2014 you can put into action now’ list of top tips
  • The ‘what’s going to be really important in 2015 that we just happen to be ideally placed to sell you right now’ thought leadership piece
  • The ‘countdown to Christmas’ series of promotional emails, with a new one every single day
  • The ‘best content/news from the past year’ round-up (great for covering up the profound lack of any fresh content/news)
  • The ‘make sure you enjoy yourself this Christmas without having to worry about things that might go wrong as a direct consequence of not buying one of our products yet’ semi-threatening discount deal
  • The ‘buy now for no other reason than because it’s Christmas and we’ve stuck reindeer everywhere’ limited time offer

The obvious drawbacks with this approach are:

  • It’s a bit hackneyed, isn’t it?
  • The amount of Christmas related spam email always spikes during this time of year, and your message is a high risk of being zapped by the recipient (if the spam filter doesn’t get it first)
  • Email is also diminishing as a proportion of corporate communications voice, with the slack being taken up by social.

Ah… social. Real-estate wise, we’ve gone from A4 sized magazine cover landing on someone’s desk, to an email subject line enduring in someone’s inbox, to now – with social – an ephemeral snapshot of content appearing momentarily in the line of sight of a busy person’s fickle social media preference. What to put in those 140 characters or less…? Does your community want it to be full of knockabout festive cheer, or to continue engaging them on the kinds of trusted content you’ve worked hard to develop in the other 350 days of the year?

Christmas is 9 characters long (unless you’re the kind of heathen who’d swap for Xmas) and many people are sick of it by mid-December. We all need a creative theme for our content, but how creative is it when it’s the same theme as everyone else?

I say you threaten your integrity by complacently going through the motions with any kind of content. If you really want to share a good old-fashioned Christmas message with your customers or prospects, then you should absolutely go ahead and do it. But if you started looking at the calendar in mid-November and thought: “Eh up, time to wheel out the chrimble schmaltz,” then kindly go and stick it up your chimney.

And before I unwittingly cause offence by overlooking the religious and spiritual significance of Christmas, consider for a moment – by comparison – what vacuous lack of homage a box-shifting IT distributor is paying when it spams customers about its 2 for 1 Christmas offer on Ethernet routers.

A little less Christmas surely makes the Christmas we’ve got left far more special.

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 BISCUIT ARE YOU?” & OTHER TALES FROM INSIDE THE MESSAGING WORKSHOP

If you’re too close to something, you can’t see it so well. This is the value of an external consultant who not only brings rare skills but also can step back and take a different perspective that’s free from historical baggage, “we’ve always done it this way” thinking and office politics.

Messaging workshops are a very useful way of enabling a communications consultant to get at what is often the most surprisingly difficult thing to articulate: your proposition. But ‘messaging workshop’ is a very arty-farty term isn’t it? I mean, a couple of grand to sit in a room all day with a troupe of prancing marketing types getting you to muse on what sort of biscuit your brand is most reminiscent of…?

If you can get over the name, and get your head around the beautiful simplicity of what happens during one of these sessions, then you’ll realise just how immensely valuable they can be to your entire marketing strategy.

The perfect recipe for a successful messaging workshop:

  • An appropriate group of people from the business itself (in physical attendance rather than conference call – that just doesn’t work), including people who sell the product/service, provide customer support, create the intellectual property etc. Don’t just have marketing people. Make sure the MD/CEO is there.
  • A qualified facilitator who can lead the group through a series of questions and exercises; ably supported by a scribe who can record all of the discussions.
  • A set agenda, with timings, allowing for best use of the day.
  • An agreed set of outcomes. These would typically include the development of a series of ‘elevator pitch’ propositions of varying length with additional consideration to how these could be put to work in creative marketing campaigns and specific channels like PR.
  • A session length of around 6 hours, including for lunch to be brought in.
  • No mobiles or other distractions.

A typical workshop is 40% collecting, 40% creating and 20% therapy. Magic really does happen inside messaging workshops, and it’s surprising just how many times I’ve sat in one and it’s become apparent that the people around the table – all of who occupy senior positions in what is invariably a start up or early stage business – have NEVER got together and talked like this before.

What often isn’t appreciated by people who’ve never commissioned a messaging or positioning workshop is that the majority of the consultant’s work is done AFTER the workshop is finished. Like I said, it’s 40% collecting information and this bit is immensely important in the week or so after the event to interpret and replay the energy, observations and ideas from the session to produce a set of outcomes that are not only what the participants recognise and agree with, but which will serve their objectives for clearer and more differentiated communications.

But there are pitfalls in doing this too. I’ll leave you with some ploys that you need to watch out for when working with a communications consultant on a messaging workshop.

  • The hilarious cost

It is ever the case that, if you pay peanuts, then thou shalt get peanut eating sub-human primates. A lot of time goes into a workshop, a day each for the two consultants plus another two or three days to develop the stuff back at base. What I’m talking about is being shaken down for five, six, seven, TEN thousand pounds by some ultra-cool agency with exorbitant rents to cover. The illusion is all about value. “Is this going to be a valuable exercise?” you quite rightly ask. “Well of course it is – just look how bloody expensive we’ve made it!”

  • Insisting that the workshop takes place offsite or at their premises

This is rubbish; it doesn’t matter where you do it so long as it’s comfortable, accessible and private. This is just a ploy designed to inflate the price or sell other things at you harder.

  • Bigging up their power player

Telling you crap like “We’re really excited to have Frazer pop in for some of today’s session” is an irritating connivance intended to make you believe in the value of a prat in a bow tie and espadrilles. Frazer is no better than anyone else, but by stalking in like some rock-star, only to sulk in the corner and then pop up with a sage comment like: “We don’t need a strategy, we need a stratagem”, he can make even very intelligent, pragmatic people behave like nodding idiots.

Be careful out there everyone. And if you need any more help, don’t be afraid to ask.

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.

THE CHINESE ARE COMING

Globalisation was supposed to make it absolutely imperative for me to have a ‘modern language’ GCSE, and look how that turned out. Putting up with Mrs Flanagan for two years equipped me with little more than the ability to get an occasional giggle (or patient correction when I said ‘really, it’s kidney’ when I meant ‘really, it’s nothing’) from the French people I have since worked with.

In my school at 13, French was still the big one. By 15, I found out six months too late that it should have been German. At 18, everyone thought Spanish was paramount, amidst confident claims that no American president after the year 2000 would ever get elected unless he/she spoke it fluently. By the turn of the century, with the inevitable rise of the Chinese superpower, the smart money was supposed to be on learning some Mandarin.

All that fretting seems a bit silly now.  We’d clearly seen the evidence for Britain’s post-Imperial decay as a global power and just assumed her language (yes, yes, yes – and America’s etc.) would be going the same way.

I’m not some ignorant linguaphobe who wanders around like a safari-suited Denham Elliot going “Hello! Does anyone speak English?!” refusing to bend to cultural differences. Indeed, being Welsh and married to a Welsh speaker I am equally committed to the preservation of what is, in the cold light of day, a redundant language. But with English utterly dominant as the international language of business in 2014, I believe native English speakers have an exceptional opportunity to exploit their advantage in a global economy for knowledge skills. If you’re a native English speaking communications professional, then you’d better be pretty exceptional in how you use it. There is absolutely no room for you to be complacent.

Whether it’s junior PR pros, trade IT journalists straight out of college or everyday business people going about their work, I’ve seen the average standard of English fall through the floor over the years. At the same time, the skill with English I’ve seen from the likes of German, French, Dutch, Indian and – dare I say it – Australian clients and colleagues has been extraordinary, and getting better all the time.  We need to sharpen our pencils!

I gave a talk at Cohesive recently, called “The Chinese Are Coming – so what do they need you for?” which covered some of this in depth. We started off in party atmosphere with a big bowl of prawn crackers and a fairly knockabout exploration of the issues. We ended up soberly confronting the truth that an increasingly international economy is not going to require more diverse language and communications skills; it’s going to need better English ones. I’ll update this blog with a link to the presentation once I figure out how to get a sanitised version of it onto Slideshare.

It’s not just about the Chinese of course, but the Chinese example is especially pertinent to the technology industry with Lenovo, Huawei and ZTE just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese government’s goal is to transform the country into a world technological power, and when the Chinese government stands up and says it’s going to do something, it invariably (albeit chillingly) gets it done.

Researching my presentation I found – where figures are available – that only Honduras, Ethiopia, Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic have a lower proportion of population than China able to speak English (less than 1%). The Chinese government apparently doesn’t believe changing that is a top priority, and why would it?

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?