As a brand, what is your reason for being? What will your heritage be?

Brands with a heritage make us feel confident and comfortable, in part because history conveys a sense of weight, of gravity, of trust. Modern brands (going back, say 50 years or so) do not, by simple fact of being born at a later time, have that depth. Which is why they typically need to build a heritage, a story – or that trust. Some new brands do this very easily and naturally, like Hiut Denim. Some do it through first class customer service, which immediately *becomes* the story. Zappos? Check. Amazon? Check. Most brands that emerge suddenly and situate themselves in this loud world without either a heritage or customer-centric focus fail to adequately communicate their reason for being, and consequently come across as having missed a beat in the rhythm of the market.

214 High Street in 1935 & 2014; images from
214 High Street, Lewes, in 1935 & 2014; images from

During the Brighton Photo Biennial in October, I walked down a high street in Lewes, East Sussex, where one of the projects on show was the Reeves Archive. In the window display of a few stores was an image of the frontage of that store, taken around 1855. It was just a regular high street in a small town, but that project made Lewes’ high street feel much more important than that because it did a great job at communicating the heritage of all those stores. In some cases, the stores were actually modern brands that had simply bought or leased real estate over the years as older stores went out of business; the photo project added something to them at least temporarily.

I visited the Sainsbury’s Archive last week, and that told a similar, enduring story about Sainsbury’s.


Bowndling is built ground-up with a story too. When Collyn Ahart was around 14 years old, she went kayaking 10 miles all by herself in Canada, over a route that could on occasion be so treacherous that it had killed someone the week prior to her outing. Her parents weren’t too happy when they found out of course, but it was testament to that spirit of adventure they instilled in her themselves. Collyn has built Bowndling for women like her – women who want to enhance their lives with beautiful and strong experiences, personally and professionally. She is inspired by the doers of our generation and hopes that future generations will take these women as inspiration themselves and reject currently held stereotypes of fitness and success. As she told me, ‘If there was ever a time for fearlessness, it’s now.’ It’s a timely and important point of view that has a place amidst the growing global discussion on gender disparity in spaces ranging from corporate boardrooms to Davos. If, as recent research indicates, women lack self-confidence and fear being judged, then the voice of a brand like Bowndling is relevant and important.

It’s clear when you look at it that a considerable amount of thought has gone into the design of the brand. Collyn confirmed this and explained the inspiration to me: “Maps, souvenirs of travel like postcards, postage stamps, passports and old photos, especially those in duotone and sepia. Think of the photojournalist with the Raybans.” This spirit of adventure is reflected in Bowndling’s communications as well. Their online journal, featuring conversations with inspiring women across the globe, is the home of a growing body of inspirational travel writing.

So if you’re working on a brand that has no heritage or history to begin with, think of what your reason for being is, what kind of narrative you want to be remembered by, and go from there.

Engaging with target audiences – the age factor

Something made me look twice at this when I was thinking of booking tickets for an event the other day, because I haven’t seen many events where a person’s age gets them a discount. I think brand sponsors of events can use this in interesting ways if they choose to. Youth brands can give people under 18, 21 or 25 special access, for example. Something like American Express priority access to the Tribeca Film Festival, or even O2 Priority, but linked to age rather than membership or ownership, so that a larger pool of the target audience are motivated to become members or owners. I attend a lot of events and wouldn’t mind exchanging my email address for the opportunity to get insider access to an interesting event. Of course, the onus would be on the brand to create and maintain a relationship that is valuable to me in the long run after that.


Logorama won the Best Animated Short Film Award at the 2010 Oscars. It is ridiculously thrilling and really disturbing at the same time, and definitely not for kids. As this site says, it’s ‘Pulp Fiction for Brands’ alright. 16 minutes, so sit back and take your time watching it.

Blind brands

I bought a leather bag today that wasn’t really cheap, and as I was paying for it, I was asked whether I also wanted to buy a specially formulated cloth that would protect it from day-to-day scratches and the like, for an extra £2. I did, but it got me thinking: if the brand had given it free instead, they would have earned a lot of goodwill at no huge cost to them. If it is profitability they are worried about, then they can just as easily build the cost into the product, which I’m sure they are doing anyway, to some extent at least. I don’t understand why some brands refuse to get it.  

Value added.

I was walking through Paddington station today and was pleasantly surprised by a booth that Lurpak had put up. They were also handing out goodie bags to passers-by, that had some baby potatoes, garlic and a small wrapped pat of Lurpak butter, with some recipes to use the three together. Russell recently spoke about urban spam and how most brands just try to thrust themselves into our face without adding much value to our lives. When I walked past the Lurpak booth, I didn’t just get some potatoes and butter. Lurpak brought a smile to my face as well – and yes, the volunteer staff did have smiles on their faces. I think any kind of marketing that does that is successful. Period. 

That I took the time to enter the competition they had in conjunction with this promo is to their advantage. 

How social anthropologists relate to brands differently from planners

I studied sociology and anthropology when I was at university. On the face of it, ‘sociology’ seems a simple enough word, formed by the combination of two words: ‘logos’ meaning ‘the study of’, and ‘socius’ meaning ‘society’. Wikipedia has the latter’s Latin root down as ‘companion’, but lets stick to ‘society’.

‘Society’ is of course not an easy word to define. As a person who spends a lot of time looking at society’s response to various communications initiatives, the truth is that you’re going for broke if you think you can predict with 100% accuracy how people will react to any new initiative, even if you do intense consumer or market research. You may be 99% sure, but at the last minute that 1% can take over and prove you wrong.  This is in essence what Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in his book The Black Swan.

I was thinking about how traditional planners and social anthropologists would have different approaches to the same problem. Traditional planners come up with ideas based on extensive consumer and brand research – but their research usually doesn’t provide for that Black Swan or 1% probability. They focus on the 99%, because that’s what they’re trained to do. A social anthropologist, however, on the other hand, would think of ways to collect that Black Swan, that unlikely bombshell. Newton didn’t discover gravity because he planned for the apple to fall, did he?

One of the other sociological ideas that marketing guru Seth Godin has picked up on is that of tribes or brand communities: ‘Tribes’ is in fact the title of his latest book. People aggregate around something that has what Simon Cowell calls the X factor. ‘X’ may be defined differently by different groups of people, but that factor is responsible for Apple tribes, Nike tribes, eco-warriors and so on. People join these tribes for various reasons: most are bound together by their love for the brand/issue or a shared value system, some join to have a sense of belonging, some to be part of the first wave of adopters, some to have something to show off, some join out of curiosity and remain passive observers.

In any case, this common bond is what all brands aim to create and sustain. If they’re lucky, they can create a frenzy, such as the behaviour exhibited by teenage fans when they see the latest boy band in person. I remember reading in university that this ‘tribal’ behaviour needs to be kept in check, because it can be the difference between a harmless yet passionate group of people and a mob or riot crowd, especially in the case of politics. With regard to brands, where reputation is all they have, stirring up negative emotions for rival brands will probably cause damage in the long run, just like the politics of hate in mainstream politics. Personally, I was surprised when Microsoft and Apple entered into their ‘I’m a Mac (or not)’ series of verbal parries. I don’t think that kind of tactic will go far. It is too direct and undermines the viewer’s intelligence – which is where psychology comes in, which is again part of social anthropology.

Ahonen and Moore have also brought sociology into their latest book called ‘Communities Dominate Brands’. In their blog, they talk about the different stages that people go through and how brands that channel people’s needs during different stages can retain them as fans when they move to the next stage.

There are lots of other examples to prove my point: by studying society – in essence, sociology – brands can evolve and achieve progress faster than they would otherwise. Alternatively, they can get a social anthropologist on their team. You know how to contact me!

Tracking their way to more customers

Via Drew’s blog, take a look at Domino’s Pizza Tracker which tells you at which specific stage of baking your pizza is at, before it is delivered. Somewhat similar to the tracking service offered by shipping companies like DHL, Domino’s tracker is unique because the product we can track is a consumable, and because it really mollifies you, in a sense, to know that you can actually see (or know, to be precise) what is happening to your pizza (and therefore your money), while you wait for it. Technically, Domino’s didn’t need to do that, because they already provide a 30-minute delivery guarantee for their pizzas. But this additional service will motivate even more people (like me) to order pizzas from them because it will strike them as a pizza brand that is serious about customer service and shows that in their actions. In other words, Domino’s is walking the talk. Good stuff. 

Notes on 10 Rules for a Post-Branded World

There’s a very interesting manifesto that Jonathan Salem Baskin, columnist at Advertising Age and author of the book ‘Branding only works on cattle’ has come up with. His basic premise is that we live in a post-branded world where brands are on the decline because it is so much more difficult to create and maintain loyal consumers than ever before, no matter what new viral campaign they come up with. He also enumerates the reasons why businesses need to re-orient their way of working in keeping with this reality. This is something I’ve thought about for a while now, and has made me more confident than ever before that it is the rationale behind the action that counts and not the action itself, because the action is often perceived as a one-off and cannot create lasting impact – which Baskin says in so many ways.

Essentially, he says that a brand today is all about the experience, because reality is what people talk about and technology has empowered them to talk about in whatever way they want, and that consumers are no longer silly enough to believe whatever drivel a brand throws at them – if they try using terms that are vague and not authentic and easy to understand, people can sniff it out a mile away. All they need to do is Google the term, really. Only one thing he said I don’t quite agree with – yet. He doesn’t believe in integrated marketing and says a brand should integrate over time, not content. For example, quoting a website in a radio ad doesn’t make sense because drivers aren’t likely to write it down. My argument would be that they aren’t going to write it down, but if it is sufficiently memorable, they’ll go check it out later. I’ve done that many times – remembered something and then gone back home to see what it’s about on the site. I think marketing should be integrated over time AND content, as long as the message is not compromised. Which is another thing Baskin says – that what matters is the message, and it has to come from the experience of the media instead of being inserted into it. 
I appreciate the fact that he’s encouraged brands to modify the manifesto as they see fit – to take it as a starting point and ‘make it their own’. He’s given everyone food for thought – and by keeping the conclusion open-ended, encouraged discussion, which is what any strong message should aim to achieve. Funnily enough, I think the manifesto has helped his OWN brand, as a personality!

Brands through the ages

I mosied down to the Museum of Brands a couple of days ago. What Valeria Maltoni says in her blog Conversation Agent is very true – brand stories define us. At the museum, I essentially took a trip down memory lane. Seeing so many brands, many of which are non-existent now, made me remember specific instances from my childhood, and it was one of those feel-good moments, if you know what I mean. That’s the power of brands, silly and commercial as it sounds. Walking through the display of brands from the Victorian period till now was very interesting. The events of the times, such as the two World Wars, had a significant impact on product advertising during those periods, as you can see from the ad for Pond’s below.
The colonization of India by Britain and its independence was also an event that was reflected in advertising. Camp Coffee, for example, changed its packaging from the 1930’s, which showed a liveried ‘native’ from India serving his white master coffee from a tray, through to the 1960’s and 1990’s when the native man, post-India’s independence in 1947, was promoted to sitting next to the white man as an equal. When the tray was removed from the packaging in 1957, apparently British traditionalists complained. Anyway, I thought it was a brilliant history lesson told through the story of a brand.

Recently, I was reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and in it he mentions a brand that stuck in my memory because I hadn’t heard of it, since the period that Rushdie was writing about that I’m referring to was the 1940’s or so, and obviously I hadn’t been born then. The brand was Kolynos toothpaste. So when I saw it in a poster in the museum, it brought a smile to my face and everything fell in place. Bit of trivia: Kolynos was mentioned in J.D. Salinger’s classic Catcher in the Rye as well. 
 And the last brand that I have to mention is Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, a product I used to eat a lot of when I was younger, which was apparently called Sugar Ricicles at some point when they had good old Noddy as its poster-boy. Everyone remembers Noddy and Big Ears from their childhood, I’m sure! Interestingly, if you go to Rice Krispies’ website now, you won’t be surprised to note it’s tagline – Childhood is Calling. 

So there you go – bits of my life and my interests, through the words of brands. 

Some brands do get it…

I first heard about Berocca’s Blogger Relief Pack on Priyanka’s blog, and being sufficiently intrigued, ordered one for myself. It took them less than a week to send me my pack. Here it is, in all its glory:

In case you’re wondering what it includes, there’s a glass, pen, stress ball, a keychain that makes bubble-wrap popping sounds that says ‘Ee-haa’ after you press it 200 times (yes, I tested it), a USB device in the shape of a panic button (that I haven’t tested yet), and a rubber pen holder in the shape of a man. Extremely quirky, yet for the most part, useful stuff.

Quite a few people have been writing about their experiences with Berocca since they started sending out the Blogger Relief packs, and I must say that so far, mine has been rather good. The pack arrived in good condition, got me all excited, and all in all, gave me a very positive experience of the brand. I’ve never had Berocca before, but I’m certainly up for adding some orange zing to my water, as long as it doesn’t harm me!

If only more brands took the trouble to do this, and do it well. Who doesn’t like receiving nice things in the post, that too at no cost to them? It’s a word-of-mouth world today, after all.