Beyond Onions and Pyramids
“Is it ‘Friendly” or ‘Approachable’?”
“How about ‘Accessible’?”
“I prefer “Confident.’”
We’ve all been there. In that place that feels like some surreal parallel universe otherwise known as Defining the Brand. Spending days, weeks and even months horse-trading over adjectives. Filling in geometric shapes of various kinds. Keys, onions, pyramids, temples and so on. If I found myself one day being asked to complete a dodecahedron I don’t think I would be surprised.
And while we tell our clients that it isn’t a tagline or indeed anything consumer-facing, we’re still trying to work out what precisely that ‘brand essence’ thing at the center of the onion or top of the pyramid is anyway. And what we do with it once we’ve got it.
And when it’s all over, and everything has been dutifully filled in and everyone is ‘aligned’, what happens to that precious document? Absolutely nothing.
These exercises are largely an auditing and political alignment process. The output is rarely ever used as a source of action and initiative. While they might be tarted up in Powerpoint and sit on shelves as a reference, they invariably fail to be living documents. Certainly much of the content would be guaranteed to send the eyeballs of most creatives, innovators, product development teams – and indeed anyone charged for actually delivering the brand into people’s lives – rolling right back into their skulls.
Moreover, the theory is increasingly unfit for purpose. The language of ‘brand personality’ or ‘tone of voice’ was borne of the age of messaging. And that’s fine. But an increasing amount of what we’re creating is participative. Stuff that involves people. Gives them something to do. What’s the tone of voice of an app? Or an experiential event? Personality encourages us to think about what we say. Not about what we do. Or more importantly, what people do with the stuff we make.
The Need for a New Model
We will find our way through the complex and ever-shifting environment of change we find ourselves in if we are led by brand thinking. When you know what kind of brand you are building – its story, its values, its effect on our senses and the emotions – the complex array of choices become clearer to decide between.
And if we need to know how to express our brands in a more digital, media-complex world, then the answer won’t be found digging around in the world of media and digital itself. Brand and marketing issues aren’t solved as Guy Murphy once said to me, from ‘media out’, but from the ‘brand in’.
So brand models help structure our thinking. But many of the models we grapple with simply don’t help clarify, let alone inspire actions and innovations.
We need a model that doesn’t reside in Theory Land, that can act as both a strategic and a creative document without requiring an intervening translation, and that can act as an immediate and practical trigger for actions and imaginations.
So no more theory. Or brand gobbledegook. And absolutely no geometric shapes. They embarrass even planners.
I want to argue that there are only two questions that matter:
What do you believe?
And what are you going to do about it?
Purpose, Conviction and the Growth Imperative
Brands need to be change agents if they’re to have a role in the world.
They need to improve or enhance people’s lives. And they need to be dynamic if they’re to stimulate the topline growth that creates value for shareholders.
Brands like sharks, move forwards or they die.
The need for sustained dynamism means that brands need more than just objectives. Objectives can be met. In contrast, a purpose is never fulfilled.
It’s the difference between making sure your kids do well at school. And being a good parent. One is a task that is completed. The other is something that encourages in one a constant stream of new actions, initiatives and behaviours. Precisely because it can never be accomplished.
So having a purpose gives brands something to constantly chase after, something to innovate in the name of, something to find new ways of delivering.
And that demands that brands have a point of view on an issue in people’s lives – a set of Convictions – about how they believe the world should be. As Gareth Kay has recently argued “we need to think about creating strategies that have an enthusiasm bigger than the brand or their category.”
Convictions give a brand an enduring and consistent purpose. It’s hard to have a purpose if you don’t have deeply-held values. If you don’t value some things more than others. If you don’t have a belief-system.
The notion of ‘brand values’ has been entirely corrupted by the marketing process. They’ve been treated entirely as adjectives. As ways of describing a brand’s tone of voice. We’ve forgotten that values are something much more immediate and tangible.
Asking “What does my brand value?” – or better yet, “What is the one thing my brand values above all else?” is likely to yield far more interesting answers than the usual, lazy “What are my brand values?”
Values are things you believe in. Things you make sacrifices in the name of. Values give you enemies to battle. Things to champion and chase. Convictions are the perpetual motion machine at the heart of powerful brands.
Doing Something About It
What matters above all though, is what we do about our purpose. What are we going to make and do that evidences our beliefs? What are we going to give people as the consequence of our convictions? Coca-Cola wants more people to experience more moments of happiness.
Nike wants more people to well, just do it. Everything it does is devoted to giving people the motivation and means to do so.
Honda devotes its engineering capabilities to chasing after the difficult, the mad, and the impossible in the belief that this is what makes for better lives, and a better world.
Action-thinking encourages solutions beyond messages. Our measure of success becomes not message transmission, but the degree to which the issue that lies at the heart of our conviction is addressed.
So how do we capture the nature of a brand in a way that’s actually meaningful and useful?
I think we can accomplish it simply and precisely. Without recourse to Powerpoint. Without diagrams that embarrass even planners. Without the usual endless verbiage and absurd navel-gazing debate over semantics.
Moreover, we can do it in way that is fit for purpose in a participative, technologically-rich consumer environment. And in a way that those who bring it to life – from technicians to creatives – will actually find useful. And even inspiring:
What is the belief at the heart of your brand?
And what are you going to do about it?
Conviction + Action = Brand Idea.