Archives for category: Branding

I’ve just been planning out a ‘creative writing in business’ workshop. As part of it, I’m going to be sending people out for a slightly random wander round the neighbourhood. That might seem counter-intuitive – people usually think of workshops as being tightly planned and very focussed – but in fact purposeful self-distraction is key to the creative process.

I tend to think of it as letting your subconscious go to work. Whenever I’ve got a creative problem to solve, I start by gathering as much information as I can. That’s a very conscious, rational process. I want to learn as much as I can about whatever it is I’m looking at, and I want to know that I’ve learned it.

Say, for example, I’m coming up with a new name for a car. I’ll find out as much about the car as I can. I’ll try and understand what makes it unique, and what sort of people are going to be driving it. I’ll dig up information about its competitors, too. And I’ll do some more general reading, to help me get to grips with the way people are talking generally.

All that’s very helpful. But it’s only a starting point. I tend to think of it as a creative brief for my subconscious. Once I’ve briefed it, it needs some space and time to go to work. And that’s where the distraction comes in. It’s there to occupy the more superficial parts of my mind, so the deeper bits get all the time and space they need to do the job.

So, I might noodle around on the internet. I might go and make myself a coffee. I might take a stroll round the block, or go for a run. Anything that stops me thinking too directly about the problem tends to work. That’s when I find that the really good ideas tend to pop up.

In fact, that’s how naming a car worked the last time I had to do it. I’d had a couple of days of research, and I’d blasted out some basic name ideas, but none of them were really doing the job. So, I decided to leave it for a bit and cycle home. And that was the best thing I could have done.

The right name popped into my head while I was waiting for some traffic lights to turn green. I didn’t want to forget it, so I called up my voicemail and left myself a reminder of what it was. And then, back home, for a nice relaxed evening knowing that I could head back to the office the next day and know that the job was done!

It struck me just now that the best way of writing for brands is to see your words as speech, not prose.

That came out of thinking about the difference between writing for brands and writing fiction. I’ve always separated them by saying that, when I write for a brand, I’m trying to sound like someone else, and when I write fiction I’m trying to sound like myself.

But in fact, when I’m writing fiction I’m never just talking in my own voice. Stories are built on characters, and characters spend an awful lot of time talking to each other. So, whenever I’m telling a story, I’m actually working hard to sound like several other people at once.

And that’s what made me think that writing dialogue a lot like writing for brands. In both cases, I’m trying to understand and communicate a coherent personality, one that’s entirely separate from my own. And that, I think, is going to be quite a useful insight, both when I’m writing and when I’m teaching writing.

First of all, it’s a reminder that brand communications are more effective when they’re pitched in a more conversational tone of voice. A formal, blandly corporate tone might share information, but it can’t share emotion like speech can. And – of course – emotional engagement is core to any effective piece of brand writing.

And secondly, it’s a reminder that we live in a world where any brand’s audience can very easily go online and start talking back. Any piece of brand writing can start a new conversation, or become part of an ongoing one.

That means, every time I write for a brand, I need to be thinking about what’s already been said about it, how what I write is going to fit into it, and how I’d like people to reply to whatever it is I’ve just said.

Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. He was wrong. In fact, in the future, everyone will be an advert for fifteen minutes. That’s because it’s in the nature of experience channels to allow just about anyone to share their impressions of a particular brand in a way that’s very public, very credible, and thus very good for the brand.

Whenever that happens, I’m reminded of ‘The Matrix’, and in particular the way that the men-in-black security agents possess people. Someone perfectly normal is walking down the street; all of a sudden, they get zapped, turn into a man in black, and start chasing their target; all of a sudden, the chase has moved on, and a rather puzzled citizen is left to be themselves again. When you watch that, you’re not watching fantasy; you’re watching a very astute metaphor for the ad agency of the future.

And now it’s my turn to step into the chase and become an advert, because the rather lovely people at FreshCase have sent me a couple of boxes of Hardys Nottage Hill wine to try out – a Cabernet Shiraz and a Sauvignon. Rather than write about it, I thought I’d make a quick videoblog – so, here’s my own small contribution to their rapidly growing experience channel:

http://vimeo.com/9030111

And how’s the FreshCase experience channel coming along? Well, if you google FreshCase then the first page you get balances more formal news stories with a number of bloggers talking about the product. It’s not at Red Bull levels yet, but it is an impressive demonstration of just how impactful a well curated web presence – rather than a website – can be. A whole page of positive mentions from varied sources will always trump one or two search results pointing to a single site, no matter how well placed those results are.

What’s interesting, though, is how FreshCase’s experience channel can develop. It’s doing very well on the blogs, but those rather funky wine boxes haven’t yet metamorphosed into the fully fledged social objects that they could so easily become. As a result, the FreshCase experience channel isn’t yet fully mature; the various film and video sites are still waiting to be populated with content that records the social drinking of FreshCase wine, rather than just the more individual testing of it.

There’s a very interesting opportunity there. I’d look to follow the example of Hugh Macleod’s work with Stormhoek; by getting 100 Dinners going, he created an experience channel based on authentic real world fun, that both generated substantial online content for the brand, and helped a lot of people have a really good time so doing. Oh, and increased sales by five in less than two years!

I wonder what the FreshCase equivalent would be? I’m not quite sure, because I’m not really close enough to the brand to judge. If you put me up against a wall and threatened to shoot me, though, I’d be tempted to think in terms of FreshCase soirees / salons; I’d get some interesting folk along, maybe a little performance of some description, lots of conversation, a FreshCase box on every table, make sure there’s wireless, and let the social media generate itself. And of course I’d run them over a very specific six week period, because that’s how long wine lasts in a FreshCase box.

And in the meantime, I’m off to have another glass of wine. One tip, though – the wine doesn’t breathe as well as it could, precisely because the box is so effectively airtight. That’s not a problem for the white, but we’ve been decanting the red and letting it sit for a bit before drinking. Chin chin!

Having introduced the idea of an Experience Channel in a previous post, I thought I’d sketch out what I meant by it in a little more detail. So, a few more thoughts on what exactly I think an Experience Channel is:

Poly communication

In an Experience Channel, communication isn’t one way or two way, but multi-way. Anyone can talk with anyone, whenever they want to. Interaction opportunities are created from as many different kinds of media as possible. Coherence develops from a single theme or set of themes shared across multiple platforms, rather than from use of a single, central content platform.

Three degrees of channel engagement

There are three different ways of engaging with an Experience Channel; as a content creator, a poster or a lurker. Content creators create or add new content. Posters comment on existing material. Lurkers are an audience in the traditional sense; although they could interact if they wanted to, they choose to sit back and watch the Channel develop.

Web presence, not website

An Experience Channel’s front end isn’t really a particular website; it’s a page of search engine results. It does not use a single, exclusive site as a platform. It can be accessed through multiple portals, and exists on multiple sites. Everyone who engages with it is free to pick and choose from these different portals / sites, mixing up their own personal version of the experience Channel.

Evolution through interaction

Experience Channels are in a constant state of evolution. They develop through conversation between content creators and posters. Ideally, regular new content should constantly be triggering new bursts of conversation, to both inspire existing content creators / posters / lurkers, and bring in new ones. As much as possible, evolution should be open and unmoderated – it’s the community that creates and steers the channel, not one single channel owner.

Keeping it real

Experience Channels exist in the offline world too; they’re not just about virtual engagement. Formal and informal events bring together channel members to meet and engage with each other, and share relevant experiences. These experiences are then recorded / talked about online, providing a further basis for Experience Channel evolution.

That’s a very basic definition of a what an Experience Channel is; but why are they useful? What’s an Experience Channel for? Well, some thoughts on that -

Engagement

Experience Channels facilitate in-depth audience engagement with your brand, organisation, or even just your particular, personal obsession. They make it easier to reach relevant content by making it more pervasive, and they accommodate multiple browsing styles (the random Googler who just wants to check out a website, the committed Tweeter who wants ongoing updates on their iPhone, the blog poster who loves chatting with like minded people, etc).

Education

They make it easy to share rich information about your brand, organisation or whatever in a wide variety of formats. They also ensure that that information doesn’t just come from you; external Experience Channel Content Creators / Posters add to the liveliness and variety of the channel, in effect advocating on your behalf. Lurkers might even help bring new eyes in. They won’t be taking part in the conversation, but they could well be forwarding links to their own online networks.

Conversation

Constructive conversation is always a good thing. At their best, a fully functioning Experience Channel allows you to support and become a member of a group of committed, creative people who share your obsessions, and are willing to constructively engage with them on an ongoing basis. At a more basic level, they give people who want to talk and share information about your brand / organisation / obsessions the tools to do so.

So, that’s the initial Experience Channel definition. I’ve touched on one below – the Red Bull Experience – but in my next post, I’m going to dig up some more practical examples.

There’s one EC I’m definitely going to include in there; the one built around everyone’s favourite meerkat, Aleksandr Orlov. VCCP have done a superb job there – more on exactly why I think it’s so good when I get a moment to sit down and write about it!

I had a bit of an odd experience a couple of weeks back at the Media140 Conference, because Red Bull and an upcoming BBC documentary came together to help me understand exactly what it is we at Tuttle produce for people. In particular, that’s fed into an understanding of what we are beginning to do for Counterpoint and – through them – the British Council.

Inspiration kicked off with Red Bull. A whole section of the conference was dedicated to what they’re up to; watching slides about their Flugtags, Air Races, X-Fighters, and so on, I realised that they had moved from being a product brand to a grouped set of related experiences. As one of the speakers pointed out, ‘the marketing becomes the product’.

It’s possible to read that as a kind of Ballardian condemnation of Red Bull, but I think to do so is missing the point. In Red Bull’s case, ‘the marketing becomes the product’ doesn’t mean that the reality of a consumer good has been replaced by the ephemerality of marketing activity. Rather, it’s a comment about what’s available for Red Bull consumers to invest their money and time in.

Red Bull began as an energy drink; people buying Red Bull brought liquid in a can. Marketing activity – designed to amplify the drink’s energy positioning – became more and more elaborate. Now, if people want to buy into the Red Bull brand, they can do so by enjoying a wide variety of different events.

That creates a deep change in what Red Bull is. It no longer sells you a drink that makes you dynamic; rather, it sells the experience of dynamism in a variety of formats. Given that, it seemed to me to be no longer enough to call Red Bull a consumer brand. Rather, (I thought) it has become a highly profitable experience channel. But what is an experience channel?

Next up to speak were Innocent; they provided a little more inspiration. They’re renowned for their ability to engage consumers, by making them feel that they’re personally engaged with the brand. That sense of personal engagement is very important. Consumer brands communicate through monologues. Experience channels, however, are much more two way. Ideally, they’re all about conversation.

That sense of conversation led me away from what you’d traditionally call a brand, and towards the BBC. A little while back, I went to the launch of Digital Revolution, a partially crowd-sourced documentary series. The team there have been filtering traditional documentary making methods through online conversation and engagement. They’ve turned the documentary development and production process itself into an experience channel; one that a variety of very savvy, and very engaged, web denizens have been deeply engaging with.

Thinking about these three led me to a basic definition of what an experience channel is. That’s something I’ve been jotting down notes about over the last week or so. Rather than go into full details here – and create a truly epic post – I’m going to do some more jotting, and post a basic experience channel definition at some point over the next few days. Don’t touch that dial! (as I would say if I were a radio host).

The world of social media is all about building relationships with people who – in one way or another – share your obsessions. It’s built on a social model that emphasises progress through co-operation, rather than progress through competition. I’ve been thinking for a little while about how that emphasis on engagement through sharing can be applied to marketing.

Brands usually understand their peer group by creating a clearly defined competitive set; that is, a group of other brands offering a similar product or service, to the same consumers. Everyone within with that competitive set is in direct competition with each other for the attention, engagement and money of a finite group of consumers. They are united by a shared need to defeat each other.

In this social age, defining your peer group as the people you most want to eradicate seems at best rather peculiar, and at worst unnecessarily paranoid. It seems to me more constructive to built a co-operative set, rather than a competitive set, and thus to define your brand by understanding who it can work with to satisfy its consumers, rather than who it must shout against to even begin to claim their attention.

As I said, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In fact, in my first ever post-graduate job – back at Birds Eye Wall’s, in the mid-90s – one of my favourite achievements was building a relationship with Creda, a natural frozen food co-operator, to ensure that Birds Eye products, and general frozen food tips, appeared in their brochures. In retrospect, I wish I’d developed a broader frozen food co-operative set; it would have been a fascinating, and no doubt very rewarding, exercise.

But this blog post was triggered by a far more current example of a brilliant definition and use of a co-operative set. Here’s a website for Australian energy drink V-Raw. Instead of trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors by going on about why they’re better than them, V-Raw are engaging with their consumers by sharing the benefits of a clearly defined co-operative set with them.

Their website is a forum for music offers, interviews with interesting people, job offers from V-Raw-like companies, and so on. That makes it a genuinely exciting destination to visit; and – I suspect – it does far more to position V-Raw as an effective, constructive, positive and very contemporary energy drink to a very clearly defined group of people than ranting endlessly about why they’re better than Red Bull or its antipodean equivalents ever would.

Marketeers spend much time and effort making their brands unique, so they stand out from the crowd; but branding acts as camouflage as much as display.

Display is a form of disruption. By standing out from what’s around it, a brand breaks our smooth perception of the world-as-a-whole and demands that we attend to a single, very focussed part of it.

That’s not an issue when we’re deciding what to buy. Individual brands need to shout loudly to be heard in the communications cacophony that is modern commercial space.

It becomes an issue once we’ve bought a given brand, and started using it. At that point, the function of branding changes. The best way to understand how and why that is to be reductive, and think about tools.

A tool is brought and used to achieve a given end. The most effective tools are those that disappear into use. That is, they support the achievement of an end without drawing attention to themselves during that achievement.

If I’m chopping wood, I want an axe that I don’t notice that I’m using. I don’t want one that constantly draws attention to itself through (for example) being blunt, or poorly constructed, or the wrong size for the task at hand.

I only want to notice the well chopped pile of wood I end up with, not the means by which I create that pile. And then I want the pile of wood to disappear into being a fire, without being slow to light, spitting on the carpet, or creating too much smoke.

When in use, brands work in a similar way. They are never an end in themselves; none of us live to shave with Gillette Razors, or travel by British Airways.

We live to be attractive to other people, or to visit interesting places. Brands support us as we achieve these goals, disappearing into the wider actions we take to fulfil our rational or emotional drives.

This is where brands need to camouflage themselves. As well as standing out, each one  should also disappear, harmonising with a chorus rather than just shouting through a cacophony.

As branding people, that’s something that’s easy to forget. Brands aren’t just about differentiation; they’re about integration too, fitting efficiently and effectively into individual lifestyles, supporting a broader personal push towards entirely personal goals.