Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Power to the People

Everyday, communicators try to imagine what will engage their target audiences. What will bring an idea to life and create a lasting impression? Historically, the solutions to questions like these have been expressed through one-way channels: talking at consumers and hoping the message will resonate with them. Today though, pioneering campaigns are considering the power of interactivity to engage audiences and, most importantly, create meaningful, personalised relationships.

Back in my university days, one of my major interests was the study of hypertexts. These electronic texts changed the way we consumed literature, offering an interactive element that gave power to the reader to control their own narrative journey. Of course, all reading can be regarded as interactive in the sense that we have to come to decisions about meaning. But, without getting all theoretical, one of the major distinctions between a hypertext and, say, a traditional novel, is that a hypertext has a unique element of user interaction and control. A reader's decisions actually change their experience of order, structure and, in some cases, the representational nature of the text itself. This is much easier to imagine when we think about the world's biggest existing hypertext, one that is chopping, changing and very much 'alive' right this minute: the internet. Every day, readers chart their own course through this massive interlinked text, interacting with links to other pages and being asked to leave their mark on a range of interactive features.

This kind of textual intercourse existed in pre-electronic forms too. The cult of adventure game books was a well-established mini-craze among young people, especially in the 90s. These books placed the reader in the body of the narrator, asking them to take executive decisions by turning to a corresponding page in order to continue the plot. The challenge was to get to the end of the story still alive! Of course, modern gaming has now replaced such literary versions as the height of interactive, decision-based entertainment. In fact, so much of popular culture has now embraced interactivity: from popular television programmes asking viewers to take part in national quizzes through to satellite navigation equipment, asking users to input a range of personal preferences.

So what of the communications industry?

Well, there is an increasing trend towards campaigns that empower consumers by asking them to interact with brands. The most obvious form would be through social media channels, where communicating has evolved from the traditional, top-down 'brand-speaks-same-message-to-large-number-of-passive-consumers' model to one where brands have multiple conversations with active consumers and, crucially, listen back to what they have to say. Of course, that doesn't mean consumers didn't have a voice when brands weren't really listening – only that they didn't have the platform to interact and express themselves directly. Today, most leading brands have strategies for engaging interactive platforms like social media and have had to evolve their communications strategies as more and more companies look to increase engagement.

Brand interaction with social media is something that has commonly been seen to be the responsibility of a PR strategy, as opposed to the more above-the-line discipline of advertising. However, innovators are showing that doesn't have to be the case. More and more advertising campaigns are including interactive elements, engaging consumers and, in the process, blurring the boundaries between what is seen as advertising and PR. For example, Walkers crisps devised a campaign asking members of the public to come up with interesting and unusual flavours. Their campaign, 'Do us a flavour', ended up with the public proposing varieties such as Chilli and Chocolate, Fish and Chips and even Cajun Squirrel. To complete the interactive engagement and prolong the campaign, Walkers then asked the public to vote for which flavour they would like to see developed as part of Walkers' permanent product range. Cue massive buzz and word of mouth promotion before the winner, Builder's Breakfast, was finally announced. The fact the flavour was discontinued a year later did little to dampen the publicity fever of the time.

Some companies have gone even further, asking the public to decide on the outcomes of their own adverts. As an example of this, BT have been asking the public to decide the outcome of their TV advert series featuring a fictional 'ordinary' British couple, Jane and Adam. In one particular dilemma for example, 72% of 1.6 million voters decided that Jane should conceive, to the headlines of 'Jane is pregnant!' Fans of Adam and Jane are subsequently campaigning on Facebook to ensure future adverts see the couple stay together. As much as everyone likes a happy ending, everyone equally likes to see how their own decisions can impact the lives of others.

In a further show of one-upmanship, in the United States, Pepsi have really been taking interactive campaigns up a notch. In a campaign supposedly demonstrating true consumer democracy, Pepsi asked fans to help create a new flavour for their Mountain Dew product range, 'chosen by the people, for the people.' However, this was not simply a flavour vote. Pepsi asked fans to submit product names, colours and packaging designs, as well as the promotional ads themselves, asking consumers to transparently and democratically vote for their favourite in each case.

Other cases are abundant. From interactive Japanese websites that actively demonstrate the animation skills of those they seek to promote to online gaming experiences with content designed to manipulate the public behaviour of users, interactive marketing is here to stay and for a very good reason: it allows the public and consumers to feel a valued and active part of the communications process and not just a passive, target audience to be preached at.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Brand DNA

The theory of evolution is arguably one of the most important ideas in human history to date. It's a beautiful, all-encompassing theory that is able to explain an exceptionally broad range of natural behaviours. It's such a successful idea that its principles are often applied beyond biology into the realms of economics, for example. So I began to think about whether these same principles could be applied to explain the evolution of a successful brand?

A successful gene is one that replicates through the generations and it doesn't take much to extend this idea to the world of brands in the context of, say, capitalism. For a brand to be successful, the messaging DNA that makes it unique needs to have adapted to its consumer environment so that it can replicate as much as possible. For a brand to survive and win, it must work successfully with its environment and, at the same time, beat off competition, especially from other rival brands competing for the same consumer resources.

If a brand is well-adapted, it will replicate its core messages through as many people as possible. However, just as successful genes 'aim' to be as efficient as possible, brands do not want to avoid wasting energy targeting the wrong consumers. In nature, a predator will often attack the nearest and most vulnerable prey because it is simply the easiest source of energy to convert. Similarly, successful brands employ targeting strategies, communicating with audiences that are more susceptible to engaging with them and repeating the core messages of their DNA. Because of this, brands have adapted different survival strategies for different purposes and do not always go down the 'big billboard advertising' route, but instead engage more targeted strategies such as PR, social media and the aptly named viral marketing.

Of course, as soon as a brand's messaging DNA is replicated, whether through a piece of composed communication or the subsequent buzz and word-of-mouth, it begins to mutate – much faster than what we see in nature. This 'Chinese whispers' effect that lowers copy-fidelity can be very concerning for a brand and its DNA because, once the message has passed through a considerable number of consumers, it could have mutated into an entirely different species altogether, losing the focus of the original message.

To combat this, modern brands have continued to evolve and, with environmental changes such as social media, the most well-adapted are beginning to practice a kind of brand eugenics to control their messages further down the replication line. Rather than bring their brand into the world through a piece of communication and then leave it be, experts now influence messages on an ongoing basis, particularly through engaging online audiences and adjusting messages through reciprocal feedback. And of course, just as in nature, some brands will benefit from co-operating with other brands, for example in the case of event sponsorship. Of course, these are far from acts of altruism and even in these instances of mutual benefit, a well-adapted brand will always seek to maximise its own advantage.

Of course, successful marketing will spread where it is well received and, because of this, successful brands, like successful genes, will have longevity. The ability to spread and be passed on is more important than the length of an individual brand awareness campaign in itself – particular genes die within their bodily habitats but their copies continue to communicate on their behalf. So although some marketing campaigns will always achieve short-term success, brand species themselves continue to be sustained through long-term strategies. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What's in a Name?

Wherever we're from, whenever we were born, one of the first things we're given is a name. For most of us, this name has been with us for life and is one of the first bits of information we give to people when we meet them. More often then not, it's the first thing we identify with somebody when we think of them. Names, like all words, are never neutral. They are coloured and alter our perception of people. How often do we hear someone say “he's such a typical (insert name).” Similarly, a name is the first thing that springs to mind when we think of a product or brand. From Nescafe to McDonalds, the name of a company is the first and, possibly, most important point of marketing.

Despite this, so many business managers overlook the importance of the name in forming a first impression of their company: customer service, price or a great product are often wrongly seen to overshadow everything else. Experience is in the mind, not simply in the product or service you offer, and names skew public perception of your company. It's why cars made with the same parts can charge more based on the badge they display on their noses.

Because of this importance, countless celebrities and designers have manufactured their names to make their image more appealing to the public. Ralph Lifshitz became Ralph Lauren. Elton John was born a certain Reginald Kenneth Dwight. Tom Mapother became Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise. Perhaps anticipating the public's need for a succinct and memorable surname, Jennifer Aniston's father abandoned the family's surname of Anistassakis before the Friends star was even born.

So, when it comes to companies, what makes a good or bad name? Credibility, memorability, how it sounds and looks and the relevance to the business or product category are all key. 'Funny', 'youthful', 'high-tech', 'homely', 'girly': these are all possible attributes your name might have to consider. Too often, brand names are over-literal, with the product or unique-selling point being explicitly described in the company title, overlooking the need for brand engagement and subtle communication. Here, words like 'professional' fail because they are too brash, and a sceptical public naturally begins to think about an effect known in the marketing world as 'the implication of the opposite.'

If we take two examples of what I think are good brand names, we can see how they offer a wide interpretive scope of positive statements about their company that build a relationship with their customers. The UK smoothie brand 'Innocent' has a name that appeals to the imagination, by not being overly prescriptive. This bravery is rewarded in the humour between the idea of a tasty treat and the idea that you are allowed to enjoy it, as it's healthy and pure, free from artificial ingredients and funny stuff. Of course, as with all clever brand names, it also hints at something else, in this case, environmental credentials. And it does all this within a quite cheeky and ambiguous name that leaves imaginative scope and trust to the public, asking them to engage with the brand.

Another brand offering us not-so-healthy treats is the baked goods and cakes company, Mr Kipling. Of course, Mr Kipling does not and has never actually existed. Instead, his name is the perfect vehicle to get across the company's brand values of tradition and excellence. The idea of using a name that personifies the company is an excellent way to get across the human touch, in this case, the idea that the cakes are handmade and created by the mythical man himself, even though they aren't. What's more, the address of the surname 'Kipling' harks back to an older, gentlemanly era of home baking and honest values, all critical attributes for a brand that insists on good old-fashioned quality.

So, to conclude, when it comes to launching your company, remember to disregard the old lie that 'names will never hurt me.' Your company name is one of the first decisions that will go a long way to determining the success of your business and is the one piece of marketing that will likely be with you throughout your journey.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Going Enviro-Mental

Far from being philanthropic, environmentalists of all kinds seem to have become more pragmatic than ever before. Scientists are proving global warming through analysing ice formed hundreds of thousands of years ago. Meanwhile, governments are looking at ways to financially incentivise countries to protect their natural resources by introducing the idea of paying taxes for those services. At the same time, they're in the process of coming to agreements on limiting carbon emissions, with the aim of revolutionising the way we live. Clearly, it's an age of being green, not just talking green.

Globally, businesses have also been quick to embrace the environment in practical ways, combating the altruistic myth that environmental considerations are a drain on business resources. Instead, savvy companies are recognising the massive commercial advantages to be gained through embracing their environmental responsibilities. Increasingly, the prize on offer is not only reputational enhancement but actual cost savings.

While Cyprus-based companies may be slightly behind our European counterparts in embracing this phenomena, pioneering companies such as Cypriot supermarket Metro are getting ahead of their competition by recognising the need to initiate environmentally-friendly narratives with their customers and reflecting their newly found positions within their brand identity. The global recession may have re-focused consumers on the more immediate concerns of product value but, as time progresses, there's no denying that the importance of a company's environmental agenda will be increasingly important in influencing purchasing decisions. So, with business being pressured by issues such as climate change, responsible sourcing and sustainable business practices, how should they be adjusting the way they communicate with their customers?

There's a whole set of laws when it comes to talking about your green credentials. For example, businesses need to avoid being seen as over preachy because customers don't want to be spoken down to. At the other end of the spectrum, businesses don't want to run the risk of customers thinking their green agenda is a superficial marketing ploy, jumping on the green bandwagon for a fast buck.

In fact, companies who don't ‘walk the talk' are in great danger of becoming victims of an increasingly skeptical and environmentally-aware public, eagle-eyed when it comes to turning their backs on companies who are quick to claim green credentials and yet are found suspect when it comes to actually delivering on any of them. Reputational damage here is practically irreversible because environmental claims are based on trust – ultimately, once you undermine this trust it's difficult to win it back.

However, for those companies who take the environment seriously, things can only get better. With traditional natural resources getting scarcer by the second and the economy increasingly rewarding green business, there's never been a better time to get your company and your brand working for the environment.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Let's be Brief

The importance of a quality briefing document should never be underestimated when it comes to the graphic design of, say, a company logo or website. How else do you expect your graphic designer to come up with something that accurately articulates your brand... from a chat across a table?

A solid brief provides a consistent and sound basis from which everyone can refer to that both aids the designer and acts as a quality control. It means there can be no disputes when the end result isn't quite what you expected. Simply, was it in the brief? Quality briefs need to cover a range of topics from specifications, resolutions, purposes and contexts.

Briefs also give graphic designers the opportunity to get a feel for your brand. So often, people can describe what their business does but fall down when it comes to thinking about how that translates into a unique and engaging brand character.

So why do so many businesses look to shortcut their way through, risking projects by missing out on a brief or doing it themselves? Because we can all speak a language (unlike, say, the language used to programme the back-end of a website), people think that, even if the outcome is slightly worse, it's worth the initial cost saving to do-it-yourself! It's a mentality that screams: “Save Now, Pay Later.” From press releases, to website and brochure copy, right through to logo briefs, it happens right across the marketing spectrum. This short-sightedness can, long-term, cost thousands of Euros in lost business, all for the sake of a couple of hundred to start with.

There is a bright side of course. Thanks to the DIY phenomena, those businesses who turn to professionals to write and design for them will have an even greater competitive advantage than they should, all thanks to their neighbours who wanted to do it themselves!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marketing Harmony: Striking the Right Vocal Chord

Around my neck of the woods there's a restaurant that, no matter what day of the week it is, is almost always operating at full capacity. Those of you who know Larnaca will almost certainly have been to Militzis and experienced it's wonderful cooking. And yet, despite its success, the restaurant seemingly does very little communicating with the community. No advertising, hardly any directory listings, not even the odd paid for, less-than-subtle restaurant review in the local press. So why is it so successful? Well, simply ask any local where to eat and a huge majority of them would likely refer you to the restaurant by word of mouth. It has a phenomenal reputation and Cyprus is traditionally fertile ground to carry a brand message orally.

We all engage in word of mouth marketing on a daily basis. Every time we express an opinion to our friends on where to shop, for example, we're passing on our comment on the status of products and brands and actively altering each others' images. This acts as an endorsement, a referral. What's equally interesting is the authority word of mouth commands. Two things contribute to this. The first is the way that it's circulated within individuals who are usually within a trusted circle of friends, where their own credibility is at stake. For example, if I say Militzis is a darn good restaurant, I've associated my own judgement and credibility with the statement. Secondly, it's often informal and as a result seen as honest, excluded from vested interests and over-thought through marketing slogans that the rest of the communications world can be guilty of.

So, what control do we have over word-of-mouth communications? Well quite a lot more than you'd think. Although word of mouth comes from an oral tradition, it's verbal form has enabled it to be embraced by modern technology. For example, take the boom in text messaging and, more recently social media. Cutting-edge brands have embraced these forms and simply recognised that, to be successful, you need to interact on a level playing field instead of the traditional hierarchy of speaking at your audience. This means being humble, having a dialogue, interacting, helping each other and, ultimately, humanising your approach. Getting a balance between having a consistent brand message and having the flexibility to adapt is key.

The traditional oral forms of word of mouth are no different. People do business with people, and so to reflect this, we need to approach the spoken mode personally and with humility. Of course, well constructed brand values should always be there, guiding us in the background, but we shouldn't be afraid to express ourselves as individuals freely reacting to the demands of conversation. Once you've given a good impression to someone else, they will carry that message forward for you.

So how can we go about creating an effective word of mouth campaign in Cyprus. Apart from the way you interact with your customers and your community on a day to day basis, formal networking groups are just starting to take off on the island, the most recognised of which is BNI (www.bni-cyprus.com). Here, groups meet on a weekly basis to share business referrals and effectively practice the art of word of mouth marketing. Just like endorsements that happen on a day to day basis, recommendations carry with them the guarantees of credibility, informality and honesty. Another way of getting started is to look at ways of embracing social media. Twitter, Ecademy and Facebook may be buzz words at the moment but they truly offer a platform for breaking down the previous geographical restrictions that word of mouth has traditionally been limited to.

Consistency within Limits

Lots of us have heard the phrase 'brand consistency.' So much so, that we often forget to consider its limitations. Specifically, we can often overstress the importance of brand consistency while neglecting the benefits that the plural nature of a brand can bring us. 'Brand consistency' is a buzz phrase because it reassures us that we're in control of what our brand is saying about us. But think of it this way: are people that inflexible? Everyday, we adjust ourselves to different circumstances, showing different aspects of our personalities. A brand has the potential to do exactly the same, to engage with a plurality of people instead of an overly-narrowed down, artificial group that, in reality, is often no more than a mere stereotype. In short, brands, like people, can pluralise themselves too.

That's not to say there doesn't need to be a consistent framework to work within. But humanising your brand and respecting the diversity of the people it speaks to can really open up the way your audiences connect with you. To take a good example, HSBC purport to be 'The World's Local Bank.' With this ingenious concept, they use a universal notion of the 'the world' to provide us with a framework of consistency to express their recognition of local, cultural differences. At once, we feel considered and accounted for on a local level by a brand who are quite literally, global. We can all learn from this example when thinking about where to place the dial between consistency and diversification. And all this from a bank!