The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Feel: Frustrated!
January 10, 2008, 7:00 am
Filed under: Comment

gorgeous bald-headed Natalie When you’re as bald as this … 

Running global / regional brands are very difficult – because not only do you have the nightmare of cultural differences to contend with, you also have corporate attitudinal variances that tend to mean there is little consistency in approach – other than ‘get the money in’.

Of course there is not one perfect solution, however one thing that can – and should – be done is ensuring the core brand idea is truly understood by all the companies marketing teams. 

I don’t mean this interms of a corporate look or endline … but interms of them truly appreciating what the underlying message of the brand communication is because this not only ensures brand ‘message’ consistency but also allows the local markets a degree of flexibility to ensure their communication can be relevant and resonant to their own market conditions.

 … this is the only hair you can pull out! 

What’s frustrating – to me at least – is that most companies talk about the importance of ‘ideas’ and then continually demonstrate there lack of understanding about what they are and how they should be used.

One solution to counteract this is to be dictatorial in your approach to creativity [ie: Apple] however this stops cultural differences being taken into account which often leads to communication that has little or no relevance to its audience whatsoever … however ‘cultural difference’s’ are often a convenient ‘excuse’ to justify communication that not only has little to do with the core brand idea, but little to do with consumer needs/wants.

I’ve found an interesting example of this and it’s sadly a sort-of client of mine … SONY.


I should point out this execution was created by a local market team [whereas we only deal with the regional/global marketing divisions] however it highlights how a brand can be undermined when a local market acts in isolation to the rest of the company – even if they are doing it for what they perceive to be the ‘right reasons’.

As I said it’s a very fine line between brand consistency and profit – however I do believe more companies should reward their local markets if they achieve their goals whilst adopting the overall brand idea – because without this ‘incentive’, old habits [read: the path of least resistance] raise their ugly head time and time again.

OK so back to the Vaio ad.

I appreciate when iMac first offered different colour ‘flavours’, it was a novel approach because before that, computers were only available in grey or black … however in these times of multi-colour ‘everything’, I think saying you can have a Vaio in a number of colours is hardly motivating – especially as every other computer manufacture offers the same deal.

And what the hell is this “MY COLOUR, MY OBSESSION” sub-line? 

Is anyone really that obsessed with a particular colour – apart from Prince and purple, ha!

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how customisation is incredibly important in consumer decisions but as I said, when all you say is that your product is available in every shade that everyone else offers – you have to question its power to ’sell’ stuff.  And don’t think I’m saying they should go on and on and on about the technical specs of the computer because I’m not. 

The whole idea behind our FEEL strategy [which is something they’ve ignored even though it was created to differentiate SONY from the competition whilst also allowing any product to be advertised – something many brand ideas fail to do] was that SONY creates products that reawakens your feelings and emotions – not because of what they do/look like – but because of how the experience makes you feel.

Then we come to that awful headline: WHO’S YOUR DADDY


OK … so they are obviously trying to target the ‘yoof’ segment but whilst ‘bling culture’ is alive and well [especially in Malaysia where this ad was created] surely there’s a better way to do this – a way that can build some value in the Vaio brand rather than just go after any teen with enough cash in their pocket to buy one.

If Apple represents creativity – what could owning a Vaio say about you? Judging by this ad, it’s that you’re rich and tasteless – which I’m sure is not the sort of thing SONY really want to be associated with.

A brand is something that has an unshakable emotional hold on people …. Virgin has it … Apple has it … NIKE has it … and I want SONY to have it because they are a great brand with some truly fantastic products however in my opinion, communication like the Vaio ad above undermines their potential rather than enhances it.

I am sure someone will tell me it has been incredibly successful – but I don’t think it is going to be doing much for the longer-term value of the SONY [or Vaio] brand.

And don’t throw the ‘Brand is vanity, profit is sanity’ bollocks at me – I know my/our jobs are to make clients wealthy – I just don’t believe only focusing on the short-term is in the best interests of the organisation … infact I KNOW only focusing on the short-term is not in the best interests of the organisation, however when we’re in a World occupied by greedy shareholders, sub-standard Marketeers and an ad industry who’d sell their own mother for $5, what can we expect eh?

Mr. Bean

I hope this is an isolated incident – SONY truly do have the power to reach even greater heights than they once enjoyed – but it will require the organisation to remember that once they led change rather than reacted to it. 

They’re getting there, but this sort of thing doesn’t help, especially as the Asian population [be it young or old] are way, way, waaaaaaaaay smarter than most companies give them credit for.

To be honest, a fair dollop of blame should be aimed firmly at the feet of ad agencies and research companies because so many of them continually claim the region is ‘under-developed’ [interms of marketing sophistication] so encourage the dumbing-down of communication because they say this is the only way people will ‘get it’.

Whilst that might be true when the ads are 30 seconds of ‘eye candy’ with a post rationalised strategy behind it [Cadbury’s Gorilla anyone?] we have to remember that on top of the internet allowing the masses to judge brands/communication on a global scale, not just a local one – this is a part of the World that sees subtext in almost everything [which influences their actions/attitudes dependent on the myth, legend and/or rules they’ve been taught/learnt over thousands of years] – so I am pretty sure an ad that engages their brain will be, at the very least, as appreciated and enjoyed as the sort of drivel they are force-fed each and every day thanks to the arrogance and ignorance in many of the marketing masses.

As I said to one client recently, Mr Bean might be easily digestible but he’s not very satisfying and certainly not the sort of ‘brand’ you’d want to invest a truck load of money with … so I beg companies to ditch their lowest common denominator approach and treat their customers as adults – both interms of what they do, say, create and behave – because not only will it positively differentiate them from the masses, but it will be a significant investment in their longer-term success.

25 Comments so far
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great post, again. and i would love to stay and chat, with a serious reaction (there is one, believe me), but it’s going to hit 41degrees today and i need to get to the beach before i crisp. back later!

Comment by lauren

I agree with Lauren, this is a great post.
You cannot underestimate how good you guys are doing with Sony and I just hope they continue to appreciate it because for the first time in a very long time, they are gaining some traction. Yes Fallon are doing some lovely work in Europe, but to get that happening in Sonys Asian backyard is nothing short of amazing.
It kills me to write that because when I worked on them out there I had no positive outcome whatsoever but then you always approached meetings with the cunning of your Fathers prosecution brain so it is to be expected 🙂
Sony has always been a political organisation, but more so since the 90’s when they basically handed over marketing control to the sales divisions because they were desperate to maintain their marketshare. Because of this, it is no surprise to see ads like the one you’ve highlighted above.
I really hope Sony give you guys local market powers as well as the regional because it is obvious they don’t know what they’re doing and you do. The bling ad is bordering on insulting but then so are most youth ads because they seem to think being young equates to stupid, even if you are asking them to spend a fortune on a PC.
I also love how you’ve takem on the “brand is vanity profit is sanity” issue. Too many clients think this way and I understand why based on the heritage of bad advertising recomendations as well as the short-term sales mentality, but like youve said before, brand is probably more important today than it has been in a long time, so if you don’t invest (and obviously I’m talking more than just traditional advertising) then you’ll see a decline almost regardless of what you do.
Can’t wait to see when your NPD and packaging stuff happens, this is a case study for marketing and modern advertising approaches waiting to happen. And it’s on a major client too 🙂
Great post, George will be proud you’re “back”, especially after yesterday’s madness.

Comment by Pete

And I’m gutted I didn’t win the lunch box quiz. Marcus, I should have known 🙂

Comment by Pete

Welcome to my World Lauren. It might not be 41 – but with 100% humidity, it feels like it … each and every day of the soddin’ year.

Sometimes the tropics really piss me off 🙂

And Pete, thanks for your support and your comment … I appreciate it.

Of course I’m talking about the content of this post, not your whinging about the ‘lunchbox’ or my supposed evil treatment of Rosie.

It’s sad that many marketing managers now see their brand as nothing more than a logo or template – but apart from the fact the standard of marketer is generally quite poor – most companies culture is focused on 3 months ahead rather than 3 years because [1] that’s what ‘the market’ dictates and [2] most won’t be in that job in 3 years.

Because of this there’s this attitude of not making a mistake [read: do what you’ve always done or what the competitors are doing] because on judgement day, you can’t be held responsible for anything that goes wrong.

It’s sad – because I still remember when every client I worked with saw their tenure as an opportunity to rapidly progress because of intelligent pragmatism. And it’s not just an ‘Asian thing’ … for all the talk about Western markets being more advanced, you can count the brands that really mean something in people’s lives [beyond the rational] on probably 2 hands.

Luckily I work with many of them 🙂

Comment by Rob

Yep. Top post. I’ve been having this Titanic struggle recently between trying to communicate the difference between a cheeky execution (Just like Who’s your Daddy) and a great Brand Ad. When we pitched recently I was faced with unanimous agreement that one idea was a good idea. Now I thought the idea wasn’t good but I kept my cultural context glasses on and listened and listened until I was persuaded that it was good. But even then I made sure that each person knew that while it might be seen as a good execution. It was completely off brand and thus damaging to present.

I think we need to get better in Asia at explaining the difference between a one off idea and a brand idea.

What is evident from this process is how the worst excesses of Western Advertising have creeped into Asia ads alarmingly. The worst is the notion that attention getting design is creativity. It isn’t. And is often quite damaging. We’re not after short term eyeballs. We’re after long term interest.

Oh yeah Passion, Perfect and Obsession are three words I can’t listen to seriously in an ad meeting any more. Great post Squire!

Comment by Charles Frith

I know what you’re going through Charles. I experienced the same thing when I worked in Asia. Rob’s seemingly managing to get clients to see the light, but as he writes in his comment above, it’s not just an Asian issue any longer, most Western brands are falling into the cracks of blandom or shock and neither are good approaches for the longterm.
The other hard part when working in countries other than your “own” is that people can always throw the “cultural differences” flag at you and because you know you are an outsider, there’s always that little seed of doubt so you find yourself not pushing as hard or letting little things go because you just might be wrong.
Working in foreign lands is incredibly difficult and I raise my hat to both you and Rob.

Comment by Pete

I forgot to say that Asian marketing has always been influenced by its Western counterparts, so as the stronghold of creative communication goes downmarket, so will the Asia region unless people like you and Rob help fight for it’s progression.
I think Rob wrote a while back about how he saw a time where global accounts would be driven from Asia as they know more about the West than vice versa, and while I agree, it will only happen if Asia believes in its undeniable creative credentials. Of course of lot of the issues here are culturally driven (the desire to please your boss, not your customer for example) but if Rob can get Sony to do it and you can help Nokia, then it could be the key to open the door. I wish you guys luck.

Comment by Pete

Jesus Pete, you’re being even more praising than usual. Is Sarah away? Ha.

Thanks mate – you are a sweetie and you are also being too hard on yourself because when you were in Asia, the World was a very different place … starting with the fact the internet was more of a ‘rumour’ than an established means to connect to the wider World.

Oh and it’s a fucking good point about ‘cultural confidence’ … I know I still have situations where people use the ‘but you’re not from here’ to justify an idea they don’t like.

The lesson – for me at least – is to be open to comments and then seek validation from independent parties, hence my relationship with Lonely Planet.

Whilst I’ll never know the region like a local, I made sure I have access to smart people who do – and can express it without prejudice or agenda – and the difference it has made is incalculable, hence I can get the odd add through which I reckon is worthy of any market, not just Asia.

Charles I share your pain. Or I have shared your pain. Hope to see you soon because I have some preso’s I’d like to show you as regards getting people to understand ads versus ideas – or more accurately – communication for a month versus communication for an age.

And don’t talk to me about the word PASSION … it drives me nuts. Funnily enough I’ve written about this for next week but you can see other words the ad/marketing industry have destroyed by going here …

Comment by Robert

i’m going to sound like an art wanker (as opposed to an ad wanker) when i say this, but there are similarities with this issue to contemporary art practice and it shits me there too.

most artists have a particular line of focus, aesthetic identity, mode of inquiry or conceptual bent, which differentiates them from other artists, but also allows for those who like a particular part of that practice, to like them based on those merits.

sometimes an artist will need to do something completely left of centre, just to get it out of their system, but usually it’s still relative to their ‘thang’ (usually because it’s the polar opposite and still actually ‘on brand’, if you will).

but an artist is in real trouble when they flip flop from one style/material/concept to another to pander to a fashion, market, environment or whim. it shows that the artist operates on fear and believe me the predators of the art market will pounce on it and those artists don’t last very long: they have no core identity that they stay true to and authenticity is a very strong currency in creative industries.

Comment by lauren

I get what you’re saying Lauren … I think people can instinctively feel when a person/brand is chasing a trend versus …

[1] being true to themselves
[2] leading the change

… and this manifests itself in how people react to what they are getting, either positively or negatively.

Years ago I did some work for Adidas and we used Madonna to demonstrate how as a brand, she maintained relevancy – despite a continually changing World – because her values stayed constant, even though her expression of them didn’t.

This was in stark contrast to many ‘bands’ who tended to change their style [thanks to Record Company pressire] to suit the established populist environment they found themselves in.

Our message to Adidas was to get back to who they were and use that as the platform for their future development rather than continually shift message, style and focus in a desperate bid to second guess societal shifts because people can sense fear in brands as well as a shark can smell blood!

In short the aim was to help Adidas attract rather than always have to chase … and that strategy helped lead to the launch of the ‘Retro’ range which I am glad to say, proved to be rather popular – not just in sales, but in reminding people of the brands cred.

They still have a long way to go – and TBWA need to get a real grip on the ‘IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING’ idea [it’s very hot and cold at the moment and yet it’s a great thought] – but if you compare where Adidas are now to where they were 15 years ago, they are without doubt in a better place.

Comment by Rob

I think most people [marketing folk] in Asia do know the difference between a brand idea and a one off idea, at least the ones I’ve come across. It’s frustrating to know that they realize the difference yet go ahead and do stupid stuff. [ won’t get in to the reasons for that]

It gets worse, because marketing departments have classified markets as ‘transactional’ or ‘brand’. It’s like saying “this audience is to dumb” or “we don’t need to introduce ourselves, just start with the sales pitch”.

This means that people in certain markets only get to see tactical, demand generation ads. You’re literally not allowed to speak about your brand. And I’m talking big global brands. It gets worse when Marketing managers start checking whether the ad / communication / activity fits within the respective brands ‘ territory’. God how stupid, people don’t even know what the brand stands for and you have no intention / balls to tell them, so what are you try to check? Consistency? But of what?

Comment by bhaskar

You raise some great points there – some clients DO get the difference between execution and brand yet continue to go with the path of least resistance [for some of the reasons raised in earlier comments] and far too many categorise whole countries as either ‘walking wallets’ or ‘future potential’ without realising that at some point, people will need reminding WHY they should choose that brand over another [and beyond just interms of functional rationale]

I still say one of the fundamental issues is because most companies in Asia – be they Western in origin or not – focus on their egos [or their bosses ego] rather than the needs and wants of their society [and yes, beyond the category] which is why so much out here is both functional, unimaginative and category conventional.

The sad part for them is the internet HAS changed everything because people can and do judge brands and communication beyond borders – so whilst some claim to be uber-successful with their current approach, they need to thank god for their distributional strength [and/or routine] than anything approaching a brand people choose to associate with.

Great points …

Comment by Rob

I like this post. You know I do.

Comment by Marcus

So will George. It’s my Christmas present to him 🙂

[Mind you, when he sees tomorrow’s, he’ll cry!]

Comment by Rob

Yes it’s got a lot to do with ‘ego’ and their bosses ego. But there is a reason for that. Marketing guys in specific countries are cautious of not offending or challenging their regional counterparts / bosses. When they are inducted into the company they are clearly told to follow instructions and the unwritten code. They all play along [safe] and end up getting inter company transfers to the regional / global marketing team, once there they don’t bother to open their mouth and change anything for the respective regions they represent [ which defeats the purpose of sending them there!!!]. This is the problem, the people considered the ‘nerve centre’ or at the helm of the marketing. They act more as policemen than facilitators.

Last couples of years I’ve seen individual regions [ across 2 big clients] continuously push their global counterparts when it comes to ‘brands’. So what does the ‘never centre’ do – it acknowledges the markets existence and importance, decides to rework the brand footprint / brand key , what ever you wanna call it, accepting that Asia is probably best suited to lead brand / product development for the brand in question. So they appoint a team which consists of people from the clients side, agency and market research [ standard shit] . The only problem being everyone in that team lives hundred of miles away, no one flew down to the region for which the foot print was being made – only idea they had was from us!!. After 7 months they came up with a new a footprint/ guideline and ‘mood’ for the brand and circulated it to their marketing departments as gods own truth!!. [ this is for a MAJOR brand]. So you can see the level and depth of importance marketing teams give to brands when it comes to Asia! So I guess It’s only logical to expect the local marketing guys to treat the brand the way they do 

Comment by bhaskar

This is a beautifully written post conveying insight, passion, awareness and pragmatism.

I am glad you’re on our side.

Comment by Lee Hill

I’ll remind you of that at contract time 🙂

Cheers Lee – from you that means alot – and not just because you’re a client, but because you’re a smartypants! [And I’m not even a suit!]

I agree with what you’re saying Bhaskar – however I also think alot of what you’re saying is influenced by the culture of the country, not just the company.

If I take Singapore for example – it is a society managed by fear … a trait carefully nurtured over many years by the Government.

Because of this, the attitude is very much ‘follow orders of the person above’ which leads to many of the scenarios you’ve detailed interms of marketing attitudes and activity.

However in a place like Vietnam – which to me is one of the most optimistic and resisliant places on Earth – the culture means people are more inclined to approach issues with a sense of openess – a desire to listen to multiple views and ultimatey take more responsibility for their actions.

Of course not everyone is like this – and the corporate culture tends to dictate how far people can/will go – but without doubt nationalistic culture has a major influence in how marketing is embraced, be it locally or interms of adapting a global idea.

A while back I got in huge trouble when talking about how culture manifests itself into action – because [and I was being deliberatly cheeky] I said the difference between India and China is that India tends to endlessly talk about ‘stuff’ in the hope to find the ‘perfect strategic answer’ whereas China just has a go and learns by its mistakes [cumlitive development]

As I said I was being cheeky [not to mention generalising and culturally insensitive] but if you look at how the 2 countries are advancing – you can see how the cultural aspects of the nations are hugely influential in their development – and that is why I believe it filters down to the marketing of organisations, regardless of whether they are home grown or not.

PS: This is also true of Western markets – hell, just look at how American brands are often victims of cultural influence – it’s just more prevelant here because of the regions value system

Comment by Rob

Agree that culture of the country has a huge influence. My point was on why local marketing guy / teams don’t see anything wrong in ‘one off ideas’. – Their actual relation with their brand.

Love the India – China example. Must use it 🙂

Comment by bhaskar

Don’t worry, I get what you were saying – just think that in planning terms there’s rarely one nice tidy explanation for certain decision madness … or at least there’s rarely one that the client will be happy to hear 🙂

As for the India/China … go for it, I got alot of heat over that so I am more than happy to ‘share the blame’, ha!

Comment by Robert

Brand isn’t vanity if you have the right definition of brand (which preferably shouldn’t even involve the b word) – as I keep saying branding is too often imposed, and superficial.

Any attempt to stamp an alternate image on the outside of a business runs the risk of not reflecting that which actually runs through it. It is a tattoo rather than DNA and, as such, can appear unattractive to the populace, is liable to date rather quickly and will be painful to remove.

As for marketing directors – I think you’ve been reading my back catalogue:

Comment by John

The really bad thing about that ad is that it will put more people off the gold colour than it will attract!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

“It is a tattoo rather than DNA and, as such, can appear unattractive to the populace, is liable to date rather quickly and will be painful to remove” – only if you’ve got no taste and just want a tattoo for summer.

Comment by lauren

Is someone slagging off tatts? Fuck you.

That viao ad is fucking terrible, whoever did it had a brain abortion and needs putting down. Good post, I reckon even Andy would approve because we all know George would.

Comment by Billy Whizz

I so nearly put a Lauren caveat in when I wrote that – the tatto was just a metaphor Billy – but knew she would say it more eloquently than me – a tattoo for the summer is exactly what most branding has become.

Comment by John

I’ll let you off if you get a tatt that says “For Summer Only”.

Comment by Billy Whizz

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