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


The Difference Between Brand And Band Strategy …

I was recently interviewed by a music company about the work I do for artists.

They – quite rightly – wanted to know what I did and how it was different to what I normally did.

And I explained the difference was made clear pretty much in my very first meeting.

Because I was told this …

Now I can’t be sure they used those exact words, but that was the general premise.

And that was what was amazing.

Because when working with brands, they want you to use creativity to engage audiences, but with bands – at least the ones I’ve been exposed to – it’s the opposite.

I don’t mean they want to alienate people – though they understand the importance of sacrifice better than almost any brand marketer I’ve ever met – it’s just they are the creativity … they are the product … and so the last thing they want is some fucker placing a layer of ‘marketing’ on top of their artistic expression which can be twisted, diluted or fucked with so what they want to say and what it means to them, has no consideration whatsoever.

Now I admit I’m very fortunate the artists I’m working for are of a scale where they have the power to not just consider this issue but do something about it.

Many don’t.

However by the same token, when you’re of that scale, the potential for things to get messed up in some way is much greater.

Which is why they ensured I knew my role was not to market them, but to protect their truth.

Do and explore things that amplify who they are not just flog more product.

And because what they create is an expression who they are … they can express their truth without falling into endless streams of cliched brand consultant speak.

+ So no buzz words.
+ No ambiguous terms.
+ Just stories, experiences and considerations that have defined all they do.

And that’s why they don’t really care if you like their music. Sure, it helps, but they don’t want fawning fandom, they want people who understand what they value, believe and give a fuck about so everything associated with what they do expresses it.

Or said another way, they want people who can ‘speak their tongue’.

Now I am the first to admit there have been some mistakes.

Some things you go, “why did you do that?”

But in the main, I’ve not seen much of it and even when I have called stuff out, they have [generally] appreciated it, because – as I was also told on my first day – I’m being paid to give them truth not comfort.

I’ve always said people should not aspire to be a planner, but get away with the things a planner can get away with. And I’ve got away with a lot as a planner. Done all manner of weird and wonderful.

While I’d like to think that’s what helped me get this gig … the reality is I got it because of an introduction from someone I know.

And while in theory any strategist could do what I’m doing, how I do strategy and how I have been asked to view what it’s role is, has highlighted that’s not the case.

Not because of capability, but what the industry currently wants and expects.

And this is manifested in increasingly not being given the time, support or standards to do things right.

Where speed is more important than substance.

Process more valuable than output.

I wrote about this and more, here.

But it’s more than that, it’s also what clients think strategy is for …

Packaging rather than changing.

Wanting quick wins rather than long term value.

Targeting needs, not a point of view in the world.

Chasing convenience not authenticity.

If anything, doing this work has made me even more grateful to the bosses, agencies and clients I’ve worked with over my career.

Because when I look back, the truly great ones were basically like a band.

Born of belief. Defined by a point of view. Wanting to attract not chase anything popular.

And that’s a big part of why they have been able to remain at the forefront of their individual discipline, category and/or sub-culture.

Because they never saw strategy as a tool for marketing, but to amplify their truth.

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Be Metallica, Not The Eagles …

I was recently in a client meeting where we had a discussion about ‘scale’.

The person in question was suggesting – as many do – that the only way to achieve it was to make sure you offer something for everyone.

Now there’s two ways you can do that …

Literally offer something for everyone or be so bland that you don’t alienate anyone.

And when we had this discussion, it reminded me of the Ferdinand Porsche quote that – paraphrased – reads something like:

“Be everything to someone not something to everyone”.

But it was early in the morning for me.

I was talking to clients in America.

So instead, I gave the worst analogy I may have ever used …

I pointed out The Eagles are the best selling American band in history.

That their ‘easy listening’ songs were designed to literally appeal to the widest audience possible. That their repetitive approach has been used to reinforce their position.

Or lack of one.

However the second best selling American band of all time is Metallica.

OK, I’m biased, but no one can say their music is designed for mass appeal.

Even their more ‘audience friendly’ albums still targeted a particular type of music fan. A fan that is anti-mainstream and anti-easy listening.

And yet Metallica’s fierce focus on who they are and what they believe – matched with their desire to continually explore and experiment with formats and approaches for their music – has resulted in them attracting ever bigger audiences rather than chasing them.

But its even more than that …

In the fickle, fast-changing world of music, Metallica haven’t just been able to maintain their credibility and authenticity, they have managed to still be seen as a contemporary band.

A band that is more popular now than they’ve ever been, while not changing who they are, what they believe or who they’re for.

I finished this rant off with the words:

“Be Metallica, not The Eagles”.

Fortunately, given I was doing this call at stupid o’clock, people let it pass.

However, while the analogy may be bollocks, the reality isn’t.

We live in an industry that is increasingly falling into rules of how things should be done.

And there are some – without doubt.

But we are in danger of ignoring the power of culture and creativity in favour of box-ticking and formulas and yet it’s the brands and bands like Nike, Metallica, SKP-S, Kanye, Liquid Death who not only hold – and set – the cultural attention and narrative, but continue to fast-track growth and profit compared to a category who blindly follow a system designed to play more to the ‘safety’ of the middle rather than the power and influence of the edge.

I’m not saying it’s easy.

I’m not saying it’s not without risk.

I’m not saying it happens in a smooth, straight line.

But when you do it well … when you know who you are, who you’re for and what you believe, it’s definitely worth it, against pretty much every metric you can measure it against.

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Why Commitment Beats Interested …

I recently saw the above photo and immediately fell in love with it.

Not because it’s slightly bonkers – but it helps – but because I love the commitment of them.

Now I have no idea if they were booked to appear with that look.

I have no idea if they’re a real band, though I know ‘rock bands that play kids parties’ exist because the wonderful show Z Rock was based on one. [In fact the actors in the show, were the actual band]

And I don’t know if the music they play reflects how they look.

But I love it.

I love every bit of it.

Because rather than pander, they’ve committed.

Committed to who they are.

Committed to what they believe.

Committed to what they want to do.

There’s not enough of that. Oh we hear so many brands – and bands – talk about their ‘purpose’, but that’s just a PR headline because their actions often demonstrate the only thing they are committed to is whatever is needed to make money.

There is more authenticity in this trio of rock crazies than 99% of the companies who profess to be driven by their purpose.

But here’s the thing, commitment is about inconvenience.

Doing – or not doing – the things that reflect your belief.

Of course there are implications to that …

But while others may be more successful or richer, there is one thing you’ll have they won’t …

The ability to sleep at night.

And given we are also seeing more and more people choosing those who are committed to their belief, regardless of inconvenience, there’s a chance you could be more successful and richer too.

You can’t fake commitment.

You can’t be temporarily interested in it.

You can’t use it as a marketing platform.

Because commitment shows up in what you say, what you do and how you do it ALL THE TIME IN EVERY WAY.

Commitment achieves things interested can’t.

Commitment gives you standards, interested can’t even see.

Commitment pushes possibilities, interested will never understand.

Commitment wants you to succeed in ways interested will never get close to.

That’s the difference between the imposter purpose pedlars and the real deal.

It’s not something different every 12 months.

It’s not simply expressed through their marketing.

It’s not only doing things if you can make money from it.

It’s not changing direction when things don’t go exactly as planned.

Of course, that doesn’t mean people will only choose the committed. The fact is humans are all hypocritical beasts who like their moments of easy and cheap. However, in this superficial, short-cut, high-cost, hype world … commitment has a way of standing out in ways they will never even understand.

Which is why I love the people in this photo more than I do other kids entertainers.

Not because those other entertainers don’t have talent or a right to make a living … but because this trio of rock band musicians know who they are rather than are selling themselves as whoever others want them to be.

In a world where you don’t know who you can rely on, I say choose those who are committed, not interested.

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The Great Effectiveness Swindle …

There’s so many agencies, consultancies and self-appointed guru’s out there who talk about how to be successful at business.

They all have their models, eco-systems, philosophies and proof points.

And yet so few have ever done it for themselves.

They’ve chosen to ‘succeed’ under the safety-net of anothers money, reputation or effort.

That doesn’t mean what they do or think doesn’t have value – of course it does – but it also doesn’t mean their viewpoint is the only one worth counting.

And yet, every single bloody day, that’s how it is presented.

Recently someone wrote a piece on how they had used their proprietary research methodology on a Cannes winning TV ad and declared it would not deliver sustainable growth for the brand in question.

Putting aside the fact they were judging work that had won a creativity award rather than an effectiveness one … the thing I found funny was their confidence in proclaiming their view was the ultimate view.

I am not doubting their smarts.

I am not doubting their data.

But I am doubting their breadth of business appreciation.

And yet somehow, the voices of a few have positioned themselves as the be-all and end-all of effectiveness.

Don’t follow us and you fail.
Don’t follow us and your brand will lose.
Don’t follow us and you will be labeled foolish.

Now I am not denying these people do have a lot of experience and lessons we can learn from, but they’re not infallible.

But that’s how the industry approaches them.

Lording them like they are Yoda’s of the future.

But they’re not.

Don’t get me wrong, they are very good at evaluating effectiveness from a particular perspective and set of behaviours. Offering advice that can be hugely important in the decision making process.

But there’s a whole host of brands and business that have adopted totally different models and achieved ‘effectiveness and success’ that leaves others far behind.

Incredible sustainable success.

From Liquid Death to SKP-S to Gentle Monster to Vollebak to Metallica to name but a few.

Oh I know what some will say …

“They’re niche”“they’re young”“they’re not that successful”.

And to those people I would say maybe you don’t know what you’re talking about … because in just that list, it includes the biggest selling brand on Amazon, the fastest selling brand in their category on earth and the second most successful American band in history.

But there were two things that really brought the issue of mindset narrowcasting to me …

The first was the launch of a book that was basically about creating future customer desire for your brand/business.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that … but no shit Sherlock.

Has the market got so short-sighted and insular that the idea of doing things that also drive your future value and desirability become a revelation?

It’s literally the most basic entrepreneur mindset, and yet it was presented like it was Newton discovering the laws of gravity.

This person is super smart.

They’ve done a lot of good stuff.

But it just feels the actions of some in the industry are driven by the fetishisation of icon status … even though, ironically, what it does is highlight their experience may be narrower than they realise.

But at least the book had good stuff in there.

Stuff that could help people with some of the basics.

A desire to look forward rather than get lost in the optimisation circle-jerk.

This next one was a whole lot worse.

Recently an ex-employer of mine went to see a current client of mine.

Specifically the founder and CEO.

Apparently they went in to tell him he was missing out on a whole host of business and they could help him get more.

They then proceeded to present a massive document on how they would do it.

He looked at them and told them it was very interesting but they were wrong.

He told them their premise was based on a business approach he doesn’t follow or believe in.

A business approach that didn’t reflect the industry he was in, only the industry they were in.

He then informed them he had the most profitable store on the planet and so while he appreciated their time, he had faith in his approach and it was serving him well.

But it gets better.

As they were leaving – and I’ve been told this is true by someone who was apparently there – the person showing them out informed them their boss had a personal net worth of US$36 billion and based on their companies current share price, that meant he was more valuable than their entire group.

Was it an asshole thing to do?

Yep.

Do I absolutely love it?

Oh yeah.

Will I get in trouble for telling this?

Errrrrm, probably.

My point is the industry has decided ‘effectiveness’ can only be achieved and measured in one way and any deviation from that is immediately discounted or considered ‘flawed’.

Often by people who have never actually built a world leading business themselves.

Again, I am not dismissing the importance of what is being said, it’s HUGELY important – which is why I’m proud we won the Cannes/Warc effectiveness Grand Prix – but, and it’s a huge one, if we think that’s the only model and only use that one ‘model’, then we are literally adopting a single approach to solve every one of our clients every problems.

One.

That’s insane.

Not just because it’s stupid but because if everyone adopts the same approach, then impact will be influenced far more by spend and distribution that strategy.

Please note I am absolutely not saying we should burn the models or philosophies or systems that have proven their value to drive business. No. Absolutely not. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be praying at the feet of them … especially when many are simply focused on creating steady impact rather than spectacular.

Yes, I know ‘spectacular’ has a lifespan – which is why innovation is so important – but so many brands out there either aim for the middle … reinforced by processes, protocols and rules defined as ‘best practice’ by people in a particular industry … or they bake-in ‘limitation’ into their potential because they’ve blindly adopted rules they never challenge or explore from other industries or entrepreneurs.

At the end of the day, if a brand like Liquid Death can become the biggest selling water brand on Amazon because they found a way to make men actually want to drink water through a model and approach that is not only radically different to what so many of the industry experts say is ‘the only way’ … but is the opposite of it … then your brand may be inhibiting itself by following a model designed to make you fit in with it, rather than redefine how it fits in with you.

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It’s Only Classic If It Evolves …

So the cosmetic empire, Revlon, has gone bankrupt.

It’s a brand I remember from my youth with their big ads featuring big stars selling big statements.

But like Woolworths of old [how’s that for a linkage] they thought that was enough.

They thought they were enough.

But tastes change.

Evolve.

Hell, in just the past few years we’ve seen all manner of movements in the cosmetics space … from the nude look to the pastel and playful, both leveraged by brands like Maybelline and Glossier.

And then there’s Fenty …

Who came in and offered a foundation that had varieties specifically for African American skin as well as white – which shouldn’t be a surprise until you realise that until then, all major cosmetic companies excluded African American skin and expected them to use a foundation designed for white customers.

Seriously, what the fuck.

Of course, the success of Fenty saw many of the big players try to follow suit … but when actively you’ve ignored millions for 60+ years, you’re not going to convince them you suddenly care.

Which comes back to Revlon.

Who forgot the way you build a brand is not by communicating yourself over and over again, but doing things that earn loyalty.

Or at least prove you are working for it.

So many companies forget that. Either spending millions on what they want to say or ‘innovating’ with things that are what they want people to care about, rather than the things people care about.

It’s amazing how many brands fall for this.

But then, ego has that effect on people.

Causing them to place boundaries and blinkers around the comments that scream what people want you to do better at. What they want you to change.

But instead, companies choose to maximise short-term opportunities, rather than build things for the future. I get it … it costs a lot and there’s the argument it risks a lot.

Except it doesn’t cost or risk anything near what happens if you don’t do it.

And playing catch up never works because when you finally follow suit, you find out the others have already moved on.

Even the companies that promise ‘disruption’ never really go all in.

Often just focusing on one element the establishment do wrong rather than reimagining how they could completely evolve an entire category.

Function over benefits.

Product over brand.

That said, there are some out there who do it right.

Not just in the ‘cool’ categories, but in things like finance, health and paint.

Yes, paint!!!

Doing things where it shows they are truly watching and listening to culture.

Not just in what they want, but what is affecting who they are.

Once upon a time this was the norm. Now it’s all about promoting the condiments rather than focusing on the steak.

And while that can work in the short-term … giving you a few PR headlines you can leverage in the press … the brands who count succeed because they perpetually evolve culture – or evolve with the leading edge of it – rather than just keep them where they already are.