(This is the first of a series of posts talking about alternative ways of creating brands that are socially useful and economically sustainable)
I want to talk about modesty a quality somewhat lacking in many branding practitioners and certainly in Kevin Roberts, whose book, Lovemarks, I and several others haven been protesting about lately.
The “great man” view of history
I imagine Roberts subscribes to the “great man” version of history. He speaks of the importance of the big gesture:
I have never believed that extraordinary results come from ordinary actions so I am attracted by extremes. I demonstrated the point when my Canadian Pepsi Team blew away Coke to become number one in the market. We celebrated by machine-gunning a Coke vending machine on stage at a conference. Risky? Yes. Stupid? Possibly. Memorable, inspiring? You bet.
This, of course, makes him ideally suited to be CEO of Saatchis. This agency has long sought to be the poster boy for the grandiose gesture. This is the agency that launched itself with a two-page manifesto in the Sunday Times, that took most of the credit for Margaret Thatcher’s election success in 1979, that gave us the iconic adverts for The World’s Favourite Airline. I have always doubted Saatchi’s credit for the success of these clients, but no-one could accuse them of advocating modesty.
Yet there is quite a lot of evidence that extraordinary results very often do come from ordinary actions. Jim Collins’ Good to Great provides ample evidence that ordinariness and being down-to-earth are common qualities of sustainably successful businesses and in particular of their CEOs.
I’m also reminded of Chris Corrigan’s reflections on the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. This provided an awesome example of the revolutionary power of the cumulative, ordinary actions of ordinary people. Vaclav Havel describes how each time, for instance, a shopkeeper declined to have a “Workers of the World Unite” slogan in the window, they played their small part in dismantling the communist dictatorship.
Branding experts are not usually very modest
They say that history is written by the victors. They also say that success has many parents, while failure is an orphan. Put these two thoughts together and add to it branding people’s fondness for exaggeration, and you get trouble.
For every successful brand, there are a myriad of boastful individuals trying to take the credit – either for a supposed act of dramatic leadership in bringing it about, or for having cracked the secret formula that led to its success. Look at most agency websites and stories are almost always ones of a series of unmitigated triumphs.
Sadly, some clients are clawing around for the magic formula and easily fall prey to such approaches.
Yet most branding fails
But most branding is not successful. For every great brand you or I could nominate, there are probably thousands of also-rans. In my experience, these failures are quietly covered up, rationalised or scapegoated by their perpetrators. And, of course, go largely unnoticed by the rest of us.
Thus the story of branding is a tale usually told by an egotist, and thus we get the conventional narrative of heroic leadership, blinding customer insight blah blah blah.
Typically, it is told as a series of highly rational decisions made by insightful gurus.
Modesty may work better
The conventional response to our overnoisy media environment is to make even more noise. This, of course, is very much in some people’s financial interests. But I believe that powerful brands don’t need to brag. The ones that do only risk the wrath of disappointed customers who find them falling short.
Collins’ book has highlighted the role of the understated CEO. In his contrasting list of good-to-great and not-so-great companies, it was the latter whose CEO’s turned up on magazine covers.
My favourite evocation of a more modest version of success is the account given by Jason Porter, founder of Friends Reunited.
I urge you to watch him talk in this .wmv movie. (You might want to skip the 2m45s introduction). His story of this pheonomenally successful business is told as a chapter of accidents, guesses and near misses. He tells how they created Friends Reunited almost as an afterthought, with little expectation of success, and assuming that they should really be doing something else. It has a smack of authenticity that is often lacking in such accounts.
Sadly, modest people often fail to capture public attention. Immodest ones, like Kevin Roberts, are thus allowed an undue degree of attention. But if modesty works, surely we should not look to the likes of Roberts for guidance on how to create a successful brand.
Indeed, nor should you look to me or anyone else for that elusive, “How To” of branding. Because “How tos” belong in the boring world of best practice. (And as Ton Zijlstra recently pointed out, best practice generally leads to being second best at someone else’s game).
Perhaps it would be best to pay less attention to the noisy, confident brand experts and more attention to some of the quieter voices…
Another modest suggestion is that creating the next successful brand, or making your current one at least a tad more effective, is about being willing to take a step into the unknown. In such circumstances, the best companions will not be those who claim to know the unknown. Nor, in all likelihood, those with dubious but detailed rationalisations of other brands’ successes.
You’d be much better off travelling with those who are excited by the idea of exploring the new and will be good companions in that process. On which I shall no doubt be saying more soon?