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Great Expectations

September 25, 2012

(Cartoon from

A bit of a personal one – but I’ve been thinking recently about what people expect from the services that they buy, and why we expect the things that we do….

I got hit by a bus a few weeks ago.  A bit of a dramatic way of putting it, but my little Peugeot didn’t come off very well and while I’m on the mend it has caused me some stress over the past couple of weeks.

I’ve been dealing with insurance companies and their ‘trusted partners’ a lot over the past 14 days.

Dealing with insurance companies is a bit of a weird thing anyway:

It’s a service that you probably assume you’ll never have to use, so you decide on price

In fact, this is the norm to the extent that a whole industry has sprung up around it.  Without this basic truth Gio Compare and that Meerkat wouldn’t exist.

It makes sense at the beginning of the process.  If you’ll never have to use it, why pay more for it?

The problem is when you do have to use it you end up dealing with 6 different companies who are all scrapping for business to make the most money out of your accident.

They have no relationship with you.  In fact, quite a lot of the time I’ve felt like I’m the product rather than the customer.

The thing is, I’m not sure that this is an industry that could ever change.  In a market that is so totally dominated by price, could an insurance company even begin to differentiate on service?

On knowing your audience

September 11, 2012

I may just be late to the party, but I’ve just found the wonder that is

It’s a really interesting site.  (Completely aside from the fact that I’ve just realised I could spend way too much time and money here).

It’s interesting because the reason that the brand exists is perfectly clear:

“Two years ago, I realised that home cooks are becoming more ambitious – but supply is not keeping up with demand. I realised this because I was a frustrated home cook myself. […] The problem is that lots of these ingredients are only sold in bulk sizes. And even the keenest of home cooks might struggle to get through a kilogram of tartaric acid. So we have repackaged some of these ingredients into manageable sizes, so you can try something new without having to cram your pantry with barrels and boxes.” [Nicola Lando, Founder – Sous Chef] 

I love how this reason for existing has influenced the whole product offering – not just in terms of the individual items, but also how they organise them on the site; they are tailoring the product offering in a way that they know will appeal to the audience they want to attract.

For example Ottolenghi is famous for including esoteric and hard to track down ingredients – so they’ve put together a set tailored to his new book:

 (Ottolenghi Jerusalem Ingredient set – found here if anyone wants it!)

 More brands should think this carefully about what they are offering, and how they can tailor products best for the people who need / want them.

The colour of a brand

September 7, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I was on a train with a friend who doesn’t work in marketing, or advertising, or anything to do with a lot of what I write about on here.

She had a game on her iPhone that was connected to Facebook – which was a competition to guess as many logos as you could.  If you got stuck they’d give you a hint, but otherwise it was totally to do with images rather than words.

It got me thinking about what becomes instantly recognisable as coming from a particular brand.

It looks like I’m not the only one at the moment.

I have an interest in fashion-stuff as well – and I’ve been following Christian Louboutin’s battle with YSL about who has the right to red soles on their shoes.  And I care enough about their brand that I am glad that the judges in the case have ruled that Christian Louboutin can trademark the soles.

In fact, I’d argue that their red sole is much more memorable than the logo, which less distinctive and just (and I realise the irony of what I’m about to say) what appears to be his signature.

What surprises me is that the US court appears to have ruled that while they have the rights to distinct red soles, they can’t trademark the colour itself.

Colour is hugely important to how people recognise brands – Cadbury’s purple, Sainsbury’s orange, Boots blue – these are things that are intrinsic to their branding, and they would be a lot less recognisable without them. For example, I’d hazard a guess that 80% of the female population of the western world could tell you what this brand is from the colour alone:

I’d love to see the arguments for and against colour being trademarked, as right now I can’t fathom how Louboutin’s particular shade of red isn’t seen as a fully trade-markable asset.  I guess the relevant clause is that phrase ‘colour in context’ – but I do wonder exactly what that context has to be before it is too tenuous to be connected to the brand.

On the dangers of being too specialist

August 31, 2012

(Call a spade a spade: Hiscox got it right)

I was in a meeting with a client this morning where we were discussing internal stakeholders on a project.

Their IT manager was going to be a key audience – but my client couldn’t remember the “new fangled job title they’ve got […] head of … talent and information something-or-other … something like that maybe … but it’s still IT”

It reminded me of something that I read recently in John Shaw’s ‘Back to the Future’ Planning 3.0 paper.  In fact there were a lot of really interesting points in the paper, but for now just to focus on one that stuck out:

“Planner titles will keep multiplying.  The blurb for this competition mentioned seven strands of account planning and there are more out there.  I’ve come across planners who called themselves ‘imagineers’.  It’s good that different disciplines want their own planners; my only wish is that those planners don’t become myopically channel-evangelistic, because that is counter to the objective belief in effectiveness central to planning philosophy”

Of course it is brilliant that different disciples (and the client-side as well) all seem to want to use planners. And it also makes sense that they would want to establish a sense of specialism and ownership in terms of the job title – it needs to feel relevant to the business.

But surely attaching a different discipline to the front of the job title is a counterintuitive to a planners role?

The way I see it:

  • Planners are there to try to understand as closely as possible how people think and how they behave.  People, in general, don’t tend to silo themselves off into ‘digital people’ or ‘social networking people’.  So if we have a breed of planners who are becoming too specialist, and specialist beyond how the people they are meant to understand act, then surely that is downright silly (if not even slightly dangerous). They end up considering problems through a single lens, rather than how to solve it
  • Alternatively maybe it’s just that I can’t bear the thought of being told that something isn’t my job.  All these new channels and ways that people talk to each other are interesting, and I’m selfish enough to want to learn more about it – I accept that there do need to be specialists, but is planning really the discipline to do it?  That is where the danger of what John Shaw describes as “myopically channel-evangelistic” lies – it’s no longer about people, it’s about channel.

At the end of the day, surely planners should be concerned with how to solve problems – thinking about how people behave and what our clients can do to interact with or change these behaviours?

I had always thought that it was my job to think in the broad brushstrokes and work out what we need to achieve and the bones of how we’re going to get there – not working out the minutiae of exactly how it’s going to work.  Or more dangerously, what we have to do because I’m not trained to look at it more objectively.

Surely that’s why we get invited into things, because we have a different viewpoint.  As soon as you specialise too much, people won’t get you involved on projects because it “wouldn’t be relevant to your role / experience / perspective”.

Plus, on a more prosaic note, don’t we have enough problems trying to explain our job title to people without making it even more confusing?

New resolution: worry less, post more

August 24, 2012

Just read a very apt post from Northern which has galvanised me into action…

…With a ‘drafts’ section full of things that I’ve found interesting, but never get round to finishing, and a list of excuses as long as my arm, I need to kickstart this blog again.

There’s no point waiting to write the big pieces, or being nervous to post them because of the debate / criticism they might open me up to.  Talking with people here, and offline, about the little things has helped me with some really interesting thoughts and ideas for work and outside it.

I started this blog for a reason, and it was to interact more, lurk less, and hone down my woefully un-concise style of writing.

Let’s give round two a go.

Can insight ever be a bad thing?

July 4, 2012

I found this article on the Guardian’s website today about how e-readers can be used to track how people interact with e-books now.

The level of data that these e-readers can report on is startling:

“How often do they pick up and engage with a book? What’s the average time when they start to read? How many pages do they read an hour? How long does it take to read a book? And through bookmarking, people tell us where they stop. If we were to dive into that reader space, we could see they picked up a book, read the first five pages in five hours, then never picked up and engaged with the book again. What does that say, if 90% of readers stop after chapter five? It certainly provides insight for the publisher and the author” (Todd Humphrey at Kobo)

There’s a part of me that goes ‘oooooooh’ and wants to get my grubby mitts on some of that data.  But I’m not sure that there is a real reason behind it.  It would be interesting, but would it really be useful?

Perhaps there are certain categories of writing where this information would be really helpful – for example in texts that are being written to educate / inform.

If you know which bits people are highlighting (and therefore you’d assume finding useful) or which bits take longest to read, or where people give up, then you can improve it.

But then, I’d argue that this sort of text is written with a different purpose in mind – it can be improved and its purpose optimised.

Where I’m a little concerned is if this starts affecting fiction writing.  Re-writing passages because people aren’t highlighting them.  Skipping over descriptive passages because 40% of people stop reading when there’s no conversation (I’ve made that up, please don’t quote me).  Killing off characters earlier in a series because the audience aren’t engaging with them as much.

Maybe a better use for the data would be of more use to the way that books are marketed, rather than how they are created. The average reading time could be used to sell books that [should] fit specific journey times, or the most highlighted quotes pulled out and used in the blurb or for marketing purposes.

My main worry probably centres on the idea of using this information to improve fiction.  In much the same way that I’d argue that research can never really improve creative work in advertising.

Maybe I’m just being a traditionalist (if you’ve been reading this for a while, you’ve probably worked out that I’m not really that big a fan of ebook readers – although the fact that I managed to take four separate first-book-in-a-series on holiday has made me re-evaluate that position just a little).

One thing that struck home was a comment in the article from China Miéville:

“I hope it wouldn’t change how I wrote, but conversely I do wonder if getting specifically worked up about this is simply a kind of neophobia, because if it did change how you wrote, wouldn’t it just be a new variant of what authors have done for centuries, which is writing to a market?”

That’s interesting for two reasons – firstly China Miéville writes sci-fi (well, sometimes, but he’s well worth checking out if that is your sort of thing because he is frankly awesome).  As a sci-fi writer it makes sense that he would think about it from the perspective of future creation.

The second reason is that it made me think something I hadn’t ever really thought before.  Things that are created by people are [generally] all created for a market.  Advertising is just the most obvious of all of those.

And if this technology had been developed for an advertising purpose – if it could track how people interact with ads and see which bits are most compelling and which bits people gloss over, and which make them go away altogether – wouldn’t we want to use it?

We already can in an online sense.  But we still need to make sure that the insight doesn’t get used the wrong way, because optimising something that already exists,  no matter how good and natural the data that you are basing that optimisation on, always assumes that there is no better way.

Bandwagon Jumping

May 16, 2012

Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how the events that are happening in the UK this year are shaping brand’s dialogue.  It seems like you can’t move for some reference to Britishness, the Olympics, or the Jubilee happening – and some are a lot more appropriate than others.

One thing that I am sure I’ve seen people write about [sorry, can’t remember who exactly – really not trying to plagiarise!] was how often the work that isn’t from a sponsor is funnier and more relevant – like the work around the World Cup 2012 from Kulula and the frankly brilliant ambush ad from Nike.

Most of the time the work from official sponsors seems to be a bit more pedestrian – and a bit more like the link to the event is shoehorned in at the last-minute.

However, last night I saw an ad from an official sponsor (P&G) that I thought was really well done.

And to top it all, it’s from a washing powder as well.

They’ve taken a product that a) feels a little irrelevant to the event and b) tends to have quite boring advertising anyway, and found a way to make it relevant and emotive, while still stressing the same product benefit that they’ve been talking about forever.

It might seem like a strange ad to focus on, but here’s to Ariel and their ‘Our Country’s Colours’ campaign. They should shout about it more than they appear to be doing.

Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

April 11, 2012

(Picture Credit – The TLS identifies a specific cover genre: The Backs of Women Looking Out over Water)

I recently read this article on the Guardian’s website about the rise of the copycat book covers.

With products I can understand that the packaging is a copycat – it’s hard not to see that when an expensive brand leader suddenly looks nearly identical to the cheaper own label version (if you want examples just look at John Frieda’s shampoo range and Asda’s own label, or Seven Seas Multibionta and Boots own label multivitamin).  They are trying to demonstrate that only the price is different between the products, and steal sales that way.

The article suggests that these copycat covers in books are using the same tactics – trying to pass themselves off as the same (or very similar) in the hope that people who’ve enjoyed the original will buy their product as well.

The problem is I wonder whether this is really copy-cat design for marketing, or if it’s more about genre conventions.  Sometimes subject matter dictates the sort of cover you can have – you can’t imagine a Vampire book with a bright and cheerful cover, or a chick-lit with something dark, mysterious and moody.  Even if the examples above have similar themes, they all feel very different.

Or maybe it is simply about what is fashionable at the time.  In much the same way that when fashion designers come up with similar designs they are ‘tapping into a Zeitgeist’ rather than copying each other.  How else do you explain similar hemlines and colour palettes?

It’s difficult – even in marketing – to draw the line.  Packaging is more clear-cut, but  Gemma has just written about how this can happen in ads – and it always looks bad for the second person to release their version; even if it would have been physically impossible for them to know about the first version, the second version will always look like it copied.

We say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but we don’t really mean it.  There’s always something a bit negative about ‘copying’. We’re criticising the creativity of whatever has come second.  I’m not really sure what my point here is, but I just feel that sometimes we’re too quick to accuse people of copying, when in fact they’re just tapping into something that is bigger than one person.  And surely in a world where we prize speed above all else – anything that helps shortcut to meaning is a good thing?

On loyalty

March 20, 2012

(Peter Snow and his Swingometer,  courtesy of the BBC

Things are starting (quietly) to look up in the UK at the moment.

After a “near record low” back in December the consumer confidence index is on the rise.

House sales are starting to pick up, and house prices are rising too (hallelujah!)

We’re not out yet – unemployment is eye-wateringly high still and well-known retailers are floundering left, right, and centre – but it feels a little more optimistic now than it has for a while.

Something that’s really interesting me at the moment is how much the way that we’ve seen people behave in the recession will stay true when times start to get a little better.

Particularly when it comes to brand loyalty.

A new report says that nearly 20% of UK shoppers aren’t brand loyal to a supermarket anymore.  I was surprised that of all the supermarkets that I thought might be okay Waitrose is actually the worst for swing voters:

“Of the top six grocers in the country, Waitrose is the most likely to see its customers shop around with 22.6 per cent of its customer base likely to shop with its rivals”

The thing I find interesting is how many people are still prepared to switch, despite the financial difficulty (petrol prices etc.) involved in moving away to a different supermarket / shopping in multiple retailers for the best deals.

How important is physical distance anymore? (Unless this is just further proof that there really are too many supermarkets in the UK…)

Interesting times for the supermarket war certainly, and bearing in mind their recent results probably evidence that the brand switch for Sainsbury’s has worked by emphasising price.

The thing that I’m left wondering is how much the landscape for brand loyalty has changed, and which brands it is changing for.  It might level the playing field a little in some sectors.

(Although maybe not for the soft drinks industry if this report is anything to go by.)

Where is the line for political correctness?

March 15, 2012

(The Divine Comedy available here)

A little off topic, but I read an article today about a human rights organisation that is taking a stand against Dante’s Divine Comedy that made me a little mad today.

Apparently they have come to the conclusion that the content of the story is:

“offensive and discriminatory …  racist, antisemitic and Islamophobic [and should] be removed from classrooms”

This got me thinking – can we censor the past based on todays values? What would happen to Shakespeare? Milton? CS Lewis? Salman Rushdie? Or on a more mundane note ads like this:

(picture found here)

I’m not sure where I stand.  On the one hand, if updating something like Enid Blyton so some of the more snigger-worthy names and places are more appealing to children today then brilliant, roll on the changes.  If it can keep a book alive then there has to be some good from it.

But on the other hand I get frustrated that everything is being read out of context.  Whether the author was directly commenting on their culture or not, texts like this are a valuable insight into how society has changed – as well as being very beautiful in their own right.  And I mean that in the sense of literature, not topic.

Surely we can’t dismiss teaching certain things in schools just because they don’t conform to today’s standards.  If we can’t explain the context, what hope have we got trying to teach the Crusades or the Second World War in history classes? Or would they get censored too?

Political correctness is a rod for our own backs.  While I obviously agree that we shouldn’t be offending anyone, or discriminating against individuals / groups there is something about stories like this one that just beggar’s belief.

Some of the worst examples of political correctness I’ve ever seen came from marketing as well.  Like the standardised letters that the NHS sends out to promote certain tests that it is in their interest to make sure that people attend – CVD, Cervical Screening etc.  These have been panel checked for PC-ness to the point where there (at least then) was no hook to them anymore.

How can anything stand out when political correctness overtakes common sense?