Good Creative Gets Out of the Way

We don’t know which wise soul first said this about industrial design, but it’s a great mantra for marketing and ad creative too. It’s a contrarian view, at least as far as many firms go. The temptation to put one’s own creative stamp on the client’s brand is just too strong for most. But how many laugh riot viral videos or broadcast spots actually build brand or sell anything? The very best of the bunch do, but the majority don’t. The same goes for the lion’s share of online and traditional campaigns. Attention-grabbing creative is great, but there’s a job that needs doing above and beyond the laughs.

We think great creative is like great industrial design: it provides the audience with an effortless path to getting a need met. That doesn’t mean it’s boring. Strong creative can’t be boring. But what it doesn’t have are any “we’re-the-agency-and-aren’t-we-funny” distractions. It let’s the product speak clearly and on its own terms. If it happens to speak in a way that’s funny, that’s excellent. But effective creative must give the audience something more than water cooler conversation. It must give them a relationship with a brand.

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On the Power of “No”

Staying focused is the biggest challenge brand managers have.  That’s especially true in tough economic times when the business gurus are all shouting “innovate, innovate, INNOVATE!!” from the hilltops. With all that pressure the temptation to innovate wildly starts to mount. Unlikely brand extensions suddenly start to make sense. Management starts to have fantasies about acquiring competitors or vendors. Heck, the idea of just turning the whole business into an iPad app is suddenly starting to look attractive.

The best thing you can do at a time like that is to take a deep breath and remember the number one rule of successful brand management: focus. Do the opportunities in front of you sharpen and clarify your brand in the minds of your customers? Or do they only muddy and confuse? If it’s the latter, the onus is on you to simply say “no.” Take the energy that you or your people were putting into the audacious new venture and channel it back into your core strengths: finding out what your customers actually want and then delivering it.

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Our Small Batch Future

If you’re interested in getting a glimpse of what the virtual world of the last ten years is going to do to the real world in the coming ten, spend a couple of evenings with Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book, Makers. In it, Anderson envisions an open-source manufacturing economy dominated by small — even home-based — makers, all armed with cheap, state-of-the-art tools: desktop 3-D printers, laser cutters and CNC routers.

In this brave new C2B world the garage inventor is king, able to take his products from screen to prototype to market with the help of cheap prototyping, the internet and waiting small-batch manufacturers. Patent rights barely exist, and the only thing protecting margins and market share are social communities and brands. If that sounds far-fetched, just take a look around. It’s already happening and could well be the 3rd wave of the Industrial Revolution.

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The “Strategic” Marketer

A couple of interesting comments on Wednesday’s post. The gist of them: it’s a relief to have a marketer speak frankly about the limits of marketing. Nice to know we’re not the only ones who think a good chunk of the marketing and advertising community has watched a little too much Mad Men.

Good marketers have plenty of confidence. Better ones never forget the place of marketing: as an interpreter and amplifier of a great business strategy. This is where we at Nerve take issue with the all the “strategic” marketing claims that are out there these days. Because marketing is not a strategy. Marketing is an expression of a strategy. And where does that strategy come from? The client.

That’s not to say that marketers can’t help clients clarify their strategies. Indeed this is what our branding exercises are all about. We use them to challenge our clients to focus: to state clearly the value they bring to the marketplace. It can be a little grueling at times. Not long ago, after a lengthy brand discovery session, a client came up to me and said: “I haven’t been grilled like that since my marine corps interview!”

Just so. For the fact is that it’s easy for directors to get buried in the clutter of the day-to-day, to get distracted from their core mission…the thing that got them into business in the first place. Helping businesses rediscover their value and direction — to hone their own strategy — is a thrill as well as a privilege. As for the marketing that it generates, well, it’s deadly.

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Is There Such a Thing As a “Re-Brand”?

Every so often you hear that this-or-that company is working on a “re-brand”. But what is a re-brand, exactly? Most people use the term to describe a logo change, but a true re-brand entails a lot more than that. It requires changing some of the fundamentals of your identity. That’s no small job. No wonder so many smart marketers insist that “re-branding” is an illusory concept.

“If brand is the essence of you, the one thing you can never, ever change, then it’s nonsense to think a company re-brand,” a colleague from another firm recently said to me over coffee. But a brand isn’t an essence. It’s an idea — a feeling other people have about your company or your product. And feelings can change. No, they probably can’t change by Thursday of next week, but change they can, and often do.

Apple is a great high-profile example. This is a brand that has traveled over the years from creative upstart to hopeless cause to genius mega-corporation. If companies had fixed, unchangeable essences this sort of evolution wouldn’t be possible. The truth is that brands, being products of the human mind, are in constant flux. Car brands are stodgy one year and hip the next. Clothing lines are “in” in the spring “out” in the fall. Sports teams go from winner to loser and back again.

Ah, you might say, but most of these brand shifts are brought about by changes in business performance. Exactly. And a performance change is precisely what it takes to shift a consumer perception. Imagine for a second that you’re planning to go to your college reunion. An old classmate remembers you as a listless, partying slob. You show up with a new tie on, but otherwise looking and acting the same as you always did. You walk up to your old acquaintance. “Hi, I’m different,” you say. Her reply is quite understandably “Oh really??”

Now imagine you show up at the same reunion, only this time you not only have a new suit of clothes on and a new attitude, you back it up by stripping down to your shorts and running a four minute mile. This time your old acquaintance comes up to you and says “Wow, you’re really different!”

So yes, rebrands absolutely are possible, but they can’t occur solely in the realm of marketing or advertising. A company that attempts a “re-brand” by changing a logo and launching a marketing campaign — yet does nothing to change its behavior at the business level — is doomed to fail. I speculate this is why so many marketers believe that rebranding is impossible: because even genius marketing backed by Herculean execution can’t change a brand by itself. It takes the will of the entire enterprise.

This is why successful rebrands are tough and don’t happen every day.

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Mastering the Art of the Pre-Mortem

Of all the various techniques we use for our branding workshops, my personal favorite is the “pre-mortem.” Though entrepreneurs (especially very enthusiastic entrepreneurs) often find it morbid and deflating, it’s one of the most useful techniques ever devised for anticipating the flaws in an action plan.

The process is quite simple. You sit down with your project team and imagine that it’s six months from now. Your plan — whatever it is: a new company, a campaign, a product launch — lies in ashes. It failed…utterly. Your time and money were completely wasted, your backers are disillusioned and your investors are angry. How did it come to this? What on Earth happened?

I know, it’s not exactly a positive visualization technique. But there’s a point to it. Once the happy, optimistic smiles have been wiped off everyone’s face, go around the room and ask everyone what went wrong. How did we end up here after such a promising start? The answers are frequently profound. “We didn’t do enough advance research.” “We didn’t want it like we should have wanted it.” “We didn’t do enough diligence on our suppliers.” “We did what was best for us instead of what was best for our customers.”

After everyone has gotten a chance to answer, go back and turn those “pre-failures” into a checklist. Then, obviously, get after it! Make a habit of the pre-mortem and you’ll be amazed at how much smarter you’ll get at going to market.





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To VC or Not to VC?

If there’s one thing growing businesses need — maybe even more than, ehem, marketing — it’s capital. That capital can come from a variety of sources. Ideally it’s  generated by profits. But then of course some moves require a bigger chunk of change than even out-of-the-ordinary profits can deliver. At those times, where do you turn? To friends? To banks? To venture capital?

These days, since many banks are still pretty skittish about lending, we’re seeing more and more startups go the VC route. It can be a great thing, provided everyone clearly understands the stakes and expectations going in. For indeed there are plenty of VC horror stories out there about entrepreneurs who “didn’t know what they were getting into.”

This post isn’t about the perils of fine print. Rather it’s about choosing wisely when it comes to money partners. If one cash source is willing to take a chance on you, odds are there are plenty of others who will know a good thing when they see it.  So the first order of business is to tamp down your excitement and be clear-eyed about a step as big as accepting someone else’s money.

Next, when you meet, don’t consider it a one-way interview. Your investors are about to become your business partners — so interview them back! Are they bringing anything more to the table than just the cash? The best investors not only have a large bankroll, they have experience in your industry and access to the resources (personal or otherwise) that you need to succeed.

Lastly, consider how you want your business venture to play out. Remember that big money probably means your investors want to make you a big deal quickly, sell you and take their profit. This may be exactly in line with your goals. If so, great! Make a million…or ten! On the other hand if your dream is to live in your business — build it steadily and savor the challenges that come along with running it — then you might want to be more judicious about how much money you accept.

A lot of VC firms don’t like to lend less that $5 million to a new enterprise. But before you go thinking “cha-CHING! New boat!” think about what sort of return your investors are going to expect for an infusion of that size (and how fast they’ll expect it before they start getting impatient). If your startup is a lifestyle decision more than it is about a quick cash-in, you may want to consider banks or smaller-scale angel investors instead.

Remember, it’s your business. The money is just the fuel to make it go. You can judiciously apply the gas or push the pedal to the floor. The wisest entrepreneurs consider the risks and rewards of both of those options before someone else comes in with a big money stake.


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