(Darwin on Brand Power)

Shaping up for creative leadership to build brands like no other by being best alone and better together was the Y&R mantra going into 1990. Ever the adman, this is how our leader Alex Krol put it:

“You like people who are interesting. People who are helpful. People who are witty. People who don’t take themselves too seriously. You dislike pompous, self-important people and show offs. You like friendly people. Funny people. People who are characters. People who have character. Remember brands are people too”.

At the time there was a fair bit of competitive rivalry between New York and London for Y&R’s thought leadership. “If brands are people, they sure can behave like animals too” London responded.

This Y&R planning school of thought was called “Brand Genetics” and was championed by Jim Williams, head of planning for Europe. Essentially the idea was to liken the evolution of brands to that of the natural species as articulated by the great naturalists and in particular, Charles Darwin. Three major “branding laws” were generated out of this work done some 25 years ago and because they have stood the test of time; it is well worth remembering them (even as I will never forget my old colleague the late, great Jim Williams).

The first “law” related to observations on “survival of the fittest” in the natural species and was called the “Law of Identity”. It paraphrased Darwin to read:

“The individual with, for example, the sharper beak, the longer horn, or the brighter feather would have the best chance of surviving and procreating its kind”.

As a South African planner this made all the sense in the world to me. “Ja”, I said to everyone who would listen, “to survive and grow a brand like an animal must be big like an elephant or strong like a lion or tall to feed off high up places like a giraffe, or be able to outrun their prey like a cheetah or to jump higher like a springbok which is the symbol of our great rugby team…”

Naturally most brands are not endowed with a specific physical product intrinsic that gives them their proverbial sharper beak, longer horn or brighter feather. Job#1 for the marketer is to create this “specialness” in the battleground of the mind. And so it became gospel that brands must differentiate themselves or die. Said another way brands with high differentiation enjoy eternal life and higher margins which is of course why brands have become so valuable. [No one knows the value of a differentiated identity better than the brand that exhorted us to “think different” — which is why Apple is the most valuable brand in the world today worth $247 billion according to BrandZ 2015]. Want to make a lot of money? Follow Darwin’s first law of brand power, the law of identity which means creating meaningful differentiation.

Having created a strong identity, the question of how it should respond to change or new cultural or geographic environments all too often arises. Drawing from the teachings of the natural species, Darwin’s answer to this is the ‘Law of Adaptation’, which says that:

“When a plant or animal is placed in a new country it will have to adapt to the environmental change without losing its fundamental identity that enabled it to survive and grow in the first place”.

Have you ever wondered why the dream of global brands and the heat to make it happen over the past 25 years has yielded so few true global brand building campaigns? Read Darwin’s law of adaptation again. It’s hard to “adapt to environmental change” while staying true to your “fundamental identity”. The problem begins with human nature at work with the “not invented here” syndrome. This goes beyond the local CMO’s knee jerk reaction that “it won’t work in my market”.

The truth is that people do not want to live in a uniform world (and especially in an Americanized world where the heat to build global brands originates). The more that people feel the presence of global institutions, the more they want to get back to local traditions and customs. The more human commonalties are stressed, the more we want to express our idiosyncrasies. Beyond this it’s hard to truly connect at a local level while staying true to the global idea. Creating something “glocal” is so much easier said than done.

The challenge of adapting to different cultures while staying true to one’s identity is in essence all about making the brand’s source of differentiation, truly relevant to the many tribes and cultures that the brand wants to build a relationship with. The key to unlock this is to firstly ensure that the brand’s differentiation itself is rooted in a universal human truth. This of course means that the voice of all races, cultures and creeds should inform the brand building process from the outset. Unfortunately this does not happen.

So in America today for example, the brand’s source of differentiation will be created by “General Market” advertising agencies with minimal or no input from the new multicultural mainstream made up of the many Hispanic, African American and Asian minorities that are fast becoming the majority in this country. This long overdue issue has at last begun to be addressed, which is why two of the hottest words in American marketing today are “Total Market”.

The other dimension of Darwin’s Law of Adaptation relates to brands adapting to change, while staying true to their original identities that made them famous. The classic case of getting it wrong is Coke’s loss of identity as it over adapted in response to the Pepsi challenge. To get it right Coke of course changed back resurrecting its original icon bottle (born way back by the brief that said that a Coke must be recognizable, even in the dark). The classic case of getting it right is Apple when Steve Jobs came back. First he restated the brand’s identity with the immortal “Think Different” campaign that still sends shivers down my spine. And so, one more time with feeling:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They are not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify them or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. Apple. Think different”.

Identity indelibly branded, Apple then moved beyond computers to adapt and capitalize on the changes brought by the digital age which it now dominates.

This brings us to Darwin’s third law of brand power, the “Law of Dominance” which as handed down by Williams et al said:

“Animals have to fight harder and more often to retain their leadership positions than they originally did to acquire them”.

Make no mistake acquiring brand leadership in the first place takes a lot: a big idea, hard work, money, luck and yes — leadership. And make no mistake it pays big time to be the leader, as the longevity of leading brands attest. But as the marketing war intensifies with each passing minute, the truth is that brands have to fight harder and more often to retain their leadership than they original did to acquire it.

If you want to see the law of dominance at play in the animal world, you don’t have to do to the jungle. You can simply take your dogs out for a walk and watch the way in which they lift their back leg to stake out and mark their territories left, right and centre. Because if you stop owning your space even for a second, somebody else is likely to step in to take it. Leaders simply cannot afford to rest-up anymore. They cannot afford not to reinvent themselves continuously. They cannot afford not to celebrate their differentiation at every step of the way. They simply must continuously shape and reshape themselves to become ever more relevantly differentiated and loved by their constituencies.

The caveat is that leadership brands constantly evolve while staying ever true to their identities. Because people don’t like people who change. People demand consistency, even as they want to be continually surprised. So true leaders master the paradox of constantly evolving while staying absolutely consistent.

Shortly after coming to America, in a speech delivered to the association of advertising agencies in 1955, David Ogilvy said:

“What would you think of a politician who changed his public personality every year? Have you noticed that Winston Churchill has been careful to wear the same ties and the same hats for fifty years — so as not to confuse us? Think of all the forces at work to change the personality and image of a brand from season to season. The advertising managers go. The agencies come and go. What guts it takes what obstinate determination to stick to one coherent image year after year in the face of pressures to come up with something new every six months”.

Back in the fifties, sixties and seventies when demand outstripped supply, it was a lot easier to become big and become the brand leader. “Eighty percent of success was just showing up” as Woody Allen famously remarked. Today brand leaders have to fight harder and more often to retain their leadership positions than they originally did to acquire them. Today brand leaders must constantly adapt to changing environments while staying true to themselves. Today, brand leaders must never stop creating and celebrating their proverbial sharper beak, longer horn or brighter feather. Leadership brands obey the laws of the natural species. So remember brands are animals too!

That is what we preached in the 1990's. Think now how much more relevant and challenging these Darwinian laws are to implement in the interactive digital age of today where brands are built not so much by the marketer as they are by the audience talking and tweeting about them… (To be continued).

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