Be smart and be stupid.

How brand planning can benefit from the unknown.

Be more like Diesel: Be stupid when it comes to the planning of brands and campaigns.

I’ve recently stumbled upon a fascinating TNI article that analyses Spinoza’s third part of his Thesis, more specifically the part in which he poses the question ‘What can a body do?’, and how this relates to modern design. I deeply recommend to read the article in its entirety, but basically it’s saying that standardisation in design always centers around the goal to ‘put bodies in their proper ‘place’’, which is not always beneficial, but can indeed ‘create violent tensions between those bodies and their environments’. The learning: Not all bodies are created equal (they differ in height, width, physical capabilities like impairments and injuries) and designers would do a better job if they approached their work with the wonderful assumption that “we not only don’t know what a body does or is. We don’t know what a body isn’t.”

This struck a chord for me. For one because you can immediately feel the power in these words (partly because you don’t get it in the first place). The double negation of ‘not knowing what a body isn’t’ means you’re opening yourself up to all kinds of possibilities. Not knowing what something is not or cannot do, puts you in a beginner’s mindset, which is crucial when you approach new tasks and projects. After all, strategy is about agility and intent, rather than coming up with a fixture of rules that will be valid throughout a closed and controlled environment:

Strategy is essentially an intent rather than a plan, because the knowledge gap means we cannot plan an outcome but only express the will to achieve it, and the effects gap means that we cannot know for certain what the effects of our actions will be, and that we will probably have to modify our actions to achieve the outcome we want.
We don’t know what a brand isn’t.

Secondly it rings true with regards to brands and how we, as strategists, but also as an industry as a whole, often approach our work. We don’t know what a brand isn’t. We just don’t. It’s about coming to more neutral terms with the thought that we will never exactly know what goes on in peoples’ minds, and whether what they’re telling us is what we want to hear or if it’s even what they’re really thinking or feeling. If they don’t know, how could we? The double negation helps us to naively concentrate on what could be, taking away all the constraints we normally put up with (even if it’s just for a moment).

Over the last century or so our industry has worked hard to come to a common understanding of what brands are or should do. In the beginning, we thought about them merely as labels for goods (in terms of quality and/or heritage). Shortly after the USP revolution came along, with all the brand models, brand keys, triangles and onions ending up in a big strategy wishy washy-box ticking, and the brands undergoing that process not only sharing the same category, but the exact same values, merely differentiating on paper, but not in people’s heads (watch this to see what I mean). Nowadays every brand has to serve a higher emotional purpose — love brands, big ideals, no matter what you call them, ever since Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, every marketer and agency has said at one point that brands need to have a bigger purpose (no matter if you’re selling luxury cars or toilet paper).

Don’t neglect the opportunities that haven’t yet revealed themselves.

As Paul Feldwick has brilliantly illustrated in his newest book, The Anatomy of Humbug, we have to look at the past of advertising to see what its future can be, But while that is valid in many cases, I believe it’s equally dangerous for us to overly focus on what’s only right in front of us. I’m not saying to purposefully neglect the client brief, focus groups results, brand keys, 300 slides of secondary research, expert opinions and industry papers, but to rather use the double negative-approach as an exercise within (and in addition to) our thought process — to avoid information bias and running the danger of neglecting the opportunities that all these documents might not show us. I will spare you the obligatory quotes from Henry Ford and Steve Jobs about innovation here.

So what does this approach look like in our everyday work? Basically it’s about going back to square one and telling yourself you’re an idiot who knows nothing (always a good exercise in life, professionally and personally). We can start by asking different questions throughout the strategic process (there will be a lot more than those underneath) to get rid of our mental restrictions along the way:

  1. Brief & Research
    What is the brief not telling us? Is there a reason for this brief we don’t know about? What is the client unaware of not knowing? Is there a reason he wouldn’t go down a potential direction?
    What objectives are we not following? Why not?
    Looking at the research, what hasn’t been measured but would be interesting to know?
  2. Target group
    Who are we not talking to? Who could we never talk to directly, and why? (Think propagation planning.)
    In what ways are people not using our brand? Why not?
    What do we not know about them that could benefit our work or new areas of value creation for our brand?
  3. Competitors & Category
    What are they not knowing or doing (can we own something that we know or do, but haven’t leveraged yet)?
    Looking at the competition, what category are we not in? Why aren’t we? Can we come up with new things that don’t live within our category but would help support our objective? (Think Carlsberg‘s beer based grooming products for men.)
    What media has not been found working for our category yet? Why not? (Think Best Job in the World.)

Lastly and in general, exploring projects with a double negation can lead us to better understanding what a brand is really about. Everyone knows of feeling a bit uneasy when pulling abstract information together at the beginning of projects — we’re often handling them rather unconsciously, and an incredible amount of time and effort can pass before you’re able to put your thoughts down onto paper and into words that make sense. By challenging or redefining any given objectives, the brand’s past and future, category, and audience can lead to solutions that add value in other ways than the brand’s core product or service are doing right now, but it also helps to come to terms with yourself of what a brand is about — and more importantly, what it isn’t and should never be.

Decontextualise yourself and get comfortable with the thought that you don’t know what the result is going to look like in the end.

We don’t know what a brand isn’t.
We don’t know what a brand can’t do.

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