Opinions wanted

There’s an issue that needs addressing: the lack of opinion at the heart of most brands/marketing/marketers

About a decade ago, Copernicus Consulting did a research study in the US to look at how we saw brands. Its most startling finding to me was the lack of differentiation people saw between brands. Four out of five categories were seen to have increasingly homogeneous brands and only 7% of ads were seen as different. The lack of remarkability was in itself remarkable.

I have a nagging feeling that this has got worse. It is almost certainly a large driver behind the infamous statistic from the Havas Meaningful Brands survey that most people wouldn’t mind if three out of four brands disappeared tomorrow. More often than not we point our fingers at a lack of ambition and bravery to explain this but I’m increasingly of the opinion that there is a more pernicious issue that needs to be addressed: the lack of opinion at the heart of most brands, marketing and marketers today.

This lack of opinion is visible everywhere — from the same set of 100 words used to form mission statements and values, to ads with similar narratives and executional tricks. It’s perhaps most apparent in the digital presence of brands where the Dribbblisation of design has led us to making the same thing every time. The designer Jon Gold recently asked in a blog post which of the two possible websites any of us were currently designing. Infinite possibilities reduced to two. That pretty much sums up the state of uniqueness.

Brands are becoming increasingly alike and, as a result, failing in their primary objective to simplify choice through relevant distinctiveness. In so doing, they are failing business. Work by the Brand Asset Valuator, among others, has shown the critical importance of ‘energised differentiation’ in driving preference, usage, margin and long-term shareholder value. Difference is built on opinion, so it appears opinions are rather valuable things. So how can we get back to building opinionated brands?

First, we need to break the habit of worshipping at the altar of norms and the ‘rules’ of the game and category. This makes us more alike than different. Optimising to everyone else stops us looking for something new. It makes us solve the same problems as everyone else (and often this might not be the real problem we need to solve). It stops us becoming what we can be. It makes brands bland.

Now, this sounds fine on paper but we’ve all been in meetings where we’ve been told distinctive, opinionated ideas can’t be pursued because they are ‘high risk’. But ‘high risk in our category/industry’ is not the same as ‘high risk’ in the world at large. When we begin to look outside the confines of the illusion and constraint of our brand’s alleged category, we can see opinionated ideas that can inform and support fresh opinion for brands. The famous story of Ian Schrager’s nightclub — rather than luxury hotel — background led to his hotels having a very different opinion built on the value of lobby socialising. It was an opinion that changed the whole industry. More recently, STORY-the new retail concept store in New York — had a different opinion: what matters is experiences per square foot. It’s a store whose opinion is informed more by magazines and galleries than by retail stores. As a result, every four to eight weeks, it completely reinvents itself- from its design to the merchandise it carries.

This leads me to my second point: the greater curiosity a brand has, the more likely it is to have a distinctive opinion. Creative folk tend to be remarkably narcissistic: if we are making ads, we look at the ad show annuals (or, worse still, the advertising in the category); if we are doing web design, we head to Dribbble; if we work in financial services, we look at financial services. The same inputs unsurprisingly lead to similar outputs. Rather than defining ourselves by category or output, let’s be more curious about what is going on in the real world and look at how others have solved similar problems or identified better problems to solve. The more curious we are, the more likely we are to have an opinion.

Third, we need to remember it’s worth looking back in order to go forward. It amazes me how little time we spend understanding the history of a brand and its initial reason for being. Founders’ visions tend to be highly authentic and opinionated. If we spend time doing some basic brand archaeology, we can refresh and recontextualise these foundations to build a truly opinionated brand. As Judy Garland said many years ago, “always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else”. Never have these words been so true.

Originally published in Admap May 2015

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