By Chris Moody
I went shopping the other day. To Sainsbury’s, but that’s not important. As I ambled along the aisles I saw two things that made me question if what I do for a living is evil and a third that restored my faith in the power of brand and design. Let me tell you about them…
The first was in pride of place in the bread section – a little poly-wrapped loaf of ‘crustless’ bread. Now don’t misunderstand me, I like my snacks to be maize based, my wheat in puffed form and my MSG bountiful. A man who eats as many crisps as me is no food snob but, really, crustless bread? That’s one step away from me getting a trolley full of baby food every week because ‘it all goes down the same hole’.
It’s not the quality of the loaf or the packaging that was unnerving – it’s the brand idea. What is this in the world to do? The fact it exists at all means someone thought the idea had legs. I blame all of us.
This is a product not born of passion and determination but of consumer research and focus groups. We asked the public what they wanted and they said this. Not everyone can make their own hummus or sun-dry their own tomatoes but this isn’t about convenience, it’s about laziness; too lazy to cut, too lazy to chew. This is Henry Ford’s premonition of faster horses brought to life as an anaemic blob of carbohydrates.
Focus groups are fascinating places to be - in an anthropological sense. The ones that I have been in seem to always follow the same patterns. Loud person dominates the room for a bit, then everyone turns on them, nothing much gets resolved and the occasional bit of gold comes from the quiet one in the corner. Focus groups have their place but not as a way of ‘testing’ a brand. You can’t test the unknown. You just bring a carousel of baggage from other things to it. Viewpoints from a wider audience have to be baked in as you develop a brand idea but not taken wholesale as the answer. A large part of what we do at Wolff Olins is to balance what the world thinks it wants with what we think it really needs to succeed in the future.
The second thing I saw was a copy of a national newspaper. Its entire front page was devoted to the split of a band who were runners up in a talent contest in 2008. It’s a shame. But is it the single most important thing 3.13 million people need to be told about on Wednesday 24 April 2013?
I know tabloid newspapers are there to entertain as much as to inform, so it’s not the paper or even JLS that bother me, it’s how the JLS brand came to be and the plain safeness of it all.
The band are universally liked; sister, brother, granny, mother, everyone agrees they are/were definitely OK. And that’s the issue. Like the crustless bread JLS were born of consensus. 28 writers are credited on their first album. 34.66% of 8 million viewers thought they were better than Alexandra Burke. Of course Marvin and JB will sell more papers than Syria – it’s a safe bet.
The Manic Street Preachers once said “we don’t want to be anyone’s second favourite”, all or nothing, you’re with us or you’re with someone else. The best brands think and act like that – fearless and peerless, they take risks and know that if they are striking out on their own they are, at least, doing one thing right.
Bringing a great brand to life needs strong creative leadership and similarly bold approach with singular decision-making. A clear vision for people to get behind, coupled with a desire to not play by the rules. It’s about maintaining that passionate startup mentality no matter how mature your business is.
Which leads me to the final thing I saw (not surprisingly, in the drinks aisle). A single bottle of Swedish Vodka by a 134-year old brand, and next to it another perfectly un-identical version, row upon row of discordant bottles, sat like interlopers at a tea party.
The idea of limited edition bottles is nothing new but this bottle was one of four million, each one different from the next. I saw the idea for this a few months ago at an awards ceremony. Naturally, it did well but on the shelf it makes even more sense. I watched an old woman put three in her trolley; the care with which she chose each specific bottle from the shelf implied she wasn’t planning to get off her head. What I like the most is this is a perfect extension of the spirit of the brand. A brand that has spent years building the idea of their bottle being a canvas for creativity and now, in an ultimate act of confidence, taking their production line apart to make it a reality. It’s different, brave and it just works.
This is particularly relevant for the UK in 2013. Hell, we even run a government on a consensus driven timeshare basis. But today, more than ever, we need great brand ideas and innovative design to hurl us forward rather than nanny us with vanilla blandness, telling us what we want to hear. We should be making a concerted effort to shake ourselves out of a triple dip funk by embracing the different and difficult. There’s a great opportunity in these times of austerity to break the rules, make some new ones, to put some noses out of joint.
Great brands are peerless, they rebel. They say ‘I’m doing it this way, you do what you like.’
Let’s be more like that.
Chris Moody is Creative Director at Wolff Olins London.