I had an operation last week. Something on my handsome face had to be excised and cauterised. A huge black eye from the local anaesthetic, swollen cheek, stitches in for a week, and days of saying ‘You should have seen the other guy’. All unpleasant but necessary. For some reason the hospital had me change into some kind of surgery gown, a thin see-thru kimono/smock that you put on backwards. You can keep your underwear on, in this case, a mixed blessing. All for something on my face? They had to be kidding. As cruel fate would have it, I was wearing a pair of lucky pants; loud tropical print in garish colours, palm trees in all sorts of places. Extreme kitsch, bought in a supermarket in Morocco. Anyway, the pants/pinafore thing was set off nicely by the brown brogue boots I wore walking to theatre, having ignored the notice to bring slippers. For my face? Maybe that is the strategy; make you feel such a self-conscious lemon that you forget to worry about going under the knife. I sulked my way through the pre-op checklist.
On any medication? Asked the nurse. Nope. Any history of heart problems? Nope; Wearing any jewellery? Nope. Any piercings? Come on, do I look as if I have any piercings? Have to ask, son. She says, resolutely deadpan.
Apologies for the detail re underwear, there is a reason I included it. I want to talk about brand, and brand literacy, and how our society understands and interprets through the lens of brand. You see, I am old enough to remember a time when the very concept of anyone walking around in their daily life with trousers halfway down to their knees precisely so that their underwear could be seen, or their brand of underwear seen, would have been thought of as laugh out loud preposterous. Commonplace now, and for all I know some of you reading this have just returned from parading your Marks and Spencer smalls around the open plan office to show where you are coming from too. My point is that we are all brand literate, probably, but there are degrees, a spectrum of what we think is legitimate to brand. For some brand only exists in cars, jeans, sunglasses and designer shops; for others it extends to mobile phones, clubs, music labels and every aisle of the supermarket. It’s about the combination of your brand choices that project who you are now too, which is why some people need you to see their underwear, and maybe one day your choice of toilet paper will be deemed to be part of that picture, in which case both trousers and pants will be down in the street. It’s not the brand projecting to you any expectations of performance and quality any more. It’s been a while since anyone bought Persil because it washes whiter.
So there’s an age thing here too. Take my youngest, my sweet ten-year-old monster, watching, wincing, as her father loads the online basket at Sports Direct for family holiday accessories. Slazenger flippers and snorkel? You’ve got to be kidding, isn’t there any Hollister, or at least Nike? Please, I plead, who’s going to be impressed by this style statement you want me to bankroll, the fishes?
Many years ago – mid-nineties- I was in advertising, and we were doing something for the soon to be christened Thus, in its final days of being Scottish Telecom. A messy birth. For one thing they had commissioned two agencies to handle the same identity and launch. That made for a lot of fun and frolics, banter and hysteria on its own but that was the least of it. I meet the chap who runs the newly acquired Demon Internet. He’s excited and tells me Demon is cool but he’s going to take it ever higher, make it the Ferrari of internet service providers that household consumers will pay a premium to have. The first problem with this is that it in no way fits the B2B brief the CEO, whom he clearly never talks to, has given us. The second issue, bigger in my head, is what are we branding anyway and how? He talks about sponsorship and association, about ‘Devilish’ values and company registrations ending in 666. Yes, but this is mid-nineties, the only non-business users of internet are seriously early adopters – nerds – unlikely to be moved by any of this. What’s more, this is a dial-up service through BT phone lines, (broadband doesn’t exist yet) and there are no quality or service differentiators whatsoever. I explain to him that he has nothing to brand; you can’t brand the bytes of data coming through phone lines any more than you can brand electrons coming through wires to light your home, no matter who you sponsor or associate yourself with.
If I had known then what I know now I would have been kinder. We were both right. I should have been kinder even then, because I was even then making beer ads that said if you like this joke then drink our beer because we have the same sense of humour, and said nothing but nothing about the beer itself.
You can’t brand bytes, or gigabytes per second, and you can’t brand electrons, unless you made them yourself on your roof or from your own green turbine. You can brand the service and every interface and interaction around it, and you should be consistent in this, otherwise there’s no brand. Not the logo, or a clever VAT receipt number, but how you answer the phone, bill people, help them in crisis, how the guys drive the vans, what vans the guys drive, anything, as long as it’s consistent with the proposition you have for yourself and thus brings it to life. You can even, if you are very good, brand the service around tap water, and the water itself, and transform the reputation of the water company but that’s another story. If you want to engage an audience that’s ever more brand literate, you have to be creative about identifying opportunities to get your brand across. Which is why, much more recently, as in twenty years later, I found myself in a room in Hamburg with some guys that generate and transmit, you guessed it, electrons, all across Europe.
So, what’s left unbranded? Or rather, who is being left behind? For my money, I think the global design and engineering outfits play with fire in their complacency here. As a former utility director I have never ceased to be amazed that major fortune-changing capital projects are still pitched for on the basis of price, a production schedule, and a promise to behave themselves. What about a personality, a proposition, a brand guys? When 60% of your score is based on quality it pays to think about these things. Whoever moves first here and brings in another dimension will clean up.
And the other territory? Public services. Currently being transferred end-masse to a digital platform. Again, why not two steps at the same time here? What about sharpening the proposition, purpose and relevance to make a real revolution?
And now I will get off the high horse. I know from painful experience that everything about you communicates your brand, or lack of it, and what you must be like, whether you choose to realise it or not.
So right back to the operation checklist. Any piercings? she asked. No, I replied, firmly. It’s just these pants.Back