4. Fundamental

If you want to know what on earth Alice Cooper has to do with brand strategy you will need to read to the end I’m afraid. Image courtesy of Rock Celebrities.

We have talked a lot about the value of being radical, of getting to the root cause of things. It is an incredibly helpful philosophy for identifying the real problem your brand faces – the right problem your brand faces.

But in developing a new brand idea that actually helps you solve that problem you need somewhere to start. It’s only one approach but I find the idea of brand fundamentalism a pretty rewarding idea.

Fundamentals represent the essential structure or function of something, the bedrock upon which everything is built. And understanding the fundamentals of a category or brand means getting to grips with their essential function.

I don’t mean what your research says about generic category motivators – some combination of price, service and value I’d guess. I mean why the hell your category or brand exists and what it is really doing for people at its heart.

It seems to me that so many categories and so many brands seem not to not understand or have forgotten why they or indeed the entire sector exists. Their fundamental role in peoples’ lives.

I call it losing the plot, when a category has forgotten what they are there for or don’t understand it in the first place. It can happen in any sector but its most common in those people say are low interest, categories their marketers claim that consumers don’t really care about. To me this is almost always an excuse.

There is powerful advantage in discovering the fundamental role your category or brand actually plays. The one that everyone else has forgotten or that now the market has changed, is simply unclear to them.

I realise that this sounds rather like brand purpose. But it’s not the kind of brand purpose that is about saving the world, unless that is actually what you do for people.

You may have noticed by now that I love insurance.

One of the reasons is that it exists for a reason. Beyond the silly mascots and consumer cynicism is an industry that enables us to share or transfer risk so that we can all get on with our lives. That’s pretty cool if you ask me.

And the fact that so many people in our world think it’s as boring as batshit and so don’t bother thinking about it at a fundamental level makes it a wonderful category for a strategist.

I once worked for a life insurance business in Asia. Here life insurance isn’t simply about a payment or support in of death or illness, it is also used as an ultra low risk form of investment that builds up a cash fund for the insured to draw upon. The brand idea was born of thinking about the fundamentals of this kind of insurance.

At the heart of any insurance policy is a promise because in it an insurance company promises that if a certain set of circumstances occur that they will take an action, usually pay an agreed amount of money to the person that is insured.

Most of the financial services sector can never promise anything, famously they say that the value of your investments may go down as well as up – in other words they offer a plan. But insurance is the one bit of the category that is about making and keeping promises.

So we went big on promises. Because an insurance brand makes and keeps these promises their customers can do the same thing for the people around them. Like keeping a promise that their family will be looked after in the event of their illness or death or perhaps simply being able to support their kids’ education abroad when the time comes.

The idea that life insurance helps you make and keep promises to the people you love came from thinking about the fundamentals of a category not its superficial expression or well worn orthodoxies like protection or peace of mind that dominate insurance brand strategy.

To be clear these fundamentals may well be true of the category as a whole – the idea that an insurance policy is a promise certainly is – so in the strictest terms they are unlikely to be unique in and of themselves.

That may bother you, after all aren’t we supposed to create brand ideas that could be true of absolutely no one else on earth?

But imagine if you alone have discovered the beating heart of a business or category and own that for yourself, leaving everyone else splashing in the paddling pool of superficial strategy? If you understood something true of the category but that your competition could not see or have forgotten?

The reality is that if you can get to the core of a category and choose to centre your brand around it in an ownable way you will find that your conversation and the experience you build will be different to every other brand.

At worst you will own the generic but overlooked heart of the category and that is an incredibly powerful and rewarding place to be. At best you can take that fundamental and make it truly ownable. In this case we didn’t create an idea like ‘we keep our promises’, we made it about the customer being able to make and keep their promises. It took that fundamental role and made it a little more distinctive and, in the process, gave it more heart.

So, try and think past and beyond what you are told a category is about and the way everyone else thinks about it. Clear your mind and dig deep into what lies at the heart of the way that category works, the role that a business plays or what a product actually does.

I worked on the launch of Sky+, one of the first Personal Video Recorders or PVRs that used a great big hard disk to store hours of recorded programmes. It was an revolutionary product at the time, offering faux streaming from pre-downloaded content.

In the early 2000s PVRs were an emerging technology and though everyone loved them, no one knew how to sell them. The standard fare was about choice. They enabled you to ‘watch what you wanted when you wanted’. The problem was that choice was the default idea for all multichannel television services and every video recorder of any description had enabled people to watch what they wanted when they wanted.

What was needed was to discover the role Sky+ was fundamentally playing in peoples’ lives.

Apple’s iPod had been launched only two years earlier and the promise of 1,000 songs in your pocket had been revolutionary because it meant that you took all your music with you and not a pre-chosen selection. And with the shuffle function you were able to play a random selection of music all of which you loved; it was like having your own radio station. And that was fundamentally what Sky+ was doing, providing you with a new TV channel on the programme guide. A new channel that was entirely dedicated to you and your family and containing all the stuff, and only the stuff, that you love, sitting on your disk waiting for you to watch it.

Put simply Sky+ gave you your own TV channel and that’s how we launched it with the help of Alice Cooper and Ronnie Corbett.

To get to the fundamental you need to be able to penetrate the superficiality of most categories and the brand strategies built inside them. Anything that gives you a new or more fundamental view of people’s lives and the role of your brand is helpful in doing this but you need to be wary of traditional research .

It’s very difficult for most research to escape the gravitational pull of what people understand about a brand or category and how the brand thinks about itself or the category. So much research is a self referential conversation between two parties locked inside a world they can’t escape from.

To get fundamental you have to either create a future, then show it to people and even then they may well reject it. Or undertake the sort of research that starts with people’s lives not your brand. Indeed, the sort of research that may never touch upon your brand or even the category. I like to call this non-narcissistic research.

I did something like this when building a new small business banking offering for HSBC. Never bother asking small businesses about banking. After a tirade of invective they will simply say they want lower charges, better rates and more rewards. Ultimately you may well decide to offer them lower charges, better rates and more rewards, but that isn’t going to create a distinctive proposition for you.

Instead we undertook a series of long and in-depth interviews with small business owners around the world with the intention of finding out why they were running a small business, what it meant to them, what they wanted to achieve and what was holding them back. We didn’t once mention banking or the bank. The idea was that by understanding their lives we could understand the ways in which the brand could serve them. Fundamental research to deliver fundamental thinking. No narcissism anywhere.

In doing so we uncovered a paradox of control. That small business owners run their own business because they want to be in control of their professional and personal lives. But that being a small business they are rarely in control of any of it and in reality are always at the mercy of larger forces. So we created a banking proposition and brand idea to help small business owners regain control and reinforce their independence. It was called HSBC Fusion.

The posh word for this kind of research is ethnography but its essentially about finding ways to immerse yourself in the world of your customers and potential customers by leaving your category and business at the door.

Sometimes data can do this too. I love the story about how many McDonalds milkshakes were being consumed in the mornings by people commuting to work. This uncovered the fundamental role of their milkshakes as a breakfast drink for adults not just a meal accompaniment for kids.

However you uncover the fundamentals of a brand or category, however you peel back the layers of convention and group think, the desire is the same. To figure out what the brand or category really does for people or rather could be doing for people. This will require you to get fundamental in the way that you think and to dip below the surface of that brand category or peoples’ lives and see what lurks beneath.

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4 Replies to “4. Fundamental”

  1. I’m not sure I’d call ethnography posh, but I do like the term ‘non-narcisstic research’. I like to think that’s what I do.
    Another great post, thank you (please, please can I proof read your posts before you publish? The occasional typo jars and I’d love to help).

    1. Yes, sorry about that. Big fan, just trying to demystify stuff. And I think more clients need to take themselves out of their own research and not be so narcisstic. Thanks for the heads up on typos – I really try but always seem to leave mistakes. Do you have a few howlers on the last one you could point me at? R

      1. Let me know how to send you edits (I’ve tracked changes in Word for this post so you can see – there aren’t many but some affect meaning so it’s good to correct I reckon). Turns out neither of us can spell narcissistic…!
        I’ve sent you a connection request on LinkedIn (not my favourite platform at the moment, but I can attach a doc to a message).

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