2. Problems

Map recreating John Snow’s ‘Ghost Map’ of the Soho cholera epidemic of 1854 created by Divergent Scratchings

“No one died of stench in Victorian London. But tens of thousands died because the fear of stench blinded then to the true perils of the city, and drove them to implement a series of wrongheaded reforms that only made the crisis worse”

Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map


Problem solving is at the heart of any brand strategy.

No matter how successful your business or brand is currently, there is always a problem that you need to overcome. A problem that you need liberating from. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be looking to re-wire or re-engineer your brand or perhaps build it in the first place.

Being fanatical about understanding the problem or problems that you are solving is critical to successful brand strategy. It is the heart of everything.

Because the best executional idea built on the best strategic idea will be totally useless if it is solving the wrong problem.

Fighting airborne cholera

My favourite story about the need to solve the right problem and the utter futility of attempting anything else rests in the fight against cholera, so brilliantly told in Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map.

As Britain began rapid urbanisation in the nineteenth century, cholera became a significant and recurring problem. Though only appearing in the UK in 1831, as it spread from the Indian Sub-Continent throughout Europe and the New World, by the time of the 1854 outbreak in Soho, cholera had claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Britons in the most horrific way.

Cholera is an appalling disease anywhere and at anytime. But as the first economy to industrialise crammed millions of people into its rapidly growing cities, Britain was particularly vulnerable to the disease. Leaving its inhabitants petrified that the mildest of stomach upsets might, within hours lead to their deaths.

Absolutely no one understood how cholera spread. The best guess was that it some how infected people through ‘bad air’, of which any city at the time would have had plenty. And there were many inventive solutions to the problem of cholera, all of which attempted to solve the problem of airborne transition. In one example the curtains of the Houses of Parliament, situated on the then stinking River Thames, were soaked in vinegar to combat the foul odours rising from the open sewer.

But no matter how innovative or novel the solution, no one was ever going to be successful in preventing airborne cholera because it has nothing to do with the air you breath, no matter how terrible it might smell.

Cholera is spread when sewage infected with the disease comes in contact with drinking water. It was the inability, in closely knit urban areas, to keep human faeces away from water used for drinking and cooking that was causing the issue.

The Soho outbreak of 1854, of which Steven Johnson writes, is significant because as a result of plotting its victims on his ‘ghost map’, a doctor named John Snow was able to show that they coalesced around a water pump in Broad Street. A pump whose supply had become contaminated with sewage carrying the disease.

I love that part of the proof for the pump’s role comes from two critical anomalies. A wealthy women died in Hampstead, nowhere near the area and a Brewery at the heart of the outbreak seemed to be remarkably cholera free.

It turned out that the Highgate resident had loved the taste of water from the Broad Street pump when she had lived in the area and had some sent up from Soho ever yday. And as for the brewery? Well the people that worked in it were not minded to drink water of any sort as they had a plentiful supply of beer.

Concluding that the pump on Broad Street must be the cause of the outbreak, Snow had its handle removed and cholera deaths in the area started to decline.

It took years to conclusively prove the link between infected drinking water and cholera and to get it under control in major cities. Largely through huge feats of engineering to keep water and sewage completely separate. But that journey could only begin in earnest once people understood the real problem they were trying to solve.

That cholera is water borne and not airborne.

I can’t stress how important it is to make sure that you, like John Snow, are solving the right problem. Yet so many people in the world of brand building and beyond spend their time developing brilliant solutions to the wrong problems. It’s a huge waste of energy, talent and resources.

Time spent identifying the real problem that a brand or business is facing rather than the one of its symptoms, or even worse something completely unrelated, is time worth fighting for. And figuring this out is one of the greatest favours you will do any client, agency or brand.

The real meaning of radical

You can’t solve problems without being radical.

We have touched radical before, in the post on my strategy journey.

Contrary to common use, radical doesn’t mean revolutionary. It’s a horticultural term, from the latin word radix, meaning root. So to be radical, to say something radical, to have a radical idea means to get to the root cause.

And to get beyond the superficial and symptomatic to the real problem requires a radical approach and radical thinking. All great brand strategy is radical and all great brand strategists are radical because they let nothing get in the way of figuring out what problem really needs solving.

John Snow was a true radical, though his training was medical and his approach utterly methodical. He freed his mind from accepted wisdom and orthodoxy and looked objectively at what was happening.

As a brand strategist you need to figure out what is really holding your brand back, what stands in the way of success and what is really stopping your business being all you want it to be?

Direct Line solved its real problem by solving problems

In the middle of the last decade the UK insurance business Direct Line had an issue. It showed up as quarter on quarter decline in the number policies they had in force, the loss of their converted No1. position in motor insurance and the decimation of the direct insurance model that they had pioneered when they freed people from insurance brokers back in the 1980s.

The immediate cause of decline were the price comparison websites (PCWs). Sites that, in return for a little data, returned any number of insurance quotes, usually in order of price. This utility allied with huge marketing spend and very famous, if irritating advertising had taken great chunks out of the direct insurance model. Why bother going direct for one quote when you could go to a PCW for loads of them that you could compare side by side? Being a direct insurer Direct Line didn’t and doesn’t use those sites.

But this wasn’t the real problem. PCWs had changed consumer behaviour so fewer people were going direct for sure but this was a symptom not the cause.

The fact was that people were more than happy to compare insurers purely on price because the category had become hideously commodified. All that really mattered to people was the price they were paying at the point of purchase and not whether the insurance would actually do what it said it would when they really needed it.

Direct Line couldn’t win if people saw all insurers as distingushable only by price. But it could win if it could encourage people to think about what actually was going to happen if something went wrong and consider whether their insurer would really fix the problem. Because Direct Line had better propositions than the competition, propositions that would fix the problem not just hand over some cash.

Our strategy was to position Direct Line as a company that fixed people’s problems quickly and efficiently, not a run of the mill insurer. As high performance insurance that put things right when they went wrong.

While this strategy gave birth to the phenomenally successful Winston Wolfe advertising, its real success was in transforming the confidence of the business and the spur to better and better propositions and customer experience.

And for that a separate visit to Direct Line as well as a PCW, was more than worthwhile.

By identifying the right problem we were able to find the right solution and one that worked with spectacular results, propelling the brand back into growth.

Even new brands need liberating from problems

When EE launched in 2012 it has a clear advantage over all the other mobile networks in the UK. It could offer people the new 4G standard when every other network only able to provide 3G. In thinking about how to build the new EE brand in peoples’ minds the answer had to lie in the power of the network.

The issue was that at the time, no one seemed remotely interested in the network they were using.

Mobile brands had traditionally dealt with this problem by simply walking away from it. Concluding that this was a low interest category, they spent their time and resources on promotions and loyalty programmes.

But ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. You can mitigate against any problem for a while but eventually you have to engage with it.

Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer, famously suggested three eternal laws of technology, you should look them up. His third law states that “any technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic”. Think about it, at any point in history the latest tech seems magical. Imagine you were toiling in the fields in 1830 between Liverpool and Manchester as Stephenson’s Rocket passed, you would have thought a thing of magic verging on witchcraft. The same would have been true of the first radio broadcast, TV signal or our early adventures in Space.

And at EE’s launch smart phones were pretty indistinguishable from magic, still are if you ask me. I’m always amused by the idea that, familiar and ubiquitous though these devices are, were you to go back to Stephenson’s time and wax lyrical about the smart phones to which we are all attached we would have not the slightest clue how they really work and still less show them how to build one. Pure magic.

But the real problem was that the magic was owned by the device not the network. People loved and venerated the devices, most especially Apple’s iPhone but gave little thought to the network they were using. When the reality is that without the network that connects them, mobile devices aren’t really that clever at all.

The idea behind the new EE brand was to take the magic of technology back from the devices it powered and put the network at the heart of peoples burgeoning digital lives. What helped of course was that the latest iPhone at the time, the iPhone 4, would only work properly on EE (because it shipped with 4G capability), proving the magic we all loved wasn’t just about the device.

To this day EE is a brand that talks about what you can do today with its technology, stuff you couldn’t do yesterday and stuff that is seemingly magical. Most recently we used EE’s network to shave a celebrity using a remotely controlled robot arm on the top of one of the UK’s highest mountains. In the immortal words of Paul Daniels “now that’s magic”.

First find your problem

Sometimes the problem you are facing will be with the brand itself and the way people relate to it. Direct Line shows that any brand no matter how revolutionary can loose its lustre and be disrupted by the forces around it, whether from new competition or new consumer behaviours.

Some times the problem will be in the category and the way it does things or rather doesn’t do things. This is often the preserve of the new brands like EE and start ups, coming in and changing the rules and the way the category is seen and works.

Incidentally scale ups are usually somewhere in between. They were born to challenge problems in and of the category but at the scale up stage they are also wrestling with some issues of their own. Perceptions and practices that have been powerful in getting the business up and running but are hampering the next stage of the journey.

The point is that every business has a problem, every business has something that they need to be liberated from. And the quicker you figure out what the real problem is, the quicker you get beyond the symptomatic and superficial the more the more successful your brand strategy will be.

The alternative is to spend your time wrestling with airborne cholera, a rather pointless endeavour.

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