8. Listening

“Discovery consists of looking at the same things as everyone else and seeing something different”.
Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Biochemist and Nobel Prize winner

In building brilliant brand strategy you are very rarely touched by a stroke of genius, a bolt of the blue out of nowhere which unlocks everything. Indeed, you tend to be subject to the same data, information, research, conversations and ideas as everybody else. The skill is to see something in all that mess that other people haven’t spotted yet. It’s your competitive advantage and that of your brand.

Seeing, yes but also listening, really listening and being able to listen. Much of my time are a strategist is spent sitting and listening, sifting the noise around me for something interesting and then pouncing on it when it arrives. Like a radar operator in a war time submarine movie that is scanning the vast amount of signal noise for something new and important. A piece of information, a turn of phrase, a cast away thought that strikes you as unusual or important.

The 4th Emergency Service was created by HHCL before I joined the agency, so its genius is nothing to do with me. But almost thirty years on its still a sublime brand idea created through the power of listening. This idea didn’t come from data in which people ranked the AA fourth in a long list of emergency services, perhaps showing them up one place form the previous year. There was no research, qualitative or quantitive, that had asked people to think about the emergency services and name the organisations that came to mind. The truth is that great brand ideas are never that obvious, they aren’t given to you like that, all packeged up by the research agency. They arrive in less orthodox ways. And in the case of the AA, it was really just about someone that was listening really hard.

The AA was a commodified breakdown provider struggling to justify a premium it needed to charge to keep its patrols on the road so there was one right there when you needed it. Breakdown assistance is a form of insurance and beset by the same issues, the lack of immediate and tangible value and one of those categories the lazy people always describe as low interest.

But every so often and when you least expect if something goes wrong and you are stuck by the side of the motorway, abandoned and isolated with no one you can turn to to get you back on the road or at least somewhere safe. And in that moment the only people that can really help are breakdown services. Many had recognised this and for a long time the RAC had called themselves the New Knights of the Road, conjuring up the idea of rescue, albeit in a slightly patriarchal manner.

But in this case, it was a chance comment made by an AA patrol while the creative team were out with him responding to people in need of help. It was the patrolman that uttered those immortal words, likening the AA to an emergency service, drawing the proximity of their work and the sense that in the moment you are stranded with a broken down vehicle the situation becomes an emergency.

No moment of lone genius, just smart people with their ears open sifting through the signal noise for anything new and interesting that cast light on the problem and the nature of a solution.

The real skill here is being able to sort the wheat from the chaff. To recognise that the vast majority of the research you will read or conversations you will have are just noise. But that you have to sit through all of this to be there when something interesting is said. To be there when you spot anomaly in the data or a phrase that is out of the ordinary and that suggests something interesting is going on.

In the case of the brand idea I created for HSBC Life about helping people make and keep promises to the people they love, this meant sitting through a day’s workshop in a stuffy hotel in Hong Kong jet lagged to the eyeballs and desperately craving sleep. And then CEO of the Life business just dropped the word ‘promise’ in a set of remarks he was making about the business, that the insurance business was about making and keeping promises. There were at least 50 people there hearing what he was saying but I was listening, really listening. Waiting, pen poised for something interesting to emerge from the noise of the day and ready to pounce it. An eight hour workshop waiting for one word that changes everything.

There is a great story of a similar situation in which a strategist working on Honda for its UK advertising agency, Wieden & Kennedy, was listening in a packed room to the Honda’s chief engineer talk about a new Diesel engine. The engineer described how much he hated diesel and that he had refused to work on a new engine unless he could change everything about it. And there it was, a fully formed brand idea – ’a Diesel engine made by people that hate Diesel engines’. Everyone in the assembled company heard this talk, one person listened to what was being said. And the end result was the wonderful animated anthem to hate that Wieden’s created for Honda, called Grrr.

Of course its not just about listening. The truth is that as a strategist you need all of your senses to be alive to everything happening around you. You can’t simply switch on those senses when you arrive at a research debrief or a meeting. They are great places to listen but you need to be alive to the world all the time, because the germ of an idea can come from anywhere.

Writers of all descriptions don’t just assemble characters and situations when they come to commit their ideas to paper. They are constantly observing the world around them for unusual people, interesting mannerisms, overheard conversations and evocative spaces. They build up a bank of usable bits and bobs to add into a piece of work when its appropriate. I would love to ‘collect’ ideas this way, imagine having a repository of useful raw material like every time you start a project.

Though I do sometimes play a game in which I ‘ask’ the world around me to tell me its answer to a problem I am wrestling with. Maybe its ‘asking’ the ads on a tube journey what they have to say about it. It might be looking out of the window and wondering what the tree opposite can tell me. It might be picking up a random magazine in an airport and posing the same question to it. This is not disimmiliar the the Street Wisom idea in which you wander the streets ’asking’ the environment around you to answer your question. I once did this in Liverpool Street station and it’s extraordinary the amount of data that you have access to when you really tune your senses into your environment.

Listening like this is a way of opening up how you are thinking about something and finding out whether a completely different category or completely different subject can give you a new angle. To help you cross pollinate ideas, to find a fresh expression for something familiar or just let a random thought from outside jump into your head.

For all and any of this you need to be constantly alive to the what is really interesting and you need to be listening, especially when other people aren’t. This is where the ideas will come from, not you sitting in your ivory tower Googling the world.

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2 Replies to “8. Listening”

  1. Great post, it really resonated with me. The challenge is to try to constrain this process within the bounds of the time or budget allocated. Any tips?

  2. Great post. It reminds me of a story about how Jean Michael Basquiat used to paint – with music playing and the TV on – constantly in a state of absorbing information, even if some of it subconscious

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