By saher sidhom,


This is a paper based on the TEDx Kiruna Talk I did on the 5th of June 2013. The talk could be watched here: paper covers slightly more ground with one or two modifications to the talk and more material not in the talk.
I RUN FORGE AT AMV. It is a new division within AMV BBDO London. Its mission is simple: to make new money from new technology. We do so by tracking disruptive technologies that will change the game for our clients and work to explore, experiment and exploit these technologies to create new products and new ventures. This is relatively new for the communication industry. Traditionally, the business model for advertising and production agencies has been time and materials. The fee-based model is becoming
a. Harder to sustain due to the major squeeze clients are enforcing through procurement.
b. It is actually largely irrelevant in a tech led world.
The real shift in my view is how technology has transformed and will continue to transform any business not just the advertising business. At FORGE this presents itself with both a challenge but fundamentally a brilliant opportunity for advancing our industry.
SUSTAINABILITY IS A FALLACY. It’s partly the industry’s fault that it hasn’t evolved as it could have. In many ways, a great deal of effort has been put into sustaining the existing business models of time and materials instead of evolving it.  For an industry renowned for its creativity, it failed to imagine a better future for itself. A talented colleague of mine: Andrew Pinkess often points out there is no such thing as a sustainable business model anyway. In the business world competitive advantages that used to be maintained for 40 years are now down to 12, 5 and even one year. The mission should be how to adapt and innovate rather than chase fantasies of sustainability.
CHANGE IS PREDICTABLE. It’s fashionable to bemoan change and how everything is changing. Really? Is that really a new phenomenon? Actually, the way change changes, is highly predictable. It follows a fairly predictable cycle of birth, growth, maturity and decline. However few companies have a dedicated strategy to look for their next business model. The common strategy is sadly no more than playing ‘catch-up’ and often missing the next wave of innovation that will build new business growth areas.
Life Cycle Life Cycle 2
Needless to say, various studies have shown that companies and organizations that constantly look out for their next competitive advantage and have a clear strategy and commitment to innovation succeed and stay in business more than those that just focus on the day to day business and get stuck in low growth over supplied market and shrinking margins.
TO INNOVATE IS TO ADAPT. The evolutionary metaphor is quite apt for the way our tech-based capitalism works today. As the speed of change increases and as models rise and fall in six months it is the fast and the adaptable that will survive. Those that innovate their way out of problems with every technological disruption are those that are likely to survive longer. However, what kind of innovation are we talking about?
THE SANDWICH AND THE SPAGHETTI. The old model of enterprise as a discrete entity that has a beginning, middle and an end is not unlike a sandwich. Neat, packaged, discreet and stand-alone. However, if you consider the way a modern enterprise today has to function it is really hard to distinguish where it begins and where it ends. It has become more like a plate of spaghetti. As technology becomes the base of everything companies cannot afford to think just of their own value chain. The emphasis shifts towards eco-systems of value. Something that perhaps resembles the value net from game theory is more true to today’s business game. A phone manufacturer 20 years ago used to be concerned with developing the physical phones with little or no attention to what might be in them in terms of software. Today a company like Apple makes the hardware and builds an eco-system for external developers to build on its platform. Even Apple with all its might couldn’t have built  the billions of apps on its store. Technology forces us to collaborate and ‘open-up’. The open source movement has disrupted industries as diverse as telecoms (skype), software engineering (Microsoft) and knowledge (Wikipedia)
Yochai Benkler the professor of Entrepreneurial studies at Harvard and author of The Wealth of Networks sums this up elegantly:

“The world is becoming too fast, too complex, and two networked for any company to have all the answers inside, this is not fashion this is deep change”

A friend of mine; matt, just launched a startup that uses somebody else’s API. He’s built a wonderful app for estate agents in Berlin, however he couldn’t have built a new product without Apple’s platforms and devices and without the supplier of the open API for the properties he features. By building on each other’s platforms new value is created. In short, I submit that you cannot spell capitalism without ‘api’. The principal applies to the entire way we do business today not just in terms of integrating technical platforms to create something new. Prior to api’s, big data, crowd funding and Apple-style eco-systems the classic drivers of collaborative innovation have been: cost-reduction, globalization and morphing of sciences. Add all that up and it is the perfect storm for collaborative innovation. It is a fundamentally different way of working that sadly despite its necessity and promise has its own barriers for implementation. This is especially true in large and established businesses.
BARRIERS TO COLLABORATIVE INNOVATION IN BIG ENTERPRISES. Throughout the years I often encountered the same barriers to collaborative innovation. Even in small startups that are meant to be the masters of it. The biggest barriers I encountered are actually psychological, not financial or technical. Here are my top three:


Whenever I set out to cast for individuals to be part of a CI team the biggest challenge was finding people who were prepared to be more than their job titles. I’ve seen it time and time again; somebody might walk into the project as; let’s say, a project manager and walks out a designer. The ability to go beyond self-limiting perception of one’s role is one of the biggest things that get in the way of innovation. Scale that to company departments or entire companies and you’ll get personal and corporate identities tied to a specific (and understandably) reliable definition. Yet, the nature of innovation often demands venturing well out of comfort zones to solve problems that realistically nobody has tried within the team. Self-perception of one’s skill and role severely hinders one’s ability to try to do and be what they’ve never been. The second biggest barrier I found was that of trust.


If you think about it most business training whether in business schools or on the job is an elaborate exercise in learning how to compete. Yet, how much training if any is given to executives or potential business leaders on how to collaborate and find win-win models for operation? Whether you are in the communication business or the technology business I am sure you’ll find your own examples of epic battles between giants who clash over patents and over stealing advantage from their own suppliers never mind competitors. Hyper-competition breeds distrust at all levels: at the personal level, at the contract level and at the IP level. The typical innovation lab is run by white men in white coats behind white doors and protected by armies of worried lawyers. I know a famous tech company where you are not allowed to go to the toilet without being accompanied by one of the company’s employees. Hardly inviting of collaboration. Finally, the biggest barrier perhaps is the fear of failure.


Various studies show high mortality rates for startups, new ventures and new technologies. For every instagram, tumblr and a Dyson vacuum cleaner there are millions of failures. In fact the mortality rate of startups is around 75% according to Erik Ries, author of The Lean Startup. Innovation is a high-risk high reward game. Few are equipped with the necessary courage and vision to develop an approach to managing their fear and more importantly inspiring courage and appealing to the innate sense of curiosity in their collaborators. The Swedish explorer Johan Ernst Nilson said this in his TEDx talk,

“The higher the mountain the more difficult to climb the more beautiful the panorama”.

But these mountains are big and scary ..,
… only, if you are climbing them alone.
So what do we do about all that?
HACK AND HUSTLE. TOGETHER. I always believed that a mixed up world is a more interesting place. As our world becomes more x-disciplinary, x-sciences, x-cultural, x-technological and x-border I designed a collaborative innovation process that is essentially a week-long hack week. The first one I did at my current workplace involved
50+ people
12 nationalities
7 days
3 briefs
6 prototypes
1 sold
2 in pilot
(My TEDx talk has a Hackumentary of the above experience).
The comment I would make about this is: that despite the hard work and the severe pressure everybody was under; no one would have wanted to be anywhere else or with anyone else. Everybody was there because they wanted to and because they wanted to work together. So here are my basic seven principals for getting diverse talents around a problem to collaboratively innovate.
7 PRINCIPLES FOR COLLABORATIVE INNOVATION. I found these principles incredibly useful in creating the sorts of teams where the thrill of doing something amazing is bigger than the fear of failure.
1. MINDLESS OPTIMISM.  No invention is possible without it. I firmly believe that you have to be insanely optimistic in order to innovate. Or if you prefer, crazy enough to think you can change the world. Without a super human will to change the world nothing genuinely original and adventurous is going to happen. One of my favorite examples of this is an ad put out by Ernest Shackelton, the polar explorer, when he was recruiting a crew to journey into the un-known:

“Men Wanted for a hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” Ernest Shackleton 4 Brulington st.

Now, you have got to be crazy to apply, … or curious, optimistic, inspired and excited by the un-known and probably terribly bored with the mundane. Think of the perfectly predictable false sense of security that comes with ‘smart’ analysis. For example, the last sales projection you’ve made on a spreadsheet with tons of assumptions that probably have more in common with astrology than astronomy.
Innovation is a long and hard road often with unclear outcomes, if innovators knew what they were doing it wouldn’t be called innovation. Yet, optimism is vital to that journey, it’s infectious, and it’s a virtuous circle that creates the right kind of positive energy that is needed to solve the kind of impossible problems to turn them to possibilities. There are a million reasons why things can’t be done and a million cynics posing as serious know-it-all pragmatists. In my view pragmatism is the enemy of optimism unless it’s fully employed in its service.
Meet my students at Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm. All 25 of them decided to collaborate on a crazy project. They wanted to see how far they could go with their ability to come up with ideas. They set themselves a ridiculous challenge. They invited ten clients to give them a brief each and then they locked themselves up for 25 days with a mission to create 25 thousand ideas. To see and learn and discover everything they can about ideas. Big ones, small ones, silly ones, important ones and impossible ones. It’s probably the best exercise I have seen to train young creative and innovators to learn how to come up with lots of ideas. And be able to handle the variety of possibility and understand the nature of ideas not unlike how a master carpenter knows how to craft beauty out of any type of wood. Each client got 2500 ideas and they have built and sold two of the clients and they are several talks about producing more. This for me is not an exercise in brainstorming this is an exercise in being totally optimistic about the power of creativity. These 25 students have learnt about the nature of ideas in 25 days on their own more than I could teach them in a whole year
Video case study:
The thing about mindless optimism is to ignore the doubters and more importantly the established well laid paths in the ground to discover your own personal and collective spirit of adventure. With that in heart, innovation becomes a lot easier. Just as mindless optimism is essential for innovation the other side of that coin is also vital: avoid the doubters like you would avoid the plague.
2. CIRCLE OF TRUST. There is a romantic comedy: Meet the Fockers, where Robert De Niro is concerned about admitting his new son in law to his family or as he puts it: enter his circle of trust. This is funny in the movie but I find the idea of the circle of trust deadly serious in a collaborative innovation project. In our hack week there were super senior people who run big chunks of business, a 19 year old games designer, a young creative team a not so young world famous creative director and an ex-marines officer, all working at the same level, same room, same table and towards the same goal. They were all part of the circle of trust. The way to overcome the identity barrier I mentioned before is to ensure people connect fundamentally on a human level not with the job titles of the other people in the room. I found two fundamental ways of creating a circle of trust in the team. The first is what I call it Spartan Casting, based on the Greek legend of selecting the best warriors to be part of the best military in ancient times. My way of doing that is ensuring that everybody who was in that team was best in class in what they do regardless of their age, gender or affiliation. In the film industry there’s a saying: 60% of directing is in the casting. If you got the casting right the directing will be a natural process. By getting the best people I can to be in each team, the better the chance they’ll connect with each other because they know they’ve been selected to be part of something special and because they are good at what they do. This generates instant respect, which precedes trust. The second rule for creating the circle of trust is creating social capital in advance of the work. Getting the team together to get to know each other on a level that is utterly informal and un-manufactured gives them the opportunity to connect with each other as human beings not with each other’s job titles. This might sound a bit hippy, but seriously, just try and remember the last corporate away day when you’ve genuinely connected with somebody and felt like you could climb a mountain with them.
3. GIVE THE FREEDOM TO FAIL BUT PLENTY OF ROOM TO SUCCEED. The first thing about understanding what holds people back in collaborative environments is the uncertainty of the outcomes and the ownership of the outcomes. Therefore, before anyone enters the room everybody should be on the same starting point of shared risk, shared reward but ultimately shared expertise. The trust barrier plays a major part here, to overcome any trust issues the ground has to be prepared to protect the contributions of everybody in the room. Years ago I was in a food related startup that was failing miserably and we decided to dissolve it. We got acquainted with an Italian guy who specializes in buying failing companies. He buys them, splits them apart and sells the pieces. When we were in discussions with him I learnt an important lesson from him. Having the wrong contracts can be deadly. He was giving us very little value for our stuff and I argued intensely over it he very calmly said to me in Latin: Verba Volant, Scripta Manant. Which means, words fly, what’s written stays. If it is not in the contract we don’t get it. Since then, I hated contracts because they are usually designed to divide and punish in case of failure. Years later, I decided to write my own contracts in order to do the opposite. To ensure that people’s contributions are protected and more importantly they are motivated to contribute their best ideas because they know they’ll get a fair share of collective success instead of holding back their best stuff.  With the right and fair basis for the engagement a different type of contract sets in. A psychological one where success depends on how well we collaborate instead on how well we fight over a share of the idea.
4. BURN YOUR SHIPS. There is a popular piece of mythology in entrepreneurial cultures called burn your ships. The story goes something like this: a navy leader lands on the enemy’s shores, whilst totally outnumbered by the enemy, instructs his sailors to burn their ships. They ask him; ‘why?’ and he says; “the only way is forward, outnumbered or not, we are not going back. If we lose, our enemy will burn our ships anyway so we might as well do it ourselves and win”. I find this interesting because the moral of the story for me is really about intense focus. Without it, distractions, doubt and easy excuses sap the energy and the passion that needs to go into the innovation process. So, in order to make sure that our innovation process works I clearly draw a clear beginning and a clear end for each of the days. Day 1 is totally about locking down the idea by the end of the day, because day two is all about scoping the idea. Day three develop and build etc. Because the teams know that there is no way there can be spillage from day one to day two they are totally focused on delivering on the mission for the day. This intense focus quickly weeds out any in-efficiencies and any redundant thinking or doing. It also sharpens the instincts on getting the right idea and then getting the idea right. One of the development companies I work with has a simple hangman game. Every time somebody distracts a developer from their work a stick is added to the hangman on the board. By the end of the week if any individual adds the final stick they have to buy the entire team dinner. It is a simple illustration of the need for developers and technologists to be given the room to focus totally. There is a reason most of them typically code through the night to avoid the silly distractions of daytime work. The environment itself has to be out of bounds. I ensure that nobody disturbs them during their work, no-unwanted guests. No doubters anywhere near them.
Intense focus is what allows them to get into a state of ‘flow’. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified ( an optimal experience he calls ‘flow’ where the level of the challenge is high enough and is matched by a high level of skill. When someone is working at a high level of skill and challenge they achieve this almost transcended level of activity. Intense focus, delivers a feeling of ecstasy that allows them to attack the impossible in a way that is; despite its difficulty; highly pleasurable and gives the feeling of something larger than oneself.
Zach Klien; the co-founder of Vimeo has a brilliant way of describing this ‘flow’ / intense focused experience:

“The most interesting place to be is the place that allows you to be most focused. And when you are that way you, I think, are really at your peak. I think it’s when you are most comfortable with yourself. I think it’s when you are most attractive to other people that you are bound to be interested in and you sort of become magnetized, you find also other people who are driven to make the same things and it puts you in a really creative place where there’s no fear, where people are just really happy about the things they are making together. And it’s in this space that you achieve the greatest things creatively.”

Creating a protected environment where the mix of high skills, high challenges and intense focus can give birth to truly brilliant ideas and solutions in a fraction of the time it takes to do things in the fragmented, disjointed and typical processes of everyday work life.
5. SMALL PROTOTYPES FOR BIG IDEAS. Fast progress is essential to harnessing the emotive energy of new ideas. Prototyping quickly and badly is essential in order to bring to life abstract ideas into a real world. Only then we get closer to a version of the truth that we can build on. Prototyping is a vital step in the process. From the moment a problem is clearly defined and ideas emerge getting those ideas to have a physical life is vital for enabling the teams to understand two things: the constraints of the idea and its potential. Most people have been taught to think first before acting or ‘think before you leap’. I would argue the reverse. My position is when you are making something you are actually thinking with your hands. You cannot think your way into a new way of acting but you have to act your way into a new way of thinking. Prototyping is the means to do that. I was told about a problem that is ripe for an innovative solution recently. Large vehicles often have large blind spots that means they cannot see cyclists coming up from behind them. This is a major problem in London due to the traffic, lack of cycle lanes and the noise drivers can’t see, or hear cyclists coming up from behind. This is resulting in an un-acceptable and high level of fatalities. When I first heard about the problem I almost instantly came up with an idea based around restoring the communication breakdown between the drivers and the cyclists by means of using sensors and AV alerts to the drivers to stop or slow down if there was a cyclist in the blind spot and if the cyclist was in immediate danger they can press a smart bell that sends an extra alert to the driver to ensure they are fully aware of the hazard. This project is in research at the moment but the point about prototyping here is important. From the moment I heard about the idea and got the team to make the first prototype it took 8 hours. Four of these hours were spent at Hamley’s the toy store trying to find a fun car to hack for the prototype the other four hours were spent coding and soldering the sensors. The second prototype took 2 weeks; there was a lot more sophistication built into it in terms of developing the right technology given all the real life issues. The third prototype is taking 3 months as it goes through piloting and empirical testing.
After 8 hours …
After 2 weeks …
Prototypes are not the only for testing the concept. They are a means of proving the concept, the technology, the manufacturing process, the in real life application and most importantly the business model that goes with it.  I personally see the whole prototyping process as a perpetual way of proving it wrong but making it right. Any innovation product changes shape the minute it is touched by a customer. The whole process is in the spirit of agile development.
For the un-familiar, the agile manifesto serves as a good introduction:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

Agile really makes sense for innovation projects when the outcome isn’t entirely known, (as opposed to waterfall or typical gateway led innovation processes). It shifts the focus on the activities that add real value to the innovation itself as opposed to add value to the people who happen to be involved in the project. It purifies the process and puts a huge emphasis on the activities that generate the most value not the ones that takes away value from it. In short, all the virtues of rapid prototyping and agile give us a better and quicker shot at bigger ideas – not bigger projects.
6. ART OF THE POSSIBLE.  There is an interesting story about evolution. The theory is of-course accredited to Charles Darwin. It took him 5 years worth of travel and discovery to come up with up with natural selection. But a little known fact is that he actually re-wrote the book on evolution 6 times in his lifetime. The bible of evolution had to evolve and its author had to revisit his grand theory in totality six times.
Another of my favorite stories in that vein is about Sir James Dyson the inventor of the bag-less vacuum cleaner. From the moment he got the initial idea to making his first prototype it only took 1.5 hours. Yet, it took him ten years to launch and sell it in his home country, the UK. He actually had to sell it in Japan under a totally different business model (via catalogues) in order to establish the product and the idea. Only then he managed to get back to the UK and sell it under a more classical retail business model.  There will be barriers. There will be people who won’t understand what you are talking about. There will be failures. There will be many twists and turns in the journey. As well as the high failure rate due to many factors, for example: 30% of startup founders leave the original teams. Paul Graham the founder of Y Combinator remarked:

“Startups fail when founders give up”.

But what about those that do not fail? What do they do differently? Do they stick together more? Don’t they get tempted to give up? I looked into this and apart from all the usual stuff around leadership, determination, beliefs  etc they all seemed to do something a lot more practical;
They pivot.
Pivoting is giving up. Giving up the original business model or product idea. Finding an alternative way of succeeding that might not necessarily be what they thought they would be doing. Startups or innovations that last for the first ten years change their business model on average four times. They adapt their business model, they change their product, and they might start off doing a consumer product but end up being a data company. They pivot. The ability of a new venture to adapt and flex around what its success profile is an essential part of survival. Ironically, if you look into the histories of large and old and established companies you will find that they made some strategic pivots along the way. Perhaps not as fast or frequently as a tech startup might do (4 in 10) but pivot they did. For example, Nokia started by making paper, then electricity, then rubber, then phones then Internet and no doubt they will change again as the world changes. Innovation and new ventures are surely not for the faint hearted but for those that are blessed with the evolutionary ability to adapt and respond to change. The art of the possible is really about the art of the pivot. Here is a mini list from Mashable of pivots that you probably didn’t expect:
YouTube started as video dating site.
PayPal was originally a way to exchange money via Palm Pilots.
Flickr was had roots as an online-role playing game.
Groupon was originally a cause related enterprise.
Twitter was a side innovation originating from hackathons around podcasting.
Instagram was originally a blend between Foursquare and Mafia wars.
The founders of all these embody the art of the possible. They pivoted. They evolved. And that is; the art of the possible.
7. MASS LINE LEADERSHIP. Typically in most organisations in the world leadership is a one-man job. Often, with titles such as; president, CEO, Chief etc. We have grown up in the business world expecting a singular individual to bear the weight of responsibility for what seems to be, well … everything.  But we live in a world of social production, a world where a 26 year old doesn’t have to wait 40 years to lead a multi-billion company, where youth trumps experience, where the collective makes better decisions than experts, where Google effectively outsources relevance to the millions of people using it and deciding in aggregate. Where eco-systems and spaghetti like companies need to be extra capable of having leadership mass distributed instead of bottle necked at the top. Where decisions could be made competently at every level. Where funding could be crowd funding, where software could be open sourced, where access to talent is un-filtered where knowledge is free and accessible and where innovation is truly open to anyone and everyone. One of my favourite examples at the time of writing this article is from Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform. ARKYD is a people funded satellite. The idea is you can fund it and use it to take your own pictures from space or put images of yourself on the satellite and take pictures of yourself with the real earth as background. It is a really simple and charming idea yet impossible to achieve ten years ago. The good news is; leadership of innovation is no longer constrained to a few experts and locked behind closed doors. Open innovation and collaborative models of innovation are far more exciting than the dreary and closed R and D departments of various companies. Innovation is truly open to each and everyone and what comes with that is the ability not only to collaborate with strangers to concept and develop but ultimately to open up and share the responsibility from one individual to the entire organization and beyond to lead and share the next stage of evolution. I firmly believe; this stage in the innovation history is fundamentally about collaborative innovation. It is really good news if you think about it. Because progress is now up to all of us.
And the future is what ‘we’ can truly make of it.


It’s time for marketing to stop promising false notions of individuality. 

The fallacy of individuality.

Individuality is overrated. In fact it’s become a distressing, destructive and depressive idea. Earnest psychologists such as Oliver James, author of the Selfish Capitalist, propose and provide evidence, that it actually causes a variety of mental illnesses from anxiety, to isolation to depression. In short it can make you mad. Alain de Botton, this time a philosopher, eloquently described our society as one that champions impossible ideals and puts people in perpetual anxiety over whether they are ‘occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall into a lower one’. Even hard nosed economists have woken up to the fact that the overly simplistic Adam Smith’ principals of the ‘invisible hand’ in business have led to a collective failure of financial systems commonly known now as the ‘the recession’. The ambitions of the few are the cause of the suffering of the many. Regardless of which pet discipline you like: psychology, philosophy or economics it is clear that this business of individuality has gone too far.

As marketers we have to acknowledge our responsibilities.

Naturally, these problems are due to a number of factors; politics, schools, t.v. media etc, however I will discuss how marketing contributes to this mess. Marketing and advertising still continue to play a significant role in the psychological, social and economical implications of selfish capitalism. I believe that it is a particular, type of marketing that is responsible. It probably began with a strategy that eventually became the archetype for many others. It promised individuality, granted permission for humans, who are normally social animals, to become selfish capitalists. It declared that you should: ‘Have it your way’.

Individuality often built on insecurity has been drummed into consumers minds, sunk into their hearts and shoved down their throats for decades … here is a small collection from Wikipedia:
“Have it your way” – Burger King
“You. First” – Banglalink GSM
“Expect great things” – Lucent Technologies
“Expect the world” – New York Times
“Express yourself” – Lavazza Coffee
“How many bars do you have?” – AT&T
“If you don’t get it you don’t get it” Wash. Post
“It’s for you” – BT
“See what you can do” – O2
“Broadcast yourself” – YouTube
“Yours is here” – Dell
“Where do you want to go today” – Microsoft
“Be extraordinary” – E-Trade
“What’s in your wallete” – Capital One
“Accelerate your life” – US Navy
“It could be you” – National Lottery
“Be the first to know” – CNN
“So where the bloody hell are you?” – Tourism Australia
“Thousands of possibilities. Get yours.” Best Buy
“The power to be your best” – Apple
“Live your life” – American Eagle
“Entertainment your way” – SKY
“Hear what you like when you like” Rex Records
“Drive your way” – Hyundai
“Your Airline” – Air India
“Make yourself heard” – Ericsson
“Because you are worth it” – L’Oreal
“Your Fragrance, Your Rules” – Hugo Boss
“You Gotta Have it” – Lisa Frank
“You are the one who’s number one” – Pathmark
“It’s time for U” – UPN

Generation I: A definition.

Marketers have often built this promise of individuality loosely on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. ‘Self-Actualization’ that appears right at the top of this hierarchy is a result of individuals fulfilling their potential. Fine in theory, but has horrible implications when practiced in marketing. The idea that consumers should engage in a relentless race to own and consume products & services that promise selfish individuality have created what I will call Generation I.
Generation I is the ‘Insecure’ generation. For decades marketing has largely used Maslow and other theories of individuality as the basis for setting aspirations and expectations that are generally impossible to match in reality. It has in fact created a viscous circle that played on and fed people’s insecurities as Chuck Palahniuk explained once:

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”

My contention is that Generation I is – in reality – far from the self-satisfied, self-proclaimed individual, independent and influential rulers of their cocooned universes. It is an insecure generation that is caught in a perpetual race of trying to keep up with the Joneses and engage in mindless materialism. Of-course some materialism is necessary such as homes, clothing etc but the kind of materialism discussed here is insecurity based. It’s the type that is a response to the enormous pressure in western and developed societies to be an individual. To stand out. To equate one’s progress with their possessions.

Czech Dream
A couple of documentary Czech film makers launched a campaign around a spoof new mega mall in Prague. They’ve literally built an ad campaign promoting the non existent store. The film charted the journey from the ads to thousands of people who’ve come to the store on the launch day. After the collapse of the soviet system and years of lack of western style materialism there was an insatiable appetite. The filmmakers were essentially firing a warning shot, asking the question do we really want this? Should we jump head on into mindless capitalism? On the opening day of the fake store thousands turned up all hoping to buy a new t.v. set or perhaps to fill a deeply set insecurity.

Individuality is the basis for isolation which breeds mental illness.

Plato stated the obvious eons ago, hinting at the dark side of individuality:

“Winners stand alone”

The irony is that even at it’s moment of supposed triumph, individuality becomes isolation. Standing out, is by definition, breaking away from the group and the community. This is even more worrying. Multiplied by millions of marketing messages, un-supervised financial institutions and disappointing politicians, societies become a fragmented collage of highly macho and individualistic dreams. A collection of individual-group-thinkers. The so called triumph of selfish individualistic capitalism becomes society’s collective failure.

The trouble with marketing is that most of it is still stuck in a selfish capitalist mode.

Let’s consider how consumers today are claiming back their rights to be the social animals that they are. The astronomical explosion of social media online in many ways is consumers’ way of claiming their rights to simply connect and belong. To co-create and collaborate, meet and organise themselves and others around them. Technology have not only made them more inter-connected but also inter-dependent.
On an another level research from the Future Foundation has shown that at least in western societies where women have been making great progress into public and professional lives this has resulted in a move towards the more feminine values in culture of sharing, socialising and collaboration.
Meanwhile in ad land, brands are still peddling archaic macho strategies and toxic notions of individuality. Desperately failing to grasp the full implications of what consumers are doing online and where culture is going. They are being autistic in choosing not to hear what consumers are saying which is: ‘thanks we actually want to hang out with our friends if you don’t mind’. Or as a respondent in a group recently told us more aptly:

“I want to be independent like all my friends”

Individuality in a way is only a route to what people need – that’s belonging. Belonging is perhaps the more ‘human’ way of building brands.

The future is co-operative & collaborative – our survival – no less – depends on it.

From the environment, to poverty, from medicine to technology, social systems that are designed to bring people together, brains together and above all collective actions are exactly what we should champion and build in marketing. The reality is that in the wake of the recession the business world needs to look into more co-operative and collaborative forms of progress that go beyond the selfish capitalism of the few to the greater good of the many. The far more interesting model for a better form of capitalism is to think of ways where contribution not mere consumption is the objective. Brands that selfishly existed to make the customers consume more without a further contribution beyond their product are at a grave risk of becoming nothing more than a cost without a care. Some of this thinking is captured in co-opportunity – a new a book by John Grant. In it, he discusses the nature of new types of models where it isn’t communication anymore once you add the social dimension – it is actually a social innovation. The co-operative mentality I am proposing and the actions described by Grant are all indications of what social could mean to brands, it’s not individuality that they promise anymore it’s the genuine actions that demonstrate true commitment to their consumers and society at large. The basis of this commitment is not a fake promise of ‘if you buy this you will be individual’ it is the higher healthier delivery of what people really want and that’s not individuality but rather interdependence.

How can brands be built around interdependence instead of false notions of individuality.

Is it possible to create collective identities where the objective is not the selfish, lonely and impossible illusion of individuality? The answer is yes:
Firstly, the fundamental shift that marketers need to make is that a brand is not an image that could be managed simply by changing the ad campaign. It is an experience. An experience in it’s widest sense of the word. A brand like IKEA is not managed by simply changing the ads it’s a brand that is fundamentally an experience in every aspect from the product to the packaging to what you could do with the product eventually. At it’s core is a social idea – democracy of design – this is translated into every aspect of that brand. It is an ethos, a commitment and an intention to improve the lives of the many people. (for more on my thinking on brand as an experience read this article).
Secondly, brands that build their marketing around bringing people together instead of pushing them apart by encouraging, facilitating a sense of belonging between it’s customers will be better placed to survive in the hyper connected world of today. See box.
Thirdly, it is fundamentally about ‘doing’ not ‘saying’. Delivering the ethos of interdependence has to be something that the brand ‘does’ in order to show that it cares enough about its’ public to do something about it. Brands should be living up to commitments not producing campaigns.

T-Mobile: Life’s for sharing Campaign UK.
In a really competitive telecoms market T-Mobile needed to differentiate beyond price and offers. A strategy was established built on how life is lived live and broadcasted instantly to friends, family and strangers using mobile and web. Telephony was changing how people related to one another. Everything was lived now and shared now.
With this as the backdrop the idea was to create iconic and spontaneous experiences that gel together friends and strangers. The events were designed to be amazing enough to compell audiences to share. DANCE was the first out. An outbreak of spontaneous dance in Liverpool street captured the imagination of those present with random people joining and broadcasting the event on multiple digital media live and as it was happening. This campaign and it’s sibling SING in Trafalger Square were hugely successful for the brand on all metrics. But most importantly it delivered on the brand idea, the consumer reality and the commercial objectives. Above all it was a genuine brand experience that was worth sharing. A good example of the ethos that brands should do not say.
Life’s for Sharing.

What if?

What if we didn’t sell stuff based on a fake sense of individuality and ultimately isolation?
What if we didn’t give consumers the poor substitute of a mental experience instead of a real life one?
What if we didn’t aim to make consumer run towards goals that they can’t achieve and consumerism that feeds nothing except insecurity?
What if we stopped playing on people’s insecurities and started working on building their confidence and self esteem?
What if we stopped telling people have it your way when what really matters is a way for everybody to succeed co-operatively?
This is ultimately not a question of which advertising strategy we should pick, it is a question of can we take our responsibilities seriously enough to ditch toxic notions of individuality and start delivering on inter-dependence.

Experience before perception?

Saher Sidhom

Saher Sidhom

By saher sidhom,


Are experiences more effective in changing behaviour than other marketing approaches that aim to change perception?


“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” Confucius 500 BC


This is a paper in the response to the question: Are experiences more effective in changing behaviour? As I set out to answer this question, purely out of curiousity, I discovered many arguments in favour and these were from many diverse fields. However, they all seem to arrive at a similar conclusion. Yes experience by far is better and is more efficient at changing behaviour than the classical thinking of aiming to change people’s perceptions and attitudes first before they change behaviour.

The social argument. The rise of first hand culture reframing trust & talkability.

In the past a brand was seen as a ‘short cut’ to decision making. People chose a brand because they identified with it and it acted as the ultimate key to choice whether emotional or rational. Today, this job is largely performed by Google. People use other people’s experiences as a proxy for making choice. Driven by technology, distrust in brands and disappointment in authority in general. Online provides the sum of all human experience in any field and particularly for brands. This gives birth to what others have called first hand culture. People choose to make up their own minds based on first hand experiences, either their own, that of other people and or even the brand’s own staff in the case of service brands. The implication for brands in two words is that of talkability & trust. If the people who had an experience with the brand – any experience – report on it, rant about it or hopefully rave about it that experience will be recorded, tagged, rated, clouded and reviewed online. This live constantly updatable record of people’s experiences with the brand makes a brand utterly vulnerable to whatever is being said about it. In a world where your brand is what people say it is – no brand owner can stand by the sidelines and have a silent opinion or ‘no comment’ or at least offer a counter positive experience to address the volatile online public. And no, advertising cannot do this job anymore. But experiences can. Because they all end up online not the ads. It’s online where first opinion, second opinion, expert opinion and own opinion are instantly com-probable and converging. If a brand has failed to manage its total experience these opinions will be made for it, in it’s absence and mercilessly by anyone who cares to comment.

The neurological argument. How your brain changes after an experience.

A leading neurogenesis researcher and professor of psychology at Princeton University, Professor Elizabeth Gould identified a number of fundamental changes as a result of experiences. Most importantly the brain physically changes as a result of an experience or an interaction. In a way, it took over 2509 years for neuroscience to prove what Confucius said 500 years BC. The changes that Gould and other neuroscientists  have identified include the physical change in the structure of the brain as a result of an active experience that is rich in external stimuli. Essentially new neural clouds are created or re-organized. Ideas in the head or ‘perceptions’ of a brand in marketing speak are no more than neural clouds in people’s brains. Every time an individual interacts with said brand or product literally their brain structure is re-calibrated or the neural cloud re-organised adding or taking new neurons. And this according the Gould and et al is best done by getting the individual to ‘do’ something , experience it instead of just being exposed to it or told about it.

The psychological argument for experiences.

An interesting lesson to learn about experiences and the ‘doing’ mentality comes from psychology. In contemporary psychology the recipe is really simple for changing behaviour. From needing more confidence to dealing with a job interview. Change is at the centre of a three step loop. Think, feel & do. For individuals to make any change they need to either think the change, feel it or do it. Psychologists strongly recommend that one should not wait to think the right stuff or feel like they want to quit smoking for example, it’s all about taking action – no matter how small or large – but taking action is what kicks the do, think, feel loop into gear and in that order. Once a small step is taken then new thoughts and feelings will follow. ‘Doing something about it’ is exactly what people should do. This lesson is pertinent for brands working on strategies that aim to change thinking or feeling via image led advertising. It is no where near as effective as inspiring, as inviting as helping people to do something or have an experience. I found a brand that did this strategically, creatively and above all effectively.

The branding argument.

The award winning campaign by AMV for Sainsbury’s in the UK set the standard for putting changing behaviour instead of changing beliefs into branding perspective. Try Something New Today is one of the most successful campaigns that ditched the tired thinking of nagging people into thinking or feeling something towards the brand in order to change behaviour. What it did instead was to invite people directly to ‘try’ and act. It used the various marketing channels overall as opportunities to inspire people to act with a constant stream of ideas and tools to use and apply.

The behavioural economics “nudge” argument.

Interestingly enough economists have their own discipline when it comes to getting people to change behaviour. Thaler & Sunstein authors of Nudge claim that instead of trying to change attitudes it’s easier to help people make the right choices or the choices that they previously found difficult by giving them a “choice architecture” that serves them the right option first and making it easy to act upon it. Almost without having to think about it. For example if you are trying to get people to eat healthily or to stop over indulging, providing them with healthy food as the first choice in the canteen  counter you are then guiding (nudging) them towards the preferred option. Another example is if you want them to eat less give them smaller plates. These are small examples but the thinking is actually quite profound. By getting people to have the ‘right’ kind of experience they build a ‘capability’ for the desired behaviour which later becomes the attitude they need to adopt. Maybe marketers can learn a thing or two from economists by starting with the behaviour first before the attitude.

The existentialist philosopher’s argument.

Needless to say there is a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to the do not say thinking. Sartre famously said once “to be is to do”. True existentialists never wish they are something else, they will it. They actively strive to change themselves by action and exercising their freedom to choose. Modern existentialism a la Sartre and De Beauvoir was born out of a basic and fundamental need to challenge the status quo and refusing to excuse oneself from taking action (& responsibility). Sartre was deeply motivated by fighting the Nazi Germans who were occupying Paris at the time and De Beauvoir by her refusal to submit to the expected and typical bourgeois behaviour of a lady of her breeding. The essential thing that we can learn from brand existentialism – if I may call it that – is that the ultimate truths are not those that we see elaborately expressed in ads but in the actions the brand takes and makes people take with it. Ads should never be an excuse for in-action.

The marketing argument. Experiences are a platform not an add on.

Most marketing campaigns use experiential & digital as an ‘add-on’ an event that somehow goes with the theme of the ad campaign. In most cases it’s simply no more than a tactical or a sales promotion exercise. This is old thinking. Experiences when placed at the core of the campaign become the most demonstrable way of brand values, it’s shared passions with it’s audiences and the best opportunity to show commitment to consumer. When Nike ‘did’ the Human Race the event was at the centre  of the campaign not the ads. The ads merely reported on it.
Experience in digital is even more essential for brands. A recent report (FEED 2009) identified that 65% of U.S. consumers report a digital experience changing their perception about a brand (either positively or negatively) and 97% of that group report that the same experience ultimately influenced whether or not they went on to purchase a product from that brand. Experiences are essentially contexts where the brand ‘behaves’ lives up to it’s core idea by doing things and of-course ‘delivers’. They are the embodiment of the brand values and ethos for example the Innocent Fruitstock, Nike + and the Red Bull Air Race.
In these examples experiential plays two key roles: primarily becoming a platform to build several stories or campaigns around. The Red Bull Air Race is an international spectacular touring event. When Red Bull comes to town planes fly under public bridges upside down. This sort of spectacle builds content to be distributed across multi-platform broadcasting channels from t.v. to You Tube.
Secondly, it also provides activation opportunities instore and beyond. An experience is more effective because the people who have it are 70% more likely to talk about it to friends than simply those watching a t.v. ad. And talkability eventually builds up and filters to the internet. Essentially not everybody have to have the experience but everybody can and does know about it.

Many arguments same conclusion.

There are diverse arguments for why experiences and doing are better for changing perceptions. The simple truth is that the total experience of a brand is no longer individual but collective and that experience is recorded, rated, reviewed and ranted about online – live. If a brand fails to manage it’s total experience then it’s simply open for whatever opinion might be voiced online. The cursory glance at the value of experiences outlined in this paper I hope is clear, varied and powerful.
From neuroscience to psychology, from branding to economics from philosophy to ancient wisdom nothing could be clearer. Even looking at brands that put experience at the core of their marketing such as Nike, Red Bull, Sainsbury’s, Innocent not to mention a plethora of digital brands from google, amazon to facebook that hardly spent a penny in advertising to succeed – they today are pure experiences and their success is indisputable on anybody’s measure.

We should ditch or seriously re-evaluate archaic communication & brand thinking.

Take AIDA for example: ‘action’ happens to be the last word in that model. I hope after reading this paper you have realised the fallacy of such a model that still in 2009 – 138 years since it’s inception – still permeates marketing, advertising and media thinking like a bad virus. The case for reversing this model and starting with action or experience instead of three very expensive letters is I submit a far better and a more effective strategy.
Some of the changes outlined in this paper should also shift how we think about the concept of branding. As someone once said: branding only works on cattle. The brand onion has gone pear shaped. It’s no longer the set of consistent values that we continue to delude ourselves by thinking we can ‘manage’ and control.

The brand of today is an experience.

A total experience that we maybe able to host or inspire but it’s an experience nevertheless. A behaviour, not an esoteric idea that lives mysteriously in people’s heads. If it is brands that we seek to build then there is no better way to do so than to simply do & deliver what the brand promises in marketing and elsewhere. Take the consumers with us. If brands were characters, then as they say in film – all character is action – and today the consumers are part of the action. They are participators not spectators. They are on the stage, interacting with the brand, co-creating it’s experience and it’s existence. But above all, they are shouting: ‘action’ …
… thankfully.
By saher sidhom,

How do you build a country brand?

By saher sidhom, Global Planning Director, Great Works, Stockholm & London.
You can’t really, but you have to start somewhere.
Big global brands such as Nike and IKEA are large enough in revenues to surpass the GDP of a small country. However, their brands are managed better than most countries. This is a shame because powerful country brands that are carefully managed tend to yield massive benefits for tourism, industry, politics and culture. These benefits are discussed and covered extensively elsewhere e.g. by Wally Olins in his book On Brand. In this paper I will only concern myself with what’s new, innovative and interesting ways of building country brands beyond the usual strategy of: let’s have a logo, an end-line and a few celebrity endorsements.
A country brand should start with a coherent brand and attitude but allow for paradoxes.
saher1Only liars need to be consistent. This is not about achieving a design consistency or a fanatic application of end-lines to every campaign going. In the first instance any country brand that seeks to have a future facing, growth led and differentiating positioning must define it’s essence, ethos and values that reflect the national identity and the attitude of it’s people. This often means having to find the interesting paradoxes in a country’s culture that make it fascinating. The first pitfall here is only choosing to focus on a ‘politically correct’ version of the national identity and highlighting some values at the expense of others. Having a few contradictions in a country brand ethos and values often makes the brand a lot more surprising and lively. I will take the country of Sweden as a running example for this paper. Sweden has an interesting but powerful paradox at it’s brand core. It is a progressive country famed for it’s design and innovation yet it’s people are socially and environmentally conscious with a deep respect for nature and a solid belief in preservation. This progressive yet preservative attitude of the Swedish people is a fascinating paradox that could be used to display many sides of it’s brand that are richer than cliche pictures of a nice lake. Another paradox of Swedish people that makes the culture equally fascinating is the high regard for individual freedom yet  equally is a respect for the greater good of everybody. This is a bizarre contradiction that makes Swedish people and their society fascinating. I can only describe it as  a curious but highly useful form of what could only be described as ‘individual group-think’. Brands are like people with multiple layers, interests, emotions, attributes and desires. It is often an organisational principal more than anything else to try and distill a brand or an individual into one word. How could that ever be done I wonder.  Just having a couple of words to describe a country brand is a bit like applying make up, it may accentuate the beauty of a place but as the saying goes beauty is only skin deep. A brand onion is a convenient from a ‘management’ perspective however it often disallows for the opportunity to have multiple ideas expressing the different facets of a brand. Gordon Brown the prime minister of Britain published a green paper called ‘The Governance of Britain’ in 2007. In it’s final section it said that we need to be clearer about what it means to be British. In response, Prospect magazine asked 50 British writers and intellectuals to give their thoughts on the matter. I will cite Duncan Fallowell, a writer’s response:
‘You should hate liars and cheats and those who won’t play the game. You should be able take a joke. You should dislike extremes. You should be bad at dancing and sex and incapable of either without being drunk. You should resist invasion of your personal or national space. You should ignore what you dislike but give to charity. You should protect the countryside. You should respect the sovereign. You should say what you think. You should be classical on the outside and romantic within. You should put religion in the back seat and make sure it stays there. You should acknowledge your good fortune.’
Ink often flows freely when describing the British. But as the above example illustrates the British characteristics and attitudes are full of curious paradoxes. And its those very paradoxes that make the Brits or Swedes or any other people interesting, intriguing and someone you’d want to get to know. They present a question mark not an answer. An answer is what you get in most country or tourism advertising. An answer leaves no role for the audience or the opportunity for them to be intrigued.
Given that a country brand seek to embody a multitude of ideas around it’s people, the place and what goes on there it’s perhaps a folly to think that just one word would do it.  As well as identifying the core paradoxes at the heart of the national identity the ‘attitudes’ and values of that society should be explored and embraced because in reality these are what the world will experience when they do come to a country or choose to invest in it.
A country brand should have a framework in which it’s paradoxical values can thrive, this framework is ultimately it’s culture.
saher2I will substitute the word brand with culture for the rest of this article. For many reasons, primarily because it is a more realistic approach and wide enough to allow for exploring a country’s cultural hall marks and exporting those internationally. Admittedly brands offer a simplified short cut for people to make a decision but a country’s culture offers a much deeper, richer and indeed complex set of ideas that allow people to be fascinated by, intrigued and want to experience some of that country’s culture. Culture is carried in every conversation between  a citizen and a foreigner. It’s one thing identifying a set of values on a brand onion and completely  another for them to be believed, lived, and acted upon. A country is not a brand it’s an attitude and a set of paradoxes. Since this is a discussion of new and innovative ways of building a Country’s Culture abroad (it’s biggest and best export) I will choose to focus on three tenets of a cultural approach to exporting a country’s, values, paradoxes and attitude.
Cultural Content.
The trouble with country ‘brand’ building is that the generic, predictable and cliched depiction of a country in it’s advertising abroad hardly does the country brand any favours. Of-course it can help awareness and perhaps build some new brand attributes but realistically something as complex as a country brand not to mention it’s culture is hard to encapsulate credibly and more importantly effectively in a poster. Well, I believe there are more efficient alternatives.
The country’s values are implicit in acts (covered in the next section) and arts. Cultural content is a great and most importantly entertaining, fascinating and exciting way of exporting the cultural values of a country. Here are a couple of examples. Spain is a modern day ‘re-brand’ of a country according to Olins. It used to be somewhat backward and isolated not so long ago. If people were asked what comes to mind when thinking of Spain inevitably it was something about Franco and Flamenco. Few things happened since that time. The Seville expo of 1992, the Barcelona Olympics, the Gaudi architecture, the European city of culture accolade for Barcelona and slue of a resurgent film industry led by Almodovar. All be it random coincidences they were exploited less than randomly by the various governmental and arts institutions in Spain. Needless to say there was a sense that the country’s cultural exports whether architecture, film or attitudes were the most vibrant content for their marketing of the country.
The core strategy here is trying to think of ways that take a country brand’s culture abroad. Think cultural products and opportunism instead of ads. Estonia and Kazakhstan are both new countries that emerged from the clutches of Soviet occupation for decades relatively recently. Desperate to establish their own identity and brand internationally. The difference between the two is that the first did something about it and the second allowed somebody else to do it for them. Estonia won the Eurovision song contest a few years back. This meant that it would host the following year’s competition in Tallinn. For a little country that most people in the world hardly ever heard anything about all of a sudden it had 166m world wide t.v. audience. Manna from heaven as far as brand building opportunism is concerned. The country of-course took advantage of this event and used it as a platform to stimulate interest in the rest of Estonia internally by giving it’s people new cultural properties to own and be proud of and externally by inviting and exploiting positive attention to tell its stories. Meanwhile in Kazakhstan … nothing. No serious attempts to brand the country and people are left to believe the highly popular and negative perceptions of one man, Borat. The case of these two countries is compelling on many levels. The challenge should not be how to advertise our country brand or build it, the challenge should be how we export our positive cultural values and products to the rest of the world? If that is the starting point then cultural exports become the back bone of tourism and other brand building exercises for any country.
Film & T.V. are incredibly powerful tools to use here. These and other cultural products are prime targets for putting a country brand in the travel agenda. What Sex in the City did for tourism in New York could hardly be matched by the New York Tourist office. Even clever strategies such as that employed by the Prague city council of offering and promoting Prague as a cost effective, beautiful and exotic film location has managed to place the location in a number of global films from The Bourne Identity to James’ Bond most recent Casino Royal. Even the little un-known town of Bruge in Belgium had a starring role in a film that bore it’s name. Country marketers should pursue an arts and film strategy to partner with international film makers as well as indigenous talent to apply product placement techniques to the countries values and locations, it’s a places placement as it were.  This is an active strategy employed by the likes of Prague and Morocco to a great deal of success. The beauty of this strategy is that not only builds awareness of the countries in question, it also delivers iconic images and cultural values not to mention foreign film investments.
Behaviour and experience.
Values dictate behaviour. Behaviour is what a country does, makes and popularises. How a country’s culture is manifested tangibly internally and internationally can have a mutually beneficial relationship between the country and its export brands for example. How about brand eco-systems, and good old country of origin branding. Let’s look at  the eco-system built by the Apple brand. Steve Jobs once gave a sneak peak of how the Apple brand is organised internally around three business functions: Macs, Music and iPhone. These are essentially three different industries and categories of products yet they are united by the Apple brand and the way it works with technology. Eco-systems are about building an environment around the brand where each item re-enforces and is compatible with the others. Once a consumer buys into one of the products that becomes the entry ticket into the entire system. When one buys an iPod they need music to go with it, enter iTunes and somewhere where the experience remains pleasantly connected and off to a mac store to buy a mac. With over 50% of new mac sales coming from ‘switchers’ and over 2 billion songs sold on iTunes not to mention the de facto nature of iPhones in everybody’s hands this strategy is indeed valuable. A country culture that starts thinking of it’s eco-system of brands and channels could benefit greatly from a coherent exploration and exploitation of natural ecosystems around it. Country of origin branding plays a huge role in how a number of exported brands benefit or indeed suffer from the association. Everybody wants a German car few would rush to buy a Kazach one. Country cultures act as a protective umbrella, or a bad omen. The mutual exchange of values between the country’s culture and the export brands becomes a virtually re-enforcing brand system.
There are a number of benefits from this happy exchange. Country cultures provide instant credibility and identity to new or un-known brands in new markets. If the ‘value’ system is coherent as the example below, allbeit a simplification of the German brand, then these products invariably live up tangibly to the values of the country of origin. Brands that are not even connected in any way can also re-enforce each other. Buying a BOSCH power drill can have strangely similar expectations of buying a PORSCHE. The strength and the coherence of a system becomes a mutually re-enforcing brand equity. As well as trial of new products in new markets, eco-systems can pre-empt competitive strategies for the export brands in question, it is no surprise that both
saher3Audi and VW in the UK have end-lines in German to play on their German equity. The strength of this strategy has gone all the way to the extent that a Citroen a French car maker recently made ads that try to question the German dominance of quality by depicting its cars in German contexts but perform with French flair: ‘Unmistakably German Made in France’. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery indeed.
The German strategy is perhaps an exception. I doubt it came out of a strategy brainstorm between the brand managers of AUDI, VW, BMW, BOSCH and whoever is in charge of the branding of Germany. This in the first instance is a truth about Germany and German people’s appreciation and attitudes to technical and functional prowess. What country brands cannot do is manufacture stuff like this from thin air. It has to be founded on truths and the values of the country which indeed is apparent in the DNA of it’s export brands. Going back to Sweden for example. It has a simple value and a set of beliefs in the fabric of its society that turns up unsurprisingly in a host of Swedish super brands.
Social Progress a quintessentially Swedish idea.
With roots in politics, nature and care for the many Swedish society is built around pretty much around the idea of having a better life for everyone. The paradox of individual freedom and the belief in the greater good is a prime example. These work well because they do support each other. The ‘social progress and the greater good for the many’ can be seen in the core brand ideas of many Swedish brands. IKEA’s brand idea of democracy of design is actually a social idea in the first place. Similarly, H&M’s luxury for the masses, Volvo’s Life is best lived together. Even ABSOLUT vodka for decades democratised and introduced and broke new artists in their advertising for the benefit of the many. All these brands and more have an idea of social progress an improvement in the quality of life for the many not just the individual. This could be leveraged by those brands and Sweden in a number of ways. The first is on a corporate social responsibility level. Sweden and it’s brands could own and have points of view on environmental and sustainability issues. Swedish brands in their variety of fields and endeavors have a pretty good grip on sustainability issues and in fact are world leaders. Joining forces on the CSR level can help Sweden be to the environment what Switzerland is to political neutrality. Collaborations between Swedish brands, governments and other internal and external entities can own the social progress idea in way that makes the existing positive but less known reality the perception.
Reputation and cultural momentum.
Country brands can learn from fashion brands that create cultural halos and momentum, every season four times a year. Selfridges, a store in the UK, has an interesting strategy that it employs to promote the store. It creates a moment that taps into the cultural zeitgeist of London. Each summer Selfridges has a big theme that it promotes within the store. A couple of years ago it did a Tokyo theme in the store, complete with Japanese lift attendants, products, mad fashions and music. Yet the real genius was in creating a Japanese cultural halo out of the store in London. It collaborated with arts, culture, commerce and other Japanese representatives in London. All highlighted and aligned their calendar of events with Selfridges thus creating a halo effect in in the city for which the epi-centre was Selfridges. They essentially promoted the idea of Japan and Tokyo not Selfridges itself per se. Anyone in the business of fashion knows that most mainstream fashion is created, planned and co-ordinated. Fashion is not the surprise and the discovery that most consumers are led to believe it is. From product placement in the movies  to the pre-determined pre-season selection of ‘colours’ and the quick turn around of promotions in the stores are all carefully managed and co-ordinated on the high street. There is no reason why country brands (and their export partners) can’t take a leaf or two from fashion brands. The co-ordination with both indigenous and international partners can enable a country’s culture to be well ‘in-fashion’ at key cultural moments. Learning from fashion marketing it is wise for countries that want to export their culture and build a vibrant and lively view of it abroad to consider what is the calendar of events in the recipient cultures, what stories, happenings, events and experiences that the marketing country can bring. Sweden can create and invigorate a whole season and sensibility in other countries if it had a single minded focus on Swedish design for example. Owning and setting the design agenda from a Swedish perspective in other countries allows it to introduce, re-inforce and most importantly gather acres of press coverage for events and stories around Swedish design ethos and edge.
Don’t build country brands, use the country’s culture to contaminate other cultures.
The central idea of this paper is really around taking a country’s, spirit, culture and values to contaminate and influence those abroad as well as it’s own. This begins with identifying the paradoxes the idiosyncratic hall marks of that country and it’s culture. To give it depth and richness that is intriguing and inviting. Once a set of interesting themes are developed in the core of the culture exporting those via the three tenets of content, behavior and reputation.
As far as content is concerned the key strategy here is that of ‘place & people’ placement. Placing a country’s location, people, ideas, in the story or in the cultural narrative of a film or t.v. show can do wonders for that country’s awareness abroad, cultural currency and affinity. The case of Estonia showed a renewed belief of its people and a new found confidence in their ability to play david in the goliath of international tourism competition. Thus multiplying and releasing the power of each of its citizens to be an ambassador of the brand at home and abroad.
Behaviour is about finding some core ideas that a country can use to brand its products abroad whether literally its export brands or its politics. The country of origin as  a powerful umbrella for export brands is hard to escape. The country of origin and it’s export brands is perhaps the strongest example of how to pull the common DNA of those brands to achieve ownable leadership even if it is as simple as Swiss ‘neutrality’. Beyond brand eco-systems, just as traditional advertising is not going to be enough to build a brand traditional media are not going to deliver the audience due to cost and fragmentation. Country brands need to think laterally about what could its retail brands abroad or media brands abroad do for them in distribution of cultural and communication content. They need to explore and exploit their international ecosystem.
Finally on the reputation level country branding can learn from how fashion brands set the cultural agenda through dictating the themes the ‘colours’ of the season as it were. The natural networks between style journalists, fashion designers, stores celebrities and movie stars collectively set the agenda for what to wear. Country cultures should explore and find what is the equivalent of that network in the area of tourism in each of the markets in which it seeks to promote itself. Once that’s done feed the network with the most relevant, entertaining and compelling ideas.