The Episode All About Brands
Claus Larsen, Creative Director, BH&P
Nick Moore: Difference is a thing that people talk about and I think it's mostly a waste of time.
Even if you are different these days, it's very easy for someone to copy you and so you won't be different for very long.
Distinctiveness, however, is something that the brand can build up and own in a way that is very difficult for other people to just rip off. I think there's real value there.
Becky Holland: Brands, brands, brands. This is the episode all about brands and about time too.
Hello. Welcome to the No Bull Marketing Ideacast. I’m Becky Holland.
When we hold a brand in our hands, whether it's our own brand, or as an agency one that’s owned by a client, we have a responsibility. To customers, to employees, to shareholders, and arguably, to the world more widely. What's our purpose? What do we do that makes a difference and is anyone actually better off because we exist?
Trouble for marketers in 2023, is that with all the tactics available to drive growth, [it’s] easy to get lost in the “busy work” of marketing and forget that your brand is your lifeblood. The thing that people buy into or, quite frankly, don’t.
On the show today, I have two absolute experts on the power of brands. I’m joined by my Creative Director, Claus Larsen. Himself a multi award-winning Creative Director, and by Nick Moore. Friend and colleague. Nick is currently MD and Strategy Director at Addison in New York and I am very excited to welcome my guests to the show.
Let's get started!
BH: Nick, first of all, just in a nutshell, if you can, tell the listeners a bit of a story. How did you get to where you are today? What are the salient points?
NM: Well it was all a horrible mistake I think [that] is probably that the headline. Generally speaking, a very long time ago, I graduated and kicked around for a few years and then I realised that all of my university friends had got responsible jobs and I hadn’t, and one thing led to another and I found my way into a very small regional advertising agency as a Junior Copywriter.
Given that I had an English degree, it was that or teaching, and my parents were both teachers so that wasn't an option. So I ended up as a Junior Copywriter and I kind of worked through [jobs and I] variously ended up in London worked for a long time [at] an agency, which became called Proximity, which was part of AMV BBDO, and, to my surprise, they maybe their Creative Director and then moved to another London agency, TBWA\GGT which was fun, and then that came to an end and a gentleman called Steve Harrison - who some people may have heard of who was the Creative Director at Ogilvy for a long time - then had his own agency, was working as the Global Creative Director of Wunderman, and called me up and said “would you like to work in New York?” and I said “no”, and he said “well we’ve bought you an air ticket to come and talk to us.”
NM: So I was like “Wow. I’ll take a free weekend in New York”, and one thing led to another and we moved to New York. We thought for maybe 18 months or two years, and that was 16 years ago, and I stayed at Wunderman for about 8 years I think, and then I went to an agency within Publicis Groupe and then, more or less since then, I've been with Addison.
Now working much more in the branding space which is very interesting. So that's probably the long version, not the short version, for which I apologise.
BH: That is definitely the long version. But it's quite interesting and you know I've obviously known you – and Claus has known you - back to the TBWA\GGT days when you came in as a Creative Director and kind of shook things a little bit certainly from my perspective. I don’t know, Claus, how it felt to you at the time?
Claus Larsen: It was definitely [like] shaking it up. But in a very good way at the time. Because it needed shaking up and that's what Nick did. Successfully as well. Very successfully.
BH: Shaking is always a good thing I think with brands. Just give a little shake. See how resilient it is.
If you think back over the years, which brands have you most enjoyed working with, and which ones have been the most challenging?
NM: I think rather than name names I think it would be perhaps more helpful to talk about how people approach things and I think that…the thing that always strikes me is [that] you have a brand whether you like it or not, and the only choice that you have is how you manage it, or ignore it. It's amazing how many brands seem to not be aware of the responsibility they have to manage the brand over the long term as well as the short term.
So I think the things that have been challenging is when the focus has been very short-term, and the things that have been really enjoyable, and very gratifying, and I think where the teams that I've been a part of have made the biggest contribution have been where people are aware of, you know, the long-term horizon. As well as the need to deliver sales and leads and all that good stuff in the short term.
I think Wall Street's focus on quarter-by-quarter has been tough for a lot of brands because, you know, everything has got a three-month horizon. But I think it's probably the people who thought about their brands over the short, and the long-term, to coin a phrase, have been the most rewarding brands to work with.
BH: It’s quite interesting isn’t it? Because I think that, you know, the bigger brands, the household names, I think probably do think about their brands more in the long-term.
But I'm not sure that a lot of the growing businesses - and certainly I'm thinking about the ones that we know in in the financial services and tech space - necessarily do that. It’s all very “we need to do a re-brand, and then we've done that, and we’re back to business as usual.” They just kind of leave the brand well sitting there and it doesn't work.
NM: No, no it really doesn't and, you know, that could often be classified as a “honking waste of money.” Because the brand doesn't look after itself. The brand needs to be nurtured. It's either growing in value and stature and salience, or its shrinking. It's never staying still, and the phrase that often rings true is “if you think of your brand as an account” - like what your UK listeners will think of as a current account and your US listeners will think of as a checking account – “you're either making a deposit or you're making a withdrawal” and your short term performance marketing lead generation work is basically a withdrawal on the equity of the brand that you've built up in your brand account, and that's great. That's what it's for. That's why you build a brand. So that you can generate leads and you can drive sales and you can charge a higher price. That's the point of having a brand.
But if you keep on making withdrawals, endlessly overtime, your account will run out of brand money if you want to pursue the analogy. So you have to have to make some deposits, and that's in the form of building the brand, adding value to the brand, adding relevance to the brand and just having some fame to the brand. So you need both.
BH: Completely right. Claus, you’re very quiet.
CL: Sorry, I was just listening and agreeing actually.
I completely agree I think what we see a lot of, at the moment, is this short-term tactical advertising. Which, creatively, is not very good, and I think that is putting people off advertising as a whole. Because it's not, you know, it's lost its value. It’s lost its entertainment value. Because I think, you know, I do believe that you do need to entertain sometimes. As well as [being] a brand.
CL: Your brand is your lifeblood of your business. You might not like that but it is, you know? That's what people remember. That's what people see, you know, and how does that brand behave in all different channels? It’s very important.
But then it behaves in a good way across all channels and that's, I think, that's a big difficulty actually with brands, or brands are having a moment, is how do they come across how does a brand come across in all of these different spaces?
NM: Yeah I mean, I think one of the things that happened, which had a lot of unintended – not consequences - but outcomes was when digital arrived, and social media, and basically Google replaced the Yellow Pages and Facebook and all of the other social channels took over so much of the share of people's attention.
One of the ways they marketed themselves was through data. We can show you how many people clicked. Which is effectively a direct response metric. Not a brand metric. It's beguiling, it's attractive, because it's very easy to report. It's very accurate, which in many corporations, is important and so a lot of marketing people – very, very understandably - decided that they liked going to the C-Suite and their finance arm and their Chief Executive, and so on, and saying “this is the exact number of impressions we got on this is the exact number of clicks we got and this is the exact number of landing page hits we got blah blah blah.”
Rather than coming in with a 2.2% uplift in the brand tracker over a course of 15 months which is very soft and waffle-y, and everybody knows it, you know, and there was there was a lot of talk around, you know, “if you give Google 100 bucks they'll give you back 140” and, you know, how can you not like that? The problem is, it's not the whole story. It's true but it's not the whole story.
So you started, naturally, to optimise for advertising that generates those sorts of returns and then you add in the size of a mobile screen compared to the size of a television screen and you start getting to this very simple product-focused, rational, “give me this and I'll give you that” type of advertising.
Which, you know, is functional if you're running a bank holiday sale, or a blue tag sale, or whatever it is that's great. But it's not going to build your brand over the long-term. It’s not going to create advertising that people like and it's not going to create increased salience, and above all memorability, for your brand. So that was just something that happened, and I don't think anyone's figured it out yet how to bring the two worlds back together again.
CL: That's the tricky bit at the moment, isn’t it? It’s still, actually, quite new. Where, you know, everything used to be dominated by TV of course. You used to have conversations about TV programmes in the office. That doesn't happen anymore because we’re not watching the same programmes and we're not in the office.
So even that whole connection you have with each other and where you would discuss something that happened the night before doesn't happen anymore and advertising was part of that conversation.
BH: There are certain focal points though aren't there? So I mean like there was much talk about, you know, the advertising around the Superbowl, for example, and I appreciate not so many people over this side of the Atlantic were watching it.
But over in the US, everybody was watching. Everybody wanted to know what was going to be sung and everybody was looking at the ads. So, you know, there are focal points like that. But they're few and far between.
NM: Yeah I mean I think, you know, to answer to the point that you’re both making, there just aren’t those media moments anymore. I know in the UK it’s sort of Christmas ads is a big thing. We don't have that here cause, you know, obviously Thanksgiving is bigger than Christmas here.
But the Superbowl is still just an incredible media moment. I think there were 190 million people watching or something like that, and when, at 30 seconds is seven million bucks it does tends to concentrate your mind.
NM: That said, you know…but here's the deal. If you think, OK it’s $7 million for the for the ad time and maybe your product you know production costs are three, or maybe more, seeing as the solutions for most brands this year seem to be to put a celebrity in it, and you know, you can have your point of view about that.
Even so, if you think of you know 100, and however many million people watching, the cost per eyeball is kind of about the same as Instagram, you know, it's certainly not THAT expensive. It's kind of interesting, in that regard, and it is a media moment. But they are very few and far between. I mean the Oscars is the second one.
CL: We don’t really have that do we? Over here. I think you’re right. Christmas is our big one which is interesting because [they’re] actually discussed before the ads are launched, or made, anyway and it's already [involving] discussing what the John Lewis ad is going to be.
BH: I think we’re a bit tired of the Christmas ads now. I know you watch them and watch out for them but it's, I don't know, just the whole thing just feels a little bit jaded doesn’t it?
It's like the same brief that's gone round and round agency land for the last ten years, and it's like “oh can we actually do it in a different way?”, “can we do it better?” and “Oh, we should put some diversity in and “oh we should, you know, we’ll change it from happy to sad.” It's just the same stuff.
NM: I think this brings up two of my hobby horses, and there are so many of them! What you were saying about the Christmas ads a moment ago was exactly right. The brief has become, kind of you know, “give me the feels.” “I want a touchy-feely ad” and we then spend all of our time deciding whether “are we going to make them laugh or are we going to make them cry?” and some of the films that have been made over the past decade have been just astonishingly great films and that's great.
But I agree with you that maybe it's becoming a little formulaic and I think it's because people have lost sight of two things which go into what these things are supposed to do. The first is, I think, a lot of brands don't spend enough time thinking about who they are, and therefore what they should and should not do. So they jump into a [decision of] “let's make him feel” and it's like well “how is this us?” , you know? “How is this our brand?” I think in a lot of markets, functional difference has pretty much gone away.
If you think about, I don't know, airlines. You tell me the difference between, you know, one flight from Heathrow to Kennedy and another and it's [like] “OK that plane’s red and that plane’s blue.” But, other than that, a lot of it, you know, it’s either price, or it's the brand, and the second thing is, you know, people are jumping to execution without thinking about their strategies. Like “what are we trying to do across the whole waterfront for this brand?”, you know, “how does our market segment [fit in]?” therefore “who do we target?” Therefore what is the insight into that target?” therefore “what should we be doing in order to leverage that insight?” I don't think that piece of thinking is happening very often.
CL: No not enough. I think it's one of the biggest issues we’ve got is that people jump straight in to the execution and even - you sit in meetings - and they start talking about what the ad is going to look like before they actually finished the briefing. Which is never a good idea.
BH: The other piece of this, actually, that I think gets forgotten as well is that there is an awful lot of marketing and advertising out there. There are a lot of people that, you know, do what I call “practising the busy work of marketing.”
“Well we've got this on, you know, seven channels, and we've got an ABM platform and we're doing this and we doing that” and they’re spending so much time filling all the platforms with stuff. But the reality is even if you've got a fantastic insight, and even if you know what the audience needs, you also need to know what your competitors are talking about and where there is space for you to have a voice. Because you can come up with the best ad in the world, but if you're just competing, head on, with everybody else, it's very hard to make it stand out. You need to try and understand what are those unserved needs? What are those gaps and what are those stories that nobody else's is telling?
CL: To your next point, actually, there. You have to be true to yourself. You have to be true to the brand. Otherwise, it doesn't stack up. You can't be somebody you’re not. Which is - to the point you’re making - some brands are trying to be funny, actually they're not funny brands, so don't try to be funny, for example you know?
I think that's a danger there because then you lose who you are. You lose your own identity.
NM: We always think about this in, kind of, a couple of ways. The first is, if you picture a Venn diagram with three circles, and the first is the brand, and the second is the audience, and the third is the market, the brand has its vision and its values, and a way to be, and it is who it is and that kind of tells you the ambition of the project and where you're going. As you say, “both tell you the needs”, but they also…if you understand your audience, they’ll tell you where their limits are. They give you permission.
A brand can only talk about some things and it cannot talk about others. It can adopt some tonalities and not adopt others. To take a frivolous example, if Rolls Royce does a 50% off sale with Starbursts everywhere we’d all think something had gone wrong because it's off-brand and the market would not give you permission to do that. The audience would not give you permission to do that, and then the market, to your point Becky, tells you where the gap is, and where the opportunity is, and you put those three together. The ambition of the brand, the permission of the audience, and the opportunity in the market and you just might get somewhere. But you have to have all three and I think a lot of people maybe don't have kind of all three.
A lot of people talk about difference and differentiation. I think it's absolutely an irrelevance 90% of the time. I think most products are not different, functionally. I mean maybe if you're Space X then you are functionally different from most people. But if you think about airlines or packets - of what you call crisps and I call chips – they’re, kind of, pretty much the same, you know, if we've learned anything is that “being different doesn't matter.”
What matters is being distinct and being, you know, as Byron Sharpe, says “available to the audience both physically and mentally at the moment where they might just possibly be thinking about buying what you have to offer”, and I think difference is a thing that people talk about and I think it's mostly a waste of time. Because even if you are different, these days, it's very easy for someone to copy you and so you won't be different for very long, and I think distinctiveness however is something that the brand can build up and own in a way that is very difficult for other people to just rip off and I think that's, you know, there's real value there.
CL: Yeah, and it's [about] finding that isn't it and staying true to it all the way across everything you do, you know? Which is, I think, some people sometimes forget. Or, what happens as well, with clients, [is] they get bored before the audience gets bored. Or we’ll be doing this thing and now [they’re] going “I've seen this ad 4-5 times now. [I’m] bored. I want to do something else” and you wonder “It hasn't really started. It’s got no traction yet.”
Give it time. You need to give things time. Just because we're looking at something every day, doesn't mean other people are.
NM: I think a lot of people think that marketing is fun and much of the time it's not. It shouldn't be!
BH: It’s really hard work!
NM: Well it needs to be disciplined and rigorous, you know? I mean there's a washing brand that’s [been] telling us that it “washes whiter” for an awfully long time and they haven't gone off and had seventeen exciting new ideas. They've just been telling us that it washes whiter and people keep buying it!
BH: Also, that’s what you want isn’t it? You want your - unless you're not washing white – but, I mean, you want your clothes to be clean. So stick to the brand promise stick to how you do it. How you execute it. How you articulate it will move, you know, with the times. But the brand should be authentic and you should have the confidence of sticking with it.
NM: It's about discipline and then rigour. Which are very uncool and untrendy, and not very nice things to talk about, and it does take time.
Something else is happening, I don't know whether you see this in the UK so much, but a lot of the buzz and excitement is around new brands in the US and D2C and, [in] particular, you mentioned, a while back, fintech. Coming out of the [Silicon] Valley here, there's just so much innovation and I think it's very interesting for a couple of reasons.
First of all, these new brands do not have accumulated brand salience and brand knowledge and they're not famous and they haven't been around for 20 years and yet people buy them. I think we're about to enter a really interesting period. Because with the demise of free money which we've had for 10 years since about 2008, 2009. I think a lot of people are actually going to have to start doing some marketing to survive. Rather than just get more free money and it is astonishing how many of the new brands that have taken over have never turned a profit, and I think that may change in this new environment, and I think what emerges, that I find very interesting is, it is possible to launch a brand, particularly a tech brand, that's bringing a new approach, or saves time or saves money, or something like that, through just word-of-mouth and PR, and what have you, without resorting to sort of traditional paid media approaches.
But eventually as the business matures and stops going up its stratospheric growth curve and starts to flatten out, you find the businesses like Uber, the businesses like Facebook, and all of the others, start to do much more conventional type marketing in order to solidify and perpetuate their position.
So I think it's possible that you know you can bring new brands into the market. Especially if they know who they are. Which I think is key. If you're fuzzy about that and consumers don't understand, or your audience doesn't understand, your position and your proposition, it doesn't matter how cool and trendy you think you are. It still won't catch on.
I think the other thing to remember is – we talk a lot about communications - and Mark Ritson is always very good on this, it's a trap. Because marketing is a lot about analysis. It's about investigation. It's about understanding your audience, where they are, how that’s changing. You know, people were doing one thing before the pandemic, another thing in the pandemic, quite possibly they're doing something else now as we emerge from the pandemic, thank goodness, and then there's a whole section on, you know, “so what should we do?”, “ what should our strategy be?”, “how should we be positioning the brand?”, “how should we be messaging the brand?”, “how should we be…which targets offer most value?, “what's the potential?”, and then, I still think there's value in the good old 4 P’s.
It's like, you know, what the price should be is critical. You get into automotive, and its price is the single biggest indicator as to why, you know, a Ford is different from a BMW. Most people have no clue about engineering and price is a signal, is a proxy, for quality, which most people are not equipped to judge, and then you get into promotion. Which is a tiny portion of the whole marketing cake and, yet, to listen to people you think it was far and away the biggest thing, and it's not. It's the final delivery. Now it can offer huge value if you come up with a killer Christmas ad, or a Superbowl ad, it can deliver enormous return. Because people love it, and engage with it, and above all, remember it. That's immensely powerful. But it's only a small piece of the puzzle.
BH: I think you’re completely right. We were talking about this, actually, earlier today, funnily enough, saying, you know, “when people start talking about marketing, talking about advertising, you're talking about communications.” You're talking about that outward-facing message.
But the reality is, marketing is that interface with the audience, you know, with the market and marketing has so much insight into that audience. In terms of “what do people want?” “What do people need?”, “what's the mood of the nation? the world?”, and the problem with all of that, is that when you look at the marketing budget and all the line-by-line [items], all the different things that you're doing, the one bit that doesn't generate an ROI, is the research and insight.
CL: Yes, yeah.
BH: It’s the bit that gets cut.
NM: Yeah, absolutely.
I don't know about in the UK. I'm absolutely not up to speed. But here research is is going through a bit of a revolution and technology is coming to our aid here.
Now if I was one of the big research providers - and I'm not going to name them, but you probably know who they are - I would be kind of nervous cause a lot of what they have built very big successful businesses on, is definitely being disrupted by technology which seems to offer cheaper, faster, just as good [benefits], and that's really interesting.
So it becomes less of a problem to keep the research line and in the budget, and I think, you know, that leads me onto another thing I sort of feel that I've been whinging on about “well this is wrong and that is wrong and it used to be better”, and what have you. I actually think this is possibly the most exciting time in my life to be involved in marketing. Because just the opportunities that are out there that, you know, were never there when I started and, you know, much more recently - when the three of us worked together - you couldn't have imagined doing the things that we can do now, and I think it's easy to say “Oh well you know people don't get it” and what have you, and I think there's some validity in that. But it's also true that you know, we're all suffering from the paradox of choice.
There's so many things you could do that it's almost…it is bewildering and it almost brings you to, kind of paralysis. But I think that if you can just figure out who you are, who you’re for, and, therefore, what you should say…and it's as simple as that, at a very top level.
There's so many opportunities to do interesting and exciting things, and to collaborate with interesting and exciting people, and to use channels that never existed before. It's just amazing what you could do and what people are doing, and there's just so much opportunity it's an exciting time to be doing this.
CL: And also…because you can connect with so many people, you know, in terms of what we do. Just with talent around the world, which I think, I always found is one of the most exciting things, is that you can actually work with somebody in New York, or somebody in Australia, South America. It doesn't really matter now. Before that, it was much more difficult. Now it’s just a given, you know, so you can just get the best people to the best work, which is inspiring, I think.
NM: It really is.
CL: You have to focus a little bit on what matters, you know, going, actually “what matters to you as an organisation?” and then make sure that that's where you spend your money, isn’t it? Not necessarily trying to do everything because that's when it gets a little bit confused, or you can't get enough traction because you're not spending enough money across so many different channels.
NM: I agree. There’s been an interesting twist. This sort of idea, I think, particularly, in the social channels that more is more. “I've got to post every day.” “No, wait I've got to post twice a day.”
BH: Don’t. I had this, this morning. “No, you don't!” Please don’t email every day. Nobody wants it.
NM: There's so much noise, and there's so much clutter, and, to use a very analogue phrase, the signal to noise ratio has deteriorated and, I think, I absolutely cannot prove this as an absolute rule, but I have to believe that kind of, also creates opportunity that, instead of just playing that game of “well they’re doing more so we should do more”, and therefore just gradually ratcheting up the pain that we all suffer, there has to be an alternate approach, which is, if we can do something much better it will cut through all of this noise and, you know, our signal will be the one that is received, and I think that, you know, that again offers huge opportunity.
If everything is not so good, let's put it that way, then surely there's more opportunity for the people who are trying to do something that is a cut above.
So, you know, again, the problems are real. They are probably bigger than they have been before but the opportunity for, you know, the breakthrough brands, the Oatly's of this world, or anyone like that, to just come outta nowhere and impinge themselves on our consciousness is extraordinary.
CL: It’s extraordinary. It’s fantastic, isn’t it?
BH: Completely. Less is more. But you gotta do it right. You have to invest. You have to spend the time.
NM: I agree.
BH: We are absolutely out of time. So, Nick do you have any final words? Any final thoughts? Anything you would like to say before we say, “thank you and goodbye?”
NM: If you want a final thought, something I think I've consistently said over the years is, that “it almost always pays to be a little braver.” Because the shock of the new means every time you see something for the first time you're like “Oh my goodness.” Whether it's a new car or a new TV programme or a new ad even, and fairly quickly, it becomes normalised and, therefore, going a little bit further than might be comfortable, is a way to breakthrough and stand out from this clutter that we have talked about.
So, I'm not suggesting that anyone starts taking lunatic risks. But I do think that, in a controlled way, managing risk, and being a little more adventurous, almost always - not always - but almost always pays dividends.
CL: Yeah, absolutely.
BH: Thank you so much to Claus and to Nick for joining me on the show today. It's been a blast. The time has gone so quickly, and I think we probably need to have another call another time, when we're not recording it and just have a have a nice chat.
NM: That would be fun. It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you both. Thank you. Thank you very much for inviting me I've really appreciated it.
BH: Thank you everybody for listening to the show. It's been fantastic having you. Next time, we have another brilliant guest. We've got Rodger Holden, who is the former Business Development Director for the national charity, the CrimeStoppers Trust, talking about reputation management and why it starts within. So, tune in, find out how you can make your brand truly responsible and hopefully have a few laughs along the way.