7 rules for teaching an ‘old’ brand new tricks

7 rules for teaching an 'old' brand new tricks

Innovation! Disruption! Chaos! As digital, social, and mobile hand more influence and outright power to your clients and customers, the race is on to transform your business and re-position your brand. Bust out the whiteboard markers and call in the brainstorm facilitators – it’s time to completely upgrade to brand 2.0!

Sound familiar? Of course it does, but what’s really happening in boardrooms and conference facilities right across the world is wholesale abandonment of the things that made great brands truly great. In the interests of not trashing the thing you are probably being paid the medium-sized bucks to protect and build, here’s a set of ground rules for teaching your ‘old’ brand new tricks, while avoiding the embarrassment of catching your very first parked car.

Trick 1: Don’t play dead

Big brands have an unnerving habit of freezing in a crisis. In fact, they have an unnerving habit of freezing when anything not related to a purchase happens. Don’t be that brand. Research shows over 40% customers expect brands with a social media account to respond, on that same channel, within the hour.

If your brand has a social media account (or several), you now have an obligation to have humans running that account — and not just in the event of a crisis. This will require resources (humans and cash) and policies, a plan (preferably written), and maybe even some investment in technology.

Think of it as an investment, not an expense. When I returned to Australia recently after a few years living abroad, I put a request for a home broadband service out to all the major telcos via Twitter. I didn’t sign up with the first & best responder just because they were the first & best responder — but it’s probably no coincidence I did sign up with the first & best responder.

Trick 2: Don’t chase the shiny cars

OgilvyOne Creative Director Rob Morrison wrote about our increasing fascination with ‘disruptor brands’, particularly if they involve technology. The annual Interbrand rankings tends to uncork a cacophony of punditry about the impact of disruption and technology on value creation (everyone points at Apple, but curiously overlook Coca Cola). How easily we are distracted by the new.

The point is that you’re an established brand, so you should be looking to protect and build brand equity, not run away from it.

No-one wants to be the next Kodak, but the consensus is that they failed because they were too enamoured with how of the technology (film emulsion, which happened to be massively disruptive, once upon a time) rather than the why of the experience (memories and images).

By contrast, BP were among the first of the oil companies to acknowledge that there might one day be an end to oil. They didn’t decide to suddenly switching industries and become a solar company, they enlarged the definition of the industry they were in and became an energy company. Importantly, they signalled the shift rather elegantly with a new logo.

Just because the world is going nuts for unicorns, don’t forget you’re still a dog. You can’t suddenly become a unicorn, but you can become a more interesting dog.

Trick 3: Roll over

As marketers, we’re rightfully obsessed with our brands (it is, after all, what pays for our mortgage/kids’ education/Ducati maintenance). However, it also pays to remember that we’re probably the only ones who are.

Rather than pleading with people to take an obsessive interest in our brands, flip it around and show your brand taking an obsessive interest in people. Rather than hog the limelight, rollover and let your customers have their time in the sun. I wrote about this in another Firebrand post: Your brand is not the story, your brand is in the story.

Be happy to play a supporting role in the lives of your audience. Be more than happy. Become obsessed with learning about your customer’s lives and how your brand (and not just your products) might help make those lives easier, cleaner, longer, or just simply more fun.

Trick 4: High five

Humans love it when dogs do something that resembles something that humans do. Like high-fiving, wearing spectacles, or pretending to sit at the table to eat dinner. As a brand, the trick is to try and behave a little more human, to show the people behind the machine.

The marketers who worry about letting individuals and their quirky little personalities represent their brand have a problem. And the problem is that they’ve confused brand personality (cultivated through marketing) with brand culture (experienced through people, places, and products).

If you’ve been working on building a healthy brand culture, relax. Those individuals representing your brand are probably doing a great job. If they’ve been doing it on the shop floor or on sales calls, chances are they’ll do just as well on Twitter. One of the wonderfully counterintuitive things about digital is that it makes this ‘human behaviour’ even easier to display.

A great example is the ‘radio shift’ approach to brand Twitter accounts, where individual staff take turns at ‘manning’ the channel, announcing their shifts much the same way DJs handle shifts on commercial radio.

Trick 5: Fetch

We like it when dogs respond to our commands, but we absolutely love it when they anticipate our next request. We jangle the keys and they bound out to the car. We arrive home and they fetch our slipper. We’ve had a tough day and they rub up against our leg. Letting us know that, no matter anyone else thinks, they still love us. Be that kind of dog. Learn what your customer wants and then go do that.

Being useful, anticipating your customer’s needs, and delivering ahead of the request. It’s a very practical application of all that ‘big data’ that we’re all so enamoured with all of a sudden.

Like most digital strategies, it’s a classic direct marketing approach, given the nitrous boost of digital technology. Predictive modelling, behavioural analysis, decision trees: fancy words for understanding what your customers are doing now and what they will probably do next.

Dutch airline KLM take a very experimental approach to their digital branding (unfortunately they have a regressive approach to excess luggage charges to surfboards, but that’s another story), constantly hunting for new ways to appear attuned to their customers’ needs. A couple of years ago, they used social media to try and glean the purpose of each passengers’ travel on a particular flight (conference, sporting event, family reunion, tax evasion, that sort of thing) and then handed each of them a ‘surprise gift’ related to their travels. Many were delighted, a few were a bit spooked (probably the tax evaders) but it was a powerful demonstration of a brand being more interested in their customers than themselves. 

Trick 6: Make friends with a cat

It goes against all our preconceived notions (read: stereotypes) of what it means to be a dog, but it shows that collaboration is often easier (and more convincing) than change.

The lower cost of entry for digital production means many brands are tempted to take on new roles for themselves. Consequently, we see brands trying to be funny when they aren’t, trying to be sincere when they can’t, and trying to be useful when they simply can’t see a profit in it. And the audience is simply not having a bar of it. Rather than trying to be something you’re not, in the brand sense, align yourself with (or hire) someone who is.

The makers of Tic Tacs realised they had little hope of appearing fresh and relevant to a younger, plugged-in demographic. Presumably their agency came to the same conclusion and outsourced their latest campaign to “The King of Vines” — a young film maker Zack King who makes 7-second Vines using old-school in-camera ‘quick-cut’ edit tricks.

King’s production method is itself a lesson in new dogs (digital) learning old tricks (cinema) but the bigger lesson for brands is about control. If you’re struggling for relevance, try handing the reigns over to someone who understands both you and your audience, stand back, and let them do their stuff. In the digital world, that someone may not necessarily be a traditional ad agency.

Trick 7: Try not to lick yourself (at least in public)

It probably feels good and it might even constitute good hygiene (if you are a dog) but it’s selfish and, frankly, unattractive. Typical branding equivalents include the self-congratulatory ad (We’ve just won an award!), the high-publicity, low-impact CSR stunt (We’re all wearing onesies at work today! For charity!) or the tenuously-related celebrity endorsement (Check out this famous person! And, umm, also, our product!).

It’s all just variations on the well-worn theme of interruption advertising (stop what you’re doing and look at me) and it reeks of desperation. Actually, it reeks of irrelevance, which is far worse in the attention economy. The basic rule of thumb is that if it the people most interested in seeing your cool new trick are the people who work for the company doing the trick, maybe don’t do the trick.

How are you going with teaching your old brand new tricks? Any other tricks you would add?


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