02—Marketing and business

Hang Five
Back in August 2013, following an $859 million loss posted for the previous financial year, the 40 year old Australian surf icon Billabong declared it’s brand “worthless”. Two other global big hitters, Quiksilver and Rip Curl have also been in hot water. Aside from the complexities associated with big business, what brand and image issues could have contributed to their woes?

Authenticity perhaps? Billabong opened around 600 retail outlets between 2005 and 2011, and concentrated a large amount of effort on getting their label into large department chains in order to open themselves up to the mainstream market. But as much as the ASP would like it to be, surfing isn’t a mainstream sport. Surely that’s actually what makes it exotic and appealing to people that might live thousands of miles from the ocean, or only visit the beach to sunbathe and drink piña coladas.

When you find Billabong shirts and Quiksilver boardshorts on the sale rails in Macy’s, something feels wrong. When you find dozens of shirt designs all fighting to mimic every (by now passé) trend running, something feels wrong. When you walk into a Billabong retail store in the mall and it smells like windex and the only surfboards are the ones hanging decoratively from the ceiling, something feels wrong.

In an authentic sport like surfing, it’s the authenticity that is key. The focus should always be the core user—the surfer—and let the romance and the realness of the sport do the rest, that’s what’s sexy to the average joe or joanne. Give them a beach not a golf course, give them a surf shop not a fashion boutique.

The troubles the big three have found themselves in makes me think of the dramatic shift skateboarding took in the late 80s and early 90s, when skaters left the vert ramps and the big contests and took to the streets. When the pros left from under the wing of corporations like Vision Street Wear and Powell Peralta, and defiantly started their own small companies. Not only had the style of skateboarding changed—the marketing, the design, the stage and the ethos had been completely flipped on it’s head. Skateboarding was getting back to being about skateboarding and skateboarders, and not simply about business.

In many ways this was simply a reset. Skateboarding had made a handful of skaters rock stars, put them on TV and paraded them around demos like pageant queens. But that wasn’t what skateboarding is really about. So, people like Steve Rocco and Mike Ternasky gave skaters what they wanted—skateboards and skate gear made by skateboarders, for skateboarders, and team riders that skated the same terrain they did—the streets. They brought back the skater attitude and they stuck a middle finger up at the big boys. This change crushed those large companies and changed the history and direction of the sport forever. Ironically, helping turn it into the multi-billion dollar sport it is today.

So, perhaps surf brands can look to learn something from skateboarding in the same way the sport itself has. It seems they’re trying, while Billabong declared their brand “worthless”, it’s obviously not and there’s no doubt some accounting decisions behind that move. Billabong is still an icon in the sport, the logo appears loud and proud on the boards of many top pros like Taj and Parko, and the company runs some of the largest contests on the tour, including the Pipe Masters. They have a pretty tight social media strategy running, and their clothing lines are looking much less mall and a lot more cool.

You can also now design your own Quiksilver boardshorts and Rip Curl has a ‘craft’ range that seems to want to grab a part of that authentic retro action you’d expect to see from a brand like Mollusk. But that already feels a little tired, that whole ‘handmade’ trend has been around for several years now, and while it no doubt still has some legs, I’d hope they’re busy looking for the next thing, which should always be about surfing. Whether they’re wanting to make clothes the Dave Rastovich’s of the world would wear, or making a wetsuit that will last a couple of seasons in Scotland, it should always be about surfing, never about the mall.

There’s a lot of fuss right now about the Kony 2012 campaign ran by non-profit organisation Invisible Children. In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard about it, it’s a viral campaign based around a 30 minute video that serves as a rabble-rouser in order to get people to ‘act’. The activism in this case revolves around buying bracelets, t-shirts and a kit full of posters which you are expected to paste up in your area on a specific night, all in order to ‘raise awareness’ about Joseph Kony — leader of the Ugandan guerrilla group known as the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). Formed in 1987, the LRA with Kony as it’s leader is accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual enslavement of women and children and forcing an estimated 60,000 children to participate in hostilities.

There’s currently dozens of news articles covering something of a backlash, many alleging dubious use of funding, questioning the timing of the campaign (Kony probably hasn’t even been in Uganda since 2006), scepticism regarding its efficacy, the motives of the films producers and the arrogance to assume it takes young white Americans to ‘save’ Africa. You can find all that on all the regular news outlets, what I want to talk about is the campaign strategy and implementation.

The video is slick, using all the emotional touch points we’re used to seeing employed by large consumer brands. It begins with a dramatic overview of planet Earth, grandparents talk to their grandkids on Skype and share videos on YouTube. We’re shown images of the Arab Spring and how Twitter helped it’s cause. A woman gives birth and we’re reminded how important our children are with a series of ‘cute’ family videos. We then hear the harrowing story of a boy whose brother was taken and killed. There are tears and the screen fades to black. The narrator promises the child he “is going to stop them”, he then tells us “exactly how we are going to do it”.

Except he doesn’t really, we’re just fed the usual ‘raising awareness’ rhetoric. By raising awareness we are told that the US government will be forced to step in and do something about this problem. All we have to do is buy some bracelets, t-shirts and a kit full of posters to put up, spread the word on social networks and we will have, overnight, raised awareness which will ensure US military involvement in Africa. We’re not expected to question whether encouraging military collusion with a notoriously corrupt African state is something we should be doing, nor are we told that Kony has been very much off the radar and hasn’t even been seen in Uganda since 2006.

So how does the campaign work, and how does it fail? It has certainly achieved an incredible amount of publicity with support from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, P. Diddy and Rihanna, and teenagers and young people are spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. The Kony 2012 website has put sales of the kit on hold due to high demand, I assume this means they have sold out. Ease seems to be the key here, we can all now be feel-good pseudo social activists and all we have to do is buy something from a website and send a tweet or two to help continue ‘raising awareness’.

But what issues does the campaign actually raise awareness of? The only messaging on the posters is “KONY 2012″ and the strap line “Stop at nothing”, or on an alternative poster we’re shown the merging logos of the Republican and Democrat parties with the line “One thing we can all agree on”. That’s it, that’s your lot. Utterly meaningless. We are told that the aim is simply to make Kony famous. This guy has been running around with his militia killing people for 25 years, ‘fame’ may help Lady Gaga’s cause, I’m not convinced it’s the best way to bring justice to African warlords.

So, on the day these posters will suddenly appear on our streets, if we’re not already aware who Kony is, we’re expected to what? To google his name and buy some more bracelets? Aside from the half hour video that provides no real information on the situation in Uganda today, there is zero further information about Kony, Uganda, or anything else for that matter, just a donate button and purchasing options, “yummmmmm.. things”. Awareness is not really raised at all, we’re just given a name. If anything, Joseph Kony will simply become—overnight—a nationwide graffiti king, all thanks to the American youth. The posters even have a rather edgily, if not somewhat dated, stencil style illustration of Kony, putting him alongside the usual icons of evil and terror, Bin Laden and Hitler. Ironically, Nike used the exact same style imagery several years ago to make heroes of Brazilian football players.

Vimeo stats indicate that at this point, 14.9 million people have viewed the video, though it’s unclear how many watched all 30 minutes of it. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate success, there’s clearly a backlash and I believe it’s almost entirely down to the superficiality of the campaign messaging—in that—there is no messaging. There is no real education. The campaign almost solely targets a ‘hip’ American youth that may be keen to try their hand at being Shepard Fairey for an evening, street art once again used as a convenient way to grab the attention of a seemingly predictable youth. But is that really true? Isn’t it incredibly patronising to assume that young people are just willing to get on board with your cause simply because you tell them they should and that you can sell them some ‘gritty’ posters? To add to the ridiculousness the organisers even chose a date (4.20) that celebrates cannabis culture. I guess the expectation is that these kids are going to spend the afternoon getting blunted and then run through the streets pasting up posters. Well who knows, maybe it will happen… if they’re not too stoned. Maybe they should have included some Kony 2012 chocolate bars in the kit.

The strategy is one of ‘trickle-up’, it functions not to provide real awareness but solely to get money out of pockets and then that money can hopefully be used to somehow bring some change, we’re not really told exactly how, but it likely involves lining the pockets of Washington lobbyists so they can get the go ahead to send more US soldiers into Africa. We’re expected to believe that this kind of hollow ‘awareness’ and vapid activism on one evening of one year is really going to bring about worthy change in what is in fact a very complicated political landscape. I don’t buy it.

Awareness campaigns need to be treated with tact, and audiences need treating with respect. Treating an entire demographic as a bunch of mindless hipsters who will get on board with your cause not through want of genuine awareness and knowledge but rather through the belief that making something look ‘cool’ is enough, is a wasted opportunity. This campaign is arrogant, superficial and based on short term fad interest and vanity. Though we can assume it has raised a lot of money, if not awareness. Let’s just hope they spend it where it can make a difference rather than the $1.1 million spent on personal travel and $400k on nice new offices in San Diego. I guess you can’t really judge the ‘success’ of a campaign without complete transparency as to the objective.

Branding has come a long way since the heady heyday of the logo in the 1980’s. Back then, the logo was king. We loved logos. We wanted logos on our t-shirts and the bigger the better, stickers were fashionable and we’d happily stick our favourite brands on anything we could. Status was everything and the logo was intrinsically linked. But then, in the 1990’s, the climate changed.

The bubble had burst and priorities changed as well as the fashions. The 90’s saw a period of depression and the yuppie ideologies of the 80’s were frowned upon and looked back on with ridicule. Environmental and social issues were becoming increasingly important and the groundswell of anti-corporate feeling had taken root. Brands needed to change their tact as well as their image. BP rebranded in 2000, portraying themselves as pro-green, (perhaps laughably so considering the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico). In 2005, Unilever took on a softer, environmentally sympathetic and humanist identity, despite obviously being a corporate monolith. More recently, in 2008, shopping giant Walmart did away with their somewhat military star and dominating bold caps in favour of a gentler, more optimistic and far less overpowering sun device with delicate typography. Politicians too, changed their tact and image completely, often to a degree that seems cynical if not a plain fallacy.

Thankfully, through time and necessity, large corporations have had to change. We, the people, now demand social and environmental responsibility. The more progressive corporations themselves have realised that sustainability is a key concern and that it is in their best interests to act responsibly. The internet has changed everything, with social networking now very much mainstream, the people are in touch with their brands. We have a voice, and businesses are naîve not to take advantage. Brands have become more fluid, the need for adaptability is paramount and the need to express the values and personality of a brand, as coherently and consistently as possible and through as many mediums as possible, is essential. Tone of voice and messaging are more important than ever.

Jason Little, Creative Director at Landor Paris, recently wrote that ‘The logo isn’t dead, it’s just irrelevant’ (article linked below), but it this really true? I don’t believe so. While the logo may not be as prime of an influence as it once was, we’d be foolish to neglect it and deem it ‘irrelevant’. It is still often the most visible element of a brands visual communication. Landor made its name in corporate identity, are we to believe they are turning down identity work now in favour of managing Twitter accounts? The fact that brands are now more in touch with their consumers than ever is a good thing of course, but it’s not the be all and end all. Take Apple as an example; Renowned as the most successful, valuable brand on the planet, and as a company that is the very epitome of design thinking, Apple do not utilise any consumer focus grouping or user testing whatsoever. They believe that that is their job and their responsibility, their speciality and that they are in the best position to do it. Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. A quote Steve Jobs no doubt knows well. Are Apple about to disband their iconic logo? I don’t think so. They use it as proudly as ever and its form remains virtually untouched since its inception in 1976.

I believe that the logo is certainly not irrelevant, it simply has to sit well amongst a whole new toolset. A successful rebrand is no longer simply a new logo, colour palette and rigid set of guidelines. A brand needs a strategy, and this strategy needs to be implemented to the core of the company’s operating code, both internally and externally. The way it thinks, the way it works and the way it communicates itself need to come from one place. That is the essence of branding. To consider what was at one time the core visible element of an organisation as now being ‘irrelevant’ is far too reactionary and polarised. What we need to be doing is thinking holistically—our aim should be to bring convergence and mastery of the toolset, we should not be thinking divergently and that it is somehow wise to leave core elements such as the logo, in the dust. If anything, the logo will have a resurgence. As we become comfortable with our new tools and they become second nature, our energies can be refocused. We can return cyclically to our existing skills with renewed enthusiasm and a new perspective. Long bored of the whimsical trends and techniques of recent years, the transparencies, the overlay effects and the hideous web 2.0 trend, designers are returning to the core ideas behind the identity. The logo will be born again, and it will have a lot of toys to play with.

You can read Jason Little’s article, which certainly has many valid points here. Just not the one about the logo being irrelevant.

There’s a lot of talk about process and research and strategy in design these days, but does the need to be business-like impede upon creativity? Could we be emulating traditional business practices and introducing levels of specialization and pseudo-science at the cost of allowing for talent and sparks of originality?

The design industry has increasingly—by necessity—needed to act and use methods more akin to the business world. This has helped us gain acceptance and credibility. But we’re at risk of selling ourselves short on what should be the core of what we do; our talent, our eye, our good taste and our natural creativity. Business requires and strives for the tangible and the measurable, but design and certainly the process of design is often intangible and immeasurable. Business people can be risk-averse and uncomfortable at treading into waters that may feel ‘unknown’ to them and buying design can often feel like those unknown waters. It can also be fascinating  as we have something they need and we work in different ways, seeing their projects come to life can and should be an inspiring and empowering journey for our clients. We should take advantage of that rather than talking back at them in exactly their language, it’s as if we have become somewhat insecure about our lack of spreadsheets or the fact we use pencils as well as computers.

Let’s be honest, if you’ve worked as a creative you have no doubt figured out a perhaps idiosyncratic method of working, sure it can fit within the usual process diagram we’re all too used to seeing, but all the same, inside of that there are things you do that you’ve worked out for yourself. Perhaps you need to read and ingest a brief before taking a long walk to let ideas gestate, perhaps you write down an incessant stream of words into a layout pad and pour over what came out afterwards. Perhaps your ideas come from the library of Russian literature you’ve read or the collection of films you’ve watched. It could be anything, but what it is often not, is a tangible, measurable, guaranteed ‘process’.

We can use research and analysis to assist our creativity, it helps keep us from veering too far ‘out there’ and it informs us of the needs of the client and ultimately the end user. We should of course think strategically about what it is we are producing and the best way to gain the results we want, but let’s not get too caught up in the venn diagrams and brand matrixes. These are mere tools which can help us work and help us communicate what we’ve been doing and why during presentations, but the real value, the real thing clients should be investing in us for is our aforementioned talent, eye, taste, intuition and experience.

Don’t become enslaved by the research, we need not emulate the business world until we become the very suits that need our creativity and lateral thinking. The best ideas come from thinking ‘out there’ and sparks of creative genius. We can reign them in later if need be, but one thing is certain: If we begin to think, talk and act like the business man, we become the business man and we will have nothing to offer that they can’t think of themselves.

Stay creative!

Let me state the dumbfoundingly obvious: most non-profit organizations operate on very tight budgets. So, understandably they deem the most direct need of their end users to be the best area to focus their efforts, and money. Quite rightly so, but the beneficial can also be a little more abstract, for instance; a homeless charity could consider providing shelter for the night, or a soup stand as being paramount, which seems fair enough—but what if the homeless aren’t aware of them or where they are? In that scenario investing in a ground level awareness campaign would make sense.

Sometimes a bit of lateral thinking and a third party perspective can help to find a solution to a problem that may not have even been spotted. A couple of years back I worked on a project for a central London borough who wanted to build a website where bored young people could find things to do in their area. Sounds easy enough, but how do you get a notoriously cynical set of urban kids involved and interested? How do you stay cool to those that know it all? You get them involved on their level. Our solution was to stage an X-Factor style talent contest, the finalists of which were then formed into two youth teams. These teams went on to brainstorm and design their own ideas for the website which went to the public vote — all publicized by themselves in their own networks at school and on social sites — the result? Young people in the area knew all about the site before it was even launched, we ended up with a youth team that would gain further experience as ongoing editors, designers and contributors, and three years on the site is still going strong.

Non-profits should recognize that in the same way businesses need to provide the most relevant products, services and experiences for their customers, they need to do the same, though perhaps for different reasons. The third sector is quite different than the private sector, non-profits have different goals, requirements and audiences and therefore pose quite unique challenges. We can, however, draw comparisons between the two and findings from working with consumer focused companies can be transferable and offer advantages to the non-profit.

For example, while a company may have a product to sell, non-profits are essentially ‘selling’ their service, so similar techniques can be used to generate awareness, inspire change and encourage participation and donations. Let’s focus on the latter for a second; donations are hugely important to most non-profits, it is after all, their lifeblood. Donors and trustees are also consumers, they understand and speak the language of today’s brands, marketing and advertising. When a message is communicated well, consumers respond positively. It’s absolutely vital to aspire to the same level of visual and strategic thinking when producing communications for charities and non-profits. Users will quickly bounce away from a website that doesn’t resonate or deliver information quickly, easily and in the correct tone of voice. Flyers or posters will go unread if their execution is sloppy or off target, your organization as a whole may not be getting its message across because of poor branding — one result of all this is lack of interest and therefore missed opportunities to raise funds. Another is that those in need may miss the point or not feel connected with your ‘brand’. Thoughtful, intelligent design and strategy is proven to give return on investment, that’s why businesses invest so much in it. There’s the important thing, design is very much an investment that will repay its cost over and over, it is not a superfluous luxury.

Unique considerations

Different strokes for different folks:
You may have several different key audiences, ie; end users, the general public (donors), sector professionals/partners and trustees — each should be targeted individually and you may decide to create defined sections on your website with relevant information for each. The same goes for any collateral you produce.

Sell a cause rather than a product:
A brand is as much an emotional experience as it is anything else, by engaging people on an emotional level you will make stronger bonds with all audience types. Being a part of creating positive social change is of ever increasing importance in people’s minds, use it to your advantage.

Social causes, social space:
Social media services like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr are excellent free resources that can help you promote fundraising initiatives, generate awareness and build loyalty within your audience. They are also a great way to find out what people think and they will often spread your message for you. If people will rally on Facebook to get a single to the top of the Christmas charts, you can guarantee they’ll be up for a good cause.