Don’t just think creative, be creative

There’s a growing consensus in the business world that creativity is the key to future success. Creativity means innovation in products and services, more imaginative business propositions driven by better understanding of the market, re-thought processes, enhanced customer experiences, more engaging marketing and more effective communications. It means transformation of the business model and radical, brave moves forward. It means following in the footsteps of companies like Apple and Google – both of which have risen to market leadership by placing creativity at heart of everything they do.

Put like this it’s easy to see why so many business leaders are sharing the belief in creativity as the key driver of business success. Our own survey of 300 senior executives in UK SMEs has shown overwhelming support for the idea, as has a subsequent study of 1,500 CEOs, in 60 countries, across 33 industry sectors, by IBM. 

Yet there’s a problem. Whilst a majority are quick to express their belief in creativity, far fewer are prepared to actually do anything about it. Our same survey shows 77% of respondents don’t take creativity into account when writing business strategy, and 89% never discuss it at Board meetings. In IBM’s study, more than half the CEOs said they were ill equipped to manage it. 

It seems like the biggest business paradox of our time: the thing acknowledged as the most important driver of business success is the thing that business seems to systematically ignore.

Why is that? Well, the most telling statistic from our survey is the 56% of respondents who say that they’d like to be more creative but don’t know how. Not only is creativity something that few business leaders have been trained to participate in but it’s something that a great many of them have been taught to actively avoid. What’s needed, if business is to take advantage of the route to future success, is a comprehensive re-education in thought processes and decision-making; a new mind-set for the creative age. 

This opens up a great opportunity for fast-moving SMEs to respond. So, if you want to seize the opportunity to drive a successful future, here are three things that you should start doing now:

Lead from the top

The mistake many business leaders make is to silo creativity as purely a marketing function in which they do not require to get personally involved. Whilst it’s true that creativity is important in marketing, it is certainly not the only, or most valuable, area in which it may be employed. Organisations that think creatively across their business need their leaders to support and demonstrate it personally at all times. Make it part of your conversations with your leadership team, customers, shareholders and media. You’ll find that alignment comes quickly and the objections of dissenters soon subside.

Make it part of the culture

If you want more people in your organisation to be creative then you have to encourage and support them to do so. Consider financial incentives or internal awards for creative ideas that get adopted. Write it into people’s job descriptions and assess it in appraisals. 3M instructed their employees to spend 15% of their time pursuing innovation projects of their own making – leading to, amongst other things, the Post-It™ note – and Google followed suit, raising the time stake to 20%. The office environment, the social calendar, the way you conduct meetings, can all have a huge impact on the extent to which your organisation is creative, or not.

Seek external support

With the right kind of leadership and encouragement any organisation can become more creative. But there will always be limits to how much you can achieve on your own. Just as traditional management consultancy can add value to a business through transference of best practice and deep specialisation, so can creative consultancy. No, it’s not all about sitting on bean-bags and drawing pictures of clouds. It’s about gaining deep understanding of your business problems, re-framing them in inspiring ways. It’s about re-imagining what’s possible without the baggage of unnecessary protocols or politics. It’s about using non-linear thought-processes to make powerful connections between market needs and your business’s potential in ways that conventional thinking would fail to find.

This is the approach that we have adopted in our business, and for our clients, which is why we are the most creatively awarded company in our sector and have enjoyed double-digit percentage growth in each of the last five years. 

First published in Management Today, 11 March 2011. 

Why creativity is essential to business success

The economic malaise afflicting business in Britain, and many other parts of the developed world, has catalysed a change in the way that business leaders need to think. Yet it’s one for which few of them are well prepared.

The corporate norm of the preceding two decades was to seek competitive advantage through efficiency. Lower costs, faster speeds; getting things to work a little bit better than they did before. The economy was driven by the knowledge of how to achieve this, gleaned from around the world, transferred across sectors, sold by management consultants whose value came from what they knew that you didn’t. But the knowledge economy is no longer the driving force it was. The job of sharing the knowledge has been done so well that everyone who wants it, has it. Knowledge is a commodity. Hence the advantage that its possession provides is no longer distinctive. It’s important to have, because everyone else has it, but ergo, it doesn’t set you apart. 

In a buoyant, growing economy where demand runs ahead of supply, it may pay to hunt as an indistinct member of the pack. But not during, or in the wake of, a recession. In this environment you have to offer something different. The businesses that prosper in these circumstances are those that will add value to their customers – not by cutting the cost, but by enriching the product, service or experience that they provide. The success stories of this decade won’t come from organisations that employ me-too, best-practice methodologies but from those that identify new, previously unforeseen needs; that innovate relentlessly to create solutions that are unique; that forge emotionally compelling connections with their market, and with society, engaging them in dialogue that benefits everyone involved. This is what businesses like Apple and Google do. They are fundamentally different to most other organisations in that they are creatively driven, not process driven. Unfortunately, such businesses are few and far between. 

Of course the world is full of companies who say they recognise the importance of creativity and would like to see more of it in their work. But, as much as they like to talk a good game, the reality is that they are not prepared to do what it takes to make it happen. For most, creativity is a topic that is never discussed at senior management levels and rarely does anyone own it on the Board. With its inherent unconventional nature, subjectivity, and lack of immediate measurability, it’s the sort of thing most business leaders have been taught to avoid. Because it’s something that most senior executives are not personally skilled to do they assume it’s unimportant. At best, they regard it with extreme scepticism. At worst, it just gets ignored. Instead they stick to the tried and tested methods in which everyone stays busy keeping everything the same. 

But now this has to change. Organisations like Apple and Google are no longer just quirky exceptions, they are changing the commercial landscape. They are setting new standards for shareholder value, aggressively growing market share and attracting their industry’s best talent to boot. To keep up in this environment other companies need to start thinking the way they do too. They need to embrace creativity as a fundamental business discipline and install it as the key driver of their future success. They need to shift mindset from a knowledge-driven economy to an ideas-driven economy where new thinking, innovation and differentiation are the priorities; where you can’t get away with just more of the same. With this change in mindset needs to come a change in how they plan and spend. My challenge to large-scale business is this: take just 10% of the fees you pay management consultancies, or of your traditional advertising media spend (marketing departments are often the least creative part of an organisation) and reinvest it in creative consultancy for your brand. Get the Board engaged in the process of innovation, of reconsidering who you are and who it is you want to be. Train your people in how to think creatively and foster their ideas to fruition. Search for ideas that will be transformational for your business, and for the market. Orientate your business around the creation of new demand, not around clinging on to old. 

The future of business will be defined by people who think differently. Not by those who think the same.

First published in The Independent, 27 July 2010. 

Why business needs a social purpose

It is not uncommon these days to encounter a certain degree of hostility towards business and, more specifically, big businesses. Whether it’s the Occupy movement railing against the excesses of capitalism, governments threatening legislation to curb executive pay, or just the average person-in-the-street feeling let down by a crisis totally out of their control: business, it might seem, is inherently bad.

But whilst it is undisputedly true that some organisations have made big mistakes, the idea that mass-scale, collective human enterprise – for that’s what business is – is wrong, just doesn’t stack up. 

Clearly, business is good. More than that, it is essential to the wellbeing and progress of society. Without the corporations that make up the business world we would be unable to efficiently harness the diversity of skills and talent that are required to create and manage the things we want and need. The products, services, utilities and infrastructures that we rely on every day cannot be created by individuals, or even governments, working alone. They need big businesses to develop and run them. And, as I have written in these pages before, it is within the walls of such big businesses that the creativity and innovation that drives social progress gets conceived and commercialised to the benefit of all. Business is not, as some would have us see it, a malevolent and manipulative force run by an alien, emotionless race; it is a fundamental feature of human society in which everyone has the opportunity to contribute to and share. The fact is, that business is society; without one the other cannot exist.

Nowhere is this better summarised than in Leonard Read’s landmark essay of 1954, I Pencil, in which it is comprehensively (and poetically) demonstrated that the existence of even something so simple and useful as a pencil is predicated upon a global business economy of almost incredible scale. 

I challenge even the most ardent of anti-capitalists to read it and then argue that big business isn’t fundamental to human needs.

Yet, there remains a problem because for all the theoretical principles of why big business is a good idea, too much discomfort with the concept remains. The anti-business sentiment in today’s society is more than just a naïve reaction to hard times. It is a frustration with business that is fundamental to its relationship with society and is in need of urgent address. 

The problem, I believe, is this: business has forgotten why it exists. Its leaders have forgotten. Its employees have forgotten. Its customers have forgotten. Although it remains undeniably true that the general concept of business has a core purpose that is linked to societal needs, most companies these days fail to acknowledge that and have become distracted by more selfish and tangential aims. They have become focused o
n a by-product of the fulfilment of their true purpose – making money – and have misinterpreted this into a core purpose itself. And the many businesses that have been labouring under this illusion are almost certainly on a dangerously wrong and unsustainable track. 

Look a long way back in corporate history and there are examples galore of an inextricable link between business and social purpose – witness the big businesses that drove the Industrial Revolution; the great Victorian philanthropists; Cadbury’s establishment of Bourneville Village and Lever’s of Port Sunlight. This is more than just nostalgia: a century or so
ago a successful business was defined by considerably more than just its wealth, not because it was obliged to but because
it believed that ought to be the case. But the evolution of industry towards more financial and shareholder driven markets somehow led to a bifurcation of the lines between business and social purpose. Gradually, businesses came to manage and measure their success solely by the short-term changes in their financial performance and lost their perspective on the wider reasons for their existence. 

This is, of course, not just a recent phenomenon and has been in evidence for decades now. Indeed for some considerable ti
me the self-centred definition of ‘profit as purpose’ actually seemed to be paying off. Whilst the world’s financial markets continued to boom, many businesses that were focused on this goal felt justified in claiming that their contribution to society was, as a consequence, significant and positive. They facilitated a flow of capital, created jobs, paid some tax, and produced products and services for which there was an apparent demand, and maybe even invested a small amount in support of charitable activities. “If we make good money, then we can do good work” the argument went, for a time. I have sympathy for this point of view – of course a business must be profitable and financially sustainable if it is to achieve any kind of worthwhile goals, and the point here is certainly not that making money is a bad thing – as did most of society, which is why it was allowed to happen. But this is to confuse a condition for fulfilling a core purpose, with a core purpose itself. An organisation’s core purpose most certainly is not “making money” (with the possible exception of the Bank of England or the US Department of the Treasury) nor, indeed, “creating value for shareholders”, and no matter how repeatedly it is said it cannot be made true. Core purpose is about the value that a business contributes to society, and it therefore follows that society must appreciate that as being of value to them. “Making money” simply doesn’t reach the grade for that; it’s not enough by itself. Worse still, its selfish, narrow-mindedness means that these businesses ultimately fail to focus on anything other than their own wellbeing, whether consciously or subconsciously, and that is not only to society’s detriment but, eventually, their own.

Now, it may be too much to argue that this misdirected focus is the root cause of the current financial crisis (although in the case of certain financial services businesses it is clearly strongly linked) but it is certainly true to say that in recent times big business hasn’t done anywhere near as much to advance the welfare of society to the extent that it could. And in the cold light of today’s economy more and more people are waking up to that realisation and are starting to demand some change.

The problems that are arising for businesses in this new context are more than just ideological and are not confined to minority activists. They are tangible commercial issues that are heading rapidly towards the mainstream. As public demand for more purposeful and accountable business rises it is, inevitably, the case that those organisations that fall short of expectations will lose out in competitive market places to those that stand for something of value. Being a good business is a reason to choose, especially where other differentiating qualities are hard to find. And the inverse of that – the rejection of bad business – is perhaps an even more potent force.

But there’s an even bigger issue at play here for businesses, especially big businesses, which fail to be clear about their purpose in appropriate terms. That is that they will soon cease to be capable of effectively pursuing any kind of goal, even the wrong one, because they will no longer have the essential resources, i.e. the best employees, that are necessary to success. Not only will prospective employees reject, on points of principle, the opportunity to work in such organisations but even those who do find themselves at work there will find themselves lacking the intrinsic motivation that is a key ingredient to an individual’s productivity and creativity. Without an engaged and motivated workforce, at all levels in the hierarchy, it is doubtful that any organisation can prosper to sustained effect. 

Whilst financial rewards and booming economies once masked and compensated for these deeper considerations, today’s workforce is not so easily led.

It doesn’t end there. A wide range of influential parties – for example, government, regulators, the media, pressure groups, analysts – are now looking for evidence of genuine social responsibility at the heart of a business and are ready to make game-changing decisions if they don’t find what they think they should. All in all, being clear about core purpose in business today could not be more important. Whilst it may have been an ignorable or peripheral topic for business leaders in the past it must be prioritised to the top of the to-do list today. Failure to address this will result in failure of the business in time. This is not wishful idealism, it is the biggest strategic business issue of our time. 

Because the issue is so fundamental, the way in which it is addressed needs to be equally so. Defining core purpose in an organisation is not simply a case of writing glib mission statements or lists of generic corporate values, and it goes further than just lending support to good causes. It doesn’t have to read like a worthy manifesto but it does need to have an idea of value to society at its heart. It needs to get granular and be directly related to what the organisation does, how it operates and behaves, and must be brought alive through tangible actions on a continual basis. It needs to shape the business proposition, product and service strategy, internal engagement, external relationships and communications. It requires a shift in the psyche of the organisation, its leaders and its people, from, “we’re a business that’s about making money that consequently does some good”, to, “we’re a business that does good and consequently makes money.” There’s a big, big difference between the two.

It is important to note that this cannot just be a marketing exercise. It is patently not about putting gloss on evil empires, it is about recalibrating organisations so that society appreciates their contribution as being something about which they care. It applies to every sector of industry, not just those whose social purpose is more readily discerned (indeed some of the less obvious, like investment banks, have some significant and meaningful stories that deserve to be properly told). There are many businesses in the world – even some of the most publicly vilified – that would no doubt argue that they already have this situation under control. A few do. But to most, I say they need to question whether the societal value they believe they are adding is really as evident and impactful as it could be. In most of these cases I am sure that there is much more, at a radical level, that could and should be achieved.

In many ways this is not a straightforward path to follow. Corporate structures, shareholder expectations, and the nature of corporate law, make a focus on anything other than short-term money-making a hard way to go. Many businesses, especially big business, have significant numbers of people who choose not to, or can’t see the bigger picture and resist all efforts to engage them in anything beyond the specific, purely rational considerations of the job that they are employed to do. And big business is still largely led by a generation of people for whom a narrow focused, selfish approach is the only thing they have been taught, hence the only thing they know. 

But all of this will change. I genuinely believe that we are at a turning point in corporate history, where the bifurcated lines of business and social purpose will now start to re-converge. Society demands it, and there is no greater force in business than that. My call to business now is to acknowledge and take control of the issue; identify and make manifest your core purpose in thoroughly practical and socially meaningful terms. Do it because it makes you more competitive and compelling to your audiences. But, above all, do it because you care.

First published on The Huffington Post Blog, 27 January 2012. 

Why creativity is bananas

I met recently with Brian Carney, of The Wall Street Journal in Europe. Brian has co-authored a really excellent book, Freedom Inc., on how organisations can drive greater success through deeper engagement and liberation of their employees. Its philosophy gels nicely with my own views on the need and opportunity for businesses to think and act more creatively.

I think we both share the view that the fundamental problem organisations face is not a lack of desire to do things differently but the deeply ingrained culture of business practice that makes them not only resistant to change, but also resistant to common sense. 

Exploring this topic in his book, Brian describes the situation perfectly, as follows:

“A famous experiment involving five macaques and a banana – which admittedly may or may not have happened – offers a clue to help unravel this mystery.

The macaques are in a cage. A banana hangs from the ceiling, with stairs leading to the tasty treat. But the moment the first macaque starts to climb toward the banana, the researcher sprays him – and all the other macaques – with cold water. The macaques quickly get the message: Reaching for the banana – or even letting anyone else do so – is a bad idea. Once they’ve learned their lesson, the researcher replaces one of the five macaques with a newcomer. Sure enough, the rookie spots the banana and heads for the stairs – whereupon he is tackled by the other four, who remember and fear the cold-water treatment. Frightened, he stops his initiative. 

Once the newcomer has learned his lesson another veteran of the water hose is removed and replaced by another neophyte. The process repeats itself, with the first replacement joining in the beating of the new guy without even knowing why he must be prevented from climbing those stairs. One by one, the original macaques are replaced, but each newcomer learns the rule – don’t go for the banana – even though none of them, by the end of the experiment, have ever experienced the cold shower that the first group got. If the macaques could speak, they’d probably just report that going for the banana is against company policy or that ‘this is how things are done around here’ – call it monkey bureaucracy.”

Substitute monkeys with corporate leaders and bananas with creativity – and researchers with shareholders, banks and business schools – and here’s my outtake: It’s okay to be a monkey in the business world, just don’t ever lose your appetite for bananas.

First published on The Crossed Cow, 6 October 2010. 

50 pennies for your thoughts

The reverse side of the UK’s new 50p piece, to commemorate the coming of the 2012 Olympics to London, features a crudely drawn high-jumper in mid-flight. By the standards to which we are generally accustomed, it’s a terrible piece of art. In normal circumstances it deserves to be vilified by the press, the public, and the more disaffected members of the design community, such as me. Rather like the 2012 logo, it should inspire conversations about wasted money, lost opportunities, and yield some damning indictments of the decision-makers involved.

But in this case, no such conversations need take place. That’s because the drawing has been produced not by a well-remunerated corporation, but by a child. It is the work of nine-year-old Florence Jackson, from Bristol, who was one of 17,000 children who entered a BBC Blue Peter competition to design the new coin. The media, the public, most (not all) designers, when they know that it is designed by a child, will soften their eyes and celebrate rather than criticise its flaws. And, even if they missed the press release, no one’s going to be in any doubt about its youthful provenance because the design is so obviously juvenile. Crude, puerile and naïve her art may be, but in the context of such a competition these are exactly the criteria that the competition judges would have desired. Indeed, I am confident to assume that many more accomplished submissions will have been rejected for being too good; not childlike enough. This competition was never about the quality of the design but what it is that the design represents.

This highlights a crucial aspect of human judgement that applies to design and much more widely beyond. It’s the reason why brand consultancy is not only the most important discipline in the marketing mix but a critical component of modern business strategy. It might even help us to define what “brand” means. Yep, I’m making a big deal of this one, because I think Florence has hit on something important here.

To up the ante a little from 50p, let me ask you a question about another piece of art. If the Madonna of the Pinks that hangs in The National Gallery turns out, as some suspect, not to be by Raphael but a fake, is it worth less than the £22M it cost to buy? Philosophically, the painting could be said to exist in two parallel universes. One, where it marks a brave and progressive watershed in the history of religious portraiture that inspired not just art but generations of social history. Another, where it is simply a derivative work by a talented, yet insignificant forger. Physically, the two universes of the paintings collapse into one – its tangible attributes are the same. Intellectually, they are forever apart.

Old Masters may be an extreme example but the point is this: we judge things not for what they are but for what we think they mean. To truly understand something we need to look beyond its tangible qualities and consider its intangible attributes too. We seek to explain what we see (hear, touch, taste, or smell) by giving it a back-story – a meaning beyond the physical experience it provides. The Madonna of the Pinks is not just a well-executed painting of the Madonna and child but a landmark moment in art history. Florence’s coin is more than a badly drawn picture, it represents the hope, potential, and the carefree joy that only a child would have the courage to see, yet to which all adult human beings aspire. 

Don’t just take my word for it. This aspect of human intellect is a fundamental philosophical concept. In the 4th Century BC, Aristotle defined hypokeimenon, literally meaning the “underlying thing”, as the quality that sits behind a thing’s physicality and persists through any change. In the 13th Century John Duns Scotus described haecceity, literally “thisness”, as the quality of a thing that differentiates it from another with identical form (where its form expressed in generic terms is called quiddity, or “thatness”). Neuroscientists have explored these concepts in their analysis of how the human brain makes decisions, examining the complexity of the relationship between rational and emotional processing. Some, like University College London’s Dr. Chris Frith, even suggest that rational decision-making is an illusion created by our own brain to defend us from the incomprehensible reality of our truly irrational selves. The scientific and philosophical facts are clear: things are not as simple as they seem.

And this helps us explain what a brand is. A brand is the complete set of criteria upon which the human brain decides. (Note that lower order mammals don’t use ‘brands’, just sub-conscious instincts; they don’t ‘decide’.) Brands are a complex interdependency between rational and emotional propositions where each works to shape and explain the other. They are about hypokeimenon (essence), haecceity (differentiation) and quiddity (experience) and touch not just logos and marketing but every aspect of what an organisation thinks and does. It follows then, that managing a brand requires profound and holistic consideration, with the intellect and imagination of a deeply enquiring mind. If we are to believe Dr. Chris Frith, then it’s the most important thing that any business should consider, overriding all the rational considerations that businesses typically prioritise in their plans. 

Of course some philosophers (the empiricists and phenomenalists) disagree with this point of view. For them, a thing is no more than its tangible self: The Madonna of the Pinks is just paint on canvas, worth no more than, say, 50p. They would consider a conversation about brands to be an exercise in vanity and a waste of money and time. Such people should be introduced to Florence. Sometimes it takes the perspective of a nine-year-old to help you open your eyes.

First published on The Crossed Cow, 15 October 2009. 

A brief history of trust

A brief history of trust 1500x500.jpg

The Ufficio di San Giorgio, founded in the Republic of Genoa in 1407, is believed to be the oldest chartered bank in the world. It was instrumental in the growth and power of the Genoese Republic, acting as governor of many of its overseas empires and serving customers as prominent as Christopher Columbus and King Charles V. For four centuries it remained a renowned institution across the whole of Europe, until Napoleon’s conquest of Italy eventually led to its closure in 1805. In the face of such success, one can’t help but suppose that the many generations of people running the bank were sophisticated strategists with a well-developed understanding of their customers’ motivations to do business with them.

Six centuries and three years later it’s not unreasonable to expect financial services professionals to have built upon that learning, evolved and moved on. So consider this piece in last week’s press from the Marketing Director of a contemporary pan-European financial services giant speaking about a review (presumably lengthy and costly) of their brand positioning, in which she says the following:

“One of our key findings was that trust was key to the relationship with our customers. We have been looking at all the areas where we need to be seen as reliable, which is a key driver of trust in our industry. It’s basically about keeping our promises.”

No shit, Sherlock. You don’t say! Even Sybil Fawlty, whose responsibility for customer experience didn’t extend beyond the outskirts of Torquay, might have found that statement of the bleedin’ obvious a bit too, well, bleedin’ obvious to commit to print. 

I mean, come on, this is hardly an original insight into what makes financial services brands tick, is it? Trust, and therein keeping of promises, is the foundational principle of money itself – “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds” it says on the British notes in my wallet; “In God We Trust” on a US dollar – not a 21st Century phenomenon hitherto unseen. For years, centuries and millennia of financial transacting it is a basic and obvious truth. That this company describes it today as a “finding” makes me wonder where they’ve been looking all these years.

My point here is not that the observation is wrong. Sure, trust is important. But it always has been, so unless this is a confession to past untrustworthiness I really don’t see how or who this helps. It’s not a brand strategy, it’s table-stakes for staying in business. It’s not differentiating, every financial services business in the world is pursuing the same goal. It’s not a ‘big idea’ that will spawn innovations in products, services and customer experience, and it’s not a rallying cry for internal staff or customers to get behind – no one gets excited for very long by the Emperor’s new clothes. So, for me, that’s a waste of time, effort and money because if you’re going to review your brand strategy you should make sure it aims to achieve every single one of those things.

Even if you fail to achieve that, at least try to come up with something that a medieval brand manager would not already have known.

First published on The Crossed Cow, 23 February 2010. 

The new morality of brands

The Coca-Cola brand has lived large and well in the public conscience for some time. 
On the whole, it has been regarded with positivity, achieving near perfect resonance with its carefully crafted image as a distributor of happiness, freedom, egalitarianism and carefree times. Its brand (in isolation of its tangible assets) is consistently rated as one of the most valuable in the world. Within the marketing profession it is greatly admired for its inventiveness, confidence and good creative eye.

But, last week, a report by The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges (the body that represents all of the UK’s doctors) cited “irresponsible marketing” by major food and drinks brands as a key contributor to the obesity epidemic. It highlights Coca-Cola’s (and McDonald’s) sponsorship of the Olympics as an example of such irresponsibility and calls for radical legislation to bring this kind of thing to an end. The Academy is not alone. Many other voices are now being heard to challenge big brands – Coca-Cola is just one example – on a fundamental basis: the morality of their product or business model. In some cases the reason for the challenge is obvious – we all understand why tobacco companies are under fire. Others sit somewhere along a continuum: oil and gas, mining, banks and financial services, food and drinks, automobiles, telecommunications, and so on. But the common factor is this: businesses, even some that have been greatly admired, are increasingly being challenged by politicians, thought-leaders and, significantly, the general public, to answer the question, “is your product, and/or business model, and your marketing of it, morally correct?”

The traditional response from most brand owners and marketing experts is to dismiss this as a lazy complaint. Accusations are quickly countered with evidence and claims that the things they stand accused of are untrue: that they already do act responsibly, that they already are more safe/healthy/morally sound, and that there already is sufficient legislation and control in place. Furthermore, they talk about big brands’ role in stimulating the economy, in directly supporting programs of social welfare, and in funding initiatives (such as the Olympics) to the extent that they might not otherwise exist. They point their critics to reports that back this up, such as Corporate Responsibility Magazine’s newly published ranking of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens, 2012. It puts Coca-Cola in 14th spot, along with, for example, Altria Group in 15th, and Dow Chemicals in 34th, based on an analysis of 320 data points over seven categories of consideration for how they add benefit to society. It’s a kind of offset equation: even if some things are unavoidably not ideal, there are other positive things that must be taken into account. The brands argue the big-picture perspective – as I have, in these pages previously – that anyone who believes in a free-market economy and wants to uphold the social values of choice, fair value and life-enhancing progress must, logically, accept the need for big business to pursue its commercial aims and for brands and marketing to operate liberally: without this, the quality of life that we deserve can’t exist. They shudder at the lack of realism and the naivety in the critics’ arguments. “Witness the real world”, the brands
say. “We’re doing good things. We’re not the problem, we’re the solution. You’re way out of touch.” Coca-Cola believe this so much that they have just announced that they intend to formally measure and report on the societal impact that their marketing investments make.

What all of this proves is that to position the debate about brands and marketing as a choice between right and wrong is a false dichotomy. But that doesn’t mean – as many brand owners would have it – that the debate is not valuable to have. On the contrary, it is essential.

Another report was published last month. This one from the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, set up by David Cameron, which examines the UK riots of the summer of 2011. On the surface it appears to be yet another anti-brand statement, identifying “excessive marketing” by consumer brands as a factor behind the unrest. But actually, further in, the report was rather more considered. It points out that it is not blaming big business but calls for new partnerships between business, government and society to resolve issues that relate to the imbalance between what people are driven to desire and what they have the wherewithal to acquire. Furthermore, it suggests that the creative industries that support big businesses, i.e. advertising agencies, brand consultancies and design businesses (like my own), ought to consider applying their talent to supporting communities and social issues in other (non-chargeable) ways. 

This report is absolutely correct. The fairer future that most reasonable people desire is not going to be shaped by legislation and the banning of certain marketing and brands (unless the evidence for this is unambiguously conclusive). But neither will it be shaped by big business swearing blind allegiance to its own codes of past practice. What is required now is a new, more intelligent and creative approach to partnerships between business and society. It is time for critics – including The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges and some of the world’s more argumentative journalists – to indulge in rather less blanket brand-bashing and drop the intellectually unsustainable habit of labelling all marketing as evil. Simultaneously, more business leaders need to avoid automatic denial every time such an issue is raised and open-mindedly embrace a broader dialogue about the true morality of their efforts and the social value they provide. They will need to think more creatively and tangentially about the scope and nature of their business activities and see value in delivering more than just short-term shareholder returns. It is pleasing to see a number of high-profile organisations already starting down this road.

Along the course of such creative partnerships, mutual agreements on what constitutes appropriate moral standards in business will be reached in more constructive and actionable ways. Society does need business to support its wellbeing and progress. And business must recognise that morality needs to become a Board-level issue, and should be placed at the heart of every carefully crafted brand.

First published on The Huffington Post Blog, 24 April 2012. 

Kicking off

Some weeks before the 2010 World Cup kicked off I read that Powerade were the Official Hydration Partner of the World Cup. It was at that point that I knew this was going to be a bad World Cup for England. You see England’s Official Sports Drink is Lucozade Sport – clearly our palettes were wrongly prepared.

Then the tournament started with a new ball from Official Partner, Adidas, which no England player had played with before. The Premier League’s official wacky ball partner is Nike. No wonder the Jabulani proved so difficult for us to control.

Then, Mahindra Satyam (what do you mean, who?) turn up as FIFA’s Official IT Services Provider. England’s Official IT Partner is, er… Maybe that’s what David Beckham was there to do.

Tongue-in-cheek comments, but no more than such ridiculous terminology deserves. But the terminology is not the limit of the problem in such sponsorship. Despite the intended implication that ‘partners’ are acting, almost philanthropically, in the best interests of football, I suspect that the structure of these relationships may even be having a significant negative effect on the game. It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog; the sort of thing that gives marketing a bad name.

Let’s take the Jabulani ball created for this tournament. Adidas would no doubt argue that they designed it so as to improve the quality of the game for players and fans. But the truth is they designed it so they could sell more balls. The World Cup didn’t need a new ball but it got one because, Adidas, in cahoots with FIFA, needed to find some way to achieve a return on the investment of their sponsorship. No doubt the original brief to the designers had the intention of producing a ball that would yield an extensive YouTube catalogue of spectacular goals, and had that happened I’m sure we would all let them enjoy their commercial gain. But the fact is it’s been clear for some time now that this ball does not work as intended – it’s worse for players and worse for fans – and in the best interests of football it should have been abandoned long before the tournament began. But I suspect that because of Adidas’ commercial relationship with FIFA that option could never be discussed. I wonder how different this tournament might have been with a different, more familiar ball instead of one that no one asked for and no one, except the sponsor, needs? 

And what about goal-line technology, such as would have spotted the one time that Frank Lampard did actually manage to squeeze the Jabulani under the crossbar? I wonder how much influence the sponsor line-up might have now that it’s inevitable that a foolproof system is introduced. There are two goal-line technologies currently in consideration – one is the Hawk Eye system, developed by a company that is owned by Siemens, and proven to work in cricket, tennis, and snooker; the other embeds a microchip in a ball, in a system developed by a collaboration of which Adidas is a part, around which some doubts still exist. As Siemens have no commercial arrangements with FIFA, I suspect the decision-making criteria may not be limited to which works best. Perhaps FIFA’s reluctance to adopt even a goal-line referee (after Thierry Henri’s antics in the play-off against Ireland) might be related to thoughts of commercial ‘partnership’ being put ahead of the good of the game.

Now, none of this is to say that I believe sponsorship to be a bad thing – the funds and the enthusiasm that it generates are clearly beneficial to the game. It’s also true that in many cases sponsors provide products or services for which there is a real need – I’m sure Mahindra Satyam are doing a fabulous job with IT. But sponsorship is at the back end of the marketing chain; it’s a blunt but effective communication tool, and that’s where it should stay. Marketing works when it identifies an audience’s need, creates products and services that satisfy it, then communicates and delivers the solution. Allowing sponsors to dictate the agenda of the game by inventing products or services so as to exploit their sponsorship, rather than the game’s true needs, is the wrong way round – the tail wagging the dog – and it’s time that this was stopped. 

Unless for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, someone comes up with a ball that when Rooney lets fly from 35 yards, is guaranteed to go in.

First published on The Crossed Cow, 6 July 2010.