Fanfare For The Common Brand

I’m fresh out of presenting the below for the first time at the latest intake of Squared. For the last two years, I’ve presented various iterations of ‘Are Brands Fracking The Social Web?’, but over the last month or so, I realised that there’s something in the water around the relationship between the brand idea, the execution of it in practice, and what’s happening to the social web.

So, here we are. A first version of a new thing…

The Intention Gap

This morning, I read a great post from Asbury & Asbury on “brand conversations”, which is here.

Here’s a key excerpt:

“Brands have been talking about having conversations for years, mainly since social media came along and made such a two-way exchange theoretically possible. No longer would marketing be about shouting to the masses through 48-sheets and big TV spots. Now it would be about hosting a conversation, with everyone passionately acting as your brand advocate through the simple process of joining and sharing the conversation.

Of course, nowhere on the planet has this happened. For a taste of true brand conversations, look at the Twitter feed of any major service brand – a never-ending stream of apologetic answers to customer complaints, punctuated by the odd, hopeful brand message from central marketing.”

Whilst I have to disagree with a statement such as “nowhere on the planet has this happened“, we can probably use invoke one of the tools from Dan Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap.

As such, the main thrust of the A&A post still stands; the majority of social media activity is terrible. Phil points out as much here, too.

I wondered if, rather than looking at this on a micro level, we should look at it on the macro level.

What the sheer volume of social media activity from all brands is perhaps doing is turn the ‘two-way exchange’ into an expectation for people. We are now so used to being encouraged and asked into conversations that we’re reaching the conclusion that the way to talk to any brand is through a public social network.

Which is full of difficulties, which I’ll get into later, but overall, social media has been a Pandora’s Box for the idea of two-way communication.

Once people have it in their head that you can talk back to some brands, the expectation is that it should be true for all brands. There’s no going back now. The people view the products and services around them, and what to do when they fail expectations, has changed permanently.


A short diversion, to look at this from anther angle.

This is a quick test of an idea, in preparation for my rewrite* of the “Are Brands Fracking The Social Web?” presentation I’m giving on Wednesday for the first time at Squared. This particular element is still forming, so YMMV.

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s aforementioned Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking.

One of the tools he describes is something called The Intentional Stance, which is one of three stances a person can take when predicting the performance of the thing in front of them.

In ascending order…

1. The Physical Stance is the one you take when predicting the behaviour of things that are “neither alive nor artefacts” – we use only our understanding of the natural physical world and how things behave accordingly in contemplating them. How gravity works upon a stone, or how wind works upon the surface of water.

2. The Design Stance is when you take an object and predict what it does by the cues that it contains. Dennett’s example is an alarm clock. If you see something that fits into the category ‘alarm clock’ in your head, you can reason that there’s a few buttons you can push on the back to make it ring at a certain time (this made me think of the ‘archetypes’ than Dejan Sudjic talked about in The Language of Things). The object itself (if well designed) helps us predict how to use it.

3. The Intentional Stance, which Dennett references as a subspecies of The Design Stance, means that you treat the thing as an agent of sorts, “with beliefs and desires and enough rationality to do what it ought to do given those beliefs and desires” – “The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behaviour of an entity (person, animal, artifact or whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its “choice” of “action” by a “consideration” of its “beliefs” and “desires”.”

These stances are a good user-centric way of imagining who people see your brand.

My own working shorthand for the three is…

The Physical Stance – Basic Things Should Act As Expected.

The Design Stance – Designed Things Should Act As Created.

The Intentional Stance – Representative Things Should Act As Instructed.

I’m still playing with language, but the space between the last two is the interesting bit for me here when unpicking some of the implications that social has for brands.


If you take the general brand proposition at face value, it’s always seen itself as delivering value at the level of The Intentional Stance. These were not just mere products cranked out of a factory, these were the representatives of the “beliefs and desires” of the company who made them, with “enough rationality to do what it ought to do given those beliefs and desires“.

That’s why brands were seen as valuable things; they differentiated you from every other product which people would interpret at The Design Stance level, where everything did the same thing for people (a chocolate bar would work like a chocolate bar, but a Cadbury’s bar was a bit more special; an alarm clock would work like an alarm clock, though a Braun one would work and look better than others).

However, whereas once having people evaluate your thing using The Intentional Stance meant just broadcasting adverts at them, it now means something different.

If this thing in front of me is an agent of your beliefs and desires, then it’s now an offer to engage with you on those terms. It’s not a one-way transmission of what you consider your brand to be. You’ve sold me a living, breathing emissary of your beliefs, with a walkie-talkie built-in so that we can talk about it. You instructed it (and indeed, may still instruct it**) to act like this. So we should talk.

The great social media promise was, of course, that I’d love your product, and would want to share, publicly, in my support of those beliefs and desires. Yet much more often, the product realty fails to live up to the brand promise.

If you really believe that personal banking is so important, then why does your system fail so spectacularly in delivering personal banking? Why are your burgers not even the third best on the high street? Why doesn’t your beer taste of anything? Why did you change the chocolate in the eggs we all liked? 

Social media has increasingly become the space to resolve contradictions between the claimed beliefs of a brand, and the functional reality of using its products and services. It is the space between how you’re judged from The Design Stance and The Intentional Stance.

As a working title, I’ve called it The Intention Gap – the distance between the promise and the reality

Intention Gap

And whereas once upon a time, it wasn’t really that much of a problem (as Russell pointed out last year when talking about parity products), it now matters a lot more, because the gap is a black hole, with a gravitation pull for social commentary.

The bigger the gap, the greater the gravity, and the more it will pull in comments saying “wait, no, this is a rubbish thing, don’t waste your time”. The more your product or service fails in meeting inflated expectations, the more you can expect “a never-ending stream of apologetic answers to customer complaints, punctuated by the odd, hopeful brand message from central marketing”.

I’ll keep nudging and prodding this idea, obviously, but it already raises interesting questions to ask. What happens to brands who can’t afford to bring the product quality up to the general expectation at the same price point? Are they happy to trade current margin for future existence? How easy is it for new market entrants, who’re setting the running on product quality, to scale up to rival existing brands? And what sort of questions must you ask to establish what sort of Intention Gap you might be looking at?

There’s one thing worth trying to establish a firmer viewpoint on for Wednesday though; with mainstream social networks erring towards becoming platforms for brand broadcast, will the social activity which seems so tricky for many brands disappear? Or is it just going to shift elsewhere less visible and manageable spaces for brands to see?



* I’ve given the talk eight times across the last two years, each with gradual updates and evidence plucked from the maelstrom as it passes by. This is the first time I’ve fundamentally rewritten it, because of two things.

Firstly, one of the participants said at the end of the course in November something interesting – “When you gave the talk in the first week, I thought it was the worst we’d had. By the end of the course, I thought it was the best.” User feedback like that is really useful – it made me think about what I was trying to achieve across the six weeks, rather than just in the ninety minutes.

Secondly, it feels like we’re getting close to an answer: Are Brands Fracking The Social Web? Yes, quite possibly

**This idea of products as agents gets really interesting when we start seeing more and more things that arrive in our homes that are constantly instructed on how to behave, be it intentionally or unintentionally. Samsung’s TVs that are listening to you, for instance…


Maybe Marketing Won

Two things in twenty-four hours have made me consolidate a thought I’ve been playing with on and off for a year or so. It’s about Marketing and the fabled 4Ps; Product, Price, Place & Promotion.

First thing.

This morning, another cracking post from Dave Trott. Read it all, but the payoff is…

“…by ignoring everything except the brand again, the experts got themselves in worse trouble.

But surely these were “marketing experts”.

Isn’t pricing and distribution part of what a marketing expert does?

Ensuring the pricing and distribution of the product is right?

Apparently not.”

Second thing.

Yesterday I had an excellent extended coffee with Brad Berens, and he picked me up on something I hadn’t thought of – I used the word ‘brand’ to describe everything that a company does (I was talking about the “tone-of-action” thing again). Brad’s point was this; it’s not that it’s wrong, in a classic marketing definition of the 4Ps, to use this as a framework for thinking. But as soon as you use the word ‘brand’, the CEO, and the CFO, glaze over. They pigeonhole it. You’re now talking about the thing that someone further down the food chain has to bother with.

Oh, actually, third thing.

Andy Budd and I have this really interesting, ongoing conversation about “marketing people” versus “product people”. The shorthand is that Andy’s position (in as far as I can talk for him, apologies Andy if I have it wrong) could be paraphrased by this Dilbert cartoon:

Engineers Built Everything That Matters - Dilbert by Scott Adams

I’ll leave a gap here for Andy to clarify better than that if he has a chance:


My point in this is that, defined and structured properly, Marketing includes the product. What Andy’s talking about is just the promotion bit. But then, upon reflection, Andy’s living in reality, and I’m describing a utopian position.

Marketing, the classic marketing, the stuff Stephen King wrote of in his brilliant late-career rant “Has Marketing Failed Or Was It Never Really Tried?“, is further away from being a reality than ever.

But why?

Well, maybe, just maybe, Marketing won.

It demonstrated the fundamental importance of the 4Ps to organisations.

Maybe the conversation went like this…

“Product” said Marketing “is fundamentally important; ‘Making Things People Want’, and all that.”

“You’re totally right” said the Business. “Tell you what, now that you’ve got us started, let’s get some real experts to push this to the next level. People who really understand our customers, our capabilities, the qualities we can deliver in the products and services we produce. They can take this from here.”

“Well” said Marketing, “you’ve got to think about Price too, that’s really crucial to get right.”

“Right you are” said the Business. “We know some really clever folks, experts in statistical modelling and price setting and with PHDs in Behavioural Economics and all sorts. They should probably do this, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, alright” said Marketing. “We’ll get on with thinking about Place then, and how we ensure availability for customers.”

“Actually” said the Business, “this is a specialist art, we think. It’s about building business relationships, personal relationships, with all the wholesalers and strategic partners. We’ll get a proper team on this.”

“Oh, ok then” said Marketing. “I guess we’ll just do the Promotion bit then.”

“Mmm” said the Business, not really listening anymore.


MTPW > MPWT… in a book

This is a short written version of an even shorter talk I gave at the launch of the new Creative Social book, Hacker, Teacher, Maker, Thief, for which I’ve written a chapter on Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things.

You can buy it now, and you should; the other contributors are a stellar cast who’ve written cracking guidance for The Future of Advertising.


The problem with the ‘greater than’ symbol ( > ) is that it’s called the “greater than” symbol.

It doesn’t have a cool French or German name, or some abstract Latin origin. It is the Ronseal of mathematical characters; it does exactly what it says on the tin.

So when I say it out loud when saying “Making Thing People Wants > Making People Want Things“, I kind of improvise what I say in that tricky middle bit.

Sometimes I will say ‘greater than‘. It can sound a bit much, that’s true. But it’s a nod to the effort required, I think; it takes more to create new demand than exploit existing demand.

Sometimes I say ‘rather than‘. It’s when it represents a fork in the road, a choice in the short-term; which of these two roads will we travel down for a bit? The thing with roads is you can come back and go down the other one if you find yourself in a cul-de-sac.

Sometimes I say “is better than“. As a long-term strategy for clients, it is a better idea. Sure, some short-term Charlies want a quick hit and run to further their career and find another job somewhere else. Finding clients that want to make a real difference helps.

And sometimes I just say “beats“. Being selfish, it’s just that feeling it gives me inside, actually making something that makes a difference to people, helping people to help people. It’s a rush.

But I always, always try to never say “not“.

It isn’t “Making Things People Want, NOT Making People Want Things”.

It’s not an extreme position.

It’s an equation. It suggests balance, the existence of two things with different value, not the destruction of one to serve the other.

That’s advertising all over. Looking for extremes where there aren’t any. Forcing us to pick one thing and one thing only.

Perhaps advertising is an industry riddled with the wood worm of the mass media age, where the choice about “the big idea” and “the perfect line” had to be made, before it was printed a million times, or transmitted to 26 million people. That’s a problem that’s going away.

If advertising is to die of anything, it will be of a chronic case of extremes and ultimatums.

A Planner’s Day Of Things To Make

Two really interesting posts were written in close proximity recently, about Planning.

NB – By which is meant Account Planning, an advertising term for a specific role in an agency. If you want to know what it used to mean, before the jump, then read this APG definition introduced by Merry Baskin from 2001. I have never been an Account Planner, but reading that definition back realise my work comprised a lot of the skills and activities listed whilst in Adland. So, you know, these are my thoughts, YMMV.

There, that’s the small print, up front, in bold.

Firstly, there’s Heidi Hackemer’s post on Planning’s Lost Generation. It points out that, through that perfect storm of increased complexity, not enough time, reduced tenure in the labour market, and so on and so forth, agencies aren’t really training the next generation of planners anymore. Which causes even bigger future problems, as how do expect a geneation who hasn’t been trained to do any training themselves when the time comes. As Heidi says:

“When these young planners do threaten to leave, instead of having a hole that needs to get filled by another hop-along young planner, which is painful for everyone involved, we promote them beyond their skill set and give people that have no business having the title Senior Planner, Planning Director or even Head of Department these titles. And because they don’t have the skills, they can’t teach the next generation.”

Secondly, there’s Richard Huntington’s Can Any Planners Still Plan? He questions whether this younger generation even want to plan anymore, to understand what that is:

“I have long argued that while there are many ways strategists add value to their agencies and the business of their clients, the greatest contribution that we make is taking those brands to new places in the lives and minds of their customers. It is our ability to help brands and businesses re-invent the future that makes us most useful.

And yet I am beginning to lose count of the number of planners I come across in my wanderings that don’t want to do that. That either are not interested at all or who have little idea that this is what they are supposed capable of doing.

These planners seem to want to do one thing and one thing alone, something that they call making things.”

In short, the two posts together suggest a generation who Can’t Plan, Won’t Plan.

Of course, there followed a massive twitter exchange as happens in Planning when anyone mentions Planning and its inevitable worth/decline/reinvention/hopelessness.

But I thought I’d just stretch out a couple of points that can’t be made on twitter.

Firstly, if there’s no time and resource to teach a new generation what Planning is, there’s undoubtedly a complex variety of reasons, all of which are at odds with each other yet all true.

But reading back on that APG list of what roles a planner should play, you realise that so much of what actual Planning consisted of is now being done elsewhere:

  • market researcher
  • data analyst
  • qualitative focus group moderator
  • information centre
  • bad cop (to account management’s/client service’s good cop)
  • NPD consultant
  • brainstorming facilitator
  • target audience representative/voice of the consumer
  • soothsayer/futurologist
  • media/communications planner
  • strategic thinker/strategy developer
  • writer of the creative brief

In a way, perhaps Planning won. It raised the importance of all of these requirements for companies, and so now there a multitude of specialists that do them instead. Planning happens everywhere, just not by “Planners”.

Secondly, on Making as Thinking.

For the last three years at Smithery, and for several years before that at PHD, I’ve been using making as a way to explore things, to find things out. It’s a different sort of learning approach, one that helps you bridge the gap between ‘novice’ and ‘expert’ by playing with and creating different things in the spaces you find to aid understanding of the spaces themselves.

For the ongoing background research for Artefact Cards, I’ve recently fallen down the rabbit hole of “Constructionism”, a brilliant learning theory. If you want a useful place to start with this stuff, this post by Steve Wheeler is the shorthand version, then this talk by Edith Ackermann from MIT will give you some ideas of how you might set up learning structures like that:


However, it seems a bit disingenuous to talk about the value on “Constructionism” vs “Instructionism” by writing blog posts, debating on twitter, and largely doing nothing but talking lots. This is a part of Planning’s problem, perhaps.

It all made me think of a talk I did years ago at an IPA course, which I called The Planner’s Book of Things To Make.

It was an exhortation for young planners to make more things; not because these would be the things that would become a central campaign idea, or sell a million units, but because they would inform thinking, draw in users, reach out to niche interest groups, create feedback loops to steer brands and so on.

But, in hindsight, it was a talk, and talk is cheap.

So as I wind my way up to London on a train towards Playful at the Conway Hall, I’m wondering if it would be more useful to put on The Planner’s Day of Things To Make sometime in the New Year.

It would be an exploration of how to use making as a route into a lot of the things that Planners need to be doing to Plan properly.

Sounds niche, huh? Well, yeah, maybe. So here’s how I’m going to gauge demand.

If it sounds of interest, go here and sign up.

And when you sign up, sign up to “yes, I will buy a ticket to this woolly sounding nondescript event and not show up”.

Price wise: no idea. We will pay all people running sessions, and the required materials, and refreshments, and lunch. So whatever that’s going to cost.

Anyway, that’s it at the moment. Let’s see what people make of that, and we’ll go from there.



Flow Engines vs. Fracking

I ran an innovation session yesterday for The Network One, to a group of owners and CEOs of various nimble, independent agencies. I was going to just explore some of the ideas in Fracking The Social Web, but given it was an afternoon session I tried something new.

(Also, as a rule of thumb, just talking in an afternoon slot isn’t as good as getting people to do things. I can’t remember where I first heard this theory, but it’s always worked for me. Mornings are for heads, afternoons are for hands.)

By using the Flow Engine approach to set up ‘different ways of working’, and using Artefact Cards as went, we moved through three steps.

Firstly, I asked people to write on a card the biggest issue for them in bridging the gap between traditional marketing structures and the more fluid, granular approach needed for working on the social web. In their groups, they then shared these in the centre of the table; some would be similar, some different, but what was interesting was the conversation betwen the teams about the different issues.

Secondly, we then used the Fracking themes to think about why agencies need to work differently; as I went through the themes and examples, the participants in groups would be noting down things on cards (either direct points, or ideas set-off by the thinking), so that in small groups they could start addressing the points in the centre of the table, building out a map of the territory.

Finally, I asked people to looking at the map and just write down a final card for themselves on what they would change tomorrow when they got back to the office, taking inspiration from the map they’d created together.

The slides are up here, so you can get an idea of the session. In hindsight, I think I tried to do slightly too much in the allocated time, it’d have been nicer to have some extra reflection time.  Apart from that though, it seemed to work pretty well – thanks to everyone there for throwing themselves in, and thanks again to Paul, Victoria and Doug from The Network One.

Innovation isn’t what you bring, it’s what you leave behind

I was delighted to put together a talk with Tracey Camilleri for today’s Innovation Stories 14 event about The Key To Leadership project we created last year (alongside Thomas Forsyth, Chris Thorpe and Fraser Hamilton) as part of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme at the Saïd Business School.

UPDATE: David Burton‘s done a terrific set of sketchnotes of the whole event, here’s the one for our talk:

David Burton Sketchnote innovStories_6

Also, check the Innovation Social site for links to other summaries of the day.

In reflecting on what had happened before, during and after the programme, we realised that so much of the project wasn’t a simple, straightforward interpretation of what we did at the time. When you look at it from distance, and the effect it’s had on other parts of the organisation, it’s something that had a set of a series of brilliant, if somewhat unintended, consequences.

It made us realise that innovation isn’t what you bring, it’s what you leave behind.

It’s the changes and differences you make to an organisation when you’re no longer there. The stuff that keeps creating value in your absence. The big things, yes, but also (and more importantly, perhaps) the little things. The things people will pick up and run with every day as they work on new things.

Our last point was that this makes innovation hard for traditional agency models to find a viable role for. If you’re there to deliver continued value over time (“we are here to do this for you”), as if it was an advertising campaign, then you’re not really leaving anything in the client organisation to make it stronger. Perhaps successful innovation demands a generousity of spirit, leaving as much as it can as continued catalyst, if it is to stick from the outside.

Anyway, here are our slides (with some added narration) if you want a little look. We had a tremendous time, thamks to Nadya Powell of Innovation Social for the invitation, and the rest of the brilliant speakers from whom we learned loads of things today too.


MTPW > MPWT – IAPI talk in Dublin

As promised, my slides from the IAPI talk I gave yesterday in Dublin. I’d like to thank my hosts, Tania Banotti and Ken McKenzie, for a wonderful excursion, a great crowd, and some really thought provoking discussion whilst I was there. It was deadly, as one might say in Dublin.

Beer As Validation

I’m in Dublin today.  And I found another example to add to a burgeoning pile of examples I have of “beer you havn’t heard of in shop windows.

Small, independent shops (who have the choice of what to put in their window, with no top-down regional control) used to use big, international brands in their windows to show that they were a valid business – “look, we have access to the precious things”.

More and more, in every city I visit, I seem to see these same shops using “beer you haven’t heard of” as a pull – “look, we have access to the precious knowledge“.

Worth watching – will bigger stores start to use this to pull people in?  Or are they too wedded to selling their store space as media…

photo 2


Gallery Post – Down the hill I saw a bevy of hussars

I and my wife stood amazed. Then I realised that the crest of Maybury Hill must be within range of the Martians’ Heat-Ray now that the college was cleared out of the way. At that I gripped my wife’s arm, and without ceremony ran her out into the road. Then I fetched out the servant, telling her I would go upstairs myself for the box she was clamouring for.

“We can’t possibly stay here,” I said; and as I spoke the firing reopened for a moment upon the common. “But where are we to go?” said my wife in terror. I thought perplexed. Then I remembered her cousins at Leatherhead.

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