Once upon a time, a friend and I ran the coffee bar in the UK’s flagship Next retail store. It was the first modern espresso bar that London’s West End had seen and was hugely popular, as well as hugely profitable.
George Davies, the CEO of Next, came in most mornings and we would make him breakfast. During the nine months I was there, Davies took Next from what was predominantly a clothing brand into a lifestyle brand. Alongside womenswear and menswear (and the coffee and cakes), we had Next interiors, Next wedding wear, Next jewellery, a couple of Next restaurants and even Next hairdressing.
It was too much. As a member of staff, my whole life was Next my hair (with highlights), my clothes, my food, the chair I sat on. Everything I touched or possessed was Next. I felt owned by the brand as though it were seeking to control and dominate every aspect of my life.
That was 1985. Such brand excess couldn’t happen nowadays, and as it turned out it wasn’t sustainable then —even at the height of 1980s branding. Brands have changed and are changing for the better. The best, and most effective are no longer marketing mechanisms designed to flog products. They are not even about establishing and defending competitive positions. The best brands play a different, connected, collaborative role. And they are fascinating.
In 2012, growth is no longer a matter of market share. In a world dominated by constraint, the brands that grow do so by understanding and meeting more and more needs and producing products and services to meet those needs. Growth is about share of mind and wallet, not simply share of market. It’s no surprise that the world’s most powerful brands can jump categories at will. Apple, Google, Tata, Innocent, Sony, Sky, Virgin, Tesco can gate crash almost any category they choose. Credibility, not capability, is king. It’s easier for a trusted brand to become a bank than it is for a bank to become trusted.
And the brands that will have the greatest impact on all our lives are those that see themselves not as citadels that need defending, but as causes that need joining. The most important, most effective, most impactful brands are those that have put petty competition behind them and embraced collaboration as an operating principle it is their core DNA. These brands are clear about their ambitions, and are not shy about seeking out others who share those ambitions. And with these partners they will pool resources to create a better future.
Vattenfall and Volvo came together to work out how electric mobility should work for all of us. Nandan Biomatrix, India’s sustainable energy provider and nutraceutical company, pioneered a collaboration approach with thousands of farmers and quite a few governments to address our fuel needs.
Cisco’s highly ambitious programme ‘Our Next $1bn Business’ invited outsiders to develop a business plan that took Cisco into territories they hadn’t explored before. The winning entry was worked up alongside the company's own executives and Cisco handed the originator $250,000. It conceived of household devices such as toasters and dishwashers telling the electricity grid what their energy usage was likely to be before starting to use it. This would allow the grid to intelligently manage energy requirements in the same way that Internet infrastructure manages the demands of server traffic.
Could Cisco have come up with this idea itself? Possibly, but it didn’t. The energy-saving initiative has gone into development, and Cisco has created for itself an ecosystem of new ideas that is seeded with the remaining 1,000 as yet unsuccessful business plan entries. This isn’t CSR or even crowdsourcing. It is a smarter way of doing business.
In this world of collaborative effort, brands have to get smarter about how they behave. The most impactful see themselves as players on a wider stage, as needing to understand and to interact with the other players on that stage. Mark Thompson, Director- General of the BBC, talks compellingly of how the BBC must act with other creative institutions to ‘protect, develop and defend the public space’.
Traditional branding is currently too crude for the subtleties we now demand. Brands on a collaborative stage need to work out when it’s appropriate for them to be present, when they should be absent, and when they should be recessive.
It’s a hangover from the age of brand as domination from the Next school of branding.
The brands of the future will not instinctively observe boundaries, they will work with others to further their ambitions. These brand-led businesses will understand the broader ecosystems that surround their traditional competitive landscape. They respect the context of their daily operations, but they will choose to extend outwards when necessary. They will also be more pleasant less domineering than Next and I suspect we’ll like them that much more for it. More collaborative, with shared outcomes and incentives, and a culture of approachability.
Bring it on.