The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

A Brand Is Ultimately Defined By Culture, Not Owners …

I have a confusing relationship with Amazon.

I use them a lot.

I admire what they do.

I appreciate how they operate.

But I don’t know if they’re a great brand.

Without doubt they’re a great company and have created a clear role in people’s lives … but in terms of brand, I’m not so sure.

That’s weird, because in many ways, they have achieved all the things a great brand requires, but at the end of the day – I have no emotional relationship with them, it is entirely functional.

Does a brand need to have emotional value to be great?

No. But I think it is the difference between being seen as a great transactional brand and a great brand.

But what surprises me most is Bezos understands business and brands better than many.

Not just CEO’s, but marketing folk … exemplified by this statement he made.

Which leads to the point of this post.


As I’ve said a billion times, I’m an unashamedly huge believer in them.

If done well, they enable differentiation, cultural connection and economic power.

But the emphasis is ‘done well’.

And frankly, I don’t see a lot of that.

What I do see is a lot of companies spending of an awful lot of time and money on what they want to talk about.

What they think people should care about.

What audience should buy their product.

What they want their product to be used for.

What they want people to discuss about them.

What words they want people to associate with them.

What they want people to view as a threat or a competitor.

Them. Them. Them. Them. Them.

Now don’t get me wrong, you have to know what you stand for. What your values are. What your role is and why you do what you do, well. Not to mention what your point of view on the World is.

But you don’t just churn them out like some political manifesto brochure. Boring people into submission.

And yet that is the practice of so many … minus the point of view, which would at least make it relevant to culture instead of using a ‘proposition’ that is like a cement block, standing firm regardless what the headwinds that surround it are.

But it gets worse.

Because often what they do is wrapped up in some contrived ‘purpose/manifesto’ message in an attempt to make it look like it’s not all about them, which doesn’t convince anyone because it’s all about them.


And it comes across exactly like that.

Self serving. Self indulgent. Self important.

Because the people behind these campaigns live in a bubble of corporate complicity.

Where ‘real life’ is closer to a sitcom sketch than anything resembling reality. Where families are always perfect and together. Where there is no problem that can’t be solved with [insert brand here] and their [insert meaningless ingredient]. Where the undertone of the work is to scare/shame/blame audiences into purchase submission – regardless how happy the soundtrack is or how saturated the images. All backed up and reinforced by a research report that has been specifically designed to fit in with the clients processes than representing truth.

Welcome to the world of marketing truth – a parallel universe to real truth that exists next to the Marketing solar system.

And that’s why, love him or loathe him, you have to respect Bezos.

Yes he has a world of data. Yes he has a universe of information.

But he knows it’s what people say when you’re not watching or listening to them that really reveals what they think of you.

At a time where so much work is done behind the desk, there’s never been as important a time as to get out, talk to real people, understand the texture, nuance, and chaos around the category … so we can help our clients with the most important foundation you can have in getting to great work.


Of course, it is not always easy for clients to swallow.

Of course, they may prefer agencies that pander sweet bullshit to them.

But as Mr Bezos knows, you don’t get culture to truly buy into you, if you don’t know what culture really thinks of you.

Purpose Before Purpose …

So I recently heard a story that should put companies who talk about ‘brand purpose’ to shame.

I’ve written a lot about this subject, but this does it so much better.

Hell, it may even make Mr Weigel – who hates the bullshit spouted about this area of marketing – nod in agreement.

So way back in 1939, the Kansas Wheat realised women were using their sacks to make clothes for their children.

Rather than consider this a strange byproduct of their product packaging, they decided they would start putting designs on the sack fabric so they could make nicer looking clothes.

For many companies, that would be enough … considering this a great way to ‘market their purpose’, but the Kansas Wheat company went one step further.

A step that proved they genuinely cared rather than cared more about looking like they did.

You see they printed their logo on the sacks with an ink that would easily wash away … so the kids wearing the clothes wouldn’t face any stigma they’re wearing repurposed wheat sacks.

Given how much has been said and written about brand purpose, I hope this stops people spouting shit that ‘purpose’ is new or that it means you have to relinquish your commercial requirements to demonstrate it.

Because the key to it is not about the scale you claim you want to achieve, but how you do what you do every single day.

Knowing Who You Are Means You Know Where You Can Go …

After my post about Nike/Jordan, here’s another.

But before we get there … I need to take you on a little story.

Years ago, Wieden Tokyo were doing some research for Tabasco Sauce.

As part of the adventure, we went to the American south and interviewed chefs from the region.

One of them told us something that had a huge impact on me.

“The more confident the chef, the more simple your dish”

I love it.

For me, it communicates everything about belief and confidence.

Saying and doing exactly what needs to be said and done and not a sentence more.

Sadly this is a lesson that seems to have been forgotten.

Nowadays, companies have endless pages of terminologies, explanations and behaviours … often to disguise the fact that they don’t really know who they are or what they are here for.

I recently met a Venture Capitalist who told me the biggest mistake companies make is not knowing what business they’re in.

They think one thing but are something else.

And by not knowing this they undermine their present and their future.

However recently I saw something that showed me a company who ‘gets it’.

A company who has always ‘got it’.

Similar to the Apple memo I wrote about recently, this is a celebration of knowing who you are.

As you will have already worked out – mainly because I said it in the first line of this post – it’s NIKE.

Look at this document from the 70’s, entitled ‘Principals’.

One page.

Clarity and direction.

Fight and function.

All you need to know about what how the company behaves, what it values and what it believes …

I love it.

I love how it is so simple yet says so much.

I love how it acknowledges what it can control and what it can’t.

I love how it conveys the attitude of the brand through the battle it is undertaking.

I love how it celebrates the ugly reality of hunger, ambition and commitment while also advocating integrity and responsibility.

But most of all, I love how it acknowledges that they’ll make money as a byproduct of what they do rather than that being the focus.

And while they don’t mention the words ‘sport’ or ‘athlete’ anywhere in this page, it’s not hard to see what they are describing are the principals of building a team.

One that has a common goal, a common fight and a common belief and reliance on each other.

All on a single page.

Which is still their single page [albeit with an updated swoosh]

Because they are confident in know who they are and what they are about.

In these days where companies churn out endless pages about who they are … endless statements about what they do … endless updates to their terminologies, platforms and positioning statements, I find it interesting the companies that attract the most loyalty from audiences and the most jealousy from corporations are the ones who have been fiercely consistent about who they are, what they believe and what they stand for.

All expressed succinctly, yet passionately.

From Apple. To Nike. To Wieden.

Because the more confident the company, the less they need to say about themselves.

The Top Shelf …

When I was a kid, the top shelf of the newsagent was what I imagined Las Vegas was like.


Adult stuff.

Things no one should mention.

What am I talking about?

‘Men’s’ magazines.

I’m not talking Playboy … but the very English, very low-rent versions that were all – weirdly – either named after Ford cars or luxury London streets.




Park Lane.

In the early days, the covers were on display for everyone to see.


Young boys would walk into newsagents and stare at them while trying desperately to not look like they were.

For most people, that was as close as you would get to them because buying one – or even looking through one – was out of the question.

What if someone saw you?

What if someone you knew saw you?

Of course someone must have been buying them because they were produced for decades.

I know for a fact that ‘one-eyed’ – the newsagent opposite the Nottingham main police station – was a magnet for the pervs and the teens, because it was small enough and out of the way enough to get away with it, but I always wondered how many of these would be bought at major players like WH Smiths.

Over time, the covers got covered up.

Not just to protect the innocent, but to try and stop the objectification of women.

Of course, given The Sun still had ‘page 3’ and claimed to be a ‘family newspaper’ this meant it had absolutely zero impact … and even today you can see those attitudes are still alive and well in all walks of life thanks to so many companies – including those specific to women evolve and grow – having a vested interest in making women feel, or be seen, as offering only looks to the World.

Anyway, the reason I say all this is that I recently walked into a WH Smiths to buy Otis a magazine and was pleasantly surprised – and a bit shocked – to see the top shelf was just that, a top shelf.

No doubt part of this is because porn – or erotica, or whatever title you want to give it – is so readily accessible that you don’t need ‘specialist magazines’ anymore as opposed to society having a healthier, more balanced attitude towards women [or sex] but it was weird to see nothing but genuinely ‘family friendly’ titles on there.

What was funny was one of those titles was something I was interested in buying for Jill, but the context from my past meant it was almost impossible for me to grab it.

That’s right, a ‘word puzzle’ magazine was loaded with baggage from what the top shelf once meant to me and I wonder if that is something that reflects my individual weirdness or something bigger … where being placed on the top shelf of WH Smiths may be best for visibility but worst for purchase.

And before you think I’m a total nutter, remember the brilliant – but slightly mad – Clotaire Rapaille believes your first exposure to brands and experiences frames and defines the way you look at them forever.

The Best Bit Of Advice About Problem Solving You’ll Ever Get …


We love them.

The bigger and badder the better.

Of course you have to be sure you have the right problem.

And then you have to remember that as much as some people may want to claim it, business – and life, for that matter – can not be approached like one big engineering problem.

Well, it can, but the solutions are – at best – short term and – at worst – ignored for being utterly bland, boring and emotionless.

But that’s not what this post is about.

You see, in our quest to solve big problems, we like to show our solutions by overwhelming the client with our brilliance.

Brilliance of our considerations.

Brilliance of our proof points.

Brilliance of our brains.

I get it …

You not only want to lead the client through your thinking so they ‘get it’, but because you’re proud of what you’ve done.

But there’s 3 things wrong with this approach …

The first is – as my Dad used to say – if you’re desperate to show how intelligent you are, then you’re not that smart.

This has never been more true in the creative industry where the reality is the work should be doing the proving, not you.

And secondly, this ‘demonstration of intelligence’ approach more often than not, results in presentations that are hundreds of pages long.

Literally hundreds.

Slide after slide that takes people on an extremely long journey on how difficult the problem is you have to solve and how complex and detailed the path to your solution has been.

It is, at best, a strategy where the goal is to beat the recipient into submission.

And why am I saying all this?

Well recently, I caught up with someone who told me 3 things I absolutely love.

Three things that should change the way companies approach problems and communicate their solutions.

Now full disclosure …

The person who said this is not some random individual.

In fact I’ve known and worked with them for a long, long time.

But more than that, he is – and has been for 2 decades – at the top of his game.

The business leaders, business leader.

An individual with an incredible history of success through pragmatic decision making and investment in innovation.

I asked him if I could mention his name but he said he preferred if I didn’t. Not because he wants to be mysterious, but because he’s humble … which is another reason he doesn’t work in adland, ha.

That said, he has personally shaped the way I present …

Semi-structured, singular stories rather than a mass of slides.

Strong visuals rather than pages of information.

Clarity rather than confusion.

Spoken through the nuanced, authentic lens of culture rather than superficial generalisations of convenience.

Communicating as an informed outsider rather than a blinkered insider.

The language of people not corporates.

Provocative rather than comfortable.

Inspiring the possibilities of creativity rather than creating structures to stop it.

Now I appreciate not everyone appreciates my style – and that’s fine – however, it has led to a lot of success for me and now, I realise why.

You see what this individual said to me was this:

1. Make sure your presentation is focused on the opportunity not the problem.

2. Remember, solutions need to be simpler than the problem.

3. If you can’t sum your solution up in a sentence, you have either an ego problem or a problem with your solution.

That’s it.

Sounds obvious doesn’t it.

But how many of us are doing it?

How many of us are writing presentations that celebrate the complexity of the problem rather than the power of the opportunity?

How many of us are talk about our approach to executing the solution rather than what the solution actually is?

How many of us talk about solutions as a range of elements tasks rather than one overarching idea?

I would like to think I’ve been following those 3 steps for years, but even now – I read them and go through old approaches and see where I could have done things differently.

More concise.

Cleaner … at least in the articulation of the solution and how I got there.

One of the best bits of advice I ever got was ‘talk to a friend outside the industry about your idea. If they don’t get it, you might need to re think about it.’

This is not about dumbing down.

Or being simplistic and basic.

It’s about really thinking about what you’re doing and how you’re expressing it.

Because as Ronald Reagan said, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”.