How to ditch advertising by making interesting companies instead
The secret behind the world’s best brands
What is it that connects the great brands of the internet age? The brands that are constantly referenced by marketers as benchmarks of performance. The inspirational usual suspects from Red Bull, to Apple, to Google, and beyond. What is the behaviour they all share — no matter their market or position in it — that allows them to capture public imagination and escape cynicism and indifference?
Put simply these great brands don’t win fans by creating interesting advertising; they win fans by being interesting companies, full stop. People don’t admire their campaigns, they admire them. They admire the boldness of Google’s HR policies, and their future-building experiments. They admire Apple’s lack of compromise, innovation, and the vision of their founder. They admire Red Bull’s commitment to pushing human limits more than pushing their actual product.
In essence all the things that most brands use advertising campaigns for — creativity, differentiation, insight, and fun — they actually have built into their fabric. If and when they do choose to run a traditional advertising campaign, it comes across more as a reflection of their business than an embellishment on it — the very essence of authenticity.
When we recognise this characteristic, we can see that advertising in its current form is not well placed to assist brands which fall short of this standard. It has found itself creating external proxies of brands, rather than simply improving them and amplifying the facts, and as such is not equipped to replicate the success of the very best — no matter how creative or brave the work may be.
In order to address this issue we need to create an accessible path which will allow brands and agencies alike to replicate this behaviour on a mass scale. In short: we need a new discipline.
Basic is defined as the technique of brand building through altering or extending the internal elements of a business, rather creating external campaigns. It uses the identical strategic approach employed for traditional creative advertising — the identification of an ownable and desirable position for a brand to promote to its customers — but simply activates it through creative amendments to the business itself, rather abstract media ideas. Having undergone this process a business should be inherently more interesting and differentiated than it was before, allowing itself to be promoted and amplified in an authentic manner.
Defining this process as a discipline, giving it a name and some rigour, is essential for it to gain industry-wide traction. Only then will briefs for this kind of work begin to flow, as currently it is very rare for agencies to be granted an internal remit with their clients. This is why almost all examples of this practise to date are generated in-house — limiting it only to those brands with the most visionary of leaders. If brands are able to outsource this thinking to agencies, then it will become far more accessible.
The path for basic as a discipline could be rather similar to that of “social”, which upon becoming a standardised approach spawned a flood of briefs, and a rapid development in agency expertise — having been a rare and experimental practise only a few months before.
Let’s look at an example of how the discipline might work in practise.
In Amsterdam there is a well known hair salon called Bubblekid. They, like any other business, have a proposition to differentiate themselves — in this case “In Creation We Trust”. The idea behind this is essentially for consumers give themselves over completely to the creativity of their stylists, to trust them, and let them do what they will with their hair. With this proposition in place the question they had to answer, like all brands, was how do we bring this to life?
If they’d been like any other business they would have probably thought about some local advertising, perhaps some social media outreach — leaving the proposition as essentially a piece of colourful posturing slapped over a fairly generic salon.
Instead they looked internally, and asked themselves if they way they operate their business was really in accordance with this idea. The result? They removed all the mirrors in their salon. Now, if you go for a haircut at Bubblekid, you will sit opposite another client, have a chat, and not see the stylists work until they are finished. Through this they inherently communicate the nature of their salon, without even needing to say it.
Just like Apple, Google, or Red Bull, their brand and business became synonymous.
A step by step guide
Let’s explore how to activate basic in a bit more detail.
Step 1 — Purpose Identification
This step is simply the creation of a strong brand strategy. What is it that only you offer that people want? What exactly is the point of your business? Equally you could call this “proposition”, “message”, “brand strategy” — there are many acceptable ways to define it — however the strength of “purpose” is that it implies concrete action, rather than simply communication.
Broadly this step is one which the industry is already comfortable with within the traditional model, however there are a couple of additional points to consider when applying it to basic.
The first is that there should be no distinction between an internal purpose and a consumer facing purpose. This is common sense if you want your internal business to act as an external draw. It might be that your internal one is a little more clunky for extra clarity (for instance Red Bull’s is “giving wings to people and ideas”) but the thrust of the two must be identical. This will make ideas flow more easily, and increase your overall clarity.
The second point to consider is whether the purpose is practical. That it sounds like it “does” something. This is where a key distinction can be drawn between a modern “purpose” and an old fashioned “tag line”. For instance Finisterre, a UK apparel brand is known as a “cold water surfing company”. This identity is clearly very practical, and gives you a strong idea of how the business may be adapted to serve that purpose better. If we compare that to a more traditional brand tag line (e.g. Coca-Cola’s “Taste The Feeling” or L’Oreal’s “Because Your Worth It”) we can see that these are relatively hard to work with because they are more emotional than actionable — they do not allow so clearly for business differentiation and innovation. This is fine for such established brands, but would be a weakness for more contemporary challengers seeking to make an impact with basic.
Step 2 — Business Alteration
When armed with a strong purpose, a business can then conduct an audit to check if everything they do is aligned with it. We already explored one example of this process with Bubblekid. These tweaks can be anything from small (even quite superficial) up to a wholesale rethinking of the core product. For a small example we might look to the US clothing brand Patagonia, who run a policy known as “Let My People Go Surfing” time — essentially flexible hours so that if the surf’s good, employees can come into the office late. This rather small innovation caught the imagination to such an extent as that it was the title of founder Yvon Chouinard’s book.
A more dramatic internalisation of purpose can be seen in the German supermarket chain, Original Unverpackt. They, like many other retailers before them, sought to own the space of “green shopping”. They realised that for many stores this was in reality a rather hollow claim, because of all the packaging waste they produced. Therefore they built their supermarket to feature no packaged goods at all. Shoppers must bring their own containers for everything right through to cereal and ketchup, meaning that whilst their purpose is rather unoriginal they were able to undercut their competitors through living it more authentically.
Naturally the extent to which changes can be made at a business vary wildly depending on its individual circumstances, however often the things that really bring a purpose to life can be quite non-invasive, easy to create, or even simply a spin on an existing practise such that of Patagonia.
Step 3 — Business Extension
As well as tweaking existing business operations, basic can also be employed to extend them. This is the technique most commonly employed by Red Bull, who constantly branch out into different relevant spaces, leaving their core drink operations relatively untouched.
The question to ask here is simply “if our purpose is x, what else should we be doing to achieve it?”. The answers to this question can be activated without too much encroachment into existing business functions, and as such may represent an easier entry into basic for traditional brand than business alteration.
For instance when Pedigree in New Zealand created their lost dog app “Found”, it appeared that rather than doing an advertising campaign they had in fact produced a business innovation to better serve their purpose to “make the world a better place for dogs”. In truth the model was closer to that of an ad campaign, but the feeling was different — a simulation of basic that carried with it an air of authenticity.
For more ambitious brands, business extension around their purpose can mean more than great marketing; it can mean new business models. Airbnb for instance revolve all of their marketing and innovation around their purpose to help people “belong anywhere”. This allows them to branch out well beyond the bed-rental space into areas such as dining at people’s houses, using locals as tour guides, and more — blurring the line between marketing stunts and new business lines expertly. Quite simply they are seeking to live up to their purpose, so every action they take is inherently marketing — the very core of basic.
In summary whether you are tweaking your existing business or adding to it, the result is the same — namely a new, more interesting company that reflects its advertising strategy inside and out.
Where to from here
These are early days for an idea which has the potential to make marketing a more integral and constructive process within business and wider culture. Should the industry (brands, agencies, intermediaries) start to align their conversations around this shared language, then opportunities will start to arise in the shape of new budget streams, briefs, awards, trade bodies — but above all better, more authentic, more worthwhile businesses.