What modern brands can learn from the ancient world


What do Ancient Greece, The French Revolution and Apple have in common?

What do The Romans, Bauhaus and adidas have in common?

What do The Reformation, HBO and Dove have in common?

What do the US, the BBC and IKEA have in common?

They all have a foundational narrative. The foundational narrative is a concept taken from the academic world of cultural anthropology. It is described as the founding story and symbols that define the raison d’être, beliefs and actions of civilizations, nations, movements and institutions.

A foundational narrative creates the meaning, identification and commitment amongst people from which growth begins and grows stronger over time.

The Iliad defined the values and behaviours of the Ancient Greeks, the tale of Romulus and Remus drove the Romans forward, the Bauhaus manifesto defined the concept of modernism, still as powerful today as it was in 1919, and the French continue to cling to the proclamations of 1789.

When you look at the world’s strongest brands it’s possible to say that those that really resonate in the culture have strong founding narratives– explicitly or implicitly guiding what the brand says and does.

IKEA’s founding narrative is based around the frugal and thrifty nature of the people of Smaland in Sweden. Dove’s foundational narrative is an opposition to the beauty myth and its negative impact on women’s self-esteem. Apple’s is born out of the Californian counter-culture and one man’s desire to make technology simple and beautiful.

As marketing gets more competitive, cluttered and complicated, and as consumers exercise more control over communications, there’s definitely a case to say that if you want your brand to resonate in the culture it’s worth borrowing from anthropology and getting yourself a foundational narrative.

Maybe the ancient world has a lot to teach us about how to build brands today.



Ask a Simple Question



I sit in meetings and there’s lots of talk of ecosystems, convergence, big data.

But, does all this talk simply make a complicated environment more complicated, and are we losing sight of the best way to make the right media choices.

Maybe some simple human questions could help us make sensible decisions about which channels to use and how to use them.

Every successful channel seems to cater for a big and simple human need, so lets ask some big and simple human questions.

If Facebook is social and social is primarily about connecting with friends through conversations then the question is

Why would anybody want to talk about us?

If Google is search and search is about looking for things then the question is

Why would anybody want look for us?

If Twitter is about the people and things that interest us then the question is

Why would they follow us?

If Apps are about adding usefulness then the question is

How could we be useful?

If Pinterest is a shop window

Why would anybody look at us?

And if good old TV or YouTube is about watching things then the questions is

Why would anybody want to watch us?

The list goes on

If we can answer the question clearly and positively there’s probably a pretty good reason to be in the channel, if not we probably shouldn’t be in it at all.

Too often we fail to ask the simple human questions, pump content out across the latest newest channels and then wonder why nobody seems to be taking any notice.

So let’s not complicate things.

Sometimes all you need is a simple human question.

Could McKinsey be wrong?


Dare I take on the might of McKinsey? Well yes I think I will.

McKinsey are a brilliant company with brilliant people, I expect they give brilliant advice and they produce brilliant things.

One of the brilliant things they produced was ‘The McKinsey Journey”

It looks like this


Clients loved it. ‘We want to use the McKinsey journey in all our planning’ they said.

It was galling to the many of us in agencies who had been talking about the consumer journey for ages, and were largely ignored, until the might of McKinsey came along and made it the new hot thing.

But I have an issue.

McKinsey are famously left brained, logical, rational thinkers.

The McKinsey journey is a left brained, logical, rational decision-making process.

It also suggests one size fits all for decisions.

But people are illogical and emotional. Most decision are made sub-consciously and driven by emotion not reason.

And we make decisions about different things in very different ways.

The decisions I took about the car I drive, the insurance I took out, the CD I play in it (yes I confess, I still buy the odd CD) and the coffee I drink in it were all different.

I’m a big fan of the consumer journey. I think it’s the best way to plan marketing activities in the new era of media in which we find ourselves.

However, the decisions we take are emotional, subconscious and they vary enormously, depending upon what we’re buying.

Any good consumer journey will be mapping out the emotional path as well as the logical one.

And, any good communications plan will be seeking to move people’s emotions just as much as it follows them logically, step by step through their decision making process.

After all, we are emotional creatures so let’s keep emotion at the heart of our thinking.



How to be forgotten



There seems to be a new maxim floating about. It’s called ‘Small Thinking’.

Lots of little ideas in many places are better than one big idea in a few places.

Deloitte’s mention it in their 2103 Toolkit.

The logic seems to go something like this

Because there are now so many different channels with people using them in so many different ways we need to have lots of little activities in many places to make sure consumers are engaged in the brand.

It may be because people genuinely believe this. It’s certainly true that brands need to find ways to embed themselves in everyday life.

However, and I may be sounding cynical here (but, I’ve experienced it many times), it may also be that every agency wants to creates its own ideas rather than share in somebody else’s. Small thinking too easily becomes a convenient argument for everybody to do their own thing and improve their own show reel.

But we seem to be forgetting something. Something human.

People are forgetful. Very forgetful.

We have poor memories especially when it come to brands and advertising (there are many more important things in life to remember). If we remember less than 10% of what we read, even when we’re concentrating, how are we supposed to remember lots and lots of little brand activities that we’re hardly concentrating on at all.

Our own experience tells us if we spread ourselves thinly we don’t achieve loads of things, we achieve nothing.  Communications is the same, if you spread yourself thinly across too many channels you don’t make yourself more visible, you make yourself invisible.

The IPA produced a report on this in 2011 which clearly demonstrated that diminishing returns would set in beyond a maximum of 3-5 channels. There really is no reason why this should have changed.

Ask yourself what you remember from 2012. In marketing it’s big things – the John Lewis advertising, the Red Bull space jump, P&G’s “Thank you mum/mom” for the Olympics.

Every agency wants their channel to be on the schedule and every agency wants their own idea on their show reel. They’d much rather have that than be sharing somebody else’s big idea.

But in life it’s the big things that stick and the small things that go.

And I suspect it’s the same for brands. Less is More.

Timeless Emotions and New Behaviours: What Shakespeare teaches us about planning today

Technology changes human behaviour, but it doesn’t change human motivation.

Google, Apple, Facebook, You Tube, Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, Nintendo have changed our lives.

Computers, mobiles, tablets, consoles and (coming soon) smart TV have changed our lives.

We’re  Googling, clicking, browsing, feeding, friending, liking, commenting, poking, posting, tweeting, sharing, downloading, uploading and more. New verbs have appeared to describe new behaviours.

But, take a step back in time to Greek and Roman Gods, Shakespeare and Dickens

All of human emotion is there- power, friendship, love, belonging, adventure, risk, recognition, and fun. And the negative sides like hate, fear, jealously, doubt.

These are the big, unchanging emotions, as powerful today as they were in the times of the Greeks.

Technology may have changed the way we behave, but it hasn’t changed the way we feel.

This is (very) significant for brands and their communications.

If we accept that the decisions we make are emotionally made and rationally justified, we shouldn’t obsess about the latest technology at the expense of understanding the big emotional driver.

In fact, the big motivator becomes more important than ever.

Not only is it the key decision driver, but also, the technologically empowered consumer is  more likely to engage with a brand when the emotion it satisfies and the mood they are in align (and ignore it when they don’t).

The laddish, twenty something male engages with a beer brand (say Heineken), which satisfies his need for sociability when he’s in a sociable frame of mind,

The loving, early thirties mum engages with a motherhood brand (say Persil) when she’s in a belonging frame of mind

The powerful CEO engages with a status brand  (say Bentley ) when he’s in a successful frame of mind.

While technology has transformed and will continue to transform our lives, it’s important we get our priorities right

Identify the big motivational driver first

Work out when and where it is most relevant in our lives

Let the motivation guide the use of new technologies and behaviours to create the emotional connection and drive the decision.

Technology has changed behaviour, but we shouldn’t let the technological tail wag the emotional dog.

The brands we love (and buy) will be those that marry the timeless motivation (the why) with the new behaviours in media (the how).

The Human Experience: The best definition of a brand ever

50 times a day, 100 times a day, 200 times a day. Ever wondered how often you, your clients, your colleagues say ’brand’ every day? Probably not.

Last Friday I set myself the task of counting. I gave up after two hours, but in one meeting I counted 78, so that makes the average day count about 360. I do worry that this is a strange, slightly OCD habit, but there is a point.

We spend all day discussing brands, yet how often do we step back and ask what do we really mean by a brand and how should we be thinking about them in the new era of media?

You could argue that multiple channels, fragmentation of audiences, consumer empowerment and the many specialist agencies involved require us to be much clearer about brands than ever before.

If we don’t have a simple, engaging, flexible definition of our brand that works today, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

Let’s have a look at a couple of definitions.

‘A name. term, sign, symbol or design or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of the competitor.’

‘A blend of complementary physical, rational and emotional appeals. The blend must be distinctive and result in a clear personality which will offer benefits of value to consumers.’

Oooph. All a bit dry, cryptic and complicated if you ask me, and not that useful in our day-to-day lives.

I always keep coming back to this definition, developed years ago:

The promise of a unique experience (delivered).

By experience we mean a human experience, something that enhances our lives.

Things like

Driving Pleasure for BMW

Entertaining Family Fun for Disney

Extreme Energy for Red Bull

The Creative Spirit for Absolut

Shoot Like a Pro for Canon

The Power of Sharing for Facebook

Each is simple, engaging, and it’s easy to imagine how you could execute it.

Now, when this definition of a brand was conceived, digital hardly existed, the promise was the ad, the delivery was the product. However, with a little tweak it is perfect for today; simply remove the brackets.

The promise of a unique experience, delivered.

As communications becomes part of the actual brand experience, we can ask ourselves when, where and how people experience the brand and how do we bring it to life in those moments- whether it’s TV, social, search or Pinterest.

Canon drives enthusiastic amateurs to a digital Shoot Like a Pro Centre where they can learn from experts and exhibit their shots.

Absolut offer online tours of their art collection, which began with Warhol over twenty-five years ago.

Felix Baumgartner who used Red Bull carbon wings to cross The Channel in 2003 rather bettered it this year by jumping from the edge of space.

Think of your brand as a human experience delivered and you’ve got the best possible start point for building a strong brand in today’s digital world.

A personal response: How a human lens sets better communications objectives.

‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there’ said The Cheshire Cat to Alice.

Obvious really, but how often do we embark on communications programmes without being clear about what the objectives really are?

Communication objectives can be particularly tricky. It’s the bit where hard, concrete business and marketing objectives turn into something human.

In the new era of media, with all its choices, it’s doubly important we are clear, otherwise, as The Cheshire Cat suggests, we could end up going down many different roads with no idea where we are heading.

Here’s a little list of the wrong communications objectives that lead us down the wrong roads.


They simply aren’t stated: a business objective, a marketing objective if you’re lucky and nothing else.


The communication has to do everything: awareness, engagement, explanation, call to action and more.


A shopping list of activities to be ticked off. TV ad, press, online, Facebook Page, Pinterest etc. etc. (the list goes on)


The business task re-stated in a different form, e.g. successfully launch new X as ..


A leap straight to implementation. We want an ad which will communicate that…

I’m sure you’ll have experienced at least some of them. It’s partly because people aren’t always clear about what exactly communication objectives are, but also because it gets human at this point – shifting knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.

So the best way to think about it is in simple human terms.

What is the human response we need for our communications to succeed?

It’s the words real people use in conversation:  see, know, feel, get, share, seek and do.

At Carat we used to refer to these as The It’s.

The list is not exclusive, you may think of more or less, but the beauty of it is that it forces us to think about the important things – how people need to respond to communications to achieve the business goals.

See it

Be made aware of, or notice the communications and the brand

Feel it

Have an emotional response to communications to create emotional proximity.

Get it

Understand a rational benefit or reasons to believe that need explanation

Seek it

Search for or look for further information or entertainment.

Share it

Pass on, talk about, spread the word, recommend,

Do it

Directly interact with the brand physically or virtually.

Using these human definitions enables us to identify what the communication needs to do to succeed.

Is the consumer unaware of something that needs to be brought to their attention, is there an emotional barrier that needs to be overcome, something they don’t understand or do we want them to contact us?

It also helps us identify what the communication priorities should be.

We all know that communications cannot do everything- one objective is best, two or three is OK, but any more becomes messy

By asking questions around the human response we need from our consumers we can

Select the responses that are the most important.

Sacrifice the responses that are not fundamental.

Prioritize the relative importance of the key responses.

Ideally we would have numbers and research to support our thinking and recommendations. But, even in their absence The Its act as a good framework to think things through to an intelligent recommendation.

Once the human responses are selected, prioritized and agreed, they act as a guide and filter to all the communications activity – ideas, channel selection and use, plans, evaluation.

If you have decided your priorities are say, 60% feel (and you know what your consumer needs to feel), 30% know (and you know what they need to know) and 10% do (and you know what you want them to do) then you have real direction for communications development

Thinking about communications in terms of human response is the best way to deliver the business objectives in today’s technological world.

Ideas born out of life: New kinds of ideas for a new era of media.

A couple of years ago I had a meeting with the global MD of a world famous brand. A charming, intelligent man and a great talker.

‘I’ve got a problem’ he said. “We create some of the most famous TV ads in the world, but the world has changed.

What worries me is I have a number of markets where I can’t really afford TV, but my bigger worry is a cultural one. We seem to have programmed our people to think in a certain way.

We have some very smart, young marketeers. Outside work they live a life Facebooking , socializing, tweeting. But they step in here at 9.00 in the morning, get their coats off, put their I-Pods down, put their marketing hats on and ask ‘Right where’s the big TV ad’.

We behave as if there’s only one kind of idea, an advertising idea. We know what they are and we have a strong process to create them. However, we don’t seem to have an alternative approach.”

He went on to ask ‘In this new world, are there different types of ideas and how do we find them?’

That got me thinking about how we develop communications, specifically ideas.

Here’s a point of view and a framework for thinking in a new way.

How we develop ideas hasn’t really changed. It is very brand-centric. Find something to say about the brand and push it into people’s lives. We have added some other channels to the mix, but generally speaking, this approach holds true.

The reason, as much as anything, is the development processes used by most big players and their agencies were created in the mass marketing era. They are perfectly developed to create ads, but not really adapted to the new world.

What if we turned this approach on its head?

Instead of brand ideas forced into life, how about ideas born out of life.

In the old world it was easy to push ideas into people’s lives. Lives weren’t as busy, there wasn’t much media, advertising was a big source of popular culture and consumers were generally captive and passive.

Fast forward to today, busy lives, masses of media, advertising just one small part of a much bigger popular culture and empowered consumers.

People’s preoccupation is their lives, not our brands. The brands that win will be those that fit into people’s lives and find ways to enhance them. The brands that achieve this will be welcomed in, those that don’t, ruthlessly excluded.

So how could we achieve this?

We could ask: As people go through their lives when, where and how could the brand be part of it?

A framework for this could be time, space, like, place. I like this little mantra because it rhymes and it’s memorable.

Time refers to occasions, hours, days, special events, weeks, seasons, even years. Anything to do with time when it is most relevant to us.

IKEA built a “bed o’clock’ campaign for beds entirely around the hours of 10.30-11.00 p.m.

Space refers to the media channels that people engage with and asks whether there is a high affinity channel, which has special meaning.

The DTI built a road safety campaign for teenagers around the mobile phone, as the mobile is the device that binds the group.

Like is the things we love in life- people, passions and interests. Could we leverage the things people love to build the brand?

Gordon’s Gin created a partnership with Gordon Ramsay to make it part of Britain’s emerging food culture.

Place is where we like to hang out in both the real and virtual worlds. How could brands create or be part of the places people love to go?

O2 have used their sponsorship of the O2 arena to give preferential treatment to customers for big events.

So there we are, a different way of thinking about ideas and a framework for generating them.

I’m not suggesting this is perfect, nor am i suggesting that traditional advertising does not have a role, it most certainly does, but I hope it demonstrates that if we want to develop different kinds of ideas, thinking about them from the human angle will help us get there.

In the old world we pushed brand ideas into life. In the new world we should create ideas born out of life.