It’s the substance, the material and feeling on which a brand was originally founded that can make for a company’s lasting success. When a brand loses this, they also lose their ability to communicate with their consumer and ultimately, sell their product or idea. There is critical importance in a brand sticking to its roots. While this may seem obvious, there are numerous examples of successful companies that have lost this along the way. A brand and its people sometimes need to go to extraordinary lengths to identify and revive their brand’s authority.
Beneath all of the best brands is a substance, which makes their authority in their field almost unshakeable. The thing, which gives brands substance and authority, is closely related to its truths. Arc’teryx is a great example of a brand that has a strong strand of truth, which buoys its authority and substance. Of course there is an unusual name and nice imagery but what underpins it is that the fact that the time invested in product design, development and manufacture is beyond that of its contemporaries. It is considered to be the best because the “Time” invested in product creation lends the brand its authority and its substance.
In order to define a brands’ substance you have to literally walk a mile in their shoes.
To get a deeper understanding of Nike ACG (The Mountain Sports part of Nike) we went to live in the mountains for six months to get under the skin of the snowboard consumer. Another example of trying to reveal brand substance was sending our creative director to hitchhike back to the UK from the Alps with only £30 (approximately $48 USD) in his pocket. This was for a travel brand. Similarly, with Renault Trucks we needed to understand the life of a truck driver and so we sent our team around Europe with hauliers.
It is vital for us to get deep into the psyche of a brand. Without having that first hand experience it can be difficult to get a genuine handle on what makes them tick. That old saying about having to walk a mile in another man’s shoes before you can judge him is true here.
In the case of UVU though, walking a mile didn’t quite cover it.
Working with UVU we ran the North Pole Marathon. In preparation our team ran across La Gomera and then a day later we did the same across Fuertaventura and this then culminated in running the North Pole Marathon. You don’t just turn up with your trainers for something like that. It was hard but it was all a vital part of the immersion process. It meant training for six months, running in mud, running in sand, fog and snow. It meant that getting up at 2am because that is when it is coldest and running 50km with sleep deprivation prepared us for the North Pole Marathon. Only then could we truly get into the mind and soul of UVU’s Ultra Running consumer.
The difference between this kind of immersion and the more traditional approach to consumer insight, the ubiquitous focus group, is the difference between Daniel Day-Lewis and Danny Dyer. There is no shortcut to truly understanding the consumer.
If someone walks into a party and announces to the room “I’m cool”, you immediately know they are the most ‘un-cool’ person there. If you’re in a crowded room, it’s more often the quietest person who commands the most presence. It is hardly ever the loudest. It’s the person who carries themselves the most. There’s a lesson here for brands to learn. There’s a difference between substance and pretence. Substance must be more than just words. It has to be true. It is very intangible but brands should understand that substance requires presence not noise.
For authority to be more than noise it needs to be underpinned by strategy and strategy defines behaviour.
Brands have to behave in a certain way but not talk about how they behave. Boxfresh used to have the tagline ‘We are you’.
“No you fucking well aren’t” was a common reaction. We told them you don’t tell people you are them – you prove you are like them by how you behave! A brand is not a mirror (said a clever man from Ireland called Sandy).
The long-term benefit to brands that can successfully control their behaviour over a period of time is that not only do they build credibility and equity for the brand, they also enable consumers to draw their own conclusions, which is more effective than ‘ill-conceived taglines’ or ‘slick, short-term marketing campaigns.’
We were able to unearth a certain truth about Salomon, the popular French outdoor brand. In the midst of an identity crisis, we worked to ensure that the brand was able to conquer its past and define its future.
In the case of Salomon, Fresh became involved with the brand after they had been sold by adidas to their new owner, Amer. They required a pretty strong degree of re-organisation as their lifestyle-driven positioning, “Fuel your instincts” was struggling to connect. We worked on repositioning the Salomon brand. We observed that their lifestyle positioning was fuzzy. They come from a relatively unknown part of France. Annecy is better known globally as a retirement resort, a place where people go to die, it did not have great lifestyle credentials.
We sought to unearth what Salomon’s truth was and the only way we could do this properly was by going there and interviewing as many people as possible. We found people in tears, the company was in a state of flux and yet they still felt immense pride in Salomon. Within France it was still very prestigious.
Eventually, after speaking to many people we were introduced to an old guy who worked in one of the factories in the Alps. He took us to a room and it was filled with racks and racks of files. It held over 8000 patents for innovation on mountain sports that stretched over 40 to 50 years. It was incredible.
This discovery led us to conclude that Salomon was the ‘innovation company’. We found they had twice as many patents as NASA had ever filed and four times more than their previous owners, adidas. It was via this revelation that Salomon got back to its roots, became reinvigorated and the ‘lifestyle’ elements were ditched in favour of an innovation-driven visual language, visual style and strategic platforms. Their brand truth was simply “innovation on the mountain”. As “The Mountain Sports Company”- Salomon have not looked back.
Salomon are now twice their size and much of the reason is because they were able to align substance, authority and truth.
A brand must pivot off its differences. A brands’ differences can come from one of two places, the brand’s authority or the brand’s product.
Differences are harder to identify with lifestyle brands. Here are some predictions for lifestyle brands:
Most brands will communicate that their brand is the most fashionable.
Most brand design will largely be centred on validating that strategy by showing their models in a lifestyle portrayal representing the vanguard of fashion or trend evolution.
Most brands will use third-party collaborations in their product design to deliver the notion of “Fashion and Trend Leadership”.
In short, the brand and product design for Lifestyle brands will be a sea of homogeneity – driven by a common strategy of how best to demonstrate “Fashion and Trend Leadership”.
It’s difficult to identify differences in performance brands too. Here are some predictions for performance brands:
There will be a similar level of homogeneity for performance brands.
Most brands will communicate that their brand offers the best performance.
Most brand design will be centred on validating that strategy by showing their athletes performing in some way.
Most brands will use third-party branded technologies in their product design to deliver “Performance”.
Lifestyle and Performance brands will neglect the power that product design has to differentiate.
So how can product design transcend brand homogeneity and deliver Authority and Substance?
In the case of British institution Doc Martens, we found a brand that had a strong product identity and plenty of customers who felt affinity with it on that basis. However, they were struggling because their designers, like the rest of the competition, were making “trend-driven products” for a “fashion-oriented” customer.
They were designing something which they felt represented fashion but in doing so they were trying to chase the high street. It takes 18 months to bring product to the marketplace and you will never “out-fashion” stores such as Topshop and Topman.
We told DMs that they needed to focus on more enduring trends rather than short term “fast fashion”. We advised them to concentrate on long-term cultural trends, provenance and quality.
We observed that in DMs case, the key was not to follow the market in adopting “lifestyle and fashion” trends. In fact, it was the exact opposite. Just create honest product and let your consumers create their own meaning.
A pair of “Converse All Stars” is a blank canvas, they get personalised and develop meaning through whoever puts them on and makes them their own. It’s the same as a Dr Martens boot. If a copper wears them, they represent order. If a globalisation protester wears them they represent disorder. If a nationalist wears them they represent the far right, however if a socialist wears them they represent the left wing.”
At DMs the brand doesn’t give the product meaning, people do.
In the lifestyle sector DMs is the perfect embodiment of how product design more than brand design can differentiate and create authority.
In the Performance sector homogeneity is challenged by the one performance brand whose behaviour insists that they devote more time to pursuing product solutions. That time creates both a unique authority and a unique brand.
That brand is Arc’teryx.