Press Articles

Martin Lindstrom teams up with NBC’s Today Show to help small Mom & Pop businesses survive

To show how a business turn-around is not only possible, but completely do-able in a very compressed timeframe, Today Show and I looked for 2 businesses that qualified for a makeover. Tune into NBC’s today show on February 1 and 2 for a two part series on what we did, and on what the results were.

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Fast Company: The Truth About Being “Done” Versus Being “Perfect”

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – September 25, 2012

Ideas are easy–believing in them is the hard part

In 2010, a small California-based company opened its doors for business. They didn’t have much capital but, with a staff of only four, they did have a singular vision–to outdo Kodak. Even through the rosiest of glasses, this would not appear a feasible proposition. It’s a scenario that makes David versus Goliath look like a fair fight. But 18 months later, the company of four, which had become a company of 13, was sold to Facebook for $1 billion.

It was a sale that made headlines the world over. Instagram was the new digital sensation. They were perfectly in sync with a generation that records everything on their iPhones, and their service that enables the most amateur picture-taker’s photos to look like they’ve come out of a professional studio, was, well, an insta-hit.

Let’s go back a little farther, still. In 2003, a small mobile game development company from Finland appeared on the map. Taking their cue from the likes of Hasbro, the U.S. giant of interactive games, they wanted to create a small, fun, and dead-cheap game. Operating in the country where Nokia had so dominated the digital landscape, it came, naturally, to use smartphones as their platform. Six years later Rovio Entertainment launched Angry Birds. On May 9, 2012, the company announced the one-billionth download of the game.

Instagram and Angry Birds are not unique. One needs to look no further than Netflix and Blockbuster–and Skype and the entire telecommunication world–for similar stories. Small startups, which despite all the odds, manage to succeed against well-established conglomerates with all the expertise that money can buy.

All the aforementioned startups began with nothing but an idea. How difficult is that? Having worked with some of the world’s largest companies, I’ve come to realize that the idea is the easy part; the hard part is getting your company to believe in it.

If you’d entered Facebook’s headquarters sometime around 2010, you’d have seen a sign painted on the wall: “Done is better than perfect.” I have no doubt that if you walked into the offices of any Fortune 100 brand you would see no such thing. Their legal, compliance, or human resources departments would insist on it being removed. And yet, had Facebook waited so much as a year to perfect its model, the company might very well be where MySpace is today.

“Done is better than perfect” is not about coming up with ideas; it’s about believing in them. And having an attitude that compels you to run with the idea before it’s too late.

My ultimate dream as a kid was fulfilled by the time I was eight. This is when I visited the research lab developing LEGO. To be in the place where new toys were being developed before they hit the market–this was my version of the Willy Wonka fantasy. I’ll never forget my encounter with the head designer as he showed me the newly developed LEGO train. I could barely contain myself, it was just… well, the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

I spluttered out: “When can I buy it?” He said, “In about three years time.” That just baffled me. I wanted to know how he could project that far ahead. His answer was simple. He said, “Because we’re LEGO.” A few years later LEGO experienced its biggest drop in sales. It was the same year that the first hand-held computer games hit the market. It would take LEGO another 20 years to reduce their R&D cycle to less than a year.

Another Facebook motto says: “Move fast and break things.” Can you think of any Fortune 100 brand that is not only be prepared to say this, but actually means it? Google, Apple, Amazon, and perhaps Samsung. Anything in common? They are all innovative technology companies with a new style of leadership.

Until recently, Sony was the world’s leading electronics company, and then something went wrong. Was it lack of ideas? Having spoken with insiders and experts, I put it down to arrogance. A bit of cultural background is also relevant here. Historically, there’s always been friction between the Japanese and the Koreans. A few years ago, the Korean company, Samsung, knocked on the door of Japanese-owned Sony. They wanted to team up with Sony to produce LCD screens. Rumor has it that mainly due to cultural baggage, Sony politely refused. The rest is history. Samsung is the leading manufacturer in six electronic categories in the United States alone.

Whenever I spend time in boardrooms across the world, I can’t help but notice that courage seems to be a limited currency. No matter how the company presents itself, it seems CEOs rarely have the power one would imagine. The fact of the matter is that companies of this magnitude tend to be run by committees that make the tough decisions and take the risks. The problem is that committees rarely have courage–only people do.

At another company, on another wall I noticed another slogan: “Let the consumer build the brand.” This was Skype. Skype is not a Fortune 100 brand just yet, but with Microsoft’s recent $8.5 billion acquisition, it may soon become one. With widespread recognition in the developed world, and almost no advertising, this slogan rings fortuitously true. Bear in mind that Skype is less than nine years old, and its blue icon has found its way to millions of computer screens with not a single ad.

I often conduct the Skype challenge with my clients. If all advertising was banned, and the game was to increase sales, what would you do? You’d be surprised to find how creative even the least creative person can become. But what’s even more surprising is that most have never so much as entertained this as a possibility. As one executive explained, “Why should we? We’re running one of the most successful companies in the world.”

There was a time when he was probably right–but no longer. The reality is that there’s a new set of rules in town, and they’re scarily simple. They’re also scarily powerful once you get them. However, getting them right is the hard part. If you can claim the management of your company truly lives by the mantra that “done” is better than “perfect,” and that the organization’s survival is about moving fast and breaking things, then you need to ask them if they’re prepared to cut out advertising. It’s more than likely their answer would still be, “No.”

But at this very moment, someone is hanging one of those fine Facebook posters on their business’ office wall. And like David, armed with little more than a slingshot and a stone, they’re acting on pure courage and just going for it, because that’s one of the rules of survival today–not tomorrow.

[Image: Photo mashup by Joel Arbaje]

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Fast Company: What Teddy Bears, Picture Frames, And Condoms Have In Common

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – September 10, 2012

You may not be able to buy love, but perhaps you can buy a related feeling: security

If you’ve followed my work over the last couple of years, you’ll know how I consider spending time in consumers’ homes an essential part of my work. As increasingly more of our time is taken up with emails, sitting in board meetings, and finding ways to navigate the global financial crisis, we’ve forgotten those who are really paying our salaries–the consumer. Research reports and focus groups are good at defining demographics, but fail to reveal those small personal insights that can transform a brand. This is why I’ve spent thousands of hours in consumers’ homes trying to understand what makes consumers tick (and what doesn’t). This has resulted in many fantastic insights–including finding out what teddy bears, picture frames, and condoms have in common. (More on that soon.)

The industry term for this type of investigative work borrows from anthropology–it’s called an “ethnographic study.” In theory, it does not require that much. All that’s needed is a pen, a notebook, and a family willing to invite you into their home where for a few hours they briefly share their lives. You’d be amazed just how much you can learn by observing people–enough even to change the entire philosophy of a company. And that’s my mission. I drag my clients into their consumers’ homes to let them discover firsthand who the people that pay their salaries really are.

Sometime I take CEOs who run multibillion-dollar companies and board members along on these visits. Their job is to observe. We sit around kitchens in North Carolina and Mississippi. There we defer to boys whose fingers fly across controls of Game Boys and PlayStations, or young girls who groove to Adele. Little do these families know that every move they make or question they answer could redefine the future for millions of people.

I remember once I took a client into a family home where they failed to refrigerate the very popular beverage he presided over. They nonchalantly explained that they’d run out of fridge space. Yet in all the company’s communications they’d emphasized that their drink is one that must be consumed cold. However, in this family home other household items were in place. Milk was in the side of the fridge door, eggs were in the egg tray, and fruit and vegetables were in the drawers. There were other beverages being kept cold, but not this CEO’s company’s drink.

This may not seem too big a deal, but when a beverage manufacturer is earning millions from a drink that’s best served chilled, it’s important to know why the Vitamin Water has taken priority, and his company’s drink has been relegated to the pantry floor.

It took two years to work through the obstacles. The key issue involved parents’ resistance to their children’s consumption of a drink that they didn’t think had any nutritious value (which it indeed had). With research and a lot of hard work, parents accepted the drink and eventually felt comfortable with it in the fridge, alongside the juice and milk.

During ethnographic visits it is my habit to take in everything in the home. I notice what’s hanging on the walls, I peruse the books on the shelves, the DVDs lying around the living room, the magazines in the bathroom, and, if I’m to be totally honest, I’ll even rifle through closed drawers. After years of going into people’s homes, I began noticing a steady increase in, well, teddy bears, picture frames, and condoms. I date this change back to 2009. Besides being kept in bathroom and bedside-table drawers, I now began seeing condoms displayed in glass vases like candy. Then there are the teddy bears. For over a century they have been a feature in young children’s bedrooms. However, it seems that these days teddy bears are growing older with the children they initially comforted. It’s quite likely you’ll still find them on the pillow of an average teenage girl’s bedroom, and even beyond.

What could explain this? The answer came to me as I began spending time with some of the more sophisticated retailers whose window displays are using pictures in frames. They’ve also been hanging framed images along the entrances to their store–and not just a few images but as many as 40 or 50. It’s a psychological reality. The less secure we feel in a financially unstable universe, the greater our need to “frame our lives.” As Keisha M. Cutright, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton points out in a Journal of Consumer Research paper, picture frames help us feel secure.

Among other revelations, the study indicates that the more we’re under pressure–from a sluggish economy, a rough job market, you name it–the more we feel the need for a secure environment to live in. This need for stability also offers a plausible explanation for why people are adding framed images to the walls of their homes. It also explains the longer-living teddy bears and the increase in condoms. Teddy bears provide comfort and a direct link back to the “good old days,” a time of rosy memories when we imagine everything was wholesome and good. And condoms? Psychologist Belisa Vranich offers a similar explanation: It’s all about feeling safe in a world that seems to be increasingly unstable. Here, safety means something different than it does when talking about teddy bears, but the mental security is just as real. Perhaps this is why condom sales have soared 16% over the past four years.

As you might imagine, I dread the day when I walk into a home and see a framed picture of a teddy bear holding a condom. I wouldn’t know where to begin my analysis of what that might mean.

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Fast Company: The Chick-Fil-A Way: Why Brands Should Have Stronger Opinions

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – August 16, 2012

There’s more to that recent crispy controversy than you might think. Take a deep breath—and then take a public position.

Chick-fil-A, a Georgia-based fast food chain specializing in chicken sandwiches recently entered a highly exclusive, and not always savory, league of brands—that is, brands with opinions. It happened, as you may have heard, courtesy of COO Dan Cathy, the son of S. Truett Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist who began the company in 1961. The owners of Chick-fil-A had long been supporters of Christian family values, and active sponsors of organizations and conferences dedicated to preserving what some call the institution of marriage.

However, when Dan Cathy went on the radio speaking of “God’s judgment” raining down on those who “advocate same-sex marriage,” the heated (sizzling, crispy, etc.) debate that ensued raised Chick-fil-A’s profile on both a national and international level. While I firmly oppose the Cathy family’s views, as a branding man I can’t help but admire the (likely unintended) value of the misadventure. Up until a few weeks ago, I, for one, had never heard of Chick-fil-A. I’m sure I’m not alone.

It’s been a while since the glory days of brands with opinions. The once-famous liberal bent of Ben & Jerry’s has softened. Sure, we’ve seen attempts by the companies such as Diesel, who trumpeted fairly innocuous opinions, but the truth of the matter is the world of brands has become oh-so-Corporate, with a capital C. And when brands do wade into the choppy editorializing seas these days, the results are often sloppy—see also: Cole, Kenneth.

The past decade has, in fact, seen a systematic depletion of courage in business in the United States. Every major corporation has come to fear shareholder backlash. In this world of increased job insecurity, there’s an even greater fear of igniting the ire of an aggressive writer somewhere in the back lots of the blogosphere. Companies now shy away from igniting any storm that may lead to a lawsuit. The reality is that they’ve become petrified of causing any kind of conflict, and so they opt for the safer middle of the road.

But isn’t time ripe for a game change? It wasn’t that long ago when CNN was the leading global news channel, and then in 1986 FOX entered the arena. The world of news has never been the same since. Objective views have been replaced with subjective opinions. It seems we can’t get enough of it, and those leading the ratings race seldom allow facts to get in the way of a good story. We see this everywhere, from Howard Stern to The Simpsons to the endless number of subjective opinions pouring out of blogs on every single subject.

Then we have brands. Most are working overtime to be everything to everybody, and the only commitment they’re prepared to make is when they dare to share an opinion about one of their own. Think Coke Zero in preference to Coke, or Oracle’s latest $10 million offer to IBM to see if it can out-perform them. As for real opinions, the kind that shape our world and challenge our beliefs, well, they’re nowhere to be found.

As one who is quick with his opinion, I believe that you can’t be friends with everyone, and the day that you try, you are doomed. Of course there will always be exceptions, but these are mostly to be found in smaller companies with less to lose. And, yes, the bigger the company, the higher the risk, and the greater likelihood they’ll travel along tried and trusted paths. But what of the rest? Why are they choosing to stay in the middle of the road? Opinions are such that they can divide and unite at the same time, and perhaps for this very reason we are still talking about Pepsi Vs. Coke some 15 years after the ads aired.

The time has come to bring back opinionated brands. Ben & Jerry’s political positions were not manufactured in their marketing department or on their advertising agency’s drawing board. It was a real expression of values when they chose to rename their Chubby Hubby, Hubby Hubby in celebration of Vermont legalizing same-sex marriage. They even went so far to feature a cartoon image of two men marrying beneath a rainbow. Their choice in the 2008 presidential election was celebrated with the flavor Yes Pecan, echoing President Barack Obama’s ‘Yes, we can!’ slogan. Hell, the company founders were once even arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy after protesting the horrors happening in Darfur. Ben & Jerry’s is a rare brand, indeed. Though to a lesser extent, the company continued pursuing controversial issues even after it been taken over by Unilever, the multinational food corporation.

Today, brands should take a cue from rock stars, many of who are unafraid to speak out for causes they believe in. Lady Gaga has supported the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell;” Annie Lennox and Elton John began fighting for AIDS sufferers in the days when people were afraid to even whisper the word. Of course, corporate culture is vastly different from rock culture, but as the growing number of socially considerate businesses indicates, there is a place where politics and profits can happily mingle.

The choice of instant feedback channels seems to have scared CEOs into submission. Previously the worst that could happen was a bit of bad press and a few outraged letters dumped in the mailbox. These days, everyone can vent his or her indignation and rage on Twitter. This is precisely the problem. It’s the reason why negative opinions in the world of branding cut deeper than ever before. The consequences are immediate, and they hit with a forcefulness that can leave even the most resistant members of senior management feeling kneecapped.

We now live in a world led by Wow! Pow! Ciao! Our attention is captured by the immediate. Our reaction is passionate, and sometimes ferocious. And just as soon as we’ve let off steam, we give it away. In this new reality, senior management needs to become more mindful of the process and grow a thicker skin in order to share their opinion and stand for something in the world. There’s risk involved, to be sure, however there’s an even bigger risk involved in taking the middle road—not least of which is the heavy traffic already clogging the space.

[Image: Flickr user Elevert Barnes]

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Fast Company: London 2012: Wow. Pow. Ciao

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – August 2, 2012

The London 2012 Olympics is up and running. The world is deep into the elation, the tears, and the cheers. Every media channel is jam-packed with stories of triumphs along the road.

But hold on a moment.

In 2007 a new London Games logo was presented to the public. It resisted the iconic imagery, opting instead for a geometric configuration that on close inspection revealed itself to be the numerals 2012. The public outcry came from every corner of Britain, where it was criticized as a national embarrassment. Within 24 hours of it being launched, 40,000 complaints were filed by the general public demanding it be scrapped. Some compared it to a deconstructed swastika, while others professed an animated version might trigger epileptic seizures. Iran added fuel to the debate when it contended the logo was racist. As they saw it, the four jagged numerals spelled “Zion,” a biblical term for Jerusalem.

At the time, London’s Olympic Committee stood firmly behind a logo that had cost £400,000 and been a year in the making. The chairman, Lord Coe, was adamant that the troubled design was all about “reaching out and engaging young people.” Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, weighed in, saying he believed it to be “an early indication of the dynamism, modernity and inclusiveness with which London 2012 will leave its Olympic mark.”

And then, without so much as another word, the logo slowly faded away. Sure, traces of it remain on the official homepage and a few other corporate-like places, but it’s mostly missing from the popular culture surrounding the games. What adorns everything Olympic in London right now consists of the five colorful rings accompanied by a serif text that reads quite simply “London 2012.” But most astounding thing of all is not that the questionable logo has taken a back seat, but that the millions glued to their televisions or digital screens don’t seem to have noticed its absence. I call it the “Wow, Pow, Ciao” phenomenon, a result of our media-saturated world.

  • Wow: We see something that offends us, we’re shocked and outraged, and then, all fired up.
  • Pow: We take to email, Twitter, Tumblr, and text to vent our horror and dismay to all and sundry, and then, almost as soon as it began…
  • Ciao: We’re on to something newer, more interesting, and perhaps even more controversial.

Admittedly, the logo was pretty ugly. But, in retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the awfulness of it was worth the fuss. After all, how many of us can remember the Shanghai 2008 logo or, for that matter, Athens in 2004, or Sydney in 2000 (to say nothing of the hideous Olympic mascots)? I know I can’t. However, those of us of a certain age have no trouble remembering Coca-Cola’s rebranding fiasco that occurred in 1985. When the company reformulated their recipe in response to Pepsi taking over the lead marketing position, there was an enormous public backlash to the New Coke. Despite the fact that all market research showed people considered the new version tastier, the company was bombarded with over 400,000 calls and letters protesting the change. Wall Street declared the exercise a gigantic failure and Coca-Cola quickly reverted back to its classic formula. Now, 27 years later, Coke and Diet Coke hold the top two marketing positions, followed by Pepsi.

A similar fate happened to Kraft when they tampered with Vegemite, a dark brown spread used on toast in Australia. In the process of improving the brand, they changed the name from Vegemite to iSnack. Australians felt part of their national identity under threat, and spontaneously boycotted the renamed product. After just four days of iSnack hitting supermarket shelves Kraft succumbed to consumer pressure, and Vegemite was reintroduced to its adoring public generating record sales.

We’re now all part of an instant-gratification generation. As we happily take to Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook to air our grievances, a curious phenomenon is happening in tandem. Life apparently begins over again within the space of a few seconds–just like a goldfish. The French have a phrase for it. They call it succès de scandale. In the U.S. we call it: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Here today, gone tomorrow. In the twentieth century it was a term that was used with a fair amount of cynicism.

Today, the cynicism is all but absent, and no one seems to notice or even care. The wow is coming from the sporting action. People are tweeting about Ye Shiwen, the young teenage swimmer from China whose winning time in the women’s 400-meter medley outclassed the men. They’re bemoaning Michael Phelps’s disappointing performance and celebrating the wins. As for the misbegotten logo, well it’s bowed out without so much as an English goodbye.


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Fast Company: For Brands, Being Cool Is As Hot As Sex

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – July 7, 2012

We all know why sex sells, but coolness? It’s mercurial, ethereal, and hard to measure. So why does everyone care so much about it?

The decision was made–and then made headlines across the globe.

In the U.K.’s high court, Judge Colin Birss presided over Apple’s fight with Samsung, in which Apple claimed Samsung’s Galaxy tablet was way too similar to its iPad. The judge disagreed. In his ruling he said that the Galaxy “does not have the same understated and extreme simplicity which is possessed by the Apple design.” And then came three little words that reflect one of the biggest, most powerful ideas in business. The Judge declared that the Galaxy is “not as cool” as the iPad.

Now Apple is a brand that’s been considered cool from the moment the first Macintosh was introduced in 1984. Cool is something every technology brand in the world aspires to be. BlackBerry and Nokia would pay millions to be associated with the trait, if only they could. So would shoe makers, car manufacturers, clothing labels, and probably every celebrity on the planet. Cool is–and has been for some time–the hottest word in branding, and every brand wants a piece of it.

Cool is also mercurial, ethereal, and hard to measure. That hasn’t stopped a group of psychologists from conducting a three-part research study investigating the essence of coolness. The results of their investigation were surprising. But first, let’s take a step back in time.

Values, which serve as a kind of architectural framework, underpin a brand. This keeps the brand solid and consistent. In other words, a brand is a little like a person you form a trusting relationship with; you rely on it to perform.

In their search to be cool, brands often aspire to align their values with well-known personalities. In the 1990s, Madonna was all the rage (really, check out this vid for a few reasons why). “We want to stand for what she stands for,” were the words on the lips of every marketing executive I spoke with. Back then, she was less preoccupied with staying young, and more focused on making interesting dance music and compelling, sexy videos. She was cool.

During the first part of this century, the notion of cool shifted to people like Richard Branson. His entrepreneurial spirit and, well, cool, was highly appealing to a new generation of marketing professionals. They wanted what he had, and brands were subsequently steered in similar directions as Branson’s Virgin group.  Cool brands manage the delicate balance of being well-defined entities, as well as being highly desirable. Often this comes from a close association with a single word: think “search,” and you think “Google”; or “safety” and “Volvo” pops to mind; “cowboy” conjures “Marlboro.”

So what is the essence of cool? Just last week the Journal of Individual Differences published the results of a study led by Ilan Dar-Nimrod, a psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. The researchers set out to define coolness beyond a general understanding of what’s nice, likable and popular. For the study 353 volunteers were asked to submit adjectives they associated with coolness. Surprisingly, the word “friendly” topped the list, followed by “personal competence.”  This ranking positioned socially skilled, popular, smart, and talented people as being the ultimate in cool; individualist hipsters featured lower on the list. Bar-Ilan concluded: “Coolness has lost so much of its historical origins and meaning.” That is: rebels are not hot. Or cool.

Another attribute figured prominently in this recent study: physical attractiveness. The prominence of “good looks” in the study echoes the results of work I carried out for my most recent book, Brandwashed. During my $3 million study into the way word-of-mouth works, I asked a family of five to secretly promote brands to a cadre of their friends, family members and colleagues. During this experiment, I learned that the key to the family’s success was neither their extensive network, nor their gift of the gab; it was their good looks.

A slew of books published in the last year attest to this.  Daniel Hamermesh describes why attractive people are more successful in Beauty Pays, whereas Deborah Rhodes’s The Beauty Bias argues for a legal basis to prohibit discrimination against those who are not gifted in the looks department.

A while back, the BBC made a television documentary about the importance appearance plays in our lives. One of Britain’s top models was made to appear frumpy for a day. She was then tasked with a variety of roles–to look for a job, to approach people on the street for directions, and to randomly offer help to others. At the end of the day, she was asked to assess how important her looks were in achieving what she’d achieved. Without hesitating, she answered: “Everything.” She was flabbergasted to find just how unhelpful people were during her day as an average-looking person.

So here’s a wild hypotheses: If looks go a long way to defining a cool human being, how does this relate to brands? Apple has sleek lines and stylish displays, but does the brand have a sense of humor?  Is it sociable? Well, yes. Just look at those winning ads where the uncool guy took on the role of a PC, and the fun, socially engaging and handsome guy was a Mac. Which brand would you prefer to be?

Can this revised formula for coolness be adapted to every brand and category? Perhaps. As with everything, I’m sure there are exceptions, but it is an intriguing thought. As brands become increasingly sophisticated in their strategies to capture the hearts and minds of consumers, so more sophisticated means of identifying, defining and locking in the perfect set of values is required. Of course it’s one thing to theoretically label your product or store cool, in the hope that the consumer will concur; it’s quite another to achieve it. But with good looks, a dose of humor, and a splash of social awareness, you may yet realize the dream.

[Photo illustration by Joel Arbaje]


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Fast Company: How Many Lives Does A Brand Have?

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – July 3, 2012

It’s said that cats have nine lives, but how many lives does a brand have? The answer, it seems, is definitely more than one.

Recently, in Shanghai, a friend took me to one of the city’s most sophisticated luxury malls. She was excited to show me her recent discovery. “Check this brand out,” she said, pointing to a meticulously tailored Aquascutum trench coat. Its label said the brand was founded in 1851, but I had to confess, I’d never heard of it. “And, how cool are these?” she asked as she riffled through a rack of striped Kent & Curwen T-shirts. Kent & Curwen? I wasn’t sure what that was, but Kent & Curwen is another prestigious English brand founded in Surrey in 1926. Here in Shanghai, the capital of new brands, I fell in love with Gieves & Hawkes, another English brand dating back to… 1771!

The irony of the situation blew me away. After all, I’m a man who creates brands, and yet in this salubrious mall in Shanghai I was surrounded by a host of them that have been around for at least a century, and I’d never so much as heard of a single one of them.

I scribbled down the names down and immediately began to investigate.

Almost all these “classic” brands fell out of favor many years ago, often being reduced to a single retail outlet. Yet in a country like China, where heritage, authenticity, and many things European are highly desirable, their obscurity didn’t matter. The simple fact that they were all founded in Europe in another historical time was enough for the brand-obsessed citizens to dig deep into their wallets, and spend big.

But will the brand-obsessed Chinese continue to fall in love with anything and everything Western, or is this the beginning of a new brand paradigm shift, a serious turnaround?

I spend around 25% of my time with brand owners and government officials in China and its surrounding regions, and it has become increasingly apparent that the rules of branding are set to change. I can’t help but think there’s a chance (however slim) that Chinese brands will take a similar route to the one Japanese brands took in the 1980s. There was a time–predominantly in the 1960s and 1970s–when all kinds of cheap things were made in Japan. However in the 1980s, the government backed a strategic plan to reverse this image, and within a decade cars, electronic goods and pharmaceuticals with a “Made in Japan” stamp came to symbolize innovation and value for money.

It was not some fortuitous accident. The Japanese conscientiously imitated big-ticket consumer goods in the West and improved on them. They changed their more difficult-to-pronounce names, and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. This could be the very model that Chinese brands seek to emulate. Certainly China is on a mission to convert their ubiquitous “Made in China” labels that are commonly associated with everything plastic, little fantastic and not much other than low prices to recommend them. They’re in search of quality.

A hunt for Western brands to acquire has begun in earnest, and Chinese companies now own some of the West’s most iconic brands. In 2004, IBM sold their PC brand Thinkpad to Lenovo for $1.25 billion. In 2004, General Motors’ sold the Hummer brand to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company. In 2005, Nanjing Automative took over MG Rover, and in 2010, Zhejiang Geely Holding acquired Volvo Cars from Ford. Just this year, two separate Chinese companies ventured into the luxury yacht business when the Wantong group bought Dalla Pieta, and Shandong Heavy Industry Group bought Ferretti.

It’s just a matter of time before you will see many of the brands which are currently changing hands produce products and services you’d never associated with them before. When more than 50 copycat Apple stores were discovered last year, the well-loved logo adorned washing machines, vacuum cleaners and a range of clothing. All products, I might add, were designed to maintain the stylish look that has endeared so many consumers to the Apple brand. As a senior executive from one of the larger car companies in China explained over dinner, “We don’t know a lot about brands yet, so for the time being we’re forced to acquire known companies. Once we get it, I’m sure this trend will stop.”

Behind the scenes, a systematic knowledge transfer is taking place. As each brand expert is called in to consult, so there’s a Chinese executive learning whatever there is to be learned. It’s somewhat complicated by the fact that the desire for a specific brand is neither tangible nor quantifiable. In the meantime, new brands are being carefully crafted and targeted at mainland China. After all, there are a billion or so homeland customers to cater for first. Call it the learning phase. That, however, does not mean we will not be seeing Chinese brands any time soon. We certainly will, but they won’t be anything we expect.

I asked a Chinese client who manufactures one of the largest clothing lines in the country when he thought it would be a good time for the company to adopt an international name. After all, very few people outside of China would be able to read, let alone pronounce the name. He looked at me, and with all seriousness replied, “It’s time for the Westerners to learn some Chinese.” His is not an isolated attitude; rather it’s a widely held sentiment amongst Chinese senior management. Furthermore, the Chinese business elite prefer to run everything themselves granting only limited input and token ownership to Western companies. They’ll retain their brand-building principles, but that’s about it.

So don’t be surprised if sometime soon you come across brands that you cannot decipher, called names you cannot pronounce. You might just come to learn about them because they’ll be prominent, cheap, and appealing enough for you to buy, despite the obstacles. In the same way that China has spent decades selling cheap non-branded labour to the world, when they decide to focus on creating strong international brands, it will undoubtedly be done the Chinese way. When it happens, it will be happening on their terms, regardless of whether you want it or not.

[Photo mashup by: Joel Arbaje]

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Fast Company: How To Know When To Take A Madcap Career Chance

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed– June 20, 2012

According to an old Chinese proverb, we’re given three chances to succeed in life. If we use them wisely, we get another three. If not, I’m afraid that’s it. There will be no more.

It’s True: What’s Past Is Prologue

Way back in 1994, on a plane home from giving a talk in Montreal, Canada, the person sitting beside me began chatting about a country I’d never visited–Australia. It was somewhat strange in light of the fact that only just earlier in the day a middle-aged Australian man had approached me, asking if I could give his advertising agency advice on how to crack this new thing called the “world wide web.” Bear in mind that this was 1994, the year Netscape was invented, the very year the Internet as we know it today was born. It was one of those inexplicable synchronicities: two different people from a faraway country approaching me in the same afternoon.

I hadn’t been back in Denmark much longer than a few days when I received a call from the Australian adman. He said he happened to be in Copenhagen and would like to stop by my office for a chat, if that was okay with me. When he arrived he explained that the concept of the world wide web was still preoccupying him. “Martin,” he said, “how do you reckon we should handle this Internet thing at the agency?”

I found the serendipity of the situation hard to resist. I gave it a moment, took out a pen and scribbled a few lines on a napkin: “I hereby employ Martin Lindstrom to oversee all WWW activity for my agency. Signed, Glenn Williams.” I passed the napkin Glenn’s way. He took one look at it and said, “What a splendid idea!” And to my surprise, he signed it. The deal was done, and within a few weeks I was on a flight bound for Australia. My mission was to start up the online arm of BBDO in Asia and Australia.

Identifying Opportunities

As I emptied my desk ready for my new venture down under, a colleague asked, “How do all these interesting opportunities come your way? What do you do?” I didn’t know what to answer then, but I do now. Not only have I always had an eye open to adventure and opportunity, but I have always had a tendency to seize them the moment they occur. Herein lies the problem for many. Too few of us see the opportunities that are presented to us. Even fewer of us dare to meet them head on and run with them.

The interesting thing that I’ve learned over the years is, true to that old Chinese proverb, the more opportunities we act on, the more we get.  And that’s not all–the behavioral researcher and writer Paco Underhill, a good friend, recently asked me about the last time I applied myself to learning something completely new. I was surprised to realize 15 years had passed since I’d left college. It seems that we all too quickly fall into the comfort of our routines, and these, in turn, allow us to settle into comfort zones where very little that is new enters our personal sphere.

Not unlike some of the most innovative industries of our time that have got into a groove and rested on their laurels, we too get comfortable. Very few of us dedicate time and resources to evolve and educate ourselves. Even fewer set the bar higher to challenge ourselves beyond our area of comfort, and as another popular affirmation instructs: Life only begins at the end of the comfort zone.

How To Act Now–And Learn New Stuff

I fundamentally believe we should have at least three different bank accounts (if we can afford them). The first account is to pay the bills, put food on the table and a roof over our head. The second should be used for personal branding. In other words, to invest in your image and create a presence in your environment. This could be a website, a blog, or a personal vision and how you want to own it.  The final account should be dedicated to the sole purpose of evolving, educating and expanding your knowledge, insights and talent.

The more we’re preoccupied in our daily routines, the less time we spend learning new stuff. Even if it involves just taking the time to learn the finer details of the computer software you use every day. But that would only be a start.  I’m really imagining bigger and better than that.

I guess writing books for me is kind of my personal R&D budget. Quite some time ago, it dawned on me that I haven’t even begun investigating some of the crazy theories that swirl around my brain. Today, my R&D budget is all about that: conducting experiments and embarking on projects that may very well be plain crazy. Ideas, for example, like investigating health warnings on cigarette packs. How effective are they, or do they have the opposite effect of what’s intended, encouraging us to smoke more? After a $7 million study, I discovered that these warnings do indeed encourage more smoking. Another study revealed that the most powerful sound known to humans is the sound of a baby laughing.

Honestly, none of these hypotheses had much to do with my core business, and yet what I learned has become an essential part of what I do today. When I noticed how smokers looked at health warnings on cigarette packs before lighting up, I took a chance and decided to investigate this counter-intuitive notion. Had I not explored my simple observation further, my book Buyology wouldn’t exist.

The Future Is Unwritten

As we get older, we become more fearful of change. We are anxious about losing everything we’ve worked for. And yet the paradox of this is that we often lose it all when we do nothing. However, if we grab those (sometimes madcap) opportunities that come our way, the rewards are immense. Why don’t you try it?  The worst that can happen is you’ll be given another three opportunities. Not a bad payoff, if you ask me.

[Image: Olly via Shutterstock]


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Fast Company: Confessions Of A Brand Man

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – June 14, 2012

What bottles of rare, 170-year-old champagne, rescued from a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, tell us about the power of a brand’s story. And what we are willing to believe about why we want what we want.

What occurred in Finland last Friday was the culmination of a year’s intensive preparation involving 193 tons of the most advanced deep-sea recovery equipment. This much was certain: Christian Ekstrom, an amateur diver based in the remote Åland Islands, had no idea of what he had unearthed during a fairly routine dive he made during the summer of 2010. Who, after all, could possibly imagine that his find would result in one of the biggest branding exercises ever–or at least ever to take place in France?

When Ekstrom innocently slipped into the cold waters of the Baltic Sea in July of 2010 to explore a shipwreck 150 feet below the surface, he made an unusual discovery. It wasn’t a pristine Stradivarius, a Russian submarine, or trunks full of gold sovereigns and lost gemstones. No, what he found were 162 bottles of champagne. The ship most likely sank during a turbulent storm sometime between 1825 and 1830, and the champagne in the hold came from three distinguished houses: Heidsieck & Co., Veuve Clicquot, and the now-defunct Juglar.

Had the discovery been run-of-the-mill house wines, we would of course have heard very little about it. Yet the mystique of this effervescent liquid, traditionally produced with a blend of three particular grape types, grown in specific fields in the Champagne region in northeast France, excited every sommelier who has made the science of sparkling wine their life’s work–and, for that matter, anyone who appreciates a good yarn. Some sommeliers even assisted in recovering the bottles, carefully replacing the rope originally used to fix the corks, with metal, and then slowly raising them to the surface. Many were broken, and some had been contaminated, but of the 162 bottles, 79 were drinkable–perfectly stored in the icy, dark waters in which they lay.

Last week at an auction in Marlehamn, Finland, 11 bottles of 170-year-old champagne went on sale. Together, the champagne sold for an astounding $156,000, roughly $14,000 a bottle. The day after the auction I attended a birthday party at Veuve Clicquot’s headquarters in Reims, a city in the Champagne region of France. As luck would have it, at one point I found myself gazing upon one of these vintage bottles, a gift to Veuve Clicquot from government officials in the Åland Islands.

There I stood, a brand man who makes a living telling a good story to create the ultimate in illusion about commercial products, almost hypnotically drawn to this world of exclusive champagne. I felt the strong pull of needing to possess everything so stylishly displayed in the Veuve Clicquot showroom. I wanted the key rings, the notepads, the Rosé Fridge, and even the iPhone cover (even though I don’t use an iPhone).

The story hit home–and hard. Despite the fact that I’d spent a few hours earlier seeing the simplicity of champagne’s manufacturing methods, I’d been completely sucked in. I don’t want to diminish the importance of blend, bottle, soil and fruit, but the ingredients in a good bottle of champagne are not that complex–grapes, yeast, and a few twists of rock sugar.

Some years ago a team of sommeliers were asked to evaluate the quality of three different bottles of wine. Each bottle had a different price point–expensive, middling, and cheap. The sommeliers were hooked up to electrodes that scanned their brains as they carefully tasted each one. The results of the fMRI confirmed that the most expensive wine did indeed taste better. In contrast, the cheap wine registered a withdrawal response in the taste region of the sommeliers’ brains. Based on this result, one could be forgiven for believing that good wine justifiably costs more. Only there was a catch. The three bottles contained exactly the same wine. The sommeliers were just not aware of it.

If the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes was given a 21st century twist, it could easily be named The Emperor’s New Wine. Forget about Disney, Gucci or even our beloved Apple, there’s an industry out there that’s miles ahead of the marketing pack–the champagne industry, and it’s been going strong for about 500 years.

As my tour of the Champagne region came to an end, the last stop on the program was a small, unknown house located 13 miles from Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin in Reims. I entered through a simple grey cellar door with little grandeur in sight. The storage area doubled as a showroom. Bottles of bubbly were the only merchandise. Fairly illegible hand-written sheets on a table offered the house champagne for a remarkable €14.95 a bottle–a 300% discount over any bottle selling at the more prestigious champagne houses.

With less than an hour between two visits, something strange had occurred. The visitors’ knowing smiles and deep sighs that accompanied the tastings at Veuve Clicquot were absent. Even when the winemaker’s trophy was displayed alongside his prestige vintage, everyone seemed to have a foot out the door. They unanimously agreed that the quality was simply not there, a conclusion they’d reached before the last glass had been filled with the finest drops of the house.

One can’t help but wonder if this was a fair judgment. Or had we all just been captivated by grand stories, golden yellow labels, treasures from a shipwreck, a cork seal and bubbles that turned sparkling wine into champagne? Had we been seduced by the brand’s story rather than what was inside the bottle? No one will ever know.  But as I made my way out of the winegrower’s house, I came across a small boy. He first glanced at my elegantly wrapped Veuve Clicquot box, along with its heavily branded ice cooler, and then he simply looked directly at me. I imagined he was thinking, “Wow, I love that brand.” But then again, he could just as easily have been thinking, “Were you really that stupid?”  And I suppose, perhaps, we were.

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Fast Company: iPhone-Addicted Lego Lover Seeks Same For Fun, Romance, Brand Worship

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – May 30, 2012

If branders and marketers have their way, that’s how the personals of the near future will read.

It was a balmy summer day in July when Joe Sparano and his girlfriend Kristin Kaceric planned a picnic to celebrate the anniversary of their meeting. The couple met while working at a toy store, and as Joe describes it, they bonded over their shared love of LEGO.

But above and beyond the anniversary, something very special was about to happen. For six months Joe had been secretly working on three separate projects, which he planned to unveil at the picnic. The day came, and as they sat on their blanket sipping their favorite wine, Kristin unwrapped the gifts: The first was Building Set #7181, Joe called it “Kristin and Joe;” The second, #7182, “Our Favourite Things;” and the third, the piece-de-resistance, #7183, “Engagement Picnic.”

As Joe tells it, “Kristin gasped in surprise as soon as she unwrapped the last set. At that moment, I proposed with the LEGO ring, and she said yes!”

The very essence of what the LEGO brand stands for had initially brought Joe and Kristin together, and it was their shared passion for what they could create with colored plastic bricks that formed a bond that led to marriage.

A nice story, you might say, but is there more to it than this? Did the brand play a role in helping Joe and Kristin clarify their personal values? Did their shared love of the product help them realize that they had a common view of life? Or did LEGO merely fuel a common interest, which helped a young couple avoid awkward silences?

For insight into these questions, consider Cupidtino. It’s a dating website with a difference. The name is an amalgamation of Cupid (the god of love) and Cupertino (the California town where Apple, the god of tech, has its headquarters). On the opening page of their site, Cupidtino explains its raison d’être: “Diehard Mac & Apple fans often have a lot in common – personalities, creative, professions, a similar sense of style and aesthetics, taste, and a love for technology.” They boldly assert, “We believe these are enough fundamental reasons for two people to meet and fall in love.”  They may very well be on to something.

Brands are currently expanding their roles into every aspect of our lives–Armani is now in the hotel business, and Hello Kitty has its name on everything from vibrators to condoms to handbags to tooth caps. Brands have created perfectly defined universes with values and purpose, so much so that they’re not only influencing what we buy, but are also making inroads into how we behave.

A few years back, the results of a study conducted to determine if brand exposure motivates behavior was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The researchers determined that when primed with the Apple logo, respondents did indeed think different, and became more creative than when exposed to the IBM logo. Similarly, in a paper published by Psychological Science, Zhong and DeVoe flashed fast-food images in front of one group of participants. The second group was exposed to neutral images. The fast-food group were spurred on, reading a 320-word passage a full 15 seconds faster than the neutral group.

Could it be that the brands that surround us will soon represent more than just a way to navigate through the clutter of endless commercial offers, and will serve as a statement of who we are, who our friends are, and as in the case of LEGO and Cupidtino, who we’ll romantically connect with?

I interviewed 30 Hello Kitty fans for my latest book Brandwashed. What I learned was that most of the girls (each one the proud owner of more than 500 pieces of Hello Kitty merchandise) had one thing in common: they received their first Hello Kitty piece from their father when they were around six years old. Those that had boyfriends all revealed their Hello Kitty passion at the outset of the relationship, because if it came down to the boy or the brand, well, the brand came first.

It will not be surprising to see the tone of profiles on dating websites changing. The walking-on-the-beach-at-sunset clichés may soon be replaced with “Addicted to my iPhone,” or “Must be an Angry Birds devotee,” and perhaps even “Can’t life without Tide Ultra” might come out in the wash.  Pastimes or sports interests could be “Playing Wave Race on my Wii 2, wanna race?” Maybe the point of rendezvous will set the tone for the meeting.  “Prefer Double Whoppers to Big Macs, so meet you at Burger King”

This is not just pie-in-the-sky stuff. Just look at romantic aspirations detailed on any dating website. It’s a fact that with just six 8-stud LEGO bricks you can build over 102 million combinations, so imagine what awaits you in a world of around 25 million brands. If each brand represents its own spectrum of values, dreams, aspirations and desires, there are enough possibilities and combinations to find at least a billion connections.  It might just come to pass that the collection of brands we have in our home will lead us to people who share the same brand combinations. As the future stretches ahead, we might very well find that it is brands that are instrumental in connecting us to others in the most profound ways.

[Image mashup by: Joel Arbaje]


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