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Time to be brave
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Time to be brave

Agencies and brands need to be brave in an ever more competitive landscape

I can’t think of one line of business that doesn’t encounter intense competition. Even those sectors that have ridiculously high barriers to entry are fair game (just think space travel!)

No one is safe. No one can coast, sit back and just expect their product or service to fly off the shelves. There’s no room for dead wood.

And that’s a good thing. It pushes us to continually question and challenge, iterate and innovate. If you stand still you die. One of our clients once said to me that they were actually very happy with what their business had achieved. Yet if he didn’t continue to plough onwards in his quest to continually improve and reinvent his proposition it was tantamount to going backwards.

This melting pot of competition also means that differentiation is harder than ever to achieve, and if you manage to do so it’s even harder to sustain as the landscape changes so quickly. Take your eye off the ball and a competitor will have matched the quality of product, service or level of innovation quicker than you can say ‘patent pending’! Apple had it good for several years with the iPhone, yet they now find themselves in a marketplace where smartphone choice is saturated with endless innovation and intense competition, mostly from the Far East.

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, right?

Well if that’s the case and we are all up against it, and we know it, then the results of a recent survey run by Creative Review in collaboration with Opinion Research are a bit bemusing.

In the survey 2,000 ‘changemakers’ across 10 global markets were questioned about their opinion of brands. The top line message that comes across loud and clear from the report is that a 70% average figure of interviewees think brands all look alike, sound alike, follow the same strategies and PLAY IT SAFE!

Apparently, in a world where it’s more competitive than ever, we are less distinct!

But hold on a second you sceptics, reality check! The survey doesn’t give us any of the detail i.e. what were these people asked? In what context were the questions framed? What aspect of brands were being considered?

OK, let’s for a second suggest that we don’t buy it. There is no black and white after all, right? The entire world hasn’t stopped developing surprising and exciting brand work over-night. So, a sweeping statement like that can’t be true can it?

However, agree with the survey or not, you’ve got to acknowledge that there’s no smoke without fire, and I’m seeing increasing stories about brand work that has spawned the tag ‘blanding’. While there are undoubtedly examples out there of creative excellence (just look at the nominees in The Drum design awards), there is an underlying tone of despair around the homogenisation of branding.

For me, being ‘distinct’ is always a key driver behind what we try to do for our clients, and always has been (everything’s changed, nothing’s changed). It is vitally important for every part of the brand to strive to make its own space if it is to be authentic and cohesive.

Yet these days I’m seeing a counter mentality. Is it simply about progress? In this instance, I think it’s anything but. This sad indictment of branding led Creative review to deliver their bad news under the heading ‘Is creativity in crisis?’. Let me tell you this with no uncertainty… HELL NO!

As a huge fan of our industry I’m awe of many of our agency compatriots. There’s a wealth of beautiful design out there that I find it impossible not to be inspired by. Our creative industry is alive, well and thriving! Especially in the UK where we are lucky to have some of the most incredible creative minds in the world.

Also, as a father of a final year student studying Graphic Design and about to enter the creative world, it is a really exciting time for design and ‘the future’s bright’. These kids are born into a world where anything is possible as far as they are concerned. They’re prepared to experiment with technology to develop fresh ideas and unique approaches, using AI, AR, VR  – whatever will deliver dynamic solutions.

So, what’s the problem then? What’s holding us back?

First and foremost, it’s a short-term mentality.

And let’s face it, you can’t really blame clients for being sucked into it. Our whole world revolves around short-term thinking. We want everything now. We want to buy it now. Eat it now. Go there now. Watch it now. There is no WAIT. So why should shareholders, owners, stakeholders, boards etc. be any different?

Most businesses want quick wins (likes, clicks, views, sign-ups etc.) and they are happy to spend their money to get them – if you can PROVE you can get them! They think that’s where the magic is going to happen, where the pot of gold resides. ‘Conjure me up a viral video and make it snappy’!

But short-term only papers over the cracks. Short-term doesn’t build momentum. Short-term is short sighted!

That’s where brand building comes in as the only sensible counter strategy. It’s the long-term course of treatment that promises full and sustainable growth and it’s been proven time and again that building and nurturing a strong brand pays dividends. It’s incontrovertible. Or is it?

I’ve discovered countless academic studies and journalistic articles that point to the benefits garnered by a strong brand orientated business culture. But here’s the rub; not only does it take time, it takes commitment, dedication and investment.

I know there are those who are reluctant to embrace the power of brand and subsequently design, as a result they devalue its importance and settle for sub-standard work believing it doesn’t make a difference. And many organisations haven’t got the patience! They don’t see the benefit of undertaking the commitment required for a long-term brand building strategy versus the short-term approach of chasing sales. There are simply some who’s minds will not be moved, whatever evidence is provided!

But more worryingly, for some that DO bite the bullet and engage with a brand development program, there is a failure to see a complete brand strategy through to its conclusion with total conviction!

The trouble is that when you consider the competitive environment I described on opening this article, and you couple it with an audience that is more discerning and has more choice at their fingertips than ever before, then there is one more key ingredient that is sadly lacking.


I know. Easy for me to say, but I never said it was easy! Add into the mix a volatile business environment with huge uncertainty and things start to look even more difficult. And difficult they may prove to be if companies continue to hold back and fail to fully implement a strong brand strategy.

Brands more than ever before must stand for something, as the evidence suggests good is no longer good enough. Lacklustre brands don’t deliver an emotional edge, and for those schooled in human behaviour you’ll know that emotion is the biggest driver behind purchase, whether b2b or b2c!

In a highly saturated and competitive world brands must renounce the urge to play it safe. Those who win are those who aren’t afraid to step out of the shadows, to do things differently, who aren’t afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve and make some noise! Surely there is no reaction to a brand worse than ‘Meh’!

Is this just me sounding off? Well maybe. But I’ve experienced enough with some of our clients to see for myself what bravery and commitment to a long-term strategy can achieve.

Take for example our client Vevox, an audience engagement app. The company were actually called Meetoo when we first met, and as you can imagine Harvey Weinstein hadn’t made life particularly easy for them! They could have buried their heads in the sand hoping the  #Metoo movement would all go away, for fear of alienating the user-base that they had worked so hard to build up. Many would have. But they were brave, changed their name, changed their strategy, and were convinced to not only change their identity but embraced the idea of a bold, illustrative approach to their communications rather than a conventional stock photography solution. And they saw it through, survived and were reinvigorated.

Another example is Andertons Music Co., a contemporary music instrument retailer established in 1964. They approached us for a logo change, ‘anything goes as long as it’s blue’ was the brief. But we delivered a new strategy, celebrated and championed their provenance, uncovered their purpose and proposed a complete rebrand from top to bottom. They could have ignored us and insisted on a brand ‘evolution’ for fear of upsetting a customer base that love the company, quite literally!

However, research told us that while the company are indeed adored, their customers didn’t feel their ‘supermarket’ look lived up to the experience. So, they trusted us, all the way. Two years later; strategy implemented, brand new identity unveiled, new website, flagship store redesigned – and their global industry body votes them as the No.1 retailer in the world – the first outside of the US!

When customers are showing less and less appetite for brand loyalty brands need to demonstrate passion and understanding but also enthusiasm and vigour. They need to capture the imagination of an ever more sceptical audience. Playing it safe will almost certainly water down a proposition and result in an underwhelming brand essence that will have little chance of cut-through. Surely it is better to be remembered for something rather than nothing? ‘Something’ will have some fans somewhere. ‘Nothing’ will entice no one!

But hey, we get it! We’re on your side. I imagine marketers are frustrated too!

There is often mooted a will to open-up to new markets from above. To explore new opportunities and embrace new thinking without the commitment to do so, with a nervousness around risk; risk of compromising current sales, of upsetting the existing customer base.

But I think the real risk is what my client described to me, that standing still is effectively going backwards! It also reminds me of something I once heard an old football coach say; “go into a tackle with conviction, if you don’t you are more likely to get hurt”!

Being brave doesn’t mean being stupid! And this is where due diligence and a thorough approach comes in - any agency worth their salt does a healthy amount of research to really understand the business landscape, they are unlikely to suggest a solution that is completely mad! But there will be the opportunity to disrupt the market, to stand out, to be bold and put a marker down. To differentiate yourself. To be a bright light rather than a pathetic glow!

Will it upset a few die-hard loyalists in the short term? It might! It might even mean you get a few less ‘likes’ initially, but the reward far outweighs the risk. And if you do a good job of it, will you really alienate your existing customers? Wouldn’t they actually be happy that you have improved?

It takes a willingness to be bold, commitment to a solid strategy, and trust in your agency. Remember, we want the best for you, and we only win if you do. Our job is to create and communicate something meaningfully different and memorably distinctive. And we must be allowed to do it, together.

I urge you not to shy away from the challenge and grasp the opportunity with both hands.

It’s better to burn out than fade away!

Posted 29 April 2019 by Darren Cornwall