There is a moment in the life of a word when it becomes a ‘buzzword’. Its true meaning, if ever even surfaced, is lost forever in favor of opportunistic and inappropriate use. But there’s a much worse fate a word can suffer: defilement.
While ‘authenticity’ has joined the ranks of business buzzwords, ironically leading to many copycats and actually no authenticity, ‘brand’ is still being thrown around without any sense of responsibility and without a proper understanding of its meaning. And how can brand specialists, let alone business owners, build successful brands if there is no clear understanding of what a brand actually is and what it should accomplish?
To find out more about the reality of a brand and how can one become authentic, valuable, and meaningful again, Brandingmag sat down with Ian Humphris, Founder & CEO of Nokamo, a pretty authentic marketing consultancy, co-founded along with former MD of LIFE agency, Rachel Deacon. Nokamo is unique and straight forward, promising to make its clients agitated and uncomfortable in order to get the best results, and Ian is no different in that aspect. Here’s what he has to say:
Brandingmag: Having well over two decades of serving on the marketing front, what are your views on authenticity?
Ian Humphris: From my point of view, authenticity has always been about the effective application of marketing’s fundamental principles and practice, weaponized against a client’s commercial ‘challenge’. Knowing marketing’s role is much more powerful than advertising or communications.
Authenticity is being able to have a coherent conversation about the discipline. The platforms, tools, and ‘science’ required to get to conditions that build a client’s P&L (profit and loss). Knowing that when marketing is demeaned by ignorance of the practice (i.e., comms-led tactical thinking), being subsumed and defined by shoddy social media or purpose-led nonsense… is maddening.
Bm: The “buzzword plague” has undoubtedly infected brands on all levels. What are the outcomes of a defiled perception of what is an authentic brand?
IH: I must start with what a brand actually is. Not in an Instagram, influencer, Love Island, high-school definition of a brand, but the proper definition, the commercial one. Because ‘brand’ is a curious word and concept that is mostly misused because it is misunderstood.
A brand is simply a mechanism by which to create value. Something that can be created, that has the capacity to generate EBITDA. The curation and deployment of resources, executed into a market where consumers can get their hands on it in exchange for cash. Thus, creating demand and generating sales from which a profitable supply is made. A brand’s success must be determined by its ability to build a sustainable balance sheet. Marketing is the ‘governor’ of brands, the owner. A master and puppet relationship. Marketing creates and destroys them.
If this — in a commercial context — is the role and definition of a brand, then over the last 10 years the definition has been distorted and misappropriated — it has been defiled.
A brand is simply a mechanism by which to create value.
Contestants on The Apprentice call themselves a ‘brand’, startups with nothing but big dreams call themselves brands — when in reality, they’re just names, labels, or logos. So, an authentic brand has to fulfill many criteria; at the very least it must have the ability to generate EBITDA and be price-elastic so people are prepared to choose and pay (more) for it than a rival. By achieving this, it will have earnt a place in people’s lives as a result of being promoted in a relevant way that created demand in the first place.
Bm: Is the lowest-price race of clone brands the status quo of modern commerce — ironically, in an age where the marketing banter is filled with “disruption” and “innovation”?
IH: Clone brands are the status quo for most sectors; most competitive markets are full of brands that look, smell, and sound the same. Cookie cutters, copycats of each other.
Benchmarking — once a strategic management tool — has been misappropriated and is now nothing more than a glorified photocopier. Brand owners, product developers, and ad agencies merely copying what the market leaders have done in a hope to emulate. All that actually produces is parrot-fashion: a load of stuff that is all the same. And when consumers can’t tell the difference or aren’t shown or told the difference, they have their own shortcut: price. Price becomes the new differentiator and this just becomes a story of cost out and discounts. Which, inevitably, is a race to the bottom and certain doom.
Disruption is a relative term. On the Northern Line, it means a 2-minute delay. For brands, disruption often means no more than standard practice. It’s all about definition. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s invader. Marketing folk love to talk about it, yet the action rarely appears. Marketing’s job is to create a disruption in a market — chaos, in fact. To create an event or series of events (be it a price, product, distribution, or comms event) that wrecks the status quo. That jolts consumers out of the category norms and autopilot, making them stand up and take notice.
Bm: How do the B2B and B2C sectors compare in terms of opportunity and ability, when talking about differentiation and brand identity?
IH: It’s B2C brands that built modern marketing techniques, tools, and execution. FMCG brands, with the help of academia, developed and honed the discipline as we know it today. P&G created the practice of ‘brand management’. Sports brands and laterally tech brands have moved it on again. Yet B2B is nowhere.
Very few of the established techniques regarding segmentation, targeting, and positioning have been weaponized as they have in B2C. In particular, propositions in B2B are — generally speaking — appalling. B2B consumers are still consumers. For some reason, this sector treats people like androids. Nobody wants boring, unimaginative, predictable descriptors of your widget, service, or product. Sure, this plays a role, but marketing’s job isn’t to write tech specs and deliverables.
B2B firms need to learn more about the classic buyer’s journeys (barriers, motivations, pains, etc.) and produce insights and creative that meets these accordingly and proportionately. They also need to take their blinkers off, sniff around, and open their eyes: You’re not in a monopoly. Why do you think saying the same thing as everyone else is gonna be successful?!
Look at the market and your competition. You’re all saying the same things, FFS!
All B2B sectors have a massive opportunity to ‘do different’, to operate as a B2C brand. Sure, it’s not for everyone. Sure, legacy BS will get in the way. But the pioneers, the shapeshifters, recognize that extremely competitive and commoditized markets need more than standard, predictable fayre to stay relevant and profitable beyond the norm.
Be conspicuous. Do, act, produce, and serve in a way that’s unexpected and different. Something that better deploys the tools and methodologies from the marketing-superior B2C competence. It’s more difficult to get there but the rewards are far greater.
Bm: What are the influences of the brand on a business’s market growth? How does a truly unique identity help and can its added value be measured in any way?
IH: Per my previous answer, a brand’s job is that of the business and is measured by the strength of the demand side on the P&L: profitable and sustainable sales. A successful brand will grow penetration and market share ahead of the competition and the other KPIs of the sector.
The simple laws of supply & demand, economic scarcity, and price elasticity — and, as a consequence of all of them, profitability — require a brand/business to be dealing in something that is exceptional to the market. The ‘law of diminishing returns’ will show that the more closely matched brand A is to brand B, the lesser the likelihood of the key KPI’s being anything other than diminishing.
Businesses with brands vs. products, names, or labels should see those brands invested in. Strategic investment for brand building and long-term purposes, and tactical investments for annual sales cycles. One should not be mixed up with the other.
Performance marketing (tactical metrics) is a helluva drug that supports short-term sales cycles through a variety of means. A power shift has occurred that has seen resources moved away from long-term activity in the misadventure that short term is all that’s required. This is a supply-side argument. The job of marketing is demand-side. More understanding of the balance is required.
Bm: You recently followed the rather bold direction of ridding the SME brands of the BS that’s keeping them in the ever-growing culture of mimicry. Is your agency’s identity a fully-working representation of that vision?
IH: “Tell me a joke, don’t tell me you’re funny”.
Funny people don’t need to tell other people they’re funny, they just make them laugh. People who aren’t funny spend all their time trying to convince others they are, rather than just proving it. Likewise, with marketing services companies, clients have a good idea of what most deliver: strategic, creative, and production services. It’s hygiene, an expectation. To talk about this, to be nothing more than a list of deliverables, a set of channels that you work in and fulfill the expectations that already exist is about the dumbest proposition on the planet. Ironically, the typical agency website selling point, about them being creative and strategic, appears lost in a rush to pile up a load of rubbish case studies.
We cannot ask clients to be conspicuous, singular, and agitating in the market if we’re not prepared to drink our own kool-aid. The worst thing for any proposition is to try and appeal to everyone. In making choices around target and route to market, there’s an acceptance that this won’t be for everyone. But that’s OK. There are enough buyers in the world. That’s what strategy is: sacrifice. Go stand for ‘something’, not ‘some things’.
Bm: Furthermore, you adopted an industry-odd economic model — that of the fixed fee. How did you arrive at this decision and how is it working out so far? What are the main differences compared to other, more standard, models?
IH: The clients we work with value experience, capability, and knowledge, and understand that this isn’t a low-cost proposition because of the resource we need to attract and deploy to deliver the work. Rate cards — and all they entail — are a hangover from a bygone era. A mechanism that erodes trust, places an extraordinary administrative burden on everyone involved, and does nothing but relegate ‘value’ to that of measured costs. Our clients have the maturity to understand this and procure us accordingly.
We provide exceptional value for money, and for that reason we’re not expensive. The price inevitably is what people will pay. We’ve been told our proposition and product deliver exponential impact and are, therefore, priced accordingly.
In addition, we have a number of equity deals with our clients. Where a proportion of fee is sacrificed for a share of our client’s business. We believe in what we’re doing, in defining businesses, defining the brand’s marketing strategy, comms, and media tactics we’re deploying and see no reason not to take part in the game. We put our money where our mouths are.
Bm: Can you describe what a future in which brand authenticity has been reduced to zero and the only battlefront remains that of the lowest price would look like? What would be the implications for both brands and customers?
IH: We’re already with one foot in the future you describe. Many sectors — in both B2C and B2B — have self-diminished the idea of brands. The concept of ‘brand’ has been reduced to merely a ‘label’, as what comes with it is nothing different or distinguishable from their nearest competitor. Products and services that are clones of each other, cookie-cutter offers for sale that look, sound, and smell the same. Cars, bread, clothes, law firms, banks — every sector is swimming in an echo chamber of itself.
When brands and all the associated experiences become interchangeable with each other, in a consumer’s mind, they only have one way of telling the difference: price. In the end, when little by way of originality or authenticity is promoted, price becomes a shortcut to a brand’s difference and distinction. How depressing.
That said, it’s probably deserved. If the brand owner is too lazy to identify and show to consumers the difference to another’s brand and, crucially, why it’s worth paying more for, then the consumer’s default will be to judge it on price alone. When brands are judged on price alone, it quickly becomes a promotion-arms race to the lowest published price. Insert race to the bottom. Insert redundancy notices to the brand team.
In a dystopian world where price is the only differentiator, we’re suddenly in a cost-out operating model. One where all efforts are centered around taking money out of the process to deliver a good or service to the consumer. Where innovation, promotion, distribution — everything — has to be the cheapest it can be. And inevitably, there’s a jeopardy to this: One where consumers’ decisions, if based solely on price, with no other loyalties, are susceptible to switching. The next ‘slightly-lower-cost-operator’ that appears in the market will then steal share. The market is rotten.
In short: Communism and utility – zero competition, zero choice, zero life.
Bm: What advice can you give to branding professionals around the world? How can their work and the brands they create become authentic, valuable, and meaningful again?
- Sacrifice to drive a singular meaning. Don’t be afraid to be binary.
- Be comfortable in doing something different to the market. Know it will polarise. Know it will create fans and detractors. But sitting on the fence only ever gave someone a sore arse.
- Most importantly, know that your objective is to drive EBITDA by creating something meaningful that people are prepared to pay more for. Learn how to do this by reading books. Anything by Byron, Kotler, or Ritson is a good place to start.
Cover image source: Nokamo