Strategy has come to pervade every aspect of our lives but its roots are in fact in the language of war. Sir L. Freedman, a professor of war studies at King’s College London, recently wrote a big book about this big topic: the history of strategy.
As it is always good to understand the roots of your profession, I went to a discussion of the book at the RSA to see if there are any relevant learnings for a brand strategist in the 21st century. And there were:
1. Live with uncertainty
According to Freedman, strategists have always tried to eliminate uncertainty and control the future by making plans that lead them to an aspired goal. However, this excludes an important aspect: Human beings and their nature of acting unpredictably. As Mike Tyson puts it: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”. So making plans is important, but constantly adapting and updating them to a changed environment even more so.
2. Be ironic
In the talk Freedman mentioned irony as a way to deal with uncertainty. This means thinking about potential failure and the consequences thereof.
Strategists definitely spend too little time thinking about scenarios where a strategy would fail. We do this as it is more convenient, there is too little time or because we simply want to ignore certain facts that don’t support our argument.
Dealing with these scenarios and exploring the weaknesses of a strategy will make a more flexible and future proof.
3. Never stop
Most war strategists worked towards a final goal, the victory in a ‘decisive battle’. This thinking neglects that reaching a goal inevitably opens up new questions and the way the goal was reached influences the nature of these new challenges.
Way too often, brand strategy is still seen as one-off project with external support and a defined end. Instead, clients should see brand strategy as an ongoing task for which they sometimes need external support and sometimes they don’t.
4. Form coalitions
Freedman sees coalitions rather as a secondary option if one cannot dominate or outsmart the competitors. This may have been true in the past centuries, but in today’s complex and fast moving world it is illusionary to be dominant in all relevant business areas.
In brand strategy it is absolutely crucial to identify the few areas where a brand can be dominant. However, it is maybe even more important to identify the right partners to extend the reach and capabilities of a brand, which often is the smartest way to reach your goals.
Freedman’s 750 pages are not a must for every strategist, but his main insights can help us to avoid the mistakes that were done in the past and are so easily repeated.
So let’s expect to be punched in the face and prepare a plan to get up on our feet!
Stefan Emrich is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins London.
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ACCOUNT MANAGEMENT (NY) We’re looking for an energetic, one-of-a-kind account management intern to work with our team in our New York City office. Working under our top account managers, you’ll support a range of client projects and gain real perspective on the many ways we help clients achieve their business and brand goals. You’ll get to: • Creatively problem solve a diverse range of challenges, from keeping projects on-time and on-budget, to helping brainstorm and pin down that next ‘big idea’ • Collaborate closely with an eclectic group of experts in design, strategy and production • Manage the many, many details that need to come together to create big impact
ACCOUNT/STRATEGY HYBRID (SF) We’re looking for a kick-ass strategy/account management intern to work with our teams in San Francisco and New York. You’ll work on a range of internal and client projects, experiencing firsthand how brands are created and evolved. This internship is based in San Francisco. You’ll get to: • Research into clients worlds and their competitors • Look at macro trends • Work with teams, helping to keep them organized and developing itineraries • Provide background information and research to support new business pitches • Help to identify potential partners here in the Bay Area
You should be: • Super resourceful • Tidy minded and organized • Really likes people and working with people • Happy to throw themselves in and roll their sleeves up • Curious about what is happening in the world • Ideally has some knowledge of the Bay Area
DESIGN NY and DESIGN SF (specify location) We’re looking for two crazy, innovative, digital savvy design interns, one in NY and one in SF. There are no “junior” designers at Wolff Olins. Even our interns require a certain instinct and raw skill from the start. The work we aim to deliver is bold, ambitious and different. The primary role for an intern is to explore. This is the creative position freest from other responsibilities that come with longer tenure or seniority at Wolff Olins. Design interns should see this as an opportunity to learn and grow through collaboration and exposure to others on their teams. During the internship you’ll get to experiment and contribute to design solutions for a number of different clients.
We’re looking for someone who: • Has strong graphic design and typography skills and experience in Adobe Creative Suite. • Really, really, creative! • MUST have strong skills in MOTION (animation, 3D, film/editing) and/or digital prototyping a HUGE PLUS • Curious about the world and passionate about brands • Energetic and enthusiastic • Collaborative and fun • Experience in After Effects is a huge PLUS.
BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT (NY) The business development intern will assist the US-based business development team with various projects, supporting the revenue generation plan for North America. The intern’s primary responsibility will be to identify and vet opportunities through research and analysis of companies in the news, as well as new business inquiries, and other in-coming opportunities. The intern will learn to craft an opportunity analysis to allow management to quickly and confidently assess promising opportunities, and then package research findings concerning qualified leads into a briefing kit for the pitch team. This individual will also help prepare sales collateral (for outreach and responses to requests for information) by creating and/or aggregating assets that leverage the most relevant content available in order to position Wolff Olins in the best possible light. Finally, based on the needs of the WO business development team, the intern will be assigned a project to complete in collaboration with interns from other disciplines. Requirements: • Some knowledge of or exposure to business development in an agency environment or other professional services category • Highly motivated with a passion for identifying new opportunities • Knowledgeable of the general business landscape • Analytic ability demonstrated by research skills • Interpersonal skills, sociable, confident • Self starter, resourceful and able to work independently • Proficient at using the entire Microsoft Office Suite especially PowerPoint and Excel • Reliable, organized, detail-oriented • Able to prioritize quickly and to readjust priorities throughout the day
MARKETING (NY) We’re looking for an intern to work with our team in New York and liaise with counterparts in San Francisco and London. In this role, you’ll focus on creating content and contributing to social media platforms. You’ll gain hands-on experience creating, writing and promoting our thinking and work related to brand, business, technology and design. You’ll get to: • Work with our global content manager on social media community management • Partner with members of our marketing, new business and strategy teams to write and develop content for our owned channels (e.g. blog, newsletter, social media) • Provide background information and research to support proactive media outreach
We’re looking for someone who is: • Super resourceful • Self-starter and proactive • Strong writer • Well versed in social networking sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook • Curious about what’s happening in the world of business, technology and design • Passionate about branding, marketing, business or communication
STRATEGY (NY) We’re looking for a digitally-minded strategy intern to work with our team in New York City on a range of client projects. You’ll play at the intersection of brand and technology, experiencing firsthand how brands are created and brought to life. You’ll get to: • Contribute to the development of brand strategies • Explore emerging technologies and help build new brand experiences • Research and analyze markets, trends, and behaviors • Develop new business pitches and proposals
We’re looking for someone who is: • On the pulse of technology + culture • Fluent in the language of entrepreneurship + experience design • Curious about the world + passionate about brands • A clear + analytical thinker • A great storyteller + strong writer • Collaborative + fun!
Additional: We’re also interested in what you find interesting (beyond the bottom of your resume!), so if you have a blog, Twitter feed, portfolio or something else of that nature, we’d love to see it!
Last week we held our first-ever MakeShop at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. The event was our excuse to get some of our favorite partners, clients, friends and family together to dive deeper in the behaviors we explored in our latest Game Changers report.
In the spirit of making, we worked with Henrik Werdelin and Philip Ingemann Petersen, of Prehype, the venture development firm that’s helped companies ranging from Verizon to News Corp incubate and spin out new businesses. We heard from Jake Barton, principal and founder of Local Projects, whose media design firm reinvents public space through collaborative storytelling experiences like Storycorps, the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and Change By Us. And we wrapped up the day getting our hands dirty (as dirty as littleBits will get you) learning how to prototype our product ideas with Bethany Koby, the founder of Technology Will Save Us.
With the winter Olympics in Sochi fast approaching, the issues surrounding these games are generating increasing attention. Russia’s oppression of human rights, specifically gay rights, has spurred outcry from a number of groups for a boycott by the United States team. Team GB has received similar protests to their participation. Both countries have declined to withdraw, largely on the basis that it would be unfair to the athletes who have prepared their entire life for the event. It seems a legitimate argument – the Olympics are central to the identity of many of these athletes and to deny them participation would be a cruel punishment to the wrong people.
In actuality, it’s choosing to participate in the Olympics that’s the bigger opportunity. Rather than stepping out of the spotlight, nations and brands can step into it – but with a message. Participating in the Olympics can bring human rights issues to the world stage in a positive and proactive way. President Obama put it quite well, “One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which would, I think, go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there.” The US could bring the identities of these athletes to the forefront of its own Olympic brand – unifying in a celebration of the accomplishments of gay athletes, maybe even selecting a gay athlete as the flag bearer. Such uplifting events could rally a global community in support of human rights.
A tactful engagement of other brands could help make the point. As gay rights have progressed in the United States, a number of brands have made a point to show their support. By collaborating with these brands, the US team would fortify its own position. A company like Kenneth Cole, Levis, or Banana Republic could design the ceremonial uniforms. JetBlue, Expedia, or Orbitz could be the official travel partner. All the brand partners could be encouraged to bring their human rights advocacy to their team USA relationship in some way or another. Could Nike modify the US flag on uniforms in some way? Or create a special version of the multicolor flyknit sneakers?
The United States is making the right decision by participating in the 2014 Olympics. Participation can send a powerful and poignant message. It can convene and invigorate a community of advocates – from the biggest brand to the single person. And it can catalyze a massive, international push for equal rights.
Harry Rosenbaum is a strategist at Wolff Olins New York.
As we’re all finding out, consumers no longer simply consume. They’re active, skeptical, creative and entrepreneurial — and being an activist consumer is no longer a minority pursuit. This year, Wolff Olins and Flamingo have partnered to uncover consumer behaviors that are moving from the fringe to the mainstream. On September 23, come join our conversation moderated by WIRED on the changing relationship between people and brands, why it can’t be ignored by marketers, and lessons that can help you profit from these cultural shifts.
Netflix is on a roll, right? House of Cards was catnip for West Wing withdrawal sufferers, Arrested Development whipped comedy nerds into a frenzy and now Orange is the New Black is taking TV (as we now know it) by storm. Even Ryan Seacrest was moved to humor on Twitter: “Orange is the new black is the new gluten free diet”.
So, what’s their secret? The creation of a TV hit is (I imagine) a complex mixture of talent, timing, funding and magic. But the New York Times also identified a more fundamental variable that boils down to a shift in TV business models: from a “third-party-decider economy” to viewer-first. In short, where shows were traditionally created for “broad, unobjectionable appeal” to please advertisers, “Netflix predicates its model around the person watching the show, [and] needs to provide content that the viewer deems worthy of $7.99 a month”.
Good news for us as viewers. And just one example of a larger TV renaissance spearheaded by Netflix and HBO, but also embraced by broadcasting pioneers (like the BBC) and some cable players (see AMC). Technology that allows viewers to binge, time-shift, and watch on a variety of screens is encouraging a new type of TV. Storytelling can be longer form, less reliant on the episode-ending cliffhanger, more niche, less conventional. Stars, directors and writers can find freedom of expression not possible in the blockbuster rat race of movie making.
Is this the golden age of TV? Perhaps that’s a little hasty. From an economic point of view there’s still a long way to go before any one company breaks through the network strong-hold in the US (although Aereo is trying hard to trample that path). But there’s no doubt that TV is back on the map as place to go for quality entertainment. Because TV is finally putting us first, and it shows.
Amy Lee is a Senior Strategist at Wolff Olins New York.
Refinery29 was founded in 2005 with the idea of providing a highly curated, edited take on all things cool in New York City. Fast-forward 8 years later… Refinery29 has grown from local to global, from 4 to 120 (and counting), from start-up to one of the most visited lifestyle sites online – and one of Inc.’s fastest growing private companies in 2012.
Talk about growth at Internet speed!
Not only has Refinery29 deservedly garnered an avid community of users/consumers – they’ve been continually successful on the investment front, recently securing an additional $5.6M of private investment to help scale the business into new categories and new geographies.
Today marks another historic moment in the company’s impressive track record – the launch of a redesigned website and new brand identity that reflects Refinery29’s ambition to keep pushing boundaries and challenging the conventions of what it means to be an online media business.
In the fall of 2012, Refinery29 asked Wolff Olins to help crystallize and position their brand for the next chapter of development and growth. The co-founding team was looking to establish both a strategy and an identity that better reflected who they are, where they came from and where they are going.
In a rapid three-month sprint, we worked hand-in-hand with the Refinery29 team to establish a clear brand strategy and decision-making filter to help guide internal beliefs and behaviors moving forward. We then used that strategy to inform the development of a bold, new identity – a process of collaboration and iteration, ultimately landing on a final expression that stays true to their cool kid core, while pushing them into the future. The mark itself is an evolution – an unexpected but magnetic mix of lines, curves, and alignment that caught our eyes from day 1 and over time came into its own, much like the brand it represents.
For Refinery29, this process was all about articulating and owning their inherent juxtapositions as a brand – how to defy the mainstream while defining the mainstream, how to get big and stay cool, how to be mass and stay indie – maximalist yet edited, how to be content and commerce, advertising and editorial – all at the same time. For a brand with such big ambition and opportunity, it’s only fitting to see them stand amongst a crowd of highly deserving peers.
It has been an absolute honor to collaborate with the Refinery29 team – we can’t wait to see what’s in store for them next!
“He thinks he’s tough (his favorite movie is The Godfather)…but really, he’s not (Shawshank Redemption is a close second)…and he definitely has a sense of humor (Caddyshack rounds out the list of favorites).”
That quip - along with a few other gems- came from a talk with Bonobos' VP of Marketing, Craig Elbert, during last week's OpenCo event in NYC.
This retailer’s spot-on understanding and articulation of its audience is one reason Bonobos is a rising brand, one to watch and learn from over the next few years.
Here are a few others:
They’re online first and foremost
This may seem obvious now, but it’s amazing how few retailers actually treat the web as #1. For Bonobos, the original insight was realizing that many men don’t like the pressure-filled, often overwhelming experience of shopping in a brick and mortar store (it’s not laziness, it’s more like aversion).So they started all-in online, making sure to go well beyond the costs of entry.Things like Bonobos’ customer ‘Ninjas’ (all college graduates) and free shipping/returns help to alleviate the otherwise “high-friction” situation of ordering an expensive, fit-sensitive item online.
Sensing that some men do, in fact, want to feel certain items before ordering them (“There are two things people like to touch before buying: suits, and Tupperware”), Bonobos made an early small bet, turning the lobby of their NY headquarters into what they call a Guideshop.The thinking was: why not invite people in, let them have a beer, and give them a one-on-one consultant and a casual environment in which to try on clothes.The approach proved successful – both in terms of purchase metrics (Guideshop visitors place double the average order value, and come back to Bonobos faster for a second purchase) and in helping the company better understand their customers. Craig Elbert told us at OpenCo “before the Guideshops, we just knew the majority of our customers were guys…now we can actually have conversations and learn.” They’ve since opened 5 more experiential spaces (in addition to a much publicized partnership with Nordstrom).
They’re smart about sub-brands
Bonobos has already shown an eye for spotting new opportunities.After one employee realized there was nowhere for him to buy “Arnold Palmer inspired, bad-ass classics,” Maide was born.While clothiers like Nike and Callaway are making performance-focused items, Bonobos is bringing fitted style back to the greens.
If you’re not following these guys on twitter yet, be sure to check them out: @bonobos (for announcements, general brand talk) and @bonobosninjas (to see how they’re using twitter as a two-way conversation tool)
Sam Liebeskind is a strategist at Wolff Olins New York. Follow him at @samliebeskind
Buycott is a new app designed to support voting with your wallet.
Created by Los Angeles-based developer Ivan Pardo, the app helps people scan the barcode on a product to see which companies own it, and avoid companies whose principles they disagree with – such as those owned by the Koch brothers, or who oppose labeling GMOs. The app provides contact information for each company, and includes a family tree of corporate lineage, linking smaller brands to the bigger ones that own them, and as Fast Company points out, “reminding consumers that seemingly indie brands are owned by much larger companies” – i.e., that size is often a branding effect.
Buycott’s “knowledge is power” approach to consumer activism reminded me of the recent New York magazine profile of Buzzfeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti, in which I was surprised to read that Peretti had actually started out as an internet artist and activist. In fact, his first notoriety came from culture-jamming Nike in 2001, by trying to make a pair of Nike iD sneakers that said SWEATSHOP. The resulting email correspondence, in which Nike repetitively refuses, went viral.
Since then, Peretti has reconfigured the line between activist and capitalist. An interesting moment in the New York magazine profile describes how he had created a mass-email tracking program called ForwardTrack, and although it was originally intended for liberal political groups and charities, “when Procter & Gamble wanted to adopt it for use in connection with a detergent promotion, he confessed no hesitation.”
I realized I’d first heard of Peretti in the excellent book Brands: The Logos of the Global Economy by Celia Lury, where his Nike iD sweatshop stunt is put in historical terms. Coincidentally enough, the same chapter in Lury’s book includes an earlier, much weirder run-in between Proctor & Gamble and viral activism: the 1985 redesign of their 134-year-old logo in response to rumors that it as a mark of the devil. (When viewed in a mirror, the man’s curly beard was said to resemble a devilish 666, which is totally true if you look at it that way.) After a multi-million-dollar anti-rumor campaign that included private investigators, lawsuits, and a toll-free hotline, the company gave up and changed its logo to today’s plain old P&G.
At the time, the decision was described by marketers as “a rare case of a giant company succumbing to a bizarre and untraceable rumor” (New York Times News Service). Today, it’s clear that it was an early example of trolling – an effective, asymmetrical assault levied by an anonymous source on a visible public body. Which might not be so different from how branding works, itself:
“Traveling anonymously, without clear meaning, authority, or direction, rumors colonize the media in much the same way that commercial trademarks do, subversively undermining the benign invisibility of the trademark’s corporate sponsor while maintaining the consumer’s own lack of authorial voice.” –Intellectual property expert Rosemary Coombe
To put it another way, rumors, trolling, and corporate branding have two important features in common: anonymity and amplification.
Whitney Phillips, an anthropologist who wrote her PhD thesis on trolling, has a lot of great perspectives on this topic. She did an interview in The Awl that does a good job of showing how the new landscape of branded content is troubling what we take for granted in “authentic” media – specifically the elements of spontaneity and immediacy. Phillips defines memejacking as “the process by which marketers attempt to tack brand identity onto an existing meme, like some sort of unholy game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey” as well as TheBuzzfeed Effect (paging Peretti) as the behavior of a“nest of insanely influential organizations acting as ex post facto gatekeepers who have the power to make a meme by saying that something IS a meme—a process central to any smart ad-revenue-based business plan.”
The difference between memes and brands, of course, is that brands usually have a much more intelligible source, if you know where to look. And it’s precisely this possession, in the case of corporate branding, that the Buycott app is designed to figure out, cutting through the information soup to the money source. Let’s see if it works.
Yahoo is the slowest-growing U.S. Internet company in its class—a trend the company is furtively trying to reverse. With Marissa Mayer at the helm, and former Goldman-banker-turned-‘Chief Development Officer’ Jacqueline Reses at her side, Yahoo has been busy restructuring and acquiring. With its latest high-profile acquisition, Yahoo has specifically promised not to “screw up” Tumblr. It’s a big bet, but there is still a ways to go.
In recent months, the magnifying glass on Marissa has kept the company even more tight-lipped than usual. Obviously a company in Yahoo’s position can’t reveal all of its strategies, but if the leadership have a clear purpose and vision for their brand, then it’s time to leverage the attention, and start to tell that story. Here’s a way to go about it:
First, define your journey.
We know Yahoo wants to win in mobile and personalized content, its last six acquisitions have been about building the capabilities, products and people to help get them there. Those bets are good – and are an indicator that Yahoo is moving from click centric to consumer centric, but it needs to reconcile the fact that at its core it’s still an ads-for-content company– and that core is not doing so well.
From the outside, its efforts could be seen as a series of quick fixes to magically shape shift, while it leaves its core business to languish (maybe Yahoo Stream Ads will change this!). As a perpetual optimist, and believer in Marissa - I don’t think this is the case - and the Yahoo journey of transformation is well planned. They just haven’t let anyone know about it yet. Let us in! We want to know where the business is going, why – and how the legacy business will play a role along the way. We’re not asking to give away all the secrets – but get us excited, and admit when you’ve gone off the path a bit. A bit of honesty and humility would also be welcomed in a world of platitudinal investor chatter and empty press releases.
Defining a brand purpose that explains Yahoo’s role in the world will show customers that this journey is rooted in the needs of real people, and it will motivate and focus the business along the way.
Second, remember what made you great.
Most companies begin with an ambitious leader on a mission to solve a problem, to fill a gap in the market, or bring a genius idea to reality. They are new, exciting, different. Customers flock to them, everyone wants to work for them, they grow at a dizzying rate, they go public, get rich, they are hugely successful, mission accomplished – or is it…? Wait, what was that mission again?
But it seems a law of physics— as many businesses get older, bigger, more diverse, more complex, more siloed, have more mouths to feed, and increasing pressure to serve shareholders – they slip into a gentle, sometimes imperceptible, state of decline. Think of a struggling Starbucks in 2008, before Howard Shultz returned as CEO to bring them back to customer-centric strategies and their original, neighborhood feel.
Yahoo’s problem, similarly, was not adapting its collegial, quirky, creative DNA into a sustainable competitive advantage. And now more than ever, with all of Marissa’s focus on the new, she can’t afford to forget the old. Not only is it disheartening for Yahoo’s legacy employees to see the focus on the new kids and their toys, there is a treasure trove of value in Yahoo’s history and culture that seems to have been neglected.
They were once the pioneer who defined the creative, non-corporate culture of Silicon Valley. To consumers, Yahoo has never been “evil” or abused its size and power (when it had it) and many want to see them win. Channeling the atmosphere of a younger Yahoo will set the right conditions for their new people to thrive and work together with their existing teams. That DNA will lend them credibility and authenticity not just with talent, but with audiences and advertisers too. Its low ego and willingness to collaborate are exactly right for the next era of this tech company’s growth.
Finally, build your brand on collaboration.
Collaboration is fundamental to Yahoo’s DNA, and it’s key to winning in tech. Already, Marissa has made overtures to partner with Apple to take on Google which is a great first step. But it’s not just about business collaboration – it’s collaborating with the public too.
Yahoo should take a cue from one of its contemporaries in the tech world, Mozilla— a brand that’s built entirely on collaboration from inside and out. Mozilla’s mission to promote openness, innovation and opportunity on the Web is their ultimate decision-making filter. They have a global community of thousands of volunteer contributors whose opinions and perspectives are at the center of all their business moves. Moreover, they trust that community to be stewards of their brand – to share it, improve it, and love it like their own.
Yahoo needs to realize that people have a stake in their success too. And if they want to understand what would “make their daily routines truly delightful,” they’ll need to get way more intimate with their consumers. Beyond users, beyond clicks. A passionate partnership that leverages all of the ways a brand can listen to and work with its audience today is the best way to build products and programming that are thoughtful, relevant and attention grabbing.
Despite the media scrutiny of Marissa, I feel people are genuinely excited to see where she can take Yahoo right now (I know I am!). And the path could be a bright one by clarifying where you want to go and building a brand purpose to get you there.
Nick O’Flaherty is strategy director at Wolff Olins New York. A version of this article originally appeared on iMedia Connection.