StopPress podcast #2: David Thomason on the strategic inconsistency of iconic brands

Throughout our lives we’re given these little facts, which over time, perhaps through the power of repetition, have become concretised as truths. Unblinking, we pass them onto others, the certainty in our voices silencing any rebuttal. Did you know that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space? Did you know that deoxygenated blood is blue? Humans only use 10 percent of their brains. Lightning never strikes the same place twice. Hair and nails continue to grow after you die. The list goes on. 

The only problem is that none of these are facts. At worst, they’re completely made up and at best, they’re loosely based on a sliver of truth. What’s interesting is that the advertising industry isn’t immune to this very human tendency. We also have our fair share of nuggets passed around lunch tables and shared as unwavering truths.

One of the most common of these you’re likely to hear is that all iconic brands are consistent. But as FCB’s head of strategy David Thomason explains in today’s episode, things are a little more complicated than that.

We’ve decided to have this discussion at a time when everything is changing really quickly. Everything we understood last year has changed this year. Digital is shifting everything. But you’re saying that while things are changing, we shouldn’t necessarily jettison the past.     

The first thought is that we have to be better at building brands now than we’ve ever been. Building brands has become caught up in a whole lot of debates, such as ‘TV vs digital’, ‘brand vs retail’, ‘broadcast vs targeting’. And it’s all got very messy. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that everyone said ‘brand is dead’ and that we’ll all move into a rational world where we know everything about a business, and I think it’s pretty clear the opposite is happening. So we really need to understand brand theory and how it’s evolving. And I think the first place you go in that process is by looking at what has worked and why it’s worked—and really understand why it’s worked. A lot of the time our industry celebrates success and takes the wrong learnings from it.

When you talk about brands being consistent, is this a truism that we should be following? Is this what has actually happened in history? Or, when you look a bit deeper, do you find that there are some nuances of brands adapting to cultures and so forth?

For me, short-term vs long-term thinking is a big topic, so I’m a big fan of creating something great and allowing it to last for longer. In talking about consistency, I’m not talking about year-to-year, because I think you should be consistent from year-to-year. But if you look at decade-to-decade, a brand has to respond to the cultural context it’s in. A brand can’t exist in a vacuum. If you think about advertising, it happens in a short timeframe, because it’s tapping into a whole lot of stuff happening in the world of our audience, so we have to be aware of that.

A strange example you used before we started recording was the Bible, which was interesting because it’s a book written 2,000 years ago and it hasn’t really adapted to the cultural change we have in today’s society.

You’d have to say the Catholic Church is probably the most successful brand in the world. It literally has a manifesto about what it stands for. It has great symbolism. It has a retail outlet. But if you look at modern-day New Zealand, we’re becoming far less religious over time. Ultimately, people like to communicate ideas and values about the way we live through stories, and I think the Bible is the ultimate example of a brand purpose, as it were, and it has all these wonderful values, but they’re told in a context thousands of years old as opposed to re-expressing those same values for the context of today. People within church understand that but the Bible is still the Bible and it’s difficult to relate to that today.

Just stepping back to slightly more modern brands, Coca-Cola is an example you used in a recent talk as part of your School House series. You pointed out that over time the brand had responded really well to cultural changes and things that were happening in society at a specific point in time. Do you want to elaborate on why you think Coca-Cola is an example that stands out among others?

We’ve been long-interested in cultural context, and we have this wonderful presentation called ‘Legends and Tensions’ and it’s all about our cultural codes and how they evolve. I have to credit getting a much stronger perspective to a book by Douglas Holt called ‘How Brands Become Icons’. And I think what’s great about reading books like that is that it’s really difficult to spot cultural change when you’re in it. So in his book, he pulls out a lot of examples going back a few decades. And when you go back, and really think about it, you suddenly go ‘Wow, how did Coke, a bottle of sweet fizzy drink, become acceptable as a symbol of democracy and freedom?’ And he maps out Coke’s progress by saying that it wasn’t advertising that first put it on the map.

It was, in fact, that in 1941, when America first entered the war, the president of Coke committed to making available a bottle of Coke to every soldier wherever they were in the world for five cents. They had every authority then to make Coke the symbol of American independence and freedom and way of life, because it could literally be pictured in the hand of a soldier, who might be invading some country and killing someone. This Coke in his hand says he’s doing it for the right reasons. We don’t really analyse that enough, because we’ve grown up with this Coke myth. How the hell did this bottle of fizzy drink have the right to that?

That was alright at that time, but then the war was over, so it wasn’t about saving the world with democracy anymore. It was actually about what we fought for, and Coke became a symbol for suburban Utopia, the nuclear family and this wonderful, peaceful environment and sharing ingredients over the fence with your neighbour. It’s again a myth. And a myth isn’t about being true or false. It’s just about celebrating an ideal that solves some of the tensions that are happening. And Coke is the perfect example of this, because it continuously shifted.

After this, we had the Vietnam War that just went on and on, and America became divided about the war, leading to the rise of the hippies and the peaceful process. They made one of the most famous ads of all time, which was the hilltop ad. They basically hijacked the hippy protest movement and made it a coke ad, and had people of all cultures and identities coming together and holding a Coke like it was a new international flag. So when we talk about consistency or inconsistency, I think Coke articulated as the pause that refreshes. You had all this heavy crap going on in the world, but it’s all okay because we’ve got a bottle of Coke.

The next phase was when a lot of agricultural work was closing down, which affected a lot of African Americans who then moved into the cities looking for work. It led to the ghettos and to a lot of racial tension. So Coke made an ad—but don’t get me wrong, the ad wasn’t about black and white tension—with Mean Joe Greene coming off the field. He was the hardest sportsman of the time, and a kid gives him a Coke. It’s very clichéd now, but the really big significance of that was that the American football player was black and the kid was white.

It’s interesting because Holt talks about them trying to repeat that ad but they missed the racial tension that was at the heart of it. So what we’re talking about is the difference between doing a good campaign that’s emotional, likeable and funny; and taking a brand to the iconic status. It’s a rare thing, but it’s something we aspire to.

We tend not to use the word ‘iconic’ because it is such an intimidating word to use.         

Iconic is when you look back at what really stuck. You don’t have to be iconic to be successful, but it takes you to a whole other level of success.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that Coca-Cola used to step into some dangerous territory: the Vietnam War, World War II. These events aren’t really the ‘happy disposition’ you’d normally expect of advertising. So isn’t there a risk in getting involved in these things?

I don’t think so. When you read the story and have the conversation and think about the process they may have gone through to get to that point, there were probably some big tensions talked about. But part of me also thinks it could’ve just been the creative working it out, because they’re part of the cultural context and they’re aware of the cultural context. But, really importantly, the campaign itself doesn’t raise the tension, it doesn’t aggravate anyone. There’s no mention of Vietnam in the Hilltop ad. There’s no aggravation of black and white in the Mean Joe Greene ad. It exists in the world outside of that ad. So this is really about understanding the world that your campaign exists in. Having said that, there are some campaigns that do raise the tension, but what makes it less risky or scary is the tone, and usually humour, used. And a modern example of that might be Mitre 10’s ‘Sandpit’ ad.

The Coke stuff might be heavy because it gets into war and racial tension, but culture isn’t all about race, ethnicity and global conflict. Cultural tension can also include masculinity and what it means to be a man today, or, specifically for Mitre 10, there’s this perception in New Zealand that you should be able to do it yourself. And I’ve got a very small toolbox, so there’s a tension around that.

I have about five tools.

I might be beating you a bit… But, going back to the ‘Sandpit’ ad, it goes straight to that tension, because the kids have an argument about it. But it’s not a scary or risky argument. The most controversial part of it is where we crap on the Australians, but we’re allowed to do that because it goes both ways. So it’s about resolving tensions, it’s not about highlighting them. It’s not about standing at the pulpit and telling the audience how they should behave. In fact, if you looked at the brief for any of these great ads, I would guess that the tension wasn’t even written into them.

You just touched on not telling people how to behave, and that’s something you see quite often in government work. They’ve shifted from outright telling people how to behave, because it doesn’t really resonate with the modern culture at all.

This thinking around iconic brands is all about identity, and there’s this great book called Spent by Geoffrey Miller, which says that every purchase decision we make is based on what it says about who we are. The idea of taking any brand and saying these are bad people, loser people or unfortunate people and trying to get us to identify with what you want us to do or buy is quite an interesting route to go. So there has been a big shift in social marketing over the last decade, when we’ve all woken up to the fact that telling people ‘this is bad, don’t do it’ means ultimately you’ve shown a whole lot of people behaving badly, getting drunk and hurting themselves. Where’s the positive identity we’re building? Take for example our ‘Yeah, Nah’ campaign, which shows two guys having a great time even though one of them doesn’t drink.

I feel that this is the place where a lot of indie films fall over as well. It’s a case of everything feeling very negative and you have no resolution at the end. It seems that you’re even seeing a shift in film from that very bleak ‘Requiem for a Dream’ style of movie to something that at least has a sense of hope.        

That’s a really good analogy, because it’s really timely for us in the industry to understand the difference between creative and popularity. Yes, there is a formula to Hollywood films; but generally people like to leave a theatre happy and inspired. There’s a huge moral aspect to that. It’s like the modern equivalent of the Bible, dare I say it. We seek out that positive storytelling, because people want to be inspired. So when you used the word risky, I tend to steer away from it in some ways, because it’s often been hijacked to mean something that could be unpopular or offensive to some people. It might just be rude or whatever, as opposed to seeing originality as a path to popularity.

You’ve touched a bit on the importance of responding to a moment in culture with branding. But to what degree has FCB put this into practice?

It’s a really good time to ask this. I touched on the idea of popularity vs creativity. And popularity is a really good measure of marketing success, because from all the theories on behavioural science, pre-testing advertising and so forth, one thing we do know is that if people like something, then there’s a correlation with them actually purchasing the brand. So Colmar Brunton does the top ten ads, which is all about ads being liked and right now, we’ve got four in the top ten. And it’s very amusing when you think about short-term vs long-term, and the Mitre 10 ‘Sandpit’ ad, which was made eight years ago, is now number one again. We just have to play it during the rugby, and it’s popularity goes right through the roof. Stick Man is number two, and I would ultimately love to look at Pak N’ Save in a few more years to see how it’s evolved. It started nine years ago, and it’s very contextual and very responsive to what’s happening. There’s a lot of tension in the Pak N’ Save humour that we still talk about ourselves. Our humour is very self-deprecating. We like to mock ourselves.

And then the other one is Vodafone’s Piggy-Sue, which is interesting because in the world of telcos it’s very tempting to focus on all the things buzzing around us. But Piggy-Sue resolves that tension by setting the fast-paced world in pretty much a mythical world of New Zealand (and by mythical, I mean it exists, but it’s not everywhere). It’s a good old community of people helping each other out, and we put the brand and the product in the middle of that. And our recent one is the work we’ve done for Mercury. It’s very tempting to make electricity about electric cars and space ships, but we intentionally resolved that with this much more laid-back, peaceful bike ride. There’s nothing offensive, risky or scary in that, but it’s a whole lot better than saying we’ve got electricity made from a sustainable source. It’s much more an identity piece, which makes people want to be that person.

The whole idea of originality, to some degree, requires us to look back to identify what’s happened. So, in terms of tracking where culture is heading, how do you go about doing that? Are doing a lot of research? Are you looking at behavioural science?   

Just listen to talkback radio.

Seriously though, just read the news. Listen to people. Every good agency should be out there with its finger on the pulse to find out what people are talking about. I think a lot of research is done, specifically to find out what you’re thinking about right this year or why you are buying this product instead of that product, instead of standing back and looking at the big issues as they’re happening. Nigel Latta is doing a great series on what’s happening in New Zealand at the moment. Last night, was all about the affordability of housing and the last one was about immigration. These are big things that aren’t just happening this year. The advertising industry is really getting shorter and shorter in its perspective in trying to revolutionise every year. People like Professor Paul Spoonley, who you heard speaking about growing population diversity in New Zealand is another example. That’s a really good source of cultural tension. His three big points are about how many more Asians there are going to be in Auckland. In the future we’re going to be an Asian city. Secondly, there will be a greater divide between Auckland and the regions. And thirdly, the ageing of the population is another big issue, because people my age will be the dominant demographic in the nation. These are really big topics, as opposed to those little ones that pop up on a weekly basis.

It almost seems as though you’re taking something of a journalistic approach by identifying the big issues from trends you notice in society. If you hear a consistent theme from different people, you normally have this indication that you’re onto something. 

Yeah, it’s almost like coincidence to have these things coming at you from all these different sources and they’re all saying similar things. But I just want to emphasise that it’s about resolving those tensions rather than highlighting them. Actually, on that topic, it recently occurred to me that we’re really conservative here in New Zealand. We love New Zealand, because rest of the world loves us, because we have these wide open spaces. We’re relatively clean and unpolluted and we want everyone to love us, but we don’t want them to come here and change us. So a lot of the iconic campaigns in New Zealand have been about protecting that identity and one clear example is the classic Wattie’s tomato sauce ad.  

But if you stop and think about that rationally: really, a bottle of tomato sauce is going to symbolise if I’m Kiwi or not? But we don’t think about it that way. We look at it as a positive celebration of our identity, which even then was about immigration and changes in society. The cultural tension in this case was about the arrival of sushi. A brand has to have the authority to comment on cultural tension, and in this instance squirting tomato sauce onto sushi made it okay.  

I think the last question that I have is, in an industry that’s constantly buzzing, constantly looking at the next big thing, how do we take time to look back?

An agency has to run in both directions. We have to be really responsive and we have to be quite targeted in a lot of the work we’re doing. We’re very fortunate to have the scale at FCB where we can have specialists in a whole lots of areas working on campaigns, while simultaneously having people who can stand back from that more often. As you know, we’ve now introduced the School House and essentially that whole idea is that we have to be a little more ‘helicopter’ about what we’re doing. And we have to not only be very mindful of what’s new and what’s coming, but we also need to learn from what’s happened in the recent and distant past. I think we’re so excited about new shiny things, that there’s kind of an arrogance about it saying that nothing that came before has any value. And I think we need to look even more closely at what happened before. And why I’ve become even more interested in the cultural brand is that one of the points from Holt’s book is that we often attribute success to the wrong things. He looks at VW’s ‘Think Small’, and says that common knowledge was that Bill Bernbach went against conventional advertising with that campaign. But when they tried to repeat that, it turned out they didn’t really understand what was behind the success. And it very much was the cultural context. So I think, we not only have to look back at stuff, we actually have to try to understand why it was successful. And that’s why I think history is so important. I’m not going to say anything new about the importance of history, but we’re getting worse at it. In a world where information is so easily accessible, increasingly we don’t look back beyond the last few minutes, let alone decades and decades of human understanding. Someone pointed out that the difference between recent presidents and the great presidents was that the great ones read. Now, I think that Bush and even Trump can read, but the great presidents read great literature and philosophy that could be used in a modern context. So, I’m sick of hearing that brands are dead, TV is dead, broadcast is dead. Stop making these sweeping statements. Even with the theory I’m offering here, you’ve got to compare it to all the other theories out there.

Well DT, I think you’ve just given me three new topics that we could possibly investigate in future podcasts, and I really appreciate the time you’ve taken today. It’s always a pleasure to sit down and talk to you.

Great. Thank you. 

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