Brands and categories as maps

Why maps?

I’m coming out. From an early age, I have had a mild obsession with maps. Not perhaps as bad as Mike Parker who wrote a book ‘Map Addict’ detailing his fascination – his infatuation perhaps a better word – with maps. Nor indeed as bad as Captain Cook, who ended up meeting an untimely death on a Hawaiian beach as he attempted to map (and claim) the North Pacific. It’s not far off though.

I can lose myself in maps just as other lose themselves in the landscape. The detail, the contours, conveying 3 dimensions in 2 dimensions; the sense of personal discovery, even knowing that there’s rarely anything new to discover. And for me, unlike books, everything is laid out in front of you. The story of the landscape’s past, present and potential future is there, clear to see.

Alas, my day job isn’t working for The Ordnance Survey, or lecturing in Cartography, or being a Jellystone Park National Ranger, more’s the pity Mr Ranger, Sir. It’s building categories and brands. And whilst they may seem utterly unrelated, there are more links than you might think. Indeed, my contention is that custodians of brands or categories would be better served thinking of their brand or category as a map or a mapping process – placing where they are now in the context of time and the (competitive) landscape around them. Let me try and orientate you to my point of view:

A map shows the past. I remember watching ‘Points of View’ on the BBC once, where someone wrote in to complain that the ‘Weather Forecast’ was more of a ‘Weather Hindsight’ as it spent most of its time explaining what had happened rather than telling us what was going to happen. It was missing the point though: the immediate past is the precursor to what is following. The patterns of future weather lie in what has just occurred and is occurring now. So too with maps. It’s easy to think of them as merely showing the lie of the land today. The truth is they show the marks of the past just as clearly. They show the marks of man and the marks of nature. And these influences can’t be ignored. You can build your new office on a brown field site, but you want to know if it used to be a chemical works. You can build your dream home on a lovely green plot but you would want to know if the land is prone to sink holes.

Yet with brands too often we discard the past. There’s business pressure to improve the revenue line; there’s personal pressure to show you justify your job; and so unsurprisingly perhaps the reflex reaction is to only look forward. ‘Everything needs to change’ is the go-to position. Yet brands are brands and not products for a reason. Their past custodians ran activity that built the franchise. The brand custodians of today should look for the marks of the past that made their brand, or category, successful and work from there. Sure, there will be a lot of detritus – mostly detritus in fact – but buried there will be the foundations; the little hints of gold shining through.

Map: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000, Landranger, Map 118 Derby & Burton upon Trent

Map: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000, Landranger, Map 118 Derby & Burton upon Trent

A map illuminates today. At a recent village development forum, some of the group I was working with were bemoaning the advance of nearby gravel pits towards the edge our village. Then something fascinating occurred. An older gentleman, who had been hitherto been silent, took out the local map and opened it in front of the group. Pointing to the gravel pits he showed how in reality they were acting as a barrier to the nearby town, preventing it swallowing the village up and making it yet another suburb. The map intervention changed the debate: at a stroke everyone supported the gravel pits (and before you ask, no, he didn’t work for the extraction company!). Categories and brands have a terrain that can be mapped too: that of competitors, customers, consumer or shopper dynamics, legislative changes and so on. Cognisant of the past, a mapping approach builds more certainty and confidence over where you are today and how that is perceived relative to other factors.

A map points to the future. Plan a walk in the Lakeland Fells with a map and what becomes clear that on most routes there are many possibilities. Do I ascend Helvellyn via Striding Edge or from Thirlmere? Or I could come up via Catstycam along Swirrels Edge or yet still from Nethermost Cove? Many, many possibilities but not endless ones. You could take the direct route down off Helvellyn for example, but it’s likely to bruise. And it’s a good parallel for brands who are often promised limitless future possibilities. The key is lots of potential futures but not so many that inaction results.

Recently I worked on an infographic with a client to bring to life a category vision. At the time, the intention was to summarise in an engaging way the state of play for the category today, who the important consumer clusters were and to demonstrate how the client in question would lead for growth. What was surprising was how the category map unlocked creative fertility in all the stakeholders. At a subsequent trade presentation, potential customers could see the possibilities and asked my client whether they could take them forward. Yet equally, what was on brief and off brief for the client was clear – because the infographic opened up possibilities, but didn’t open up limitless possibilities.

Source: Pintrest Copywright, Mark Smiciklas

Source: Pintrest Copywright, Mark Smiciklas

A map connects to the senses. Maps are perhaps the original infographic. They uniquely combine words, imagery and dimensions. They’re labelled in a common language that decodes complexity, quickly. More than this, in their own way, they are eye catching, often arresting and simply beautiful – to paraphrase Terence Conran, a perfect example of form and function coming together to produce something that not only works, but is also aesthetically beautiful. For categories and brands they can be anything you want them to be: an illustrated story; an annotated flow chart; a potato stamped visualisation. The point is bringing to life the outputs of your strategy or plan in ‘map’ form engages, educates and informs in a way that few other media can. Too often, we stop at a PowerPoint presentation and hope that our voice over will do the rest.

In fact, the theme of beauty holds the real strength of maps as a way of thinking about categories or brands. You don’t need to be a maphead like me to understand that there is a deeper motivation behind the appeal – and usefulness – of maps. The way they connect the tenses is one – past, present, future – visible to different degrees; the way that they appeal to our different learning styles another – visual, verbal, sensory – but at the end of the day, the base attraction is best summarised by American writer Ken Jennings. “There’s just something hypnotic about maps” he writes: wouldn’t it be great if your key stakeholders thought the same about your brand?

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands.; +44 (0) 7885 408367

© The Crow Flies, 2014

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