The Power of ‘Or’

The Power of Or


In these frenetic, pressured times it’s increasingly common to see businesses pushing to do more, more, more. A leader in one of my old businesses called it “the power of and”. Oftentimes, this multitasking ability is painted as a virtue, a desirable trait. Bold leaders, macho businesses, taking on more, broadening scopes of responsibility, acting like superheroes. It is a shorthand: leaders who take on more are leaders that achieve more. It’s likely that this sounds familiar to you. Perhaps this describes what is expected of you in your role.

Alas, it is a load of old conkers.

The more I work on brands, helping businesses decipher what drives their brands, their business and what the priorities are, the more I realise that the desirable trait in a leader, the desirable trait in a brand in fact, is the ability to understand that landscape and prioritise. No, more than this, to sacrifice.   Eminent business strategy ‘guru’ Michael Porter, he of ‘The Five Forces of Competitive Strategy’ wrote, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”.  He was referring to business strategy, but the point still holds.

In fact, ‘and’ is pernicious, dangerous. Helping a client with brand planning recently we reached a great place. Throughout the session there was committed agreement that with limited and tightening budgets, the brand had to do significantly less in order to cut through. In fact, the brilliant news was the brand would focus on just one major activity in the calendar year, hunkering down tightly on a single target group, devoting its total resources to one time period and leaning all the investment against it.

But in the weeks that followed it unravelled. An alignment meeting with the senior team was the root cause: one sales director had asked for more to support a competitive threat in his channel. The marketing director had asked why they weren’t putting some effort into another, slightly older demographic; the trade marketing controller pushed for greater category investment. Ultimately, the plan was more focused than the previous year, but ‘and’ had done its damage. A brand with a chance to cut through won’t now do so.

Of course, this isn’t a call to restrict your agenda such that it is so narrow you lose your competitiveness. Rather, it is about finding your agenda – for example, your brand positioning or your corporate purpose or your people strategy – and then asking ‘or’ questions around it. What if we were to focus our investment on these two activities? Or what if we were to put everything behind one? What if we moved all our media online from traditional sources for a year? Or, what if were to put it all into an experiential programme. ‘Or’ focuses, ‘and’ dissipates.

The promise of the ‘next big thing’ leads us into temptation: ‘we can do this as well” or ‘look how cost effective the new widget is, we can add it to our mix’. Truth is, what marks winners out is the ability to focus and sacrifice. Find your agenda, keep it tight and watch out for the weakening effect of ‘and’.

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.

 © The Crow Flies, 2015

Can you crowdsource your positioning?

There has been a little jovial mockery of the Co-operative in the Twittersphere of late. After a turbulent 2013 in which it posted a significant half year loss (half a billion – oof!), the now suspended Minister-Chairman of their bank was caught on film allegedly buying Class ‘A’ drugs (I’m assuming that isn’t ‘A’ for own label Aspirin) and their banking division was found to have a ‘slight’ capital shortfall, precipitating wholesale changes and general panic.  In the next breath, the Co-operative announced that it was going to employ the wisdom of crowds to help them get back in touch with what they’re really about.  My experience of crowds is that they’re not very wise.  Much queuing at greasy burger vans and buying of over-priced merchandise never struck me as that sensible.  Equally, all that shouting and losing your inhibitions in front of total strangers? Not wise one bit.  No wonder there was some quizzical looks and sniggers of derision.

Yet perhaps there’s something in this. Whilst it’s easy – as I just have – to gently mock such initiatives, there could actually be a double whammy of wisdom.  Let me explain.

The first is this: very often, the team given the responsibility to manage a company’s brands, typically the marketing team, is characterised by relative inexperience and high staff churn. Ambition is a good thing when well directed and in marketing teams I’ve known, you can smell the pheromones of ambition.  Good for the individual perhaps, ironically not too good for the brand.  When a job tenure of 18 months has you marked down as a long-in-the-tooth veteran who could be approaching their sell by date, any chance of gathering the wisdom that comes over time is lost.  What has worked successfully for the brand dissipates into the ether of Company alumni groups.  No, what generally happens is the new incumbent in the role will call for a brand positioning exercise to take place prior to another brand relaunch.  New agency partners, desperate to impress, will be keen to knock their predecessors, without of course actually being seen to do this.  What went before is bad. Shiny new future is good.   Where’s the wisdom in that?  Why not then reach out to someone who isn’t showing off through the brand – the consumer?

Recently, I’ve been doing a research project for a client built around some one on one interviews, and accompanied store visits.  A basic, ages-old research approach – but one in which the client, who got involved, not just leaving up to me, learnt so much by – well – just talking to their customers.  So why not talk to lots?

Crows Says Onion Rings not Brand Onions

Crows Says Onion Rings not Brand Onions

The second piece of wisdom is that consumers have no truck with Brand Identity Models, Brand Pyramids, Brand Bow-ties, Brand Onions, Brand Arrows or any other form of brand ‘model’.   In the dim and distant past when developing a new brand model for my company (I know, I know, poacher turned gamekeeper) my team identified more than twenty brand positioning models in common use.  Most of them dancing on a pin head of difference, yet proclaiming revolution.  All of them seem to lose sight of the most valuable lesson when building a brand:  own a position in the mind of your prospect (and be first).  Jack Trout captured this back in 1976 but it still has resonance today. Ultimately it’s about simplicity, not complexity. One thought. Delivered with scale.  “Get your positioning, stick to it, don’t get bored”, as a wise old head used to say to me. So much brand flimflam can mean you lose sight of this basic thought and perhaps, if the Co-operative can reconnect with what makes them unique, different then it will be a worthwhile exercise.

IMG_1308A little aside:  my family hail from the north west of England. A ‘southern’ wing briefly made a generational sojourn into the potteries, to earn their way as Stoke on Trent expanded and became the ceramic centre of the world. They lived a few miles away on Mow Cop, a ridge overlooking the Potteries to the south east and the Cheshire Plain to the north west. If you drive up the M6 towards Manchester, near Junction 16 you can see it away to your right, the mock Castle focusing the eye. If you are a cyclist, the climb up Mow Cop is a lung, leg and spirit busting experience.  But it was there my family built its allegiance to the Co-op.  They were the first to open a ‘supermarket’ style store that we know today. They brought fresh bread and fruit to a community that couldn’t easily get it or afford it.  In time, the Co-op, or “Stores” as my Gran called them to her dying day, would cater for you from cradle to grave.  Ask her if their ad line of ‘Here for you for life’ made sense, she would have agreed.  Its reputation was second to none: honest, good value, good quality, convenient, sourced locally, investing back in the community. Today, the Co-operative, despite its recent struggles has an expansive Convenience led store base, a leadership position in ethical trading (in the mind of consumers at least) and is generally, and not before time you might say, sorting itself out.   If speaking to their members, openly, authentically and with real intent reveals just a fraction of the richness and latent loyalty that exists within a family such as mine, then they could be onto something powerful.   Just don’t bung the results into a Brand Onion, for Heaven’s sake.


David 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. To find out more about not using Onions but common sense when it comes to brands, take a look at the Crow website: or contact David directly at >; +44 (0) 7885 408367

© The Crow Flies, 2014

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