Why is it so hard to do a few things, big?

Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,
Yet do much less, so much less, someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

 (‘Andrea del Sarto’, Robert Browning, 1855)

Less is more. If there’s one piece of consistent feedback I’ve received or had to give over many years of building or working on brands, that’s it. The push for simplifying, choosing and focusing on fewer, activities, so that they can be scaled up. It seems so hard. Is it the fear of making sacrifices? The wistfulness that comes from an opportunity not brought to market? The tyranny of choice? Or is it simply too many voices; too many opposing views; too much desire to please too many people? Or the inability of consensual companies to make decisions?

The theme cropped up again on a client’s project just the other week and got me reflecting on how this problem remains so persistent, spanning the years, never waning in the face or ‘learning organisations’ or good, old-fashioned common sense. It’s a ‘sticky’ issue no doubt. But why? There seem to be a few common denominators.

Thinking in plan years not consumer years: of course, you’ve got to be practical. You have to write a brand or business plan for the ‘next Fiscal’; budgets need to be cut; revenue investments divvied out or zero-based; resource allocated; endless negotiations with the sales guy about how much they can’t sell concluded. The business focus becomes therefore, the business cycle not the consumer cycle. If such a ‘cycle’ exists of course, because rarely do consumers think in chunks of time, except when planning holidays or Christmas. Most people don’t write annual Life Plans that include, amongst other things, which brands they are going to take notice of this year. A pity perhaps, but actually no. You have more time rather than less to impact their lives.

Not having a clear purpose: there has been a penchant in recent years to write purpose statements that need decoding to work out what the brand or company is actually trying to achieve or where it’s headed. But a purpose statement – subjective, written from the heart, directive, stretching – is vital, not only to help people decide whether this is the business they want to invest their life in, but also to help all the major decisions the company makes, up to and including what its brands choose to do. Without a purpose, all bets are off. Any activity can be justified on the basis of a loud, persistent voice, the point of view of some senior executive or perhaps because of an intriguing or compelling piece of data or half-truth (the latter often gained from a store visit to Asda in Mansfield on a dreary November evening and quickly exploded up to represent the broad opinion of the Western Hemisphere). A Purpose is the start and the end game. Are we heading in the right direction if we do this? Should we repeat? Other than being, when done properly, hugely engaging, a purpose statement is your first and last line of defence in doing less and doing it bigger.

‘Now’ not just ‘New’: I’d like to be able to scientifically claim that there is a strong and direct correlation between the small number of business activities that drive 80% of the margin of your business. I can’t, but I will, because you know it. There is a correlation between the ability of the ‘tail’ of a company (brands, customers) to attract a disproportionate share of focus and attention relative to their (lack of) commercial return. Why? Because “it’s new”. Or “interesting”. Or a “huge opportunity”. The “revenue stream of tomorrow”. Or part of my personal hobby farm. Like with many things in life, the grass seems plush and verdant over there. In fact, look! Butterflies and buzzy bumblebees swarming over the lavender and small children, giddy with excitement frolicking across a field! The prime job of leadership is to keep the business honest: spend 80% of our time on those few big levers that keep us thriving now and the rest on those that show future promise. Hold firm and don’t get bored.

Drive and Support: it’s staggering how often companies forget which parts of their business drive the topline and which support it. If all the functions have equal voices around the table, then the ability to prioritise drive activities become woolier, more a debate than a directive. If you’re a brand business, chances are that the drive comes through brands and sales. If your own label, chances are it’s production and sales. If you offer legal services, chances are that it’s the legal beagles who bring in the tasty bacon. Prioritise these functions unapologetically. Oh, and if you work in them and are feeling more special, more loved, be prepared. With focus comes accountability and tough love.

Not saying “bye-bye”: How many products or brands do you have that limp along? How many are on life support? How many do you fool yourself remain a ‘brand’ (when actually they’re just servicing a habit not adding value)? The inability – or fear – of confronting the rear end of the product life cycle has unintended consequences right across the business. From complexity in the supply chain to complexity in the managers’ brain. Spring clean. Wield the long knives. Have a Car Boot / Yard sale. Call it what you will. But make sacrifices: create the physical space and the mental space to allow focus. And celebrate their lives with a party. They’ve played their role. You’re here today because of them. Share the learnings. And move on.

7 plus minus 2It’s almost 60 years since George Miller published the seminal work, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits On Our Capacity For Processing Information” (Psychological Review, 1956) – what became known as ‘Miller’s Law’. It has been much discussed, cited and challenged, but the basic tenet has proven sound. As humans – as managers – as consumers – we can only process a small number of things. If you fragment your brand activity; if you don’t make it beefy and bold; if your consumers don’t get hit squarely between the eyes with scale; it just won’t get processed. You’ll remain unnoticed.

Think as a consumer. Be purposeful. Don’t be beguiled by ‘new’ over ‘now’. Focus. Sacrifice. Then fully commit.

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. Get in touch. And be prepared for focus and sacrifice.; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2015

Pathways and Holloways

There’s a pathway opposite my house that starts constrained on either side by two rather unruly hawthorn hedges and low cropped horse chestnut trees, before passing through a dilapidated five bar gate worn smooth by the daily administering of hands of walkers and horse riders over passing years. From there the pathway cuts across open fields for a good half mile towards a distant stand of trees along a low ridge. The field is quite open, no hedges, no obstructions. Yet the footpath meanders this way and that, suddenly curving through 45° and then heading back; at one point cutting up a half-bank when the natural lie of the land is straight on. The remarkable fact is that the walkers, me included, stick to the path. It is worn low, trampled and yellowed; either side, the spiky grass is tussocky and verdant.

At the top of the low ridge, the path heads through the trees, the presence of which confines it, narrows it. The energy of boot clad feet, dogs’ paws and horses’ hooves has turned the path into more of an old holloway, making the path cut down and deeper, the trees rising up high above, their roots exposed, holding back the banks. This path must have developed over hundreds of years; generations of feet tramping slowly exposing the bedrock. If you wished to deviate off this, it would be hard to do so.

Pathways and holloways are a good way of thinking about the impact of your brand building efforts. Brain ‘theory’ for want of a better expression, developing over the last 30 to 50 years, has added scientific uumph to the intuition many experienced marketeers have felt about the impact (or otherwise) of their brand activities on successfully changing consumer behaviour.

Our brains, metaphorically, are the landscape. Billions of neurons, connected to one another by synaptic nerves fire up and make connections as they receive ‘stimulus’; a process that starts from our first moments on the planet.   The stimulus is everything we encounter – everything. So within this maelstrom of over communication the brand must cut through and compete. The good news is that in many respects brains are on our side. Over communication too, plays into the brand builder’s hands. Why? Because we need to make sense of things to run our lives. The brain does this by creating ‘pathways in the landscape’. Think about your journey to work; most of us have hundreds of possibilities: the mode of transport; the route; the time we are happy to dedicate to it; whether we need to stop for breakfast / snack en route; whether we need fuel… yet we tend to stick to the same route; because it’s easy and frankly, we’ve got enough other things to worry about. So our brains effectively create a pathway, which as we use it again and again, gets deeper and deeper, becomes engrained, becomes a holloway.

Slide1The holloway, from a brand perspective is the desired goal: just like my real life Holloway through the trees, deviation becomes difficult. In fact, research shows that once a deep path like this is created, the brain wants to use it. It was, if you like, the creator of the holloway and it wants to see it continue to thrive. A real life brand example: moons ago, I worked in beer competing with the mighty Stella Artois. Our brand was the first to launch a full scale branded glassware programme, the objective to heighten the drinking experience of the brand. Stella cottoned on quickly and responded with enormous scale; but it also responded with a glass, which at the time, we thought was horrendous. Made from jam jar glass, it was blow moulded and had indistinct, partially embossed branding. Shabby, we thought compared with our lovely screen printed vessel.   But here’s the thing: Stella Artois had a holloway of purchase behaviour established. Their consumers didn’t see jam jar glass, they saw a thing of beauty. ‘Why! It must be incredible, it’s from Stella, and that’s my brand.’    If you want to break the habit created by the holloway, you need to do something pretty bold and stupendous (think Gerald Ratner describing his products as ‘crap’. That should do it).

Which is all very well, the question is how to create a pathway and a holloway in the mind of your consumer’s brain? The answer is both beguiling simple and deviously tricky: focus and sacrifice.   You need to find your distinctive positioning and stick to it. You need to execute one, perhaps two, activities each year. You need to put your full weight against them. You need to repeat and repeat and repeat with unyielding consistency, patience and resistance to personal or corporate boredom.

Beguilingly simple; deviously tricky. But worth it to create those holloways in the brain.


IMG_1067David 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, 2014

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