An evening with Nick Kendall
Following a warm IPA welcome, we took our seats for an evening with Nick Kendall. The chatter simmered down and all eyes were on Nick as he introduced himself to the room. I’d done my research on our guest speaker but I couldn’t help swooning as he reeled off the list brands he’d worked on during his 28 years (!) at BBH – including Levi’s, Johnnie Walker, Häagen Dazs.
Nick had two topics on his agenda: the IPA excellence diploma, and his new book ‘What is a 21st Century Brand?’ His book features essays by diploma delegates all trying to answer the same question asked in the book title… none of whom do (or should), according to Nick. He was clear about the role of the book: it’s been published to trigger debate rather than dictate to its reader what a 21st century brand actually is.
Nick is a self-confessed ‘brandaholic’. He defends an idea formerly articulated by one of the founders of planning, JWT’s Stephen King, that brands are vitally important to businesses. We put our faith in brands (not businesses) and we are loyal to brands (not companies). Think about asking someone to put a pin through a piece of paper, seems an easy enough task. Now ask them to put a pin through a piece of paper with a baby seal printed on it, and immediately some emotion makes them think twice. Brands have that effect on us, we invest emotion in them, and this is why they’re so valuable to businesses. Nick made an interesting comparison between a company’s brand and its CEO. He described a brand as a much more fundamental management tool than a CEO could ever be. After all, brands live longer, are more adaptable in times of change, and have the genuine power to align both employees and consumers across a nation or even the globe. We can draw on the recent VW scandal to bring this point to life, since VW the brand would never have let the company get into the situation their CEO led them to. From this it seems that companies need to keep brand values central to everything they do from product innovation, to what the advertising looks like, to how employees behave.
Discussion moved on to ideas. Nick took us back to a conversation he had with former boss and mentor John Bartle in which John told Nick “I don’t want BBH to be famous for planning, I want BBH to be famous for the work”. It’s a sentiment that stuck with Nick through his years at BBH and led to some amazing ideas of which ‘Keep Walking’ is just one. The beauty of an idea for Nick is its tangibility and its ability to distil but also inspire. Ideas simplify and explain brands to consumers and employees, and since brands’ ideas are public they make companies accountable (which can only be a good thing). What’s more, ideas provide inspiration, enough to affect our attitudes and behaviours. It’s clear from the way Nick spoke about the golden years at BBH that advertising there was always about ideas. Great ideas are at the heart of every great brand, just look at Nike, Red Bull or Boddingtons.
After chatting through why brands are so important to businesses and then why ideas are so important to brands, we went on to analyse what a brand actually is. Stephen King seemed quite sure of what a brand was in 1971. But what had our discussions led us to believe about a 21st century brand? We brainstormed some differences in brand advertising between Stephen King’s era (1970s) and today. Nick organised those differences into three key areas: 1) the business context 2) the understanding of a brand and 3) types of ideas.
Firstly the business context. In the 1960s, retailers started managing their profitability much better and soon had control over buying and selling prices giving them ultimate power in the production distribution chain. The power today has shifted to consumers. We are more vocal than ever when it comes to telling retailers which brands we value the most. This puts pressure on manufacturers to make their brands valuable to consumers, and then pressure on retailers to stock those brands.
Next brands. Stephen King described brands as personalities – which is still true to a large extent – but today brands are so much more. Nick felt that most successful brands today are in fact communities. Brands are owned by us and we use them as platforms to socialise, express shared values and generally add value to our communities. For some brands, this will be old news. Facebook for example due to its very nature has had sociability at its core since day 1. Others, like Taco Bell or Gillette, have evolved from relatively flat brands into vibrant networks of consumers on and offline. If in 1971 we chose our brands like we chose our friends, then today we choose our brands with our friends.
And finally ideas. Stephen King talked about ideas in terms of personable assets like Mr Kipling, the Persil mum and the Andrex puppy. We still see these types of ideas today but we also see ideas that work as catalysts for change (think Live Aid, Always, and Chipotle). Many brands use ideas to create value within their communities. Successful brands don’t think in terms of their purpose in the world, but rather the purpose of their community and what role they can play in it. Then ideas bring that brand role to life in tangible, inspirational ways. Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign is a great example of a brand (or presidential candidate on this occasion) joining its community and using its power to achieve a shared goal. ‘Yes We Can’ was the idea that galvanised the masses, and Obama the brand that aligned them.
A huge thank you to Nick Kendall for sharing his thoughts and experiences with us, and to the IPA for organising the event.