The art of serial brand arson

Potentially, it's good to be 'lighting many small fires' but at the same time, a brand can benefit from being properly defined by a single big idea

Are you being told that you should be "always in beta", "lighting many small fires" and "doing, not thinking"? If you're in any way connected with the planner-Tweet-blog-osphere, then these words will be ringing around your head. And potentially very useful words they are too. Note: "potentially".

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business observed the following in an interview: "The cost of experimentation is now the same or less than the cost of analysis. You can get more value for time, more value for dollar, more value for euro, by doing a quick experiment than from doing a sophisticated analysis."

We're now in a world of 3D printing, of open source design, of incredibly rapid prototyping. There is much to be gained by making something real and seeing how it works out there in the real world rather than in a lab or an office. It's the only real test of how a product will go down. As long as you learn from the feedback and keep improving, then you're on to a winner. Getting something shipped can be much better than waiting to ship something perfect (because it will never be perfect).

Of course, our digitally fuelled landscape means that we can apply this type of thinking to marketing. Over the past few years, numerous case studies have come to light where doing "a little bit of interesting" has been extremely valuable, connecting with audiences by producing tangible expressions of what a brand stands for. (At the same time it has, of course, rocked the media world to its core as people start to bypass paid-for media channels.)

With the nature of the internet, it's not possible to predict what's going to gain traction and spawn the birth of the next big thing (I know it's not marketing but "Charlie bit my finger - again!" has 183 million views on YouTube as of late April 2010). Because of this vagary, it helps for the brand to create several bits of interestingness that don't cost very much, get them out there and see what happens. Massage the ones that work and ditch the ones that don't. Easy come, easy go.

But we argue that the companies that get the most success from this type of behaviour already have strong brand identities. Nike, Burger King, Marmite, Volkswagen and so on. People already understand where these companies are coming from. The bit of interestingness just helps them to get to like the brand a little bit more. It seems to work best at creating a deeper bond with existing fans, helping to create evangelists who help you to sell the brand.

For us, "always in beta", "lighting small fires" et al are not strategies per se, but tactics. The strategy is to get your brand liked that little bit more by the folk out there. The way to achieve that is via adopting tactics appropriate for the digital world. So, in effect, each little fire is a brand expression in another medium. Many small fires equal lots of small media ideas.

Hold on a minute. So in this allegedly new model, the communication idea is expressed in several different ways to suit the nature of the medium. In some cases, of course, the expression will be a McLuhan-esque medium itself. But however you wish to define "medium", one is creating many expressions of the same thought in different places.

Does that sound familiar to you?

It sounds a whole lot like "integration" to us. Which is why we're not planning to throw the baby out with the bathwater any time soon.

By applying our "Brand Action" process to a client's problem, we identify a strong creative catalyst and turn that into a compelling communications idea. We can then use that idea however we want (TV, DM, and digital display etc ... and, of course, not forgetting "little bits of interestingness') to deliver the action and the business numbers (as we've done rather successfully for Everest recently).

"Brand" has become a dirty word in some circles. However, it remains as important as ever, just so long as you have a clear definition. We see brands as the set of associations held in people's minds about a particular product or service. Those associations are created by the sum of experience that a person has had with that brand. Clearly, many of those experiences are beyond the direct influence of the marketer. So it's extremely important for the bits we can control to leave a consistent impression.

So, becoming a serial communications arsonist or recklessly pursuing "doing" over "thinking" could easily lead you to a scenario where everything is disconnected and your brand entropy escalates to a point where communications do nothing but confuse and thus disaggregate the set of associations in a person's head.

Surely it's much better to have a single fertile communications idea located at the centre of your creativity? Who doesn't want a compelling thought that can be a springboard for both new and old school marketing strategies?

We firmly believe that brands need to address their behaviours to be more appropriate to this hyper-connected world (less preachy, less interruptive, less spammy). And we also believe that the "rapid prototyping" approach is an extremely useful tactic. But it is a tactic. The compelling idea, thoughtfully and appropriately expressed, is still king.


- The digital landscape enables the 'rapid prototyping' of communications

- We can now afford to learn by experimentation. We can 'light many small fires' to see which gain traction and which don't

- To avoid brand confusion, these small fires should stem from a single compelling creative idea.

- James Devon is the planning director and Graham Kerr is the chairman and creative director at MBA