'Cold, scary and totally awesome': Why brands need to strike out into unknown waters
A view from Will Harris

'Cold, scary and totally awesome': Why brands need to strike out into unknown waters

Marketers need to move beyond their comfort zones and brave the unknown waters of innovation, says Will Harris.

Today was both a happy and a sad day for me. The good news was that after something like a 15-year absence I got to return to the magical Shutters on the Beach Hotel in Santa Monica, Los Angeles. It was every bit as wonderful now as then. Bigger, no doubt, but the growth has never been allowed to outstrip the charm.

I was also determined to root out a particular boulevard that ran through Santa Monica. Cross the street from the hotel, away from the ocean, turn left and somewhere along there would be half a mile of curious and original shops and stalls, the hidden gems of California. It was there 15 years ago, but how would it have fared? After a few wrong turns and a chance encounter with the beautifully restored Art Deco City Hall building, I stumbled onto my destination.

As you have probably guessed, that was where the bad part of the day set in.

Where there was once a string of one-off shops and quirky places to eat, now resides a predictable roll call of global retailers and eateries. I could have been in Manchester. There’s nothing wrong with Manchester, you understand – it’s just not where I wanted to be today.

High-street homogeneity

I know I’m not the first person to opine on the homogeneity of the high street. I may, however, be one of the few marketing people who has such a radical view on how to shake it up. Standing there in baking sunshine this morning, with disappointment welling up in my boots, I wondered what would happen if we started tearing up the rules that got us to here in the first place; the modern holy trinity of template, consistency and uniformity.

The doctrine of modern branding says that brands should be consistent in look and feel, in every aspect and every manifestation. As our technology has improved and retail marketing become more sophisticated, so the variations between branded stores in one country versus another have diminished.

Same logo, same fascia, same store design, same store fitting, same product range, same promotions, same POS, same staff incentives. Same same. Variations permitted only by geographical realities: winter in the northern hemisphere means summer in the South. But that’s all. When did we make the conscious decision to move from pearls on a string (all slightly different, minutely flawed, even, but readily identifiable as pearls) to links in a chain (identical, uniform, dependable)? Or did it just happen without our noticing?

A few brave souls on the high street do appear to be heading back the other way, toward the very originality that made them famous in the first place. They know who they are, and deserve our applause and support, but they are few and far between.

Contrast that with the dynamism that exists in the creation side of the world economy. Output of films, books, TV shows, plays and exhibitions has never been more prolific. Whatever else it has done, the web has created a platform for content-makers of all types, where the bottleneck is now what can be created, not what can be published.

Even more importantly, there is still a real difference, country by country, in these forms of content, just as the variation disappears on the high street.

Invisible lines are crossed and anything is possible. Creative is becoming a state of mind, not a department.

You can tell a Scandinavian police thriller series not just from the polite subtitling, but the spare, minimalist design and slightly quirky humour. The casual approach to nudity in the French glossy magazines still makes any teenage boy’s heart race, and is unmistakably of that country. The British Press, bloodied but unbowed by the onslaught of digital, still serves up a unique mixture of hard news and titillation unlike any elsewhere in the world. Hollywood is still doing what Hollywood does best, and no one else comes close.

Everywhere you look, cultural differences are getting bigger and more pronounced. We celebrate local traditions; whether it’s tomato-throwing in Spain, cheese-rolling in England, wife-carrying in Finland or the surfer culture of California, people come to pay their respect and take away a little piece of what makes that nation famous as never before.

All this only makes our timidity and uniformity on the high street even more disappointing. Just as we celebrate difference and dialect, our shops are blurring into one.

The good news in all this is, of course, that smart and contemporary marketing is expanding beyond the traditional, to embrace the creator community. Where once 48-sheet billboards might have been the pinnacle of campaign success, today brands are more likely to commission a film, an original piece of artwork, curate an exhibition or hold a big public event (what we quaintly refer to in the business as an "activation").

Here’s where the real innovation in global marketing lies. The best agencies and brightest clients realise that fishing exclusively inside the sterility of the traditional agency box will return only uniformity, consistency and template. They are looking further afield for their innovations.

We are entering a really exciting period where creativity in marketing and brand-building is beginning to explode as invisible lines are crossed, and anything is possible. Creative is becoming a state of mind, not a department.

Back in Santa Monica the surfers are coming out of the water. I ask one of them how the water was. She replies: "Very cold, pretty scary and totally awesome." Staring out into the new frontiers of marketing, I think I know exactly what she means.