Never eat the local speciality. As free advice goes, this is one of the best tips I have ever had. It came from a chap called Tom Rodwell, who, as a seasoned international adman, was preparing me for an exotic three-week trip to the Orient on behalf of All Nippon Airlines and Mazda Cars.
On arriving in Tokyo, I almost immediately ignored his wise exhortation and ordered something which, even at the time, I knew to be a risky choice, judging by the look on my host's face (even though he had strongly recommended it as a superb local delicacy).
It turned out to be an unlaid egg, still attached to the innards of the chicken in question. The lesson was learned as quickly as it had been ignored; local specialities are literally tripe (or faggots, or eels, or offal, or gizzards, or innards of some description). If they were any good, they would have taken the world by storm long ago - like sushi, egg fried rice, Chateaubriand, creme brulee, hamburgers, pizza, pasta and, of course, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
The point about Rodwell's law is the breadth of its applicability. It applies to board games (eg. chess) and sport (eg. football) and it applies to brands.
Most of the great brand ideas are universal from the word go, even if, like with Yorkshire pudding or sushi, it takes a while for people to realise this.
The process is simple. Strong brands begin by being strong at home, where they learn how to address the highest-order needs of their markets and then, at a given point, this local template is made universal. It is true of Coke, Rolex, Mercedes, FedEx, Guinness and Apple, and it is becoming true of some of the newer ideas (for more information, read on!).
These brands transcend geography because they go straight for the market jugular (mobility, time-keeping, connection, refreshment), giving their DNA an inherent universality.
So, at VCCP, we do not think international, we think universal. Some of our clients are "local" (GNER, ING Direct, Trebor, Gala, COI and Jordans), some "international" (FedEx, Dyson, Coca-Cola, Dunhill, Samsung and O2), but the approach we take and the principles we apply are the same regardless of the geographic footprint:
We work with all the communications stakeholders to deliver upstream integration.
We use close customer dialogue to identify the unmet or defining needs of a market and then distil this learning into a concentrated brand idea.
We then get Rooney Carruthers and his merry band of creatives to translate this idea into a compelling and iconic visual narrative that is utterly cohesive and indelibly branded.
The reason we believe in visual narrative has nothing to do with the fact that images travel better than words (although, of course, they inevitably do). It is because we think the role of advertising has shifted irreversibly over the past decade - away from the skills of the copywriter towards the skills of the art director.
This change is in part due to the volume of communication we now consume and in part due to the way we consume it. In terms of volume, the human mind has probably never been as crowded as it is today. We are besieged by noise and chatter and the result is cognitive glut. Our only available response is to become ever more ruthless at editing, ignoring and filtering out the din of external messages. The Information Age has turned us into cognitive misers.
In this context, what the universal communicators understand is that no-one is listening any longer. The old communication models, which depended on verbal storylines and linear, cognitive structures, are now ill-equipped to deal with the modern media reality, where a glimpse or a fleeting moment are the norm, as opposed to the standard (script-based) gradations of 20, 30, 40 or 60 seconds.
This is not to disparage TV advertising, which can still be indispensable, but it does mean that the medium will be increasingly visual and ident-based. After all, if we include mobile phones and PCs (not to mention transvision etc), most of the world's screens are on mute most of the time.
Which brings us on to the way that technology (mobiles, SMS, MMS, podcasts, blogs, voice-over-internet protocol, instant messaging, multiscreen, multiroom, multichannel) has not just increased the volume of information to be consumed, but also transformed the way we consume it.
There was a time when advertising was one of the places we looked for information. There weren't many other places to go. Search engines, infomediaries, price comparers, aggregators and pattern-recognition systems, as well as a far more brand-literate media, have created a world of near-perfect information. We do not need ads to carry the cognitive burden (and even if we did, they are far less objective than third-party sources).
The primary task for above-the-line communication, therefore, is not to impart information (or even to persuade) - it is to create an unmissable and unmistakable identity in the mind of the prospect: an identity capable of embodying and symbolising the core purpose and key values of a brand.
This identity then forms the bridgehead for subsequent communication, whether its role is to persuade, inform, involve or shock. Hence the priority we give to upstream integration.
Great brands have always understood the importance of visual narrative - this is how Guinness, Rolex, Coke, Levi's and Apple have earned their iconic status over the decades, and this is how Gap, Nike, O2, Dyson and Samsung are earning theirs now. Somehow, the less they say, the more we seem to know about them.
Perhaps this is a true measure of an iconic brand - they always manage to set themselves apart from the clutter and noise of the market, editing what they say so we choose to find out more about them, in the right place at the right time. If anything, we're left thinking we've had too little, not too much.
Which brings us back to Rodwell's first law of eating, and the perils of the local speciality. For those of you who are interested, there are, in fact, two further laws: never eat anything that looks like sick and never eat anything bigger than your head. Pizzas beware.
- Charles Vallance is a founding partner of VCCP.
AT A GLANCE
Principals: Charles Vallance, Rooney Carruthers, Adrian Coleman, Ian Priest (founding partners)
Mission statement: We don't have one, we have ten founding principles
Describe your agency in three words: Integrated iconic ideas.