What’s in a name? Everything.

I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. A couple of days ago, a PR agency was being castigated for calling itself ‘Strange Fruit PR’. I knew the name was familiar but couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Was it something to do with ‘Oranges Aren’t The Only Fruit’? In what way was that controversial? Then I realised. Oh dear. Oh dearie dearie me. Oh dearie dearie dearie dearie me.

There was a link to the Twitter account. It didn’t exist. So I looked for the website. That had been taken down. So I took it as one of those strange warps in the fabric of spacetime that you occasionally glimpse, shrug your shoulders, and move on.

But today it turns out not to have been an interdimensional anomaly, but a real thing. It seems the Twitter backlash has caused Strange Fruit to change its name. Hardly surprising really. I mean, what on earth were they thinking?

This is quite a brazen example of really getting branding very badly wrong, but the closer you look, the more difficult branding gets. It’s not just a name or a logo. It has to be something that differentiates you from your competitors, makes you relevant to your audiences, and works internally, now and in the future. It’s a tough nut to crack and I’ve had several goes at it in my time, using the seat-of-the-pants method (ie making it up), going through agencies (ie doing it properly) and bringing it all together for my direct clients.

So branding is deep and wide: deep in that it gets to the heart of what a company is about; and wide because it affects everything that company does. However, the public face of a brand is its name, strapline and logo. So when I was thinking about Strange Fruit – when I’d got over the shock of how completely dumb they must be, that is – I got to thinking about other examples down the ages. Here are some:

  • Consignia. It was called Royal Mail. Then it was called Consignia. Then, after a backlash, it became Royal Mail again. The idea behind the new name was to have a brand that encompassed more than just ‘mail’. This made sense, because the brand has to reflect what the company does. I daresay the word ‘Royal’ also seemed old and out of touch. However, people just didn’t like the new name. It smacked of an awful portmanteau, that is, a word fused from other words, in this case ‘consign’ and ‘insignia’. Whereas Royal Mail had weight and authority, Consignia seemed a bit, well, plasticky.
  • Abbey. This relaunched Abbey National with the promise of ‘turning banking on its head’. This line is nonsense. What does it mean? Credits become debits? The bank gives us money which we invest and then give back to them? It became an object lesson in how to mismanage a rebrand and seriously damaged the business. Mark Ritson gives a great breakdown of this breakdown. Talking of poor straplines as opposed to names, there’s also Mellow Birds, a coffee brand that promised it will ‘make you smile’. What on earth has that got to do with coffee? So does my cat.
  • New Coke. There’s a problem with putting ‘new’ in front of anything. Sooner or later, it’s going to become old. Then, where do you go? So it was with New Labour, so it was with New Coke. Actually they did pretty much everything right, with consumer tests apparently proving that the new taste was better. Then the backlash came, and remember this was well before any social media existed, or even online communications of any significant type. Coke switched back to Classic Coke and continued to outsell its competitor. So perhaps this goes to show, sometimes you can follow the right path but make sure you’re agile enough to switch.

These are all mistakes that, when you examine them more closely, were made honestly. Portmanteau names can work, in the same way nonsense words work, especially in crowded markets where you have little choice (Google, Yahoo). You just build the brand around the name and it becomes synonymous with its values. Straplines aren’t even necessary much of the time, but the management of the rebrand needs to be tight. And New Coke got it right, then got it wrong, then got it right again.

But Strange Fruit? Gah.

Time to saddle up again: Brandinnnnnng

Right. So, the past few years has seen a lot of water under a lot of bridges. I’ve been a social media consultant. I’ve been a copywriter. I’ve been a marketing manager, PR manager, social media manager and content creator all at the same time. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. I’ve been undressed by kings and I’ve seen some things that a woman just ain’t s’posed to see. I’ve quoted far too much from films and songs.

And throughout all this, I’ve completely and utterly lost the blog habit. I couldn’t really see the point because I’ve been actually doing all this, so why bother write about it? I’ve decided to take it up again because:

  • It keeps me off the streets. Like Ishmael, it prevents me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.
  • While things got boring a couple of years back, they’re a bit more interesting and write-worthy now. Mobile has changed a lot of this game, and new platforms such as PInterest, Vine and Instagram are making a real impact.
  • Whereas I thought blogging had died, people like Shel Holtz think I’m wrong. I still think blogging is really only useful when you get comments back, rather than just a load of shares or likes, but I’m prepared to try this again and see if I genuinely do get what I would call ‘engagement’.
  • I probably should do this because I’m back in the self-employed game – or, rather, I contract now, under the guise of SuperCooper Comms. Catchy isn’t it? I thought long and hard before that one, threw away company names that sounded like cures for constipation (actually, nearly all of them were like that strangely enough), and really should get the .co.uk domain pointing to this blog but I can’t be arsed.

I know, I’ve already fallen at the first blogging hurdle: I’m talking about myself rather than things you want to hear about. That’s because I’m quite rusty.

So, from now on, this blog’s going to be mostly about comms – earned, owned, paid, mobile, desktop, advertising, PR, social, digital – but from time to time I’ll put what I like on it. For example, isn’t the Philae lander an amazing thing? And aren’t otters cute?

Branding: The truth

Anyway, back to comms. Branding. That’s not comms so you could say that having blundered through the first hurdle I’m now staggering through the second. But wait. Branding is the root of comms. It informs what you’re going to talk about, and how you’re going to say it.

I’ve somehow become a branding person too along the way. What happens is, you go further and further upstream, beyond copywriting, up through social media, then messaging, then marketing, then you realised there’s more, so you start looking at branding. It’s a bit like Captain Willard travelling up the Nung River.

The key to branding is figuring out a way to make yourself different from your competitors, and suited to your audiences. It seems deceptively simple, but it’s not easy. Just Google ‘brand positioning’ and you’ll see that everyone has their own take on it, from the big stuff like what a brand is, to the nuts and bolts such as brand values, vision statements, mission statements and the like.

The important thing is that it’s the truth, which can sometimes be harsh. And as we all know, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. So you need to get a lot of points of view.

The Outside-in view

  1. Choose a handful of key clients, partners and friendly peers.
  2. Ideally call them, not ideally mail them to say something like “We’re doing some thinking about our brand and would really value your input”, arrange a call for, say, 30 minutes or so.
  3. In the call, ask them:
    • What do you think we do well?
    • What do you think we could do better?
    • What three words describe how we work?
    • What do you think you’ll want from us in five years’ time?
  4. Create a quick slidedeck breaking this out into the core (ie what do all of them say), the common (what do most of them say) and the unusual (are there any that stand out for saying something the others don’t).

The Inside-out view

Do this internally too. Make people feel this is something they contributed to so that it becomes ‘real’ and ‘owned’. Also by comparing your responses to the clients, you start to identify gaps.

There is one additional question here too, for the MD or CEO, and maybe your senior leadership team, which is: where do you want to be in five years’ time?

The Industry view

  1. Spend an hour looking for articles that talk about what the future holds for your industry or sector
  2. Pull out the most significant summary points into a slidedeck
  3. Go through them and identify the top three

The Competitor view

  1. Spend an hour going through the websites for your competitiors and figure out:
    • What is their SEO description (if any)? Right-click on their home page where there is white space, and then click ‘View page source’ and search for the text <meta-description>
    • What is their strapline (if any)? If not under their logo, then sometimes they’ll have a sort of strap line on the top of their ‘about’ page.
    • In their ‘About’ page, what are the top three things they talk about, ideally relating to how they work rather than what they do?​
  2. Create a quick slidedeck breaking this out into the core (ie what do all of them say), the common (what do most of them say) and the unusual (are there any that stand out for saying something the others don’t).
  3. Email your team and ask them to give them a score of 1 to 10 where 1 is least and 10 is most, for the following:
    • Impact
    • Sophistication
    • Contemporariness – awful word I know, but what I mean is, how up-to-date do they look?

Web view

Create a ‘taxonomy’, by going through everything you can think of – websites, social media, wikipedia etc – and create a cloud of the most commonly used words in your industry.

Bringing it together

  • The outside-in view is the most important, by far. It’s your opportunity for you to find out, genuinely, what your strengths and weaknesses are.
  • The inside-out view is quite important, so long as you trust your staff not to be too blinkered in their outlook. By comparing this with the outside-in view you get an idea of whether or not you’re deluded.
  • The industry view shows you what the main challenges and opportunities are. Now that you know your strengths and weaknesses you can start developing a position that plays to your strengths, while addressing any potentially disabling weaknesses.
  • The competitor view gives you insight into how to differentiate. Do any of your competitors mention the industry challenges or opportunities? If not, they’re not branded very well, and you don’t need to worry about them too much. If some of them really do have a good position then you need to work out how not to overlap with them.

Now, you have three bubbles: your culture (the three words that describe how you work); the industry issues and opportunities they present; and your strengths. You need to find a common position that works at the intersection of those three bubbles, and doesn’t impinge too much on a competitor.

See? It’s all about bubbles. And it isn’t easy. That moment of insight can take quite some time. As is often the case, the process involves leg-work, but the insight means being in the right place at the right time, usually with a G&T on the go.

Finally, the web view gives you an idea of the kind of words you should use when you come to express all of this. You can be a maverick, and that’s fine, but you also need to make sure the words you use, are the words people are looking for.

So it’s about words too.

Good luck, and hopefully it won’t be three years before I post again…