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Differentiation through creative disruption!

Richard Williams, founding director of Williams Murray Hamm, talks about creating a brave new image that will successfully stand out in a marketplace dominated by copycats

Richard Williams Williams Murray Hamm

Richard Williams, founding director of Williams Murray Hamm, talks about creating a brave new image that will successfully stand out in a marketplace dominated by copycats.

"Some time ago I heard the late Malcolm McLaren talk at a Marketing Society conference where he described current marketing as being ‘all about karaoke: doing a bad impression of someone else’s great original’. This didn’t go down well with the audience, but it rang a bell with me and my business partners who had also become concerned at marketing’s lack of originality.

In fact, karaoke-like behaviour pervades much of our culture today. From Saturday night TV talent shows to cheap celeb mags like Closer, Heat and Now and football loving busty glamour models; sameness is the fashion.

It gets worse. Cars all look alike because they are all built on similar platforms and designed in the same wind tunnels. Food retailers man mark one another perpetually; no sooner had Tesco created ‘Finest’ then Sainsbury’s and Morrisons aped it within months.

So why does this marketing karaoke happen? There are four factors: the recruitment gene pool, how we approach strategy, an over reliance on research and the drive for efficiency over inspiration.

Big business hires the brightest people it can, from the best universities and many of them are brilliant operators, but there’s little room for the mad or the brave who spot a brilliant idea and pursue it relentlessly.

There are precious few like my friend Janet The Planet who manages Nestle’s Wonka chocolate brand in LA. Alongside marketing chocolate, she designs and makes stage clothes for the likes of the Stones and Bjork. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t see the world the same way as most and that’s why she’s so successful.

Regrettably, marketers all seem trained by the same people to draw up the same strategy charts that locate the same gap in the market, which they then proceed to fill with their own piece of karaoke thinking. They all use the same ‘fat words’ to describe what they want consumers to think about their brands – accessible, tasty, modern. It’s always the same words that fill client briefs and the ones we disregard immediately.
We want to know what’s different about their brand, what makes it worth buying.

We do this is by magnifying a brand truth, something that the brand really owns which cannot be copied. This is what ‘creating difference’ is all about.

The lack of entrepreneurs in mainstream marketing, is little short of a tragedy. If shareholders ever discovered how much money is wasted in indecision and political in-fighting they’d be horrified. Too much time and money is wasted on useless brainstorming sessions that are destined to deliver yet another karaoke line extension when they should be creating bold and innovative products that people will love and genuinely believe in.

New ideas are always tested by research that is, in many cases, fatally flawed. Consumers don’t tell the truth in focus groups, indeed many of them attend groups just for the money; so why do we lay so much store by what people claim to like and dislike when we watch them through a two way mirror and use an intermediary to interpret what they’re saying?

Clipper Teas founder Lorraine Brehme once explained why she didn’t want to bother with consumer research: ‘I love them and if I do, so will other people’. End of discussion.

Cost saving accountants have salami sliced too much individuality out of our favourite brands. KitKat lost much of its hugely valuable ritual when Nestle put it in a flow wrap, ostensibly to keep it fresher, forgetting that it was the ritual of breaching the foil with your finger tip that set it apart from the rest. We see this behaviour again and again and it does long term harm to brands. What’s the value of a Grolsch without its chunky bottle and old-fashioned closure or Imperial Leather soap without the infernal label that I spent childhood bathtimes trying to pick off? Do you think Absolut had cost cutting in mind when it created Disco? These are things that make great brands what they are.

The consequences of commercial karaoke are that, if you look and behave like your competitor, you’re going to have to work hard and spend inordinate sums of money to engage retailer and consumer alike. Since advertising is now finding it hard to connect with consumers en masse, it’s a real uphill struggle.

Coca Cola struggled mightily to get minute Maid into the UK market and finally withdrew when consumers couldn’t see the point in paying more for something that was the same as everything else. Similarly, the manufacturers of pasta sauce are endlessly redesigning their packs because it’s relatively easy to out-tomato the opposition. When everything looks the same, people buy the cheapest.

Of the work that WMH has created over the past 13 years or so, while we’ve been espousing these views, I’m most proud of three pieces: I’m still tickled by the stories we reinstated for Fortnum & Mason, who had hidden some of their best and most intriguing products behind unremarkable packaging. We retold the legend of ‘Sir Nigel’s Vintage Marmalade’ specially prepared for the actor and manager of the Lyric theatre, when previously it had been hidden by an ordinary label with an orange on it.

Staying on the theme of breakfast, our work for Hovis, which grew the brand’s profits by £90M when it was launched, was a dramatic and brave move by the marketing team at British Bakeries. They saw our idea of smothering the bread wrapper with things that make us proud to be British as being the perfect way of differentiating their brand in a sea of sameness. In spite of its catastrophic failure in research, it went on to become the fastest growing grocery brand in the UK.

Alcoholic drinks too, continue to be mired in category language. Posh scripts, pictures of distilleries and gold blocking remain the norm for designers, but Absolut has proven that you don’t have to do what everyone else does, witness our Absolut ‘Tropics’ design, where we’ve broken away from the usual pictures of fruit and illustrated tropical flavours using strikingly bright thermal images of the world map.

If we are to see brands and businesses take giant leaps forward, then they need to change. Recruitment must look for the mad or the entrepreneurial, the people who see things differently. We must stop asking consumers what they want. They don’t know. By all mean disaster check stuff, but set out to offer them something they’ve never seen before or they won’t even spot your product. Finally, stop cutting costs at the expense of what makes your brand different and better. If you don’t want to sell on price then people need to fall in love with your brand."

Clipper Teas founder Lorraine Brehme didn’t want to bother with consumer research: ‘I love them and if I do, so will other people’. End of discussion   About Williams Murray Hamm Established in 1997, Williams Murray Hamm set out to offer clients an alternative to the intrusive logos and graphic formulas that had become commonplace in the world of 80s and 90s brand design. It seemed to us that robust ideas were of much greater value to clients than decoration and derivation.

With the help of some fearless clients, WMH has gained an international reputation for creative and commercial success. We have won major awards at D&AD, Design Week, Clio and New York Festivals and been named No 1 for Branding in 2004/05/06/07/08 (Design Week) and No 1 for Design Effectiveness 2003/04/06 by the DBA for work with clients like Clipper Teas, Cobra and Sainsbury’s. The manta of ‘creating difference’ has been behind many category-challenging projects WMH has undertaken since 1997. All of which have resulted in positive commercial impact.

1 April 2010