I did a wee talk on Monday evening, at the IPA 44 Club, which inevitably resolved itself in a Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy metaphor. It was part of Nick Kendall’s evening on the ideas behind the What Is A 21st Century Brand? book – Neil Godber from JWT spoke on Stephen King’s original, pioneering thinking on what a brand was in the 20th century.
In the book, Nick’s collected together what he considers the most pertinent theses from the ten years of the IPA Excellence Diploma. You can download mine as the sample chapter from here.
I thought I’d quickly write out what I think I was getting at.
It’s notionally a talk about brands, but in hindsight is as much about organisational change as anything. Which makes sense, I guess, given some of what Smithery does.
My thesis, back in 2008 or so, was called The Communis Manifesto. To pull an explanatory paragraph from it, it was about this…
“I believe the future of brand communications lies in finding a way to become part of communities, and communicate with them in a way that is shared, participatory and reciprocal.”
I realise now, though, that I fell into a classic economics trap. I took a micro view of one brand, and forgot to consider the macro perspective; what happens when every brand does this?
Well, as we can see now, it all gets a bit noisy… an endless hum of brands vying for your attention at any given opportunity, all going a little ‘gorilla in a jock-strap’ in order to arrest some eyeballs for the briefest of seconds (go and read Faris’ Paid Attention for more on that).
Thinking about how brands and companies operate in the 21st century, and how some struggle to remain meaningful, it made me think of Golgafrincham.
You know, Golgafrincham, yeah?
Ok, I’ll explain…
In the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent find themselves on a massive spaceship, with lots of frozen bodies in the hold. It’s the Golgafrincham B Ark. The captain explains that they’d been told that the planet of Golgafrincham was in terrible, terrible danger, so they all had to leave.
On the A Ark would be all the leaders, scientists, pioneers… the high achievers.
On the C Ark would be all the people who made things and did things.
And on the B Ark, there would be everyone else. The middle managers. The hairdressers. The telephone sanitisers.
The leaders of Golgafrincham explained that they would send the B Ark first, so that when they settled the new planet, everyone else could be confident of a good haircut and a clean telephone when they got there. So off the B Ark went.
They hadn’t, explained the Captain, heard anything from the other two ships since leaving. Which he began to think was a little strange, having finally told someone else about it…
Some companies are clearly on the A Ark. They lead in their space, well, any space. Pioneers, future provokers, creating the products and services we love to use.
A Ark stuff is easy to point at, and hard to do.
Increasingly [because INTERNET], there are a lot of C Ark companies around. Start-ups, and hobbyists, those born in the internet, who’re happy to show you everything that they do. It’s a new transparency, it makes companies and the people who work there very visible, believable, and trustworthy. It regularly works for much smaller companies, who can make enough people see what they’re doing to be successful on their terms
C Ark stuff is easy to do, and hard to point at.
Which leaves the B Ark companies. The companies that just kind of exist in that middle layer of life. They didn’t used to do the stuff that was hard, because they just had to do things that were good enough. They didn’t used to worry about pointing people to things, because you could switch on advertising and pipe people’s eyeballs towards your products.
It’s hard to be a B Ark company today.
So you’ve got two choices.
You can try and get on the A Ark, and start pushing the boundaries of expectations in your market. Every market has a future. Show people the one you really believe in.
Or you can jump onto the C Ark, and start showing people all the things you make and do. If it’s not good enough to be interesting, then you need to change the what and how of your makings and doings. If you do it well, people will start to point other people towards it.
Both things are hard to do.
But they’re better than being on the B Ark.