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  • Bridging the iPad divide

    Published on October 14, 2010

    The article below (published by Marketing Week on 14th October) sets out our thinking regards the development of e-publications as an emerging form of corporate communications. The piece was prompted by the development of a new e-publication for AECOM which will be launched on 25th October 2010. Ahead of that date, please contact simon@opx.co.uk if you would like to see more of our work in this area.

    Bridging the iPad divide.

    John F. Kennedy once wrote that “the one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is unchangeable or certain.” That’s certainly true of communications where technology brings massive shifts in behaviour at an ever increasing pace.

    The one area that really hasn’t changed much over the past 50 years has been magazine and newspaper publishing, where print has remained king despite the development of various online versions of print titles. That was until the arrival of Apple’s iPad in May of this year. Suddenly there is a new, potentially mass-market, format for editorial communications, and that’s something that will affect thinking not just for publishers but a much wider corporate communications audience too.

    For the publishing industry, the emergence of tablets like the iPad is too big an opportunity to ignore. Against a background of steadily declining print sales, the prospect of a new generation of readers subscribing to an online service has huge potential upsides. No print, distribution or vendor costs, and the opportunity to deliver a richer user experience makes iPad titles a must for the publishing sector, particularly if ownership of these devices reaches anywhere near the uptake of iPhones and smartphones (estimated at12.8 million in the UK as of August 2010).

    Take The Times Online. It’s the first British broadsheet to launch a pure online version, which now requires people to pay a subscription to access its content. The new site actively encourages interaction between the user and the writer, offering a host of features to make reading online a more enjoyable and engaging experience. While time will tell if it will become a sustainable business model, the potential upsides are so great it seems a well judged move that may well steel a march on other newspaper rivals.

    More for less Many corporate organisations also produce editorial publications for both internal and external audiences. These can range in scale from the ubiquitous newsletter to more substantial quarterly magazines and journals that seek to position businesses as thought-leading in their respective fields.

    For these corporate communications publishers the benefits of going digital are huge. For one, it can be far more cost-effective, with substantial savings on print and distribution costs. It also has obvious environmental benefits that can enhance a company’s wider CSR credentials. Not only that, the speed at which digital comms. can be put together provides almost real-time information, insight and analysis. But aside from the production advantages, it also gives the reader a far richer experience.

    Solving the pioneer’s problem The launch of advanced technology like the smartphone, iPhone 4 and the iPad, offers great opportunities but with current ownership of tablets in particular still quite low there is a danger that many communicators and marketers could overlook them completely as a potential way to reach their audience.

    Creating something really sexy for an iPad that will impress the CEO is nice to do but hard to justify when 95%+ of your audience is currently going to want any digital communication to be delivered to their PC desktop. It’s great to be a pioneer, but most companies will want to take the majority of their stakeholders with them not focus on a few early adopters.

    The solution to this dilemma lies in creating something that is truly cross-platform – capable of delivering a new and engaging experience whether viewed on a PC, an iPad or a smartphone. The challenge of achieving this is something we’ve been looking at with one of our clients, AECOM.

    AECOM is one of the world’s largest providers of professional technical and management support services – particularly engineering and architecture. It has over 47,000 employees working for government and private industry clients based in more than 100 countries.

    AECOM found that distributing a printed magazine to internal and external stakeholders was challenging and costly – economically, environmentally and logistically. This is why the firm approached us to create a global electronic magazine that would replace previous printed publications.

    Something richer The backbone of this new publication remains well crafted words and strong images but the new digital format also provides a more immersive, richer experience.

    That means allowing the reader to break free from the traditional linear pattern of print, with moving imagery, sound, video and podcasts an essential part of the content mix.

    It also means providing additional information and links with every article, which the reader can access with a click of their mouse or a swipe of their tablet or smartphone.

    The medium is the message Deciding to create an e-magazine that spans digital formats, aligns well with AECOM’s wider brand positioning – it’s an approach to communication that is both leading-edge and pioneering. What’s more, it gives the company the opportunity to reach a new and wider audience, by encouraging staff and clients to forward any elements that they think will be of interest others.

    Design wise, the project has given us the opportunity to combine traditional print elements with a strong web sensibility to produce something that is an effective hybrid of both. Other iPad publications we’ve seen, such as the recently launched Sports Illustrated app, mirror a print approach much more strongly and won’t work effectively on a normal desktop. That’s clearly very limiting, particularly when desktop users will currently form the large majority of any readership.

    It’s also strange from a design perspective. Why deliver a new form of communication that so closely echoes the look of an older medium and has such limitations in terms of usability? It’s a bit like those early cars that looked like horse-drawn carriages. In the end a new, functionally driven aesthetic will surely prevail.

    All told, the AECOM publication seems to us like the start of an exciting new communications chapter, with a huge range of possibilities. The publication is scheduled to launch during October/November 2010. We’d be delighted to hear your comments.

    Simon Goodall (OPX) and Sam Boway (Ink Copywriters) 17 September 2010

  • A quiet revolution

    Published on February 26, 2010

    There was a time when managing a brand identity was a relatively straightforward task. I’m referring to that more innocent age before Twitter, before YouTube and even before PhotoShop. Back then, one of the hardest things about brand guidance was physically producing it. The books took an age to make and when they were done – large format, heavy tomes that they were – they were done. It was the next best thing to setting the rules in stone, a way of keeping everything neat and tidy for years to come.

    As nice, and somehow comforting, as those old manuals were, I always secretly suspected that their main value was as a souvenir of the long process we’d just been through with the client – impressive looking but seldom really useful.

    Today’s brand guidelines have lost the heavy packaging, but more often than not their contents aren’t so different from those static brand manuals of old. That’s a worrying thought if you consider how fast and furiously the world has changed, and how varied and sometimes uncontrollable brand communications can now be. In a world where the audience is increasingly asserting control over where and how a brand is seen, how should we respond? Stick to tried and tested? Try to embrace every new trend and pray that something will stick? Or cut back to core fundamentals and hope for the best?

    There’s some comfort to be taken from the long view. Which is to say that in truth user-influenced branding is not entirely new. BP’s shield logo was selected through an employee competition in 1917. It’s gone now, but it saw the company through several decades of profitability. MTV has been inviting artistic variations on its logo since the 1980s.

    So when Google got 180,000 schoolchildren to take part in a doodling competition, with the winner’s artwork briefly replacing the Google mark on the UK website, the novelty of the event shouldn’t have come as a big surprise. Involving stakeholders in your brand has long been a good thing to do.

    Whether this new wave of social interaction is more threat or opportunity depends mainly on how you choose to view it. Mistakes are being made at both ends of the spectrum. Agencies that carry on delivering a standard approach to guidelines and sending their clients on their way may keep them happy in the short run, but ultimately they’re selling them short. Equally, companies who rush headlong into the hinterlands of user-generated content, all but ceding control of their brands to the crowd, could soon wish they’d held back a bit.

    Kraft re-naming Vegemite through an online contest seems like a rather daft thing to do, now that the winner has been named and it’s “iSnack 2.0”.

    I don’t agree with those who claim to see the writing on the wall: a future in which every brand is essentially mass managed and open sourced. That’s an overreaction, I think, a misreading of how branding is evolving. It’s important for brand managers to understand the point at which, for their brand, the new openness could start to do more harm than good. To put this another way, what is your brand about? What does it stand for? And for that matter, what won’t it stand for?

    These are the sort of questions we put to our client VT Group while working with them to develop their new brand identity. In VT’s case, they’ve spent five years moving their business away from traditional heavy industry to become a true service brand. The company is still changing, and the brand identity needed to reflect this open-endedness. So while the core elements of the VT brand identity are well defined and need to be used with precision, there is also a great deal of creative flex.

    The line in the sand will differ for every company. An architecture firm will always be more reliant on a polished visual identity than a charity, but both organisations stand to gain from adopting a more open approach. The work we’ve done with the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), for example, is perhaps more precise and controlled than our work with the global volunteering charity Latittude, but in both cases there is a great deal of built-in flexibility, which lets both brands respond to the needs of their audiences.

    The key is to package brand guidance so that the relevant points reach the relevant people in your company’s orbit, and to keep everything but the most sacrosanct elements open to creative interpretation. This last part, while the least intuitive to those who are used to branding through control, is also the most essential. Otherwise the guidelines are a dead text that will just gather dust on a shelf.

    ‘Inspiration, not instruction’ seems a good mantra going forward.

    In retrospect, it wasn’t the weight of those old brand manuals that was their Achilles weakness. It was the underlying assumption that one best practice model fits all. If the rise of digital media has shown anything, it’s that people outside a company’s marketing departments have the will, if not always the means, to contribute meaningfully to the company’s conception of itself. The new brand guidelines must acknowledge this. If they do, and do it well, managing a brand will be a little easier. Brand managers won’t need to panic about the revolution going on around them, because they’ll already be waging a quiet revolution themselves, on terms they have set.

    Simon Goodall & Jonathan Holt. February 2010

  • What became of the sustainable brands?

    Published on November 12, 2009

    Two years ago, myself and colleagues at OPX did some work around the issue of creating sustainable brands and communicating environmental messages. This was prompted by a growing realisation that more and more of our work was addressing these issues across a whole range of sectors.

    At that point, in 1997, it was clear that sustainability had moved into the mainstream of business thinking. It was no longer a ‘nice to do’ and was fast becoming a core commercial issue, affecting a wide spectrum of activities – in some cases all. In looking at this area we weren’t trying to position ourselves as ‘the Greenpeace of the design industry’. It was just something we, and many of our clients, were interested in.

    Two years on, we thought it would be interesting to revisit the subject and see how things have progressed. We also wanted to see whether the factors we highlighted as defining success then still hold true today.

    Changing landscape
    Back in 2007 the world was still digesting the outcomes of the Stern Report and the impact of Al Gores ‘Uncomfortable Truth’. Sustainability was top of the agenda and almost every large organisation was, from CEO level down, putting resources behind the issue. Focus varied, from dealing specifically with the impacts of climate change, to a broader approach, covering the full spectrum of corporate responsibility activities like staff development and community engagement. But whatever the focus, almost everyone was doing something and what’s more they were talking about it.

    Two factors seemed to be behind this move. On a broad level, there was something of a herd mentality shaping senior management actions. If you were leading a company and wanted to be seen as even reasonably progressive, it was clear you had to do something. Whether those actions had much depth or impact was more variable and this explains the whole ‘greenwash’ back-lash. However, it was also clear that those organisations who had considered things more carefully could see real benefits and opportunities from adopting a sustainable approach. After all – what’s the downside of reducing energy consumption or the waste of raw materials? Thought through carefully, sustainability really was a win-win in terms of both reputation (branding) and wider business performance. M&S, Cadbury and BT are just a few of the organisations who recognised this.

    So what’s changed?
    The obvious factor is the global recession. If sustainability was the big issue in 2007, the state of global finances and the credit crunch were certainly the big issues of 2008 and 2009. Business priorities inevitably changed, and in some sectors short-term survival became the priority. However, a quick review of the businesses we highlighted in 2007 as developing strong practices and communicating them to good effect, shows that most have continued to view sustainability as a key priority. After all, the factors driving the change in the first place have not gone away, and in some cases have become more acute. Moreover, new government regulations (like the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment – CRC) are forcing businesses to address issues like carbon management or face direct financial penalties. In short, recession or not, there appears to be no turning back.

    The other key factor that looks to have changed things is the election of Barack Obama. His approach seems fundamentally different in tone to that of the previous US administration. It will be interesting to see how that change manifests itself at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December this year. If the US and other governments around the world make real progress and firmer commitments, initiatives like CRC will become more prevalent, affecting businesses of all types not just the very largest. As noted above, there is no turning back and with government forcing the hand of business, success would seem to belong to those who seize sustainability as an opportunity not an obligation.

    Six factors
    Back in 2007 our primary focus was on looking at how companies communicated what they were doing, and how this shaped wider brand-perceptions.

    From our perspective, it was interesting to note how words related to actions and which organisations seemed to be genuinely walking-the-walk, not just talking-the-talk. The six factors noted below seemed to us to define success for companies looking to make sustainability core to their brand:

    1. A core commitment from senior management to real change – based on a belief in the material benefits to the business as well as to the planet.

    Two years ago we cited Richard Branson at Virgin as a good example of someone who took a positive lead in this area, through commitments to support research and development of sustainable technology.

    Two years on and Virgin have developed their ideas further, with three distinct initiatives – Virgin Earth Challenge (a $25m prize fund for the development of technology to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere); Virgin Green Fund (a venture capital initiative for sustainable technology-based businesses); and Virgin Unite (a non-profit foundation tackling social and environmental problems through business partnerships).

    Each one of these areas has had strong communication focus applied to it within Virgin’s broader online umbrella of ‘People and Planet’ (www.virgin.com/people-and-planet). From all of this activity it is clear that sustainability has become a key pillar of Virgin’s brand, driven by a continued personal commitment from Branson himself.

    However, in many respects the jury is still out on Virgin in terms of delivering consistent substance. As an airline company Virgin Atlantic produces high levels of CO2 (although it does have initiatives underway to address this). Moreover, ideas like Virgin Galactic’s ‘Space Tourism’ are hard to justify on environmental grounds. Virgin are masters of branding and communications but it could be argued that the company has work to do to make all its operations as ‘green’ as its reputation.

    2. A breadth of thinking, that looks beyond being simply ‘less bad’ to fundamentally changing products and/or processes for the better.

    In 2007 Toyota and Honda both provided examples of this by making hybrid car technology available to a global mass market.

    For the car market the recession has only heightened the drive towards lower-energy motoring. Virtually every mainstream carmaker has now developed a brand offer around this theme – from VW’s Blue Motion Technologies to Renault’s ECO2 ‘signature’ for its most ecological and economic vehicles.

    Honda and Toyota still lead the way, with both recently running high-profile advertising around the latest incarnations of their hybrid technology. However, the future seems to be all about the race to deliver the first mass-market all electric car.

    Communication and branding will be key in this respect, as companies seek to convince consumers this is both practical and desirable. Renault, among others, has already gone to some lengths to achieve this aim (www.renault.co.uk/cars/ze-electriccar), but we are really just on the edge of a bigger revolution. Watch this space as the car industry rapidly puts sustainability at the centre of everything they are saying and doing.

    Ensuring that the electricity powering a new generation of cars is in itself sustainable is whole different matter, and one that needs to be considered properly if these changes really are going to make a difference.

    3. A willingness to gain strong internal buy-in from your own people as a first priority.

    Two years ago Sun Microsystems took a positive practice-what-we-preach approach in this respect through their Open Work scheme, which facilitates flexible working patterns and in-turn reduces the need for work-related travel (www.sun.com/aboutsun/csr/report2008/people).

    As in other areas, progressive businesses, who in 2007, were just beginning to establish interesting employee schemes like Open Work, have continued to grow and develop these ideas. As the Environmental Defence Fund noted in its 2008 Innovations Review, what was once a ground breaking green initiative is now very much ‘business as usual’.

    Communicating these ideas, first internally through strong employee communications, and then externally, through effective and properly validated CR Reporting, continues to be accepted best practice in this area. It’s worth noting that he computer industry has not generally been great at improving the sustainability of the raw materials that go into its products. Efforts on this front need to be just as strong those around employee engagement if companies wish to build truly sustainable brands.

    4. The conviction to make clear, time-specific, commitments on particular issues, not vague promises that cannot be measured.

    In 2007 we noted that M&S were very strong in this respect with their ‘Plan A’ initiative, making their commitments (regards packaging, raw materials, energy use, waste and fair trade) extremely clear (plana.marksandspencer.com)

    In the field of business to consumer communications, M&S continue to set the pace for sustainability. Plan A remains in place and has, as you would expect, evolved over the past two years as M&S have taken their customers on a journey of increased understanding. Interestingly they have addressed issues of the recession and the political landscape head-on.

    Their website makes headline reference to the fact that, for some companies, ‘Green went out as quickly as it came in’, before going on to list recent achievements in packaging reduction (down 15%); in-store energy consumption (down 10%) and eco-factories (four recently opened). All of this ties-in with the commitments laid-out in the original 5 year Plan A document, which they stress is unchanged by the recession.

    Politically they have made strong reference to the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Conference, partnering with Oxfam to campaign on key issues. The published statement from Ed Milliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, which supported this work, highlights how seriously the company’s efforts in this respect have been taken by those in power. It also underlines the strength of their Plan A communications.

    5. An acceptance that taking many small steps forward is an acceptable route to progress provided that everything is shaped by a bigger vision.

    Two years ago we felt that the Co-operative Group were exemplary in this respect, setting-out a very clear sustainability vision that was then implemented in lots of different ways, across operations spanning banking, supermarket retail, funeral care, travel, insurance and legal services. (www.co-operative.coop/ethicsinaction/climatechange)

    Two years on, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the continuing commitment the Co-Op is making in a whole range of different areas.

    Unlike some organisations they have been willing to become involved in issues outside their direct area of operation, such as campaigning again extracting oil from tar-sands or supporting green energy or walking bus schemes for schools.

    Communications across all these different areas have been consistent and at the heart of the Co-op’s brand positioning. Perhaps this explains why they were regarded as the UK’s most ethical brand for the second year running, in independent consumer research undertaken by GfK NOP.

    6. A commitment to stay the course and ‘go where it hurts’ in order to achieve substantial change not window dressing.

    In 2007 we felt there was no better example in this area than our own client, global carpet tile manufacturers Interface, who had made fundamental changes to their whole business and product range in a bid to lead the way in industrial sustainability.

    Not surprisingly, there has been no turning back for them – in fact the opposite is true.

    Their ‘Mission Zero’ initiative – launched to underpin the company’s commitment to eliminate any negative impact it has on the environment by 2020 – has evolved into a global online community that Interface sponsors to help inform and inspire people and businesses around the world.

    The company has also launched InterfaceRAISE, a peer-to-peer advisory service that offers guidance on how to increase business value through sustainability.

    Both these examples show how far some businesses are going, to point where sustainability doesn’t just influence Interface’s brand it has become it – defining every facet of the company’s goals and activities. To find out more take a look at www.interfaceglobal.com

    The six points above focus on the factors that shape success and as such they paint a generally positive picture.

    However, it also true that a lot of company’s have made fairly superficial gestures to-date, making a lot out of doing quite easy things whilst not really tackling more difficult issues.

    It’s also worth noting that even some of those mentioned as adopting good practice do so against the backdrop of operating in questionable areas sustainably. As mentioned before, Virgin still plans to fly tourists into space, Toyota still make 4x4’s.

    You can certainly take different views on this and on the communications and branding that all these companies use to present and promote their positions. I think the view taken by many of the NGO organisations like WWF is probably the right one. It is better to encourage positive steps from businesses who need time to evolve and change BUT it is also important that claims are not overblown and that communications are backed by real, verified substance. Those challenging claims such as the Guradian’s Fred Pearce in his Greenwash blog (www.guardian.co.uk/environment/series/greenwash) are doing a useful job.

    And what next? I think its only just beginning. So fundamental are all these issues – particularly energy security – that every type of business will have to change the way it operates. What’s more, if the Copenhagen Climate Conference achieves very much it is very likely that governments will force businesses to address evermore challenging issues at an increasing pace.

    Communication and branding will play a key role in this process, particularly for those organisations who see change as an opportunity not a burden. The six factors we highlighted two years ago all hold true in terms of sustainable brands – it's just that the whole area is going to become more and more of an issue for all of us, whatever activities we are involved with.

    Simon Goodall, Partner OPX. November 2009