Beyond Branding: from Abstraction to Cubism

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 1, no. 1, August 2007

Nicholas Ind
Equilibrium Consulting, pb 5822 Majorstuen, 0308 Oslo, Norway

This paper focuses on the limitations of marketing as it is currently practised. It argues that the discipline’s desire for credibility has led theorists and practitioners to base their thinking around quasi-scientific rationality. This has been valuable in creating credence in the board room, but it is not a very good way of understanding the connections between the organization and its customers. Rather the emphasis should be on people and the nature of relationships.

There is an adage in marketing—indeed it may be the adage—that it pays to be close to the customer. To become close suggests a communion between the customer and the organization in an almost intimate way with both sides willing to open up to each other. Close indicates transparency and reciprocity. The primary way organizations have tried to do this has been through the vehicle of market research, which has been a key driver in transforming many organizations from being production led to customer focused. However, there are challenges in using traditional research as a means of getting close to customers and also in the way organizations sometimes misuse research to aid decision-making1. The key problem is that research must abstract and group and categorize customers. If we accept the specific individuality of people, this categorization will inevitably be flawed. Yet such is the widespread faith in measurement and systems2 there is a tendency to mistake the abstract for the real: as soon as managers start seeing numbers, they tend to stop seeing people. While market research can be valuable for informing decisions, the argument is we should not over-rely on it nor mistake data for reality. It is at best an approximation based on the present and past and inevitably predicated on assumptions. As the philosophers, Guattari and Deleuze, echoing Spinoza, say, people tend to categorize and universalize the particular: ‘we think the universal explains, whereas it is what must be explained.’3

From abstract to cubist thinking
While numerical analysis is valuable in informing decisions, we should not over-rely on it nor should we universalize behaviour without questioning the intensive processes below the surface (Deleuze 1994). Research is too often used not as an inspiration to understand how people might think and behave, but rather as a judgment on how they will behave. The example of the Volvo Cross-Country car (Ind and Watt) demonstrates the point. This car was developed by the Swedish car maker as a hybrid vehicle, designed to reach a new type of younger customer who might want the practicality of an estate car with the off-road appeal of a sports utility vehicle (SUV). At the time this was a new approach and Volvo felt the need for the reassurance of research. The model of the car was tested in clinics but the consumer response was negative: people had never seen a vehicle like this and couldn’t put into any existing category. As a result of the research, the project was closed down. However, shortly after, Subaru successfully launched a new vehicle, the Outback, directly into this supposingly non-existent sector. Volvo quickly restarted its own project and launched the Cross Country to critical and commercial success. The lesson is that rather than universalizing and abstracting we should see marketing as Cubist; that there are many perspectives of the same thing, where ‘solid apprehensible reality seems to give way to a world of shifting relationships.’

In search of the human
The question we ought to pose is whether there is another, more ‘cubist’ way of building brands? The solution lies in recognizing that the relationship between an organization and its customers is dynamic, non-linear, non-controllable and difficult to predict. This is about putting quantitative analysis and abstraction in its place. And recognizing that it is the customer who has the power to begin, sustain or terminate a relationship. Thus, the organization should look to reconnect with its customers: to break down the borders between the inside and outside. One of the attributes of humans is our ability to recognize in others feelings that we ourselves have and to link the past with the future.4 This is much easier if we concentrate on a direct dialogue rather than using mediated information.

Some organizations are adept at this process: Linux and the whole Open Source movement are based on the principle,5 as are the sportswear brands Quiksilver and Patagonia and the online game company, Funcom. The design and innovation consultancy IDEO, uses co-creation methods and “unfocused” groups for the development of services and products in such areas as IT, medical equipment and children’s toys. Volvo uses close customer connectivity in developing new models. Interestingly all of these organizations limit market research primarily to a source of insight and some, such as Quiksilver, Patagonia and IDEO reject the abstraction of research.

The skate, surf and snowboard company, Quiksilver is a particularly apt example of the ability to break down borders and connect with customers in an intuitive way (Ind and Watt, 2004). Like Patagonia—and the early Nike (Ind, 2001)—it recruits people from the sports it serves; employees who spend their spare time surfing and skating and who are intimately connected with the culture of their sports. From the CEO (a surfer) down, employees attend and take part in sports events. Also Quiksilver encourage interested professionals, such as designers as well as board riders to contribute their ideas. The 240 professional riders and an army of supported amateurs are an extension of the grass roots’ connection Quiksilver enjoyed in its early days when it was run as a hobbyist surf shorts business. Quiksilver knows creativity has to meet with the approval of the enthusiast audience both to ensure it is a trend leader and to maintain its authenticity. Some innnovations are the direct result of input from riders, such as the development of surfing fiction books aimed at girls or the design of a wet suit range and some ideas are the result of dialogue that provides inspiration for designers. Rapid feedback also tells the company when its products aren’t working as they should or its communications aren’t connecting. Quiksilver treats its customers as insiders and the language of the company reflects this. The free-flow of ideas out from the company’s employees and back in from its network creates the opportunity to build relevant value for the customer. However, it is only an opportunity: to sustain a process of continuous creativity, Quiksilver needs to be an active listener. It has to have the humility to recognize good ideas can come from outside the company and the willingness to share ideas within the company across organisational boundaries. This ensures the continued relevance of the brand to its core customer base. As Quiksilver Marketing Director, Randy Hild says, ‘the challenge is to keep an open mind … I look at everything that comes my way. We’re very good listeners.’

Summary: a different future
As organizations grow they move away from the intuitive knowledge derived from a close and evolving relationship with customers and tend to rely more on the abstraction of research. However, abstraction needs to be explained and the intensive processes that lie under the surface explored. This indicates the value of moving to a more human-focused approach that encourages a direct relationship between the organization and its customers; a relationship founded on trust and a willingness to take down the border between inside and outside.

Organizations have to try to engage customers and to involve them in the process of creating relevant value. This has several implications: the boundaries of the organization need to be challenged, managers need to encourage transparency and work at active listening, employees need to be encouraged to engage with customers and communications need to ?ow across internal boundaries. Companies will have to rework their organizational structures so that the customer is no longer a box on the outside but a connected part of the organizational machine. Also rather than concentrating on internal departmental units, the flows between them, that enable customer knowledge to be shared, need to be emphasized. By combining structural and attitudinal changes the customer can become an active presence rather than a mere spectre in the organization.

1. Philip Kotler in Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning and Control, 5th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 1988, p. 188 identi?es six pertinent complaints about market research, one of which is ‘marketing information is sodispersed throughout the company that it takes a great effort to locate simple facts.’
2. Dostoyevsky writes in Notes from Underground: ‘But man is so partial to systems and abstract deductionthat in order to justify his logic he is prepared to distort the truth intentionally’. F. Dostoyevsky: Notes from Underground, tr. J. Coulson, London: Penguin 2003, p. 31 (originally published 1864 as Zapiski iz Poolpolya).
3. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, What is Philosophy? London: Verso 2003, p. 49. Benedict de Spinoza writes in Ethics (II/135): ‘how easily we are deceived when we confuse universals with singulars,and beings of reason and abstractions with real beings.’
4. J. Barresi: ‘On Becoming a Person’, Philosophical Psychology, no. 12, 1999, pp. 79–98.
5. In E. Raymond: The Cathedral and the Bazaar, 1997, the author calls the approach the Bazaar model and contrasts it with the Cathedral model where the source code is a carefully guarded secret. He suggests that the Bazaar model is a more effective way of testing software code than the Cathedral model which has to second-guess customer reactions.

D. Boyle: The Tyranny of Numbers: Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy. London: Harper Collins 2002.
G. Deleuze and F. Guattari: What Is Philosophy?, London: Verso 2003.
G. Deleuze: Difference and Repetition, tr. P. Patton. New York: Columbia University Press 1994 (?rst published 1968).
N. Ind: Living the Brand, London: Kogan Page 2001 (rev. ed. 2003).
N. Ind and C. Watt: Inspiration: Capturing the Creative Potential of Your Organisation. Basingstoke: Palgrave 2004.
B. de Spinoza: Ethics (1996), tr. E. Curley. London: Penguin 1996 (II/135) (originally published 1677).

A version of this paper appeared in the Journal of Product & Brand Management, vol. 15, no. 2, 2006.

Nicholas IndBeyond Branding: from Abstraction to Cubism

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