The Invisible Brand: The Perils of the Fluid and Frictionless Journey


‘An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come. Nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and rape, and kill!’

The excellent 1933 movie ‘The Invisible Man’ dramatises HG Wells’ late nineteenth century story of the same name. A scientist has developed a formula for making himself invisible, and plans to exploit the power that this will inevitably give him. However, the Invisible Man has not worked out how to make himself visible again. And there is a side-effect to the formula: it is driving him mad.

Boris Karloff turned down the lead role in the film when he realised that he wouldn’t be seen on-screen until the very final moments. The part went instead to Claude Rains, a stage actor who had previously done little cinema work. Wrapped in bandages and wearing sinister dark glasses, Rains put in a compelling, authoritative performance that set him on the road to stardom.

The Invisible Man is a heartless villain, but there is a sense of tragedy in his story. It is suggested that he may have been a decent enough chap before his experiments. He had considerate colleagues and a loving girlfriend. Yet he ran headlong into his quest for invisibility without properly considering the risks.

A couple of years ago I was talking to some Clients at a financial brand. They had observed that, in a low interest sector such as theirs, customers were mainly frustrated by hassle and fuss, choice and complexity; they yearned for a service that was fluid and frictionless. My Clients were excited because the digital revolution made this aspiration a realistic possibility. With proper application over the next few years, their customer journey would become ever more simple and seamless, easy and effortless. This was, they felt confident, the primary route to brand success.

I couldn’t disagree with any of this. But I did raise a concern: that, as the service became increasingly instinctive and intuitive, the brand’s role in customers’ lives would inevitably recede and diminish. Brand interaction would be fleeting and inconspicuous; brand experience would be instantaneous and imperceptible. We would be creating the Invisible Brand.

We all recognise the vocabulary here from so many marketing meetings in recent times. ‘The customer interface must be fluid and frictionless; instinctive and intuitive; simple and seamless; easy and effortless.’ There seems to be a consensus around the direction we want our UX to take.

I’m sure that some brands will inevitably deliver against this agenda so convincingly that they will leave the competition floundering in their wake. No sooner said than done; no sooner imagined than realised. Their simple, easy service will earn them leadership status. They will become the natural choice in their category.

But other brands will find that the single-minded pursuit of fluid and frictionless will be challenging. It’s difficult to feel loyal to something you spend very little time with. It’s difficult to have a relationship with something you can’t see. What’s more, if we’re all aiming at the same destination, we shouldn’t be surprised if we all arrive at the same place. Our race to automate the category may commoditise it at the same time. We may be ‘running at a low margin future.’

A fluid and frictionless user interface is certainly necessary for success in the modern environment. But it may not be sufficient.

When I was younger the wisdom was that great brands didn’t just seek to cut costs, but to add value; that great businesses didn’t just satisfy customers, they sought to delight them. They could ‘walk and chew gum at the same time.’

I suspect that the challenge for many service brands is not just to diminish friction. It is to enhance experience; to make every interface, however fleeting, a rewarding one; to make every interaction feel better in every way.

My old boss, Nigel Bogle, used to talk about the new brand imperative being the creation of ‘heightened experiences:’ interactions that deliver over and above expectations; that give superior value for time; that enchant the customer. I’m sure he was right.

So when you are designing the user journey for your brand, don’t ask one question, ask two:

How can I make this interface more fluid and frictionless? - more instinctive and intuitive; simple and seamless; easy and effortless?

How can I make this experience more useful and enjoyable? - more delightful, surprising, rewarding and inspiring?

Of course, the Invisible Brands may still go on to rule the world. But some will go mad in the process. And some will be left yearning for the days when they had true relationships; when they could be seen for who they really were.

‘There must be a way back!’
The Invisible Man

No. 155

White Light/ White Heat: Don’t Sacrifice Chemistry for Control

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 09.31.57.png

‘One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.’
Lou Reed

When my older brother Martin was at university, he would return in the holidays with exotic records that hadn’t made much of an impact in Essex. Through Martin I encountered the early Magazine, Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes albums. He brought back roots and dub reggae, for which I was eternally grateful; and obscure Australian indie music, which I was happy to leave to him.

I particularly recall Martin introducing me to the 1967 debut by the Velvet Underground and Nico. I’d seen its distinctive banana cover in the racks at Downtown Records, but had been too mystified, and perhaps intimidated, to pick it up.

This was an album of anxious paranoia and melancholy sadness; of curious rhythms, deadpan vocals, relentless feedback and a sinister guitar drone. ‘Heroin’ examined the motivations behind addiction; ‘Venus in Furs’ addressed S&M; ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ painted the darker side of New York nightlife. It sounded so far from the hippy vibe of peace and love that was emanating from the West Coast in the late ‘60s. It was like nothing I‘d heard before, and yet explained so much of what came after. It was exhilarating.

‘I use the cracks on the sidewalk to walk down the street. I’d always walk on the lines. I never take anything but a calculated risk, and do it because it gives me a sense of identity. Fear is a man’s best friend.’
John Cale

The Velvet Underground was for a time managed by Andy Warhol, and it was he that had designed the banana cover. They performed in sunglasses to protect their eyes from the stroboscopic light effects of their avant-garde stage show. Lou Reed had a rock’n’roll swagger; Sterling Morrison strummed his guitar with a blues inflection; ‘Moe’ Tucker hammered the drums standing up and avoided using cymbals; John Cale played the viola. Blimey! This was the archetype of intelligent, art house, experimental, nihilistic rock music.

‘Things always seem to end before they start.’
Lou Reed

Sadly the classic Velvets line-up only made two albums together. Their second outing, ‘White Light/White Heat’, was even more intimidating than their first, and commercial success eluded them.

Tensions grew between Reed and Cale. It’s said that Cale, the classically trained multi-instrumentalist Welshman, was more experimental, and wanted to record the next album underwater. Some suggested that Reed just didn’t like having a rival. In 1968 Reed fired Cale. With Cale gone, Reed was the unassailable leader of the band.

The Velvets went on to release a couple of albums that were somewhat mellower and a little less radical. These records certainly had their merits, but something had been lost. And in 1970 Reed too went his own way.

It has been observed that, in forcing out Cale, Reed was committing a cardinal sin for a creative enterprise: he was sacrificing chemistry for control.

We all understand the desire to be in total control. Compromise, concession and conciliation can be tedious and exhausting. We yearn for freedom and independence, to have our hands on the corporate tiller. We pine to sail into the sunset alone, masters of our own destiny. We want to take back control.

But of course we live in an interconnected world, where progress is built on partnership; where creation is achieved through collaboration. There’s really no such thing as a free market in a modern economy. There’s no such thing as a free agent in a business driven by relationships.

In the creative industry particularly, we should understand that success is based on the confluence of different skill-sets; the chemistry between different disciplines. We need alchemists, not tyrants at the head of our companies.

‘I am tired, I am weary.
I could sleep for a thousand years.
A thousand dreams that would awake me,
Different colors made of tears.’

The Velvet Underground and Nico, Venus in Furs (Lou Reed)

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground

Many years after the Velvet Underground had dissolved, when a good deal of water had flowed under the bridge, Reed and Cale patched up their differences. In 1990 they recorded a tribute to Andy Warhol, and in 1993 they toured with the original band line-up.

There’s a sense that at the end they both appreciated the value of their unique, combustible chemistry. They understood that this tense, fractious relationship was at the heart of a very special creativity. When Reed passed away in 2013, Cale posted this message:

‘The news I feared the most, pales in comparison to the lump in my throat and the hollow in my stomach. Two kids have a chance meeting and 47 years later we fight and love the same way – losing either one is incomprehensible. No replacement value, no digital or virtual fill…broken now, for all time. Unlike so many with similar stories – we have the best of our fury laid out on vinyl, for the world to catch a glimpse. The laughs we shared just a few weeks ago, will forever remind me of all that was good between us.’

John Cale

No. 154