The Homesick Brand: Are You from Somewhere or Anywhere?

Caspar David Friedrich 'Wanderer above the Sea of Fog'

Caspar David Friedrich 'Wanderer above the Sea of Fog'

I recently came across a BBC Radio 4 programme considering nostalgia (‘Word of Mouth’, 30 April). It transpires that nostalgia did not start life the way we think of it today: it was originally a yearning for home, rather than for the past.

The term was coined by a seventeenth century doctor to describe the intense homesickness felt by Swiss mercenaries fighting in the lowlands of France and Italy. (‘Nostalgia’ is formed from ‘nostos’ and ‘algos’, the Greek for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’.) Symptoms of nostalgia included dysentery, fainting and fever; despair, lethargy and melancholy. Some troops absconded, others committed suicide. Some heard cowbells. To guard against the ailment soldiers were banned from playing sentimental tunes.

In one celebrated case of nostalgia a diligent student dropped out and took to his bed, becoming uncommunicative and sore-stricken. When at length an apothecary sent him home, he recovered completely.

Nostalgia was quite commonly cited as an illness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the American Civil War 5000 cases were recorded, including 74 deaths. As recently as 1918 nostalgia was named as the cause of death when a US serviceman passed away in France. The illness only declined with the frequent and easy travel of modern times.

I suspect many of us would still recognize this historic sense of nostalgia: the disorientation and discomfiture when we are far from home; the pining for roots, yearning for the familiar.

In his 2017 review of modern British society, ‘The Road to Somewhere’, the journalist and commentator David Goodhart argued that nowadays people can be divided into two camps: 'Anywheres', who have 'achieved' identities, from career and education; and 'Somewheres', who derive their identities from a sense of place and the people around them. Anywheres tend to be well-travelled, university-educated, urban and socially liberal. Somewheres are more likely to live in small towns or the countryside, to be less educated and socially conservative. Goodhart uses this distinction to shed light on the UK’s Brexit referendum.

Quite taken with this observation, I asked a number of my friends whether they considered themselves Anywheres or Somewheres. Given Goodhart’s definitions, I expected that most would self-identify as Anywheres. But nearly everyone claimed to be a Somewhere. They may have recognised themselves in the description of globe-trotting, metropolitan liberals, but fundamentally they wanted to belong to a particular place and community.

I found myself asking a similar question of brands: is yours an Anywhere or a Somewhere Brand?

When I was younger most brands seemed to be Somewhere Brands. Sony was reassuringly Japanese; Boddingtons was robustly Mancunian; Phileas Fogg was, eccentrically, from Medomsley Road, Consett. Provenance and place gave brands character, personality, charm. They explained their values, their outlook on life. Levi’s American roots prompted thoughts of freedom, rebellion and the open road; Olivio’s Mediterranean associations suggested health and happiness; Audi’s Germanic origins guaranteed its technical and engineering excellence.

In recent decades, with globalization and international marketing, we have witnessed the ascendancy of Anywhere Brands: brands are invented, conflated, migrated; talent is internationally recruited, factories are economically relocated, products are globally sourced. Consequently brands are assigned abstract moods or aspirational feelings, without specific reference to place or culture. They inhabit an ethereal neutral landscape of smiling faces, easygoing hedonism and fluid interaction. Origin stories are relegated to the occasional earnest hang-tag or an unread history page on the company website.

I wonder whether we’ve lost something along the way. Could many modern brands be described as just a little homesick? Are they somehow pining for a sense of belonging; yearning for association with a particular time and place? Shouldn’t all brands be Somewhere Brands?

Perhaps the recent trend towards the artisanal, authentic, crafted and locally-sourced suggests a return to roots, provenance and location. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

Or maybe I’m just being nostalgic.

‘So far away.
Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?
It would be so fine to see your face at my door.
Doesn't help to know you're just time away.’

Carole King, ‘So Far Away’



No. 180

Creative Enemy Number One

John Dillinger arrest photo courtesy of FBI

John Dillinger arrest photo courtesy of FBI

Ask yourself this: Who is Creative Enemy Number One? Is it short-termism? Is it quantitative pretesting? Is it globalisation? Or the algorithm? Is it ‘matching luggage’ integration? Or the commoditising effect of procurement? Is it category conventions, client conservatism, consensus driven committees? Is it marketing manuals or professional processes? Is it norms, traffic lights and benchmarks? Is it the decline of expertise or the rise of empowerment? Is it old school hierarchies or new school anarchy? Is it VI? Or UGC? Is it having too little time? Or too much?

Well all of these have a case to answer. But I would argue there's another more sinister villain stalking the corridors of any creative business.

When I reflect back on some of BBH's past successes, its golden greats so to speak, I can't help noticing that they are all in some way or another flawed or imperfect. The Levi's campaign that ran through the late '80s and '90s was a huge creative and commercial success. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I can't ignore how quite a few of the films focus on a product, Shrink-to-Fit 501 jeans, that represented less than 1% of sales (poor commercial judgement surely); in one key film the hero abandons the product at the end of the drama (we really shouldn't have let that go); in others we feature heroes that were probably unaspirational to the core male target (elementary error). With the benefit of hindsight, in a more disciplined, logical world, one has to conclude that many of these films should not have been made. Indeed, that whole Levi's campaign traded on heritage, which we know is the last thing to interest young people. Maybe it was all a terrible mistake.

In those distant days we also created a very successful campaign for Olivio, a healthy olive-oil based spread. It featured the adventures of a group of happy elderly Italians, but as I look at it now I'm more than conscious that a health brand should really be identifying itself with youthful vitality. So maybe that should have been a non-starter too. We developed a campaign for a beer brand, Boddingtons, that associated its taste with things like shaving cream and sun cream. If you have ever worked in the food sector you'll know you shouldn't compare the edible with the inedible. And then there's the longstanding Audi endline,‘Vorsprung durch Technik’. It was written in German, a language the vast majority of the audience couldn't understand. A more intelligent recommendation would surely have been something that conveyed the same meaning in English. ‘Progress Through Technology’ perhaps.

More recently we've told British Airways customers not to fly during the Olympics and we've launched a female variant of a deodorant brand that is wholeheartedly male. Neither of these seems a smart commercial move.

The more I look back on our proudest moments of the near and distant past, the more I see campaigns that do not stand up to scrutiny of strategy and execution. There appear to be very sound, robust reasons why much of this work should never have seen the light of day. And yet, it was all highly creative, award winning communication that delivered significant returns on investment. This is not the narrative we generally encounter in case studies or marketing text books.

You can try this exercise yourselves at home. Think of the most creative and successful campaigns that you've worked on or that you personally admire. Then apply your left brain: Identify the critical flaw that means that execution or campaign should never have been made. Don't worry. I can assure you there will be one there.

The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to conclude that all the best communication is flawed; that being strategically or executionally flawed is a prerequisite for great work.

So what's going on here? I suspect Creative Enemy Number One is our own intelligence. It's our own ability to identify shortcomings in ideas. Because smart, intelligent people can always find a reason not to proceed; and the smarter you are, the greater will be your capacity to see problems, to cause complexity. Creative Enemy Number One may be looking at you in the mirror every morning.

When you think about it, ordinary work is actually the intelligent choice. Because ordinary work tends to translate the brief directly, it observes sector conventions, it uses familiar reference points. And, critically, it achieves low levels of misunderstanding or rejection in research. By contrast extraordinary work often correlates less directly with the brief, it breaks sector conventions and it uses unfamiliar reference points. Consequently, it often precipitates a certain amount of misunderstanding and rejection in research. Extraordinary work is ordinarily very easy to reject.

Inevitably, behind every great piece of communication you'll find clients who were brave enough to see beyond the flaws; clients who could control the whispering voice of reason telling them “it's good, but it's flawed”, clients who were happy to stop making sense.

In nearly all aspects of business, intelligence represents a blessing, a competitive advantage. But in the judgement of creativity it can represent a curse, a competitive disadvantage. We must be mindful that there are always very sound reasons to reject great communications ideas. But the existence of a good reason to reject something doesn't mean that you should.

There is indeed a fine line between stupid and clever.

First published in YCN Magazine 24/01/2014

No. 30