The Red Buoy: Beware Being Repositioned by the Competition

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden where his father was a barber and wig-maker. John Constable, born in Suffolk a year later, was the son of a wealthy corn merchant and miller.

Together these artists introduced a vibrant new way of depicting landscape. While their predecessors had set out to paint the natural world through mythical idealism or realistic accuracy, Turner and Constable sought to convey its true soul.

Turner painted shipwrecks, fires and fogs; violent seas and fierce storms; the smoke and steam of the industrial revolution. Constable was more gentle at heart. He painted picturesque waterways and working farms; elegant steeples, shimmering rainbows and gossamer clouds. 

Sadly the two artists never got on. Turner, who had been something of a child prodigy, regarded Constable as an upstart. Constable praised Turner in public, but in private described his work as ‘just steam and light’. In the Royal Academy exhibition of 1831 Constable had one of Turner's paintings moved from a prominent position and replaced with one of his own.

At the Royal Academy exhibition the following year Constable and Turner were assigned places alongside each other in one of the main galleries. Constable had been working on ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ for fifteen years. In the days before the exhibition, artists were allowed to apply a final coat to their paintings as they hung on the gallery walls. And so Constable painstakingly set about his finishing touches.

Turner was showing a sombre seascape, a picture of Dutch ships in a storm,‘Helvoetsluys’. Just before the exhibition opened, he realised his work suffered by comparison with Constable’s. And so he marched in and painted a small bright red buoy in the middle of his canvas. It drew the eye, creating a compelling contrast with the green sea around it. Turner left without saying a word.

Constable was incensed.

‘He has been here and fired a gun.’

The critics agreed that Turner’s simpler, more restrained work made ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ look complex, fussy and ostentatious. The exhibition was a disaster for Constable.

There’s a lesson for the marketing world here.

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

You may be going merrily about your business, doing a decent job, progressing steadily along the tracks. Your brand may be well regarded by consumers. Everything may be OK.

But then out of left field the competition does something radical that rewrites the rules; that reframes the market; that changes the way you’re viewed. Suddenly you no longer seem quite so relevant. You appear a little off the pace, a little out of sorts. Suddenly you look like yesterday’s brand.

BA was solidly respectable, thoroughly dependable. And then irreverent Virgin arrived on the scene and made it somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned. Levi’s was cool and contemporary. And then dissident Diesel appeared and made it safe and conventional. Orange made Vodafone feel corporate. Apple made Microsoft appear square. Sipsmith made Gordon's look dreary. Fever-Tree made Schweppes taste sweet. Eat made Pret seem over-sauced. And so on and so forth.

We should watch out for the seemingly insignificant red buoy that appears out of left field; the subtle touch of the brush that at a stroke makes us seem less relevant. We should beware being repositioned by the competition.

When we play it safe, we leave space for others to shine. If we want to be a leadership brand, we have to lead.

 

'When least expected,
Fate stumbles in.
Bringing light to the darkness,
Oh, what a friend.
I needed someone to call my own.
Suddenly, out of left field
Out of left field, out of left field
Love came along.’

Percy Sledge, 'Out of Left Field' (Dan Penn / Spooner Oldham)

No. 187

‘The Invention of Fogs’: Learning Not Just to Look, But to See

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

‘There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we know nothing about them. They did not exist until art had invented them.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I recently attended the ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition at Tate Britain (until 7 May). The show brings together works by French artists who escaped to the British capital in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the strife that subsequently gripped Paris.

It’s compelling to see how fresh eyes regarded London’s crowded shopping arcades and the quiet streets of its suburbs; how they perceived England’s social stratification, eccentric fashions and enthusiasm for sport. The emigres were, for example, quite taken with the spacious green parks they found here, and the fact that people were allowed to walk on the grass.

They were also drawn to the Thames: to its disordered shipping, dubious community and atmospheric effects. The exhibition climaxes with a marvellous collection of paintings by Claude Monet of the Houses of Parliament shrouded in fog.

‘What I like most of all in London is the fog. How could English painters of the nineteenth century have painted its houses brick by brick? Those fellows painted bricks they didn’t see, bricks they could not see. It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth.’
Claude Monet

This fascination with London’s fog was shared by another expatriate painter, the American James Whistler. And it was Whistler that Oscar Wilde credited with ‘the invention of fogs.’

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of art. At present people see fogs, not because they are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I was particularly taken with this thought: that Londoners had not really paid much attention to the fog that enveloped them; that when they looked about them, they observed the same streets that had always been there. They could not see the fog for the buildings; the wood for the trees. I like the idea that it took outsiders to see the obvious; that without their vision fog didn’t really exist; that sometimes only people with a particular gift of perception can recognize the truth.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

Social change is all around us, hiding in plain sight. It’s in the behaviour of the outliers, the beliefs of eccentrics, the attitudes of the young. It’s in nuance and gesture; language and slang. It’s in unforeseen consequences and unrealised dreams.

Often social change lacks a name or a description. It’s there nonetheless for all to see. For the most part we look past it and through it at the structures and conventions of the past. We look, but don’t see.

So don’t wait to read about behavioural trends and cultural transformation in an industry publication, conference or blog. Don’t just adopt the tired labels and classifications of others. Don’t follow the crowd into clichéd observations about content-curating cryptocurrencies and machine-learning millennials; about authentic algorithms and scalable safe spaces.

Don’t just look at the world around you. See it.

No. 165

Living Life in the Wrong Order: Jack Cardiff and the Integrated Narrative

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‘In my mind this light is the light in which cinema was invented.’
Martin Scorsese, on Jack Cardiff

I recently watched a documentary (‘Cameraman,’ 2010) and a play (Terry Johnson’s ‘Prism’) about the legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff (1914-2009).

Cardiff began his life in film as a clapper boy in the silent era. He went on to become a master of the Technicolor age. He shot the likes of Dietrich, Niven, Bogart, Hepburn, Gardner, Monroe and Loren. In the latter part of his career he was an accomplished director, and in his seventies he applied his expertise to the world of digital.

‘For his inventions, imagination and sheer audacity, there has never been another colour cameraman like Jack Cardiff.’
Michael Powell

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Cardiff’s greatest work was with the film-making duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Together they created the icons of British cinema, ‘A Matter of Life and Death,’ ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘The Red Shoes.’ These are films of bold ambition, rich invention and touching romance.

Cardiff was an avid student of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Turner, and he regarded the cameraman as ‘the man who paints the movie.’ He gave us lush green forests, blood-orange sunsets and ominous dark shadows; he produced iridescent purples, vibrant pinks and luminous turquoises; he conjured up disarming flashes of passionate crimson lips, intimate close-ups on smouldering brown eyes.

‘He gave me half of my performance with the lighting.’
Kathleen Byron, Actor, Black Narcissus

I was quite taken with one particular observation Cardiff made in his autobiography, ‘Magic Hour.’ Looking back on his career, he reflected on the disordered structure of most of our lives.

‘It would be far more conducive growing old gracefully if our lives were lived in a rewarding and heartening sequence. Submit your life to any decent script editor and they’d reject it on structure alone.’

This theme is taken up in Johnson’s excellent play.

 ‘A real life does not boast a satisfying story arc. We are doomed to live the events of our lives in the wrong damn order; it’s like shooting a film, not watching one…The time of our lives is not the finished masterpiece; it’s just whatever we got in the can today.’

It’s true that our lives are often messy, complex and chaotic. We behave erratically and inconsistently. We are overtaken by events, by relationships, and circumstances beyond our control. We tend to live our lives in the wrong order.

I understand that in the world of psychotherapy patients are encouraged to create an ‘integrated narrative’: a single story that accommodates diverse experiences and relationships; that makes sense of the past and present, both logically and intuitively; that gives some direction for the future; that is recognisable as one’s own. An integrated narrative provides a certain amount of meaning, identity and purpose to one’s life.

I suspect that brands and businesses could do with integrated narratives too. So often a brand acquires associations and characteristics that are somewhat contradictory and at odds. So often a business is led by groups of people with very different points of view. So often decisions are made and affairs are played out in the wrong order. In such circumstances all would benefit from a coherent story that accommodates these multiple events and perspectives; that binds the disparate threads together into one fabric.

I’m well aware that many are sceptical of talk of storytelling. It sometimes seems too easy, flip and commonplace. But I have found that narrative continues to be a valuable tool in life and business. Stories are universal and timeless precisely because they make sense when we are confused; they unite us when we are divided; they provide direction when we are lost.

In Johnson’s play Cardiff quotes the director John Huston with whom he shot the Bogart-Hepburn classic ‘The African Queen’:

‘We’ve all got a strip of celluloid running though us. It’s got a thousand images on it and it’s a fragile thing. But if you are an artist you are going to cut and colour and grade and project that celluloid back at the world, because our past is all we’ve got to give.’ 

No. 156