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Simply Speaking: Make the new familiar and the familiar new

It takes a brave company to take the long view, as few radically new products are an instant success. People appreciate innovations in hindsight.

By  Shubhranshu SinghJan 16, 2023 11:52 AM
Simply Speaking: Make the new familiar and the familiar new
Marketers must ‘make the new familiar and the familiar new’ But, how to do this in a deep, impactful and self-sustaining manner ? Use of a Metaphorical sensibility is one proven way. The use of Metaphor aids relatability and mental placement. The automobile, for instance, was initially described as "a horseless carriage”, the motorcycle as a “bicycle with a motor." The snowboard was simply "a skateboard for the snow." (Representational image: jianxiang via Unsplash)

“Business has only two functions - marketing and innovation.” - Peter Drucker

It is no coincidence that many of the biggest brands are also some of the business world's biggest innovators. As a pioneer of a new product category, a brand becomes more than a badge representing a money-making operation. It becomes a storied institution that gains a legacy and the rightful claim of having changed the nature of everyday life.

Of course, innovation is not for the faint-hearted. Human beings are conservative creatures. They like what they know. When something new comes along - be it the automobile or K-pop or the internet

- people get anxious at first. Psychologists have decoded that change subconsciously indicates to us that that time is moving on and therefore reminds us of our own mortality. We don't want to die, so we are resistant to change. It therefore makes sense that the younger we are the more we are willing to try something new, because death tends to be far from our minds.

It takes a brave company to take the long view, as very few radically new products are an instant success. People appreciate innovations in hindsight, rarely as they happen.

Success happens slowly, through word of mouth or media endorsement, but, once the market has started to accept the idea, the innovator becomes the spokesperson for the category invented. In some cases - such as Google, Hoover and Xerox - the brand becomes so associated with its innovation that its name becomes synonymous.

Innovation is a high-stakes game. Researching and promoting a new product or service costs a lot of money and can lead to spectacular failure. That said, when brand innovators make it, they make it big.

The trick is not to bury innovation centric information in what some call creativity.

Scott Bedbury, Nike’s Head of Marketing at the time when Wieden+Kennedy came up with the ‘Just Do It’ campaign wrote a book called ‘A New Brand World’ where he claims that most product obsessed campaigns amount to nothing more than an “example of corporate navel-gazing”. It is only when people link unrelated concepts and product innovations that true magic results. The Nike campaign was about values not about sneakers. They were declaring their brand ethos not selling product virtues. The campaign itself ran for 10 years. It made its way into everyday language. ‘Just Do It’ - whether ending a bad relationship or deciding to climb mount Everest became a mantra for life.

This brings us to another vast but under explored area of brand building. The abstractions, associations and indirectness of building something unique. Innovations are always hard to market in the right frame of reference with due context. Our biases predispose us to a standard way. What’s out of line is considered deviant, not inspiring. But often, great brands emerge from whacky and unintended connections.

Samuel Colt developed the revolving bullet chamber for the eponymous revolver because he was a midshipman and saw how a ship’s wheel could be spun or locked with a clutch.

A Swiss engineer created Velcro inspired by the clinging burrs that stuck to his trousers when he went to the mountains for trekking.

Marketers must ‘make the new familiar and the familiar new’

But, how to do this in a deep, impactful and self sustaining manner ? Use of a Metaphorical sensibility is one proven way. The use of Metaphor aids relatability and mental placement. The automobile, for instance, was initially described as "a horseless carriage”, the motorcycle as a “bicycle with a motor." The snowboard was simply "a skateboard for the snow." In 1999 Research in Motion's BlackBerry 850 was sold as a pager that could also receive and send emails. The initial adopters all got it.

The failure of the Segway shows how much harder it is to devise a compelling narrative without reference to context. Developed by superstar inventor Dean Kame, it was hyped as the next big thing, and was financed by hundreds of millions in venture capital. Magazine covers declared the end of mobility as we knew it and the close of the era of the automobile. Hardly anyone uses it today. The Segway was not analogous with anything at all. People couldn't relate to it. A horseless carriage is easier to sell than the Segway.

One of the most iconic luxury products in the world was born of a chance encounter. In 1984, the British actor Jane Birkin happened to be sitting on a flight next to Jean-Louis Dumas, then CEO of the French luxury brand Hermès. Accidentally, the contents of Birkin’s modest straw bag spilled out as she hoisted it into the overhead locker. When introduced , she told Dumas that she couldn’t find a leather bag she liked anywhere, and that Hermès should make one with straps. Thus, the Birkin bag was born. To this day, it is a symbol of luxury.

Consider handbags and totes. A simple cloth bag will carry basic essentials as well as any bag. And yet consumers reliably spend thousands of dollars for handbags from high-end brands to the tune of nearly $10bn a year in the United States alone. Luxury brands are unique in the sheer power of symbolic meaning relative to their products. Sure, the products are carefully crafted and well designed, but we’d be kidding ourselves to think the products are valued for their functional use.

So how is this achieved? For a product or brand to provide this level of value it’s not enough simply to come up with a fancy-looking item and expect the process to magically unfold. There must be shared, conventional meaning within the broader consumer culture. Only then can the product serve as a symbol for this meaning and communicate this message. This is important: social signalling is predicated on shared meaning.

If people think you have an important message to convey, they will generally make it their business to grasp it. Make it easy, entertaining and engaging.

Rosser Reeves railed against "puffery" and ineffectual advertising - “the best taste ever," "incredibly smooth, and so on. While such bits of fluff were not up to Reeves's standards, at least they made the attempt to sell. Puffery has, today, been replaced with vagueness “Advancing technology”, “People drive us", "'Expanding possibilities." These slogans make it hard to tell what companies stand for. One argument for such ads is the belief that advertising has lost its effectiveness in an age of overcommunication and cynicism, hence the mix of boring, bizarre and banal.

If people think you have an important message to convey, they will generally make it their business to grasp it. Make it easy, entertaining and engaging.

The trick is not to bury innovation centric information in what some call creativity. Look at the world as it exists, pick up referenceable elements to create meaning for the innovations you bring to market.

Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.

First Published on Jan 16, 2023 11:34 AM