• Transform magazine
  • September 23, 2017

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Five minutes with Simon Glynn

Simon Glynn Headshot.jpg

For global creative consultancy, Lippincott, innovation and culture has formed the crux of its brand strategy since its founding in 1943. Its controversial redesign of the 1948 Tucker Sedan symbolised a trailblazing design process that carried through to its global work. Over the years, Lippincott has favoured research and analytics as key components of its brand outlook, and in 2003, the consultancy took on Simon Glynn as head of Europe and the Middle East. In an exclusive interview with Transform magazine, Glynn talks to Hassan Butt about the shifting brand landscape and how a ‘Human Era’ of branding is taking shape.

Since you joined Lippincott in 2003, we’ve seen an unprecedented rise in disruption within the branding world. How can brands today ensure that they’re in the right position to compete?

Simon Glynn: It’s interesting, I think we’ve seen two shifts – one over most of that time, and one that we’re beginning to see now. Brand used to be about driving communications, brand positioning’s were about how you want to be seen – sometimes described as going from descriptive to prescriptive. Now, companies are using brand much more actively as a beacon for what they want to become, driving culture, behaviour and looking forward to the future. This is more of a natural shift from a packaged goods view of branding to a service economy view of branding.

The digital disruption that is going on, if you think of the emotional connection that people have with brands and why brands are so strong, it comes from doing three things; to simplify the world around them, to give them something to believe in, and something to belong to. I can sort my simplifying problem with algorithms, that’s what happens when I use Amazon star ratings or Google’s search, or find somewhere to stay on Tripadvisor. The sense of believing and belonging however has arguably become much more important, because none of us want to live in a functional algorithmic world. Brands that are primarily about simplifying may find it tougher, but brands that are about believing and belonging should have a great future.  

What steps would you recommend to ensure a brand portfolio serves a clear business purpose?

SG: I have two thoughts on that, the first and biggest one is thinking ahead. The danger of thinking ahead however, with regards to doing new and exciting things under new and exciting brands, is that it can become self-fulfilling and a vicious circle, as it can leave the core brand behind. There were a few examples of this in the dotcom era, when the phone companies set up internet and mobile businesses for example, BT had Openworld at the time, Swisscom had Bluewin. Broadly, most of them have raised those back in, BT has gone back to its master brand, as did Swisscom. Either way, something that at one moment in time feels special and unique, may end up being part of the future, in the future.

The other point is that traditionally, in the classic model for brand positioning. one of the first things that you sought to clarify was what the business design is. The definition part of it needed to be clear about what category it was in. If you look at some of the strongest brands today in the tech world e.g. Google and Facebook, you would struggle to say what category they’re in.

You’ve often spoken about a ‘human era’ of branding, what does this mean and how can brands internalise it?

SG: We thought about the human era as opposed to the institutional era, meaning that in the institutional era, people respected and related to strong institutions. A lot of the origins of corporate branding were about building strong institutions, working out of big corporate skyscrapers and banking halls for example. It’s no coincidence that Google’s upcoming London project is coming to be known as a ‘groundscraper.’ That’s an indication of a much more human, much more accessible and much less overpowering institution – because our trust in institutions generally, has plummeted, not just in commercial institutions, but in government and the public sector as well.

This doesn’t mean that brands must pretend to be something they’re not. But it does mean that people want to see a lot more humanity, realism, flaws and honesty, as opposed to the institutionalism in the brands they deal with. Personality becomes much more central, but it must be authentic personality. Showing that you can get all the efficiencies of the corporate scale, without losing touch of who you are as people. Equally, a measurement factor of this is the idea of forgiveness, the strongest relationships you have incorporate forgiveness. Internalising this is a sign of the belief and belonging that I was talking about earlier, it is a human connection.

What key approaches does Lippincott take in consulting modern brands with regards to strategy?

SG: We talk about ourselves as a creative consultancy that focuses on brand, innovation and culture, and we don’t do that just because it defines the lines of business that we’re in. Why we’re in all three is because they’re so very linked, and because specifically, you can’t build a brand in the way we’ve been talking about without involving the innovation of the proposition that you offer and the business model that you run, and the culture that you operate in. When we set out a brand positioning, instead of thinking about it in terms of communications, what we’re really asking concerns a brand purpose.

From there, we ask what are the commitments you’re going to sign up to and live by to deliver that purpose. Those commitments are going to form the backbone of your brand, but to make them real we don’t just communicate them, we ask what are you going to do differently because of those commitments, and how do you deliver that through driving the innovation and culture you offer.

What challenges or opportunities do you predict might develop in the branding arena over the next three years?

SG: I think there’s two things that really reflect the trends we’ve already talked about, one is an internal thought in terms of how you manage brands which is about ownership and control. This is one of the consequences of the shifts we’ve talked about. The brand, and the way we’ve discussed, it isn’t just the domain of the CMO (or whatever the relevant job title is), it needs to be much more broadly owned because it affects all these other areas that the CMO is not responsible for. But at the same time, it still needs to be managed. The question is whether the CMO can manage and learn to do that on behalf of their business so that they stay relevant as brand owners, now that the communications that they grew up with are just one part of that repertoire. There’s quite a lot that CMO’s must consider to somewhat reapply for the job they’re looking after.

The other point, looking more externally, is about where in the value chain do we think people are going to have their brand loyalty. Going back to where we started with the packaged goods world, there’s been a big shift over multiple decades from packaged goods brands to retailer brands, what used to be about individual brands on shelves, is now about whether it’s Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s or Aldi’s and Lidl’s and their own brand offering. The question with the digital disruptors, is whether that shift extends to other sectors. We’re now happy to buy from suppliers we’ve never heard of if they get a good rating on Amazon.

The same disruption can also be used to occasionally find niches in other way, DPD in home delivery use digital experiences to create a brand preference that is part of a value chain that never had a brand preference before. The consumer having a parcel delivered is not even a customer technically, yet now I care who it comes from and I have the DPD app. It’s interesting to see how engagement now is not only with other players, but with other parts of the value chain altogether.