Tuesday, 18 February 2014 00:01
Peter Fisk explores a new world of marketing and branding, and explores the creative process of Disney-Pixar to build a business that inspires and engages people more deeply
Pixar is an amazing business. Built on imagination and creativity, it harnesses the potential of digital technologies to create the most engaging characters and films.
In 1979 Star Wars creator George Lucas and computer scientist Ed Catmull established the foundations of what was initially a digitally-enabled special effects business. Seven years later Steve Jobs acquired the studio, renamed it Pixar, and gave birth to some of the most successful animated films – like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.
Today it is one of the world’s most successful businesses.
Brands need bigger ambitions
Similarly today’s most successful brands have moved on from special effects and advertising, much more than a name and logo, to be an enduring narrative, to embrace the digital and human world, to capture the creative and emotional essence of a business and its customers.
Marketers are no longer support functions for sales, or brief writers for creative agencies. They are the creative talent, making sense of the world around them, turning insights into ideas into innovations. They are the driving force of business, the champion of customers, and the guardians of incredibly valuable assets called brands.
From Apple to Zappos, Abercrombie and Fitch to Better Place, Paul Smith and Shanghai Tang, Air Asia and Virgin Galactic… the most successful brands have bigger ambitions.
The best brands don’t limit themselves to what they do, they are not just labels of ownership, distinguishing one commoditised product or service from another. They define themselves on customer’s terms, about their aspirations and applications – about benefits rather than features, if you like.
These brands recognise the wider impact they can have on customers and society, rather than just communicating relevance and difference at the point of sale. They define what they enable, rather than what they are. In fact they are more than communication tools.
They give business purpose, shared with customers. They give people confidence, bring people together, and enable them to achieve more. They make life better.
World changing, game changing
Why is it not enough for a brand to be a passive name, with a distinctive logo, a trademark that rarely changes, a packaging or communication device? To answer this we need to look at how the world, its markets, and attitudes have changed.
As Pablo Picasso said, “times of turbulence are the most exciting times, because everything changes”.
Look around us everything is changing at incredible speed … customer priorities, competitive positions, commercial structures, have all been shaken up. Markets are no longer absolute, bordered and predictable.
This is a world in need of a new approach to branding, and different ways of activating and managing them.
You might call it a “VUCA world” – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – but at the same time vibrant, unreal, crazy and astounding … a time to keep your head down, avoid risk and change, or a time to look at the amazing opportunities all around us?
We all now compete in global, always-on markets, whether we intend to, or not.
Sectors converge and new whitespaces emerge. Customers have incredibly high demands and expectations, but little trust or loyalty. Disruption is normal, uncertainty is expected.
Virtuality is the reality, combining speed, interactivity and reach. At the same time, business is more human than ever, emotional and empathetic.
Whilst many of us struggle to shake-off the hangover of the economic downturn, others realise that it was just the crying pains of a changing world. Seismic shifts in power and influence have changed the rules of our game. The shift from west to east is not just about money, but about knowledge and culture too. The hot fashions are in Buenos Aires, the best green tech is in Shanghai, the top web designers in Mumbai, and the most venture capital in Shenzen.
Technology has empowered customers like never before – more informed, more choice, and more promiscuous. Brands need to redefine themselves in terms of what they do for people, and then deliver it on customers terms - when, where and how they want.
Collaboration (in the forms of crowd sourcing, co-creation and partnerships) with customers, supplier, distributor and affinity brands has become the norm – creating more flexibility, and helping to build more relevant and engaging solutions.
Markets have fragmented with more specialism, yet still large when considered globally. Being special to niche markets is far better than being average to everyone (and special to nobody). New markets emerge, as categories collide, and new possibilities emerge. Gone are the rigid market boundaries, the notion of your home market being the closest to you, and of customers and competitors as absolutes. Gone is the assumption that the future is an extrapolation of your past.
Are you focused on the big opportunities? And if not, why not? Over the next 5 years, female consumers will grow faster than China and India. Within 20 years, the E7 (Brazil, Russia, India and China – plus Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey) will be bigger than G7, renting will replace buying, education and healthcare will transform, sustainability will be compulsory, and water will be the new gold.
Our marketing metrics have to change too. Market share, for example, becomes largely irrelevant. Profit is no longer a consequence of volume. Share price is about potential more than performance. Value networks, enabled by the likes of Alibaba and Li & Fung, replace the need for owned production, and the headache of inflexible production costs.
3D printing enables real customisation of cars and clothing, design and manufacturing for cents and within hours. Forget core competencies, you can do anything you want.
Welcome to the ideas world
The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Ideas become the currency of success. New markets, like smartphones, are waiting to be defined. Nobody wanted to play on a Nintendo Wii until Shigeru Miyamoto designed it. Nobody needed an iPad until Jonny Ive delivered it.
Ideas need to be bigger and better than ever before. The best ideas capture the attention of customers with infinite choice. Viral ideas spread freely between people - rather than being pushed at audiences through interruptive campaigns using expensive, passive media. In this ideas world, beating the competition is nothing to do with the size of your business, or your marketing budget, but about thinking smarter.
Out-thinking competitors is achieved by seeing the future more clearly, bringing together the right partners and networks to secure it, better understanding emerging issues and insights and developing the most compelling propositions and experiences. Brands are about ideas, marketers are the creative talent.
Pixar, therefore, is a fabulous metaphor for brand-building and marketing in this new world. Like the best movies, brands are about ideas more than effects, stories more than icons, enabled by software more than hardware, touching people more deeply, and memorably.
Building a creative business
Emeryville lies just across the bay from San Francisco, and this is where the story of Pixar, Buzz and Woody, Nemo ...and Mickey Mouse too, unfolds…
Steve Jobs is much more than a tech geek. He is a man of extreme vision, creativity and commerce, and ability to get the best out of people.
In 1986, having temporarily let go of his Apple passion (that’s a different story!), he set about transforming his newly acquired animation business. He moved it from making and selling hardware, to designing and distributing software. He brought in John Lasseter who had a background in off-beat mini-animations, to drive his vision into reality. The two men shared a vision, not just of how they could make great movies, but of how they could transform an industry, bringing together the best technologies with a human touch (maybe an echo of the iPod, a decade later).
After much rethinking and developing, in particular perfecting the proprietary Renderman animation process, and funded by making quirky ads for Kellogg’s and IBM, Pixar was ready to take on the world. Christmas 1995 saw the much anticipated launch of Toy Story. It received tremendous critical acclaim, generating $362 million in worldwide box office receipts and earning Lasseter an Oscar and Academy Award.
On its success, Lasseter built a creative team of highly skilled animators, a story department and an art department. But he didn’t just want great technicians, he wanted people with insight and imagination. He sought animators with superior acting ability, people who could sense how characters and audiences would feel, deeply and emotionally. The new Pixar University quickly became the training school for animators from around the world, and Pixar developed complete creative teams in-house, whilst the non-creative tasks were outsourced. More blockbuster animations quickly followed ... A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. The six films combined grossed more than $3.5 billion at box offices worldwide, the most successful animated films of all time. With each success, Pixar learnt more and invested in its process, brands and audiences. It revolutionised the technology of filmmaking, it transformed the expectations of audiences, and it gave children (and adults) across the world, a new genre of heroes.
Mickey meets Monsters Inc.
In 2006, Pixar became a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company in a $7.4 billion deal that saw Jobs, who was the majority shareholder of Pixar with 50.1%, take a seat on Disney’s board of directors, and with 7% of all stock, the largest individual Disney shareholder. A new brand name “Disney·Pixar” was created, and as Chief Creative Officer (CCO), Lasseter reports directly to Disney CEO Bob Iger. He became responsible not just for Pixar, but the entire creative activity of the group.
Pixar Studios has evolved into a workspace that defines and inspires the creative process. Jobs was never a great movie maker, but he knew how to bring 1200 creative people, and their collective talents, together.
Pixar Studios are like a fusion of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, just like Pixar is a fusion of technology and entertainment, art and commerce.
Just like in the Googleplex at Mountain View, or Nike Campus in Portland, Pixar Studios has been described as a corporate playground with its own rules and rituals. Lasseter describes these in a very simple way
1. Dream like a child – without prejudice or inhibition, live in a world where anything is possible, and the more fantastic the better.
2. Believe in your playmates – see the best in people, see them as the best people in the world, and together as a team that can do anything.
3. Dare to jump into the water and make waves – don’t be afraid to break new ground, to challenge conventions, break rules, or do what hasn’t been done.
4. Unleash your childlike potential – don’t just think like a child, make those wild ideas happen too.
So what can brands learn from Pixar?
Pixar is a digital content business, and in many ways that’s what brands are today. Beyond the products and services which they support, brands are about ideas, stories, relationships and communities, and the capturing and sharing of them increasingly digitally, virtual experiences which become reality.
The parallels for brands and marketing are everywhere in Pixar … the pivotal role of the CCO and the creative team within the business, the primacy of audience, the bringing together of talents, the nurturing of ideas, the building of personality, the pursuit of compelling narratives, the dreams and emotions, always delivering on time and to budget. And a relentless stream of success.
Maybe brands need to own more of their own creativity, rather than being subservient to their agencies. Maybe they need to immerse themselves deeper in the world they are trying to simulate and stimulate, to challenge each other, to unlock and mesh their talents, in a more sustained and evolving way. Indeed the marketing departments of Apple and Zappos are more like creative studios, the hub of business thinking, delivering strategies and innovations, as well as brands and communication.
Lassiter describes the process as “telling a great story, but not too predictably” maybe like a marketing programme needs to evolve rather than be a series of quickly discarded campaigns. He talks of “taking people to another world” which equates to the ability to reframe brands in contexts that have more relevance for audiences, and more scope commercially. He talks about “characters that people develop a deep bond with” which is at the heart of building an emotional connection, doing more for people, creating a brand they love.
Of course, it is the whole story of Pixar which is a lesson for brands today, not just the way in which Pixar themselves use their brands. Few brands, few marketing leaders, can have achieved the success of Lassiter and his team, either in terms of global awards or commercial results.
Most important, is to apply the lessons of Pixar’s creative process to the challenge of brand building. This is where many marketers are falling behind, and where many business leaders fail to recognise its importance and impact.
Defining the 21st century brand
The digital and global, transparent and collaborative world demands branding that does more for people. Brands are more than companies, products and services. Brands are more than names, logos and communications. Brands reach beyond transactions and markets.
In a world where image and reputation can be built, and destroyed, in an instant, brands need to be stronger, richer, and in the hands of the beholder. This is why the movie making analogy is useful, and why today’s best brands are “ABCDE”, that is:
Aspirational – Brands capture the dreams and desires of their audience, what they seek to achieve, rather than simply labelling a business, product or service. They establish a richer, more relevant context, based around their application and potential. They are about them (the people) not us (the business).
Bold – Brands are more ambitious, they challenge the norm, they stand out from others and go where others fear or have never imagined. They are iconic, or at least use icons to demonstrate their purpose. They are talked about, questioned, explored and loved, because they are different.
Connecting – Brands build communities, because people ultimately enjoy being with others like them, people who share a similar passion, purpose or experience. Customers don’t want relationships with companies or products, but they do value brands that facilitate their ability to connect and do more with others.
Dramatic – beyond names and logos, product or services, brands have a strong and distinctive idea that is brought to life in more meaningful ways. They capture a shared purpose, supported by values which come alive through attitudes and behaviours. The ideas can cross markets and categories, supporting innovation and growth, even with different identities.
Enabling – Brands do more for people, giving them functional means and emotional confidence to do what they never thought possible. Awareness and purchase are just the beginnings of a deeper brand experience. Advocacy, repurchase and ongoing collaboration are steps to a brand to live your life by.
To infinity, and beyond
Brands are the most valuable assets in business today, and marketers the most valuable talent. Success in a VUCA world depends on how you think, how you seize the potential of technology and opportunities of new markets, and how bold and ambitious you are. A great brand can come from anywhere … big company or small, emerging nation or developed, young marketers or experienced leaders, limitless budgets or almost none. It’s not about what you are, but how you think.