Great Scott! Brands now need to be Superhuman!

Vinay Kamath | Updated on March 07, 2019

Branding consultant Scott Bedbury says it's time for brands to be noble, meaningful and have enduring purpose

Scott Bedbury is ruminative. He’s soaked in more than a day of brands and dharma at the IAA World Congress at Kochi. Purpose, trust, soul and conscience were words and emotions that rang out strongly at the three-day convention.

It’s also the thought that pervades Bedbury’s upcoming book, which will be a guide to building trust in today’s disinformation age. This book will be out almost 16 years after he wrote his bestselling book, A New Brand World; Eight Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century. “It’s pretty tough writing a book after such a long break,” says Bedbury with a laugh, during a conversation with Cat.a.lyst on the sidelines of the Congress.

As Nike’s director of advertising in the 1980s, he led the creation of the brand’s iconic ‘Just Do It’ tagline, still in use some 30 years later. Later, as Starbucks’ chief marketing officer, he helped design the concept of a ‘third place’ which millions of consumers around the world took a shine to as the go-to place after home and office. More than the coffee, it was the overall experience that powered the Starbucks story, which Bedbury was part of.

It’s all about purpose, he says; brands need to find their purpose. As human beings, we all try to find a purpose in the things we do, but brands and companies always have a difficult time finding a purpose, especially if a company has a new CEO or CMO every few years.

“The average tenure for a CMO is two years, so every time a new person comes in, they want to leave their imprint on a brand so then it has to rediscover its purpose,” he says. Most corporations set out with a purpose but lose it over time, as it grew bigger, got more products and the leadership got farther and farther away from its sense of purpose, the consumer and the market. “The work I do for companies is to help them with the foundation under their brand where the purpose is, its mission, its core values, belief… if those are unknown and uncertain, then they have to figure that out,” explains Bedbury.

Like humans do, brands too can change their purpose for a good reason. Bedbury goes on to narrate at length his life experience where he wanted to be a journalist-photographer but his father convinced him to take up a finance course, which he gave up half-way. Till he met a writer when skiing who told him that if he wanted to write, then that’s what he should be doing, so Bedbury went back to college and registered for a journalism course.

“Sometimes outside influences can define your purpose; you may think your purpose is something and along comes a competitor (for a brand) who does much better than you, so no way you are going to do that. It’s like the Blue Ocean strategy, you have to find something else. I think that’s healthy, to question purpose; if you are comfortable too early you limit yourself, but you cannot change your purpose every day!” he elaborates.

Brands today are losing trust faster than ever before. “There’s a massive trust deficit all round,” he says. Ask him if brands get to be more transparent about themselves, will it slow down decision making?

Bedbury is thoughtful. It depends, he says, on the state of the brand. “If the brand is authentic and they don’t do stupid stuff and don’t hide or cause environmental damage, and if their house is in order, then I would say embrace transparency. The people who are building the brand may not even know they are doing something wrong, they may be the wrong hire, they may be ill-trained, may have a bad boss, or a terrible life at home, so who knows? One of the things I mention in my book is, turn yourself inside out or someone else is going to do it for you.”

Every touch point, he says, your own people, the supply chain, public spaces, markets, look for where the brand’s trust is at greatest risk, because it’s going to get tested. Bedbury says the days of just profits are gone and great brands need to serve a noble, meaningful and enduring purpose. Right now, in the age of digital distraction, they also need to be superhuman.

Algorithms have no soul

There’s also much brouhaha about big data and analytics. Many companies think that every question can be answered with data.

“I am firmly of the opinion that data can help you form the decision but never make the decision for us. Algorithms have no soul, no conscience and it will be a long time before machine learning can programme a soul into a software; there is no gut feel as well. You can programme actions, but not soul as that’s the thing that stirs you deeply and sometimes you can’t describe what you are feeling, like falling in love, for instance,” says Bedbury, adding a bit of romance to the mix of purpose and trust.

Published on March 07, 2019

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