The trick of confidence

I love this industry.

On one hand, it’s the most trivial thing in the world, creating stuff which people would rather pay a gas bill than engage with. On the other, it’s about building brands – and you can’t get much bigger than that.

Look at some of the biggest brands around – national brands.

In a recent review of a book on Pakistan, the writer Pankaj Mishra describes a country “whose fanatically ideological government in 1998 conducted nuclear tests, threatened its neighbour with all-out war and, four years later, presided over the massacre of 2,000 members of a religious minority.”  A place which “now struggles to contain a militant movement in its heartland. It is also where thousands of women are killed every year for failing to bring sufficient dowry and nearly 20,000 farmers committed suicide in the previous decade”.

But the thing is, the country being described is India, not Pakistan.

Beacon of the new capitalism, with the second  fastest-growing economy in the world.

As David Rieff says, India has had the most “successful national re-branding” since Cool Britannia in the 1990s.

Despite the facts.

In fact, ignoring the facts.

And that is what is so amazing about this business.

We don’t always do it brilliantly – we don’t even do it well, frequently enough – but the potential is there, every day, to build big brands through sheer chutzpah.

The upside is incredible – and so is the downside.

Because, as Mishra says, “Pakistan, on the other hand, seems to have lost all control over its international narrative”.

And, as part of that,  it suffers from persistently negative PR. So as he says, “Islamist politics are extremely weak in Pakistan, even if they provoke hysterical headlines in the west”.

It just shows you the power of PR. Get it right and you’re one of the four cornerstones of the BRIC financial future. Get it wrong and you’re an eternal scapegoat.

And what can we learn about brand-building from all this ?

Well, lots of things – but it’s worth starting with the notion of self-belief.

Brazil, Russia, India, China – they’re all larger than life, bolder than brass, and frankly not too concerned about what YOU might think of them.

Compare that with every marketing-comms meeting you’ve ever been in, where people have spent hours agonising and trying to double-guess every possible misinterpretation of the message.

India’s PR success story may have had as much to do with suppression of negatives as promotion of positives – the dark arts of PR always have to balance those two aspects.

But all four of those superpowers are big and ballsy, and they don’t spend hours agonising about focus groups.

It’s the same with brands on the next rung down from countries – football clubs.

While he was looking for a new job after Chelsea, Jose Mourinho chatted to the high-powered Presidents of various high-flying clubs.

After they had asked him the usual, predictable questions, he enquired if he could ask them a question.

“What does your club stand for ?” he asked, in a perfect understanding of the difference between a product and a brand.

They all faffed about, muttering about wanting “success”. But Mourinho knew the killer follow-up question to that – “Every club wants to be successful, what is unique about you ?”

He was asking them if they knew that their clubs were brands.

And the top football brands in the world ?

Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid – brands where style, confidence and bravura  are more important than prosaic success.

Where bravery, and flair, and imagination are everything.

Ironically, this is where Jose himself may come undone. He may end up going down the same path as Fabio Capello who coached Real to league success in his first season, but did it with such dourness that he was then fired straightaway after.

Mourinho’s press-room style is flamboyant to a “t” – but his playing style is cautious and defensive.

The lesson for countries and clubs and brands everywhere is the same – be bold.

When Nike realised that they had invested 60 million dollars into a personality who was no longer what he’d seemed to be, and who was haemorrhaging support with every new cocktail waitress, they didn’t panic like old women. They stuck with Tiger. As Phil Knight said, “When his career is over, you’ll look on his indiscretions as a minor blip”.

Absolutely right.

And yet how many meetings in adland are concerned with panic, arse-covering and risk-avoidance at all costs ?

Fortune always and only favours the brave.

  • Richard Cordiner

    Great post Steve, couldn’t agree more. Always amazes me when brand managers ask how they can be more like Apple, then force the agency’s answer through the type of consumer research Apple would never, ever do. The result is the ‘wind tunnel marketing’ Jim Carroll writes about — pleasant, mildly amusing, gently aspirational, wholly forgettable. If only there was more self belief.

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