I spent Friday at Influx Ideas, the annual one-day branding conference hosted by Butler Shine Stern & Partners, a Sausalito agency. It's a small, inexpensive, efficiently run event: no tracks, no breakout sessions, just a couple hundred people in a big room listening to a dozen or so speakers from a wide range of disciplines, including architecture, physics, publishing, and marketing.
Although the conference had no title, a theme emerged: branding "from within"; branding "with integrity." One speaker quoted Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: "Meaning is the new money." Of course, money is also still the new money.
- Sarah Rich, who has a degree in anthropology, worked until recently with WorldChanging and now is an editor specializing in sustainability issues at Dwell magazine. She talked about "consumer climate change"--what will make the non-green majority choose sustainable products. "Dishonesty is an evolutionary disadvantage," she warned, citing Chevron's "Energyville" campaign (in which, said Rich, the oil company attempted to prove that it isn't an oil company). She sees a big future in re-engineering both products ("electronics need a massive redesign--they're full of toxins and designed for quick obsolescence") and services (car sharing, for example, "invites customers into the distribution process"). Links she recommends: BadBuster, a downloadable application that lets you learn the environmental score of your favorite brands; and Satisfaction Unlimited, a new user-driven customer-service site.
- Scott Wyatt, an architect with NBBJ in Seattle, talked about buildings as brands--successful and unsuccessful. The St. Louis Arch is a thing of beauty, he said, but because "nobody went through St. Louis on their way west," it's a fraudulent icon. NBBJ's buildings, on the other hand, reflect months of research into companies' brand personalities. NBBJ designed headquarters for both Nike and Reebok: whereas the Nike brand is about winning, said Wyatt, Reebok is about playing. So the Reebok headquarters incorporates an indoor running track, and the building surrounds a baseball diamond used by Little League teams. For Boeing, NBBJ didn't build anything new: instead, it brought 5,000 employees into the hangar where 737s are built. The shift "changed the relationship between blue- and white-collar workers" and "cut manufacturing time in half." And in the Oslo headquarters of Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor--designed to embody "the future of work"--there are 9,000 employees and 6,000 desks. "There are no assigned spaces," said Wyatt, "but there are lots of places to work." The photos were awe-inspiring, and Wyatt's a casual yet compelling speaker. I'll bet a lot of people in the audience wanted to quit whatever else they do and go to work for him.
- Becky Saeger, VP of marketing at Charles Schwab, talked about how the edgy, two-year-old "Talk to Chuck" campaign helped reverse the company's fortunes (and shatter every convention of financial-services advertising). Founder Charles Schwab, who was ubiquitous in earlier advertising, is nowhere to be seen in the new ads. But "Talk to Chuck" has penetrated so successfully that customers now refer to anyone who answers a call-center phone as "Chuck"--and don't seem to mind that they're not actually talking with Mr. Schwab himself.
- Peter Macey of Esquire magazine gave a five-minute presentation on last year's Tap Project, a joint effort of ad agency Droga5 and UNICEF that convinced New Yorkers to pay $1 for each glass of tap water they drank in restaurants on World Water Day. The presentation was slick but affecting, a hard-to-achieve combination. (The Dove videos--Evolution and Onslaught--have a similar effect. They were cited by several presenters as examples of questionable integrity: the videos' messages are laudable, but Dove's parent company, Unilever, also peddles Axe products [for men] with sexist [or comic-sexist] imagery.)
Not so high points:
- I tried hard to feel as excited as Gregory Kennedy, creative director at Millions of Us, does about Scion City, the webisode campaign his agency created for Toyota that's running on Second Life. But Second Life creeps me out, and I thought the ad's story line was weak and the execution tedious. "In the online world you have to be hyperengaged and hyperengaging," Kennedy said. I'm still waiting.
- Likewise, I'm not moved by Ask a Ninja, represented at the conference by co-creator Kent Nichols. He seemed amiable enough, but still: Tell me again how these guys make money? And why?
Best new term picked up at the conference: "Generation Mii," a neat mashup of the Me Generation and the Nintendo Wii. Casey Ingle of Campbell-Ewald, a Detroit ad agency, used it to describe the cohort with birth dates between 2000 and 2020.
Biggest disappointment: not a single presentation on verbal branding--naming, copywriting, and what marketing directors like to call "messaging."