Brand Values & Segmentation

I’ve been in my role as Head of Design here for a little under three weeks now. My background has been, if you’re interested in such things (if you’re not, bear with me, it’s relevant) almost exclusively in what might be described as the commercial sector. Over the last 16 or so years, I’ve worked across a range of (again, bear with me) industries, but it’s fair to say that the main focus has been on working with retail brands.

I’ve been both flattered and somewhat amused by the comments of friends and colleagues, along the lines of, “That’s right up your street,” or “well, you’ve always wanted to do that sort of thing.” They’re right of course, this does feel like a dream opportunity to me, and I’m incredibly excited to have joined the team at Neo. The gushing might have to wait for another blog piece, I’m writing to a deadline. ‘That sort of thing’ is one of those commonplace throwaway comments that often belies an implied meaning. The implication here being that the work I’m starting to do with Neo is somehow fundamentally different to what I was doing before. Again, they’re right. But only to a point.

The crux of what they’re getting at is actually more complex and incongruous. Up until now, I’ve worked in the wider function of marketing. Y’know, proper grown-up marketing, working with brands you may (or may not) have heard of, but ultimately the sort of work that is validated on the bottom-line; a useful function of traditional industrial and economic models for growth; building robust brand institutions that perform well within that system. And now, I’m working in the third sector, y’know, doing that sort of thing; which is often seen as eschewing the proven validity of proper work to do something meaningful, isn’t that nice, but doesn’t it, well… pay less? When I say friends and colleagues, there is a considerable overlap between the two (it’s always been a fairly tribal business). I understand their thinking, to a point; it’s a dichotomy that hasn’t been helped by proper agencies doing a bit of charity work pro-bono; as a vanity project, or because awards season is approaching. The third sector has historically been seen as the affable poorer cousin. Both from the outside and, as I’ve already encountered in the last few weeks, from those working within.

Segmentation in this way creates a division, a choice between brand or values, and perpetuates the idea that you can only have one or the other. But, increasingly, brands need to operate within ethical and sustainable frameworks. Culturally, we are revisiting and redefining traditional models of usefulness, with reference to consumption, efficiency, life-cycle; in response to changing economic climates and resources. The validity of brands is not ascertained solely on the bottom line, but is scrutinised on social channels and negotiated through interaction and co-creation. It is not enough to merely pay lip service. Token greenwashing will not withstand this cross-examination.

Both sectors are vying for attention in the congestion of convergent media. When it comes to generating traffic through content-driven marketing, the third sector certainly knows a thing or two about engaging content; how to tell honest and often difficult stories in a compelling way, with compassion and integrity. And to be honest, compared to discussing the relative merits of whether you scrunch or fold your toilet paper, it represents a giant leap forward for the good, not just of your brand, but of all humanity.

But, it’s unhelpful to think in such facile terms as commerce: bad / charities: good. Both sectors could certainly learn more from one another, be a bit more like one another; without eroding values, but by adding to them, to create a more comprehensive and encompassing value system. I think of Metro Trains’ Dumb Ways to Die. campaign, which started life as a public safety message for a regional rail franchise operator and, at the time of writing, currently has over 58 million views on YouTube, spawned a song that charted globally on iTunes, and more recently added an app that features in Apple’s top downloaded charts. My kids have never been on nor dangerously near an Australian train and as far as I’m aware, have no plans to do so any time soon; but they spent two weeks of our summer holiday singing the ‘dumb ways’ song. This campaign not only successfully blurred the line between sectors, but has transcended any idea of the original audience; becoming the message on rail safety. I also don’t imagine the hundreds of accompanying media articles have done anything to harm Metro Trains’ brand or profile.

And maybe, it’s not just about being a bit more like one another, but beginning to recognise and embrace the opportunities for positive change that collaboration could bring about. If we only ever repeat what we’ve done before, in exactly the same way as we’ve done it before; then we’re never going to truly be able to play our part in changing the future. This is something I feel incredibly excited about, it’s something I’ve always believed that good design has the potential to influence.