Text sells

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It’s nice to have played a small part in the return of design title Grafik, now in online rather than print form.

The new site is interestingly text-led for a design site and the same approach has been carried through into its advertising. Rather than garish banners fighting for attention, Grafik is running text-only ads that are consistent with the editorial style, while still being clearly marked as ads.

I’ve helped write some house ads explaining the new approach, and written an essay about the continuing power of good writing in advertising and design.

Read the full article here.

The grand old man of brand

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The March 2014 edition of Creative Review includes my review of Brand New: The Shape of Brands To Come, by Wally Olins. If you’re a subscriber, you can read the article online.

The book is released on 7 April and available to order.

For anyone interested, the article references a number of sources:

Adrian Shaughnessy – Why designers should give branding back its soul

Michael Johnson – Mind the gap

Terry Eagleton – Reading On Brand 

Talking point

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Following Jonathan Meades’ exploration of brutalism which began on BBC4 last night, I thought I’d post this interview with Wilem Frischmann, the engineer who built Centre Point in London.

I spoke to him in 2011 as part of a project (with hat-trick design) exploring the history of Centre Point, a building whose hypnotic honeycomb façade and decorative patterns belie the ‘brutalist’ label that is often attached to it.

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Wilem Frischmann is now a grand old man of engineering, a partner in global firm Pell Frischmann and father of Justine, lead singer of Elastica. But when Centre Point was being built in the early 1960s, he was just starting out and keen to make a name for himself.

The whole thing was an amazing piece of engineering, built in record time using a single crane and no scaffolding. At the time, planning details weren’t available to view so readily, so Londoners played a continuing guessing game wondering how tall the tower would get.

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I was struck by how hands-on the project was for Wilem Frischmann, to the point where he personally ventured into a 100-foot narrow bore-hole beneath Tottenham Court Road to check the strength of the foundations – and nearly didn’t make it out again.

The interview is on the Centre Point blog and is in three parts:

Part one
Part two
Part three 

An interview with hat-trick

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Having just posted an interview with myself, here’s one with me doing the interviewing.

I’ve been fortunate to work with hat-trick a lot in recent years, on projects including Victoria hoardings, Centre Point, Ebbsfleet Valley and Help Musicians UK. They also collaborated with us on Disappointments Diary 2013.

Now they’re the subject of a book by Chois Publishing (part of its We Love Graphic series), for which I’ve written the introduction, an extended case study about their work with Imperial War Museums, and an interview with two of the company’s founders, Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat.

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The interview has been re-published on the Creative Review blog and you can read it here

The book is called 240pp of thoughts and you can order a copy from the hat-trick shop.

Storytelling – an interview

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I was recently invited to answer some questions on storytelling by Martin Lee of Acacia Avenue, an agency that has specialised in writing and storytelling for many years. He’s kindly allowed me to reproduce the interview here. It’s inspired in part by the tongue-in-cheek brand stories I wrote last year, including The Brand Story of the Three Little Pigs, pictured above. 

ML: Why do you think storytelling has become such a source of fascination in business?

NA: Stories have always been there in advertising and branding, but have only recently been given a label. I think the reason it caught on was because it played into a wider trend to seek out ‘authenticity’. Compared to the old terminology of marketing – full of military terms like ‘targets’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘campaigns’ – the idea of ‘storytelling’ feels very down-at-home and uncommercial.

You could also relate it to the trend for ‘infantilisation’ in recent years – that habit brands have of talking to customers as a parent would to a small child. When a brand says it’s going to tell us a ‘story’, it’s subliminally tapping into that childlike, uncritical part of our brains, which is prone to suspending disbelief and accepting the narrative on its own terms.

ML: What are the mistakes brands make when they try to harness storytelling?

NA: The main mistake is to gesture towards storytelling without having the courage or creativity to do it properly. True to their marketing instincts, many practitioners are simply taking old approaches and rebranding them as ‘stories’ in order to fit with the trend. So we get the surreal sight of things being called ‘stories’ that possess no discernable narrative or any of the accepted characteristics of a story.

This isn’t about policing what stories are and are not – there are no rules dictating what storytellers can or can’t do. But if we’re convincing clients of the archetypal power of storytelling, it’s strange to ignore all the elements that give it that power.

ML: What should they be doing?

NA: Politicians talk about ‘framing the narrative’ and I think it’s a useful idea for brands. For example, it helps for a company like Apple to remember its overarching narrative about being a plucky adventurer exploring new frontiers. If that narrative is locked in people’s minds, then any bad news becomes a setback on that bigger mission, rather than a sign of terminal decline. By framing the narrative, you change the way people see events unfolding – I think Apple has lost sight of that lately.

That said, I think brands get hung up on having one ‘brand story’, when sometimes it’s useful to have many. Taking Apple as an example, I’d think about developing a bank of stories, ‘tagged’ with different themes. So if someone wanted to demonstrate values like ‘pride’ or ‘innovation’ they could look up all the stories that bring those values to life. Under ‘pride’ you might tell the story of how Apple engineers used to etch their own names onto circuit boards as a hidden ‘signature’ that would only ever be seen by other engineers. A bank of stories like that is an endlessly useful resource.

I’d also get a professional on the case. Every organisation has great stories inside it, but it takes a storyteller to spot them and frame them effectively. I’d pay a writer to immerse themselves in the company and become a roving story-gatherer and archivist. Tell them to go and find 50 more stories like the circuit board one.

ML: Who is doing it well?

NA: One brand that has been doing it consistently is Jack Daniels. Their whole approach is based on brand lore and legend and they were doing it long before the storytelling trend started.

A typical ad tells a micro-story about the product – the barrels it comes in, the water they use – and relates it back to the bigger brand. In some ways it’s classic old-school advertising – take a feature and turn it into a benefit by spinning a nice yarn – but it’s done with such charm and consistency that it always works. And they carry it through to the rest of the brand. I remember them getting a lot of praise on Twitter for sending a brilliantly laid-back and respectful cease-and-desist letter to someone who had infringed their trademark.

But different factions will fight over this – brand strategists could claim Jack Daniels as a strategic insight; storytellers would claim it as a triumph of storytelling; advertisers would say it’s just good old- fashioned salesmanship. There’s lots of commercial territory at stake in all these arguments.

ML: What is the prize – if a brand gets it right, what do they stand to gain?

NA: A few years ago, I took part in a US-based project called Significant Objects, where the idea was to take a near-worthless junk store object and write a story about it. The object and its story were then posted on eBay. Once the objects had a story attached, they multiplied in value – one object bought for $3 ended up selling for $193. It was a playful project, but it makes a good point about the way we value things for the stories attached to them.

This is really what branding is about – taking a non-descript product or service and investing it with a bigger narrative. There are huge benefits in a storytelling approach to branding and it’s something writers in particular should welcome. In some ways, the proliferation of pseudo-stories and bandwagon- jumpers is an inevitable by-product of a successful movement. But the good thing about stories is they will always be more than a trend – they were around long before this period in the commercial spotlight and they’ll no doubt survive long afterwards.

Links:

Acacia Avenue

Jack Daniels cease-and-desist letter

Significant Objects

The brand story of Little Red Riding Hood

The brand story of Peter Rabbit

The brand story of the Three Little Pigs

Toy Brand Story

The brand story of Chicken Licken

Towards the domain singularity

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Big news in our small world this week. We’ve recently decomissioned our individual sites (nickasbury.com and sueasbury.co.uk) and folded them into an updated Asbury & Asbury site, which you’re now looking at.*

The back story if you’re interested:

Ten years ago, there was nickasbury.com (site of freelance writer Nick Asbury) and suerogers.co.uk (site of freelance designer Sue Rogers).

Five years ago, for reasons easy to deduce, the latter became sueasbury.co.uk

At the same time, a new site was born to showcase side projects and collaborations between the two of us – asburyandasbury.com

Close on its tail came the @asburyandasbury Twitter account, where Nick has always done the tweeting.

In the five years since, Sue has stopped working as a freelance designer (making room for motherhood) and now works solely on Asbury & Asbury projects. Nick continues to work as a freelance writer (he’s even writing this sentence), but it seems increasingly unnecessary to have a nickasbury.com site alongside asburyandasbury.com

So you’ll find it’s all part of one site now, with our own projects in the Projects section and Nick’s freelance writing (still his main thing) in the Writing section. There are also updated Press and People sections and the all-important Shop.

The best email addresses to reach us on are now nick[at]asburyandasbury.com and sue[at]asburyandasbury.com

The old addresses will still work, but be aware you’ll be aggravating us ever so slightly every time you use them.

After ten years, we have achieved the domain singularity. It is a good feeling.


* OK, unless you're on an RSS reader.