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Not playing the game: A cheat’s guide to branding

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I remember getting together with friends to play a new game. Half-way through I’d made a killer move and someone piped up, “But you can’t do that, it says in the rules”?

Or, the time I was about to break the bank they turned to me and said, “Oh, we always play the, ‘throw-a-five-get-paid-$50-million-dollars-if-you’re-wearing-a-blue-t-shirt rule’”. And I looked at them, open mouthed as they nodded in agreement and left me broken and penniless, swearing that I’d never hang out with them again.

This illustrates the basic laws of cheating. Read any article about modern marketing or branding and you will see:

  • “it’s a rapidly changing world”
  • “don’t expect branding to stay the same”
  • “a new world requires new ways of thinking”
  • “there are different rules”
  • “new ways of working”.

If everything must change, then it’s even more important that you know how to cheat.

What is the first law of cheating? You need to know the rules

Because without rules, you have no idea which ones to bend or break. Knowing how your competitors play their game means you can outwit them. How can you try to challenge them if you don’t know your stuff and theirs too?

Keith Weed talks openly about Unilever’s need to operate in “a far more disruptive, agile and responsive environment” and about being “more willing to take risks and experiment”. This is a business giant, learning ways to control its own game by borrowing from start-up culture in order to influence the models that have brought them this far. They are hyper-aware that change is slow but essential for survival. This shows that it’s not just the Davids, the start-ups like Dollar Shave Club, who understand the rules, it’s the players who wrote them in the first place.

Breakthroughs come from unpicking the known rules and seeing new patterns. This type of ‘cheating’ is about having a few aces up your sleeve, so that you can play the same game but flex it to your own needs. Change drives innovation and, as Keith Weed recognises so well, you can’t play the same game, with the same rules, on a field that is constantly changing around you. It makes absolutely no sense to do so.

What is the second law of cheating? Create your own rules

Some would say that rules are only there to be broken, but honestly, anarchy is far too scary for most businesses to contemplate and they look for safer kinds of revolution. How many genuine rebels and subversives can you name? There are probably only a handful of brave brands ever mentioned in the press (think Uber, BrewDog, Tesla, Monzo).

Rivals try to replicate the success of these ‘challengers’ or ‘game changers’ by force-fitting selective good bits into what they’ve been doing for years. If you cherry-pick, you can avoid feeling like you’re making drastic changes.

This is called ‘Cheating Yourself’ and is a very different kind of cheating. Doing just enough, even though something more fundamental is needed, means that when it doesn’t work, you can use the “it’s unfair, we did our best, but they got there first” response (a bit like me with my blue t-shirt wearing friends). Much better to make your own rules. In fact, to make your own game and put yourself back in control.

How to think outside the box

It’s important to point out that not all of the brave brands are actually that brave. They are also seeing new patterns, piggy-backing on existing thinking, exploiting new technology or colliding old and new to get their place on the playing field. Think of everyone from Amazon to Uber, Airbnb to Netflix – yup, the usual suspects again.

Many purpose-driven brands, like Toms and Patagonia, make it feel like there is a new and bigger game in play. It is actually the same game but with improved transparency and higher principles, because the expectations of the spectators have changed, they demand more clarity in what has previously been hidden from them.

Now, it’s as if everyone understands the off-side rule, so you can’t claim that you’re ignorant of it. ‘Purpose driven’ can often be the fudging of an issue to keep up appearances, whereas genuine, higher purpose brands confidently own their own game.

Why brands reinvent

New rules should break old ways of thinking, not be a prop to help you carry on with the same old game. This means that the biggest ‘cheat’ isn’t always about a change of game or changing the world around you, it’s about change itself. And to make a difference, you have to start at home.

David Hieatt, inspirational co-founder of Hiut Denim and the Do Lectures, says that, “breakthrough is not one moment. It is a set of new tools. It is a set of new habits”. This type of thinking champions new attitudes, new mindsets and shifts towards improved thinking and doing.

Change is difficult and often uncomfortable. Self-help for brands is an even harder concept for well-established businesses, but it’s an approach that can help a brand that is straightjacketed by the rules of its category. If radical, earth shattering change is perceived as too risky and too expensive to implement, then the business itself needs to be ‘cheated’ into remaking itself. You can always test the water. As Hieatt says, “Change a little. Change a lot.”

How to break the rules

You don’t need to be ‘a maverick’ to be a good cheat, or a business subversive either. You don’t even need to be a rebel. However, cheaters need to be creative, to be able to rethink problems, or to find partners who can help them see things in a different way. The resulting ‘cheats’ could simply give you the home advantage.

If the game going on around you doesn’t suit you, make up a totally new one. Like Quidditch, only better. Write your own rules, not just the rules of your category. Buy the blue t-shirt. After all, the world won’t know that you’re a game changer until you change the game. So, start cheating today. And learn to cheat well.


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