Reading Into Brand Behaviors: Interview with William Charnock
William Charnock is the founder of Alteration Advisors, a consultancy that he founded after nearly thirty years in the ad world that guides organizations on how to create change from within. Before Alteration Advisors, Charnock led R/GA’s global strategy department, building the award-winning agency’s strategy group from 15 to 90 people in 12 offices around the world. Pre-R/GA, he held planning positions at top New York City ad agencies known for their rigorous brand planning practice. I was fortunate enough to bask in the glow of his brilliance while freelancing at R/GA immediately following my graduation from Miami Ad School’s Planning Boot Camp. Most recently, Charnock launched a deck of “Brand Tarot” cards, designed by Graham Wood, to help brands uncover fresh and exciting strategies that propel them forward in a brand-experience driven landscape.
Q. As you note on your website, brands are now judged on what they do, not by what they say. In other words, as a society, we’re shifting from an emphasis on storytelling to an emphasis on behaviors - from T.V. to digital. Would you say that’s accurate? If so, how would you recommend that brand planners adapt to this changing landscape?
"I do believe though that we know a lot more intuitively than we give ourselves credit for and sometimes it’s difficult to unlock that intuitive side."
A. Absolutely, I think the advent of universal connectivity (via internet, mobile and connectivity tools) has meant that clients and especially their marketing departments are struggling with the transition from ‘managing perceptions’ to ‘managing reality’. It used to be that all we knew what the brand was based on what the company put out through formal communication channels. Now, every interaction with every consumer, employee or partner can find its way onto a social platform somewhere. As a result ‘reality’ is more publicly visible and the millions of dollars spent on advertising and communications can be undone by the actions and behaviors of the organization and its employees.
This is the problem with what I call the “communication’s first” approach to ‘Branding’. Our industry, our clients (and our planners) are stuck defining a brand from the things that communications can most easily effect (image, personality, symbols, metaphors, attributes, benefits, reasons to believe, etc.) and they haven’t changed their brand thinking to take account the fact that communications are declining in effectiveness, especially where perceptions and reality are out of sync. Planners and agencies need to make in-roads into the whole organization, beyond the client’s marketing department. They need to get deeper into the organizational structures and systems that define the reality of the business.
"Keeping it real with clients is more important than ever. Don’t fall into their marketing bullshit trap. Call them on it. Challenge their image aspirations with strategies that demand they change the reality of the business, because this is the fastest and most effective way to change perception."
I know this bit is tough from an agency perspective and I think that’s why I work less and less with agencies these days and increasingly more directly with clients and management consultants. However, it’s not impossible if you stick to the belief that a brand is more than just the story you tell about the company.
Rather than only doing immersion in the consumer, trends, competitors, etc. make sure that your discovery and insights work starts with truths about the business:
Who runs the company? What is the culture? What do they believe? What do their actions say about them? What are their values and priorities? Are these values reflected in the business decisions they make? Do their actions demonstrate that they are interested in something other than selling products and if so, what? What communities do they care about and engage with? Who are they seen partnering with or collaborating with?
Keeping it real with clients is more important than ever. Don’t fall into their marketing bullshit trap. Call them on it. Challenge their image aspirations with strategies that demand they change the reality of the business, because this is the fastest and most effective way to change perception.
Q. Thinking about behaviors, what do you think defines a brand: their origin story or their behaviors? Has the paradigm shifted in your opinion or has it held true for decades?
A. Well, you’re touching on a much bigger topic. I’ll do my best to answer this succinctly. A lot of my work revolves around defining truths for a brand that are true over time, from the origin, through to the imaginable future - truths that can inform behavior, culture, growth strategy and communications.
The thing that has changed, or will change for most brands, is that growth no longer comes from the same place it used to. The fastest growing brands of Interbrand 2014 are not in singular product businesses, they are creating complex combinations of connected products, services and experiences that evolve over time with the changing needs of customers and the opportunities that emerge from new technology. So, the successful brands are by definition more complex and much more dynamic in terms of what they do, what they sell and how they engage their customers. (I call this the “Economy of variety”.)
"What’s timely about this is that while brand marketers have lots of vocabulary for image and personality, they don’t really have the vocabulary to describe how they currently behave or how they want to behave."
Take this to its logical conclusion and brands have to decide pretty quickly what holds their brand together in a world where what they sell, how they sell it and the people they sell it to might at any moment change. Being resilient to change does not mean not changing, it means maintaining a core character and identity, even if everything else about you might change. This is what I think defines a brand; a clearly defined Ethos or ideology; a sense of character (as distinct from personality); a clear view of the community that shares both of these characteristics with you. These have always been at the core of the good brands but they have become even more critical to a brand’s survival because the environment has become much more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Q. In layman’s terms, your Nockwood Deck helps brands uncover who they are and who they want to be - not by what they say, but what they do. You were compelled to create the cards because you felt the traditional 12 archetypes used by brands are antiquated and don’t take into account brand behaviors. For instance, McDonald’s would be considered “The Innocent” according to the traditional Carl Jung archetypes. Personally, I don’t think I need to explain why one would question this characterization of McDonald’s. What is happening in our society that makes the need for a new set of archetypes timely?
A. The Archetypes that Jung created are definitely narrative. They aren’t only used by brands, they are used by writers and storytellers all the time. I found that in my work, these narrative types were difficult to translate into behaviors. Additionally, I found that clients hung onto them as drunks hang onto lampposts, for stability. They were used as a reason to maintain the status quo, rather than to change. Initially, I started creating pairs of Jung’s 12 archetypes to at least create a bit of tension and originality for the brands I worked on but even this fell short.
"I think the marketing world could do with a little more mystery and mic. The world is more complicated than science would have us believe, humans are more complicated and diverse than psychologists would have us believe. I think advertising and marketing could, and should tap liberally into a wide spectrum of ideologies, beliefs and sensibilities that are out there in the world."
I also realized that Jung was only one of many psychologists and philosophers who had tried to categorize human behavior. There’s a long history of doing this. About this point, I fell down the proverbial rabbit hole and did rather an exhaustive study of every historic categorization of human behavior I could find. I went back as far as Socrates, Aristotle, Hippocrates and his ‘humors’ as well as a whole load of alchemical texts on fire, water, air, earth and aether. I went through many different psychological frameworks from the California Psychology Inventory 260, Alder’s life tasks, Holland types and Enneagram personality types. I layered a whole lot of current brain science and biological basis of behavior from the likes of Daniel Kahneman. At the end of all of this I found there were some core areas of agreement across all of these frameworks and although they all used different words, they were fundamentally describing some similar core motivations. These became the 6 core suits of the brand tarot deck. Then, by combining each of these with each other, I was able to define a complete behavioral framework where every type is represented equally and in combination with every other type.
What’s timely about this is that while brand marketers have lots of vocabulary for image and personality, they don’t really have the vocabulary to describe how they currently behave or how they want to behave. If nothing else, the cards present a common vocabulary for us all to use. And, because of the framework and the symbols that are used on each of the cards, we know exactly what we’re talking about and what we mean.
Q. How much were you influenced by psychological theory? Are you playing therapist - psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral therapist with brand clients?
A. I don’t think I was. While I borrowed a lot from it, I think I’ve stayed away from the deep academic theory. I borrowed just as much from chaos magick, alchemy and other more esoteric belief systems that also attempt to categorize behavior for totally different reasons. I don’t think I’m playing shaman or wizard with my clients either. What I wanted was a practical and useful tool for myself and my clients that short-cut the theory and got quickly to evaluating different choices and options. It’s hard to make decisions when you don’t know what the choices are and the cards simply help articulate a full spectrum of options for them and me.
Q. You mention on your website that you studied philosophers and psychologists like Hippocrates and Carl Jung. What are some insights from their teachings that you found the most impactful and has guided your thinking?
A. I’ve started to love historic wisdoms. Things from the past that were so important that someone wrote them down to be passed on. Unlike today, that wasn’t easy and only the most important things were recorded. Our attention these days are so focused on the next, new and ‘shiney’ thing that we often overlook valuable knowledge from the past. I no longer try to reinvent the wheel. If you have a wheel, start thinking about how the wheel helps you achieve new and different results.
Q. I find it incredibly interesting that during a time when brands and ad agencies have become obsessed with measurable data, the methodology for readings include a bit of “magic” and gut instinct. Talk to me about this part of the reading. Throughout your thirty-year career as a strategist, can you definitively say which has led to better results; the gut or the brain?
A. I think it’s well documented on many fronts (not least the advent of behavioral economics) that the rational and behavioral assumptions of economists and accountants are deeply flawed. Humans simply are not that rational. There are non-rational ‘gut’ dynamics and social dynamics that play incredibly strong roles in determining how we behave. As planners, we have to understand both sides, it’s not that one is right and one is wrong, it’s not that simple. Both are right. Both require consideration. I do believe though that we know a lot more intuitively than we give ourselves credit for and sometimes it’s difficult to unlock that intuitive side. Magic isn’t necessarily spiritual or mystical. Sometimes it’s just the exploitation of a surprising reality. There is a reality that helps the cards work. Our rational minds process things at a very high level, big picture generalities rather than detailed specifics. If our rational mind tried to process every specific detail, we’d never get anywhere or do anything. However, when presented with a very specific detail, our rational brain unlocks information relevant to that specific detail and gives us a couple of different, relevant options. It’s this that allows us to decide how to act.
"Our attention these days are so focused on the next, new and ‘shiney’ thing that we often overlook valuable knowledge from the past. I no longer try to reinvent the wheel. If you have a wheel, start thinking about how the wheel helps you achieve new and different results."
My cousin Mary used to toss a coin to make personal decisions. It really didn’t matter which side the coin landed on because as soon as she saw the ‘result’ she knew that she either did or didn’t want to do that thing. I think this is the magic of the cards - specific choices and options that unlock knowledge or information that without the cards, you can’t access. That’s true magic really, isn’t it?
As an aside, I do also think that the advertising and marketing world are very narrow in the areas of influence. It’s not an accident that I tapped into some non-rational arenas of human beliefs such as Tarot, alchemy and esoteric spirituality. I think the marketing world could do with a little more mystery and magic. The world is more complicated than science would have us believe, humans are more complicated and diverse than psychologists would have us believe. I think advertising and marketing could, and should tap liberally into a wide spectrum of ideologies, beliefs and sensibilities that are out there in the world. Even the ritual of doing a ‘reading’ gets much more interest and focused attention than if I had written a book or presented a Powerpoint. My clients take notes, I have their undivided attention at every turn of the card and ultimately the symbolism of the cards get imprinted on their brains, if not on their office walls. Even the most rational of them secretly hope there is magic.
Q. How would you recommend people apply this thinking to decisions in their own life?
A. Everyone asks me this. So much so that I started doing a weekly reading on Linkedin, Facebook (@nockwood) and Twitter (@nockwoodcards). A number of people say they find these readings uncannily accurate. I think it’s really important in life, and in planning, to get quickly to specifics rather wallowing in generalities. I think the biggest thing that’s wrong with planning and why it seems so detached from ‘making’ and ‘prototyping’ is that it gets lost in overthinking generalities, rather than identifying specific, tangible actions. Sometimes it’s only by doing something that you unlock new knowledge and new information.
Q. Finally, given all of the shifts in the advertising world, what are you most excited about?
A. I’m excited that the skills and talents of people who grew up in advertising are some of the most valued talents in business. Unfortunately the advertising industry is the last to see their value – preferring to discount them and commoditize them in an effort to achieve greater and greater scale.
I’m excited that most clients are stepping away from their dependency on agencies and the ‘agency retainer’ that caused agencies to be in the business of meetings and miscellaneous activity rather than tangible impact on the business. I hope this means that agencies will have to re-think the value they offer and re-structure accordingly.
I’m excited that with the robot-ization of manufacturing and the explosion of Software as Services, the only role left for human enterprise is creative thinking in a commercial context. Seems like this is what our business is uniquely well positioned to deliver against, if we could just get out of the mass media communications business.