Tim Riches builds bridges held up by brand pillars
Today’s guest is Tim Riches, Group Strategy Director at Principals in Melbourne. I met Tim in Singapore, at FutureBrand. When I joined FutureBrand’s strategy team in 2011, Tim was running the Singapore office and serving as Chief Growth Officer for all of Asia Pacific. He left shortly after I arrived, but in the few months we overlapped, Tim made a big impression on me. He’s a fast-talking, no bullshit, powerhouse thinker who often seems to be offering solutions before anyone else in the room has even fully grasped the problem.
I asked Tim about an article he wrote a few months back, titled “The greatest change branding agencies have faced in a generation,” in which he states “branding 101 hasn’t changed … but the shift toward experiences has permanently altered how people assess ‘different’ and ‘better’.” He calls out a shift in focus—on the client side—toward a broader definition of “customer experience” that no longer holds marketing or brand as the exclusive “business lens” on the customer relationship. For agencies to maintain relevance going forward, he argues, they must be able to build bridges “between the promise of the brand and the delivery of that promise” by creating actionable principles that experience designers can use to deliver the pillars of a brand.
We also talked about brand strategy frameworks and how rigid or flexible they should be. Tim has strong opinions here, which I alluded to briefly in my conversation with Gareth Kay. (When I said a friend referred to some frameworks as “parking lots,” I was referring to Tim.) Tim’s main point is that, in order for concepts like pillars, values, and personality traits to provide any guidance as to how a brand (or organization) should look, feel, or behave, there must be some coherence between them. “I don’t see how you can create a cohesive story unless there is some relationship,” Tim says. “At least trying to do that helps you show where you have disjoints and incongruities within the thinking.”
When I asked Tim about books, he justified his own love of sci-fi by claiming “it’s good fuel for the imagination, and I do think strategists have to have imagination—not just analytical skills.” He also recommended strategists read The Economist and at least understand the core concepts of books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow. (For additional book recommendations from branding experts, check out this Useful List.)
Wrapping up, I asked Tim for his advice to those just starting their careers in branding. He advised junior people to stay focused on what value looks like for each client rather than getting drawn into an obsession with methodology. He also emphasized the importance of having good “practitioner skills,” such as being able to run an interview, present to clients, and design and facilitate workshops.
To learn more about Tim and Principals, visit Principals.com.au.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB: Tim Riches, thanks for joining me.
TIM: It’s a pleasure, Rob.
R: Tim, you wrote an article recently in Mumbrella titled, “The greatest change branding agencies have faced in a generation.” What’s that change that you were talking about?
T: I won’t answer that question. Let me answer a different question, which is, “Why did I write the article?” I suppose, the agency that I work at now, Principals, we’ve been, like a lot agencies across the marketing services spectrum, giving some serious thought to what the future shape of the agency is, from a capability point of view. I suppose the key things that we’ve experienced, and that I capture in the article, are the implications on branding agencies of the shift in focus—on the client side—towards what you might broadly call customer experience. So, away from marketing as being the main business lens on the customer relationship to this wider, even more amorphous concept of customer experience.
R: And you mention digital specifically [in the article], that’s obviously one aspect of a brand experience in may cases. Is it partly that the breadth of touchpoints, I suppose, that are considered part of a brand experience has changed dramatically recently? Or is that the kinds of experiences that consumers expect is changing?
T: I think both of those things are true. But I think, looking at it more from a business point of view and as an agency, how you sustain a relevant business value proposition to your client. I think more of those things are true the business response, I suppose, has been to invest heavily in the digitalization of the layer that sits between the organization and its customers. And that layer is different in different instances based on the kinds of business or what the business is selling. For example, we recently rebranded a large energy company here in Australia called AGL. The scope and scale of their digital transformation project is just extraordinary. They’d been doing a lot of work with other consultancies around what the future of the customer experience might be in a very, very low involvement, low engagement, low touch category like energy. Where, in some respects, the best kind of customer experience is quite set and forget.
You choose your plan, you ideally, I think, opt for sort of automated direct debits-style payments. They’ve been spending an enormous amount of money, energy, and corporate focus on the digitization of their relationship with their customers to reduce the cost to serve the customer and to improve the quality of the customer’s experience. I suppose that if as a branding agency, we can’t be useful in that world then essentially that sort of finite pool of—and it’s not just money, I think, it’s actually just senior attention, if you like. As the senior leadership attention moves to this agenda around digitization and the digitization piece becomes pretty rapidly synonymous with this concept of customer experience, then as I say, if we need to tap the revenue veins of the client, unless we’re tapping that kind of vein, unless we’re useful in that kind of realm, then we’re not playing the main game—we’re playing the side show.
R: Right. Does it mean that we actually need to change anything that we’re doing as brand strategists? Is it a different kind of brand strategy or a different delivery method or different way of testing the strategy once it’s been recommended?
T: I think what it does is it calls into question what aspect of strategy is most useful and valuable to clients. What aspect of brand strategy is most useful and valuable to clients. We see the job of brand strategy in this context as building a bridge between the promise of the brand and the delivery of that promise.
When I say a “bridge,” I mean actionable principles that experience designers can use to deliver the pillars of the brand or the key chunks of meaning of the brand. Whichever aspect of the brand you’re thinking about, whether that be the personality traits of the brand, the stylistic characteristics, or whether it be the overarching promise or essence. In general, the traditional articulations of brand strategy which tend to be anchored more in things like storytelling or messages or ideas, they don’t necessarily lend themselves to use by an experience designer. And when I say experience designer, I don’t only mean digital design but also things like service design, employee experience, that more holistic view that I think organizations are taking towards, as you mentioned, that breadth of touchpoints across which brands play out.
R: At Principals, those different aspects of experience design—are those talents or skill sets that you have in house or are you often partnering with other vendors to do some of that work?
T: In some ways it’s very similar to the way that branding agencies have always worked with clients and other players within client rosters. Traditionally, big ad agencies for example, and as a branding agency, you always need to understand what’s your specific domain of expertise, how that’s perceived by the client, and like all agencies, you want to stretch the boundaries of that to increase your influence and create a more highly-valued, more enduring relationship.
But when it comes to this area, what we’re finding is it’s as much the client’s in-house capability that you’re working with as it is necessarily, other external partners. In terms of what we have been building in-house, I think this is the real critical thing for agencies and I suppose the thought process that we went through as a business was essentially, calling into question, “What are we? We have been a brand consultancy. Do we wish to continue to be a brand consultancy? If that is the case, then what does that look like? What does that capability look like in the future?”
What we didn’t say is, “We used to be a brand consultancy and now we are a customer experience agency.” Which I would say between 40% and 97% of Australian agencies, Australian agencies at least seem to have gone down that path. By saying, “We used to be an ad agency, now we’re a CX agency. We used to be a direct marketing business, now we’re a CX agency. We used to be a retail design business, designing physical environments, and now I’m an experience agency.”
R: They’re all jumping on the same buzzword bandwagon.
T: I think they’re responding to the same phenomena that we were talking about earlier. But I don’t personally think that’s a smart way to do it because I think that one of the intrinsic characteristics of these concept of experience is its breadth. Therefore, it’s I think generally unhelpful, particularly if like us we work with larger clients, you are not their one-stop transformation shop, if you like. I think you need to say what your capability is.
As a brand agency, it’s about how we evolved out capability. I think I speak in the article about, it’s almost like learning the languages. It’s a bit like moving to a different country. You and I worked together in Singapore, right? If you go do work in Japan, it doesn’t necessarily mean you surround yourself with hundreds of Japanese people to do that work, but it doesn’t mean that you probably need a sufficient level of culture on linguistic fluency about the environment in Japan to successfully do your work. That’s the sort of analogy that we do I suppose.
We have brought some people into the business that bring different capabilities and skill set. We will never win a straight up pitch or fight against an AKQA or a Deloitte Digital or an Accenture Interactive because we don’t want to be that kind of business and with their shift to different weight division entirely in a different kind of fight. But the question is, “What our clients can get from us?” It’s not, “What they can get from those others?” But we need sufficient fluency to understand how to build that bridge between concept of brand particularly that more promise and message-oriented, story-oriented concept brand and that more experientially orient to concept of brand.
R: I see. I take it that that means writing some cases, some form of experience principles or something that you have come to understand that these people whether they’re inside the organization or other vendors will be able to interpret and use as input for some element of the experience, some part of the brand experience.
T: That’s right, that’s right.
R: Have you found anything that seems to work especially well? I don’t know what you can share, but is there a process or a way of writing these principles that seems to make more sense?
T: Yeah. What we’ve found particularly when working with larger organizations is that experience design teams and particularly digital design teams because the design process and outputs are in a sense more tangible sometimes in the digital design context, then perhaps sometimes they are in a service design context. But in both of these, fundamentally, they have two realms that we need to have influence and participation in, and we need to ideally equip. What we generally find is that larger organizations have some design principles that they use. Now, the problem oftentimes is those design principles are fairly generic UX sort of objects.
R: Right. Best practices.
T: They are either best practices or they are the accumulation of enumerable AB tests that these guys have done over time at a very granular level and have lead up into these, we-know-these-works types of design principles. They’re not always considered and wide ranging as best practice, but sometimes I think they are almost customary if you like, have emerged in a kind of organic way.
From a process point of view, it’s like all parts of brand strategy. There is a level of engagement required to do well to understand the implicit also defacto design principles that may be inside the organization. Sometimes they’re written there right? I’m sure you and other most brand consultancies have experienced manifestations of these new forms of silos whereby you’ll find something that might be called agile or set of a UI kit or something like that which is essentially like the digital design guidelines. Then you’ll find the brand team has got their brand name guidelines. And there’s generally a resemblance between the two but there’s also the important differences.
That’s a great example of the bridges I was talking about before. At a strategy level, there’s a bridge to be built. We have to create principles that connect, that enable a designer in their design decision making to translate that strategic intake whichever one we’re set up talking up.
R: How do you strike the right balance between creating something that’s unique to the brand versus following some of these best practices or consumer expectations maybe, especially for digital experiences. I’ve heard a lot of talk of, “You don’t want to break the consumer’s expectations by doing something unique, but also of course we want to make sure that we’re differentiating in some way.”
T: It makes me sound a little bit old when I say this, but this just today’s manifestation of the perennial branding problem. The perennial branding problem is the push-pull between fitting in and standing out. In the whole history of branding, to position a brand effectively you need to fit in to some degree, you need to be to some extent, nearly all of the time, you need to be recognizably a insert category here. You need to be recognizably generally an energy company, if you’re an energy company, or a bank, if you’re a bank.
You almost always need to understand what those kind of category norms and category conventions are, if only to break them, in a considered way, this new world of as you say, this almost templated design that you see in so much digital design now, the argument for which is almost always consumer familiarity. “I want seamless, I want simple, I want the fewest number of clicks, I want the least, I don’t want to give them any unnecessary mental processing as they work their way through my digital journey.” and it drives you to homogeneity.
R: Right, right.
T: It absolutely does drive you to homogeneity. The great brands over time have always been the ones that have both fitted in and stood out. When you go and do that work around how do you create these experiences and principles, often times, quite honestly, it’s about redescribing, rearticulating what maybe real to the generic UX principles in a way that conceptually aligns to the brand strategy. Which brings us to the question of frameworks, “Should they be rigid? Should they be fluid?”
R: For making the segue for me, I was about to get to that. We both work with frameworks, for lack of a better word, somewhat rigid. They have certain number of boxes and maybe you can expand that number but those are usually one-to-one relationship between things like pillars and values and personality traits.
I’ve had a lot of conversations for this season of this podcast where people are somewhat consistently advocating for a much less rigid and more flexible approach. Where there is no number of things that you need to consider in your brand strategy, and there is no type of classification of those things that you consider. It’s effectively just a list of things that are important about our brand without any prescribed definitions around that at all.
T: If there’s no instructions then you can’t build a bridge–that’ll be my point. Because the bridge is built on that intellectual connectivity. I don’t know why this is and I don’t pretend that this is in any way scientific, but from my experience, we tend to naturally land on four pillars. I suppose over the years, come back to some of those simple tests like, “What are we famous for?” that’s in my mind the idea of the brand pillar. I suppose sometimes that word attribute is used.
T: I love the word pillar. The reason I like the word pillar is the word pillar evokes the fact that they play a supporting role, that they lead up to something. This is the problem with the random parking lots kind of scenario. Nothing ladders up to anything else. If you think you want to own a big idea in people’s minds, how the hell do you connect the complexity of my values, my brand personality traits, and my attributable pillars to bring up that big idea? How do you define what is a proof point?
T: How do you give a ton of coherence? How do you create principles that people can use to simply ask themselves, “If I’m doing some innovation work, how should I think about how different innovation ideas further my brand? Or if I’m doing things like, copyrighting or checking things for tonal correctness and that sort of thing, what simple check boxes can I equip the increasingly large population of content creators to work with, to deliver stuff that has a voice and has a point of view and has a tone or style, a personality that is consistent with the business strategy?”
I don’t see how you can create a cohesive story unless there is some relationship. I know typically the way we tend to do it or the way I’ve always done it I guess is to try and create almost a vertical alignment between things.
T: At least trying to do that helps you show where you have disjoints and incongruencies within the thinking.
R: A vertical alignment, meaning, for example, that you do have say, four pillars that you would then also have four brand personality traits and there would be a one to one mapping between them. It sounds like you’re saying you’re doing that less because you think it’s a rule or something like that that people should follow in order to be doing brand strategy properly, and more because it’s a useful test as to whether you’re thinking makes sense as to whether there’s any coherence or structure to your thinking.
T: Correct. If you have company values and company purpose that when you feed the mean—if it’s four or five company values, if you try and align them up with four pillars, for example, that you’re trying to create to this brand—if there’s no relationship, you’re in deep shit, right? Surely, you are. If you’re not trying to engage your organization around its values and hold themselves and each other accountable to those values, then why do you have the values?
R: Sure. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need that relationship to be one-to-one. It could be that one of those values really supports two of the pillars and so on.
T: Correct. You typically end up with a little bit of a patch work of these things. But by trying to avoid them, you quickly and clearly identify where you might have a value is actually at odds, therefore […] with one of your brand pillars.
R: I see.
T: I always pull up the gold medal. If you can get one-on-one relationship across everything, I think it does hugely help to deliver some simplicity and some coherence overall. It happens in my experience about one time out of 10. Do you actually get there? But by trying, you create a framework for a great healthy discussion with your client about what fits and what doesn’t fit, what are we doing, where are we pulling in opposite directions, and where are we well-aligned?
R: Let’s segue or transition, I should say to some of these wrap up questions. Are there any brands out there right now that you feel like are doing an especially good job whether it’s something we would have heard of, a global brand or not?
T: I hate that question because I don’t generally have a handful of go-to’s that I would typically use in my own mind or with clients to say, “Yeah, these guys are doing it well. Well, we should be doing it like them.” Are there brands that I like? Yes, there are brands that I like. I like Qantas, I like to fly Qantas. I think the Qantas even when the plane interior themselves aren’t great, there’s something about that brand that I like. I like the lounges. I like the style of the brand. I like the way that it does express in a contemporary way, the Australian identity. I like the fact that these are respected brand globally. I feel a little bit of a sense of national pride if I’m on in that brand. It’s a brand that’s been through quite a lot. From a business point of view, it’s come out the other end. It’s participated in social change, things like the push for the same sex marriage here.
It’s a brand that I like. I would I say, “Are they doing well?” I’m not a big fan of their visual identity in some respects, there’s things that I would pick holes in absolutely every day of the week. But overall, I find them a likeable, relatable brand. That honestly is more from consumer’s point of view than this necessarily from a brand consultant’s point of view.
I like Netflix. Netflix is a brand that kind of slides into my life in a way that works extraordinarily well. I just moved house, to an older house. It has a shit internet connection. Yet somehow Netflix seems to work smoothly and seamlessly. And the Netflix experience remains a Netflix experience. I can enjoy my latest episodes of Chef’s Table or The Bodyguard or whatever, and it looks way better than it has any right to, given the poor quality of our internet connection.
R: Let’s talk about books. Are there any that you’ve read either recently or you remember earlier in your career that influenced you somehow? Could be a brand or business book or could just be something else that somehow feeds into you day-to-day strategy practice.
T: I think my set of regular diets is I love The Economist. I think that is a great brand. Perhaps I should have thought of that before when I was asked a great brand. It is a great brand. I love reading it because it makes me feel smart, and it gives me intelligent sounding things to say, and I think helps you maintain a sense of context. I think, as I said before, that idea of context and how we as individuals and how you help a brand respond and be relevant to a wider context, I don’t think is any better reading material for wider context than The Economist. It’s enjoyable reads. It’s beautifully written and even the boring articles are somehow readable.
I’ve always loved science fiction books and I continue to read them. I’m a firm believer in the idea the, the William Gibson quote, that, “The future’s already here, just not evenly distributed.” and also, “That there’s nothing that humans whoever encounter or invented hasn’t been already imagined by a science fiction writer.” I think both of those things are true. I think that that is useful to self-justify and rationalize the time I waste with science fiction. I like to say that it’s good fuel for the imagination. I do think strategists have to have imagination not just analytical skills.
From a business point of view, I found some of these behavioral psychology types of comedy psyche kind of books interesting and sufficiently interesting to sort of make time in my sci-fi and economist schedule. Just slide a little bit in. Things like, at the heavier and difficult, the Fast and Slow Thinking book I thought is good. It’s sort of stuff you need to be across. I think that’s the point, right? There’s a difference between reading the book and at least being across the general ideas of it. Sometimes it’s just about reading a book or reading the back of the bloody Economist, about that book. That could sometimes be enough.
R: Last question. Given the success you’ve had in your career and all the different roles that you’ve had across Singapore, and Melbourne, and different parts of the marketing realm, what kind of advice do you have for younger people that are interested in getting into brand strategy or just marketing more generally.
T: I think it’s very tricky to give people advice on this topic because how you may interest is becoming increasingly diverse, I would say. I think this is important, is an important advice for a younger person I suppose going in the practice of strategy if not necessarily “breaking into the field”. But being focused on the problem that you’re solving or what is the most important problem to solve or what does value look like for the clients, is such a critical thing to bear in mind.
As a strategy practitioner, I find this even more the case in the areas like human centered design, practitioners get fucking obsessed with methodology.
R: Right. Without asking about whether they’re delivering any value.
T: Correct. Why, why? And you get these people that become methodology evangelists, I don’t get that. I think it’s quite easy for people’s earlier in their career, because methodology is easily learned and its codified and you can go learn it from IDO or somewhere like that, right?
R: And they have to latch onto something because they don’t have the experience to latch on to.
T: That’s right. And they’re not in the conversation. They’re not in that high-up, more senior conversation. The senior conversations around why are we doing this and what does good look like, which people may have with clients. This version of that way I think needs to be embraced by younger people, particularly by more junior people, I should say. Particularly, in very amorphous areas like brand, it’s super important that you have that.
But I also come back to the point that it is important you progress further faster if you have good practitioner skills as well. Things like being able to run a good interview, being able to present well, being able to design and facilitate a workshop, these are important skills. In my own case, I’m very fortunate because I kind of got through that phase without really having a lot of training or looking back, I didn’t have that huge amount of skill in any of those things, frankly. I think I had some talents for some of those things but I never really had a lot of expertise in terms of learnt skills. Perhaps even now, but as I got more senior, that becomes strangely in a way less important.
But to have a value proposition to an employer, I think, there is those pieces around skill whether that be researching sorts of skills or sort of consultant in kind of skills. Those are gold and you can be trained in those areas. And then I think there’s the mindset kind of questions around the focus on the problem that I’m trying to solve as we were discussing earlier.
R: I feel like that brings the conversation full circle getting back to this striking a balance between flexibility or amorphousness and rigidity or structure. We’ll leave it there. Tim, thank you so much for making the time and joining me on the podcast.
T: It’s been a pleasure, Rob.