Sign O’ The Times.

We know Tesla want to go to space.

We know Unilever want children to grow up happy and healthy.

We know Nike want Muslim women to be able to work out however they want to.

We know AirBnB believe in diversity and equality.

All these things we know, and we care about.

And importantly, we see.

Not read. Not investigate on corporate websites that feature manifestos. Not through reading brand purpose documents. Not even through words in an ad.

We see who organisations are by the symbols they present us.

Unilever’s children looking to an impossibly clear (pollution-free) sky.

AirBnB’s United Colours of Benetton faces (how ahead of the curve were Benetton, on reflection?).

Facebook’s thumbs up.

Nike’s hijab.

Take away the words and the images speak volumes on their own. The AirBnB image has been shared the world over, taking over the logo as the easy, instant expression of who they are.

Brands know they have to respond to cultural change to sell things, using semiotics, or ethnography, or qual, or quant. But rarely do they turn this analysis on themselves, their business, their employees. To really, succinctly pin down who they are, and what they want in a way that consumers can see, respond to, and feel an affinity with.

Of course this feels important in the current European and North American political climate. But it’s not just about choosing a side on one side or other of an issue.

We’re starting to see an imperative for corporate reflection, for all businesses. To be honest about who they are, what they want, the driving force behind their choices, the reason their employees stay with them, and how to display that to the world in one image, word, sound, colour, smell. To be real in an era of fake.

This can be difficult, as in the process of pulling apart your own soul you find things you don’t want people to see. The instinct is to cover it up, to beat others in the trends race, to progress, run forward, innovate for innovation’s sake and communicate the hot new thing better than everyone else. To gild shit with glitter and pull the pretty rug over the stain in the carpet. But skeletons come out of the closet, the rug gets pulled back, and brands have to scurry to respond in a way that meets external expectations.

It’s time to be honest with ourselves. To see ourselves from every angle and a) accept ourselves, and b) make informed decisions about what we want to do in the world.

We can do this by applying semiotics to every part of our business – not just our advertising, but our culture, buildings, employees, interactions, partnerships, where we show up online, offline, in conversation. Finding the symbols that most strongly represent us, and those that people recognize (internally and externally), beyond what we want them to recognize.

Only by doing this can we really show people who we are, and what we want, so they can accept us with open arms, stained carpet and all.

Rebecca Collins is a semiotician and a friend of Monticello.

Losing My Religion.

Do you feel like you belong?


Our parents, the Baby Boomers, did. And they hated it. They felt forced to belong to a pre-ordained lifestyle – that of their own parents. This was a lifestyle and set of values that they were desperate to smash.

And so they did. Arguably, as a generation, they have spent much the rest of their lives desperately searching to prove how individual they are; it has even, perhaps, been theirraison d’etre. But us?

Not so much. One of the marked characteristics of the first quarter of the 21stCentury has been the continued – and rapid – withering of what used to feel like certainties: the ‘family’, the ‘state’, the ‘church’, the European Union, the benign global hegemony of the Pax Americana.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of any of these institutions, they each gave us things that we might choose to believe in; something to which we could ‘belong’.

Their attenuation creates a vacuum. Or better said, a market. And the market for something to belong to is perennial.

Whether we like it or not, we are social, tribal animals: monkeys with shoes on. Think about your experiences at school, in the workplace, amongst friends. More than anything else, we want to fit in. We might do it on our own terms, but there is no denying this deep-seated human desire to show others that we, too, ‘belong’.

This may be one reason why demagoguery has experienced such a powerful revival of late. With remarkable skill, populist figures have tapped into the world left to us by our parents – a world of individualistic, fragmented secularism – and used it to their great advantage.

And the brands? Well, there’s the odd one that pulls it off, and spectacularly so. But most flail and fail. They continue to push the agenda of the individual, appealing to his or her supposed instincts to be different and special. This is démodé and wide of the mark, like so much else in our industry, but it is also puzzling.

Collectively, agencies boast to their clients about having access to ‘the latest anthropological insights’ and their ability to ‘leverage cutting-edge digital technology’.

But, if we’re honest, very few of them seem to use it to any great effect. The delivery vehicle(s) may have changed, but the message hasn’t. Yes, individualisation still matters. Yes, personalisation still matters. Of course.

But only within a context of tribal belonging. The brands who realise this, authentically as opposed to cynically, will reap great dividends. But, if the agencies are failing them, where to go for advice?

As the Bard said: ‘get thee to a church’.

Or shul. Or mosque, or some other sort of temple. Seriously. Because the great religions are the masters of fostering – and then maintaining – a sense of tribal belonging.

Religions all do ‘story-telling’; indeed Thry probably do it better than anyone else. Their stories are compelling and other-worldly yet they are universal and accessible, and they tell them consistently, over and over again.

Religions all do ‘print’ – the Good Book(s) – with beautifully calibrated and carefully considered ‘tones of voice’ that jeep up just enough with broader changes in society.
Religons do soaring, uplifting ‘experiential’ – getting together (at least) once a week for a cathartic sing-song and/or group chant session.

And religions are nothing short of experts in the power of visual identity. By way of example, consider the sophistication with which all the great religions have imbued simple symbols with deep meaning, helping people to ‘belong’ in highly visible and, again, easily accessible ways.

The Christian cross, originally ‘inspired’ by the ancient Egpytian ‘ankh’, the symbol for life itself, pulls off an incredible trick in terms of the amount of data communicated through such a simple shape.

On the one hand, we have the obvious, and excruciating, sacrifice ‘for our sins’. But then we also have the reminder of the world’s best ever ‘comeback’, and the offer of everlasting life for ourselves too. Meanwhile, the three points across the top of the cross make sure we don’t forget the importance of the holy trinity – father, son, ghost.

You don’t need to bother god very often (or even at all) in order to appreciate the redacted, nuanced brilliance of this – nor the fact that its all neatly packaged in one infinitely reproducible shape. Genius. It’s no wonder Christianity ‘went viral’: the Greatest Story Ever Told owes at least much to its countless ‘art directors’ over the years as it does to the original copywriters.

Similarly, consider Taoism’s apparently effortless, but hugely profound, yin and yang. Or the cosmically holistic significance of Hinduism’s Shiva, the Lord of the Dance. Or the ‘Michelangelo-come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you-are-hard-enough’ challenge laid down by the deeply symbolic composition of a Jewish Seder plate.

Meanwhile, every mosque, everywhere in the world, contains a ‘niche’ – reminding the faithful of the direction of Mecca, birthplace of the religion’s founder.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an atheist. I think it’s all hokum.

Fortunately, for brands, so do lots of other people. And increasingly so. This not only creates a gap in the ‘belonging’ market, it also means that lots of skilled professionals are ‘interested in new opportunities’. The perfect storm, perhaps.

Your best brand bet this year?

Fire your agency, hire a priest.


Nick Jefferson, Monticello
– this piece was first published as a feature in the Superbrands 2017 Annual 

Let It Go, Let It Go.

‘How was your meal?’, the waiter asked the small table of friends, each of whom had been silently suffering the needless indignity of bad food.

‘Oh, lovely, thank you’, they lied, in unthinking unison, not wanting to ‘make a fuss’.

And there you have it: British business’ biggest challenge.

Because of course the flip side of ‘not wanting to make a fuss’ is a very British tolerance of mediocrity – an epic tragedy which has eaten away at some of our best organisations over the last decade or two.

If you can’t tell a waiter, who you will likely never see again, what you really think of the food he has served (or the way in which he has served it) what hope do you have of delivering honest feedback to your team? And so what hope does your business have of developing a genuine performance culture?

And, lest we forget, in any organisation, a ‘performance culture’ is what makes the difference between your ideas actually seeing the light of day, becoming something real and tangible – and remaining just that, ideas.

This is absolutely not about a return to the bad old days of dictatorial, ‘only tell ‘em when they’ve screwed up’ approach to management. Rather, it’s about developing a willingness to tell people — very simply — when and how they did a great job, and when and how they didn’t.

Honest feedback, good and bad, regularly and frequently, little and often. ‘Nothing that’s said in an appraisal should come as a surprise’, runs the old cliché.

You can ignore it, of course.

You can fail to grasp the nettle.

You can dodge the difficult conversation; kick the can down the road.

And in the short term, there’s no doubt that this will spare the red faces.

It’s just that – in the future – those faces will be redder. Much redder. And there’ll be more of them.

Because one of them will be yours.

Nick Jefferson is a partner with Monticello.