Mark Roalfe champions 'antifragile' brands

Mark Roalfe, co-founder and chairman of RKCR/Y&R
Mark Roalfe, co-founder and chairman of RKCR/Y&R

Brands under pressure need to be highly adaptive and flexible in the way they respond to risk and uncertainty. It is this "antifragile" quality that enables them to thrive when the world "wobbles", writes RKCR/Y&R co-founder and chairman Mark Roalfe.

I’m not really one for maths; I don’t read science books.  But every now and then, an idea pops out from that world that has something to say about the work we do. So here’s the title of a book that came out last year: Antifragile.

A funny title, that. A fine example of how a well-copywritten phrase can make something potentially boring and complicated seem simple and compelling. I think the author would do rather well in advertising.

The idea behind the book comes from looking at how different systems respond to risk and uncertainty. Some systems have an in-built ability to thrive. Some don’t. Those that thrive are antifragile.

So, antifragility is the quality you need to do well when everything’s wobbly.

Proving that apparently involves a lot of maths, which isn’t my cup of tea, but I think the idea is interesting for creativity today.

Strong brands used to find a USP, land a killer insight and stand their ground. Inflexibility was the game. You don’t need to be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist to notice that inflexible things shatter under pressure.

And brands are under pressure. The proliferation of devices and continued growth in choice have come with no growth whatsoever in the number of hours in our day (still 24, with a fair few of them needed for sleeping). 

Like it or not, brands are competing in an ever-increasing number of ways for an ever-diminishing pool of attention, in what is still a pretty wobbly economic climate.

So, if in the past we needed to create brands that were solid and unchanging, now I think we need to create brands that are inherently antifragile.

An antifragile brand is flexible, responsive and adaptive. It’s a complex system of belief, reputation and meaning that allows a business to re-imagine, sustain or extend itself, whenever the world wobbles, be it due to economic meltdown, tech revolution, climate change, political catastrophe. You get my point.

Antifragile brands allow you to flex, when everything is in flux.

The good news is that the principles behind creating an antifragile brand remain very simple. For me, it all starts with understanding what the brand is. What is this brand in this world to achieve? What’s its purpose? Flexible brands know who they are.

Take a rubber band. Bend it any way you like and it’s still rubber, still a band. I’m a big advocate of rubber brands. They can bounce. Virgin, Google, IKEA and Johnnie Walker all have driving ideas at their heart – and boy can they bounce.

Next, what the brand says. One thing I’ve always tried to do in the brands I’ve helped build is to give them worlds in which they exist.

This isn’t just a visual world (which is essential); brands need a distinct voice in the way they talk, too. How you say something is as important as what you say. As media channels fracture, and digital media explodes, this becomes more, not less, important. Not so we create consistent experiences, but resonant ones. People should feel brands wherever they interact with them.

Lastly, what the brand does. To me, this is by far the most exciting area of our work. "Do" ideas require bravery. Take Milka’s "Dare to be tender" campaign in France – a simple idea about the last piece of chocolate that meant changing the production line. "Do" ideas aren’t new. Nike Run London or Marks & Spencer’s "Plan A" both said more about those brands than a thousand TV, press, or online ads ever could. What’s new is the freedom we now have as a creative industry in this area. We just have to work out how to charge for it.


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