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December 11, 2002
The Rules are Dead. All Hail the New Rules.

Why have our greatest successes as an agency come when we've ignored or rejected what over the last 40 years have become the written-in-stone rules of brand building? This is the very question we set out to answer.

We all know the rules. As any marketer who became educated and enlightened in the '70s and '80s has, we've all worshiped at the altar of Aaker. We've poured through numerous titles on strategic brand management and read the Harvard case studies about market leaders who built successful brands through the rules of repetition and consistency. Rules that created Kleenex and Corn Flakes.

But over the past couple of years, our research and intuition have led us to break these rules time and time again, and with great success for our clients. At first we thought it was beginner's luck, then a curious coincidence. Later we chalked it up to style. But finally, we realized that every major success came as a result of a conscious decision to reject a basic premise or fundamental principle of our industry or of our client's category. It wasn't luck or coincidence; we were intentionally violating these rules. But why?

First, because the rules of business changed. Anyone who has tried to build a successful business in the past 10 years knows this to be true. When the formulaic rules of the business school paradigm that built so many successful companies in the '60s, '70s and '80s went head to head with a more entrepreneurial paradigm of trial and error and trial again, things changed. Suddenly, business creationism was replaced by a sort of hyper-Darwinian evolution, where hundreds of mutant businesses could literally crawl from the muck over night and challenge long-tenured category leaders. But these businesses had neither the time nor the resources to adhere to the traditional slow-build model of brand building. They had to quickly become relevant and maintain momentum or perish. Survival of the fittest, to a great extent had become survival of the fastest.

Second, because consumers changed even more. Exploding competition conspired with more and more media options to create an environment where categories were more cluttered, more saturated, and more blurred than ever before. In order to combat information clutter and overload, consumers developed sophisticated defenses that filtered out all but the most relevant of incoming messages. To combat category confusion and blurring, consumers became savvy information processors so they could make the connections and linkages necessary to make sense of any messages they did let past their defenses. In fact, sometime during the past decade or so, the average Joe or Jane stopped being a consumer. Instead, they became a sophisticated avoider of most marketing messages.

But, most marketers were slow to respond to these dramatic changes. Some stubbornly adhered to the old paradigm (and still do), others tried to bend the old rules of branding to fit this new marketing environment. And while this was probably a better survival strategy than a strict adherence to what had become an outdated model, in our opinion it was like applying the laws of Newtonian physics to space travel: it might get you off the ground but it could only get you so far.

Indeed, the brands and marketers that succeeded in this new environment, were the ones that embraced this new paradigm instead of ignoring it or trying to adjust to it. The mutant marketers who used trial and error and a Darwinian ideology to uncover new ways of creating brand relevance in order to keep the channel of communications open with consumers. New ways of making consumers active participants or accomplices in the on-going dialogue between themselves and the brand.

Our agency is one of these "mutant" brands that has enjoyed success from working mostly with other mutant brands who were willing to take some risks and break (not bend) some old rules. In an effort to recreate these successes we decided it was time to write down these new rules. We call them rules but we do so with our tongues planted firmly in our cheeks, because one of our rules is that rules aren't good for our business -- the idea business. And, for the foreseeable future there will be more power in breaking rules than in following them.

So, what are these new rules?

Disclaimer: We wrote down the following rules for ourselves. Follow them at your own risk. We found them to be very helpful. Maybe you will too. But, if you are too undisciplined or reckless with them and do injury to your business, your brand, or your career, Crispin Porter + Bogusky assumes no responsibility.

Rule 1: Surprise vs. Repetition
Rule 2: Ideas as Currency vs. Investment as Currency
Rule 3: Idea Obsolescence vs. Idea Extension
Rule 4: Innovation vs. Consistency
Rule 5: Conversation vs. Announcement
Rule 6: Cultural Relevance vs. Endorsement
Rule 7: Advertising and Publicity vs. Advertising
Rule 8: News is the Pipeline vs. News in the Pipeline
Rule 9: Everything is Branding vs. There is Branding and Other Stuff
Rule 10: Ideas Dictate a Medium vs. The Medium Dictates Ideas

If you would like more information on these new rules, just call us.

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A few years ago, Tom Birk was teaching mass media effects, message strategies, and research methods at the University of Rhode Island. Today, Tom Birk is helping make Crispin Porter + Bogusky the hottest agency in the United States as he directs CP+B's Strategic Planning and Research. Way to go, professor!

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