Monday, December 22, 2014

"But It's Not Ownable"

One of the most common criticisms we Creatives get thrown is that an idea we've had is "not ownable."

And that's a very hard bomb to defuse.

Obviously an idea should be ownable, shouldn't it? So, oh dear, it looks like we've failed, and we'll have to start again. Bad creative.

Unless... could it be that this criticism is completely bullshit?

First off, let's do a quick evidential survey. Here are 30 good ideas - as expressed via taglines, from the US, UK and Australia - that I collected for a presentation not long ago.

Have a look, and see how many you think are truly 'ownable'. 

Finger lickin' good (KFC)
The appliance of science (Zanussi)
Beanz meanz Heinz
A diamond is forever (De Beers)
Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet
Have a break, have a Kit Kat
The burgers are better at Hungry Jack’s
The future’s bright, the future’s Orange
Does exactly what it says on the tin (Ronseal)
You can be sure of Shell
A newspaper not a snoozepaper (Mail on Sunday)
It takes a licking and keeps on ticking (Timex)
The car in front is a Toyota
Fly the friendly skies (United Airlines)
Let your fingers do the walking (Yellow Pages)
I’m lovin’ it (McDonalds)
It could be you (National Lottery)
Oh what a feeling! (Toyota)
Can (CommBank)
Start something (St. George) 

I reckon that only THREE of these are truly ownable, in the sense that no one else could say it.

Beanz Meanz Heinz (no other baked bean brand could claim to be the definitive baked beans), A Diamond Is Forever (no other product can claim to last as long as diamonds do, and De Beers has no branded competitor), and Have A Break Have A Kit-Kat (no other chocolate snack 'breaks' in the way that a Kit Kat does).

Some of the other lines are phrased in a way that makes them appear ownable, but they're not really. For example, You Can Be Sure Of Shell sounds pretty ownable, because of the alliteration. But there is nothing unique to Shell in that positioning. There would be nothing to stop Total coming along and saying Total = Total Reliability.

Once we discount brands that are attempting to make their positionings ownable via snazzy language, and allow only brands with properly unique ownable positionings, by my calculations fully 90% of these ideas are not 'ownable'.

And yet many of them have created or contributed to brands that are worth many, many billions of dollars to their owners.

Smarter bloggers than me have pointed out that consumers don't see most brands as being particularly unique or distinct in reality, and indeed don't mind that, focusing instead on their differing personalities. (See this great post from Richard Huntington on brand personality, or this one by Martin Weigel about how it's far more important for a brand to be interesting than different).

What the ideas in the list above have in spades - what made them successful - is not ownability but personality.

Ideas like Finger Lickin' Good and The Future's Bright The Future's Orange are not ownable. Any chicken shop could claim you'll lick your fingers, and any telco could say they're forward-thinking. But the way these non-ownable thoughts are expressed help create a distinct (and attractive) personality.

And that's what consumers are drawn to.


Anonymous said...

I don't think that for a thought to be 'ownable' it must be unique to a single brand. Any brand can own any idea through consistent advertising. Take Volvo for example. You could argue that any car could own 'safety' (Volvo isn't even in the top 5 safest cars from memory) but simply due to the fact that Volvo's advertising has had such a persistent focus, safety is what comes to the consumer's mind.

To your examples above: sure, Donut King could turn around and say 'hey, we're finger lickin' good too!' but they would never run with that messaging because KFC already owns the thought of licking your fingers.


Scamp said...

I agree. A position becomes ownable when you go out and own it, not because it's intrinsically unique.

Old CD Guy said...

You are dead right, as usual Simon. I agree with your analysis and your 3 choices. Combank 'Can' is a fine example and particularly irksome for the following reason... In the early 90's a genius adman created a widely seen and highly successful campaign for Westpac. The line was 'Westpac Can'. A generic line in just about any service category, but as we now see courtesy of Combank, the claim 'Can' is totally generic, not to say interchangeable in the banking sector. I must say I was gobsmacked when Combank released this campaign a couple of years ago. It proves that not only client marketing personnel are incredibly young to have no memory of earlier work in the same category and to not reject 'Can' on the basis of being identical to their competitor, but so too are people in creative departments who only 20 years ago were running around in nappies and are oblivious to what's gone before. I prefer that theory to a more sinister one...

Adam F said...

Agree in spades.

Anonymous said...

Clients or even account servicing people often like to say during reviews or presentations -

"Replace the logo with (XXX Competitor's) logo and it would also work for them. This concept is not ownable"

Well, if you don't go out there and do it, of course you won't own it.

And then when someone else does it, we all moan that it could have been us.

James S said...

One can own whatever one wishes, one must buy (or take it first.

I believe any brand can own a claim that appears generic to the category if it claims it quickly, well and consistently.

I think the adage possession is 9/10th of the law is a very apt one here.

Scamp said...

Interesting idea, James S, to compare with property ownership - all you have to do is buy it, or take it.

I wonder though, since a brand positioning exists only in people's minds, whether a better analogy might be to something like nicknames?

Anyone could decide they want to be known as 'The Dude'. You just have to say "hey, people call me The Dude" and behave in a dude-like way.

I guess Clients are happiest if their real name is John Dudman so that when they say "hey, my name's John 'The Dude' Dudman" it feels like they have more rights to it than someone called John Silverman.

OK, now I'm totally rambling...