Unplugged: the executioner’s lament

23rd July 2014

When I travel, I’m a devil for power. That is to say, if my iPhone is showing anything less than 50%, I feel in threat of losing connection with the world. Those who own a smartphone will know that this is tantamount to not existing at all.

In the old days, 50% battery was not so bad – at least a couple of hours of life were left. I notice that my Apple device, for all of Mister Jobs’ moaning about precision design and delivery, has a rather temperamental relationship with percentages. As it approaches 0% battery, my iPhone loses its power exponentially. I have seen it descend 9%, 8%, 7% all the way to 0% in the space of five minutes. A battery’s expiration is a thing of great moment.

That the late, lamented, Steve Jobs had not perfected the battery interface for his range of beautiful products is a hint at the difficulty of great marketing execution.

In our marketing trade, we grapple constantly with the unforeseen, as we manage the fine art of shepherding a concept – be it ad, packaging, new brand or service –to life, and to consumer reality.

This is what we call ‘execution’; the act of making things happen – things that consumers actually see.

My first encounter with these hidden challenges was a rather simple affair: a yellow-on-white promotional flash saying ‘3 barres gratuites’ on a bag of funsize confectionery. Three bars free – what’s not to love!

I was a junior brand manager for Milky Way in France, just a a little after the Jurassic period.

Giving away free product in family bags of confectionery was big news in the 1990s. Free product seems so pedestrian these days that our profession must stand up and take some responsibility for the value we have collectively driven out of so many food categories.

Not just food. I refuse to buy dishwasher tablets unless there is a 100% extra free offer on the table. A rather confusing claim to me still, as I half expect to pay nothing whatever.

Anyway, back to the story. The design agency sent me several options. I was new to the marketing world, and was set on choosing the one that looked nicest – always a bad start point.

It was some months later that I realised my poor choice, as I self-importantly did some store checks, ostensibly to assess the work of my sales colleagues. My carefully chosen, yellow-on-white flash announcing ‘three bars free’ was all but invisible. It was the Milky Way promotion that wasn’t.

Yellow, it turns out, does not ‘read’ very well at all on white. The two colours merge into nothingness.

Having learnt the lesson, I now have the passion of a reformed smoker when I see colours used well or poorly in the marketplace. And the lesson was a basic and functional one – what we do in marketing must be fit for purpose. In this case, the first duty of any visual communication is to be seen.

Just recently, I have encountered poor design so darned frustrating that I actually attempted to communicate with its instigators to tell them of my displeasure.

There I was, in Charles de Gaulle airport, principal international airport of France, when I saw special zones for ‘recharging’.


Placed throughout the airport were free-standing mini-pillars, of triangular shape, each carrying three plug sockets at desk height. Perfect.

The sockets were the Continental, two-round-hole variety with no accommodation for other plug types. Undeterred, I took out my iPhone and plug adaptors, and lifted the protection lip which dutifully covers every socket.

To my disappointment, the extra bulk of the plug adaptor make the sockets impossible to use. The design of the lip cover makes adaptors unusable.

So, here is a piece of design which works only for Continental European plugs. If you happen to have equipment from anywhere else, tough luck mon ami. That is to say, approximately 40% of all travellers at Charles de Gaulle are left unplugged.

In the consumer’s world, I am reminded, a good idea poorly executed is sometimes worse than having had no idea at all.

I do not go so far as to say that the good marketing folk in ‘Aeroports de Paris’ are incompetent. Rather, similar to my Milky Way experience many years back, they have curated a design which fails to think broadly, to imagine scenarios of usage beyond the linear.

Try as I might, I have not found a feedback email where I can politely tell them about my experience. So, I have opted to bitch instead.


Brian McIntyre © 2014.

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