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Lucky Paint: The Art of Lateral Thinking

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Lucky Generals' Andy Nairn shares an exclusive extract from his best selling book 'Go Luck Yourself'

Lucky Paint: The Art of Lateral Thinking

Lucky Generals founder Andy Nairn has just published a best-selling book about the role of luck in business. Go Luck Yourself contains “40 ways to stack the odds in your brand’s favour.” In this exclusive extract for LBB, he explains how the Royal Navy overcame an unprecedented threat, by seeking inspiration from a completely different field.


On 31st January 1917, Germany declared that its U-boats would be engaging in unrestricted submarine warfare. Previously, officers were supposed to operate by a surprisingly chivalrous code of prize rules, when it came to attacking merchant ships: they were meant to surface, conduct a search of the enemy craft, place the crew in a position of safety and then sink the vessel. 

In practice, these rules hadn’t been followed since the first few months of the war. Most infamously, U-boats ignored the regulations in sinking the British liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915, with the loss of 1,198 lives. This caused outrage around the world and influenced the United States’ decision to enter the war on Britain’s side. But they didn’t do this until April 1917. 

So Germany’s announcement in January 1917 was effectively a calculated bet: they reckoned that, if they went hell for leather with their U-boats, they could starve Britain into submission before America got fully mobilised.

At first, this plan seemed to work. The newly emboldened submarines sank 1,860,000 tonnes of shipping in the first three months of the campaign. This onslaught left Britain with only six weeks’ worth of wheat. There was panic in Whitehall, as the UK’s high command struggled to construct a response. Not only was the U-boat a relatively new enemy, this form of warfare was unprecedented. Admiralty bigwigs, politicians and civil servants couldn’t find an answer – but a marine artist called Norman Wilkinson came up with an unlikely solution that was as effective as it was ingenious.

Wilkinson was born in Cambridge in 1878 and had spent his pre-war years building up a reputation for painting seascapes on England’s South coast. When the conflict broke out, he was assigned to the Royal Naval Reserve and placed on submarine patrols. Like everyone else, Wilkinson was racking his brain, trying to find a method to combat the U-boats. But while others approached this challenge from a more conventional military perspective, Wilkinson came at it with an artist’s eye as well as a sailor’s. This led him to question whether there might be a role for camouflage design.

Now, the British Admiralty had experimented with camouflage before and had found it unhelpful. Their experts pointed out that there were too many variables at play out on the open sea: colours were greatly affected by time of day, weather conditions and changing light. In addition, the sheer size of the merchant vessels and the quantity of smoke billowing from their funnels made concealment impossible. Put bluntly, it was a lot harder to hide a 700-foot ship at sea, than a single soldier or tank on land.

Wilkinson agreed but made a lateral leap – the kind you can only make when you have a curious brain. Combining his artistic background with his military knowledge, he agreed that you can’t hide a ship, but went on to argue that “you need to make it hard to hit, not hard to see”. 

At first, this must have sounded like a contradiction in terms: isn’t the whole point of camouflage that it makes an object difficult to spot? And how can you make a ship hard to hit, without hiding it somehow? The merchantmen were already getting sunk at an alarming rate, so surely the only way to save them – at least the only way using paint – was to make them less visible?

Well, actually, it turns out that not all camouflage is designed to conceal.  Being an artist, Wilkinson knew that certain patterns could simply confuse (Picasso would later claim that his cubist methods were the inspiration here). 

After a couple of years in the Navy, Wilkinson also realised the U-boats’ limitations. Frankly, for all their lethal ability, the submarines still needed time and effort to hit their targets. Spotting the ships wasn’t the difficult bit for a submarine crew: the skill came in calculating their victims’ distance and direction of travel, based on a quick glance through a periscope. Wilkinson reasoned that if the British ships could confuse the U-boats, they could significantly improve their chances of escape.

Although it took a while for the Admiralty to catch on, they eventually backed Wilkinson’s audacious plans. Over 4,000 ships were painted in strongly contrasting colours, arranged in bold geometric patterns. Counter-intuitively, this actually made them easier to see – but also made it extremely difficult to guess how big they were, how far away, or even what direction they were pointing. Every design was different, with Wilkinson marshalling ideas from other painters, sculptors and theatrical set designers. The end result was a garish fleet of highly visible, but also uniquely protected ships. Appropriately enough, for such a brilliant idea, the technique became known as dazzle painting.

I love this story because it represents a remarkable re-framing of the challenge – using inspiration from a totally different field. In particular, it’s a reminder that art provides a wonderfully eclectic palette from which to borrow. In Wilkinson’s case, he did so literally. But brand owners can simply use the underlying concepts within art to get the creative juices flowing. 

For instance, pointillism could get you thinking about mass-participation (all those little dots adding up to a bigger picture). Or perhaps the fabulous Benin Bronzes might provoke a premiumisation strategy. Dadaism might make you think about shock tactics, pop art might encourage you to be more nakedly commercial and Frida Kahlo could inspire something magical. As for Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’, well I defy anybody to look at it and not find at least one potential connection to their business!

All too often we are like the Admiralty bigwigs, applying conventional solutions to unprecedented problems. By opening our eyes and drawing on other reference points, we can get to much more interesting questions and answers. Great marketing is an art and if you find yourself painted into a corner, sometimes your best bet is to paint your way out.


Go Luck Yourself is available now here and here.


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Categories: Media and Entertainment, Books

Lucky Generals, Mon, 28 Jun 2021 13:28:11 GMT