Can you crowdsource your positioning?

There has been a little jovial mockery of the Co-operative in the Twittersphere of late. After a turbulent 2013 in which it posted a significant half year loss (half a billion – oof!), the now suspended Minister-Chairman of their bank was caught on film allegedly buying Class ‘A’ drugs (I’m assuming that isn’t ‘A’ for own label Aspirin) and their banking division was found to have a ‘slight’ capital shortfall, precipitating wholesale changes and general panic.  In the next breath, the Co-operative announced that it was going to employ the wisdom of crowds to help them get back in touch with what they’re really about.  My experience of crowds is that they’re not very wise.  Much queuing at greasy burger vans and buying of over-priced merchandise never struck me as that sensible.  Equally, all that shouting and losing your inhibitions in front of total strangers? Not wise one bit.  No wonder there was some quizzical looks and sniggers of derision.

Yet perhaps there’s something in this. Whilst it’s easy – as I just have – to gently mock such initiatives, there could actually be a double whammy of wisdom.  Let me explain.

The first is this: very often, the team given the responsibility to manage a company’s brands, typically the marketing team, is characterised by relative inexperience and high staff churn. Ambition is a good thing when well directed and in marketing teams I’ve known, you can smell the pheromones of ambition.  Good for the individual perhaps, ironically not too good for the brand.  When a job tenure of 18 months has you marked down as a long-in-the-tooth veteran who could be approaching their sell by date, any chance of gathering the wisdom that comes over time is lost.  What has worked successfully for the brand dissipates into the ether of Company alumni groups.  No, what generally happens is the new incumbent in the role will call for a brand positioning exercise to take place prior to another brand relaunch.  New agency partners, desperate to impress, will be keen to knock their predecessors, without of course actually being seen to do this.  What went before is bad. Shiny new future is good.   Where’s the wisdom in that?  Why not then reach out to someone who isn’t showing off through the brand – the consumer?

Recently, I’ve been doing a research project for a client built around some one on one interviews, and accompanied store visits.  A basic, ages-old research approach – but one in which the client, who got involved, not just leaving up to me, learnt so much by – well – just talking to their customers.  So why not talk to lots?

Crows Says Onion Rings not Brand Onions

Crows Says Onion Rings not Brand Onions

The second piece of wisdom is that consumers have no truck with Brand Identity Models, Brand Pyramids, Brand Bow-ties, Brand Onions, Brand Arrows or any other form of brand ‘model’.   In the dim and distant past when developing a new brand model for my company (I know, I know, poacher turned gamekeeper) my team identified more than twenty brand positioning models in common use.  Most of them dancing on a pin head of difference, yet proclaiming revolution.  All of them seem to lose sight of the most valuable lesson when building a brand:  own a position in the mind of your prospect (and be first).  Jack Trout captured this back in 1976 but it still has resonance today. Ultimately it’s about simplicity, not complexity. One thought. Delivered with scale.  “Get your positioning, stick to it, don’t get bored”, as a wise old head used to say to me. So much brand flimflam can mean you lose sight of this basic thought and perhaps, if the Co-operative can reconnect with what makes them unique, different then it will be a worthwhile exercise.

IMG_1308A little aside:  my family hail from the north west of England. A ‘southern’ wing briefly made a generational sojourn into the potteries, to earn their way as Stoke on Trent expanded and became the ceramic centre of the world. They lived a few miles away on Mow Cop, a ridge overlooking the Potteries to the south east and the Cheshire Plain to the north west. If you drive up the M6 towards Manchester, near Junction 16 you can see it away to your right, the mock Castle focusing the eye. If you are a cyclist, the climb up Mow Cop is a lung, leg and spirit busting experience.  But it was there my family built its allegiance to the Co-op.  They were the first to open a ‘supermarket’ style store that we know today. They brought fresh bread and fruit to a community that couldn’t easily get it or afford it.  In time, the Co-op, or “Stores” as my Gran called them to her dying day, would cater for you from cradle to grave.  Ask her if their ad line of ‘Here for you for life’ made sense, she would have agreed.  Its reputation was second to none: honest, good value, good quality, convenient, sourced locally, investing back in the community. Today, the Co-operative, despite its recent struggles has an expansive Convenience led store base, a leadership position in ethical trading (in the mind of consumers at least) and is generally, and not before time you might say, sorting itself out.   If speaking to their members, openly, authentically and with real intent reveals just a fraction of the richness and latent loyalty that exists within a family such as mine, then they could be onto something powerful.   Just don’t bung the results into a Brand Onion, for Heaven’s sake.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands. To find out more about not using Onions but common sense when it comes to brands, take a look at the Crow website: or contact David directly at >; +44 (0) 7885 408367

© The Crow Flies, 2014

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