When you work on brands, shopping takes on a different angle. Take the food shop; rather than it being one of those in-and-out missions, each shop sees me become more like David Bellamy, snuffling around in the undergrowth in the weedy patch round the back of the shed. A new journey, re-surveying the terrain; discovering; getting curious, being – quite frankly – extremely nosy. If you are tagging along I understand how this can become tedious – but *guilty pleasure alert* – not for me.
My most recent shopping snuffling made me realise how many brands on our shelves are old favourites, now unloved. Late in their life cycle; somehow deemed to be not relevant enough for Millennials, or Digital Natives or even, your Mum. Great brand names. Famous brand names. Brands with a store of goodwill and memories. Brands that are part of our identities. Fabric brands.
Fabric brands are those brands that have become part of the weave and weft of a society. They are part of the social currency, part of the culture, part of the thinking that societies and cultures can’t define themselves by intangible, virtual communities alone, but by real things. Material transactions, God Forbid. And fabric brand status should be something that most brands should be seeking to attain; yet it is not a term that is widely used nor understood. Fabric brands deliver functionally and emotionally, but they are rarely badges of exclusivity – the opposite in fact – fundamentally, they are about inclusivity. You can’t simply buy these brands and understand, you need to live with them, they with you. Knowledge of the brand; the associations with the brand, are so broad that an assumptive knowingness becomes part of the personality. Gaps need not be filled by the brand itself because they are often filled by its users. There is a common sense of meaning. Many large brands could show these traits but fabric brands have something else: they have a shared cultural heritage with their end-user.
This is undoubtedly higher state of brand development – but it is far from unattainable – as supermarket shelves will attest. Indeed, they are littered with famous brand names, that seem to be connected only by their owners either being unable to justify the investment in them or diverting investment on to other priorities. Haywards or Maynards; Robertson’s marmalade or Gales Honey. Kiwi Shoe Polish or Lyle’s Golden Syrup; Rolo or Turkish Delight. Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers or R. Whites. Dettol or Mr Porky’s. And it’s not just in our supermarkets, but along the high street too, from Timpsons, to Waterstones, from Millets – even to M&S.
This is not, in an age of Brexit, about Britishness. The best fabric brands are most likely immigrants that we have taken to our hearts: Heinz Ketchup, Mars Bars, Kellogg’s Cornflakes. And this is not about being no longer relevant: A Rolo is as unrepentantly indulgent today as it was when I saved my last one for that special someone years ago. It’s not even that these brands have some higher-level purpose – most don’t. Nor do they necessarily deliver better functionally, relative to their competition – just ask people of a certain age to name which is best, HP or Daddy’s sauce, and stand back – but which is (was?) the fabric brand? No question.
What does define these brands is something simple yet difficult to attain. Fabric brands manage to make it to the top of the brand pyramid. Awareness is nailed. Associations with the brand are clearly mapped; Advantage is established, even if it is perceptual. Where they are different is that there is genuine affection. And the affection is two-way. Consumers love these brands because they can offer a point of view that only those immersed in that culture would understand. They bond, not through relentlessly hammering home their point of difference (although they are likely to be reasonably large spenders), but because they get you and are part of you. They do what many brands struggle with; they bond and connect at an emotional level. Many brands aspire to be friends; but fabric brands become family. They can take the mickey without offending because we allow them to, indeed, we encourage them to.
But many are withering on the vine. And this is because the true fabric brands are never assumptive about their future status. They know that even family ties can be broken; they know that innocent flirting can quickly lead to divorce. They know that fabric status requires constant nurturing, remaining relevant by staying fresh (for example through innovation). They know that continued dialogue, honing their emotive appeal is essential. For the biggest risk for fabric brands is being commoditised through over-familiarity. Or the dreaded process of cost-optimisation undermines the product to the point where the premium, the love, can no longer be justified.
And this shines a light on the lie of the over promises of digital marketing. In a world of ever more personalised channels, fabric brands should be able to blossom – being relevant, of the moment, and immersed in your world. Yet it’s not happening. Many famous brands are struggling. They can’t seem to survive in the age of the Discount retailer or stringent advertising regulation. Because fabric brands are a part of the culture; to grow they need to impact culture itself. That means communication that is bold and impactful, not for one, but for many. Until we come to our senses, it’ll take more than a fabric plaster to solve that.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps identify the direct route to success for brands and businesses. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260
© The Crow Flies, 2017