The problems with ‘Pipelines’

As trading environments intensifies, slows or tightens, so the pressure to focus more energy, investment and time onto innovation and its lustrous promise inevitably grow. And what signals healthy innovation plans more than a pipeline – packed to the gunnels with new product, packaging or brand ideas; some ready to go, some looser, meeting an unmet need a couple of years from now, others, little more than outline thoughts about the art of the possible, off in the distance.

Yet innovation failure rates are increasing – and the push for ‘the pipeline’ is part of the issue.

To be clear, a well-stocked catalogue of NPD or renovation projects has clear advantages. For the leadership and the staff in the business, it’s engaging, exciting and gives confidence that new-news is coming through. For the brand teams, it is a demonstrable indicator that their charges are in good health. For others, there’s the ‘value’ of the pipeline: the financial projections for the money it will it deliver over the life of the plan: what can I report to the Board? What can I tell the analysts?

But innovation pipelines create false confidence.

First, there are the behavioural issues. The innovation team bust their guts to identify insights, ideate, develop concepts, validate and test. Strong, consumer-led projects are phased in to cover the next few years. The pipeline is filled with its innovation ‘oil’.

And what draws the eyes of the decision makers? Not the project for next year. Nor the one for 18 months out. No, it’s the “game changer”, slated for 4 years away. It is way more exciting. So the process of wrangling and re-analysing takes place; previous agreements are disregarded and the silver bullet is pulled forward. “Stage & Gate” processes are cast aside; project managers gently cough and look away as hitherto unassailable Sales & Operational Planning red lines are politely worked around.  Ignore the additional technical risks; ignore the dislocation to other activities – the biggest, shiniest jewel wins through. And…. it’s quite possibly the right call (at least if it can be delivered safely). If something is motivating the business; if something excites a buyer, then major hurdles are already overcome.

Next, there’s the question of resource deployment. Pipeline thinking means salami slicing and prioritisation. Prioritisation sounds good, but with innovation it’s not what’s really needed. What’s needed is sacrifice. Pipeline thinking is built on allocation of resource, right throughout the chain – teams being briefed on 40% of their time here, 30% there, 20% further out and 10% for fire-fighting; same for investment. Not only is this allocation approach never realistic, more fundamentally it stops the discussion around elimination. Let’s not do this activity at all. Let’s put 0% effort into it. Let’s spend nothing on it. It’s not that it’s a bad idea; in fact it could have lots of possibilities, but this one could be a real disruptor. Big bets – not salami slicing is what’s needed – after all, it’s big bets that smaller, more nimble market entrants and future competitors will be making – they have no other choice than to be bold and single-minded.

Pipelines for CrowsAnd then there’s the tyranny of choice. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the issue for innovation currently is generating too much choice. Think about a typical supermarket today. Do you really want more choice? What we need are better choices. Pipelines drive quantity. What’s needed is quality. Single-minded ideas that meet desires and needs better. That establish a brand’s positioning more powerfully. Simple solutions to the simple problems that so often we ignore or miss in our closeness to our categories.

A pipeline, after all, is a metaphor for continuous flow and supply. That’s not needed for ideas. That’s needed more for insights: finding those illusive springboards to growth. Yet so often, the process of insighting is compartmentalised: ‘we’ll do accompanied shops once a quarter’; ‘we’ll have stimulus sessions twice a year’.  And yes, you can get some useful outputs from it, but essentially insight development is emergent. It is always on: being curious; poking around; asking questions. That’s where a pipeline is needed.

If insight needs a pipeline, innovation needs a refinery: a factory where ideas are refined. A place where focus is given to the raw materials you have at your disposal. A place where you choose to make different products suitable for your needs. At some point with innovation, you need to get everyone round the table, everyone who has skin in the game, distil the ideas you have and thrash stuff out. Make calls. Kill ideas. Not prioritise. Not fill a pipeline – eliminate. Ask: what are we going to back here?  What’s good, but not good enough? What’s risky – or stretching – but could change the rules for the category?

If you can credibly bring more than one ideas to market, plan them based on when you can actually get them to market not on some hypothetical timing. Build in some red lines. Avoid the false confidence.  Step back and look at the world as a consumer sees it. We’re seeing the outputs of pipelines polluting categories in a slick of OK product choices. It’s time to stop. Build a refinery and make big, bold bets on the real problems your consumers face day to day.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands build foundations of stone.; +44 (0) 1283 246260.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (, on Facebook ( 

© The Crow Flies, 2017


slide1There’s a tendency in business to always put a positive spin on things – somehow to be ashamed to face up to the big issues in plain speaking language and dress them in such polite terms that they lose their meaning. On Tuesday though, I gave a presentation at the annual Organic September trade briefing in London, hosted by Soil Association Certification, one of the themes of which was mistrust. In fact, it was the first point I made.

I was, I’ll admit, a little bit fearful about how it would land – would I be seen as a doom-sayer when actually the headline news is good (the organic market is growing by over 5% in a food market that’s flat and sluggish)? Because, although it’s a brutal fact, mistrust is all around us at the moment. I’m no political commentator, but take Brexit. ‘Out’ votes driven by fear, anger and mistrust of privilege, of politicians, of Europe, of faceless Bureaucrats, of ‘silly’ laws, of the status quo. And in food retail, what else drives the pervading mistrust of big food producers and big food retailers as horsemeat scandals, obesity crises (for whom the retailers, fairly or not, are blamed), mass-manufacturing, ever falling quality, increasing prices and the perceived weasel-words of products and brands that get found out (and increasingly easily get found out, at that)?

So yes, I was fearful that it was a downbeat message and no amount of delightful condiments on the ‘Praise Sandwich’ would obscure the truth.

Yet for every weight, there is a counter balance; pendulums swing both ways. And for every issue there is an opportunity. Of course, if you are connected with the Organic or natural products movement, either as farmer, a grower, a producer, a retailer or brand owner, then you have reason to be cheerful. Never has there been such a sea change in the mainstream market seeking out provenance, transparency of production, desire to know more about producers, dare I say it… craft – than now. And it’s only going one way. Look at the new channels appearing – online, concrete, pop-up, markets – the fragmentation of retail away from ‘the big weekly shop’ can only benefit these retailers. And look at the incredible array of entrepreneurs and small businesses, of all ages, all attitudes, backing their beliefs and bringing sensational new products to market. Many will fail – that is the way of things – but rarely have the tailwinds of fortune been so great. Never before have we seen so much consistent variety in high quality new product development. For someone interested in innovation, it’s like a premium version of Whack-A-Mole. One may fail, but three pop up.

This mistrust may seem to sting if you are in the volume end of the market, yet it is a nettle to be grasped. Take the big supermarkets for example; consumers squarely point the finger of blame at them. In our research we found that issues such as the ‘horse meat scandal’ became tipping points for their ire, electromagnets that once activated, attracted further critique, proving their fears, legitimising their concerns: ‘if they’re doing that, what else are they doing?’. Obesity crisis? That’s because the retailers force us to over buy because of their buy-one-get-one-free offers. The war on waste? Have you seen how much they throw away? Have you seen the over-packaging?

Yet this consumer mistrust really is an opportunity if a committed purpose is drawn up and big action is taken. Take yesterday’s theme, organic food. In the past it’s been seen as a middle class indulgence, yet now it’s being taken seriously by a broader church because of the natural and ever-increasingly innovative approaches being used, the scientific proof on nutrition being brought to the table, and of course, the willingness to adhere to – and be seen to adhere to – a higher standard of certification. Conventional or mixed farmers are taking note – so too should the retailers. And it is clearly not just about organic. This is about local; it’s about backing independent producers; it’s about knowing where our food comes from; it’s about breaking a crazy system that sees pork imported from the Far East somehow ‘cheaper’ than pork produced here. It’s about getting back some common sense – and commercial sense – and letting shoppers see it.

From a brand point of view it’s an opportunity too. The mistrust should spell the end of the silly era of ‘story-telling’. It’s not stories we need as consumers. If trust is wanted, truth is needed. Truth: plain, bare, simple.

(Coverage of the Organic September trade briefing can be found here:

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 246260;; @crowflieshigh.

 © The Crow Flies, 2016

Increasing your chances of innovation success

There are sticky myths surrounding innovation. Take success rate. Only 7 out of 10 launches work. Or is it 80%? 50%? Brand extensions. They always weaken a brand, right? Wrong?

Slide1Ultimately what is generally agreed is that innovation is for poker players. There are high rewards possible and they only come with high risks. But you will certainly earn nothing if you don’t put any chips down. Honestly, I don’t know whether 1 in 7 launches work or 3 in 17. What matters is understanding what we can do to increase our chances of success.

Over the past two years, our business has been taking developing a fresh perspective on this very question, looking at our own client practice, published case studies and primary research with innovation practitioners. Interestingly, before we even consider where to innovate or on what there are two foundations – cornerstones that determine the success of everything else that innovative businesses attempt.

The first is cultural. What innovation will the business permit? This seems an odd question but we’ve found a clear gap between what is said and what is done. Innovation enjoys its fair share of grand pronouncements (‘We will reinvent the future of our category’, ‘Innovation will become our DNA’), but what really matters is what gets approved when the rubber hits the road. Many publicly listed companies need to innovate for the long-term, for example, fundamentally changing the way they work, or strengthening their core brands. These are not overnight tasks by any means, but they struggle to do so in an environment where shareholders and analysts are breathing down their necks for instant success. The Board transmit this short-termism through the business whether they realise it or not. It’s not to say that businesses such as these can’t innovate, nor that the innovation can be successful – it’s just that the strike rate of success will likely be low and potentially the really thorny, knotty challenges won’t be faced up to. Innovation therefore must strike the balance between long and short-term needs.

The second foundation is direction. If the company’s purpose and it’s values don’t allow for, or perhaps it’s better to say, inspire innovative ideas, innovative behaviour and allow for the diversity of thought, style and personality involved to be innovative, then the chances of success reduce again. The tell tale signs are whether innovation naturally flows out of the company’s purpose – not the vision, nor the goals, but the purpose – that ‘why we get out of bed in the morning’ sense of being that high performing businesses work off. If innovation is just a ‘tool’ for delivering a gap in the plan – beware.

And it’s easy to write about these foundations, much harder to put them in place. They are fundamental though – and by definition therefore they are big beasts to wrestle to the ground. But wrestle them you must.

Only then, it is possible to start innovating. And where to start?

What our research has shown is that – somewhat counter intuitively – the place to start is the core of your business. Oh, I’ll grant you, it’s not a sexy as doing crazy new stuff but here’s the thing – innovation is about balancing short and long-term. The core is more short-term and this has some advantages. What you do will be on an existing brand so the chances of creating some impact and momentum are higher. The core is 80% of what you do: your staff will therefore understand why you are doing it more and feel the need. And critically, it buys you time and space to work on the ‘other stuff’. But it doesn’t mean do anything to the core. The question should be, ‘how can I make the core of my business feel contemporary, cared about and vibrant?’ This means investigating your target consumers’ unmet needs in-depth; it means drilling into adjacent product territories or areas your competitors are naturally strong and most critically it means dramatising the existing brand positioning through your innovation effort. A brand that does this superbly is Coors Light – a top 5 beer brand worldwide. Everything it does communicates the global positioning of cold Rocky Mountain refreshment. In every market where the brand is on sale, you’ll see innovation (and brand activity) bringing to life the coldness of the brand through innovations like temperature sensitive ink from the ‘Blue Train’ in the US to Damme Cold in the UK. And they do this relentlessly, year in year out. The most innovative idea? No. But an idea that impacts the core of their business.

Then businesses can focus on the really new – the 20% today which will be the 80% of tomorrow. Here the questions are about large segments we’re not in but could credibly compete, or transitional trends (trends that are becoming mainstream) – or even unlocking the potential in unloved assets by repurposing them …. as well as, of course, inventing. When we asked our clients and practitioners about innovation, it’s this effort that seems to define innovation overall (the crazy new stuff). Importantly though, the successful innovation companies also recognise that this takes less of the focus, effort and resource but is protected nonetheless.

The Crow Flies now offers one-day stimulus sessions on how businesses can increase their chances of innovation success, which build on the principles and findings here. It would be great to hear from you if you find yourself wrestling (or not wrestling) with some of the big issues at play.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses.; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2016

Why I’m Going To The Garden Centre For A Pint

How inward focused insight can kill innovation: what all brand builders can learn from managed pubs

Last week I took my family to a local pub which had just re-opened following significant investment. We were excited to see what changes had been made, how the money had been spent and the offer improved. We speculated en route, talking about the simple, obvious changes they would have made to improve the experience: a gate to prevent younger children from running out of the play area and straight on to the main road, a larger restaurant area, the development of the beer garden as a place to relax in the summer months. Maybe, given the number of very similar competitor businesses in the area, they would have gone further and taken the chance to differentiate and premiumise their offer: they might have invested in a pizza oven, added more natural and healthy options to the menu or improved the entertainment available to children – there was so much scope to enhance the offer and we couldn’t wait to see how the experience had been improved.

Unfortunately it hadn’t. Instead the investment and four week refurbishment had been spent in making it look even more like every other pub in the area. You know the look – most managed pubs look the same – a sort of toned down version of how trendy Shoreditch bars looked 5 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, it looks good. Pubs need ‘freshening up’ and my issue is not with the choice of furnishings. What frustrates me is what sits behind the decision: the issue that too many marketing strategies are being built on the wrong insight.

This issue is not limited to managed pubs. Indeed, some managed pubs get it beautifully right. The Revolution vodka bars are a brilliant example of a differentiated brand proposition, with a singular thought and focus which brought something new to the high street. The issue is that too many competitors now only look at what Revolution are doing to fuel their own offer development. What’s more, the problem is spreading. When you’re in your local managed pub, have a look at the drink brands ‘extending’ in to the spirit beer and cider categories and, if you fancy a challenge, try and work out what they’re bringing to the party that is truly different or better. If you’re struggling, order yourself a pulled pork burger while you think. It’ll be on the menu because it’s on everyone else’s.

Innovation, (and I use it to mean the development of the offer, be that a retail refurbishment, menu development, FMCG product extension or NPD), needs to start with the right insight and that rarely comes from looking only at what your competitors are already doing. It is well documented that pubs have been closing at an alarming rate and there are many reasons for this including the cost of labour, duty rates, macro consumer trends around wellbeing and so on. However, it is worth adding to the list that the industry has been too introspective, that the offer has not developed far enough and so consumers have voted with their feet.

Garden CentresWhere are they going? To the garden centre of course, a strange but relevant parallel. You can buy almost all gardening equipment more cheaply on line and a good range of plants from your local supermarket or DIY store, just as most drinks are almost identical but a third of the cost if bought from the off-trade. However, where pubs are shutting, the garden centre industry is thriving and is  forecast to continue to grow through to 2020. The reason? Their offer has evolved through external insight. They realised that they were competing with cafés, theme parks, shopping centres and, of course, pubs, for people’s leisure time and so they developed and differentiated their offer. When you go to a garden centre, the plant might cost more but you’ll be helped to pick the right species and told where to plant it. As a result, it will grow and so you’ll go back. Furthermore, when you return, you can shop in the craft store, take in a drink at the cafe, order a summerhouse, furnish it and, at Christmas, you’ll probably find one of the best Santa’s Grottos outside of Disneyland. And here’s the frustration – there is a much better place for that Grotto to be. A place where you could sit and wait for your turn in warm comfort, whilst enjoying a meal. A place that should be the beating heart of the community – your local family pub. But instead, they’re trying to sell you craft beer and pulled pork.

Doing things differently doesn’t need to cost more. It’s about choosing more carefully where to invest both time and money. My local pub could have committed to staff training and updated their range to offer food and drink discovery for the family. They could have spruced up the beer garden to create the optimal outdoor child-friendly space for the summer. They could, at the very least, have put a gate on to the main road to make the children’s play area safer.

So let’s step off the band wagon before it runs over a child or at the very least, before it leads to further poor strategy and ill thought through investment. Marketeers need not beat themselves up about it – nobody can reasonably be an expert in one category, immersed within their own business and simultaneously have the objectivity to look beyond it. However, look beyond it we must or the offer development that results will continue to disappoint.

At The Crow Flies, we help businesses to research, plan and develop compelling brand strategies and innovation pipelines – a process which starts with finding the right insights. If you have a brand or innovation challenge and would like some fresh thinking, give us a call – we’ll be in the garden centre having a pint.

Rob Parker is a Partner at The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for brands and businesses.; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2016

Time and brand planning wait for no man

On the news the other day, there was a report about two American sailors who have to be rescued 9 times by various coastal rescue services – just on their journey from Norway to Cornwall. They still have their trans-Atlantic crossing to make in a boat, ‘Nora’ that looks clinker built and is, well ‘romantic’ more than seaworthy. At the same time and on a seemingly unrelated path, I have been wrestling with a recurring challenge on innovation projects: why do great ideas get ditched so quickly?

The analogy of an ocean storm is what draws the comparison here. The ‘storm’ is the annual round of business and brand planning. Like a Force 12 storm blowing in, it approaches fast; it swirls and blows – disrupting normal events; the waves are big, awe-inspiring in fact and it demands immediate action.

If a brand plan is a good one, out of this maelstrom come the annual action plans, innovation being one of them. Teams set off, get briefs written and engage various partners. Insights are articulated and challenges expressed. Ideas are generated and validation kicks in. Yet, more often than not both client and agency are left disappointed: clients because the ideas aren’t ‘breakthrough’; agencies because the great ideas get left behind.  Why? There seem to be a number of recurring themes.

The ideas generated in the here and now always seem the best – they’re owned by that team; they have a senior sponsor (or perhaps originator), they seem fresh and new. But newness doesn’t make them the best ideas nor the right ones to move the business forward. Just as it’s important to test your ideas vs a competitive control, so you should also test your ideas against existing ones. Are we moving forward? Are we taking learnings and applying them for better results?

Breaker.jpgAn idea’s support and sponsorship is fleeting – there’s a purple patch for ideas. You love it; you present it with passion; you engage the Board, everyone’s excited. But depending on how you go about taking innovation forward, it can quickly wane. Rounds of iterative fettling; focus groups and quantitative testing if lingered over can sap the momentum. It’s important to be single minded, test and verify with urgency and get on with it. If you lose the momentum, whilst the idea may, in consumers’ eyes, still be a good one, you’ve probably lost the battle internally.

Great ideas don’t just spring out at brand planning time – we’re increasingly realising that great ideas are a jigsaw – a jigsaw of structured planning at a point in time, constant curiosity and spontaneous creativity. Put it this way: you are less likely to be successful if you set up an old meeting room with a few fairy lights and post-it notes than if you think about your physical environment for innovating all year round. More than anything else: capture thoughts and ideas whenever they arise and display them. Ideas attract interest like moths to a flame, but only if the flame burns brightly.

It’s never now or never – the market opportunity may be now or may be in the future, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell where you are with an emerging trend. Keep the ideas from the past and don’t be afraid to dust them off, tweak them and put them to consumers again. (And yes, a ‘Three Strikes And Out’ rule is sensible, but only over the course of years, not months).

Fine ideas are like fine wine –young white wine you may think is best with fish, but a bit of age and you realise it’s sublime with chicken. So too with ideas – and the insights behind them. New ideas can be a bit rough and ready whereas some time, some thought applied, some prototyping can put a sharp point on your idea. Think about how you nurture and protect ideas with potential beyond the one year window.

Like a big ocean storm, if a concept doesn’t make it through in time, then the next wave swamps it, even if it is a crackling idea. And this push, this desire for short-term winners means we risk losing the wild cards and the potential higher risk but high reward game-changers.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses.; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2016

Ale Conners* and Saggar-maker’s Bottom Knockers**

Today, it’s perfectly reasonable to challenge the assumption that the future of British manufacturing is abroad. A conversation with a former colleague, now working in the pottery industry confirmed this.

It’s a subject very much alive and relevant when you live in a county that to a large degree defined the Industrial Revolution: Staffordshire. Stoke-on-Trent was and is synonymous with pottery of course. Through the trade network of the British Empire, it supplied the world. The Five Towns tend to get talked down and are seen as a victim of deindustrialisation nowadays. The truth though is that the pottery industry is not on life support; the pot banks still fire, they’re just a different shape from the ones of old. And beer came from Burton-on-Trent, still a town shaped by its malty legacy and still the home of one of Europe’s largest breweries, the majestic Burton Union sets at Marston’s and a small crop of craft brewers – but like Stoke, Burton too has seen decline and deindustrialisation as its rather scratty appearance is testament to. And this is to say nothing about the nails and screws and rivets and tools from the Black Country’s ‘workshop of the World’.

Why then is there hope – and why are skilled brand builders at the heart of this?

Saggar MakerAdded value skills – the base to work from. Whilst there is always of risk of losing skills during deindustrialisation, British manufacturers are getting their heads round relearning the added value skills. We may not need ale conners (*beer quality inspection officials) or saggar-makers bottom knockers (**the ceramic case used for protecting the fired pottery) any more, but there are skills that can’t just be outsourced and commoditised. Designers, brewers, painters…

And an onerous responsibility lies with these individuals. The responsibility to create the sustainable value that allows manufacturing to stay at home. Take Emma Bridgewater. You can argue, it’s just a range of pottery. Yet it is so much more. The brand value is in the consistent application of an appealing look, values you aspire to, a fit with your lifestyle. And where is the Emma Bridgewater range made? Stoke-on-Trent.   And there’s an increasing range to choose from Denby, Portmeirion, Burleigh (located at Middleport, home of ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’.)

The future is bright, the future is branded. In our “Millennial” infatuated marketing world, there’s a tendency to think that only products that eschew ‘marketing’ and tell an authentic story are the ones that will win. No. Brands that decide to use their truth in their positioning and communicate it single-mindedly have the better chance of winning. At the end of the day, the brand is where the value is. Take Camden Town Brewery, only 6 years old, but just sold to brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Inbev for £86m. “Brewery”? Well not really, for Camden Town doesn’t have a significant brewery at all – just some small mash tuns and fermenters under the railway arches, with the rest of their beer made in Belgium. Does that diminish it? Of course not, because it’s the brand that’s been bought. An instantly recognisable brand and tone of voice rooted in London (the larger brewery in London is to follow). A brand expandable here and highly exportable too.

Beyond the green and pleasant brand. British brands often struggle to use ‘Britishness’ domestically, yet it’s a real asset internationally and according to a recent piece in The Telegraph, there’s a premium of £2.1bn to be had by more clearly marketing a brand as ‘Made in Britain’. And it’s the brand that’s important: the quality conveyed by being manufactured in Britain is important, but it’s a point of parity, it’s expected. Today, we have so much more than just our ‘green and pleasant land’ perceptions of Britishness to leverage abroad. There’s more to how we’re perceived, brands like Mini have a contemporary edge that’s informed by our past yet fired up by our present, the edge from our music and creative industries – from our very culture in fact.

Category reinvention. Beer paints a stark picture of how British brewers failed to leverage their native beer styles to their advantage.   It’s not that long ago – 15 years, no more – that British ale was a holed ship, sinking fast with the rats exiting at speed. It’s the reinterpretation of British beer styles – Pale Ale, India Pale Ale (IPA), Porter, Mild, Brown Ale, Stout – by American craft brewers that’s rekindled the brewing scene over here. IPA is now the second most widely consumed and recognised beer style after lager globally. The US craft brewers have shown that it’s possible to reinvent categories in a relatively short period of time – and with it, even towns, regions. But bravery and imagination are needed. The bravery to inspirationally re-purpose the past and the imagination to paint a view of what the future can be.

In this post-industrial world, where we increasingly define ourselves by what we buy and consume, it’s these brand-building skills that can fuel British manufacturing again.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses.; +44 (0) 1283 246260 © The Crow Flies, 2016

The Emperor’s New Apparel

EmperorBack in the mid ‘90s I witnessed first hand the explosion in ‘alcopops’ …. or were they ‘flavoured alcoholic beverages’ (FABs)? Or even, as they were more widely known globally, RTDs, (“ready to drink”) – an odd name given that (a) it is way to close to STD and (b) most alcoholic drink products already were / are ready to drink. In the UK, it was kick-started with Hooper’s Hooch, quickly followed by Two Dogs that had already had rip-roaring success Down Under; both of these ‘alcoholic lemonades’ and swiftly followed by a raft of products, flavours, bases (vodka, rum, schnapps). To use the current vernacular: ‘Boom!’ … in the space of a few months, young adult drinkers were snapping them up; a new category was created, suppliers struggled to keep up, retailers, who months previously couldn’t find space for new products, were now creating acres of space wherever they could find it.

And there was a hoo-ha as well. Alcohol Concern were beyond concerned; they were deeply disgruntled and very worried. Here were products with a drinking profile that could appeal to minors. This, it was argued, was a dangerous new precedent, an easier form of alcohol, deliberately designed to lure defenceless people in.

Yet, it was highly unlikely to be top alcohol executives hatching some nefarious plot to attract underage drinkers. They were too busy scoffing claret, eating black pudding topped amuse-bouches around wood clad tables in meeting rooms with portraits of their venerable forefathers. That, and counting up their bonus and share options, to have such deep concerns. And more to the point, it was nothing new.

Rather, this was just the latest manifestation of a trend that we all too often miss in brand building. It’s drummed into us as aspiring brand managers to look for new: new positioning; new target consumer; new innovations; new trends. Sometimes it’s valid. Sometimes what you are doing just isn’t working, or perhaps a competitor is giving you a solid trouncing.   But more often than not it’s jumping through unnecessary hoops. And Alcohol just happens to be a good category to illustrate the point.

And it’s happening again, flying in under the cover of “Millennial” or “Generation Y”. See, they’re different, because they grew up in a connected, internet-fuelled world, where, rather than socialise down the pub, we tell our “story” via some App. They’re not the golden generation with final salary pension schemes and houses that have leapt in value twentyfold because they happen to be near the station in Berkhamsted. No, they’re well educated but impoverished techno-geeks with no real-world friends and therefore they’ll behave totally differently to how we did.

But lo! What is this I see before me? Flavoured Cider? With elderberries and strawberries? Kiwi and raspberry? Served from a bottle with a bright, textured label and into a glass over ice. Yet…, yet, it smells like an alcopop and… it tastes like one. Could it be? Could it be that really it is one? And what of Pimms Cider Cup? Or Lambrini? Or Fosters Rocks? FABs by any other name, catering to the same need that I had when I had the time and money to socialise!

Despite what is reported, those underlying needs and their manifestation in consumer behaviour is defined more by how similar it is, rather than how different it is to times past. We’re still human after all. Maslow still seems relevant today as it was a few years ago. It’s a basic life lesson that we seem to ignore, and a basic brand lesson which we treat with equal disdain – to our peril as tomorrow’s innovation is out there today.


Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to long-lasting success for categories and brands.; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2015

Actually, brainstorms do work

Slide1Funny how trends roll in the world of marketing. Agency names are one: the current norm is for the single word cerebral stimulators: ‘Thus*’; ‘Meaning*’; ‘Vessel*’, ‘Occur*’ – you know the sort of thing. More serious is the way established ways of working are parodied and denounced. Focus Groups are a good example: they don’t work; they don’t reveal anything of the true behaviour of consumers and so on. At the edges such claims are undoubtedly true, but they demean the inherent value of a well recruited, well run and more importantly, commercially aware debrief can deliver to most clients who, usually by their own admission, don’t interact with their customers that often.

There has been a tide rising too against brainstorms. At worse, there’s the jump on the bandwagon group who simply claim that they don’t work, with little substantiation. Others, more thoughtfully denounce what has been seen hitherto as good practise, saying that it doesn’t reflect the reality of how ideas emerge in the real world. For example, it’s claimed that creative behavioural practise like suspending disbelief and ensuring that a positive, value adding mindframe is adopted and rigourously applied throughout the session, or that the creative opportunity is tightly defined are bound to fail because they don’t reflect the criticism that ideas soon receive.

Here’s the thing though: brainstorms do work.

To be effective they need to work as part of a creative process – an accelerator perhaps – but not as the start and end in itself.

This assertion is based on evidence captured over years of being a client and buying (and buying into) creative processes and in more recent times studying and applying creative best practise as part of my own brand building company.   And like a good idea, these guidelines, this best practise, has emerged over time not as a ‘Ta Da!’ moment (see below…)

Set realistic expectations: who really believes that by simply getting a group of people together in a room for a day that all your commercial problems will be solved? If you look back at where great ideas come from there’s little evidence of ‘Eureka!’ moments – at least in the sense that one minute, you wander lonely as a cloud, and the next you have solved the thing. Brainstorms are excellent in bringing people together who share a desire to solve a problem or tap into an opportunity, away from the value eroding distractions of e mail, disrespectful interruptions and day long meetings, to focus on doing one thing, really well. Face it: how often does that happen in your day-to-day work?

Ideas emerge: I have my best ideas in the immediate working hours after creative sessions. Typically, I leave brainstorms with super heightened commercial-creative senses. Wandering around a supermarket or a retail environment, not just with a problem, but specific ideas, on my mind, allow me to sharpen them, critique them, add value and improve them and share my thinking more broadly. The role of a brainstorm as a creative stimulus in its own right has been underestimated: indeed, I would argue that for innovators and decision makers, this is the value.     And there is a broader theme here, about idea emergence.   Ideas can emerge at any time – the beauty of a well specified creative session is that it gives an outlet for these ideas to be aired, built upon and get more bright minds working on them.

Acceleration: any creative session where the business and participants don’t care or have skin in the game will fail. Getting the people in the room who have a need to solve it or a commercial itch to scratch, increase their chances of success. And more to the point, it increases the chances of (a) something happening at all and (b) something happening quickly. Creative sessions give this core group the chance to work on the problem and feel the creative – commercial challenges and be part of the answers.

Deconstruct later: a criticism for brainstorming is that ideas thrive off being criticised. There’s truth in this. But there’s a difference between criticism with good intent and downright thuggery. Idea seedlings are fragile and loosely formed, they don’t have the same constitution as a concept, blooming and robust. If they are stamped on the moment they poke their heads above the surface, expect finding commercial-creative solutions to your business challenges a barren task. Structure for criticism in the session if you must, but in my experience, a working day spent on developing ideas without fear of them being immediately killed is a rare luxury that should be protected.

Context is everything: an issue for creative sessions is that one set of rules seems to apply to them, normally introduced by the facilitator, but which don’t apply when you go ‘back to work’. For example: capture everything is one of these rules. If you don’t write it down, you will lose it. Yet this is just as important if you are wandering around a supermarket, or noting the customer service experience in a bank, or trying to check out during an online purchase or chatting to your partner. Keep a notebook. Write your ideas down. And bring them with you to the brainstorm.

Show your work off: ideas grow exponentially in proportion to the number of engaged brains working on them. In a brainstorm this may mean that you are asked to bring your ideas to life visually, perhaps cutting things out from magazines or deploying stickman artistry. Again though, why not all the time?   Show your work, stick it up around your desk or create a dedicated area where you can show off the emerging thinking. Let others scribble on it, or draw their stickmen in turn. Being prepared for a brainstorm doesn’t mean checking where the venue is and arriving on time (although both help, clearly) – it’s about coming to that session with some solutions already swimming about in your brain.

The common denominator is this: be prepared and brainstorms will work for you:

  • ensure the problem you are developing ideas for is one the business has heart for.
  • get the right people in the room – decision makers, not just free-wheeling creative thinkers
  • give time and space to the group bringing their ideas with them – a winning idea may already be in the team
  • creative solutions start well in advance of the session – brief those involved at the start of your overall process, not just the brainstorm

If the role and focus of a brainstorm is as a high impact intervention in your overall creative effort, then there’s enormous value to be had, even if this view does swim against the tide.

* Names changed to protect the Guilty.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, an innovation, research and strategy company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2014

Brand extension: how far before the brand snaps?

Some background: before I moved into marketing consultancy I worked in beer. I was passionate about beer before I joined a brewery, I’ve been more passionate since I left the industry directly and the whole world of beer has opened up to me again. In fact, today, I write about beer and am a Member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Yes, such a thing exists.   I tell you this because the world of beer has informed and coloured how I see the worlds of brands. In fact, it has always been incredibly instructive.

This is then a story – probably better, the start of a dialogue – on brand extension that uses a few beer examples. As a marketing subject, possibly one of the most vehemently debated topics going back over decades. Let’s distil it down dramatically and characterise it as a two sided debate, with the two sides being:

  1. In today’s world not extending your brands is commercial madness. They are known and trusted, as a result it will be much more cost effective to build off your existing assets.
  2. The easiest way to destroy a brand is to put its name on everything”*

At risk of getting creosote on my bottom from fence sitting, I can see both sides and have made choices based on each argument. Inconsistent? Probably. Realistic? Definitely. There are cases where you can justify extending a brand. When the brand is healthy (has a positive reputation or is attracting new consumers for example) and when the extension emphasises the brand positioning (i.e. strengthens what your brand already stands for in the minds of your target consumers).

Our first beer examples: Stella Artois and Carling have made high profile moves into cider. For many industry commentators, a questionable move. But for consumers, this isn’t a case of those brands moving into a new category but rather making their brand available in a new long drink format – a related, adjacent category to beer. What Carling found for example, was that in Summer, many drinkers of mainstream lager were swapping into mainstream cider (like Strongbow) due to the perceived greater refreshment. Therefore moving Carling into an adjacent category is a sensible defensive play with the potential to extend the brand’s franchise. The advertising has felt consistent with the values of the parent brand. Likewise, Stella Cidre has felt consistent with that of the parent beer brand.

Outside beer, Maltesers have just won UK ‘The Grocer’ Product of the Year with ‘Teasers’. The product is identifiably ‘Maltesers’; the shape is identifiably ‘Maltesers’, the packaging and semiotics are identifiably ‘Maltesers’: in short an extension that strengthens what the brand is about in the minds of Maltesers consumers – yet one that will invite new purchasers in.

In the main however, these situations are few and far between. Let’s extend that beer example to the self styled ‘King of Beers’, Budweiser. In the U.S., Budweiser’s parent, ABInbev, is seeing much commercial success with Bud Light Lime Ritas (link). These are not just a brand extension, but a brand extension on a sub-brand’s brand extension. This isn’t the child of Budweiser. This is the grand child.

Man o Rita

“These are not just a brand extension, but a brand extension on a sub-brand’s brand extension”

And then the grand child has children: Straw Ber Rita, Rasp Ber Rita, Mang o Rita, Cran Brr Rita. This is where the debate hots up. ABInbev the parent company are reporting how successful the brands are proving commercially.   But with brands, there has to be a delicate dance between short and long term. How does what I do today impact on my brand tomorrow? What has a Mang O Rita got to do with Bud Light Lime? What’s it got to do with Bud Light? With Budweiser? Heck, with Beer?  How’s it going to help a parent brand that has posted a decade of sales declines?

Why is this important? A brand isn’t purely a creative entity that carries meaning for people. It is a commercial machine. It exists to extract money from your wallet, or a donation to a cause and in return deliver emotional and rational satisfaction. That line of revenue will be damaged if the brand that generates it loses meaning; if it is diluted. It all comes back to whether you really believe in brands or not. If you do, look into the past of the brand for the few nuggets of truth that have made it famous or are working for you now. Revere them; respect them; use them as the inspiration for the paths you take in the future. And the choice of how to innovate and whether to do it on your brand is the biggest of all.


* ‘The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding’, Al Ries, Laura Ries, Profile Books, 1998

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands, including brands that want to extend! To learn more, wing over an e mail to or call on +44 (0) 7885 408367.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (, on Facebook ( Twitter, caw us at @crowflieshigh. Or just send a well-purposed carrier pigeon.

© The Crow Flies, 2014

Lessons the Tour de France can teach us about innovation

Innovation is often seen as the Holy Grail to business growth or salvation, leading to un co-ordinated approaches that don’t deliver the results that business leaders want or expect. The timing of the Tour de France arriving on these shores is relevant to considering why this is the case and reframing about how we approach innovation.   Thinking about innovation as a bike race – and an arduous stage race at that – is one of the most useful metaphors for understanding how you can increase your chances of creative commercial success.

Peloton_fotorThe individual team sport. 
The strange conundrum at the heart of cycling is that it is an individual team sport. There will be one winner. But the individual cannot win without a strong team. Think of any of cycling’s greats: Gino Bartali; Fausto Coppi; Jacques Anquetil; Eddy Merckx; Bernard Hainault; Miguel Indurain. All immensely talented and super strong bike racers. But none of them, bearing catastrophic bad luck on behalf of their competitors or lightning-strikes-thrice serendipity for them would be strong enough to win a three week long race by themselves. They would eventually be ground down; ganged up on or tactically caught out. The strong team around them protects, shelters, fights their fights, until they can deliver the coup de grâce.

Too often, businesses look to the innovation team to provide silver bullets to either light the rocket under growth or more typically fill that business plan gap.

This is flawed as innovation requires an individual team sport approach.

  • It needs direction, a clear leader and a strong team. And that team isn’t just the ‘team on the road’. It needs senior sponsors (say, the CEO and Board) to be committed, supportive and advocating the innovation agenda.
  • It needs senior leaders to trust the process (timing, decision making) and push to artificially accelerate everything so that the whole breaks down (Lance Armstrong shows us that you can cheat but you get caught).
  • Then it needs a leader on the road: this may be the Sales Director who will be responsible to make it a success in market;
  • It needs specialists (in a cycling team, this could be a climber, in innovation this could be dedicated insight or technical resource) who have the specialist skills to overcome blockages and see solutions.
  • And finally it needs domestiques who do the hardwork: the innovators themselves, spotting the opportunities, snuffing out the blockages, covering false moves, build the pipeline, execute the plan.

It’s a Peloton NOT a breakaway.
A rider seeking exposure for his sponsors or transient glory for himself will sprint off the front within a few miles of the start and attempt to hold off the bunch all day – the ‘breakaway’. When it works, they become moments of folklore: the possibly the most romantic aspect of cycling. But they typically fail. Sandy Casar, a professional cyclist famed for his breakaway ability, only won 3 in 14 years trying.

And yet most innovation mimics ‘breakaway’ behaviour.   One good research result and suddenly senior leadership load all their resources against that role of the dice. Put all the resource behind it. Stop other activities. Accelerate timelines. Beat the competitors to market or more likely, catch up fast. The rewards may come but rarely do. The risks are certainly heightened.

The are three reasons why innovation should use the ‘peloton’ to win:

  • Drafting. The slipstreaming effect uses up to 40% less energy. When embedded in the peloton, a professional rider can treat a 180km race as a ‘rest day’.  With innovation it is more efficient to develop innovations in parallel – particularly up front – identifying insights for innovation for example.
  • More chances of success. Planning for a sprint but two of your riders infiltrate a breakaway? Then you now have three chances of success: the original plan and the two riders in Plan B. With innovation ideas beget ideas. You may be backing one horse, but the peloton effect allows you to identify a better performing new ideas as you go along whilst still keeping your original idea in contention.
  • A pipeline.   In 2012 Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour de France. At the start of the race no one knew that Chris Froome, his domestique could be a potential tour winner.   By the end of the race everyone did – a pipeline was created.

The Stage Race.
In cycling, many races are One Day races. But business isn’t like that; if you stop, some else gains.   Idea generation should be thought of longitudinally. How often does a one off “brainstorm” lead to break-through ideas – really?   Rather, idea generation should be thought of as a stage race where ideas can spring up at any time, cross pollinate, become freshly stimulated, be critiqued, be influenced by new perspectives: an approach that much more closely mimics how entrepreneurs find success.

‘The Move’.
At some point, you have to commit. At some point you have to put everything on the line and risk losing as much as winning. Chris Froome is an exciting racer because he is willing to commit. He – and his team – put everything on the line. With Froome, this is in the mountains. In 2013 on the monstrous Mont Ventoux, which most riders just hope to survive, he went for it and killed the race off.     At the right point, you need to do this with innovation. There comes a point where another Quantitative Test result is not going to help; there comes a point where Marketing Pounds, company resources and company time need to be committed in the knowledge that it could still fail. There is no alternative. Stage Racers – and great Innovators – recognise this.

Plan to win.
This is not a chest thumping, Motherhood and Apple pie piece of rhetoric. Typically, there will be just a small number of plans that will win. In Stage Racing, there are two: (a) defend in the mountains and win on the time trials (Miguel Indurain, Bradley Wiggins, Jacques Anquetil) and (b) attack in the mountains and defend on the time trials (Charly Gaul, Fausto Coppi).

In innovation, there is a ‘formula’ to work out where, why and how to innovate:

  • Innovate the big levers (what brand / format / business / market opportunity will move the needle for you)
  • Innovate from your purpose (does this take us in the direction we want to head?)
  • Innovate in line with your values (will this champion our cause?)
  • Stage Investment (what are we willing to back? What are we willing to lose on?)

And finally…create a purpose then execute the details.
Innovation is not a process that you implement, but a belief embodied in your culture. When Team Sky set out an ambition to ‘Win the Tour de France with a British rider within 5 years’ everyone scoffed. When they set about this ambition with a belief in marginal gains, others mocked. But everyone at Sky believed. They didn’t talk the game but walked it. Extended training at high altitude; innovation in nutrition, tactics, fewer races but racing to win, innovation in rest and recuperation, clothing, bike technology, equipment; innovation in doping transparency, mental support and psychology.

Result? They won it in three.

In innovation, stretching goals are pure wishes unless they walk hand in hand with genuine and resolute belief from top to bottom in the organisation; a stretching and believable innovation purpose to set the agenda for what is innovated upon and what isn’t, and then an unerring focus on delivering that purpose.

As Christian Prudhomme, the organiser of the tour de France might say, “Vive Le Tour de Yorkshire et vive l’innovation!”

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, an innovation, research and strategy company that finds the direct route to success for brands, including company and brand purposing. To learn more, sprint an e mail up the ‘Cote de Buttertubs’ to ; call on +44 (0) 7885 408367 or send a direct message to @crowflieshigh


© The Crow Flies, 2014