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

Using the past to fuel the future

Sam CalgioneIt’s funny how ‘the past’ can make people nervous, and particularly when it comes to branding.  In many businesses, bother about future earnings, laser focus on the forthcoming plan, hitting the 12 month targets, the past is forgotten in a ‘what’s next’ culture.  Worse, the past is perceived as tarnished: belonging to a previous generation of employees, something to be brushed off and moved on from.

Consumers don’t see a brand that way.

To them, the brand is one of many strands of dialogue in their life that fit into the weave and weft of their lives. It may be a significant one, probably it’s not, but it’s there all the same, with a map of emotions, associations, semiotics and memories. For many, your brand may trigger a ‘Madeleine Moment’ – an mental image that springs to mind when they see your brand.

A brand can’t be wistful or nostalgic though. This isn’t a call to sit back and rest on successes of yesteryear. This is a call to identify, understand and repurpose the brand’s past to create a new narrative for the future.

In this clip, Sam Calagione, the founder and owner of Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, talks about how he used the past not just to inspire the idea of his business, but also how he used (and uses it now) to differentiate the company and each brand.  Dogfish Head today are one of the larger and certainly most successful and talked about drinks companies in the U.S.

It’s worth thinking about: your future may lie behind you.


(With thanks to Mark Thomas for the link to Sam Calagione)

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. We use the past to understand today and fuel the future. Please get in touch at or +44 (0) 7885 408367 to chat further.  

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© The Crow Flies, 2014


The allure of ‘new-news’


To work in a consumer product business is to be immersed in an environment of ‘new’.

I was reminded of this as I recently walked through the aisles of my local Co-operative and was assailed by a New Year barrage of newness. Brand owners, retailers, category builders – all talk about the need for ‘new news’, which let’s face it, is a bit odd because surely that’s just ‘news’. But no, it has to be a calendar packed to the gunnels with ‘new news’. ‘New news’ to grow the category; ‘new news’ to show the retailer our new agenda; ‘new news’ to stay ahead of our competitors, or if you’re a retailer, ‘new news’ to show our customers we’re the place to shop.

And before too long, a self-powering work machine is created. The brand has to stay ahead of its competitors. New news response: re-position. The category has to attract new consumers. New news response: re-segment the market. The brand needs to stand out from the shelf more powerfully. New news response: (another) new redesign.

Working in these environments is beguiling too. Employees are happy because the brand is doing stuff. Customers are happy because the brand is doing stuff. The communications team are happy because they can tell the City / Street that they’re doing stuff.

But it begs the question about whether the stuff is needed or effective.

IMG_0914The issue is the deeply powerful response that ‘newness’ provokes in us. We feel it every day when we buy things: the tingle of anticipation; the nervous excitement in selection and payment; the sugar rush of first love when the product is set up perhaps or first used. Retailers are masters at this: clever merchandising nudges shoppers to interesting displays. Point of sale delivers the coup de grâce: the little flash of red; the contrast between colours; the positioning of a wobbler or edge ticket in eye line. Brands use it too on their promotional packaging: the corner flag; the red flash and of course, the word itself: ‘New’. The synapses in the brain are flaring like a New Year’s Eve fireworks display. It can be exciting; inspiring; addictive.

And dangerous… especially for brand custodians.

Whilst we may fool ourselves into thinking we’re rationale, we know of course that most of the time the decisions we make are instinctive and intuitive – they have to be otherwise we simply couldn’t function. The semiotics of ‘new’ are what make it effective in store: everything honed and tuned to make your decision easier; risk free; stirring. Alas, the desire for brand ‘new news’ can strike at all levels, not just for activation – where it can be positive – but at the strategic level – where it can cause real mischief. Here, any excuse for re positioning is grabbed like a child ripping into the Christmas selection boxes. Any excuse for blaming the lack of traction on ‘the wrong consumer’ is seized upon as the requirement for a new segmentation. It’s persuasive for marketeers to be able to deploy these arguments to convince their stakeholders. But when the results don’t emerge little time is spent on enquiring why, because ever facing forward, never stopping to learn, the next batch of ‘new news’ is being cooked.

The past doesn’t lie.

Behavioural science is now shedding a fascinating light on how strongly we as humans ‘anchor’ ourselves to ideas, concepts, brands, people….. just about anything. How we feel and think about most things is shaped by the precious initial interactions. Whether mostly positive or mostly negative, these anchors dig in deep. For you to change the mind of potential consumers of your brands, you can’t just persuade them – they need to be prepared to come. Or conversely, the ragtag mental bag of words, emotions, symbols, experiences, smells that your consumers hold about your brand could be your biggest strength. Brain theorists talk of ‘neural networks’; perhaps a more useful analogy is a map. Like a topographical map, the marks of the past haven’t been swept away, the traces are there to see. The undulations in the mental landscape, the ‘rivers’ of thought, the ‘mountains’ of memory, the old green ways made by your category or brand are still there to see, if you look in the right way and ask the right questions. And typically, when they are rediscovered they allow you to unlock an outpouring of positive emotion – nostalgia perhaps, but excitement, hope and sense of discovery: powerful emotional levers for your brand. Only looking forwards, ignoring this mental mapscape could be an opportunity lost.

In the clamour for the next thing, understanding these associative ‘maps’ that link the successful elements of the category or brand’s past to the opportunities of tomorrow is the new news for marketeers. Or rather, that should be ‘new olds’.

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.

© The Crow Flies, 2014