Mashup Time!

Yes, Crow Friends, yes, yes YES! It’s Christmas Brand Mashup time – and we’ve got EIGHT wonderfully festive brand mashups for you to get your beaks into. Every one is synonymous with Christmas, just say what you see and mmmmmash them together…

HIT THE LINK TO MASH AWAY… Crow Christmas Mashups

Answers posted on Christmas Day at 3pm here and on our socials:

FB @thecrowfliesltd
Insta @thecrowfliesltd
Twit @crowflieshigh

Enjoy and Get Mashing!

Beware the bubble

Having moved from ‘client side’ brand building to ‘agency side’ after twenty years (something I’m consistently told is quite unusual), I’m often asked what advice I would give to marketeers running brands in business today. Well, rather like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the big thing is to beware the bubble:

The bubble of belief that you understand consumers.
Understanding people is a lifelong pastime. It requires on-going curiosity and nosiness. It absolutely requires the belief that you can be proved wrong at any time.

The bubble of belief that in your business ‘that’s how life is’.
I used to fall for this one. That somehow, the air here is rarer, special, unique. That we have to work harder or longer in order to stay competitive. It’s not. You’re not. Challenge yourself all the time as to how you can simplify what you do and how you do it. How you can have a bigger impact with less resource in less time.

The bubble of delusion that your brand really matters
No brand is un-replaceable. Go in with that attitude, a bit of brand humility, keep it close, and you won’t go far wrong.

The bubble of confidence that belies what consumers really think
If you ever find yourself sitting in a research group, and think ‘we know this already’ … stop yourself. If you do know it, are you acting on it? I’m constantly flabbergasted by how the simple insights or the obvious problems to solve aren’t being worked on (often because they’re seen as generic, or owned by another brand. Are they? Really? Really?)

Slide1The bubble of brand immortality
Brands are entities created by humans that have a lifecycle. Not a smooth one like in the textbooks, but a lifecycle nonetheless. You can eat healthily and you can stay fit. So can brands. But ultimately your brand will die. Manage the portfolio carefully and ensure that you pass on anything you touch in better condition than when it was handed to you. But when it’s time to go, cut the cord and focus on the next generation.

The bubble of hype
Stay close to market developments. Be interested in consumers, in retailers. Be interested in the world of your agencies not just companies. Read and listen and get out more. But don’t forget that brand building is a skill and has core disciplines – research, strategy, innovation, planning, design, communications – be the best you can be at these to the level appropriate to your role today and where you want to go tomorrow.

The bubble of capacity and capability
If you find yourself being asked to do this and this and this and this. If, you believe you can… then pause. Forget the stereotypes about women can multi-task and men can’t, the point is this. We can only be effective if we focus on given tasks and execute them thoroughly. Same for brands. Do less. Sacrifice – not prioritise and slice – sacrifice; and then put everything into hammering them into the market and the minds of your target.

The bubble of self-importance
You’re just someone making their way in the world. Beware the trappings of power and try to stay humble, open and connected.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy, innovation and brand planning company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands. // +44 (0) 1283 295100.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (, on Facebook (

© The Crow Flies, 2018

Old Year Resolutions

“Happy New Year!”

As we approach the middle of January, these words do start to lose their resonance. Unlike Christmas, there’s no accepted cut-off, no Twelfth Night, to guide us. There’s a fair chance that this is the last time you’ll hear them, for a year at least… New Year’s Resolutions usually follow the same timing plan. By the middle of the month, many a ‘Dry January’ is already looking decidedly moist, gyms are getting emptier and houses return to their less tidy, but more homely, natural states. Even newly converted plant-powered Veganuary-ists may be waking up to the smell of bacon.

Saying that, as the world turns on its axis and the daylight hours extend, it’s as good a time as any to consider what changes are needed to step-up brand performance – and never more so than when you’re responsible for a team of people, accountable for their commercial performance and central to the culture they live in 5 out of every 7 days (and often more). Reflecting on the changes needed over some slightly stale mince pies, we realised that the answer lies with Call the Midwife.

If you’ve never watched it, it’s about a group of midwives (no, really!) in London during the 1950s. In most episodes, nothing happens and then it snows. Yet on Christmas Day it was the fourth most watched programme and is the biggest new drama series on BBC One since records began. Or there’s Downton Abbey too, set around the 1920s where ‘those upstairs’ flirt with ‘those downstairs’. And before both we had Heartbeat, the ITV police drama set in 1960s Yorkshire which used the same plot for every single episode for 18 years.

But what has this got to do with your marketing resolutions?

As it turns out, everything, really. When you consider why these programmes are so popular, you uncover the heart of so many frustrations with the current status quo. The gentle nostalgia appeals because it paints a picture of a period in time when communities mattered and people cared. Policemen were respected, midwives were magical and jobs were for life. Contrast this with the return to work for many in January 2018: huge commutes, little job security, the globalisation of industry set against an international political framework of growing extremism: you can understand why many are questioning just how far we’ve come in the last 60 years. We may have ‘Smart Homes’ and technology at our fingertips but now we also have armchair ‘experts’ & professional sceptics in all areas of life…why trust your doctor when you can diagnose yourself on the internet before you go to your appointment and then check whether the doctor gets it right?

In business terms, the impact on marketing teams is greatest of all as they sit at the very centre of the business: everyone is now a marketing expert. Performed well in sales? Have a crack at marketing. Done a great job as a management accountant? Try being a brand manager. Don’t expect to be one for long though – you’ll soon be moved to a role in customer marketing. Actually, do we still need brand managers? We don’t need to worry about brand positioning any more, this is the age of ‘big data’ and personalised marketing. Forget about long-term strategy, let’s build followers on social media NOW!

Extreme perhaps. But working across different client companies and sectors we see it as a consistent pattern. Unsurprisingly, the discipline of marketing itself is being undermined bit by bit. Brand success is not delivered within a calendar year regardless of resolutions. Brands are built over time, the product of a thousand small gestures – we all know this and yet too often we don’t create cultures in which such success can be delivered. So a break with the past is required. This year, make five OLD Year resolutions that will transform the happiness of your team, the approach they take and the commercial success that you deliver together. Here are our contenders.

Old Year Resolutions

OLDIE #1: Work Less
Marketing is not a science, it’s an art and it needs to be treated as such. Brand-changing ideas are seldom created in windowless meeting rooms however well thought through your agenda might be. To get the best out of ourselves, we actually need to think differently about the working day. The human mind can focus on any given task for 90 – 120 minutes, then a break is required. Instead of worrying about time spent in the office and what can be achieved in any given day, switch the focus to ‘what can be achieved in a 90 minute session?’ Can’t be done in your working environment and your culture? Not true: challenge yourself. Create the physical & emotional space needed for creativity. Structure in time out of the office or undistrubed time for focused effort. Stop multi-tasking. Spend time with customers and consumers in the real world. Less time and more focus will transform productivity.

OLDIE #2: Market Marketing
Marketing expertise needs to be respected and specialisms should be celebrated. This applies equally within businesses, within marketing teams and within the wider marketing communities of agencies, suppliers and clients. A great customer marketing manager should be allowed to flourish within their specialism, not pushed to also become an innovation expert. Agencies must also take note. Great advertising is born of great positioning which relies on solid research but no agency can claim to have expertise in all three. Marketing is wide-ranging, complex and critical to commercial success. It’s time to give the discipline back the respect it deserves.

OLDIE #3: Get Personal
Business is business, it’s not personal”. What a daft saying. Your career is not separate to your life, it’s a core and intrinsic part of it. It should be personal. When it comes to building brands, personality is absolutely everything: most purchase decisions are made subconsciously and great brands succeed by building intense emotional connections with consumers. Of course, marketing teams need to retain objectivity but this should never be at the expense of personality. A marketing team culture in which everything is a bit more personal – for the brand and the people working on them is no bad thing.

OLDIE #4: Focus On Your Foundations
Modern technology is incredible and the pace of its development creates a myriad of new opportunities for brand building. However, despite the claptrap you may read, technology has not changed the fundamentals of marketing. Brand positioning is critical, consistency of activation is imperative and a brand without a purpose is never going to inspire. Start the year by making absolutely certain you’ve got your brand foundations in place – if you’re not executing consistently against a clear positioning built on unique insights then all the Twitter followers in the world and that lovely app that works with an Amazon Echo are not going to move your brand forward before 2019.

OLDIE #5: Be A Wolf
There’s many a marketing regulation in 2018 that would have prevented the most famous advertising campaigns from existing had they been in place for the last 60 years. But that doesn’t mean that 2018’s marketing campaigns need to be timid. Brands have to be talked about. If not, they’re just products. Be bold and push boundaries, it’s the only way to be heard.

In with the old!

Rob Parker is a Partner at The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses.; +44 (0) 1283 295100. For a different perspective on your research, strategy or innovation brand challenges, get in touch. © The Crow Flies, 2018

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 295100.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (, on Facebook ( 

© The Crow Flies, 2017

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 295100.

© The Crow Flies, 2016

“You are the target market”

The boardroom table was packed with ‘suits’. Grey faced executives, tired from wearying international travel and delayed jetlag, early starts, late finishes and the effects of all day grazing on stewed coffee and day-old Danish pastries. Jauntily, the Brand Manager struts into the room and dims the lights. The lamp from the lectern illuminates his keen eyes. He introduces the new advert. Stresses that it’s not quite finished yet and a little post-production is needed. Reminds the room who the target audience is and when it will be launched. He plays it. 60 seconds of cinematic brilliance. A new Swedish director applying his talents to toilet rolls for the first time. Edgy. Contemporary. Challenging. The tonic this brand needs.


Stony silence.

The executives shuffle slightly. One or two look at each other. Another frowns.

Then the Chief Executive pulls his finger from the dam. They don’t understand it. It lacks energy and pace. Is it supposed to be funny? Why is it so different from the last ‘new campaign’ a year ago? Will it shift boxes? They doubt it. The Marketing Director attempts to parry: remember, she says, “that you are not the target audience”. “We need to think about the needs and attitudes of Millennials here”.    But it doesn’t stand up. The tidal wave of criticism washes over the new advert, which sinks without a trace. The Brand Manager leaves the room, with a grey face, tired and weary.

Who knows in this fictional situation (inspired by real events) whether the new advert was any good? It may have been ground breaking or may have been clap-trap. But how we could we re-imagine the Marketing Director’s defence? What if we really could put our senior stakeholders in a situation where they really understood the target audience?  Here are a few techniques that are illuminating and fun.

Picture this! You need to start by constantly reminding your stakeholders who your target audience is (or are). What are their attitudes, their needs, their frustrations? How do these relate to your product category? You may choose a series of pen portraits, some voxpops, a short film or even a comic strip – however you do it, best to be clear who your audience is and be sure to bang on about their needs relentlessly.

ShoesMethod Act: get your critical stakeholders to wear the shoes of your target, to really be them. Is your brand a healthy snack? Get them to live on 2000 calories a day for a week. Or to only snack on unprocessed ingredients. Or to cut snacks out for a few days completely. Is your brand targeted at people who go clubbing regularly? Get them to work behind the bar for a night, or go out with a group of clubbers (release their inner pogo-er…)

(Sofa) Safari: it’s amazing what you can do from the comfort of your sofa or desk nowadays. Use resources to hand to find out about your consumers’ world. Targeting farmers? Go on to DEFRA website; read Farmer’s Weekly, organise a trip around a pig farm. But do it with a purpose: go back to your definition. What are the frustrations? What are the problems we need to try and solve? Do we know enough yet? Keep on immersing yourself in their context, their world.

Wingman: looking to target the gluten free market? Find some friends who have food intolerances or are coeliac. Interview them. Prepare a meal with them. Go shopping with them. Find out what makes them tick. Hear about their frustrations. And not just them: speak to their partner, friends or family. What are the impacts on them? There’s something illuminating about getting alongside your target and watching how they live their life.

Just watch out for variety and breadth. If it’s your Board you are going to immerse in the world of your target audience, ensure it’s everyone on the Board, and that they experience a range of situations. One may be broad in scope – a safari for example, getting them out and about, another may be tight (for example, living on a vegan diet for three days), one may be relatively short, another more extended.

What we’ve found with our experiences at The Crow Flies is that an immersion programme such as this starts our seeming like a major effort for the senior stakeholders, even a distraction. How can we fit around already busy diaries? Surely they don’t want me to do this – isn’t this what they should be doing? But once the benefits are seen, once the connections start to happen then reality bites. A safari, Consumer Connections – call them what you will – are quick and incredibly engaging ways to build stakeholder understanding and alignment by getting them to put their feet in the metaphorical shoes of their consumers.  More than this, they’re a way of getting brilliantly useful stimulus into the execution of your brand’s plans (including your expensive TV advert).

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 295100.

© The Crow Flies, 2016

Cold Turkey Time

A while back, I read a short article in a round-robin e-mail / new service for the leisure & hospitality industry which featured a quote from the head of eating chain, Pret-a-Manger. For context, it is quoted in full below.

 “Pret A Manger boss Clive Schlee has reported the beneficial outcome of giving himself 18 days off from reading emails during his August holiday. Writing in his blog, Schlee said: “The encroachment (of emails) is becoming a problem. I wanted to set an example, and so between 14 August and 1 September, I gave myself 18 days off Pret emails. Tell your colleagues, business partners, and teams about your plan. Most of them will congratulate you. Persuade one of your colleagues to look over your emails once a day. It will seem scary but there are many people within Pret to whom I would have entrusted this task. Knowing that there is someone keeping an eye on the business in your absence makes you feel responsible and allows you to let go. If you don’t feel you can do this step, write a carefully crafted out of office message. I am happy to report that the impact of the detox is entirely positive. The relaxation effect of the holiday is increased by at least 100%. This is a wonderful result and needs no explanation. Your team will send each other fewer emails. They know you aren’t reading them and they will make more decisions for themselves. They told me they enjoyed my detox as much as I did. You will find that when you skim through your emails on your return, most of them are trivial or no longer relevant. Who now needs to know the sales in Pret US on Tuesday last week? I have concluded that a great deal of business email is motivated by the need to belong and stay involved and does not generate genuine commercial benefit.”

It was that last sentence, in particular his belief that e-mail’s primary and unstated purpose is to actually nurture a sense of belonging without conveying a commercial benefit that struck a chord.

TurkeyI worked in a large corporate business for two decades, and witnessed the launch, roll out and ultimately the drug dependency of e-mail communication. In fact, e-mail is not my beef. It’s a wonderful form of communication that knocks down formal barriers, is convenient and largely, when used with some structure and discipline, highly effective. But, now merely part of a communications weaponry that includes instant messaging, web conferencing, file sharing, and the many personal forms of messaging service (Facebook, Tritter, Instagram, Shapchat) that are used in parallel, the management of e-mail has become the work itself. They used to spoil my holidays and time off, not because I was answering them there and then, but rather because despite my best efforts to empty my inbox before I headed off, I knew that I would get back to what? 1000 e-mails a week. If I only I had had the presence of mind to do what Clive Schlee did – although maybe it’s more effective when you make the rules.

For fearing of sounding nostalgic, there was some powerful about writing memorandum and having them put in a ‘For Signature’ folder. I’m not wistful about this: it was a hideously inefficient way of working. But there was one major benefit: your communications were purposed. They were focused. They had to be. Infrequent and high impact was the mantra for a memo. E-mail is the opposite. A surrogate for speech, it has become the default primary communication method in many businesses. Colleagues located metres away from one another send an e-mail rather than have a conversation. Desk phones hardly ever ringing. And the effectiveness of e-mail reducing and reducing as it becomes a constant buzz of background noise.

There are implications for brands in this environment. Despite the proclamations that traditional media is dead, in a world where attention is salami-sliced over multiple forms of communication with scant attention being paid to any, the job of brands cutting through is in some ways easier. The competitor of a client I am currently working broke with contemporary thinking recently and launched a 40 second TV spot on the ad break in Coronation Street on ITV1 on a Friday night, backing it up with 48 sheet posters and epic poster sites in stations and airports. Has it been noticed? You betcha.

And there are implications for us too. Now I have set my own business up and am freed from the daily tidal flow of (mostly) pointless* e-mails designed solely for political purposes or communicating to the world and their dog something 97% irrelevant to them, my work is focused and effective. When I sit down, progress is made. I regularly complete my daily task list. And it feels, to quote a well-known UK price comparison sight, epic. The time for the communication counter-revolution is here.

 * Finding the ones with a point used to be a task in itself.

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 295100.

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

The pot of gold at the other end of the rainbow

My eye was recently attracted to a piece in Marketing Week from Waitrose Chairman, Mark Price, reportage from a talk he gave in Swindon on 2nd May. Its essence: we will do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. There was also the pleasing symmetry that a food retailer has the surname ‘Price’, presumably the same phenomenon as dog owners resembling their pets. Waitrose don’t seem on the surface a particularly contrary business. Indeed, you could argue with some strong justification that they reflect middle class aspiration in all its forms. Yet this simple statement, ‘do the opposite of what everyone else is doing’ reveals a maverick streak – and a great marketing lesson. A couple in fact.

The first?

The importance of zagging. This isn’t just ‘do the opposite for the sake of it’; rather, there is a natural human instinctive to follow. It’s the opposite of what people say they will do – as Monty Python beautifully summarised it, “we’re all individuals – but of course, we’re not. There’s a host of reasons why we want to follow: the need or desire to fit it; a way of building connections with others; to give us a sense of group security. And because brands or companies are the product of human actions, so it follows that companies tend to follow too.   ‘Me too’ products are aptly named – indeed, you could argue that (until recently) many Asian markets have built their entire economies on fast following – and done it blummin’ well. Let’s go back to Waitrose. Specifically, Mr Price’s comment was in regard to how the company he stewards is dealing with the threat of the Discounters, Aldi & Lidl in particular. He continued that Waitrose’s aim is to be everything that the discounters aren’t through a focus on service, range and making coming to its stores an experience. Contrast this with the Tesco response – also reported in Marketing Week: launching ‘pound zones’, areas of the supermarket that will offer non-food categories such as health and beauty and pet items for as little as 50p (‘Pound Zone’ presumably being snappier than ‘Half Pound Zone’?*).

Actually, Tesco have got a tougher job: sitting in the middle of the market, being the biggest retailer in the UK, they are a source of business for everyone. So they clearly feel they have to compete.   Yet Waitrose are competing by looking not at what their competitor is doing but by what they’re not doing. They are zagging when everyone else is zigging. It’s tough to do; it requires total alignment but it can mark you out as distinctive and therefore, more memorable to you customers.

And they also illustrate the second lesson.

They’re competing on their terms. To half refrain: they’re competing by looking not at what their competitor is doing but at what they can’t do. This is simple brand positioning at it’s best: you take the core thought that you are trying to own in the mind of your target and ruthlessly implement it. Waitrose is not a discounter therefore it responds with enhanced service offer, promotions for its customers and enhanced benefits for MyWaitrose card holders. At the other end of the price:service spectrum you have Aldi & Lidl. Reduced ranges, functional stores, little in the way of customer service add-ons: basic and to the point. Yet just as well positioned.

Which illustrates the issue that Tesco are facing. It’s not that they’re big: there are plenty of significantly bigger companies who continue to grow strongly. No, their issue lies in the notion of every little helps. It seems they are trying to do everything to help. If they’re to return to the path to growth, they need to get back to doing Tesco things that help.

(*Which reminds me of a family friend who when she first went round ‘Poundland’ kept on asking in a slightly astonished voice, ‘How much is it?’. “£1 Jane” came the repetitive response. “That’s why it’s called Poundland”. She’d have been much more comfortable with Tesco’s counter-intuitive Pound pricing strategy.)

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands. To find out more about how The Crow Flies could help you, just 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, you can caw us at @crowflieshigh. Or just send a carrier pigeon and we’ll intercept mid-air. 

© The Crow Flies, 2014