Christmas Chronicle

A few more days and it’ll be a new year – another cycle of life and naturally, of brand planning too! Here’s our latest Christmas edition of the Crow Chronicle with a focus on brand planning. Too often it’s left to common sense and the ebb-and-flow of the business planning cycle (led by finance? Or strategy?). No more! As a brand guardian it’s time to grab control and be prepared to sacrifice! Onwards!!

Crow Chronicle Christmas

Shout don’t whisper

Here’s a Crow blog we wrote for our friends at Soil Association Certification – they’re the UK’s biggest organic certifier and a key player in the organic movement. The organic sector is brim-full or innovative, entrepreneurial, exciting new brands across all sort of categories. Brands driven by people who want to do some good and do good business. Organic itself has been going through unprecedented growth – until COVID came along and chucked a ruddy great spanner into the works.

So this short piece addresses some of the questions being asked:

  • everyone wants to know what’s going to happen post pandemic – but be careful, it’s a fools’ errand
  • use the lockdown time wisely to really understand your brand: the message (positioning) that has most power and the memory structures (design, assets, sounds, experiences) that stand out for your brand
  • don’t box yourself into a niche – a niche which probably is a fantasy
  • go big on a few things that count

There’s messages for all brands in there. Have a read – link below – and give us a shout if you’d like to chat more about any of these themes.

Success for Whitworths

It’s always great when work that impacts the market gets recognised and one of The Crow Flies long-standing clients, Whitworths, has had just that. We’re delighted to have played our part in the wider team that helped turnaround the Whitworths brand – we’ve partnered with them on research, strategy, innovation and planning . Read more about it in the Telegraph (below).

This was a great example of brand building – a team effort working with great partners (a big call out to Springett’s and Chapter), consistent focus on consumer and commercial insights, and then making some tough choices to free up the space, time and resources to impact the market.

If you’d like to chat to us about your brand building challenge, be it strategy, research, innovation or brand planning, we’d love to talk. And well done to Big Phil and the team at Whitworths!

Driverless – or headless?

Criticising research is rather like shooting fish in the barrel nowadays: it’s an easy target. In the corporate world, such criticism is often used to demonstrate the new and innovative thinking of today’s marketeer. No more the focus group. No more the 20 minute quantitative survey. We will be like Apple! We will trust our instinct and back our hunches! The future of driving is driverless!

Yet the headlining grabbing abilities surrounding driverless car efforts underline why knowing your consumer is so important. If nothing else, it underlines why having a clear knowledge of motivations for different sorts of drivers is crucial. Putting aside the ethical and moral questions that surrounds apportioning blame should accidents occur, the real issue in driverless cars is, well, just that – the car becomes driver less. A point which seems to have been missed in the rush to the prize.

DriverlessI don’t know about you but I like driving. I enjoy the freedom behind the wheel. I cherish – always have – the independence of owning a car – just as the pioneers of the American West cherished their horse and later, their Harley. It’s partially about the driving but it’s also about a whole host of other emotions: freedom, thrill, at times, security. Oh, I’ll be curious about driverless cars: I’ll be interested in the tech both with the cars and the infrastructure, but I’m not ready to forgo that deep, almost primeval feeling that driving can give me.

For others, driverless cars could be a relief – long schleps on motorways. Stuck in the middle lane with rabbit-like nervousness because of the lorries on the inside and the hustling Execs on the outside. In busy, nose to tail traffic, perhaps when driving to unfamiliar places (although there’s another emotion I love about driving – discovery). Perhaps, even an extension to ‘reverse park assist’ in urban environments. Yep, I get the rational logic. It’s the irrationality of driving, what it means, how it makes you feel, that’s been missed in all this. I’d rather the development money went into a car that runs on tap water or air – then we’d be making real progress. And chatting to a few drivers (heaven forbid, in research perhaps!) may – just may – be quite revealing.

 © The Crow Flies, 2016

Good, better, best.

All my adult life has seen me trundle up and down the main roads of the UK. Grinding along the M6, near where I grew up; ploughing down the M1 into the centre of London, or along the A303 in my early days in sales. But a funny thing happened last week along the route to the south west, the M5, a road with strong memories for me; of holidays, of University days, of caravans and entertaining mechanicals in the pouring rain. I wasn’t stopped in my tracks by excess traffic or road works this time though, but rather by a startling brand experience. Let me return to that shortly, and start with the context.

I’m from a part of the world that was heavy on industry – trucks, cars, engines, textile mills, but it was all in decline during the years I was growing up. As they declined though, the motorways grew; fuelling the new economies and service industries in the north west and connecting the region with Birmingham and beyond. In my town, the motorways were also the only reliable source of holiday employment, or rather, the motorway service stations were.

I look back on the days with affection – a bit of money coming in; great camaraderie and new friends, plus learning new skills like loading the Hobart conveyor-belt dishwasher at speed or cooking up a mean farmhouse soup from choice cuts and leftovers. The hard truth was though, that as a traveller, these were places of desperation and last resort. Over-priced food and drinks of (at best) medium to low quality, shabby décor, loos abused by the customers, shops no better than a shabby Londis on a back street estate and to cap it all, the most expense fuel on the whole road network. This was 25 years ago too.

Sadly, not much has changed. Largely, it’s the same brands. There are more branded franchises now – Costa, the occasional Waitrose or M&S, and recognisable fast food chains. There are new sites too, which always helps raise the bar. But really, it’s more of the same. The fuel remains eye-wateringly expensive; the toilets remain – well, they make it worthwhile repurposing an old 2L coke bottle or crossing your legs for another agonising mile; the food remains of middling quality. At motorway service stations, I’m always left with the feeling that I should be grateful to the operator for providing an essential service.

In the last few years, I’ve done some work with leisure operators – restaurants, bar chains, pub operators, as well as multiple food retailers and supermarkets. Their discipline in pushing for clear and recognisable market segmentations has impressed me. This may be pub groups who look for good: better: best offerings (say, ‘Sizzling’, “Hungry Horse’, Pitcher and Piano’). The brands in questions don’t always work but what’s interesting is that those that try and be all things to all men (remember ‘Edwards’ anyone?) have less chance of standing the test of time. The market segmentations help brands adopt a position with greater clarity.

So why not in every market? Why not in say, Motorway Service station provision? No – it’s been a race to the middle ground with any segmentation being dictated by the age and investment in the site rather than any attempt to segment between or within sites. At least, until now. And it’s taken an independent company of (current) Cumbrian farmers to nail it.   You may have chanced upon Tebay if you’ve driven to or from Scotland on the M6. As you get blown down off Shap Fell, avoiding the snow drifts and wind turbines, there’s Tebay, or to give it its proper name, ‘Westmorland Farmshop’. And now there’s one from the same group on the M5 too, at Gloucester.

Good Better Best

Physically, comparisons with Teletubbyland have been made, as the buildings have been built to go unnoticed – they nestle curvily into the landscape with a grass-turfed roof. But there’s no laa-laa thinking here. No noo-noo’s just for the sake of it. Indeed, this is just good po-sitioning. This is tangibly a best market position. Gone are the high street fast food franchises, in come a quick serve café focused on local producers. Gone is the dubious restaurant with leftovers soup, instant coffee sachets and plastic sausages and in comes a genuine farmhouse kitchen with a field to fork philosophy. Gone is a shop selling atlases, travel rugs, wet suits (no, really) cheap CDs and random deals on nearly out of date chocolate bars and in comes – you’ve guessed it – a farmshop. Not a pastiche, but the real thing; farmers’ and artisan produce: hand made cards; local ciders and fruit wines, local authors featured, a section for your canine travelling companions and (we’ll have to see how this works) a butchers. Not, note, a ‘shop selling meat’. But a butchers. With a man in a white butcher’s coat, taking down animal carcases and cutting to order. Oh, and beehives. And a dog walking trail. And a picnic site that isn’t a scrap of land sandwiched between the buildings and the slow lane. The prices? Expensive – relatively at least. But relative to the high street or supermarkets not other service stations. In fact, because expectations of good value are so poor for motorway service stations, here it feels like stonking good value.

So there’s an old lesson in all of this: think about your offer, your product ranges, your price point break downs. Are you making it easy for shoppers to buy and consumers to consume? Be honest. Where does your brand fit today and what new opportunities are created by it? And can you genuinely create a premium brand or a premium experience? That’s what Westmorland have done.

In fact, we should call it the ‘Tebay Test’: Good, better, best, never let it rest. Till your good is better and your better best.

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.

Why brands should study history

This might seem on first sight a preposterous comparison, but recent events in the Crimea and rumours circulating this week about Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions are a good lesson in branding.

It staggers me that increasingly history is seen as having little value in our education system. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ is the question typically posed.  The point of history is that it’s context for our lives. It is, if you like, the received wisdom, mostly based on facts, that society passes down to us.  I’ve always felt an obligation to use that wisdom wisely but too often felt to be in a minority in a society where only looking forward to what could be is valued.

Well, this week’s event in Russia are sobering and a reminder that history is as good a teacher as any.  Let’s assume that the reports, from an ex aide of President Putin, are wholly true.  Let’s assume therefore that Putin believes that Finland should be returned to Mother Russia. Let’s assume too, that Belarus and significant parts of the Ukraine are also in his plan. And in the future: the ‘return’ of the ‘Stans; the Baltic states, Poland?  In short, he seems to have an ambition to return Russia to its Imperial territorial limits, just before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Now this is not a history lesson, nor current affairs, nor even a platform to share views on what could happen in Eastern European Geopolitics. The point is, these events are perfectly possible; feasible even, and importantly, they are not unprecedented. Already the parallels to how Hitler handled the Sudetenland question are being raised: limiting the claims to ‘just this territory’; playing off a shaky alliance within itself; using (and abusing) treaty agreements to the letter. And the point too, is that we can see it coming. History forecasts it. And though all the years have passed, though we tell ourselves that it couldn’t happen again, human nature ultimately, sadly, doesn’t change that much.

Why is this instructive for businesses and brands? Well, it’s easy as a brand owner to get so hooked in to where we want to get to, that you forget how we got to where we are today. ‘Today’ is usually seen for its issues rather than as a celebration of the progress that has been made.  For example, brands generally relaunch out of desperation rather than planning. When I worked in beer, it was widely commented on how Guinness always went out to pitch for their advertising agency just after they launched an incredible advert or communications campaign. It seemed counter-intuitive yet made us envious all the same.   Our human tendency, exacerbated by pressure from those personal business objectives, is to focus on where we’re heading, without taking heed of where we came from.

IMG_1422Rather prosaically, this struck me today on the announcement of new investment in an age-old brand: Stork margarine.  Launched in the 1920s in the UK, here is a brand that had been left to wither and fade.  The ‘Flora’ of its day in popularity and scale, it seemed to have been overtaken by product advancements, more compelling propositions and portfolio machinations.  From the outside, the perception was of a tail brand that was filling a gap before being ‘cannibalised’ by others.

Yet Stork didn’t pass away quietly. Pushed into a position of a ‘baking brand’ for years, decades now, there has been a hardy minority who buy margarine for spreading and Stork for baking.  Reduction in the number of formats it’ s available in has just meant that people buy more of the ones that are left, keeping the brand well deserving of its space on shelf. And now, somewhat ironically, the baking niche that Unilever found for it, has become invigorated, fuelled by The Great British Bake Off and a general interest in learning life skills and baking with children.

And the signs were there all along:  a great product; a strong, instantly recognisable brand design that fair shouts off shelf, all supported by a strong sense of authenticity.  My guess is that you have products in your range that if they were dusted off and re-purposed could generate meaningful return again.  And rather like possible events in Russia: in your bones, you know it.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands.  To learn more about margarine, Geopolitics and more realistically interpreting your brands history for a successful future, contact or call him on +44 (0) 7885 408367

© The Crow Flies, 2014

The Crow Flies launches


The Crow Flies is a new marketing consultancy based in the Midlands. The company focuses on categories and brands, specialising in market research, strategy, innovation and planning.

“Our ambition is to become one of the go to marketing consultancies in the Midlands for strategic marketing services” said founder, David Preston. “It seems strange that the West Midlands in particular doesn’t have as vibrant a creative & strategy industry as London or indeed, other big cities. We wanted to offer an alternative to clients looking for closer proximity to them or not wanting to be reliant on a advertising agency planning team”.

Preston, who was Marketing Director at Molson Coors in Burton on Trent and more recently a Board Director at London based brand agency Elephants Can’t Jump, adds that unusually, the focus of The Crow Flies is not just on brands. “We’re very interested in the growing discipline of category marketing”, said Preston. “If you are a retailer, the category is your priority, but it should be as a brand owner too – after all, growth is much easier if you have the wind in your sales. We are very cognisant of building the new skills required to help brands thrive in the tough economic times we are in and the tough competitive times”, he added.

“We’re also interested in maps and mapping as a way of thinking of categories and brands” stated Preston. “Many metaphors are used in brand building but most are focused on ‘where next’. We believe maps are more useful because they underline the importance of stewardship. On a map, you can see the marks of the past, as well as the terrain today and the two combined allows you to plot the most direct route to success. The parallel for a brand is clear: spend more time working out what has made you successful and use that as inspiration for where you go next: we’re convinced it could save clients a lot of time and a lot of money – but funnily enough, it takes a brave person to grasp it.

At The Crow Flies, Preston is supported by a team (or ‘flock’ as he calls it) of highly experienced marketing and business colleagues. “At the start at least, we’re a boutique business. That means the quality of our service, our thinking and our impact is everything and in turn that means there are just a few of us. So having a team who are highly experienced, both on client side and with consultancy was crucial for us. I’m really pleased with the balance of the flock.”

– ends –

David Preston is Founder of The Crow Flies and can be contacted at and