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 246260

Why is it so hard to do a few things, big?

Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,
Yet do much less, so much less, someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

 (‘Andrea del Sarto’, Robert Browning, 1855)

Less is more. If there’s one piece of consistent feedback I’ve received or had to give over many years of building or working on brands, that’s it. The push for simplifying, choosing and focusing on fewer, activities, so that they can be scaled up. It seems so hard. Is it the fear of making sacrifices? The wistfulness that comes from an opportunity not brought to market? The tyranny of choice? Or is it simply too many voices; too many opposing views; too much desire to please too many people? Or the inability of consensual companies to make decisions?

The theme cropped up again on a client’s project just the other week and got me reflecting on how this problem remains so persistent, spanning the years, never waning in the face or ‘learning organisations’ or good, old-fashioned common sense. It’s a ‘sticky’ issue no doubt. But why? There seem to be a few common denominators.

Thinking in plan years not consumer years: of course, you’ve got to be practical. You have to write a brand or business plan for the ‘next Fiscal’; budgets need to be cut; revenue investments divvied out or zero-based; resource allocated; endless negotiations with the sales guy about how much they can’t sell concluded. The business focus becomes therefore, the business cycle not the consumer cycle. If such a ‘cycle’ exists of course, because rarely do consumers think in chunks of time, except when planning holidays or Christmas. Most people don’t write annual Life Plans that include, amongst other things, which brands they are going to take notice of this year. A pity perhaps, but actually no. You have more time rather than less to impact their lives.

Not having a clear purpose: there has been a penchant in recent years to write purpose statements that need decoding to work out what the brand or company is actually trying to achieve or where it’s headed. But a purpose statement – subjective, written from the heart, directive, stretching – is vital, not only to help people decide whether this is the business they want to invest their life in, but also to help all the major decisions the company makes, up to and including what its brands choose to do. Without a purpose, all bets are off. Any activity can be justified on the basis of a loud, persistent voice, the point of view of some senior executive or perhaps because of an intriguing or compelling piece of data or half-truth (the latter often gained from a store visit to Asda in Mansfield on a dreary November evening and quickly exploded up to represent the broad opinion of the Western Hemisphere). A Purpose is the start and the end game. Are we heading in the right direction if we do this? Should we repeat? Other than being, when done properly, hugely engaging, a purpose statement is your first and last line of defence in doing less and doing it bigger.

‘Now’ not just ‘New’: I’d like to be able to scientifically claim that there is a strong and direct correlation between the small number of business activities that drive 80% of the margin of your business. I can’t, but I will, because you know it. There is a correlation between the ability of the ‘tail’ of a company (brands, customers) to attract a disproportionate share of focus and attention relative to their (lack of) commercial return. Why? Because “it’s new”. Or “interesting”. Or a “huge opportunity”. The “revenue stream of tomorrow”. Or part of my personal hobby farm. Like with many things in life, the grass seems plush and verdant over there. In fact, look! Butterflies and buzzy bumblebees swarming over the lavender and small children, giddy with excitement frolicking across a field! The prime job of leadership is to keep the business honest: spend 80% of our time on those few big levers that keep us thriving now and the rest on those that show future promise. Hold firm and don’t get bored.

Drive and Support: it’s staggering how often companies forget which parts of their business drive the topline and which support it. If all the functions have equal voices around the table, then the ability to prioritise drive activities become woolier, more a debate than a directive. If you’re a brand business, chances are that the drive comes through brands and sales. If your own label, chances are it’s production and sales. If you offer legal services, chances are that it’s the legal beagles who bring in the tasty bacon. Prioritise these functions unapologetically. Oh, and if you work in them and are feeling more special, more loved, be prepared. With focus comes accountability and tough love.

Not saying “bye-bye”: How many products or brands do you have that limp along? How many are on life support? How many do you fool yourself remain a ‘brand’ (when actually they’re just servicing a habit not adding value)? The inability – or fear – of confronting the rear end of the product life cycle has unintended consequences right across the business. From complexity in the supply chain to complexity in the managers’ brain. Spring clean. Wield the long knives. Have a Car Boot / Yard sale. Call it what you will. But make sacrifices: create the physical space and the mental space to allow focus. And celebrate their lives with a party. They’ve played their role. You’re here today because of them. Share the learnings. And move on.

7 plus minus 2It’s almost 60 years since George Miller published the seminal work, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits On Our Capacity For Processing Information” (Psychological Review, 1956) – what became known as ‘Miller’s Law’. It has been much discussed, cited and challenged, but the basic tenet has proven sound. As humans – as managers – as consumers – we can only process a small number of things. If you fragment your brand activity; if you don’t make it beefy and bold; if your consumers don’t get hit squarely between the eyes with scale; it just won’t get processed. You’ll remain unnoticed.

Think as a consumer. Be purposeful. Don’t be beguiled by ‘new’ over ‘now’. Focus. Sacrifice. Then fully commit.

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. Get in touch. And be prepared for focus and sacrifice.; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2015

Time for a new brand:retailer dialogue

Pow wowOver a coffee today, I was chatting to a friend about the scale of Tesco’s recent loss. £6.3bn in an enormously cash-generative business is some feat. Sometimes though, it’s best to take the pain with big cuts rather than little slithers, and this feels like a case in point. While it seems few and empathising with Tesco that much, for many suppliers it will create shudders of commercial fear.   A reduction of 20,000 stock keeping units has been promised: you can bet that these results, store closures and closure of new store opening programmes are hardening that resolve at Tesco HQ.

And of course, it’s not just Tesco: all ‘middle ground’ retailers are struggling, their ills manifesting themselves in different ways. The concern is that the emerging reaction is underpinned by fear. Fear for the retailers that their like-for-likes will relentlessly fall and with it the share price (and with that the value of executive long-term incentive plans). Fear for suppliers, that their brands just need to slash to survive; slash their range; slash their prices; slash their profits; slash their staff numbers.

If ever there was a time for brands to step forward and own – or create, if necessary – their category agenda, it is now. This is an easy thing to write, I know. And perhaps it is not a ‘rocket science’ statement, I admit: but it needs to be said nonetheless. My fear is that the reaction within buying teams, within marketing teams, within sales teams is for category management. To understand the dynamics in the nth degree of detail; to range accordingly; to push into the ‘big data’ under the guide of ‘insight’ and negotiate new terms, or defend accordingly. Probably, big suppliers with a strong portfolio want this – it’s an opportunity to claim their fair share of space when for years they have been under-spaced. But most, the majority, will hunker down and prepare for trench warfare.

The current crisis in UK food retail though, is not really a crisis in organisation or supply. Tesco won’t see it that way I’m sure, and I support their open heart surgery. But underneath it all, this is a crisis of identity and of market position. Of who plays around the edges with unique, but more narrow positionings, and who will stand up for the middle ground proudly, distinctively and prepare to inspire.

There’s always been an opportunity for the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda or Morrisons – and the brands who sell through them – to do this – but none has taken it. And they haven’t because everyone has been distracted by the minefield of eggshells they have been mutually created. Can the brand trust the retailer to deliver on their distribution promises and activation? Can the retailer trust the brand to deliver the progressive innovation agenda and improvement in terms? The dialogue becomes tentative, untrusting.   And then, in walks an Aldi and boom! The agenda has changed and you’re on the back foot.

This is the time for a new dialogue between brands and retailers that must be built on trust. Now is not the time for category management, now is the time for category leadership. For brands to step forward and be bold with their vision, their agenda, their picture of the future. To partner with retailers to create a shopping experience that helps the consumer; that solves those small but important problems in their life; that delivers value certainly, but not just low price. And it’s time for retailers to step forward and be bold too: to be clear what they are offering and work with brands to create this mutual vision. An agenda that builds the brand not just the retailers’ sales. It is time, in short, for all the words around ‘win:win’ to be put to one side and for the actions to follow suit.

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

© The Crow Flies, 2015

Bending the space-time continuum

Wandering around the supermarkets in the run up to Christmas got me wondering why it is retailers think that they can bend the space-time continuum. Shelf upon shelf of retail space, normally focused on food essentials given up to sell festive trinkets: Christmas Deco’s; vast vats of Prosecco; fat Church-style candles; artificial trees and of course, more Christmas Jumpers than you can shake a reindeer with a flashing proboscis at. Too much stuff in too little space. Yet for fear of inciting the Ghost of Christmas Whenever, the issue is this: all this space, dedicated to limited-shelf-life tat has to come from somewhere.   And given that the well-known US retailer is called Target not Tardis, one can only assume it hasn’t been conjured out of thin air.

SalamiBut actually, Christmas isn’t the real issue, it’s just a specific manifestation of what’s going on in the big retailers (not just food). The commercial question, the commercial conundrum in fact, comes from the salami slicing* of space on shelves for our everyday essentials, year round. How do you run an effective retail operation when the majority of your sales and profit comes from a tiny proportion of your space – an amount decreasing, not increasing.

A small example: I popped out yesterday evening for some vanilla essence from my local c-store (in this case, a Co-op). A classic top-up store – less than 3000 square foot, 4 aisles, tills, a tiny in store bakery. Good store, but pokey. How many types of vanilla essence does it need to sell? One. How many does it sell: two (a ‘Madagascan Vanilla’ version would you believe). Literally, a tiny example but illustrative of what’s going on.

A more significant example is my old category – alcohol. In your typical supermarket, despite physical product size (and weight) this is not a category short on choice. But it is short on growth. Decade long growth in wine, has slowed to a crawl. Beer too posted decent growth until a decade or so ago when it came to a crunching halt. Cider has bucked the trends to a degree yet traditional cider is struggling with fruit ‘cider’ smaller but growing fast. Overall picture: alcohol volumes as flat as the Fenland. Appropriate then, in a category treading water, that space overall hasn’t increased.   But the way the space is used is has changed beyond recognition.

To illustrate, consider the growth of fruity, sweeter products. This is nothing new and certainly not unique to alcohol, be it K cider, Hooch, Breezers, Moscow Mule or even Corona with lime. Seeing the growth, the big suppliers, the big brands have reacted by hybridising their products. Spirits with flavour additions (honey, smoke, fruit shots); cider with yet more fruits, beers with spirits, wine pre mixes, ciders with spirits, beer with fruit. And it’s important to say that as innovations, many are fine, indeed when viewed in isolation, commercially successful. And it’s good too that the category is innovating.

But there’s a worrying undercurrent. No new space is given to these products. There’s a Morrisons in the town near where I live which I have been visiting on and off since it opened in the late ‘90s. It has the same amount of space today for alcohol as it did back then. But the proliferation is staggering. Hybrid beer products (low or mid alcohol, fruit additions and so on) have munched the space away from their parent brand and parent category. There is no extra off shelf display, no additional gondola ends.   The parent, in essence, is expected to sell as much from less space. How do you do that? Increase the deal.

It’s not clear who wins. The supplier cannot win, because despite the new hybrids commanding a higher unit margin (lower cost, more premium position) their rate of sale is a fraction of the parent and ultimately, the equity of the parent brand suffers endangering long term sustainability. The customer doesn’t win as effectively margin is moved around and if an individual company’s trading position strengthens then the retailer’s bargaining power is weakened. Consumers? Well they get more choice – but do they want it, and how do you navigate a fixture that is so complex (when the average purchase decision takes 2 seconds)?

Perhaps what is emerging here is a new retail paradigm. The key lines: Pareto’s 20% that sell 80%, get sold online or click and collect, or indeed through a discounter. Store space becomes increasingly focused on trading up, new and different and delivering category or brand experiences. Or perhaps, it’s simply time we got back to innovation based on solving real problems and that meet real needs. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a call to retailers and brand owners to concentrating on getting big brands doing their job better and not slicing the sausage ever thinner? Now I’m sounding like Scrooge so I’ll be off to get some salami with my festive Humbug.

 (*For players of business bingo, what shall we call this? Salamification? Sausification?)

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


With more start headlines from Tesco this week, it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and say ‘I told you all along. Those supermarkets are rubbish. They’re getting their comeuppance’. Of course, they’re neither rubbish, nor are they due a comeuppance. They have transformed most of our lives for the better. My mum and I were reminiscing recently and the topic of the food shopping came up: we had to drive 8 miles to go to a little shopping centre that simply wouldn’t pass muster today: a dour retail experience, not that cheap and certainly not that ‘super’. A few years’ later at University, studying in a biggish city down south, I encountered my first proper, out-of-town, Sainsbury’s. It was a revelation, staggering. And for fear that I paint a picture like it was Victorian times here; this was the late ‘80s. (1980’s, thank you, before you say)

But here’s another staggering fact. The average discounter stocks 3,000 product lines. The average supermarket? 40,000 to 55,000.

The rise of ‘every little helps’ – and by this I don’t just mean Tesco, but a grocery retail platform built on offering even more products, even more categories, from ever bigger stores, whilst beguiling at first, has brought with it the brand killer: complexity.

Killer? Too strong? No.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 14.50.24Consider product lines in a mid sized supermarket. 40,000 stock keeping units. Break this down: the supermarkets rarely stock a brand’s full range. They rarely stock the full availability of product formats, or packaging types. Consider: seasonal lines; limited edition runs; When It’s Gone It’s Gone lines. Consider: gondola end buy-ins, secondary siting units. Consider: in store activity; trial mechanics. Consider: the supply chain alone to get all these products, so that they are in store all the time to a perhaps over 2000 stores.   Consider the impact of promotional pricing: the associated paperwork to get it set up on systems; the stock build up; the management of stock post event and the clearing up all the price mismatches months after.

No, there is little doubt, complexity is killing the retailers.

But, there’s also the change in shopping behaviour. My gran used to get my granddad to drive her, at least 4 times a week, often daily (Sunday’s excepted of course) into town. She’d work her way round the shops. Wakefield’s the butcher; eggs from the stall under the arches of the town hall; maybe some oatcakes from Browns inside the town hall; fish from ice-banked counter of the fishmongers which you could smell from the top of the street, Chatwins for a cream cake. And so it went on.   How, years later, we would scoff at such antiquated and inefficient nonsense. Shop every day? Pah! Shop in more than one store? Madness!

The circle is coming round though. Inter-linking agendas, from supporting local, to food waste, to the pressure on time, to food trust, to the vanquishing of our high streets are seeing a return to some of the ‘old’ ways. Nowadays our family does a main shop with little top-ups or embellishments. Meat from the butchers, not the supermarket counter. Fish from the Monday van from Grimsby. The Co-op for fresh bread. Blimey, even the milkman has re-entered the mix.

It’s not just grocery: McDonalds’ are cutting back their range to ‘…let customers…quickly understand their order’ and because, ‘80% of our sales come from a small subset of the menu’.

And there’s the growth of the specialist, especially on-line. ASOSWiggleBeer Hawk. If you want complexity, there has to be simplicity elsewhere. Want a crazy range of bike tyres? Go to Wiggle (or Chain Reaction) and get them. But want to buy books from there? Shop elsewhere young man.

The reality is that one major reason for the current stellar growth of Aldi, Lidl and even, say Poundland, is simplicity. Exploiting a niche and operating a simple business model. 3,000 lines. No up and down pricing. Less range. With a price that makes up for the (relative) lack of choice.

Whilst Tesco, Sainsbury and the likes are learning the lesson the hard way, the truth is, there’s a lesson in this for all brands.   Simplicity and focus is the way to scale. Decomplexification we call around round here, in an ironically un-simple way.

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.


© The Crow Flies, 2014

A Black Friday indeed

When you start your own business, one of the factors you underestimate is the time and organisation required to do the mundane tasks that the corporate world largely take away for you: for example, servicing the car or getting an MOT (if indeed, your company allows your car to get to three years old). So it was, that on this fine Friday morning, I found myself dropping off my car at a local garage before holing up in Costa Coffee in a Tesco for a good dose of (de)caffeine, free wifi – and the retail madness of “Black Friday”.

What does it say about our society and fundamental human behaviour that an imported, fabricated retail ‘event’ can cause (a) queues outside stores at 7am and (b) two men fighting outside a Tesco, of all places, to get the ‘bargains’ inside – as Mama Goat said, ‘I kid you not’?   This is most definitely ‘a consumer response’ and as such I find myself quite intrigued by events like ‘Black Friday’ and similar ones like Halloween a few weeks earlier. As retailers have given Black Friday more focus in recent years, it has crept furtively, unwillingly, into my consciousness. Yet, whilst I know little of its origins other than the link to the day after Thanksgiving in America, this year, the tipping point was hit: adverts and break bumpers awash with retailer adverts announcing their fabulous offers. Even John Lewis getting in on the act – indeed, like our scrapping shoppers their website was punch-drunk and floored by the amount of traffic it received. Blimey.

But how successful are these fabricated ‘events’?

Let’s consider the shopper angle first. Witness this (slightly paraphrased but genuine) conversation I overheard in the café:

Woman 1, “I hate all this Black Friday nonsense. I mean it’s just an American thing. We’re just copying their culture”.
Woman 2: ‘But there are some real bargains to be had. Are you coming?”
Woman 1. “Oh yes!”

What seems to explain this is, more than anything else, is habit – habitual shopping behaviours and responses that we have learnt since our early years. In fact, despite one of the emergent societal hypotheses being that consumers in the developed markets are moving increasingly away from a consume more model to one of consume more responsibly, Black Friday shows that the ‘old’ paradigm isn’t dead. Far from it in fact: this habit of shopping, for bargains, is powerfully ingrained, visceral. It demands a response, a response which is embedded deep within our autopilot systems. These ladies chose to shop not out of desire so much, but habit – the opportunity, the slim chance of catching a snip of a deal – only with greater odds of winning than the lottery. What’s to lose?

Cute retailers are benefiting from these habits. The disciplined ones are adopting a ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ approach: “Here’s some stuff. We’ve hacked the price. Get it before it’s gone”. Amazon advertising 80% cuts is a good example. Louis Vuitton, 60%.   But many aren’t adopting this discipline. “Come into store for our Black Friday weekend event” (where you’ll enjoy savings of up to 15%) So that’ll be Black Long Weekend then? Doesn’t have quite the same sizzle to it, does it? And look at the January sales: they’ve moved to December – at first starting on the 27th, but now encroaching on Boxing Day – you know what’s next…

Event based marketing isn’t new but it’s gathering pace. A friend of mine, a Brit currently living in Canada, believes that Halloween could soon be a bigger shopping event than Christmas – a bold claim, but his logic is sound. It’s a unique event, it’s a relatively quiet ‘retail’ time of the year, it’s a real and traditional event that involves the whole family and indeed the community (if you count trick or treating your elderly neighbours and tipping over their plant pots if they don’t comply).  Halloween I get. Easter too. Valentine’s (at a push). But at what point do we have so many events that they become meaningless. At what point do we Brits start celebrating Cinco de Mayo or Labor Day? At what point does the whole retail landscape changes to one of constant discounting, of ‘everyday low prices’ and an erosion of the few special events that make shopping interesting, fun?   The lesson seems to be, if you’re going to benefit from events, ensure they’re real, have a connection with your audience and you have the discipline to know when to stop.

And it raises the question too: do events like Black Friday increase sales, or just alter their shape? Perhaps the food and drink industry needs to get behind these events in a more focused way as they are (more of) an expandable commodity: but TV sets? Tablets? DVDs? My hunch is the sales are pulled forward to move the pain elsewhere.

Anyway, I’d better finish there – the police want to interview me down the station. Apparently I landed a real beauty on his face.

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.

Pathways and Holloways

There’s a pathway opposite my house that starts constrained on either side by two rather unruly hawthorn hedges and low cropped horse chestnut trees, before passing through a dilapidated five bar gate worn smooth by the daily administering of hands of walkers and horse riders over passing years. From there the pathway cuts across open fields for a good half mile towards a distant stand of trees along a low ridge. The field is quite open, no hedges, no obstructions. Yet the footpath meanders this way and that, suddenly curving through 45° and then heading back; at one point cutting up a half-bank when the natural lie of the land is straight on. The remarkable fact is that the walkers, me included, stick to the path. It is worn low, trampled and yellowed; either side, the spiky grass is tussocky and verdant.

At the top of the low ridge, the path heads through the trees, the presence of which confines it, narrows it. The energy of boot clad feet, dogs’ paws and horses’ hooves has turned the path into more of an old holloway, making the path cut down and deeper, the trees rising up high above, their roots exposed, holding back the banks. This path must have developed over hundreds of years; generations of feet tramping slowly exposing the bedrock. If you wished to deviate off this, it would be hard to do so.

Pathways and holloways are a good way of thinking about the impact of your brand building efforts. Brain ‘theory’ for want of a better expression, developing over the last 30 to 50 years, has added scientific uumph to the intuition many experienced marketeers have felt about the impact (or otherwise) of their brand activities on successfully changing consumer behaviour.

Our brains, metaphorically, are the landscape. Billions of neurons, connected to one another by synaptic nerves fire up and make connections as they receive ‘stimulus’; a process that starts from our first moments on the planet.   The stimulus is everything we encounter – everything. So within this maelstrom of over communication the brand must cut through and compete. The good news is that in many respects brains are on our side. Over communication too, plays into the brand builder’s hands. Why? Because we need to make sense of things to run our lives. The brain does this by creating ‘pathways in the landscape’. Think about your journey to work; most of us have hundreds of possibilities: the mode of transport; the route; the time we are happy to dedicate to it; whether we need to stop for breakfast / snack en route; whether we need fuel… yet we tend to stick to the same route; because it’s easy and frankly, we’ve got enough other things to worry about. So our brains effectively create a pathway, which as we use it again and again, gets deeper and deeper, becomes engrained, becomes a holloway.

Slide1The holloway, from a brand perspective is the desired goal: just like my real life Holloway through the trees, deviation becomes difficult. In fact, research shows that once a deep path like this is created, the brain wants to use it. It was, if you like, the creator of the holloway and it wants to see it continue to thrive. A real life brand example: moons ago, I worked in beer competing with the mighty Stella Artois. Our brand was the first to launch a full scale branded glassware programme, the objective to heighten the drinking experience of the brand. Stella cottoned on quickly and responded with enormous scale; but it also responded with a glass, which at the time, we thought was horrendous. Made from jam jar glass, it was blow moulded and had indistinct, partially embossed branding. Shabby, we thought compared with our lovely screen printed vessel.   But here’s the thing: Stella Artois had a holloway of purchase behaviour established. Their consumers didn’t see jam jar glass, they saw a thing of beauty. ‘Why! It must be incredible, it’s from Stella, and that’s my brand.’    If you want to break the habit created by the holloway, you need to do something pretty bold and stupendous (think Gerald Ratner describing his products as ‘crap’. That should do it).

Which is all very well, the question is how to create a pathway and a holloway in the mind of your consumer’s brain? The answer is both beguiling simple and deviously tricky: focus and sacrifice.   You need to find your distinctive positioning and stick to it. You need to execute one, perhaps two, activities each year. You need to put your full weight against them. You need to repeat and repeat and repeat with unyielding consistency, patience and resistance to personal or corporate boredom.

Beguilingly simple; deviously tricky. But worth it to create those holloways in the brain.


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

© The Crow Flies, 2014

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