Strategy

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!

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/business-club/consumer-retail/whitworths-brand-repositioning/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_li

Consistently tricky

One of the most difficult aspects of brand building is delivering a consistent experience. It can be tricky because perhaps yours is a product-based brand where the experience feels like a less significant touchpoint; or it can be tricky because you’re maybe a retail brand where controlling all the variables seems nigh-on impossible. It can be tricky too to define which aspects of the brand experience should be focused on: the process of consideration and buying; opening; using; consuming? It’s complex… yet crucial.

This was brought home to me recently when I went for a coffee at a local café for a business catch-up. This is an award-winning café in fact, with courteous staff, a chilled ambience and thoughtful product selections across both drinks and food. The groundwork of their offer had clearly been thoughtfully considered too – the foundations to build a powerful brand experience all in place. The coffee, for example, is delivered in signature crockery, with a biscotti and sugar that looks like rock-salt, served to one side. You know, all a bit la-di-da, yet enjoyable all the same; little touches that justify the premium.

I ordered a coffee which was shortly brought to the table but… wait. No biscuit. ‘First world problems‘, I thought to myself and let it pass – it was, after all, just a biscuit. I put it out of my head and carried on with my meeting. Two or three minutes later, a waitress came to the table and apologised for forgetting the biscuit before placing them, unprompted, on a small plate in front of us. Mild disappointment swerves through 180 degrees to delight. They spotted the problem, then over-corrected. All good – a little slither of positive brand equity is accreted into the brand ‘goodwill bank’.

Sometime later, a second coffee was ordered. Again it was brought to the table a few minutes later, and again, no biscuit was brought with it. Only this time, no corrective action was taken. And you might think that ultimately, it doesn’t matter. After all, it’s only a biscuit. It’s not even a particularly posh or special biscuit.

But in truth, the biscuit is a vital part of the mix. Indeed, it’s not really a biscuit at all. Rather, it’s an essential strand of the delicate web of expectations that weave together into a fragile whole that makes up the brand experience. It’s one of the small, yet disproportionately important, parts of the brand which together add up to more than the sum of their parts. And like a spider’s web, removing just one thread can weaken everything.

Would I refuse to go back to the café again because they forgot the biscuit? Of course not… but here’s the thing. This small, almost imperceptible mistake creates a much bigger seed of doubt. It opens up a chink in their armour such that next time you’ll be less forgiving and be much more open to going elsewhere. One reason politicians worry about tactical voting is because they know that when a voter does it for the first time, they’re much more disposed to doing it again.

What does all this mean for brands? Well, for one, brand experience isn’t easy nor forgiving. “A brand is a living entity, enriched or undermined cumulatively over time – the product of a thousand small gestures” is how ex-Disney CEO, Michael Eisner put it. Be thoughtful and rigourous in defining what is critical to your brand experience. Don’t overlook the small details if a consumer perceives them as vital to your delivery. Build up a clear picture of what is core to your brand experience and focus your resources, your time and your training around delivering that, time after time, and especially when you’re bored of doing so. And experience isn’t just about experiential brands (like retail). How a brand is presented; the materials used; the tone of copy; how it is opened, or used; how it feels; how it sounds… everything matters in the web of sensory touch-points that makes up the brand world.

Yes, brand experience can be difficult, yet consistent delivery is one of the big prizes of brand stewardship; one of the golden threads that runs through your brand and connects with your target’s emotions.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands.  david@thecrowflies.co.uk | +44 (0) 1283 246260 |  http://www.linkedin.com/company/the-crow-flies-ltd?trk=company_name | https://www.facebook.com/thecrowfliesltd © The Crow Flies, 2019

Mapping the brand

I’ve always been fascinated by maps; I can lose myself in maps just as easily – and perhaps as ironically, as losing myself in the landscape.  The detail, the contours, conveying 3 dimensions in 2 dimensions; the sense of personal discovery, even knowing that there’s rarely anything new to discover.  Maps, unlike books, which as you turn the pages leave what was written behind as a memory, lay everything out in front of you to see. The past, the present and potential futures, right there.

But we tend to manage brands like we’re turning the pages of a book. The past is there, vaguely remembered, but as soon as the page is turned its tangible form, its vividness is lost; it’s not visible today as it was yesterday or 10 years ago. We plot the future with the past as an indistinct and selective memory. This is why with the churn of people that modern businesses have it’s very easy to justify changing a new course for a brand. Individual interpretation of what went before becomes more justifiable when the facts of what happened aren’t mapped out clear to see.

Maps then are a better way of thinking about how to build a brand if you are bothered about building a sustainable brand for the long term. Why?

A map shows the past. You may notice that a ‘weather forecast’ is often more of a ‘weather hindsight’ focusing most of the time on explaining what had happened rather than telling us what is going to happen.  And it would be easy to think that a map merely shows the lie of the land today – in fact,  they show the past and the present. They show the marks of man and the marks of nature. 

And as we look at a brand today and we audit it’s various touch-points and assets, so too is it easy to forget the marks of the past. Yesterday’s brand custodians ran activity that built the franchise.  Today’s brand custodians should look for those foundations and build from there.  Sure, as you dig, there will be a lot of detritus to sweep away but buried there will be the foundations, still strong, still supporting the brand today. Part of stewarding a brand is to log the activity; the learnings and reveal it, share it – ensuring that tacit individual knowledge becomes organisational learning. The brand’s past becomes a tangible asset deployable by the brand to its future advantage.

A map illuminates today. Like a map of the landscape, categories and brands have a terrain that can be mapped too: that of competitors, customers, consumer, the company and its context (shopper dynamics, legislative changes and so on). Cognisant of the past, a mapping approach builds more certainty and confidence over where you are today and how that is perceived relative to other factors. Mapping the past makes your future brand strategy more likely to be distinctive and defensible.

A map points to the future.  Look at a map of some mountains and put yourself on a summit. On a map you can see the routes of descent, the options open to you. A couple of ridge routes, a few longer but less challenging descents, or the ‘direct descent’, vertically off the edge. It’s the same for brands: you have options and often options create inaction. A mapping approach, where learnings from the past are published and shared; where the situation today is clearly laid out narrows the options for the future. It helps you to choose between the real contenders and the cul-de-sacs, which sap resource for no benefit.

There’s something else too. Maps connect the senses. Maps are perhaps the original infographic. They uniquely combine words, imagery and dimensions. They’re labelled in a common language that decodes complexity, quickly. More than this, in their own way, they are eye-catching, arresting and simply beautiful – to paraphrase Terence Conran, a perfect example of form and function coming together to produce something that not only works, but is also aesthetically beautiful.   For brands they can be anything you want them to be: an illustrated story; an annotated flow chart; a potato stamped visualisation. The point is bringing to life the outputs of your strategy or plan in ‘map’ form engages, educates and informs in a way that few other media can.  Too often, we stop at a PowerPoint presentation and hope that our voice over will do the rest.

But what is a ‘brand map’? In truth, it’s not some rocket-science new invention. I’m not even professing that it should be a term you use. It’s not a brand plan but a brand plan plus. Too often, brand ‘plans’ aren’t that. So many suffer from being a random assemblage of fanciful opinion – justifying data snippets that don’t build into a clear narrative. An effective brand map isn’t that. It’s an purposed plan that is clear on how the past has informed current status; that shows the context of the brand today and evokes the senses to flow, logically, unerringly through to the commercially exciting possibilities of the future. It’s a story laid out so that everyone can see how it builds on the greatness of the past to make a future consistent yet even greater. 

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.  david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 7885 408367
© The Crow Flies, 2019

Brand Bedrock

Great brands become great because they become known for something. They put down anchors in the brains of their target consumers which give them something to grip on to, some foundations, something to build from. Yet so often, the stewards of brands – the brand team, the leadership in a business – are too easily tempted to move away from the brand’s positioning on the basis of a loud voice pushing for something different, a hunch, a whim, or worse, a staff change or a new leader agitating for change for change’s sake.

To move from being unknown, to OK, to good, to ultimately being a famous brand, needs foundations of stone: deep, heavy, able to stand up to quakes and surprises; to stand the test of time.

Practically, the way a brand team achieves this is by writing an effective and engaging brand plan – one that builds on the brand’s greatness established by its forebears at great effort and cost, one that truly impacts the consumer in the present, and one that keeps it on course to deliver its purpose as it strides into the future.

Most brands plans don’t do this and there are some common, yet pretty fundamental, errors:

  • ‘Starting again’ every time (normally every year)
  • ‘New year, new trend’
  • ‘New year, new positioning’
  • An infatuation with insights for insights sake or no insight base to the plan whatsoever
  • A grossly optimistic belief in what the brand can achieve in a year, compounded by  underfunded activities
  • No alignment, or misalignment, in the business around that brand and the plan

At their heart, brand plans are simple things – and it’s this simplicity that makes them devilishly difficult to manage through a business. What helps is having the right approach to the planning process and a plan construct that flows systematically from enablers and blockers of growth for the brand, through to a clear strategy, through to bold activity.  In essence, there are 5 steps:

  1. Filter and focus: it’s critical to identify the enablers and blockers of growth from the whole of the external and internal environment. Critical because if you don’t fully assess what’s going on (a) you may miss something really important and (b) some wag elsewhere in the business will tell you about something (that they believe is) vital to the brand’s growth and be a constant irritant (and they may be right of course, just to make it worse). So get out there: get curious about consumers; get engaged with the real world. Push into politics and technology, economics and the environment, big trends and packaging tweaks. Gather all your data, all your clues about what’s impacting the world of your brand and your consumers and ask ‘so what?’ Filter, filter, filter – a long, encyclopaedic list, neatly gathered together into a SWOT is all very nice, but useless unless you have filtered and focused it down on what can help the brand grow and what may stop it growing.
  2. Consumer and connection: there are two issues with consumer targeting. Going too broad (“Millennials” or “Women, 18-34”) and going too narrow (“Here’s Dan, he’s 27, lives in Balham and drives a Renault Twizzy, and likes Turmeric Lattes.”…). Both are unhelpful. Be clear on your ‘who’ by defining the parameters (which come from the ‘broad’ approach and beliefs and attitudes (which come from the ‘narrow’ approach). Don’t name the consumer – it puts people off – and be careful if you give them a segment name (“Hectic Conversationalists!”) in case stakeholders can’t easily picture them). But most importantly, stop worrying about the who and really consider the what:  what connects people to your brand? What are the brand hooks? What are the little problems your brand does or could solve? Are there any deeper needs that the brand meets? Use these as your constant and consistent touch points.
  3. Link to growth: any brand manager worth their salt will have an intuitive sense of where the growth lies and where the issues could be. But a great brand plan links these to the enablers and blockers from the filtering process in a clear, logical and dogged way. You’re looking for 2 – 3 action platforms. That’s it. And the less, the better. And for each of those, no more than 3 actions. Take your budget and carve it up into 6 – 9 big activities and you have a chance of landing them. Then repeat those for a few years (3 – 5) and you increase your chances of success. This is the most difficult stage – choosing NOT to focus on certain things. Having the tenacity to stand up to the leaders – or your peers – in the business and say, “No – we’re going to do a few things with scale”. It sounds easy, but it’s where most plans flounder.
  4. Orientate around a Bedrock Question: doing a cut down version of the brand plan is always an afterthought: write the plan, then condense it. But it shouldn’t be like that, because the condensed, beating heart of the plan, should be… well, at the heart of the plan. We call this the bedrock question – the point where the insights from the external environment, meet the brand’s purpose & commercial goals and shift into action.Slide1
  5. Ensure there are golden threads: it shouldn’t really be the case but most plans fail because the plan itself underwhelms. If your plan has a clear link from the insights – the enablers of growth – all the way through to a few, scaled-up activities; if there is a clear ‘narrative’ that you can tell when selling the brand plan in and through the business – then your brand has a chance of impacting the consumer and making a difference. Don’t underestimate the time and effort needed to get alignment and agreement to the plan, and don’t underestimate how much easier it is if the plan has a golden thread running through it.

Getting the brand bedrock at the heart of the plan is the distilled essence of great brand management – and the distilled essence of a great brand too.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands.  david@thecrowflies.co.uk | +44 (0) 1283 246260 |  http://www.linkedin.com/company/the-crow-flies-ltd?trk=company_name | https://www.facebook.com/thecrowfliesltd © The Crow Flies, 2018

The Potency of ‘Unlike’

In these digital infatuated times, brands too often overlook the criticality of positioning. It seems quaint somehow. Just another marketing term beginning with ‘P’, it’s even given equal weight as the others. When the narrative in the press, and even respected marketing titles, asserts that people, in their revulsion against big corporates, don’t want brands anymore, and that Millennials are somehow radically different from all the other 18-34 people who have gone before (and from everyone else), and that adverts in ‘traditional media’ no longer work (only ‘content’), well, unless you take a check-step, you may actually believe it.  Because, be clear: it’s all nonsense. It’s fake news.

Yes, our times are different. Yes, we have information and digital technology empowering and changing our society and lives in new ways. But in our responses, are we any different to those in the 1830s onwards, when confronted by the revolution of the railway and effective mass transportation? Or the 1700s when confronted with the revolution of organised industry, or before that technology on agriculture? Underneath it all, we are human and respond in fundamentally human ways; we have the same needs and desires. Yes, the manifestations of our needs are in response to new inputs… but why should they be different?

Feminism, consumerism, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the destruction of manufacturing industries, the decline of traditional institutions such as the church – all these and many more have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Kenan Malik 4th Feburary 2018

The structures of our society are going through radical change. And as a consequence, there’s never been a time when brands are more important navigators for people.  Brands continue to fulfil needs and desires on so many levels. These may be purely functional or they may be about our self-identity, but brands remain a constant for everyone in our society, rich or poor. Critically, brands remain a cornerstone for how we navigate life – sometimes actively, more often in the background – but a consistent presence nonetheless. And of course, we leave some brands behind, yet we discover and adopt new ones – since the introductions of brands as we understand them now in the 1800s, it was ever thus. Just because of artisan products from small producers at places like Borough Market, or craft products are sold on Etsy, doesn’t mean brands are dead – the space expands and frankly, it just gets more interesting. Nick Johnson, co-owner of Mackie Mayor a new artisan food hall in Altrincham, Cheshire says, “All our vendors are passionate and independent. We are originators. It’s an antidote to brand mentality”. But he’s wrong. If you look at the craft movement, those that are commercially successful, that scale-up (to a reasonable level to ensure their continued survival) are the ones that create brands. Some protect their independence and grow, some take the money and sell out. If you’re of an ‘artisan’ mentality’ it may make you uncomfortable, but consumers still want brands as much as ever. They may start differently, look different, they may have a different ownership structure or long-term ambition; they may have a different experience, but they are brands nonetheless.

Whilst competition exists, brands exist. And so long as we want to express ourselves through what we consume, brands will exist.

So to treat brand positioning casually, to assume it is less important today, is perhaps the greatest mistake of anyone running a brand. As new methods of manufacture and retail are devised, as new brand launches proliferate in response, the act of setting yourself out differently from current and potential competitors becomes the single most important task you have.

Unlike PictureThere are all sorts of brand positioning models and structures: onions, pyramids, keys, eyes. Worrying about the layout is missing the point. A great brand positioning has four, distinct, parts: it defines the target consumer and what connects them to the brand; it defines the brand itself, the offer it makes, the benefits it gives; it is clear about the relationship it has with you, it’s beliefs and behaviours, and finally it is unambiguous over visual gateways it owns – symbols, signs, sounds, by which people recognise it by.

At the heart of this is the positioning pitch. What does the brand give me, what’s the benefit, why can this brand make this claim?  And given the digital marketeers focus on shares, pokes and likes, it’s perhaps ironic that at the heart of a great brand positioning is an unlike.

This isn’t the act of removing your preference for something. Rather it is being totally clear on who you are unlike.

Unlike Gilette, shaving with Harry’s is cheaper, funkier, more convenient and just as smooth.

Unlike any other form of transport, Brompton cleanly revolutionises your city transportation.

Unlike any other ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s is packed full of chunky indulgent bits.

It’s time to unlike this faddish love of digital marketing and get back to positioning like a pro.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands. Get in touch with David at david@thecrowflies.co.uk  / +44 (0) 1283 246260.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (http://www.linkedin.com/company/the-crow-flies-ltd?trk=company_name), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/thecrowfliesltd).  © 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. rob@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260. For a different perspective on your research, strategy or innovation brand challenges, get in touch. © The Crow Flies, 2018

Brand Premiumisation …and The Second Law of Thermodynamics

“Change in inevitable. Change is constant” wrote Benjamin Disraeli. And more famously, Charles Darwin penned the now classic lines, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent… It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. And ‘Change Management’ is almost a field in its own right nowadays, with ISO standards, higher education and degree courses, specialist training consultancies – the lot.

Second ThermodynmicsIt’s a shame about all those cheesy Pinterest Quotations, or the pseudo-motivational nonsense that does the rounds on LinkedIn, because change is fundamental – really fundamental (for alas, ‘fundamental’ is also a word over-used in these days of corporate claptrap). Ultimately, change is constant, and it’s described by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says – stay with me here – that any natural system effectively breaks down further and further, ultimately reaching (or attempting to reach) a steady state – or the highest state of entropy. A complex system – a building say, ultimately will become dust and dirt and component elements again if it isn’t nurtured. Living beings, ultimately die and are recycled. Change truly is inevitable – you cannot run and you cannot hide. So, as a brand marketeer we can only conclude that how brands are born, how they’re used, perceived, and finally how they die, is in fact, all to do with quantum physics. Don’t let anyone tell you that marketing isn’t science.

What the Second Law means for brands is that highly complex systems (brands) will undertake irreversible processes that will move them towards a state of higher entropy (counter-intuitively, this means simpler, more basic, more steady – in the course of time, more dead). Unlike pure natural systems though, the life path for brands, from creation to death, isn’t linear – witness the product life cycle. Through the intervention of sentient beings – us – we can influence and direct the life path of a brand.  They will crumble back to dust eventually, but not without some fireworks and fancy dance moves wearing spangly dresses along the way.

The question therefore is how to respond to change. Effectively, what any brand stewards should be aiming to do during their tenure is to increase the complexity of the brand. To be clear, in no way does this mean to do complex stuff – but rather, broaden, strengthen and deepen the network of positive mental pathways and holloways in the target consumers’ brains. Create new sparks between those precious brand-related synapses in the old grey matter. Build, in effect, brand fortifications that can resist the denuding effect of time and other influences. To protect the brand ‘entropy’.

What’s important here is that a brand’s strategic response is not limited to one strategy or one set of options. It’s not limited to premiumisation. True, you’d be forgiven from thinking that it was given how often the term is mentioned in brand plans and around the planning table, but rather there’s a range of responses that are rooted in the brand’s current state and its desired future*. That relationship between past and future is the critical one: too often, in the rarefied and rather whiffy air of office political machinations, huge strategic leaps seem eminently possible: today’s commoditised brand is tomorrow’s luxury marque. That’s a real watch out: brands exist in the mind, and how far you can credibly move them from where they are now will be a large determinant of future success. The more established it is, the more effort, energy, money and time will be needed to shift it.

Broadly, there seem to be four primary tasks to protect a brand’s entropy:

Retain specialness: if the brand is positioned as premium but may be in risk of losing its sheen, then a specialness strategy is appropriate. Premiumise all the touchpoints; remind consumers of the underlying product truth; invest in a consistent experience. Give the brand a tune up, and a good spit and polish.

Retain distinctiveness: if your brand is a mainstream brand (you know, the sort of brand that consumers really like but the Board keep on banging on about premiumising the damn thing), then actually, your strategy is more likely need to focus on articulating distinctiveness. This could be from core brand values, from personality or tone of voice, from the central positioning or even from the insight that connects the audience to your brand. Whatever it is, you’ll need to find the hot spots and ensure that activity is built on something really interesting and compelling. Don’t try and please everyone.

Rebuild differentiation: commoditisation in increasingly common when we live in such tough competitive times. Commoditisation of course is very much a process of a change in entropy – it’s you feeling the effect of your brand being eroded. For everyday brands, that are struggling to balance their added value features in a competitive world, strategies should focus on your points of difference; squaring off your corners, proudly sticking out your shoulders and saying ‘look at me, here’s how I’m different, here’s how I’m better’.  New product development can help here: reminding people about the difference at the heart of the brand family – even if that innovation is sacrificial to prompt core brand re-appraisal.

Retain cost or price advantage: it’s incredible how often a budget positioned brand is touted as tomorrow’s premium brand. And of course, it could happen, but frankly it’s unlikely unless consumers adopt and take it there themselves (Pabst Blue Riband, perhaps?). More realistic is to consider how a price advantage strategy can be leveraged to the brand’s advantage. What are the essential points of brand value that need to be bolted on and what is non-essential. This is not about being lowest cost, there’s own label for that, but it is about understanding what functions or services are the tie-breakers that a brand can offer better.

If your brand is faced with change – and it will be – don’t knee-jerk to premiumisation. Think about its current state today; where your target market actually map and it, and where it’s desirable, and possible, to move to. You may not be able to change the laws of Physics, but perhaps you can delay the inevitable by a few hundred years.

 

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands. Want to know more, then just wing over an e mail to david@thecrowflies.co.uk or call on +44 (0) 1283 246260.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (http://www.linkedin.com/company/the-crow-flies-ltd?trk=company_name), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/thecrowfliesltd). Or just send a carrier pigeon and we’ll intercept mid-air. © The Crow Flies, 2017

 

 *In fact, in a pleasant circularity, concepts such as past, present and future are also described by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Effectively time is asymmetrical – what’s happened in the past cannot be reversed and everything will keep on trucking on until we reach a total steady state in the Universe (it is argued). I don’t think we’ll be worrying about premiumisation strategies too much then.

Fabric Brands

When you work on brands, shopping takes on a different angle. Take the food shop; rather than it being one of those in-and-out missions, each shop sees me become more like David Bellamy, snuffling around in the undergrowth in the weedy patch round the back of the shed. A new journey, re-surveying the terrain; discovering; getting curious, being – quite frankly – extremely nosy. If you are tagging along I understand how this can become tedious – but  *guilty pleasure alert* – not for me.
My most recent shopping snuffling made me realise how many brands on our shelves are old favourites, now unloved. Late in their life cycle; somehow deemed to be not relevant enough for Millennials, or Digital Natives or even, your Mum. Great brand names. Famous brand names. Brands with a store of goodwill and memories. Brands that are part of our identities. Fabric brands.Slide1

Fabric brands are those brands that have become part of the weave and weft of a society. They are part of the social currency, part of the culture, part of the thinking that societies and cultures can’t define themselves by intangible, virtual communities alone, but by real things. Material transactions, God Forbid. And fabric brand status should be something that most brands should be seeking to attain; yet it is not a term that is widely used nor understood. Fabric brands deliver functionally and emotionally, but they are rarely badges of exclusivity – the opposite in fact – fundamentally, they are about inclusivity. You can’t simply buy these brands and understand, you need to live with them, they with you. Knowledge of the brand; the associations with the brand, are so broad that an assumptive knowingness becomes part of the personality. Gaps need not be filled by the brand itself because they are often filled by its users. There is a common sense of meaning.  Many large brands could show these traits but fabric brands have something else: they have a shared cultural heritage with their end-user.

This is undoubtedly higher state of brand development – but it is far from unattainable – as supermarket shelves will attest. Indeed, they are littered with famous brand names, that seem to be connected only by their owners either being unable to justify the investment in them or diverting investment on to other priorities. Haywards or Maynards; Robertson’s marmalade or Gales Honey. Kiwi Shoe Polish or Lyle’s Golden Syrup; Rolo or Turkish Delight. Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers or R. Whites. Dettol or Mr Porky’s. And it’s not just in our supermarkets, but along the high street too, from Timpsons, to Waterstones, from Millets – even to M&S.

This is not, in an age of Brexit, about Britishness. The best fabric brands are most likely immigrants that we have taken to our hearts: Heinz Ketchup, Mars Bars, Kellogg’s Cornflakes. And this is not about being no longer relevant: A Rolo is as unrepentantly indulgent today as it was when I saved my last one for that special someone years ago. It’s not even that these brands have some higher-level purpose – most don’t. Nor do they necessarily deliver better functionally, relative to their competition – just ask people of a certain age to name which is best, HP or Daddy’s sauce, and stand back – but which is (was?) the fabric brand? No question.

What does define these brands is something simple yet difficult to attain. Fabric brands manage to make it to the top of the brand pyramid. Awareness is nailed. Associations with the brand are clearly mapped; Advantage is established, even if it is perceptual. Where they are different is that there is genuine affection. And the affection is two-way.  Consumers love these brands because they can offer a point of view that only those immersed in that culture would understand. They bond, not through relentlessly hammering home their point of difference (although they are likely to be reasonably large spenders), but because they get you and are part of you. They do what many brands struggle with; they bond and connect at an emotional level. Many brands aspire to be friends; but fabric brands become family. They can take the mickey without offending because we allow them to, indeed, we encourage them to.

But many are withering on the vine. And this is because the true fabric brands are never assumptive about their future status. They know that even family ties can be broken; they know that innocent flirting can quickly lead to divorce. They know that fabric status requires constant nurturing, remaining relevant by staying fresh (for example through innovation). They know that continued dialogue, honing their emotive appeal is essential. For the biggest risk for fabric brands is being commoditised through over-familiarity. Or the dreaded process of cost-optimisation undermines the product to the point where the premium, the love, can no longer be justified.

And this shines a light on the lie of the over promises of digital marketing. In a world of ever more personalised channels, fabric brands should be able to blossom – being relevant, of the moment, and immersed in your world. Yet it’s not happening. Many famous brands are struggling. They can’t seem to survive in the age of the Discount retailer or stringent advertising regulation. Because fabric brands are a part of the culture; to grow they need to impact culture itself. That means communication that is bold and impactful, not for one, but for many. Until we come to our senses, it’ll take more than a fabric plaster to solve that.

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

© The Crow Flies, 2017