The message then, as it is now, 6 years on, is ‘if you really believe in a cause, make it your purpose’. A purpose, at the top level of the business can drive engagement, give clarity of direction and off this help the business make good decisions. The same is true of brands; if your brand does believe in something, put it front and centre… let the brand positioning flow from it and feed back into it.
But if it’s just words, just a management tick-box exercise; if it’s just something you are doing to make shareholders value you more, save yourself the time and bother and pursue profit. Vanity and venality have made many business attractive and many people rich. But in truth, you can still be profitable in a responsible way, you can still do this in a way that is good for people and planet, but frankly it saves everyone the BS.
Just ask BrewDog; a company lauded for its manifesto – or charter – (“We bleed craft beer”, “We are uncompromising”, “We blow shit up”) but now, a company that will forever carry about that oddly mendacious whiff of weasely word-smithing, big on style, low, very low, on real substance. And the real salt in the wounds is the claim that “Without us, we are nothing” which according to the seemingly substantive and certainly substantial allegations rings hollow at best, malicious and deeply worrying at worst.
Companies and brands have the power to change the world for the better. They can – they have in the past and they do today – impact people positively, either through the generation of wealth, meeting of needs or even just feeling good about yourself. But the persistent desire to believe the hype in the business world about silver bullets just doesn’t help.
At The Crow Flies we work with clients to put strategic foundations in place – including purpose and values – that brands believe in and can unleash potential. But, these things only make a difference if you mean them.
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.
Pull your brand through isolation and come out stronger
These are distressing times, unprecedented times and times when the needs of the community and those most vulnerable in it rightly have to be placed above those of businesses. Nothing supersedes this. For marketeers and brands however, this adversity presents opportunities to get brand and marketing plans in the best shape they’ve ever been. Planning can’t be rushed but that’s invariably what marketeers are asked to do. Few if any marketing teams are given enough time to develop, refine and sell their plans.
Proper time. Not the snatched moments between the multiple distractions of corporate office life. Planning sessions are squeezed in when a calendar gap allows. Instead, the focus becomes getting plans done, getting them sold in. It’s little wonder there are gaps and inconsistencies. It’s little wonder that there are different agendas pushing the brand in different directions post ‘sign-off’. We see six common issues:
Not all consumers or even business stakeholders fully understand the brand or really get behind it
There are too many different views on what the brand stands for and how it should be behaving
Plan activities spring out of nowhere. Ideas get their boots on before strategy has woken up
The plan tries to tick every box (& can’t). Everyone’s been appeased but the brand makes no impact
Different agendas. Plans are derailed by a lack of shared unity on the strategy or the focus of activities
For brand owners, the commercial world slowing from its usual pace means that there is a rare opportunity to stop the fire-fighting and get deep and strong brand foundations in place. Foundations, that link powerful insights to purposeful activation, focusing energy on activities that genuinely impact the consumer instead of endlessly discussing and tweaking.
Home working and isolation are a potential liberator. Working this way is more efficient and effective. It creates the time for you to delve into and reflect on the category, and to properly plot your competitive strategy and review your brand positioning. It frees precious time to get closer to your target audience, to review & refine your consumer segmentation or even test innovation concepts (research is alive and well incidentally, and consumers who would otherwise be unavailable or harder to recruit suddenly are more open to spending some time with you).
Don’t miss this opportunity, use it wisely and you’ll never look back:
Spend time understanding your consumers: don’t just re-read an aging insight report. Immerse yourself in their world, properly understand them, talk to them. Pinpoint your target audience, prioritise their needs and place irrefutable insight at the heart of your strategy.
Review your positioning: do consumers, customers, stakeholders and colleagues truly have a shared understanding of the brand, what it delivers & how it delivers it? Is it powerful, consistent and differentiated? If it isn’t, now is the time to make changes.
Create a brand plan that stands up to challenge: are the key insights clear? Do they run like a vein of gold all the way through to actions? Do they confront the brutal truths or address the differentiating opportunities? Look at what you’re planning: are you ‘salami slicing’ and investing too little in too many activities? Have you forced sacrifice to execute with scale?
Get innovative: you’ve finally got time to be creative, do so. You don’t need to be in groups to come up with ideas. Time to reflect is stimulus in its own right. Idea generation sessions can be held digitally, innovation frameworks can be agreed to focus efforts on areas with the greatest commercial scope, ideas can be tested, refined and prepared for launch.
Build the big sell: an insight is nothing if it doesn’t grab people. A strategy is nothing if it doesn’t create action. Innovation is nothing if you can’t bring the ideas to life. A brand plan is nothing if it doesn’t inspire. Focus time on creating the tools that will sell your brand and your plan not only to customers but also internally, to stakeholders and sales teams. Buy in is everything, don’t leave it as an after-thought.
When we all return to offices and ‘normality’ you don’t have to return to a culture of justification and endless debate, you can return with a brand and business strategy that unites, inspires and frees you to focus your efforts on delivering it. It may feel odd to say it, but there’s rarely been a better opportunity to set up your brand with foundations of stone as good as this. Grab it.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.