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

The problems with ‘Pipelines’

As trading environments intensifies, slows or tightens, so the pressure to focus more energy, investment and time onto innovation and its lustrous promise inevitably grow. And what signals healthy innovation plans more than a pipeline – packed to the gunnels with new product, packaging or brand ideas; some ready to go, some looser, meeting an unmet need a couple of years from now, others, little more than outline thoughts about the art of the possible, off in the distance.

Yet innovation failure rates are increasing – and the push for ‘the pipeline’ is part of the issue.

To be clear, a well-stocked catalogue of NPD or renovation projects has clear advantages. For the leadership and the staff in the business, it’s engaging, exciting and gives confidence that new-news is coming through. For the brand teams, it is a demonstrable indicator that their charges are in good health. For others, there’s the ‘value’ of the pipeline: the financial projections for the money it will it deliver over the life of the plan: what can I report to the Board? What can I tell the analysts?

But innovation pipelines create false confidence.

First, there are the behavioural issues. The innovation team bust their guts to identify insights, ideate, develop concepts, validate and test. Strong, consumer-led projects are phased in to cover the next few years. The pipeline is filled with its innovation ‘oil’.

And what draws the eyes of the decision makers? Not the project for next year. Nor the one for 18 months out. No, it’s the “game changer”, slated for 4 years away. It is way more exciting. So the process of wrangling and re-analysing takes place; previous agreements are disregarded and the silver bullet is pulled forward. “Stage & Gate” processes are cast aside; project managers gently cough and look away as hitherto unassailable Sales & Operational Planning red lines are politely worked around.  Ignore the additional technical risks; ignore the dislocation to other activities – the biggest, shiniest jewel wins through. And…. it’s quite possibly the right call (at least if it can be delivered safely). If something is motivating the business; if something excites a buyer, then major hurdles are already overcome.

Next, there’s the question of resource deployment. Pipeline thinking means salami slicing and prioritisation. Prioritisation sounds good, but with innovation it’s not what’s really needed. What’s needed is sacrifice. Pipeline thinking is built on allocation of resource, right throughout the chain – teams being briefed on 40% of their time here, 30% there, 20% further out and 10% for fire-fighting; same for investment. Not only is this allocation approach never realistic, more fundamentally it stops the discussion around elimination. Let’s not do this activity at all. Let’s put 0% effort into it. Let’s spend nothing on it. It’s not that it’s a bad idea; in fact it could have lots of possibilities, but this one could be a real disruptor. Big bets – not salami slicing is what’s needed – after all, it’s big bets that smaller, more nimble market entrants and future competitors will be making – they have no other choice than to be bold and single-minded.

Pipelines for CrowsAnd then there’s the tyranny of choice. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the issue for innovation currently is generating too much choice. Think about a typical supermarket today. Do you really want more choice? What we need are better choices. Pipelines drive quantity. What’s needed is quality. Single-minded ideas that meet desires and needs better. That establish a brand’s positioning more powerfully. Simple solutions to the simple problems that so often we ignore or miss in our closeness to our categories.

A pipeline, after all, is a metaphor for continuous flow and supply. That’s not needed for ideas. That’s needed more for insights: finding those illusive springboards to growth. Yet so often, the process of insighting is compartmentalised: ‘we’ll do accompanied shops once a quarter’; ‘we’ll have stimulus sessions twice a year’.  And yes, you can get some useful outputs from it, but essentially insight development is emergent. It is always on: being curious; poking around; asking questions. That’s where a pipeline is needed.

If insight needs a pipeline, innovation needs a refinery: a factory where ideas are refined. A place where focus is given to the raw materials you have at your disposal. A place where you choose to make different products suitable for your needs. At some point with innovation, you need to get everyone round the table, everyone who has skin in the game, distil the ideas you have and thrash stuff out. Make calls. Kill ideas. Not prioritise. Not fill a pipeline – eliminate. Ask: what are we going to back here?  What’s good, but not good enough? What’s risky – or stretching – but could change the rules for the category?

If you can credibly bring more than one ideas to market, plan them based on when you can actually get them to market not on some hypothetical timing. Build in some red lines. Avoid the false confidence.  Step back and look at the world as a consumer sees it. We’re seeing the outputs of pipelines polluting categories in a slick of OK product choices. It’s time to stop. Build a refinery and make big, bold bets on the real problems your consumers face day to day.

 

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands build foundations of stone.  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, 2017

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.

Market research… and the holiday spirit

And so the holiday season draws to a close and as we return to work, most marketeers are struck by the same thought: why don’t I become a pool cleaner and then I can be on holiday the whole year around? For most of us, this is swiftly followed by the realisation that we don’t know anything about cleaning swimming pools and so instead we focus on two very important tasks: planning the big projects that are going to step-change brand performance and planning the next family holiday to a pool somewhere sunny.

AUGUST HOLIDAY CROW 2Let’s be honest, as we get our feet back under the table at work, the latter often takes precedence and the first thing we do is to immerse ourselves in the research for it. Every source and anyone of value to the decision is engaged: friends and family, consumer reviews, pricing comparisons – the lot. By using them, we maximise our chances of finding the perfect holiday and minimise the risk of disappointment and wasted money.

Yet ironically, and increasingly, for big marketing projects research is questioned. It may be because of experience of researching a project to death (which inevitably leads to inaction) or receiving an overly researchy, non-commercial answer (which often leads to a recommendation to do more research!) or just a general sense that the research has merely described the past. It’s so easy to listen to the research naysayers who belittle its value and instead advocate riding with the white knights of ‘big data’, off-the-shelf industry reports, or frankly, personal intuition and a survey cobbled together on Twitter.

At The Crow Flies we’re not curmudgeons, advocating that you should simply do what you’ve always done and damn the consequences. But at its best, we see the value in well constructed research, when engaged consumers and engaged clients are brought together over the right questions to uncover commercial solutions to commercial opportunities.

The Crow approach to managing research powerfully is to think about The Nest and The Egg…. ‘The Nest’ is the research framework. Neither too broad in scope nor too shallow in depth and focused on fuelling decision making. ‘The Egg’ is how research participants and client stakeholders are immersed, involved and fully engaged in incubating the project to deliver results that can be leveraged with scale and impact.

Get this balance right and research can significantly increase your chance of delivering commercial success on those next big projects before you head off on that very well researched family holiday…

The Nest focused, usable, scalable

  1. The critical 5%
    Research is typically around 5% of your budget – but it’s the most critical 5%, everything else hangs off it. Give it focus; give it attention, immerse yourself in it and it will deliver.
  1. Ask for your answer
    Too many research projects don’t go far enough. Uncovering consumers’ unmet needs is only the start. Finding out how your brand can solve them should be the output – which brings us on to…
  1. focus on the interface
    Brands are not built on research alone, nor on research strategy, planning or innovation…they are built at the interface of the four. Set-up your research and all the parties involved to ensure the outputs directly inform action.
  1. Methodology blah blah
    We know people find new research techniques interesting and exciting but often they promise more than they deliver. Focus your brief first and foremost on finding the unmet consumer needs that unlock commercial success and don’t fret about the technique.
  1. Usable utility
    Elaborate videos & complex segmentation models are of no use if they don’t build shared understanding & uncover new, usable insights. Prioritise outputs that will help the marketing team to make decisions and the sales team to scale up your brands, profitably

The Egg immersive, informal, impactful

  1. De-objectify the process
    Consumers are real people. They’ll only tell you what they really think if they feel comfortable & relaxed. Informal is the new formal and releases real truths.
  1. Go long
    Longitudinal and dialogue techniques will cast light on how consumers actually behave over time. These fresh perspectives can unlock real value.
  1. Get engaged
    Time is short & attention spans ever shorter. Put engagement at the heart of the process – give quant studies personality, reduce the length of interviews. Focus on what’s essential to learn.
  1. Raw not just scrambled
    There’s a role for the formal debrief but raw can be better. ‘Live’ debriefs the night of research, open dialogue & discussion for big opportunities at pace.
  1. Sunny side up
    Consumers are marketing savvy and love to get creative. Don’t just ask them to tell you their frustrations, involve them in creating the solutions. It’s amazing what they come up with

It’s time to reconsider the very real commercial value that research can unlock and to be a little more sceptical about research naysayers – ultimately there’s an agenda behind it. For a different approach to market research and brand building that maximises your chances of delivering commercial success, get in touch.

 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 

© The Crow Flies, 2017

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

Generalisation Y?

Isn’t it strange how in this age of ever smaller micro niches of ‘targeting’, powered by digital ‘big data’ engines, and the promise of ever-more accurate psychographic profiling, that the use of the term ‘Millennial’ is still used with so much unthinking and carefree abandon. Ahhh…the intoxicating, beguiling whiff of pseudo-expert terminology. “Millennial”. It’s like it has some magic power – to impress, to confound, to enthral. Marketeers, despite their intelligence and above-average ability for rational thought, are swept into the alchemical vortex created.

In fact, ‘Millennials’ wear many cloaks. Echo Boomers, Generation Me, Generation We, New Boomers the Net Generation and possibly the most interchanged name, Generation Y. The one factor that connects them all is that they’re a generation, sharing nothing more than a birthdate somewhere between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. That’s a full 20 years. And that’s everyone born during that period – or approximately 14 million people in the UK alone. Yet somehow, they’re too often seen as a homogenous mass, sharing traits and attitudes and behaviours that somehow, make them a useful targeting profile. Generation Y? Generalisation Y more like.

Here are just a few of those Generalisations.

  • Millennials are confident and team orientated with a greater sense of civic duty and social responsibility than generations before them. They want to achieve; indeed, they expect to achieve, and they expect to do it in their own way.
  • Millennials are lazy and work shy, apparently, and more like to have narcissistic tendencies – either a high degree of attention seeking and a quest for power or more of a self-orientation, being defensive, idealistic and having a keen sense of entitlement.
  • In the work place, work-life balance is valued more highly; they’re likely to pursue creative roles, or possible multiple roles to fulfil their different life goals. Not bound by loyalty to institutions, they’re also much more likely to hop from job to job, like ambitious rabbits.
  • Millennials are supposed to be more liberal – both socially and economically – yet they are typically less politically active (witness Brexit, where ‘Millennial’ voter turnout was lower than all other age cohorts)
  • They are ‘always on’ these super-connected digital natives, not knowing any other way of living – using digital for getting the news and connecting with friends with social media habitually –creating alter-egos
    for themselves in the digital world vs. the physical world

Slide1I’m sure you know a ‘Millennial’ or two; indeed, you could well be one. You may recognise yourself in some of this – both positive and less so. But here’s the rub: you’re just as likely to recognise people who are older, maybe even younger – who share these traits. I don’t fall into the Millennial age bracket, but I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative (a trait of Millennials apparently). I’m not lazy or work shy, yet neither are many younger people that I’ve worked with or mentor. In fact, I’ve not known a group of young people who have had to work so hard as this one: to afford to rent in London, to pay down student debt, or just to get or hold down yet another low paying internship for some much-cherished work experience. It’s as hard graft as the Industrial Revolution, just very, very different work – and slightly less grimy. And I’ve not known a generation who have been shown so little genuine loyalty by employers, many of whom are more concerned with metrics rather than real engagement. No wonder engagement is lower and little loyalty is shown.

Rather than targeting a whole generation, what’s more useful to brand owners and brand builders is striking the right balance between identifying a meaningful market segment – defined not by birth year, but by attitude and behaviour. One big enough and recognisable enough to the people you are targeting to actually move the needle commercially and ‘small’ enough to be differentiating and informative for targeting your brand or your marketing activities.

So, don’t think ‘Millennial’. Don’t think ‘Generation Y’. Think ‘Why Generalise?’ Why generalise when you can build a consumer targeting profile yourself. Why generalise when you can develop a whole consumer market segmentation if needs be – one that is more useful, more usable and more commercially valuable than crude brushstrokes.

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. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260 © The Crow Flies, 2017

Winging brand positioning

slide1Not that long ago I was asked by a client to review different brand positioning models with a view to taking best practice and my, as a marketeer, what an illuminating way to spend a few days it was.  Whilst it was no doubt a lesson in metaphors and also surprisingly educational about amusing fruits, body parts and long-forgotten polygonal shapes, what was particularly striking were the commonalities (or lack of them): what great brand positioning statements need to have and where they slip up. Here at The Crow Flies we call this the ‘2 Wings and 10 Feathers’. But we would, wouldn’t we? The important point is that firstly, there are 5 critical building blocks of a positioning – the structure of what’s important to construct a compelling and consistent brand, and secondly there are 5 watch outs to ensure the way the positioning is constructed is sharp, meaningful and clear.

Wing 1: the 5 building blocks

Clarity of purpose: too often, ‘purpose’ is treated as a mandatory corporate tick box exercise (see here) and too often it’s confused with commercial goals. Being clear on what you want to be, for whom, by when is important – but not here. That’s for your plan.  Purpose is something else, higher level, heart-felt. It’s why your business does what it does, or in this case, why your brand does what it does.  It’s crucial – arguably the most crucial aspect of your brand positioning – because it provides guidance. It cuts off the options. It forces choice and sacrifice. It defines what you won’t do as much as what you will.

Defining who the target consumer is and their connection to your brand: it’s staggering how often the brand positioning models reviewed made no reference to the target consumer. None. Or perhaps a blunt socio-demographic description and a few random comments on what media ‘Jules’ likes to consume. Clarifying who the target is, in a way they would recognise, and more importantly what the problem is they want fixing, the need they want met or the simple desire they want fulfilled is a cornerstone of a great positioning.

Defining what the brand is and what the benefit is: your brand exists to fulfil a need. Your brand is in some way bought as a reward for fulfilling the needs, desires or fixing your targets’ problems. So of course, being clear on what your brand offers functionally and what reward it meets emotionally is critical. Identifying the underlying truth of your brand that matters is essential too – but you can only define this if you’re clear on who your target is and what they’re looking for. There’s a virtuous circle that both keeps you honest and helps you make great decisions.

Defining how it is recognised: great brands are instantly recognisable. Great brands own many mental pathways and one of those is a bundle of visual and semiotic cues. Colours, shapes, words.  These ‘anchors’ can be a curse if your brand has to change, but your greatest asset if you’re in good shape and looking to accelerate.

Defining the nature of the relationship: ultimately a strong brand is more than a product. It builds a friendship relationship with its consumers. Yes, it delivers something functional in a way that a product does, but how it communicates, and how it does so consistently over time, means that a relationship is built that is beyond transactions.

Wing 2: the 5 ‘watch outs’

Confusion – this first point builds on the foundations. What does each element do, why? It’s incredible how many of the positioning models reviewed bandy phrases around. Positioning, proposition, promise. Values, Principles, Traits, Personality, Tone of Voice; Essence. Lots of elements, but no order, no clarity.

Duplication – of words, sections, phrases. It’s a personal bugbear, but the repetition of phrases in multiple locations in a brand positioning is a clear signal that it’s not fully understood. Precision is key.

Compounding – why have one benefit when you can have ten? It’s so tempting –because your brand can offer many benefits, doesn’t mean it should. In fact, let’s not beat around the bush, it definitely shouldn’t.  As consumers, we are impacted by thousands of pieces of data every day. Our brain is effectively a big filtering system, and if it can filter something out, it will.  Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Your goal, your aspiration, is to be single-minded.

Fluffiness – whilst it’s tempting to unleash the inner poet or lyricist, most positioning statements suffer because, like a member of TOWIE, there are too many fillers, and not enough power. Don’t be tempted to crack your positioning in a day. Draft it. Write contenders. Get input and constantly, constantly, distil; which leads nicely on to…

Over-elaborate – as Albus Dumbledore so notably said, words have so much power they can become magical. It’s easy therefore to be tempted to scribe five words when one will do. Celebrate simplicity.

Great brand positionings? It’s a matter of two wings and no prayers.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, brand strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. If you’re looking for brand positioning help, drop a line to  david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260

 © The Crow Flies, 2017

Mistrust

slide1There’s a tendency in business to always put a positive spin on things – somehow to be ashamed to face up to the big issues in plain speaking language and dress them in such polite terms that they lose their meaning. On Tuesday though, I gave a presentation at the annual Organic September trade briefing in London, hosted by Soil Association Certification, one of the themes of which was mistrust. In fact, it was the first point I made.

I was, I’ll admit, a little bit fearful about how it would land – would I be seen as a doom-sayer when actually the headline news is good (the organic market is growing by over 5% in a food market that’s flat and sluggish)? Because, although it’s a brutal fact, mistrust is all around us at the moment. I’m no political commentator, but take Brexit. ‘Out’ votes driven by fear, anger and mistrust of privilege, of politicians, of Europe, of faceless Bureaucrats, of ‘silly’ laws, of the status quo. And in food retail, what else drives the pervading mistrust of big food producers and big food retailers as horsemeat scandals, obesity crises (for whom the retailers, fairly or not, are blamed), mass-manufacturing, ever falling quality, increasing prices and the perceived weasel-words of products and brands that get found out (and increasingly easily get found out, at that)?

So yes, I was fearful that it was a downbeat message and no amount of delightful condiments on the ‘Praise Sandwich’ would obscure the truth.

Yet for every weight, there is a counter balance; pendulums swing both ways. And for every issue there is an opportunity. Of course, if you are connected with the Organic or natural products movement, either as farmer, a grower, a producer, a retailer or brand owner, then you have reason to be cheerful. Never has there been such a sea change in the mainstream market seeking out provenance, transparency of production, desire to know more about producers, dare I say it… craft – than now. And it’s only going one way. Look at the new channels appearing – online, concrete, pop-up, markets – the fragmentation of retail away from ‘the big weekly shop’ can only benefit these retailers. And look at the incredible array of entrepreneurs and small businesses, of all ages, all attitudes, backing their beliefs and bringing sensational new products to market. Many will fail – that is the way of things – but rarely have the tailwinds of fortune been so great. Never before have we seen so much consistent variety in high quality new product development. For someone interested in innovation, it’s like a premium version of Whack-A-Mole. One may fail, but three pop up.

This mistrust may seem to sting if you are in the volume end of the market, yet it is a nettle to be grasped. Take the big supermarkets for example; consumers squarely point the finger of blame at them. In our research we found that issues such as the ‘horse meat scandal’ became tipping points for their ire, electromagnets that once activated, attracted further critique, proving their fears, legitimising their concerns: ‘if they’re doing that, what else are they doing?’. Obesity crisis? That’s because the retailers force us to over buy because of their buy-one-get-one-free offers. The war on waste? Have you seen how much they throw away? Have you seen the over-packaging?

Yet this consumer mistrust really is an opportunity if a committed purpose is drawn up and big action is taken. Take yesterday’s theme, organic food. In the past it’s been seen as a middle class indulgence, yet now it’s being taken seriously by a broader church because of the natural and ever-increasingly innovative approaches being used, the scientific proof on nutrition being brought to the table, and of course, the willingness to adhere to – and be seen to adhere to – a higher standard of certification. Conventional or mixed farmers are taking note – so too should the retailers. And it is clearly not just about organic. This is about local; it’s about backing independent producers; it’s about knowing where our food comes from; it’s about breaking a crazy system that sees pork imported from the Far East somehow ‘cheaper’ than pork produced here. It’s about getting back some common sense – and commercial sense – and letting shoppers see it.

From a brand point of view it’s an opportunity too. The mistrust should spell the end of the silly era of ‘story-telling’. It’s not stories we need as consumers. If trust is wanted, truth is needed. Truth: plain, bare, simple.

(Coverage of the Organic September trade briefing can be found here:  http://www.naturalproductsonline.co.uk/soil-association-streamlined-message-make-organic-everyday-choice/)

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. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.

 © The Crow Flies, 2016

Increasing your chances of innovation success

There are sticky myths surrounding innovation. Take success rate. Only 7 out of 10 launches work. Or is it 80%? 50%? Brand extensions. They always weaken a brand, right? Wrong?

Slide1Ultimately what is generally agreed is that innovation is for poker players. There are high rewards possible and they only come with high risks. But you will certainly earn nothing if you don’t put any chips down. Honestly, I don’t know whether 1 in 7 launches work or 3 in 17. What matters is understanding what we can do to increase our chances of success.

Over the past two years, our business has been taking developing a fresh perspective on this very question, looking at our own client practice, published case studies and primary research with innovation practitioners. Interestingly, before we even consider where to innovate or on what there are two foundations – cornerstones that determine the success of everything else that innovative businesses attempt.

The first is cultural. What innovation will the business permit? This seems an odd question but we’ve found a clear gap between what is said and what is done. Innovation enjoys its fair share of grand pronouncements (‘We will reinvent the future of our category’, ‘Innovation will become our DNA’), but what really matters is what gets approved when the rubber hits the road. Many publicly listed companies need to innovate for the long-term, for example, fundamentally changing the way they work, or strengthening their core brands. These are not overnight tasks by any means, but they struggle to do so in an environment where shareholders and analysts are breathing down their necks for instant success. The Board transmit this short-termism through the business whether they realise it or not. It’s not to say that businesses such as these can’t innovate, nor that the innovation can be successful – it’s just that the strike rate of success will likely be low and potentially the really thorny, knotty challenges won’t be faced up to. Innovation therefore must strike the balance between long and short-term needs.

The second foundation is direction. If the company’s purpose and it’s values don’t allow for, or perhaps it’s better to say, inspire innovative ideas, innovative behaviour and allow for the diversity of thought, style and personality involved to be innovative, then the chances of success reduce again. The tell tale signs are whether innovation naturally flows out of the company’s purpose – not the vision, nor the goals, but the purpose – that ‘why we get out of bed in the morning’ sense of being that high performing businesses work off. If innovation is just a ‘tool’ for delivering a gap in the plan – beware.

And it’s easy to write about these foundations, much harder to put them in place. They are fundamental though – and by definition therefore they are big beasts to wrestle to the ground. But wrestle them you must.

Only then, it is possible to start innovating. And where to start?

What our research has shown is that – somewhat counter intuitively – the place to start is the core of your business. Oh, I’ll grant you, it’s not a sexy as doing crazy new stuff but here’s the thing – innovation is about balancing short and long-term. The core is more short-term and this has some advantages. What you do will be on an existing brand so the chances of creating some impact and momentum are higher. The core is 80% of what you do: your staff will therefore understand why you are doing it more and feel the need. And critically, it buys you time and space to work on the ‘other stuff’. But it doesn’t mean do anything to the core. The question should be, ‘how can I make the core of my business feel contemporary, cared about and vibrant?’ This means investigating your target consumers’ unmet needs in-depth; it means drilling into adjacent product territories or areas your competitors are naturally strong and most critically it means dramatising the existing brand positioning through your innovation effort. A brand that does this superbly is Coors Light – a top 5 beer brand worldwide. Everything it does communicates the global positioning of cold Rocky Mountain refreshment. In every market where the brand is on sale, you’ll see innovation (and brand activity) bringing to life the coldness of the brand through innovations like temperature sensitive ink from the ‘Blue Train’ in the US to Damme Cold in the UK. And they do this relentlessly, year in year out. The most innovative idea? No. But an idea that impacts the core of their business.

Then businesses can focus on the really new – the 20% today which will be the 80% of tomorrow. Here the questions are about large segments we’re not in but could credibly compete, or transitional trends (trends that are becoming mainstream) – or even unlocking the potential in unloved assets by repurposing them …. as well as, of course, inventing. When we asked our clients and practitioners about innovation, it’s this effort that seems to define innovation overall (the crazy new stuff). Importantly though, the successful innovation companies also recognise that this takes less of the focus, effort and resource but is protected nonetheless.

The Crow Flies now offers one-day stimulus sessions on how businesses can increase their chances of innovation success, which build on the principles and findings here. It would be great to hear from you if you find yourself wrestling (or not wrestling) with some of the big issues at play.

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. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2016