A massive, massive thank you for everyone who has supported The Big Crow Adventure this year in aid of Footprints Orphanage – so far we’ve beaten our target and donations are still coming in. Please donate if you haven’t already – it makes a huge difference to the children.
As suspected, we weren’t blessed with the best of weather – 400km was a tough ask of 100k or 60 miles a day – and we left in rain and finished in rain. In between, lots of muddy towpaths, puddles and one or two steep, steep hills. At the end tired legs and aching bums, but the challenge is a big part of why we do it.
Here’s a little pictorial reflection of the ride – thanks again if you’ve donated already and if you want to know more about Footprints and the work they do, click here.
Our annual team challenge, The Big Crow Adventure – the Crows are riding this year 400km in 4 days, all off road, knobbly tired bikes, no flying or stealing performance-enhancing worms… in the traditional UK ‘dry season’ of October…
This year we’re doing the ride in aid of Footprints Orphanage – please take a look at their website to see the incredible work they do to help the children. In the UK, we have free health care, education and we don’t go hungry, but in Kenya that doesn’t happen. With your help we can continue to give these children a loving home environment and hope for the future. Every penny raised goes direct to the Orphanage.
Our route is roughly 100km or 60 miles per day:
Day 1: Crow Towers – Wirksworth in the Peak District, via the Trent & Mersey, Erewash & Cromford Canals
Day 2: Wirksworth – Sandbach in Cheshire via the High Peak Trail, Buxton and the Derbyshire reservoirs, the High Peak Canal to Marple near Stockport then down the Middlewood Path and Macclesfield Canal into the Cheshire Plain.
Day 3: Sandbach – Sandbach along the Shropshire Union canal, through the Beeston Gap to Chester, then up to the Bridgewater Canal and back down the top section of the Trent & Mersey via the Anderton Lift
Day 4: Sandbach to Crow Towers, along the Trent & Mersey through the Potteries and a much needed meal of grubs, dried insects and possibly twig sprinkles.
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.
We’re really pleased to kick off our first company fundraiser, The Big Crow Adventure.
It all started in memory of a life-loving friend who passed away unexpectedly, shocking us to the core. After tentative first steps, this year, we’re stepping up The Big Crow Adventure as a chance to take stock of what’s important, whilst pushing ourselves, connecting with the great outdoors and doing some good for some charities who do such incredible work in our country and our communities.
This year, we’re aiming to ride 500 miles off-road in the month of September. If you’re a cyclist, you may think that 500 miles in a month isn’t that stretching. Our aim though is to do as much of this off road as possible, whilst holding down our lovely Crow jobs. And if it helps to scale this, 1 mile off road is normally accepted as being the equivalent of 2 – 3 on road, (or more depending on the terrain). Or putting it another way, from Crow HQ to Moscow as The Crow Flies.
The main ‘adventure’ is a grand ’round’ – a 200 mile circular off road route starting in Devizes, that takes in the sites of ancient Britain – the Ridgeway, all the various White Horses in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire as well as Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain. As well as that, we have a ‘Century’ – from the Crow office to Buxton up in the Peak District and back, planned for the end of the month. Where we’ll fit in the other 200, well, who knows!?
We’re supporting two charities this year. Locally, we’re raising money for St Giles Hospice Care, who help care for local people and their families in the Lichfield / Burton area. Nationally, getting behind British Heart Foundation and the vital work they do in battling heart disease.
It would be great if you can support us in any way knowing that whatever donation you do make, it is hugely appreciated and making a difference. Thanks for your support and thanks for supporting the Adventure!
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.
Having moved from ‘client side’ brand building to ‘agency side’ after twenty years (something I’m consistently told is quite unusual), I’m often asked what advice I would give to marketeers running brands in business today. Well, rather like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the big thing is to beware the bubble:
The bubble of belief that you understand consumers.
Understanding people is a lifelong pastime. It requires on-going curiosity and nosiness. It absolutely requires the belief that you can be proved wrong at any time.
The bubble of belief that in your business ‘that’s how life is’.
I used to fall for this one. That somehow, the air here is rarer, special, unique. That we have to work harder or longer in order to stay competitive. It’s not. You’re not. Challenge yourself all the time as to how you can simplify what you do and how you do it. How you can have a bigger impact with less resource in less time.
The bubble of delusion that your brand really matters
No brand is un-replaceable. Go in with that attitude, a bit of brand humility, keep it close, and you won’t go far wrong.
The bubble of confidence that belies what consumers really think
If you ever find yourself sitting in a research group, and think ‘we know this already’ … stop yourself. If you do know it, are you acting on it? I’m constantly flabbergasted by how the simple insights or the obvious problems to solve aren’t being worked on (often because they’re seen as generic, or owned by another brand. Are they? Really? Really?)
The bubble of brand immortality Brands are entities created by humans that have a lifecycle. Not a smooth one like in the textbooks, but a lifecycle nonetheless. You can eat healthily and you can stay fit. So can brands. But ultimately your brand will die. Manage the portfolio carefully and ensure that you pass on anything you touch in better condition than when it was handed to you. But when it’s time to go, cut the cord and focus on the next generation.
The bubble of hype Stay close to market developments. Be interested in consumers, in retailers. Be interested in the world of your agencies not just companies. Read and listen and get out more. But don’t forget that brand building is a skill and has core disciplines – research, strategy, innovation, planning, design, communications – be the best you can be at these to the level appropriate to your role today and where you want to go tomorrow.
The bubble of capacity and capability If you find yourself being asked to do this and this and this and this. If, you believe you can… then pause. Forget the stereotypes about women can multi-task and men can’t, the point is this. We can only be effective if we focus on given tasks and execute them thoroughly. Same for brands. Do less. Sacrifice – not prioritise and slice – sacrifice; and then put everything into hammering them into the market and the minds of your target.
The bubble of self-importance
You’re just someone making their way in the world. Beware the trappings of power and try to stay humble, open and connected.