Autumn: the best time for brand planning

It comes as no coincidence that both my letterbox and media feeds are sending me all sorts of catalogues and top tips on gardening… it seems that now is deemed to be THE time in the gardening calendar to get it ready for next year. That, coupled with turning my attention outdoors to a much-neglected garden during lockdown, has obviously put me on the mailing list radar.

Whilst sifting through all this mail what struck me was that the parallels between Autumn brand planning and the Autumn gardening activity calendar both serve to make the right preparations for an impressive performance starting next Spring. After all, there’s nothing like getting the year off to a good start to make the hard slog to the end of the financial year so much easier. Plus there’s the feel good factor and confidence in what you are doing to bolster the commitment for the rest of the year – without the need for any budget cuts!

So, how to make the most of Autumn brand planning? Here are five things to consider:

  1. Review your performance over the year. It has been a testing year for all but by taking the time to take stock of what has worked well, what has failed, and sifting past the big macro-level factors that have impacted everyone to find the deeper underlying reasons of why for your brand, is time well spent between the trading peaks of Summer and Christmas. Too often marketing teams talk about but then don’t spend time unearthing the real truths behind performance: why new launches failed, why new distribution opportunities didn’t quite deliver, why redesigns fell flat or flew.
  2. Mind the gap! Where have other competitors performed well when you have struggled to make your mark? Has your brand been overshadowed by new market entrants? Were you waiting in the wings, hoping things would get better when other brands were stealing the march and confidently pushing forward. Gap spotting is such a critical part of understanding your brand’s opportunities.
  3. Perfect your positioning. Be really honest. Do consumers, customers, stakeholders and colleagues truly have a shared understanding of the brand, what it delivers & how it delivers it? Is it consistent, distinctive and differentiated? If it isn’t, now is the time to get under the skin and review.
  4. Try something new. When the stakes are high, risk is often avoided but sometimes when the market is stagnating, breaking away with new ideas and approaches is what is needed to invigorate growth. How brave are you?
  5. Land the brand. A great plan needs the support of the business. 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.

Now more than ever is the time to get your brand back on people’s radar – start planning!


Gael Laurie is Brand Building Director of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 246260;; @crowflieshigh

Ride For The Bees 2020

We’re doing our fundraising this year for the wonderful Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Bees are in trouble. In the last 80 years our bumblebee populations have crashed. Two species have become nationally extinct and several others have declined dramatically.

Bumblebees are familiar and much-loved insects that pollinate our crops and wildflowers, so people are rightly worried. We wanted to support The Bumblebee Conservation Trust because they’re a small charity doing vital work. They’ve set a vision to create a world where bumblebees are thriving and valued. And their mission is to increase the number and distribution of bumblebees.

So we’re going to be riding 165 miles off road, aiming to do it in 24 hours. That’s going to involve night riding by canals… what could possibly go wrong?

We’re not setting a date because the most important thing will be dry conditions and as much light as possible for the time of year. However we’re aiming for the 26th September but check into our social channels for updates (FB, Insta, or @crowflieshigh) – we might go earlier, we might go later. Whatever day it is, it’ll be slowly, slowly catchee buzzy on this one.

Please, please support the bees – even just a few Pounds make a big difference to the charity and it means a huge amount to us Crows too.

HERE’S a buzzy thought: if you have a garden, or an outdoor space, here are some great little tips for how you can make it bee and pollinator friendly! Give them a go!

Gardening advice


Launch of Crow Visualisation


Brands have to inspire internally before they can excite externally – the sell-in is critical. That’s why we’re launching Crow Visualisation today (10th September 2020). We’ve noticed that the link between great thinking and action is often overlooked. So we’ve assembled a crack flock of Crows with specialist expertise from concept visualisation and prototype rendering, bringing insights to life, data visualisation and infographics, business presentations and “decks” and even storyboards, videos and animation. Our aim is to create hard working visuals that help you create momentum inside your business and with your customers and key stakeholders.

For a list of our specific services click on the link here.

Change of Crows!

I’m delighted to announce that Gael Laurie is joining The Crow Flies as Brand Building Director from 1st September. Gael and I worked together 20 years ago but fortunately having scared her away once, she’s still happy to work with me again! Gael has what we look for in all the Crows: a wealth of experience working on leading FMCG brands (across drinks, Pharma and personal hygiene) and with her previous creative consultancy experience, helping smaller and challenger brands build a strong platform for growth. As well as that, she has, by her own admission, a naturally nosy nature into what drives people’s behaviour – perfect for when we look to apply research learnings and insights into brand strategy and innovation plans to deliver brands with foundations of stone.

Gael takes over from Rob Parker – Rob has had a long term ‘itch’ around education and teaching. For many years, he’s been a leader in the Scout movement and took the opportunity of lockdown to start the process of training to be a teacher. He starts today (*gulp*) and whilst he is a loss to the Crow team, he will make a passionate, committed and inspiring educator and leader for young people. A cliché, but truly meant, our loss is education’s gain. We wish him well, but we know with his attention to detail and commitment to a cause he believes in, ‘good luck’ is something he will create for himself.

David Preston, Founder – The Crow Flies | +44 (0) 7885 408367 | +44 (0 7515 491252

General enquiries: | +44 (0) 1283 246260

Leading for innovation

In tough consumer markets, management teams often look to innovation to plug gaps in their plan and grow the top line in new and different ways, never more so as economic downturn threatens. Yet the promises and hype of innovation soon mean that myths & questionable practice can be confused with innovation reality. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the hard yards needed and the challenges to be overcome in the warm, coddling, glow of promises of ‘easy’ business success.

There are no quick fixes, no “hacks”, that guarantee success from innovation. Innovation is betting. You make your bet, you hope your number comes up. On balance, failure is more likely than success…but innovation success isn’t just luck either.  You can influence the odds in your favour.

And the place to start is with leadership.

Leaders play a crucial role putting the preconditions in place that make innovation success more likely. Working across different challenges, we’ve identified 5 innovation leadership success factors:

Words and Behaviours
The desire to innovate has to be more than a grand gesture or a noble wish. It has to be more than one person’s passion, even if that person is the CEO. And it definitely has to be more than words, even if those words are spoken with heart-felt belief. Purpose, strategy, structure, working practices, behaviours, targets… all have to add up, incrementally, to make launching great ideas more inevitable.

  • Invest time on putting solid foundations in place before you leap into resourcing up or creating ideas. Take the time to get everyone, properly, truly aligned and bought-in. This will not happen overnight, and it certainly won’t happen by e-mail the day after a leadership away day.
  • Create a purpose for innovation that flows from the company purpose. In fact, it will be a cornerstone in delivering it. An innovation purpose acts both as a guiding star and guard rails. It should motivate and keep you honest and on track.
  • Be clear on innovation strategy. What do you aim to be, for whom, by when? What are the handful of enablers that can propel you forward or blockers that will hold you back? Address them relentlessly.
  • Structure for innovation. Set aside investment. Set aside time. Set aside people, being clear on what they must deliver versus the responsibilities of everyone else. Recognise that how you measure and incentivise their success may be different to others, as innovation will always have a longer-term focus.
  • Think about working practices; innovators need the space to be creative but the urgency of knowing they must deliver at pace.
  • Be clear on how behaviours will need to differ to allow innovation to flourish versus that of your other marketing teams.

Failure: the fuel of success
Innovation is rarely smooth. There will be bumps in the road and commitment to the cause will wobble. At the moment when a new product or service fails, or when you pull the plug, the whole strategy is put under the microscope. Doubters surface and get vocal. The whispering begins. Quash it. Immediately.

Recognise that failures are the fuel of success. Failures can lead to profound learnings about how to make something a success. This is when your leadership and your strategic alignment to innovation will be tested most – and in many respects it’s the real test of the innovation leadership mettle of the business.

Nothing to something is more than ideas
Of course innovation is about coming up with great ideas. But, thinking about the whole journey from nothing to something, ideas are really just a small part of it. Beanbags and chocolates play a role but are a small part of it. Brainstorms are part of it, but just a small part.

The whole journey is about understanding where to innovate (and why), who for (and why), what (and why), and the how… turning something from an interesting thought, some well-chosen words and beautiful sketch into a prototype and ultimately about committing resources into making that thing happen. Innovation is more than grand gestures. Committing resources isn’t just a creating a new role and allocating some loose change to bring things to life – it could be a new packaging line – and they don’t come cheap and they don’t come without absolute commitment to the cause.

Rhythm and routine
In innovation, increasing your chances of success means establishing a rhythm and routine in creating new concepts. If you lose a bet you have another chip to place. If your big bet doesn’t pay off today, you have another for tomorrow and the day after. Success in innovation comes through quality and quantity. Success comes through having ideas, concepts and prototypes all along the innovation journey. Getting the business into a rhythm and routine creates confidence. Spotting insights, creating ideas, developing concepts, validating with consumers, launching, learning and going-again. And again. Accruing learning. Building competence. Building some swagger.

Process and chaos; loose and tight
Innovation needs process but not to be strangled by it. It needs discipline, but the space to break some rules. It needs fag-packet calculations and 5-year NPVs. It’s the constant tension between process and chaos that allows innovation to thrive. Too much process and you will stifle creativity and execution. Too much chaos and you risk throwing darts at a dartboard backhand whilst facing the wrong way. You may hit the bullseye, but the chances are slim and you won’t know how to repeat it. It’s the recognition that innovation is a dance between looseness and tightness that makes the chances of success more likely. Innovation needs flexible guidance, not dogmatic rules.

All this, and not one idea created yet. That’s innovation for you. The success is in the hard-yards that few people give you credit for. It’s in the foundations for the house that are never seen. But without them, the glorious palace comes tumbling down. Innovation leadership, strategy and culture. Without them, the odds are against you.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 246260;; @crowflieshigh

Research re-emergence (a moving feast)

As the Government begins to ease us out of the lockdown, we’re getting a fair few enquires about what brands can and can’t do in terms of research.

Pandemic considerations

As well as working on a number of online research projects through the pandemic, we’ve been listening to and contributing to different debates in the research sector and there are a few clear themes:

  1. The pandemic is not having an adverse effect on recruitment quality (assuming you plan with care)
  2. Yes, people have time on their hands, but there are no real issues with a rise in non-representative or ‘hobby’ participants
  3. Quality of responses remains high (there was a fear that we would get people taking part to fill their time – turns out time is precious even during lockdown)
  4. Face to face has stopped temporarily and will likely be slow to start up.

Research approaches
A number of enquiries worry that Online Qualitative research is just a ‘Poor Man’s’ version of face-to-face. As with most things in life, balance is required: there are clear similarities online research needs to be seen as an additional yet slightly different tool in our armoury for understanding people’s behaviours and attitudes.

Face-to-face Groups (also Connections / Mini Groups and so on)
There are two factors often overlooked in ’traditional’ face-to-face qualitative research which underline its real value.

Firstly, humans are a social species and Groups give the opportunity to observe social interaction – bear in mind, copying behaviour is enormously important in people’s lives and therefore understanding where there is agreement, dissonance and influence effects that change views, is incredibly valuable.

Secondly, and related to this, as we begin to understand more about the non-conscious pre-eminence (System 1) in our behaviour, so Groups give us the opportunity to study non-verbal behaviour and interaction as well as visual ‘ evealers’ of beliefs, values and behaviours – things like metaphors, for example. They allow us to get deeper understanding in a way that is not immediately obvious and a sense of how heartfelt or deep views are held.

But when can face-to-face start up in a safe way?
Well, not yet, clearly but soon – and here are some of the things we’re planning for groups in the coming months:

  • run smaller groups so we can allow more space – think shorter, mini groups and more of them rather, than larger, longer groups
  • use well-ventilated spaces
  • allow longer for recruitment (the recruitment pool will temporarily shrink and we’ll need to reassure about participants well being during the process)
  • allow participants to bring their own food (no handling, no sharing platters!)
  • provision anti-bac hand wipes / sanitising gel
  • advise against sitting behind the mirror clients (who will want to sit in a confined space anyway?) – viewing in room, smaller numbers watching only, or potentially consider remote viewing / streaming too.

As the situation develops we’ll amend our guidance and advice – and obviously, widely available tests / vaccines will make a massive difference.

Online Focus groups, conducted in real time (synchronous)
These are run using video conferencing software. They are particularly useful for observing instinctive reactions from participants to stimulus materials, and for verbal engagement between participants. In practice they are best run in a mini-group format with 3-4 participants. Whilst not welcome, a byproduct of the pandemic is making more people familiar with technologies such as Zoom and Teams, which means barriers to using video conferencing are falling (although this shouldn’t be overstated). And we’re learning a lot about the best way to set the calls up to ensure we can see people and their body reaction, not just hearing what they say (avoiding ‘Half A Head’ syndrome!).

The watchouts are that it requires more set up and time to ensure that the participants are comfortable, not distracted and ready to focus on the discussion. Stimulus is also trickier and we’ve been developing a few interesting ways to introduce stimulus and use it to good effect over the last few weeks. So – don’t think of online groups as a poor relation – they have clear differences and advantages which make them a worthy consideration depending on the project objectives and the timelines.

Asynchronous Online Focus groups and Bulletin Boards
‘Asynchronous’ is surely a high scorer in Scrabble, but all it means is that people respond in their own time, rather than in an immediate conversation with the moderator. We prefer the name ‘Bulletin Board’ for this reason – you post a message on the fridge door and they respond when they see it

These are run over several days, with participants spending 15-30 minutes each day answering the questions and replying to questions and further probing. They’re not ideal for group interaction, but they can produce good results when this is not needed; they’re great for individual reflection and they are a little more cost effective and faster (end to end) than real-time online groups or face-to-face Groups. At The Crow Flies, we like them, but generally would recommend that they support other methods. They’re particularly useful when used with ‘top and tail’ dialogue approaches for example, a video / face to face interview to kick off; then the online group and perhaps an interview to close.

Qualitative Online Surveys
Sometimes people talk about ‘quali-quant approaches’ and they can seem either like a pragmatic badge of honour or a hybrid – somehow, there are methodological compromises. Well, Qualitative Online Surveys are a great reposte to that. If you do not need group interaction these online surveys may be something to consider: this method uses time controls and plausibility checks to elicit good quality answers, both instinctive and considered. It can also include probing, using a Virtual Moderator (which is a predictive AI tool that runs in the background). We can even build in IAT methods too (implicit attitude testing) to grab that initial ‘purchase moment’ reaction.

The depth of the qual findings isn’t as pronounced as in a Group of course, but they are really useful for identifying the fundamentals of what people are looking for – their immediate needs; the instinctive appeal of concepts or ideas (or lack of appeal!) as well as a good level of richness about what territories hold potential and why. There’s another inbuilt advantage – they give a bigger sample size than qual – 150 – 200 would be perfectly feasible here.

Digital Diaries / ethnographic
If you’re interested in how a pandemic affects daily life, or affects your brand / offer in real time, this is the way to go – a longer-term digitally-led approach. Here of course, people’s everyday behaviour has changed markedly through lockdown – this may make these approaches more or less valid.

With the right permissions in place, intercepts are perfectly possible. Social distancing is fairly easy to implement and the presence of wearing a ruddy great mask may also help! Bear in mind, that strike rate is likely to be lower as people remain nervous (if you could see our hair at the moment, you’d be nervous too…)

Quantitative research
Broadly speaking quantitative research continues as normal – the only thing we’re finding is that for longer surveys, drop-out rates are better – probably fewer distractions. Our development focus on quant is to push into understanding System 1 responses as much as System 2 – Implicit Attitude Testing, Find Time testing are good examples of this.

To chat through in greater detail, feel free to drop us a line.

David & Rob


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. | +44 (0) 1283 246260 | | © The Crow Flies, 2020




Shout don’t whisper

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.

Chirp and Chat

Hello Crow Friends.

We’re now many weeks into the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. We know that many of our brand building buddies are under pressure to deliver the necessities of short term operations, are furloughed or are facing redundancy. We’re pretty certain that there’s a recession to follow too, for that little extra kick.

It’s a situation that can take an enormous toll on our wellbeing and our wallets. It’s impacting families across generations.

What we can be certain about it that together, we’re better. So, to our clients and other Crow friends, if you want to chat, either just to chew the ‘brand-fat’ or chirp things through with a friendly voice and a listening ear, we’re here.

Stay safe and well.


A Crow message to our Crow Friends

During this stressful time there’s one over-riding priority: stay safe, fit and healthy. When us Crows face a danger, we hunker down, stay in our nests, keep a stock of worms and keep an eye on the Crowlets. They can fledge later after all.

If you are a brand builder and you’re working from home, we have published a blog underlining why this is a (counter-intuitively) unique time to build a rigourous, focused brand and brand plan. We have been gifted the one thing that is a rare and precious resource in this day and age: time.

And we’ve just published what you can do with that time here – most brand building tasks can still continue, moving either online (research) or remotely (strategy, innovation, planning, visualisation).

If you are one of lovely clients or just a Crow Friend – new or future – and if you are struggling during this time either because of the impacts on your business, your family & friends or if you’re just feeling a bit low – please pick up the blower. Talking things through is an incredible tonic. You’re not alone. The might of the Crow flock is here and with you.

Stay well,

Founder, The Crow Flies