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!
To donate please go to:
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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org | +44 (0) 1283 246260 | http://www.linkedin.com/company/the-crow-flies-ltd?trk=company_name | https://www.facebook.com/thecrowfliesltd © The Crow Flies, 2018
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.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy, innovation and brand planning company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands. email@example.com // +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
In these digital infatuated times, brands too often overlook the criticality of positioning. It seems quaint somehow. Just another marketing term beginning with ‘P’, it’s even given equal weight as the others. When the narrative in the press, and even respected marketing titles, asserts that people, in their revulsion against big corporates, don’t want brands anymore, and that Millennials are somehow radically different from all the other 18-34 people who have gone before (and from everyone else), and that adverts in ‘traditional media’ no longer work (only ‘content’), well, unless you take a check-step, you may actually believe it. Because, be clear: it’s all nonsense. It’s fake news.
Yes, our times are different. Yes, we have information and digital technology empowering and changing our society and lives in new ways. But in our responses, are we any different to those in the 1830s onwards, when confronted by the revolution of the railway and effective mass transportation? Or the 1700s when confronted with the revolution of organised industry, or before that technology on agriculture? Underneath it all, we are human and respond in fundamentally human ways; we have the same needs and desires. Yes, the manifestations of our needs are in response to new inputs… but why should they be different?
Feminism, consumerism, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the destruction of manufacturing industries, the decline of traditional institutions such as the church – all these and many more have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Kenan Malik 4th Feburary 2018
The structures of our society are going through radical change. And as a consequence, there’s never been a time when brands are more important navigators for people. Brands continue to fulfil needs and desires on so many levels. These may be purely functional or they may be about our self-identity, but brands remain a constant for everyone in our society, rich or poor. Critically, brands remain a cornerstone for how we navigate life – sometimes actively, more often in the background – but a consistent presence nonetheless. And of course, we leave some brands behind, yet we discover and adopt new ones – since the introductions of brands as we understand them now in the 1800s, it was ever thus. Just because of artisan products from small producers at places like Borough Market, or craft products are sold on Etsy, doesn’t mean brands are dead – the space expands and frankly, it just gets more interesting. Nick Johnson, co-owner of Mackie Mayor a new artisan food hall in Altrincham, Cheshire says, “All our vendors are passionate and independent. We are originators. It’s an antidote to brand mentality”. But he’s wrong. If you look at the craft movement, those that are commercially successful, that scale-up (to a reasonable level to ensure their continued survival) are the ones that create brands. Some protect their independence and grow, some take the money and sell out. If you’re of an ‘artisan’ mentality’ it may make you uncomfortable, but consumers still want brands as much as ever. They may start differently, look different, they may have a different ownership structure or long-term ambition; they may have a different experience, but they are brands nonetheless.
Whilst competition exists, brands exist. And so long as we want to express ourselves through what we consume, brands will exist.
So to treat brand positioning casually, to assume it is less important today, is perhaps the greatest mistake of anyone running a brand. As new methods of manufacture and retail are devised, as new brand launches proliferate in response, the act of setting yourself out differently from current and potential competitors becomes the single most important task you have.
There are all sorts of brand positioning models and structures: onions, pyramids, keys, eyes. Worrying about the layout is missing the point. A great brand positioning has four, distinct, parts: it defines the target consumer and what connects them to the brand; it defines the brand itself, the offer it makes, the benefits it gives; it is clear about the relationship it has with you, it’s beliefs and behaviours, and finally it is unambiguous over visual gateways it owns – symbols, signs, sounds, by which people recognise it by.
At the heart of this is the positioning pitch. What does the brand give me, what’s the benefit, why can this brand make this claim? And given the digital marketeers focus on shares, pokes and likes, it’s perhaps ironic that at the heart of a great brand positioning is an unlike.
This isn’t the act of removing your preference for something. Rather it is being totally clear on who you are unlike.
Unlike Gilette, shaving with Harry’s is cheaper, funkier, more convenient and just as smooth.
Unlike any other form of transport, Brompton cleanly revolutionises your city transportation.
Unlike any other ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s is packed full of chunky indulgent bits.
It’s time to unlike this faddish love of digital marketing and get back to positioning like a pro.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org / +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
“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.
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. email@example.com; +44 (0) 1283 246260. For a different perspective on your research, strategy or innovation brand challenges, get in touch. © The Crow Flies, 2018
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.
And 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. firstname.lastname@example.org; +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
“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.
It’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 email@example.com 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.
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.
Let’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
- 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.
- 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…
- …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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Go long
Longitudinal and dialogue techniques will cast light on how consumers actually behave over time. These fresh perspectives can unlock real value.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260
© The Crow Flies, 2017
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.
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. email@example.com; +44 (0) 1283 246260
© The Crow Flies, 2017