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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. email@example.com; +44 (0) 1283 246260; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh
Pull your brand through isolation and come out stronger
These are distressing times, unprecedented times and times when the needs of the community and those most vulnerable in it rightly have to be placed above those of businesses. Nothing supersedes this. For marketeers and brands however, this adversity presents opportunities to get brand and marketing plans in the best shape they’ve ever been. Planning can’t be rushed but that’s invariably what marketeers are asked to do. Few if any marketing teams are given enough time to develop, refine and sell their plans.
Proper time. Not the snatched moments between the multiple distractions of corporate office life. Planning sessions are squeezed in when a calendar gap allows. Instead, the focus becomes getting plans done, getting them sold in. It’s little wonder there are gaps and inconsistencies. It’s little wonder that there are different agendas pushing the brand in different directions post ‘sign-off’. We see six common issues:
Not all consumers or even business stakeholders fully understand the brand or really get behind it
There are too many different views on what the brand stands for and how it should be behaving
Plan activities spring out of nowhere. Ideas get their boots on before strategy has woken up
The plan tries to tick every box (& can’t). Everyone’s been appeased but the brand makes no impact
Different agendas. Plans are derailed by a lack of shared unity on the strategy or the focus of activities
For brand owners, the commercial world slowing from its usual pace means that there is a rare opportunity to stop the fire-fighting and get deep and strong brand foundations in place. Foundations, that link powerful insights to purposeful activation, focusing energy on activities that genuinely impact the consumer instead of endlessly discussing and tweaking.
Home working and isolation are a potential liberator. Working this way is more efficient and effective. It creates the time for you to delve into and reflect on the category, and to properly plot your competitive strategy and review your brand positioning. It frees precious time to get closer to your target audience, to review & refine your consumer segmentation or even test innovation concepts (research is alive and well incidentally, and consumers who would otherwise be unavailable or harder to recruit suddenly are more open to spending some time with you).
Don’t miss this opportunity, use it wisely and you’ll never look back:
Spend time understanding your consumers: don’t just re-read an aging insight report. Immerse yourself in their world, properly understand them, talk to them. Pinpoint your target audience, prioritise their needs and place irrefutable insight at the heart of your strategy.
Review your positioning: do consumers, customers, stakeholders and colleagues truly have a shared understanding of the brand, what it delivers & how it delivers it? Is it powerful, consistent and differentiated? If it isn’t, now is the time to make changes.
Create a brand plan that stands up to challenge: are the key insights clear? Do they run like a vein of gold all the way through to actions? Do they confront the brutal truths or address the differentiating opportunities? Look at what you’re planning: are you ‘salami slicing’ and investing too little in too many activities? Have you forced sacrifice to execute with scale?
Get innovative: you’ve finally got time to be creative, do so. You don’t need to be in groups to come up with ideas. Time to reflect is stimulus in its own right. Idea generation sessions can be held digitally, innovation frameworks can be agreed to focus efforts on areas with the greatest commercial scope, ideas can be tested, refined and prepared for launch.
Build the big sell: an insight is nothing if it doesn’t grab people. A strategy is nothing if it doesn’t create action. Innovation is nothing if you can’t bring the ideas to life. A brand plan is nothing if it doesn’t inspire. Focus time on creating the tools that will sell your brand and your plan not only to customers but also internally, to stakeholders and sales teams. Buy in is everything, don’t leave it as an after-thought.
When we all return to offices and ‘normality’ you don’t have to return to a culture of justification and endless debate, you can return with a brand and business strategy that unites, inspires and frees you to focus your efforts on delivering it. It may feel odd to say it, but there’s rarely been a better opportunity to set up your brand with foundations of stone as good as this. Grab it.
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.
“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.
*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.
On the news the other day, there was a report about two American sailors who have to be rescued 9 times by various coastal rescue services – just on their journey from Norway to Cornwall. They still have their trans-Atlantic crossing to make in a boat, ‘Nora’ that looks clinker built and is, well ‘romantic’ more than seaworthy. At the same time and on a seemingly unrelated path, I have been wrestling with a recurring challenge on innovation projects: why do great ideas get ditched so quickly?
The analogy of an ocean storm is what draws the comparison here. The ‘storm’ is the annual round of business and brand planning. Like a Force 12 storm blowing in, it approaches fast; it swirls and blows – disrupting normal events; the waves are big, awe-inspiring in fact and it demands immediate action.
If a brand plan is a good one, out of this maelstrom come the annual action plans, innovation being one of them. Teams set off, get briefs written and engage various partners. Insights are articulated and challenges expressed. Ideas are generated and validation kicks in. Yet, more often than not both client and agency are left disappointed: clients because the ideas aren’t ‘breakthrough’; agencies because the great ideas get left behind. Why? There seem to be a number of recurring themes.
The ideas generated in the here and now always seem the best – they’re owned by that team; they have a senior sponsor (or perhaps originator), they seem fresh and new. But newness doesn’t make them the best ideas nor the right ones to move the business forward. Just as it’s important to test your ideas vs a competitive control, so you should also test your ideas against existing ones. Are we moving forward? Are we taking learnings and applying them for better results?
An idea’s support and sponsorship is fleeting – there’s a purple patch for ideas. You love it; you present it with passion; you engage the Board, everyone’s excited. But depending on how you go about taking innovation forward, it can quickly wane. Rounds of iterative fettling; focus groups and quantitative testing if lingered over can sap the momentum. It’s important to be single minded, test and verify with urgency and get on with it. If you lose the momentum, whilst the idea may, in consumers’ eyes, still be a good one, you’ve probably lost the battle internally.
Great ideas don’t just spring out at brand planning time – we’re increasingly realising that great ideas are a jigsaw – a jigsaw of structured planning at a point in time, constant curiosity and spontaneous creativity. Put it this way: you are less likely to be successful if you set up an old meeting room with a few fairy lights and post-it notes than if you think about your physical environment for innovating all year round. More than anything else: capture thoughts and ideas whenever they arise and display them. Ideas attract interest like moths to a flame, but only if the flame burns brightly.
It’s never now or never – the market opportunity may be now or may be in the future, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell where you are with an emerging trend. Keep the ideas from the past and don’t be afraid to dust them off, tweak them and put them to consumers again. (And yes, a ‘Three Strikes And Out’ rule is sensible, but only over the course of years, not months).
Fine ideas are like fine wine –young white wine you may think is best with fish, but a bit of age and you realise it’s sublime with chicken. So too with ideas – and the insights behind them. New ideas can be a bit rough and ready whereas some time, some thought applied, some prototyping can put a sharp point on your idea. Think about how you nurture and protect ideas with potential beyond the one year window.
Like a big ocean storm, if a concept doesn’t make it through in time, then the next wave swamps it, even if it is a crackling idea. And this push, this desire for short-term winners means we risk losing the wild cards and the potential higher risk but high reward game-changers.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260