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.
It’s always great when work that impacts the market gets recognised and one of The Crow Flies long-standing clients, Whitworths, has had just that. We’re delighted to have played our part in the wider team that helped turnaround the Whitworths brand – we’ve partnered with them on research, strategy, innovation and planning . Read more about it in the Telegraph (below).
This was a great example of brand building – a team effort working with great partners (a big call out to Springett’s and Chapter), consistent focus on consumer and commercial insights, and then making some tough choices to free up the space, time and resources to impact the market.
If you’d like to chat to us about your brand building challenge, be it strategy, research, innovation or brand planning, we’d love to talk. And well done to Big Phil and the team at Whitworths!
Great brands become great because they become known for something. They put down anchors in the brains of their target consumers which give them something to grip on to, some foundations, something to build from. Yet so often, the stewards of brands – the brand team, the leadership in a business – are too easily tempted to move away from the brand’s positioning on the basis of a loud voice pushing for something different, a hunch, a whim, or worse, a staff change or a new leader agitating for change for change’s sake.
To move from being unknown, to OK, to good, to ultimately being a famous brand, needs foundations of stone: deep, heavy, able to stand up to quakes and surprises; to stand the test of time.
Practically, the way a brand team achieves this is by writing an effective and engaging brand plan – one that builds on the brand’s greatness established by its forebears at great effort and cost, one that truly impacts the consumer in the present, and one that keeps it on course to deliver its purpose as it strides into the future.
Most brands plans don’t do this and there are some common, yet pretty fundamental, errors:
‘Starting again’ every time (normally every year)
‘New year, new trend’
‘New year, new positioning’
An infatuation with insights for insights sake or no insight base to the plan whatsoever
A grossly optimistic belief in what the brand can achieve in a year, compounded by underfunded activities
No alignment, or misalignment, in the business around that brand and the plan
At their heart, brand plans are simple things – and it’s this simplicity that makes them devilishly difficult to manage through a business. What helps is having the right approach to the planning process and a plan construct that flows systematically from enablers and blockers of growth for the brand, through to a clear strategy, through to bold activity. In essence, there are 5 steps:
Filter and focus: it’s critical to identify the enablers and blockers of growth from the whole of the external and internal environment. Critical because if you don’t fully assess what’s going on (a) you may miss something really important and (b) some wag elsewhere in the business will tell you about something (that they believe is) vital to the brand’s growth and be a constant irritant (and they may be right of course, just to make it worse). So get out there: get curious about consumers; get engaged with the real world. Push into politics and technology, economics and the environment, big trends and packaging tweaks. Gather all your data, all your clues about what’s impacting the world of your brand and your consumers and ask ‘so what?’ Filter, filter, filter – a long, encyclopaedic list, neatly gathered together into a SWOT is all very nice, but useless unless you have filtered and focused it down on what can help the brand grow and what may stop it growing.
Consumer and connection: there are two issues with consumer targeting. Going too broad (“Millennials” or “Women, 18-34”) and going too narrow (“Here’s Dan, he’s 27, lives in Balham and drives a Renault Twizzy, and likes Turmeric Lattes.”…). Both are unhelpful. Be clear on your ‘who’ by defining the parameters (which come from the ‘broad’ approach and beliefs and attitudes (which come from the ‘narrow’ approach). Don’t name the consumer – it puts people off – and be careful if you give them a segment name (“Hectic Conversationalists!”) in case stakeholders can’t easily picture them). But most importantly, stop worrying about the who and really consider the what: what connects people to your brand? What are the brand hooks? What are the little problems your brand does or could solve? Are there any deeper needs that the brand meets? Use these as your constant and consistent touch points.
Link to growth: any brand manager worth their salt will have an intuitive sense of where the growth lies and where the issues could be. But a great brand plan links these to the enablers and blockers from the filtering process in a clear, logical and dogged way. You’re looking for 2 – 3 action platforms. That’s it. And the less, the better. And for each of those, no more than 3 actions. Take your budget and carve it up into 6 – 9 big activities and you have a chance of landing them. Then repeat those for a few years (3 – 5) and you increase your chances of success. This is the most difficult stage – choosing NOT to focus on certain things. Having the tenacity to stand up to the leaders – or your peers – in the business and say, “No – we’re going to do a few things with scale”. It sounds easy, but it’s where most plans flounder.
Orientate around a Bedrock Question: doing a cut down version of the brand plan is always an afterthought: write the plan, then condense it. But it shouldn’t be like that, because the condensed, beating heart of the plan, should be… well, at the heart of the plan. We call this the bedrock question – the point where the insights from the external environment, meet the brand’s purpose & commercial goals and shift into action.
Ensure there are golden threads: it shouldn’t really be the case but most plans fail because the plan itself underwhelms. If your plan has a clear link from the insights – the enablers of growth – all the way through to a few, scaled-up activities; if there is a clear ‘narrative’ that you can tell when selling the brand plan in and through the business – then your brand has a chance of impacting the consumer and making a difference. Don’t underestimate the time and effort needed to get alignment and agreement to the plan, and don’t underestimate how much easier it is if the plan has a golden thread running through it.
Getting the brand bedrock at the heart of the plan is the distilled essence of great brand management – and the distilled essence of a great brand too.
Having moved from ‘client side’ brand building to ‘agency side’ after twenty years (something I’m consistently told is quite unusual), I’m often asked what advice I would give to marketeers running brands in business today. Well, rather like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the big thing is to beware the bubble:
The bubble of belief that you understand consumers.
Understanding people is a lifelong pastime. It requires on-going curiosity and nosiness. It absolutely requires the belief that you can be proved wrong at any time.
The bubble of belief that in your business ‘that’s how life is’.
I used to fall for this one. That somehow, the air here is rarer, special, unique. That we have to work harder or longer in order to stay competitive. It’s not. You’re not. Challenge yourself all the time as to how you can simplify what you do and how you do it. How you can have a bigger impact with less resource in less time.
The bubble of delusion that your brand really matters
No brand is un-replaceable. Go in with that attitude, a bit of brand humility, keep it close, and you won’t go far wrong.
The bubble of confidence that belies what consumers really think
If you ever find yourself sitting in a research group, and think ‘we know this already’ … stop yourself. If you do know it, are you acting on it? I’m constantly flabbergasted by how the simple insights or the obvious problems to solve aren’t being worked on (often because they’re seen as generic, or owned by another brand. Are they? Really? Really?)
The bubble of brand immortality Brands are entities created by humans that have a lifecycle. Not a smooth one like in the textbooks, but a lifecycle nonetheless. You can eat healthily and you can stay fit. So can brands. But ultimately your brand will die. Manage the portfolio carefully and ensure that you pass on anything you touch in better condition than when it was handed to you. But when it’s time to go, cut the cord and focus on the next generation.
The bubble of hype Stay close to market developments. Be interested in consumers, in retailers. Be interested in the world of your agencies not just companies. Read and listen and get out more. But don’t forget that brand building is a skill and has core disciplines – research, strategy, innovation, planning, design, communications – be the best you can be at these to the level appropriate to your role today and where you want to go tomorrow.
The bubble of capacity and capability If you find yourself being asked to do this and this and this and this. If, you believe you can… then pause. Forget the stereotypes about women can multi-task and men can’t, the point is this. We can only be effective if we focus on given tasks and execute them thoroughly. Same for brands. Do less. Sacrifice – not prioritise and slice – sacrifice; and then put everything into hammering them into the market and the minds of your target.
The bubble of self-importance
You’re just someone making their way in the world. Beware the trappings of power and try to stay humble, open and connected.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260
Not that long ago I was asked by a client to review different brand positioning models with a view to taking best practice and my, as a marketeer, what an illuminating way to spend a few days it was. Whilst it was no doubt a lesson in metaphors and also surprisingly educational about amusing fruits, body parts and long-forgotten polygonal shapes, what was particularly striking were the commonalities (or lack of them): what great brand positioning statements need to have and where they slip up. Here at The Crow Flies we call this the ‘2 Wings and 10 Feathers’. But we would, wouldn’t we? The important point is that firstly, there are 5 critical building blocks of a positioning – the structure of what’s important to construct a compelling and consistent brand, and secondly there are 5 watch outs to ensure the way the positioning is constructed is sharp, meaningful and clear.
Wing 1: the 5 building blocks
Clarity of purpose: too often, ‘purpose’ is treated as a mandatory corporate tick box exercise (see here) and too often it’s confused with commercial goals. Being clear on what you want to be, for whom, by when is important – but not here. That’s for your plan. Purpose is something else, higher level, heart-felt. It’s why your business does what it does, or in this case, why your brand does what it does. It’s crucial – arguably the most crucial aspect of your brand positioning – because it provides guidance. It cuts off the options. It forces choice and sacrifice. It defines what you won’t do as much as what you will.
Defining who the target consumer is and their connection to your brand: it’s staggering how often the brand positioning models reviewed made no reference to the target consumer. None. Or perhaps a blunt socio-demographic description and a few random comments on what media ‘Jules’ likes to consume. Clarifying who the target is, in a way they would recognise, and more importantly what the problem is they want fixing, the need they want met or the simple desire they want fulfilled is a cornerstone of a great positioning.
Defining what the brand is and what the benefit is: your brand exists to fulfil a need. Your brand is in some way bought as a reward for fulfilling the needs, desires or fixing your targets’ problems. So of course, being clear on what your brand offers functionally and what reward it meets emotionally is critical. Identifying the underlying truth of your brand that matters is essential too – but you can only define this if you’re clear on who your target is and what they’re looking for. There’s a virtuous circle that both keeps you honest and helps you make great decisions.
Defining how it is recognised: great brands are instantly recognisable. Great brands own many mental pathways and one of those is a bundle of visual and semiotic cues. Colours, shapes, words. These ‘anchors’ can be a curse if your brand has to change, but your greatest asset if you’re in good shape and looking to accelerate.
Defining the nature of the relationship: ultimately a strong brand is more than a product. It builds a friendship relationship with its consumers. Yes, it delivers something functional in a way that a product does, but how it communicates, and how it does so consistently over time, means that a relationship is built that is beyond transactions.
Wing 2: the 5 ‘watch outs’
Confusion – this first point builds on the foundations. What does each element do, why? It’s incredible how many of the positioning models reviewed bandy phrases around. Positioning, proposition, promise. Values, Principles, Traits, Personality, Tone of Voice; Essence. Lots of elements, but no order, no clarity.
Duplication – of words, sections, phrases. It’s a personal bugbear, but the repetition of phrases in multiple locations in a brand positioning is a clear signal that it’s not fully understood. Precision is key.
Compounding – why have one benefit when you can have ten? It’s so tempting –because your brand can offer many benefits, doesn’t mean it should. In fact, let’s not beat around the bush, it definitely shouldn’t. As consumers, we are impacted by thousands of pieces of data every day. Our brain is effectively a big filtering system, and if it can filter something out, it will. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Your goal, your aspiration, is to be single-minded.
Fluffiness – whilst it’s tempting to unleash the inner poet or lyricist, most positioning statements suffer because, like a member of TOWIE, there are too many fillers, and not enough power. Don’t be tempted to crack your positioning in a day. Draft it. Write contenders. Get input and constantly, constantly, distil; which leads nicely on to…
Over-elaborate – as Albus Dumbledore so notably said, words have so much power they can become magical. It’s easy therefore to be tempted to scribe five words when one will do. Celebrate simplicity.
Great brand positionings? It’s a matter of two wings and no prayers.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, brand strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. If you’re looking for brand positioning help, drop a line to email@example.com; +44 (0) 1283 246260
Discussions sometimes seem to weave through time like long strands of gold, looping, intertwining and crossing at the most unusual and surprising times. It’s a reminder that rarely is their original thought but rather a repurposing of an old idea, or theme, into the current context. Indeed, this isn’t an original thought itself: I doff my cap to the late and truly great Terry Pratchett; in fact his character, Granny Weatherwax in ‘Witches Abroad’, “This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been. This is why history keeps on repeating all the time”.
So it was recently when an ex Ad Agency suit who I worked with years back reminded me of the ‘concept’ of ‘Mass Niche’ which I had coined, apparently. Well, I wasn’t about to do myself the disservice of denying it and actually I do remember it. It was born out of a desire to develop the brand we were working on with a seriously distinctive point of view, tone of voice and stand out from our immediate competitors. It was a desire to be brave and go where the bigger, more institutional brands couldn’t or wouldn’t…. but with scale. Hence, ‘mass niche’.
Mass niche. Yes, it’s an oxymoron, that’s where the appeal as a construct lies. But is it a paradox: can it be solved? Is it a useful way to think about what brands need to achieve distinctiveness and engagement? Essentially, can a brand deliver a ‘mass niche’ positioning – for this is what my colleague was searching for?
We played verbal table tennis. Which brands are mass niche? Pret á Manger perhaps: operating in a seriously crowded and competitive market, yet idiosyncratic with strong brand integrity. Mini? A car with bags of cheeky personality. Waitrose, or Aldi, clearly standing for something different – both from one another and also the middle of their market. We hotly debated Peroni: a brand which so successfully established its ‘niche’ by partnering with Italian restaurants, but has pushed out and beyond since then, whilst staying true to its stylish Italian roots.
But the truth is, these just felt like well positioned brands. Recognisable, built around a product truth, distinctive in some way with their positioning.
Is there a difference then? Well a ‘niche’ is either a nook, cranny or recess – something that offers shelter – or it’s a position of great fit: round peg, round hole, that sort of thing. No definition implies ‘small’ although this is often assumed. With this in mind, niche brands do seem to have a number of points of difference.
Firstly they create the niche. They lead, back a hunch or belief early on. Sustainable, defensible niche brands have the knack or serendipity of getting behind a trend before it becomes dominant, mainstream. Or put better perhaps, they often help a trend in belief or behaviour emerge. Brompton bikes are a great example: they didn’t invent folding bikes, but their founder Andrew Ritchie saw not only the poor design of existing folding bikes (they fold but were difficult to carry or poor to ride) but also the potential of the folding bike to contribute towards revolutionising personal transportation, particularly in urban environments. Interestingly, despite their profusion in London, most Bromptons are exported today. This is all fine in retrospect, but it’s it worth remembering that it takes serious belief, luck and capital (or at times, lack of): the Brompton story started over 30 years ago.
Secondly, niche brands have more than functional defence built in to their make up. Critically, they are founded off, publicise and stay true to their founding beliefs, particularly and especially later when they become fully or part purchased by a new owner. In the U.S. Anchor Brewing Company was a pioneer of today’s craft brewing movement. The owner, Fritz Maytag was fresh out of college, finding his feet and wondering what to do with his life. He bought Anchor because he liked it and heard it was closing. And it was brewing the sort of beer he liked to drink and unlike the beer brewed by the major corporations. Those principles remain true today (with a new owner since 2012), and in fact Anchor remains proudly (and deliberately) a relatively small business.
Thirdly whereas many brands, including those deemed strong by most consumer measures generally have a look that is instantly recognisable, niche brands seem to treat their design with much more reverence and sensitivity. Not that long ago, a long established bric-a-brac store shut down in a nearby town when the owner retired. In the closing down sale was an old Colmans mustard sign, by the look of things, probably from outside a shop or railway station. The yellow, although with some patina of age, the bull and the logo are just as recognisable today. This brand of course, remains the benchmark in feisty English mustard and very much an English fabric brand.
But, the lines between these points and simply well positioned brands are slight. No, the true ‘nicheness’ comes from the way the brand controls the agenda of ‘the battle’. If you’re in a niche then attack is difficult except from the front: and that’s where the mass niche brand is strongest. A bit like the Rohirrim holing themselves up in Helms Deep in The Lords of the Ring, The Twin Towers. Fight OK, but you will fight on my terms.
Apple own stylish technology that fits with everyday life. Benefit Cosmetics own glamour. Agent Provocateur owns sexy femininity. Chicago Town own deep pan pizza.
So what is mass niche? Well positioned, yes. But narrow in their focus too with deep, deep principles. It may seem a slight difference, but it’s a niche worth fighting for.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.