Time for a new brand:retailer dialogue

Pow wowOver a coffee today, I was chatting to a friend about the scale of Tesco’s recent loss. £6.3bn in an enormously cash-generative business is some feat. Sometimes though, it’s best to take the pain with big cuts rather than little slithers, and this feels like a case in point. While it seems few and empathising with Tesco that much, for many suppliers it will create shudders of commercial fear.   A reduction of 20,000 stock keeping units has been promised: you can bet that these results, store closures and closure of new store opening programmes are hardening that resolve at Tesco HQ.

And of course, it’s not just Tesco: all ‘middle ground’ retailers are struggling, their ills manifesting themselves in different ways. The concern is that the emerging reaction is underpinned by fear. Fear for the retailers that their like-for-likes will relentlessly fall and with it the share price (and with that the value of executive long-term incentive plans). Fear for suppliers, that their brands just need to slash to survive; slash their range; slash their prices; slash their profits; slash their staff numbers.

If ever there was a time for brands to step forward and own – or create, if necessary – their category agenda, it is now. This is an easy thing to write, I know. And perhaps it is not a ‘rocket science’ statement, I admit: but it needs to be said nonetheless. My fear is that the reaction within buying teams, within marketing teams, within sales teams is for category management. To understand the dynamics in the nth degree of detail; to range accordingly; to push into the ‘big data’ under the guide of ‘insight’ and negotiate new terms, or defend accordingly. Probably, big suppliers with a strong portfolio want this – it’s an opportunity to claim their fair share of space when for years they have been under-spaced. But most, the majority, will hunker down and prepare for trench warfare.

The current crisis in UK food retail though, is not really a crisis in organisation or supply. Tesco won’t see it that way I’m sure, and I support their open heart surgery. But underneath it all, this is a crisis of identity and of market position. Of who plays around the edges with unique, but more narrow positionings, and who will stand up for the middle ground proudly, distinctively and prepare to inspire.

There’s always been an opportunity for the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda or Morrisons – and the brands who sell through them – to do this – but none has taken it. And they haven’t because everyone has been distracted by the minefield of eggshells they have been mutually created. Can the brand trust the retailer to deliver on their distribution promises and activation? Can the retailer trust the brand to deliver the progressive innovation agenda and improvement in terms? The dialogue becomes tentative, untrusting.   And then, in walks an Aldi and boom! The agenda has changed and you’re on the back foot.

This is the time for a new dialogue between brands and retailers that must be built on trust. Now is not the time for category management, now is the time for category leadership. For brands to step forward and be bold with their vision, their agenda, their picture of the future. To partner with retailers to create a shopping experience that helps the consumer; that solves those small but important problems in their life; that delivers value certainly, but not just low price. And it’s time for retailers to step forward and be bold too: to be clear what they are offering and work with brands to create this mutual vision. An agenda that builds the brand not just the retailers’ sales. It is time, in short, for all the words around ‘win:win’ to be put to one side and for the actions to follow suit.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2015

Valuable brand lessons from the Beer Marketing Awards

I was in America when the 2015 Beer Marketing Awards event was held, but being a judge I already knew the results and had had to keep shtum for a few weeks. Beer awards generally are for the product: either international events or more local, “Best in Show” sort of things. But these awards were different, acknowledging that in the current boom in cask and craft beer in the UK the brand is, or certainly will be, as important as the beer itself.

Recognising this is a huge step forward. Legendary beer writer Michael Jackson was consciously averse to the idea of brands in beer: he was born and experienced a time – in the 1960s and early ‘70s – when the national brewers strove to create one size fits all products – Watneys Red Barrel, Worthington ‘E’, Double Diamond. You could conclude that this was an early exercise in brand building, but in truth, it was really operationally driven: to remove significant cost and complexities from bloated supply chains and huge product portfolios after years of acquisitions. Brands, on the other hand, are built on a quality product, indeed, on a distinctive experience – but it is unsurprising that Jackson was influenced by these dark times for beer lovers.

So it has taken some time for beer marketing awards to emerge, and it has done so at a time of a fundamental change in what people are drinking and who is making it.

I’m not sure what I was expecting walking into to help judge. It would be easy to believe the hype about Millennials. The brand: consumer relationship is different now; here are consumers who are actively rejecting ‘corporate’, embracing small, local, artisanal, I don’t know – not buying their beer but swapping it on Swapz or Gumtree?   And the art of marketing itself, the rule book has been ripped up hasn’t it? No big TV adverts, no communication built on a functional USP, heaven forbid, no humour lest underage drinkers are beguiled. In short: I was expecting marketing outputs that reflected this ‘new paradigm’. I was expecting marketing activities, frankly, that I would loathe.

Thankfully, it wasn’t like that.

Some things were different though. Firstly, there was a real focus on the trade, from brewers the size of Heineken to a start up from a couple of lads with an idea (in their kitchen surely, it always is). Trade marketing, a term rarely used today despite its newness, has always felt like the illegitimate sprog of ‘proper marketing’. Yet it seems that beer brand owners are waking up to how critical it is in a market where, unlike food say, you don’t rapidly get 100% distribution in the supermarket and go from there. In the on trade, out in pubs and clubs, as a new brand you may be lucky to get one point of distribution on a town’s circuit of bars. Building a meaningful relationship with licensees therefore is imperative.

And of course, there were digital and social ideas aplenty, in fact, it felt like a case of quantity over quality – not to say that the ideas were poor – but some were well, lazy – they could have been amazing ideas if all the weight of the business was put behind them as part of a bigger campaign and frankly, they tried to achieve less. Alas, it seems too many people are believing the hype.

No, what remains is that the core skills and knowledge around brand management are just as important today as they ever were. In beer, where there are now more breweries per capita in the UK than anywhere else in the world and alcohol consumption per capita is falling, they’re not just going to be important but business critical. Building a brand isn’t a marketing activity. It’s a business activity – the winners of the awards seem to get this.

They get that you need a strong idea. BrewDog for example, essentially position themselves as ‘anti Big Brewer’ and therefore in a way, anti-marketing. But their immensely collaborative #Mashtag campaign was pure marketing: getting your consumers to help you create a new brand that you will then sell back to them, fully bought in and advocates of it to others. A lovely idea, a deserving winner.

They get that you need to own a thought in the mind of your target drinker and to then be ruthlessly consistent. Estrella Damm, distributed in the UK by Charles Wells, didn’t receive an award but a commendation, nevertheless, it’s worth highlighting how strongly they bring everything back to their central brand idea – the lifestyle thought of ‘Mediterraneamente’. All paths lead to Barcelona, it seems.

Vedett penguinsThey get that you need own an experience. The Belgian brand Vedett won the award for ‘Best Use of Merchandise’, which sounds quite prosaic, but underlines how something as simple as merchandise, glassware, promotional items can be when used to link and join all stakeholders in the brand in a virtuous, self-supporting relationship. Sound a bit OTT? I don’t think so: the Vedett Extra campaign focused on a creative use of merchandise, making it an essential part of the brand world and experience – indeed drinkers could get involved in creating it. Consequently, the ‘brand’ lives outside drinking the product itself and punches well above its weight amongst customers and indeed, consumers.

They get that focus and sacrifice – doing less stuff, doing it bigger – are vital. Trooper Beer for one, saw this. A collaboration between Robinsons of Stockport and Iron Maiden, it’s a brand with distinct advantages – a huge, positively disposed group of potential customers. Yet, the brand itself is pretty new and small – so it focused solely on getting the distribution known so potential drinkers know where to buy it. Marstons, with their beautifully titled #Goblineers campaign did something similar.

Sometimes having a smaller marketing budget (if any) is better. It forces choice.

IMG_3351_2They get the need to be instantly recognisable. The new London brewery, Beavertown won the award here for their can design. Not a new design, but for applying their design to a new packaging format in a truly impactful way. Whilst many brands think ‘how can I fit my design best on this pack?’, Beavertown asked, ‘how can I use this pack to best show off my design?’. The results speak for themselves (and Beavertown’s bravery – although I’m sure they wouldn’t see it like that, is important too)

And they get that traditional media isn’t dead. Yes, personalised, digital communications are important nowadays. But you also need to establish your idea and get it out there. The overall winner was a distinctly traditional, ‘non marketing’ business – Fuller, Smith & Turner. Their main brand is London Pride and that they should win the first Overall award was unanimous. Why?

They faced into the brutal truths facing them. The explosion in breweries on London over the last 5 years has been seismic. Put it this way, I ran the sales division for a multinational brewer in London in 2006. There were three London brewers, Fullers being one of them. Nine years later, there are over 70. 67 of which have a claim to be younger, funkier, more daring than the old boys in Chiswick. Fullers recognised this and used their digital platform to create awareness and trial for the brand (#EmptyPint) – offering to buy a second pint for free if you tweeted a picture of your empty pint. This presumes of course that you buy a first.

Made of London

Source: Fuller, Smith & Turner Ltd.

And they stayed focused on their main brand of London Pride. The lazy reaction could be ‘we have to do new things, to fight on their turf’. Rather, Fullers recognised the quality and inherent strength of their brand and sought to build fortifications round it whilst inviting people into the Keep. And in doing so they stayed true to their provenance and their position. Their creative, ‘Made of London’, ran (is running) mostly on the highly traditional formats of posters and print. Despite the short term competitive challenges Fullers are taking a long term approach, ‘Made of London’ is spot on for the brand and timeless in execution and tone.

Which just goes to show that an old dog can teach a new dog old tricks.

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. David was also a judge of the 2014 Beer Marketing Awards.; +44 (0) 1283 246260;; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2015

The Power of ‘Or’

The Power of Or


In these frenetic, pressured times it’s increasingly common to see businesses pushing to do more, more, more. A leader in one of my old businesses called it “the power of and”. Oftentimes, this multitasking ability is painted as a virtue, a desirable trait. Bold leaders, macho businesses, taking on more, broadening scopes of responsibility, acting like superheroes. It is a shorthand: leaders who take on more are leaders that achieve more. It’s likely that this sounds familiar to you. Perhaps this describes what is expected of you in your role.

Alas, it is a load of old conkers.

The more I work on brands, helping businesses decipher what drives their brands, their business and what the priorities are, the more I realise that the desirable trait in a leader, the desirable trait in a brand in fact, is the ability to understand that landscape and prioritise. No, more than this, to sacrifice.   Eminent business strategy ‘guru’ Michael Porter, he of ‘The Five Forces of Competitive Strategy’ wrote, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”.  He was referring to business strategy, but the point still holds.

In fact, ‘and’ is pernicious, dangerous. Helping a client with brand planning recently we reached a great place. Throughout the session there was committed agreement that with limited and tightening budgets, the brand had to do significantly less in order to cut through. In fact, the brilliant news was the brand would focus on just one major activity in the calendar year, hunkering down tightly on a single target group, devoting its total resources to one time period and leaning all the investment against it.

But in the weeks that followed it unravelled. An alignment meeting with the senior team was the root cause: one sales director had asked for more to support a competitive threat in his channel. The marketing director had asked why they weren’t putting some effort into another, slightly older demographic; the trade marketing controller pushed for greater category investment. Ultimately, the plan was more focused than the previous year, but ‘and’ had done its damage. A brand with a chance to cut through won’t now do so.

Of course, this isn’t a call to restrict your agenda such that it is so narrow you lose your competitiveness. Rather, it is about finding your agenda – for example, your brand positioning or your corporate purpose or your people strategy – and then asking ‘or’ questions around it. What if we were to focus our investment on these two activities? Or what if we were to put everything behind one? What if we moved all our media online from traditional sources for a year? Or, what if were to put it all into an experiential programme. ‘Or’ focuses, ‘and’ dissipates.

The promise of the ‘next big thing’ leads us into temptation: ‘we can do this as well” or ‘look how cost effective the new widget is, we can add it to our mix’. Truth is, what marks winners out is the ability to focus and sacrifice. Find your agenda, keep it tight and watch out for the weakening effect of ‘and’.

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.

 © The Crow Flies, 2015

Can you crowdsource your positioning?

There has been a little jovial mockery of the Co-operative in the Twittersphere of late. After a turbulent 2013 in which it posted a significant half year loss (half a billion – oof!), the now suspended Minister-Chairman of their bank was caught on film allegedly buying Class ‘A’ drugs (I’m assuming that isn’t ‘A’ for own label Aspirin) and their banking division was found to have a ‘slight’ capital shortfall, precipitating wholesale changes and general panic.  In the next breath, the Co-operative announced that it was going to employ the wisdom of crowds to help them get back in touch with what they’re really about.  My experience of crowds is that they’re not very wise.  Much queuing at greasy burger vans and buying of over-priced merchandise never struck me as that sensible.  Equally, all that shouting and losing your inhibitions in front of total strangers? Not wise one bit.  No wonder there was some quizzical looks and sniggers of derision.

Yet perhaps there’s something in this. Whilst it’s easy – as I just have – to gently mock such initiatives, there could actually be a double whammy of wisdom.  Let me explain.

The first is this: very often, the team given the responsibility to manage a company’s brands, typically the marketing team, is characterised by relative inexperience and high staff churn. Ambition is a good thing when well directed and in marketing teams I’ve known, you can smell the pheromones of ambition.  Good for the individual perhaps, ironically not too good for the brand.  When a job tenure of 18 months has you marked down as a long-in-the-tooth veteran who could be approaching their sell by date, any chance of gathering the wisdom that comes over time is lost.  What has worked successfully for the brand dissipates into the ether of Company alumni groups.  No, what generally happens is the new incumbent in the role will call for a brand positioning exercise to take place prior to another brand relaunch.  New agency partners, desperate to impress, will be keen to knock their predecessors, without of course actually being seen to do this.  What went before is bad. Shiny new future is good.   Where’s the wisdom in that?  Why not then reach out to someone who isn’t showing off through the brand – the consumer?

Recently, I’ve been doing a research project for a client built around some one on one interviews, and accompanied store visits.  A basic, ages-old research approach – but one in which the client, who got involved, not just leaving up to me, learnt so much by – well – just talking to their customers.  So why not talk to lots?

Crows Says Onion Rings not Brand Onions

Crows Says Onion Rings not Brand Onions

The second piece of wisdom is that consumers have no truck with Brand Identity Models, Brand Pyramids, Brand Bow-ties, Brand Onions, Brand Arrows or any other form of brand ‘model’.   In the dim and distant past when developing a new brand model for my company (I know, I know, poacher turned gamekeeper) my team identified more than twenty brand positioning models in common use.  Most of them dancing on a pin head of difference, yet proclaiming revolution.  All of them seem to lose sight of the most valuable lesson when building a brand:  own a position in the mind of your prospect (and be first).  Jack Trout captured this back in 1976 but it still has resonance today. Ultimately it’s about simplicity, not complexity. One thought. Delivered with scale.  “Get your positioning, stick to it, don’t get bored”, as a wise old head used to say to me. So much brand flimflam can mean you lose sight of this basic thought and perhaps, if the Co-operative can reconnect with what makes them unique, different then it will be a worthwhile exercise.

IMG_1308A little aside:  my family hail from the north west of England. A ‘southern’ wing briefly made a generational sojourn into the potteries, to earn their way as Stoke on Trent expanded and became the ceramic centre of the world. They lived a few miles away on Mow Cop, a ridge overlooking the Potteries to the south east and the Cheshire Plain to the north west. If you drive up the M6 towards Manchester, near Junction 16 you can see it away to your right, the mock Castle focusing the eye. If you are a cyclist, the climb up Mow Cop is a lung, leg and spirit busting experience.  But it was there my family built its allegiance to the Co-op.  They were the first to open a ‘supermarket’ style store that we know today. They brought fresh bread and fruit to a community that couldn’t easily get it or afford it.  In time, the Co-op, or “Stores” as my Gran called them to her dying day, would cater for you from cradle to grave.  Ask her if their ad line of ‘Here for you for life’ made sense, she would have agreed.  Its reputation was second to none: honest, good value, good quality, convenient, sourced locally, investing back in the community. Today, the Co-operative, despite its recent struggles has an expansive Convenience led store base, a leadership position in ethical trading (in the mind of consumers at least) and is generally, and not before time you might say, sorting itself out.   If speaking to their members, openly, authentically and with real intent reveals just a fraction of the richness and latent loyalty that exists within a family such as mine, then they could be onto something powerful.   Just don’t bung the results into a Brand Onion, for Heaven’s sake.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands. To find out more about not using Onions but common sense when it comes to brands, take a look at the Crow website: or contact David directly at >; +44 (0) 7885 408367

© The Crow Flies, 2014

Brands and categories as maps

Why maps?

I’m coming out. From an early age, I have had a mild obsession with maps. Not perhaps as bad as Mike Parker who wrote a book ‘Map Addict’ detailing his fascination – his infatuation perhaps a better word – with maps. Nor indeed as bad as Captain Cook, who ended up meeting an untimely death on a Hawaiian beach as he attempted to map (and claim) the North Pacific. It’s not far off though.

I can lose myself in maps just as other lose themselves 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. And for me, unlike books, everything is laid out in front of you. The story of the landscape’s past, present and potential future is there, clear to see.

Alas, my day job isn’t working for The Ordnance Survey, or lecturing in Cartography, or being a Jellystone Park National Ranger, more’s the pity Mr Ranger, Sir. It’s building categories and brands. And whilst they may seem utterly unrelated, there are more links than you might think. Indeed, my contention is that custodians of brands or categories would be better served thinking of their brand or category as a map or a mapping process – placing where they are now in the context of time and the (competitive) landscape around them. Let me try and orientate you to my point of view:

A map shows the past. I remember watching ‘Points of View’ on the BBC once, where someone wrote in to complain that the ‘Weather Forecast’ was more of a ‘Weather Hindsight’ as it spent most of its time explaining what had happened rather than telling us what was going to happen. It was missing the point though: the immediate past is the precursor to what is following. The patterns of future weather lie in what has just occurred and is occurring now. So too with maps. It’s easy to think of them as merely showing the lie of the land today. The truth is they show the marks of the past just as clearly. They show the marks of man and the marks of nature. And these influences can’t be ignored. You can build your new office on a brown field site, but you want to know if it used to be a chemical works. You can build your dream home on a lovely green plot but you would want to know if the land is prone to sink holes.

Yet with brands too often we discard the past. There’s business pressure to improve the revenue line; there’s personal pressure to show you justify your job; and so unsurprisingly perhaps the reflex reaction is to only look forward. ‘Everything needs to change’ is the go-to position. Yet brands are brands and not products for a reason. Their past custodians ran activity that built the franchise. The brand custodians of today should look for the marks of the past that made their brand, or category, successful and work from there. Sure, there will be a lot of detritus – mostly detritus in fact – but buried there will be the foundations; the little hints of gold shining through.

Map: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000, Landranger, Map 118 Derby & Burton upon Trent

Map: Ordnance Survey 1:50,000, Landranger, Map 118 Derby & Burton upon Trent

A map illuminates today. At a recent village development forum, some of the group I was working with were bemoaning the advance of nearby gravel pits towards the edge our village. Then something fascinating occurred. An older gentleman, who had been hitherto been silent, took out the local map and opened it in front of the group. Pointing to the gravel pits he showed how in reality they were acting as a barrier to the nearby town, preventing it swallowing the village up and making it yet another suburb. The map intervention changed the debate: at a stroke everyone supported the gravel pits (and before you ask, no, he didn’t work for the extraction company!). Categories and brands have a terrain that can be mapped too: that of competitors, customers, consumer or 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.

A map points to the future. Plan a walk in the Lakeland Fells with a map and what becomes clear that on most routes there are many possibilities. Do I ascend Helvellyn via Striding Edge or from Thirlmere? Or I could come up via Catstycam along Swirrels Edge or yet still from Nethermost Cove? Many, many possibilities but not endless ones. You could take the direct route down off Helvellyn for example, but it’s likely to bruise. And it’s a good parallel for brands who are often promised limitless future possibilities. The key is lots of potential futures but not so many that inaction results.

Recently I worked on an infographic with a client to bring to life a category vision. At the time, the intention was to summarise in an engaging way the state of play for the category today, who the important consumer clusters were and to demonstrate how the client in question would lead for growth. What was surprising was how the category map unlocked creative fertility in all the stakeholders. At a subsequent trade presentation, potential customers could see the possibilities and asked my client whether they could take them forward. Yet equally, what was on brief and off brief for the client was clear – because the infographic opened up possibilities, but didn’t open up limitless possibilities.

Source: Pintrest Copywright, Mark Smiciklas

Source: Pintrest Copywright, Mark Smiciklas

A map connects to 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, often 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 categories and 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.

In fact, the theme of beauty holds the real strength of maps as a way of thinking about categories or brands. You don’t need to be a maphead like me to understand that there is a deeper motivation behind the appeal – and usefulness – of maps. The way they connect the tenses is one – past, present, future – visible to different degrees; the way that they appeal to our different learning styles another – visual, verbal, sensory – but at the end of the day, the base attraction is best summarised by American writer Ken Jennings. “There’s just something hypnotic about maps” he writes: wouldn’t it be great if your key stakeholders thought the same about your brand?

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands.; +44 (0) 7885 408367

© The Crow Flies, 2014