Research update, August 2021

Howdy Crow Friends! Hopefully you’re all enjoying / have enjoyed or are about to enjoy some precious staycation. We’ve had a few questions on #market#research and specifically when face to face qualitative research can begin again. The answer is now – viewing facilities are opening up in a Covid secure way (and need our support) and many hotels are happy to welcome you.

However, it’s important not to forget the needs and current feelings of participants. Many people are nervous about turning up to strange rooms with strange strangers (and equally strange moderators!) for obvious reasons.

And as well as that, many people are working from home, making a trip to do research ‘live’ a specific destination rather than a convenient add-on. As always, the best advice is to think mixed methodology – targeted face-to-face, targeted online as both have brilliant strengths. In fact, there’s no doubt that going forward, the opportunity to blend approaches to get more actionable insight is enhanced as participants who were nervous about online research previously, now feel fluent and confident.

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Success for Whitworths

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!

Brand Bedrock

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.Slide1
  5. 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. | +44 (0) 1283 295100 | | © The Crow Flies, 2018

Why brands should study history

This might seem on first sight a preposterous comparison, but recent events in the Crimea and rumours circulating this week about Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions are a good lesson in branding.

It staggers me that increasingly history is seen as having little value in our education system. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ is the question typically posed.  The point of history is that it’s context for our lives. It is, if you like, the received wisdom, mostly based on facts, that society passes down to us.  I’ve always felt an obligation to use that wisdom wisely but too often felt to be in a minority in a society where only looking forward to what could be is valued.

Well, this week’s event in Russia are sobering and a reminder that history is as good a teacher as any.  Let’s assume that the reports, from an ex aide of President Putin, are wholly true.  Let’s assume therefore that Putin believes that Finland should be returned to Mother Russia. Let’s assume too, that Belarus and significant parts of the Ukraine are also in his plan. And in the future: the ‘return’ of the ‘Stans; the Baltic states, Poland?  In short, he seems to have an ambition to return Russia to its Imperial territorial limits, just before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Now this is not a history lesson, nor current affairs, nor even a platform to share views on what could happen in Eastern European Geopolitics. The point is, these events are perfectly possible; feasible even, and importantly, they are not unprecedented. Already the parallels to how Hitler handled the Sudetenland question are being raised: limiting the claims to ‘just this territory’; playing off a shaky alliance within itself; using (and abusing) treaty agreements to the letter. And the point too, is that we can see it coming. History forecasts it. And though all the years have passed, though we tell ourselves that it couldn’t happen again, human nature ultimately, sadly, doesn’t change that much.

Why is this instructive for businesses and brands? Well, it’s easy as a brand owner to get so hooked in to where we want to get to, that you forget how we got to where we are today. ‘Today’ is usually seen for its issues rather than as a celebration of the progress that has been made.  For example, brands generally relaunch out of desperation rather than planning. When I worked in beer, it was widely commented on how Guinness always went out to pitch for their advertising agency just after they launched an incredible advert or communications campaign. It seemed counter-intuitive yet made us envious all the same.   Our human tendency, exacerbated by pressure from those personal business objectives, is to focus on where we’re heading, without taking heed of where we came from.

IMG_1422Rather prosaically, this struck me today on the announcement of new investment in an age-old brand: Stork margarine.  Launched in the 1920s in the UK, here is a brand that had been left to wither and fade.  The ‘Flora’ of its day in popularity and scale, it seemed to have been overtaken by product advancements, more compelling propositions and portfolio machinations.  From the outside, the perception was of a tail brand that was filling a gap before being ‘cannibalised’ by others.

Yet Stork didn’t pass away quietly. Pushed into a position of a ‘baking brand’ for years, decades now, there has been a hardy minority who buy margarine for spreading and Stork for baking.  Reduction in the number of formats it’ s available in has just meant that people buy more of the ones that are left, keeping the brand well deserving of its space on shelf. And now, somewhat ironically, the baking niche that Unilever found for it, has become invigorated, fuelled by The Great British Bake Off and a general interest in learning life skills and baking with children.

And the signs were there all along:  a great product; a strong, instantly recognisable brand design that fair shouts off shelf, all supported by a strong sense of authenticity.  My guess is that you have products in your range that if they were dusted off and re-purposed could generate meaningful return again.  And rather like possible events in Russia: in your bones, you know it.

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.  To learn more about margarine, Geopolitics and more realistically interpreting your brands history for a successful future, contact or call him on +44 (0) 7885 408367

© The Crow Flies, 2014