Category Archives: brand community

Turning the page on publishing

Stitched Panorama

If you are in the book publishing business right now you might be bracing yourself for an HMV-like end, but it seems to me that publishers still have options and if they make the right choices the end, however it arrives, could still be a long way off.

Those of you who followed my campaign a couple of years ago to try to persuade HMV that there was life after i-Tunes will know that I can’t resist a challenge.  That exercise saw me gathering a bunch of marketing folks with fertile minds on a kind of LinkedIn crowd-sourcing basis and trying to persuade the HMV CEO to listen to a few ideas we had on reviving their business.  I’ll leave you to judge for yourself what his rejection of our offer says about the relationship between success and the “open to ideas” philosophy that I have always promoted.

I’m struck by the similarities between the publishing and music industries.  Both are victims of the digital onslaught.  Technology has provided an alternative to their physical products, everyone is an author these days (even me), pretty well anybody can get published, readers don’t have to leave home to buy a book and last week you could buy any of the UK’s top 10 selling books online for 78pence!  This latter fact is a symptom of another phenomenon, the tendency of business in other sectors, in this case Sony, to give away the publishers’ raison d’etre, in their pursuit of sales of their own dedicated hardware eg tablets.

Publishing also has a similar structure to the music business.  There are publishers like Harper Collins who own numerous brands, they each support many authors and their books are distributed through physical stores and on-line.  Three levels of the business, each of which is under attack.

There are two keys to the future of the book business. The first is brand. It seems to me that publishers have been very slow to develop the brands they own. There are few sectors where brands measure up to the description “community” more than those of a publisher. You’ll know if you’ve been on this blog before that I believe all brands to be, by definition, communities and publishers’ brands are far more readily represented as communities than food products or cosmetics, yet, when I look at publishing houses I can’t see much evidence of them either recognising this or exploiting their good fortune.

The second key is the physical retailers. The front line book stores are suffering the same pressure from e-commerce that HMV did. Businesses like Waterstones are probably making a better job of competing than the music retailer did, but they have a long way to go before they maximise their assetts and even further before they could claim to have a model that will sustain them in the future. Like HMV, physical booksellers need to be more radical in their thinking. Instead of adapting their current model they should be experimenting with complete, ground-up rethinks. My worry is that, again like HMV, they are failing to recognise not just the requirement for such radical thinking, but the urgency with which they need to get on with it.

They might take a leaf out of the book of Ralph Halpern. When he headed up Burton Group he was said to have twenty or so retail formats on test in pilot stores at any one time. It worked for him and I firmly believe that, like any product manufacturer, retailers need think at least two store generations ahead in order to ensure continued success. John Selfridge taught us that retail is about entertainment and bookselling, more than most other sectors, is firmly in the entertainment sector. This means that bookstore owners have to ask themselves, “are my customers looking forward to their next visit to my store in the way they would a football match, concert or theatre?” Sadly most retailers I come across set their bar far too low in this respect. Customers should be feeling like a young lover about their next date with you.

Actually record shops used to be like that, In fact record shops used to be real communities too. I remember hanging out in a record store in Birmingham each Friday when albums were traditionally released, sampling the new stuff and discussing it with the store guys and anybody else who felt like chiming in. You could spend hours at a time in there and I often did. Come to think of it, there was a musical instrument store up the road from the record store with a similar vibe. I met Ozzie Osbourne and Tony Iommi from a new band Black Sabbath there once and they invited me to their gig that evening in the back of a pub in town (Now that dates me!) These days I can get the same kick from a visit to a bike shop like 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn. All these stores are interesting and engaging in their different ways. That’s missing in a lot of retailers these days and its where the answer could lie for retail book stores.

Its not surprising that some of the thoughts I had on HMV apply equally well to bookstores, but these in turn were based on a train of thought I evolved with a mobile phone operator a few years previously. A growing number of retail sub-sectors have to understand that they need to approach selling from a new direction, engaging customers in other areas of their lives creating an environment and establishing conversations into which a sales message can be introduced.

In a similar fashion, a few years back I created a magazine for Philips comprising features on successful projects in highly specialised business sectors. The features were compelling to the target market, but more than that, by ensuring that they were each written as a showcase for specific Philips products and concluded with a call to action and a contact device, we turned an entertaining magazine into a powerful sales tool that is still doing the numbers. I’ve also created community projects for manufacturers and service providers. Introducing products and services to consumers in the context of other areas of their personal lives engages them on an entirely different level. This I believe is how bookstores need to start thinking. Its not new of course. Its commonplace in the US for bookstores to be incorporated into coffee shops or restaurants, an idea that has been adopted in parts of Europe and even the Middle East (I have such a venue close to where I currently live in Bahrain).

While the front-line would benefit from radical thinking, publishers need to start making things easier for themselves and instead of engaging head-on in a battle with digital and e-tail that they just won’t win, turn the page and focus on the aspects of their business that their competitors just don’t have. They need to tighten up their brand definitions, get a better grip on their customers and start building relationships with them based on something other than price. Forget readings and signings, they aren’t sufficiently radical to make the difference that this sector needs.

The real price of discount retailing

With markets as tough as they are it’s not surprising that more businesses than ever are weighing up whether to adopt a short-term tactical approach or hang tough with the longer-term strategic thing.  Retailers are right at the centre of this dilemma and you only have to glance at your local high street or shopping mall to see the choice that many have made.  Stores with perpetual sales or cut-price offers have become a feature of the retail landscape in pretty well every country around the world.

Even though they know that the path to instant gratification has an inevitable pay-off, cake today is becoming an irresistable proposition for idea and cash-strapped marketers, who can only be aiming to be somewhere else when the bill arrives.  So, what is the price of this kind of short-termism?

In this context there are two types of retailer – those who sell branded goods and those whose offer comprises mainly own brand.  The first group can be further divided into premium and mass-market.  The premium retailers, by and large, are chasing margin with high prices.  They are usually the last to have to make the short-term/long-term choice because their clientele are well-heeled and unfamiliar with the financial reality most of us live with.  On the other, far more popular side of the street, mass-market sellers of branded product are “champions of the consumer”.  We rely on them to negotiate with manufacturers on our behalf to deliver the branded products we all hanker after at advantageous prices.

The own brand retailers come from a different direction.  The value of their proposition is entirely their own making.  Customers recognise own-branders as an authority in the things they sell and trust them to use their knowledge and experience  to produce great value product of their own.  Retailers like this that come to mind would be Ikea and Marks and Spencer.

Now consider for a moment discount promotions as a concept.  Again, you could say they come in two kinds.  The first is the seasonal event that we have come to expect.  This is legitimate.  We understand that these promotions are the retailer’s way of clearing slow-moving stock or ends of lines and as long as it remains occasional it and the retailer will retain credibility.

The other kind of discount promotions are those run by struggling retailers to generate sort-term business.  These usually achieve their immediate objective.  The problems arise with repetition.  You must have heard people dismissing retailers as “the place with the sale on all the time”.  The perpetual sale isn’t credible, so let’s not kid ourselves that consumers are buying this line.  If a product appears to always be reduced to 99p then that’s all its worth to the consumer and no amount of double pricing is going to convince them otherwise.  We’ve all witnessed the Pierre Cardin brand get pulped in markets around the world.  Once a respectable, desirable brand, constant deep discounting has reduced it to a bargain basement brand.  Nobody pays full-price for a Pierre Cardin suit because we all know that it will be 70% off next week!

So, when do you start heading into the mire of perpetual discounts?  The answer is the minute you abandon the accepted seasonal event norm.  Then its just a matter of how far you venture in this direction and how quickly you get back to firm ground that determines whether your business is irreversibly damaged.  Discounting is like a drug habit.  Initially the hit is rewarding – you make a load of cash quickly, but as you stick with it your dependency increases and the reward diminishes.  You lie awake at night racking your brains for new superlatives to up the anti in your advertising, margin disappears and eventually your turnover will too.

Your hard-won brand community will dwindle.  We wear the products we buy and carry branded shopping bags with pride as badges of belonging.  Where’s the cudos in belonging to to the cheap shop community?  Customers will feel betrayed.  The brand that you have devalued to junk had defined their status.  Now you’ve pulled the plug.  Your authority disappears over night and whatever you say to try to re-establish value in your offer is futile.  You are just a cheapskate discounter and there’s no way back!

If your regular customers don’t abandon you they’ll do something even worse –   they’ll only turn up for the deals that you make no money on and the only new customers you can expect are all broke like you.  When The Full Effect Company went into one well-know organisation a few years back, we discovered that a third of their customers were actually costing them money because they only bought the bargains with little or no margin.  There was no spoon-full of sugar to help the medicine go down in this case, we just had to loose 30% of their customer base.  However, there are few shareholders who would stomach this kind of treatment unless, as we did, you manage to get back on track very quickly.  We replaced those customers with new, profitable ones within twelve months and met the company’s growth targets.

So, before you launch your umpteenth BoGoF this year give some thought to where this road is leading.  You may not be planning to be around when this chicken comes home to roost, but there aren’t that many juicy retail marketing jobs around, so you might want to think again.

Latvians show Greece how to smile in the face of austerity – Its all just National Branding

As you contemplate the austerity that your government has wrought upon you, spare a thought for how national branding can make the whole thing both more acceptable and successful.  You don’t believe me?  Well try this.

So tied up are we with the dire straights that Greece finds itself in, we might forget that not so long ago Latvia faced a worse economic plight than Greece or Portugal are facing right now.  Latvia fixed it with extremely stringent austerity measures and bounced back to become a very successful economy, in a far shorter time than we are anticipate will be the lot of the Greeks.  What’s more, during the process their government was re-elected.  So, what’s the trick?

There’s a hint in the fact that at the time of their crisis, polls of the Latvian public revealed a marked spirit of shared endeavour or one-ness.  They were definitely meeting the challenge in the spirit of all for one and one for all.  Now, that’s a state of collective minds that only a strong national brand can generate.  While the Greek people (and to some extent pretty well all of the rest of us) play the blame game and try to lay responsibility for the mess on someone other than themselves, the Latvians kinda’ got the fact that arguing about whose fault it was, wasn’t going to fix it, and knuckled down to the task.  Result – they fixed it in record time and suffered far less than the rest of us are going to unless we wise up fast.  The big tick in the satisfaction box also makes the exercise self-perpetuating, serving to strengthen the community spirit and give the subject organisation or country the scope for more and bigger challenges.

The difference between Latvia and Greece or Portugal is national pride.  The Greeks, despite their claims to the contrary don’t have any.  If they did they would have been paying their taxes for the last few decades, which might have averted their current plight.  Greeks are largely in it for themselves.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they are any different from most of the rest of us, driven as we are by the belief that the only difference between happiness and abject misery is lodasamoney.  From that perspective it’s but a short step to topping Gran for her pension.

National pride, in turn, is a product of good national branding (A subject that I have been beating on about for years).  Once you have that sorted you can do some neat stuff – like win wars, bring home the world cup or sort one of the worst financial crises in recent history, in no time at all.

In fact, national branding is no different from any other kind of branding and the benefits it brings are no different either.  Contrary to what I sometimes think is popular myth among businesspeople, branding isn’t just for customers, it’s for employees too.  In fact, employees are where you start with any brand development programme, because unless they are on-board and have that feeling of belonging you aren’t even going to get to first base with customers.

A strong brand is represented, among other things, by a spirit of shared responsibility and those businesses that have set about building one have found that with the right guidance it can be channeled in any direction.  Southwest Airlines employees famously went to all kinds of extreme lengths to create one of the most successful airlines in commercial aviation history.  ABB Brown Boveri returned from the jaws of death and reduced their product development time from three years to three months.  A one-man-and-a-dog operation called Saatchi & Saatchi (The real one not the one we know today) did the reverse takeover trick on the monolith Garland Compton and went on to build the world’s biggest advertising agency and Apple have persuaded millions of people that lap-tops with iffy software are best thing since sliced bread.  I could cite innumerable others, but you get the idea.

So, if you are running a business or a country that’s facing a bit of a challenge right now, consider what the power of a strong brand can achieve and start building yours.  You’ll be able to achieve more with less, probably give your competitors a good kicking and could even do all of this with a smile on your collective face throughout.

How catering franchises change the world

As I have travelled around the world, I’ve become an observer of retail food franchises and the way they perform when they are a long way from home.  Catering franchises are among the most potent brands we have.  Customer loyalty can be the strongest you’ll find in the retail sector and the emerging capacity of some brands to develop their brand communities is only going to enhance that.

These brands change the communities in which they reside just as the individuals that join any brand community changes that a little by bringing with them new character traits and values.  Restaurants like McDonald’s and KFC have changed countries and lesser retail food brands do the same to a lesser extent.  Today I made my second visit to what is fast becoming one of my favourite restaurant chains Tony Roma’s and as I sat there listening to The Eagles’ Hotel California I considered the impact they are having on the local community.  Quite significant I believe, because this is Saudi Arabia, where music is banned in any public place.

Here Tony Roma’s is a franchise run by a local Sheik already heavily into retail.  Clearly he is rather more progressive than others of his countrymen and though I don’t know him I am sure he must be a controversial figure.  Although Tony’s famous pork ribs were conspicuously absent from the menu the music isn’t the only taboo he is breaking.  Restaurants in Saudi Arabia are segregated.  Single men sit in one part and families and women on their own sit behind impenetrable screens in a separate part of the building.  They usually even have different entrances.  I’m not sure how this is supposed to work.  I guess it’s something to do with women not being able to eat through a veil and men not being allowed to look at a woman who isn’t wearing one, but, like many things in this country it is a mass of contradictions, doesn’t work and ends up being a bit of a farce (although the “Emperor’s New Clothes” applies here as everywhere).  Certainly in Tony Roma’s it doesn’t work because although they had areas designated as “single men” and “family”, everyone was allowed to sit where they liked, almost like real life!

The success of Tony Roma’s in Saudi Arabia is a testament to the changing tide.  The manager in this restaurant told me that he has clear instructions from head office that the music will be turned off at prayer time and should anybody complain at any other time.  So far though, in three years, complaints have been minimal and mostly from religious police who make inspection visits from time to time.  The real measure of popular feeling however has to be bums on seats and by all accounts the liberals have a landslide.  Whether any other businesses have the bottle to join this movement for freedom of choice remains to be seen.  I suspect they will, but while they are getting their act together maybe you could ponder on two issues this raises.  Firstly, as I have said the power of brands like these to influence change and secondly the fact that maybe the Saudis are not as completely inflexible as we Westerners think.

Building Brand Britain

Over that last week or so, prompted by the UK riots, we Brits have listened to endless analyses and proclamations by local community members, civil servants and politicians centred on fixing our “broken society”.  As always with these situations, there has been plenty of scepticism heaped on the potential any new initiative has for success.  However, there is only one real obstacle to all the remedial plans announced by David Cameron and others and that’s motivation.

I believe that Dave is a good motivator and getting better, he talks sense, even though his opponent Ed Miliband, seems intent on trying to neutralise that with mindless and responsible political point-scoring.  (If I were him I’d shut up before people started to realise that it’s the left-wing, crap that his party has expounded for decades that has given certain sectors of society the idea that they have rights they haven’t earned and therefore created this disaffection).

The marketers among us will recognise the task facing us as brand-building and as anybody reading this blog over the last few years will know building Brand Britain is one of my pet subjects. The problem is that we have singularly failed to respond to the obvious need to develop Brand Britain and we still don’t have the right people in harness to tackle the job.  Forget the political masseurs, data-analysis’s and bean-counters, where are the marketers in the team?  Without them we won’t get past first base because the people who are currently in the driving seat simply don’t get it.

Over the past few years I have approached politicians, government departments, local councils and private enterprises with initiatives designed to help build Brand Britain.  In many cases, because I have always believed that unemployment and local business initiatives are both inextricably linked and critical to the cause, these initiatives have addressed local unemployment, been designed to strengthen communities and help the mid-sized local businesses who are the key to the future of our nation, shift up a gear and take on the world.

The responses I have received from the public sector jobs-worths in particular, though unsurprising have been nonetheless frustrating.  Unimaginative Job Centre Plus employees civil servants and local councillors have simply disregarded projects and initiatives as representing just another unwelcome task.  There’s no point and very little scope for public sector workers like these to adopt an initiative that’s not dictated letter by letter from Whitehall because their world isn’t a meritocracy.  Why should they take on something they aren’t compelled to?  There’s nothing in it for them.  Besides, these people aren’t employed for their creativity and they are entombed in a culture that actively discourages any kind of creative thinking, so expecting them to appreciate any concept is always an ask too far.

Life skills that should have been taught throughout a person’s school life, if not at the cradle, are belatedly outsourced by Job Centre Plus to HR and recruitment companies.  I’ve spoken to a few of these contractors.  They view these projects with the glee of a paedophile assigned to changing room duty at kids swimming gala and submit proposals that represent minimal input and maximum income for them with the balls-out cheek that comes from knowing the people assigning these projects don’t have the first idea what they are doing and are just relieved to have a tick in the “assigned” box.  When I have gone to these organisations to volunteer help and advice, the response has been eerily uniform and something to the effect that “…we‘ve managed to blag the approval of the JCP people for this half-baked programme, so there’s nothing in it for us if we actually do the job properly”.

These are the kinds of issues that will threaten any British brand development programme and unless someone wakes up pretty quickly and recognises that we ARE building a brand and therefore need to follow the appropriate process, we are destined to failure once again.  That means someone (Dave will do) having a clear picture of what Brand Britain looks like and starting with the mother of all internal marketing campaigns that will bring the public sector and government puppet masters into line behind the concept.  The public are motivated, the players are listening and we’re unlikely to find ourselves with a better promise of success for a brand building venture than now this side of World War Three.

Matalan – Sometimes, all it takes is the basics.

I’m subscribed to more on-line retailers and loyalty programmes that I can remember these days, but I never cease to be amazed at how badly these companies manage their data.  Its been years (I mean more than twenty) since I started getting my clients to build relationships with their customers by acknowledging dates like birthdays that are important to them, but I can’t remember ever receiving a birthday reward from anybody other than MoonPig and then, of course, it was someone else’s birthday they were reminding me of.

I was reassured therefore by my mother’s delight at having received a £5 shopping voucher for her birthday this week from, of all people, Matalan.  I’ve always wondered why the retailer didn’t appear to do anything much with the data they collect when they register their customers.  Especially as you are strong-armed into subscribing to their loyalty programme at your first visit to one of their stores.  It seems that having hit rock bottom in recent years the retailer has addressed issues well beyond their dowdy stores and stock.  Well done Matalan for showing UK retailers how its done!

Brand building – Murdoch makes the connection.

Its been a weird week for brand associations.  In the UK the revelations over The News Of The World phone hacking, its peak intriguingly coinciding with the parent, Murdoch-owned News International’s bid for control of BSkyB, has led to Rupe closing down Britain’s oldest and biggest paper.

I wouldn’t suppose for a moment that this has anything to do with right and wrong.  He’s done this purely for reasons of value not values.  Its emerging that there were already plans afoot to launch a Sunday edition of TNOTW’s sister paper The Sun, so the empire isn’t going to lose its readers, just the overhead represented by the journos, administrators and printers who produced TNOTW.  My contacts tell me that a quick audit also unsurprisingly revealed that The News Of The World brand had been irreparably damaged by hack-gate and although I’m surprised if the paper’s average reading age was such that they possessed sufficient social conscience to boycott it, the overnight disappearance of its advertisers has to be a bit of a pisser.

Like the advertisers, politicians of all hues are desperately scrambling, with varying degrees of sure-footedness, to disassociate themselves with Murdoch (Although today’s press conference suggests that Dave’s penny is still teetering), who some claim has been their puppet master for many years.  The end of an era, if not the Murdoch empire some say – I doubt it somehow.

This event however, does serve to underline the influence that the brands other brands are seen with, can have on their success.  I’ve long propounded the notion that product brand perceptions are heavily influenced by the retail brands they are sold through and the other products on the shelves alongside them.  The reverse is also true and similar associations exist between football teams (soccer to my US readers) and their players and even national brands.  It’s not uncommon to hear individuals being decried because of the company they keep and the same dynamic applies to every kind of brand.  Its why, despite their “fashion brands” claim you don’t find Hermes in TK Maxx.

Back in Prague this week Vaclav Havel, leader of the liberation of the former Czechoslovakia from Communist rule and undoubtedly the most respected man in the Czech Republic (admittedly not a difficult distinction to hold in a land of very shady political characters, but undoubtedly justified in his case) chose to endorse AAA Autos, one of the most deeply miss-trusted commercial organisations in the country.

I say chose to, but it seems he sort of slid slowly and inexorably into what I am sure he’ll come to regard as a mire, as a result of one of his charities accepting a hand-out from the company.  Tony Denny the enigmatic half-Aussie founder of what may be Europe’s biggest used car franchise has long-boasted of his political connections – I might say, far more enthusiastically than those connections have advertised their connections with him.  This week, it seems, he’s managed to leverage this connection in a stroke of genius that will undoubtedly bring him greater benefit than it will Havel.  It seems that AAA lent Havel’s wife’s foundation Vision ’97 an Audi (probably a cut-and-shut with a leaky sump) in exchange for her endorsement, but when Denny called the loan in Pani Havel was out of the country, so her husband stepped in as her understudy.  Was this Tony Denny watching the airport for Dagmar Havlova’s departure and quickly nipping round to Vaclav with a deadline he just had to meet?  Who knows, but I’m surprised Havel fell for this and disappointed to see the Havel brand devalued by its association with the Czech Arthur Daly.

Enter Vision ’97’s PR spokeswoman Sabina Tancevova to explain that there is nothing unusual in the nearest thing Czechs have to Nelson Mandela fronting a Dodgy Motors ad.  Who is she trying to kid.  But then, if I were in her shoes I’d be feeling a bit vulnerable given that it’s the role of PR to manage deals like this.  If she’s daft enought to buy into a cars-for-cred deal like this on behalf of the Havels who could blame AAA Autos for rubbing their corporate mits together in glee?

Such is Czech culture that I fear AAA, the most controversial of Czech Automotive brands, will have significantly raised its credibility, particularly among older Czechs, with this one association.  Maybe Rupert Murdoch, already one newspaper and possibly a TV franchise down this week, could get a few tips from Tony Denny?