Category Archives: Brand equity

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.

Turkish Airlines and the price of a reassuring brand

I started writing this somewhere over Eastern Europe aboard a Turkish Airlines Airbus 320 bound for Istanbul the third leg of four in a round-trip from Bahrain to Europe and back.  I can’t recall ever having traveled Turkish Airlines until two weeks ago when I made the reverse trip from Bahrain to the UK, but had I not been a captive of my round-trip ticket I would probably have switched carriers at Istanbul, never to return to the carrier again, such were the horrors of my first leg.

I find it hard to remember a more dour cabin crew than that which accompanied me from Bahrain to Istanbul.  I felt sure their training must have included hours spent in front of mirrors perfecting their scowl.  Their general, attitude toward passengers was variably off-hand or aggressive and they seem to have taken their frustrations out on the in-flight fare, which they had managed to suck all the moisture out of before throwing it at us.

What a contrast, therefore, was the second leg of the same journey, where we were greeted by smiles and tended with tasty, well-presented (by airline standard), in-flight catering.

Leg three of the round-trip was even better.  New plane, pretty attendants with nice smiles and truly good food and as I lounged in leather-clad comfort I reflected on how my opinion of Turkish Airlines may have differed, had this been my initial experience.  The final leg demonstrated how great, well-trained customer-facing personnel can even overcome other deficiencies in your offer.  The last of the quartet of Turkish Airlines planes I was to experience was clearly in the twilight of it’s years and it hadn’t been at the front of the maintenance queue either.  I found myself hoping this was because they had spent so ling diligently servicing the engines!  In the cabin there was only one working toilet, a number of the entertainment centres were faulty and the crew were put to the test by a woman with two juvenile delinquents who were sitting behind me and promised to ruin my flight.  However, they didn’t because the cabin crew worked hard to bring the experience back on track.  The complete event has underlined to me the importance for any business of achieving consistency and the essential role that internal marketing plays in that.

I have spoken many times in my seminars and writing about the importance of consistency in the success of a brand.  Not just consistency between the different facets of your business, but within each one too.  Had my third flight been my introduction to Turkish Airlines and what was my first been a subsequent experience I would have been more ready to accept that it may be difficult to get it right every time.  As things are I need more reassurance before I accept that Turkish Airline’s good stuff isn’t the fluke!  I often quote some statistics I picked up years ago that say it may cost ten times as much to sell for the first time to a customer than to make subsequent sales to the same person, but it will cost a hundred times that to entice a customer back once you have disappointed them.  Such is the price of reassurance.

Customers need the reassurance that only consistency will provide and of course while its best for everyone if you are consistently good, with all the implications that has for customer retention, pricing policy and margin; being average all the time is better than lunging from crap to brilliant in a way that makes doing business with you a lottery.

Achieving consistency is about nothing more or less than internal marketing.  Identifying your brand, its values and attributes and introducing them to every employee at every level of your business in such a way that they adopt them as their own.

If you have the right people in place they’ll take this and run with it bringing their personal skills and experience to bear and adding value to your brand and therefore your business.  There’s no shortcut.  Organisations who have chosen instead to apply a dictatorial approach to what they call “training” have consistently failed.  As dictators around the world have learned, dictatorship only works if you can preempt every eventuality, which of course you can’t, so you have to adopt a more nurturing approach and allow well-trained and motivated staff to interpret your brand values. In fact, one of the organisations that has achieved most success in this is another airline – SouthWest Airlines, who famously wooed customers with a consistent, if off-the-wall, brand personality through two industry slumps, almost uniquely maintaining profitability throughout.

These days we are all looking for ways to squeeze the highest return from investment and with the price of mainstream media what it is, communicating within your own business looks like a bargain.  What is more, most organisations find that the return they get on internal marketing significantly outstrips that of external campaigns.

I’m quite sure that had the cabin crew on my Bahrain to Istanbul flight focused on delivering the Turkish Airlines promise my overall impression of the airline would have been a lot better.  As it is, because I was a captive of my round-trip ticket the carrier had the chance to demonstrate what they really could do and I might just be persuaded to book with them again, but probably only if they were cheaper than their competitors.  As I said … such is the price of reassurance!

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.

Building a brand like Fender

The attention of anyone who is even vaguely interested in music and many more who wouldn’t know their crotchet from their elbow, has been drawn this week to the news that Fender, who have been making guitars for musicians around the world since 1946, is going public.

If you are thinking of taking a stake, you’ll be buying into a true icon, not just of twentieth century music, but of branding, because whatever else Fender may be, this is what a great brand looks like.  What Fender have done, of course, is create that most illusive, yet essential ingredient of any brand – a community.  And what a community!  When I was a would-be pop star the Fender Stratocaster (or Strat to its friends) was the six-string of choice for greats like Jimmy Hendrix.  The musicians around me were readily defined as either Fender or Gibson guys (although Eric Clapton somehow managed to straddle the two quite successfully for some years).  But it wasn’t and isn’t just about the Fender corporate brand.  What gave the business its sustainability was the way it catered for a widening range of musical genres and cultural sub-groups with a range of products that, whilst sharing the same DNA, each enjoyed its own dedicated following –  Stratocaster, the original Precision (which probably was more of a revolution even than the Telecaster) and Jazz basses, catered for clearly defined musical types, giving, what could easily have become a niche brand, essential breadth.  The business was also smart enough to listen to and watch its customers (Oh, how I wish a few more businesses could say the same!).  Musos were increasingly customising their guitars and Fender responded by creating its custom division where pros and enthusiasts to this day can specify their unique Fender incorporating all Fender assets – the tremolo bridge, solid state, pick-ups etc. crafted for them.

The trick of broadening your appeal (and thereby both increasing your customer base and deepening the relationships you have with them) by applying your core brand values to a range of niche products is one every business needs to practice.  In recent months I have been working with a perfume manufacturer and retailer where the principal equally applies.  In our case the corporate brand is built on ethnicity and high quality, but each of the range of perfumes and other products if played correctly has niche appeal and personality that we are building communities around.

But while you can’t afford to be a one-trick pony these days and innovation is definitely what it’s all about, it’s equally essential to approach your product and offer development  in a structured fashion.  I’ve highlighted before in these pages the need for every business to not only define their brand and have a clear strategy, but to support that with a methodology that ensures every new initiative contributes rather than detracts from the objective.  Businesses go off-track and waste fortunes every day on initiatives that either don’t contribute or even have a detrimental effect on their business, don’t be one of them.  My Brand Discovery program me has a built-in briefing process that comes into play with every new initiative, forcing those in the driving seat to justify the project against pre-defined criteria.  If you haven’t adopted a tool like this you need to get onto the programme.  Get it right and in a few years you could be floating your business for $200million!

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.

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?

It pays to engage your employees

Only a real idiot would fail to nurture and care for his employees.  After all, your employees ARE your business.  Their personal traits are your assets, their values are your values and their passions the seeds of your future products.  They have the ideas that, in an environment where a business is only as good as its NEXT big idea, are the difference between success and failure.  Its also down to them that these ideas get turned into products and services and delivered to market and the level of efficiency with which they do that is also in their gift.  That’s why my Brand Discovery programme focusses on engaging the organisations’ workforce.  They, not the directors are after all, going to bring the brand to life.

Internal marketing will deliver by far the fastest performance improvement for pretty well any business.  For one thing its massively neglected.  Many businesses don’t even have a budget for it and we are all familliar with the law of diminishing return, so its easy to see why a little attention given to such a neglected subject will quickly deliver disproportionate results.  When I am faced with a business that’s strapped for cash, but needs to turn around, my first call will be to the internal marketing toolbox.  Its rare for my marketing strategies not to include HR initiatives.  I usually have HR people on my project teams and I’ve frequently delivered results without increasing marketing investment by switching marketing funds from external communications to internal initiatives.

My fascination with this subject explained my glee when I came across Dr David Kelly’s account of “Designing Curious Employees“.  Just about every paragraph on this piece contains a priceless insight that most businesses I encounter could do well to contemplate.

Although he may not express it in these terms, David Kelly recognises that getting your employees behind your brand is the key to success.  Brands fail because they don’t live up to expectations and that’s down to employees, but for employees to do their stuff requires that they are comitted to playing their part in delivering your brand promise and in my experience few employees even know what that is, let alone have a sense of ownership.  Most businesses issue instructions to their employees rather than explain and involve them in decision and as Dr Kelley says, that’s the worst thing you can do. Why should they feel anything for a concept or even a business that they haven’t been allowed to participate in the development of?

Keeping them in the loop is but a facet of internal marketing.  If you want your employees to truly own your strategy (and belive me you do) they have to have played a part in its formulation.  There are all kinds of tools that you can engage to ensure this is happening, but most of all you need to engage your ears.  Once they know you are listening, in my experience emplyees will respond with all manner of ideas and suggestions that could set your business on the road to success.  I once created an entire business unit from an idea that came from a junior secretary and businesses that harness their people power are doing the same every day.  So, take heed of what David Kelly says.  Internal marketing is a powerful tool that in the right hands can transform a business.