Category Archives: marketing skills

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.

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Why Brands are communities

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled onto a discussion on a LinkedIn forum headed “What does a brand mean to you”.  A large number of marketing people have responded with definitions of what a brand is (which I’m not certain is quite what the author of the question actually meant) and, as usual with these things, the contributions are variously, almost there, misguided or just plain bollocks! 

Nobody, in my view, actually nailed the definition of a brand, which, given that the group is for marketing people, is at best sad and maybe even criminally negligent, but certainly explains why marketing, or marketers, get bad press.

For a few years now I have earned a living from debates like this one that take place in my seminars and workshops, but these are conducted with people who are there to learn.  I have to admit when I witness so many supposed experts failing to nail, what is essentially “marketing #101” I sometimes feel like just giving up and opening a sub-Post-Office in the Outer Hebrides!

There may be no absolute “right” answer to this question, but there are clear wrong answers and many of those that appeared on this discussion are just too ludicrous to repeat.  Among the “almost-got-its” though are suggestions that a brand is a promise, reassurance, differentiation or a set of values.  In fact a brand is all of these things, but they are elements rather that the definition itself.  A brand is a whole lot more.  These people need to join the delegates to my workshops in digging deeper to get to the real root.    Never since I first sat down and gave this subject serious thought, have I been in any doubt that a brand is a community.  The reasons that I stick to this concept are innumerable, but here is an outline of my rationale.

Since Abraham Maslow first explained it to us in simple terms its been generally accepted that humankind is on a journey toward self-actualisation.  I don’t see any reason to disagree with Maslow or the thousands of psychologists and researchers who have since advanced and refined his work.  At the risk of over-simplifying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, he characterises self-actualisation as a state of absolute confidence in one’s own being, values, position – emotional self-sufficiency if you like.  Our journey from humble beginnings has progressed through a number of levels to a point where are secure in some respects, but still seek approval and need to feel belonging, so we join communities – tribes, clubs, religions, and brands are a part of this pattern of behaviour.

In modern society we have a vast array of membership options available to us and we also have complex personalities with many traits, which we would all ideally like to express, but merely joining a group or club isn’t enough.  To gain the approval that we crave we need to demonstrate our belonging and to this end we adopt badges.  We can support a soccer team and we wear their strip, we drive a make of car and apart from actually driving it around we carry the logo on our key-chain.  We wear clothes with labels exposed, we carry shopping bags from our preferred stores for days or weeks after we actually made our purchases and we wear crosses on chains and other trappings of religious groups.  In some countries people join gangs and wear their “colours”.  There’s no doubt, we not only have to belong, we need to be seen to belong.

As marketers we commonly use research that defines people by their subscription to newspapers, the cars they drive, the luxury goods they own or the stores they shop in, so its surprising that so many marketers don’t get this flip-side of the same coin.

We choose the communities we do because we feel they represent certain facets of our character or belief system, but complex as we are, it would be rare to find a group that covered all the bases so we join a number of groups with high-profile values and beliefs that together represent most of the values and beliefs we feel are important in ourselves.  This gives rise to each of using a portfolio of brands.

Brand communities work in the same way that neighbourhoods do.  We move in because they are the kinds of places where people “like us” live, but we’ll usually bring along values and traits that are new to that community.  For example you might be an executive on the up and move into a quiet up-market district and be the first resident with a motorcycle or motor home, or the first member of an ethnic minority to move into an English rural village.  Unavoidably, your arrival and introduction of new features, values or traits will change the dynamic of that community.  It’s the same with brand communities.

There’s no doubt that we judge people by the brand communities they belong to, just as we judge people by the company they keep.  You must have heard someone comment on an acquaintance as “mixing with the wrong kind of people”, it works both ways, but a brand’s character is not only defined (in part) by its members, but by the other brands it associates with, so distributors, retailers and other brands that these retailers also offer all influence our perceptions. You can see how the company a brand keeps influences perceptions in niche fashion brands that start as exclusive trappings of affluent middle or upper classes and become chav icons.

Smart brand guardians will influence this to their advantage and will leverage the opportunities these changes bring about, but most of all the role of a brand guardian is to ensure that their brand is always “vivid”.  There is no place in the grand plan for grey or me-too brands.  If you want to be worn as a badge of belonging (and believe me you do!) you have to be distinctive, make a statement, stand for something.  Today’s brands can’t hope to amount to anything unless they stand out.  This means being abreast of current topics, airing them and taking a stance that will give members and potential members something to hook on to.  As Anita Roddick did with Body Shop.

The values that brands represent, the causes they support and the style they adopt combine to infer a promise.  A brand may not be a promise or a proposition, but there is a promise inherent in every brand – it’s the consequence of joining it.  I ask my delegates to think of their Brand Promise in terms of the way in which a customer’s life will be transformed by buying into it, and I mean “transformed” because these days nothing else cuts it!  You can ignore it if you like, but whether you choose to acknowledge and manage your brand or not, you do have one, people recognise it and if you don’t adopt causes and manage it your promise will be taken to be “don’t care”, which is not attractive.

This also underlines the importance for those who are responsible for administering the brands to understand that neither they, nor the corporations that employ them “own” brands.  There is nothing more democratic than a brand community.  Every member has influence and the direction it takes is dictated purely by weight of opinion.  Members are not confined to customers either.  Distributors, retailers, suppliers, investors are all players.

If you are asking what the point is of all this, its simple.  I call the relationships we have with brands “Brandships” and they work just like the relationships we have with our friends.  You know and trust your friends, you take their advice, you will put yourself out to be with them and you might even place your life in their hands.  Likewise, followers of a strong brand will go out of their way to buy it, they’ll pay more for it than a competing brand and if that brand wants to introduce range extensions they’ll readily try them.  This in turn aids distribution, reduces reliance on advertising, enhances margins and cuts down that critical time span between product launch, the emergence of competitors and profitability.  Basically, a strong brand adds to efficiency, which is the point, the only point in fact, because the single thing that separates commercial success from a failure is efficiency.

Maximising marketing efficency. It’s the old strategic v. tactical debate again!

had an interesting discussion with an agency founder the other day that reminded me why I started The Full Effect Company and took to championing the “integrated” cause.

When I set up The Full Effect Company my proposition centred on marketing communications rather than marketing, but while my horizon has broadened the same principle holds true.  When you really get down to business, its efficiency, nothing more or less, that separates success from failure.

And that’s what integrated marketing is all about – getting every element of a business pointing in the same direction.  In the area of marketing communications the elements operate on two levels – strategic and tactical.  Strategic is about building your community, making your customers feel at home and comfortable so they stick around, spend more time (and money) with you and even help you add members (customers).  Tactical, on the other hand, is all about short-term, prompting actions, introductions, sales. (over-simplification I know, but I’m talking to people who know this anyway, so I don’t need to state the obvious)

The thing to remember in all this is that while the influence of strategic communications can only ever be long-term, tactical communications will always not only constitute a call to action, but have a strategic influence as well.  Its unavoidable.  It’s there in the style of execution, the language and the graphics you use. Ignore it at your peril because it will go on working anyway and if you don’t manage it, it could actually be undermining your message and neutralising the investment you have in it.  On the other hand, when the tactical messages support aspects of the bigger strategic idea the relationship become synergistic.  If you make the most of the strategic element within your tactical communications you’ll increase your efficiency significantly and get a whole lot bigger bang for your buck.  And that’s where I started my Full Effect Marketing mission to increase my clients’ efficiency.  I’ve moved on a bit since then, but it’s still the fundamental principle behind all that I do.

While I see increasing evidence that businesses are understanding and exploiting this principle, there’s still a long way to go and it’s certainly not just the small guys who need the lessons.  The friend I mentioned at the start of this piece and I both had first-hand experience of major international organisations with problems that were symptomatic of them forgetting this basic strategic/tactical rule.

A while back I was called into a series of meeting with a major telco who were complaining that they weren’t getting value from their marcoms investment.  They had a strategic message that was getting more woolly by the day and were investing heavily in creating numerous short-term campaigns from scratch each year.  Their problems were two-fold.  Firstly their tactical campaigns were always short and very expensive, so they never had the opportunity to really get up a head of steam and fully repay the investment made in them.  Secondly the tactical messages were so diverse and disconnected from their strategic message that they were not just missing the opportunity for synergy, but sending out confusing, if not contradictory messages that just muddied the water.  This in turn meant their relationships with their customers (Brandships) weren’t as strong as they could be. Yes, it was all very inefficient.

Sadly, while they didn’t disagree with me, the remedy I suggested had political implications that they just weren’t prepared to contemplate.  As is often the case, I was talking to the marketing department and my solution suggested both a change of process and structure and a reduction in head-count, a suggestion that echoed rather hollowly inside their ivory tower.  Oddly enough my friend had a very similar story from a different sector.  Needless to say, faced with an impasse like this my relationship with this telco was short, but by way of my vindication, they were reported in the press last month as having exactly the problem I defined for them, so the cracks are now plain for all to see.  You would think it would be back to basics for them then?  However, I’m not expecting the phone call any day soon!

The key to this kind of efficiency lies in what I call the Brand Model. In the case of my Brand Discovery programme, this is a definition of a brand using eleven parameters, including a promise and a considered set of facts that make that promise credible. If once you have a Brand Model in place you assess every planned initiative in the context of its contribution to or reflection of the promise and these support facts, you’ll not go far wrong.  In the context of your marketing communications this should result in campaign elements with tactical messages that hard-underline one of the support facts and place it in the context of your strategic message.  People who are really good at this are Tesco in the UK with their tactically led messages that culminate with their strap-line “Every little helps”. Philips Electronics’ “Sense and Simplicity” which not only translates back to their product design briefs but results in advertising where the “sense” and “simplicity” are always demonstrated (and these words quoted religiously in headlines and body copy) and to a lesser extent Specsavers’ “I should have gone to …” message.

Until more businesses focus on squeezing the maximum strategic benefit from their tactical initiatives and messages and thereby achieve full efficiency, it’s hard to justify, in these cash-strapped times any purely strategic initiatives.

The dumbing down of marketing

There’s no doubt its tough on the streets.  The post-recession marketplace differs in so many ways to what went before, yet organisations the world around are still approaching business in the same way and wondering why they aren’t getting results. 

Their slowness in adapting is often due to their habitual reliance on processes and infrastructure, which in some ways explains the success of those few start-ups with a clean sheet of paper and the understanding to get it right, but it takes real skills and experience to change a business on the move, so its ironic that just when you need the best brains on the job so many businesses are dumbing down.

Organisations world-wide are recognising that until the recession changed the rules businesses that were “average” could still earn a living and realising that efficiency is the difference between success and failure.  Now its game on, of course.  Average doesn’t cut-it anymore, we are talking fine degrees of excellence separating the movers and shakers from the has-beens.

Sadly, a lot of misguided managers are confusing efficiency with cost-cutting and employing managers with little or no experience and limited skill on the cheap.  It doesn’t work of course, because to succeed in business these days requires the best and the smartest and the cracks are very much in evidence.  I recently encountered a major global concern where the senior management were frustrated that they weren’t getting, what they considered a reasonable return on their marketing investment.  It was easy to see why.  The wastage was apocalyptic – they talked about integration (the only way any business is going to achieve the necessary efficiency) but didn’t understand it, nor implement even the basics and they had a department called “Propositions” whose brief it was to come up with a continuous stream of short-term tactical promotions that were so short they never had a chance to get up a head of steam and were just confusing their prospects.  To make matters worse, the focus on proliferation of ideas inevitably meant standards were sacrificed.  All they needed was one “Big Idea” and what they were doing was throwing half-arsed ideas around like confetti.

Behaviour like this can only be a product of inexperience and limited skills, but the business I mentioned are by no means alone, this is a worrying trend.  The businesses that I see succeeding right now have limited numbers of really smart people with the skills and experience to contribute across the business.  Structures involve everyone having clearly defined responsibilities, while appropriate culture and practices empower capable managers and employees to contribute in areas of the business beyond their remit.  This way you make the most of your resources and the gaps in the skills and experience can be covered by bringing in consultants as and when they’re needed.

Of course, while small businesses have the luxury of starting with a clean sheet, larger concerns will struggle to adapt existing structures and practices, but that’s not an excuse to do nothing and it’s certainly not going to be resolved by anything other than the best, most experienced and highly skilled marketers.  The decision to dumb-down by recruiting on the cheap is a false economy and the sooner businesses that are going this way recognise this and reverse the process the more likely they are to survive the next few years.