brand positioning

Do your customers really understand you?

We all believe we know what we do and what benefits we offer potential clients. We put a lot of effort into our brand proposition and ‘elevator pitch.’ But it can be easy to be too close to our business and miss the very fundamentals that we take for granted.

I often lecture at universities on digital marketing to non-marketing students. I usually begin with a question, saying something like, “What is digital marketing… no, wait, first of all, what is MARKETING?”

As you can guess I get a lot of answers that are way off the mark, and hardly any that are near correct. That’s understandable because it’s not part of their day-to-day.

The question opens the door for me to present some definitions and introduce such ideas as the Marketing Concept and Philip Kotler’s thinking.

A good deal of the public misunderstanding and confusion may be blamed upon media misunderstanding and sloppy journalism. But it got me thinking: was I assuming that my business audience actually understand what we do?

Testing understanding

I do quite a bit of networking and often describe my business in broad terms as a marketing consultancy, brand marketing or marketing communications specialist. But always using the term ‘marketing‘ and assuming it means the same thing to my audience as it does to me.

So, I decided to put it to the test – I asked various groups of businesspeople: “What is marketing? What do you understand by the term?” The results were worrying. There were lots of muddled ideas but very few understood the basic concept – unless, that is, the people were from associated fields (and surprisingly, even some of them had fuzzy definitions).

This presented me with a dilemma. I was using a term in our brand descriptor which most of my prospects did not fully understand. Of course, in presenting my proposition I go to some lengths to describe what we can do and what benefits we can deliver. However as a basic brand communications issue, I had a lot of thinking to do.

Many other businesses may fall into the same trap. You may be so familiar with what you do that it’s easy to assume a similar understanding from audiences. They will have a broad idea (we hope) but some important nuances may be lost.

Take the step

My advice would be to try that basic test on your prospective audience – ask them what they understand about what you really do. It could give you valuable insight into how you define your brand and fine-tune your proposition.


Will Dr Martens sale unleash a brand giant?

Dr Martens LogoIt looks as though the Dr Martens brand is set for sale to Permira, the organisation behind the Hugo Boss brand amongst others. I’m sure this can only be good news.

Compared to other fashion brands Dr Martens has always seemed to lag behind in its ability to extend and exploit the brand capital. Yet I’ve always felt there was enormous potential for a brand that has much more emotional legacy than simply that of a fashion label. Though it has immediate linkage to the skinhead era for those who lived through it, it went far beyond and had the power to re-engage with decades of subsequent cultures – both youth and older buyers who had the brand deeply embedded.

In terms of footwear styling, the owners managed to cleverly maintain the fundamental styles while responding to changing fashion cycles.

Perhaps the rather tentative forays into brand extension may lie the historic strength in footwear. The brand owners, the Griggs family, have footwear in their DNA. Boot and shoemakers based in the ‘shoe-capital’ of Northampton, they followed the line of playing to their core competences – the cobblers stuck to their lasts.

Now with new owners without such a strong but narrow legacy, the potential of this sleeping brand-giant may be released.

Favourite Brands – Virgin

There are lots of reviews of top brands… rankings, awards and well-researched analysis. If you want some more scientific insight, where better to look than Superbrands.

However, I like to occasionally indulge myself in looking at my own favourite brands – in a non-scientific and wholly subjective manner. My justification for this is my belief in the power of the emotional dimension of branding. This is not as open to scientific analysis though its manifestations may be quantified.

virgin logoMy choice for this piece is Virgin. I begin my working life when Virgin was still a baby brand and watched it grow up. For me it is an ideal example of consistent, emotional brand values.

It is hard to put your finger on the spirit which runs throughout the brand and engages with the public. It has much of the zeitgeist of the 70’s – slightly hippy and irreverent, perhaps it strikes a chord with those who have grown up with the brand. It is difficult to believe the same emotional theme could run throughout a business story that began with record stores and diversified and transformed through air travel, railways, new media and telecoms, financial services and now… space travel?

A key dimension has almost certainly been people. It’s glib to use terms like ‘brand ambassadors’ and I’m not sure that it is useful. It suggests that staff have another, special role. In truth the people are just doing their jobs, but the way they go about them embodies the brand spirit.

Another factor is probably the structure. A lot of what Virgin does runs contrary to accepted business wisdom. When Richard Branson took the business back into private ownership it ensured it had the flexibility to do things its own way. As regular plc, with a board with shareholders to answer to, it’s possible that business would never have moved into such seemingly unconnected arenas. Had it stuck to the record business it might have gone the way of HMV.

That’s why I’m nominating Virgin as one of my top brands – it has done things it’s own way – and understands that the value of the brand transcends the standard business models. It has maintained the emotional core, consistently over half a century, still with the cockyness of a bright teenager.

Charities forget brand values in fundraising at their peril.

Charity - Andrew Carnegie.Most decisions we make about brands have deep emotional connections. In many cases they are signifiers for our own sense of identity. Our choices in clothes, food and drink, cars and transport touch us at subconscious levels to accord with our sense of self. They feel right for us as they relate to our personal values and experience.

The more directly emotional the category of the brand, the stronger the connection. There can be few more emotional connections than those we have with charities we choose to support. Our choices are based on direct tugs to our individual heart-strings. We respond to deep beliefs and reflect strongly held values.

In general, the charities’ core activities are strongly in line with their brand values. They are very visible manifestations and probably demonstrate the reasons why we chose to support them in the first place. Where there are concerns lie in their down-stream activities, particularly fundraising. This is where we are most likely to interact directly with the brand and where a mismatch of values can become apparent.

Bob Geldof’s, “Give us your ****** money”, was right on the brand message for Liveaid. It resonated with the values of the supporters. Clearly, there are many charities for which such an approach would be inappropriate.

There has been a good deal of critical press about such activities as ‘chugging’ or ‘charity mugging’ where hit squads target city centres. There are arguments for and against, and for big charities it can be argued that the end justifies the means. However, often aggressive fundraising can seem out of synch withe the values of serious charities. Fundraisers must take a hard look at the characters and values of the loyal supporters and match their efforts to the shared brand values.

Brand values must be consistent above all. Sometimes it seems as though there is a disconnect between a charity’s core brand, its purpose and actions in the field and the activities of the fundraising arm.

Know what you are about – brand lessons from Polaroid

Polaroid_logo_Polaroid – the ‘instant picture’ company, had an amazing USP. They had a patented process that guaranteed them a unique place in the photographic market place. Polaroid Land cameras (named after the inventor and founder, Edwin Land) were the embodiment of an iconic brand from the 1950’s through to 2004.

The unstoppable march of digital photography has proved catastrophic for many of the trusted names brands previously dominant in the sector. Camera brands such as Canon and Nikon easily made the transition. Others, especially those who saw their future in terms of traditional film, such as Kodak, had potentially much more serious problems.

The core differentiator that Polaroid enjoyed was the ‘instant’ picture – digital imagery swept that away at a stroke. However, the Polaroid brand is strong, with a unique legacy and a strong attachment to generations of happy snappers and professionals. There seems to have been a realization that the brand was a much more important asset than a now obsolescent technology. The brand moved ahead.

Polaroid loomed large on my horizon once more when I was reviewing a range of new sports, digital, video cameras under the eponymous brand. It gave me cause to reflect that where Kodak had floundered, Polaroid gained a new lease of life. Kodak seems to have mistakenly thought it was in the film business – where in fact, the brand was all about imagery through whatever means. Polaroid stopped thinking of themselves as an ‘instant image’ brand and developed as a wider imaging brand. All the currency of their legacy continued to support a new offering.

As all photographers know the difference between doing something good and something great, may simply mean changing your viewpoint slightly.

Don’t blame retail brand slaughter on the internet.

HMVWe’ve seen quite a bit of brand trauma on the high street recently with big names such as Comet, HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster, among others, hitting brick walls.

It’s easy to jump to a lot of mistaken conclusions. Retail is very visible and as many manufacturing and service companies have also suffered – it’s just that their profiles are not so high.

One of the assumptions we hear is that e-commerce and the internet is ruining the high street. But the reality is simply that people’s shopping habits are changing. Online shopping, downloading music and movies, and digital technologies are part of the landscape. But these technologies are not that new. E-commerce has been with us for around 20 years. iTunes is part of life. Of course technology is rapidly evolving, but many retail brands have recognised and embraced change, adapted and are flourishing.

It is natural for brands to look outside for their nemesis rather than analyse their own shortcomings. Sadly, established and successful brands become complacent and only notice the changing landscape when it is too late and struggle to adjust. Change is no longer in their DNA.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with many of these brands, just their strategic management lost direction.

A brand such as HMV has huge value, a history to envy and a unique place in the music landscape. The business model was just no longer robust. The management tried many tactical adjustments but more fundamental change was needed. Perhaps the cold light of administration will focus the thinking. This is a brand with real values that will be snapped up, I’m sure.

Similarly, Jessops. We saw how even Kodak lost its way and failed to come to terms with digital imaging. Jessops has a unique place in retail. Of course, the rate of change caught it out, and it needs the breathing space to reassess itself and re-position its offer. Again the brand has some strong core values and it’s little wonder there is a good deal of interest it – last Thursday, PwC confirmed that Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Peter Jones was among a number of buyers looking seriously into acquiring it.

Legal victories may be bad for brands

JusticeWhen your brand wins a legal battle it may be good for the company but can damage brand values and engagement.

Apple have been smugly congratulating themselves after their court victory over Samsung. We can all understand – when your success is built around product innovation, protecting your intellectual property must be at the front of your corporate mind. But perversely, the public may not share in the jubilation.

Legal confrontations are not particularly edifying. Especially if you are a powerful, brand leader, there is always a reaction to feel sympathy for the underdog. I’m sure many of us remember the reputation Microsoft earned by their eagerness to rush to litigation.

Nobody likes to see dirty washing done in public. Facebook’s internal conflicts did little to endear the management to its public. All of these actions reflect upon the brand values and can be internally damaging.

The discourse within organizations that are involved in litigious processes is indicative of lawyers’ confrontational culture. The metaphors are about battles, about fighting, winning, victories and defeats. The dialogues are adopted throughout the organization. Staff understand who the ‘enemy’ is. The brand ambassadors begin to use the discourse of street-fighters. The ‘battles’ become part of the brand narrative and define its values.

Of course we must protect our IPR and be prepared to stand up for our brand. But it is also important from a brand leadership standpoint that we don’t allow the corrosive and hostile attitude to damage our values.

Banking – when all brands seem tarred with the same brush, how do customers react?

BankScandal upon scandal has hit the banking sector and evidence of collusion has left customers feeling none are to be trusted. So, when a whole group of brands are considered toxic how do consumers respond – especially when the service is one everybody needs, amounting to distress purchases.

Brand damage usually results in rejection by the public and often by an exodus of customers. Competitors can benefit as disaffected consumers drift in search of alternative suppliers. But what happens when you have nowhere to go, when a whole sector has lost brand confidence? We all need our banks but now we see them as something akin to distress purchases. Brand choice is no longer an issue. Customer paralysis seems to have set in.

For a canny bank brand, however, there is an opportunity here. With nobody prepared to jump ship, retail customers will still be aware. There is space for a new clearly differentiated offer. But first, the offer must be authentic. Customers will be way too wary of bankers’ words.

I believe the damage done to the big banking brands is so serious that the contender to win the hearts and minds of retail customers will come from a much smaller or newer bank. Sure, the big boys are necessary for the business arena with investment and custody services etc. but for retail customers, emotional attachment is key.

Whoever emerges as the people’s champion is likely to succeed through the medium of advocacy. We don’t trust the words of the banks, so we listen to the words of friends and trusted advocates. Perhaps the time is right for social networks to take centre stage as the consumer stirs into action.

Blacks and Millets – is the great outdoors big enough for two?

bootsI note from an article in Design Week, that Blacks Leisure, the parent company of Blacks and Millets, is looking to rebrand the two subsidiaries. The group was recently rescued from administration by JD Sports.

It always gives me a slightly queasy feeling when businesses in trouble see re-branding as part of some solution. Far too often it means tinkering with the image and brand communications. My instinct is that for the component parts of this group, that will be far from sufficient unless there is some radical change in the brand offers. The point is that there was nothing really wrong with the two brands, just that their offers were too similar to overcome the retail realities.

Let me declare an interest. I am a lover of the outdoors and regularly shopped at both outlets. My perception was that 80% of their offer was pretty much identical. I would also guess that 80% of their audience was the same. That need not be a problem if the differentiated 20% in each case was where the real revenue was generated, but I would guess this was not the case.

I lived in a modest county town where we had a Blacks store in prime retail real-estate, and also a Millets outlet in almost as prime a location, not 400 yards away. Both were substantial double-fronted shops on two floors. Even the most naive shopper could soon see that both stores were related as the core of the stock was duplicated. Unfortunately the target audience was not duplicated. This was not a brand issue at heart but one of retail dynamics and you did not need to be retail analyst to sense that something was amiss.

The two brands came from rather different routes. Blacks made their name in tent-making (I still have a Blacks Good Companion from the 1970’s). Millets built on the post war outdoor boom with many ‘ramblers’ purchasing army surplus equipment before specialised kit was within the grasp of the general public. But the two brands converged, and it is difficult to develop differentiated personalities when the majority of the brand offer is so similar.

I would love to think that both brands could carve distinct and profitable niches. They have amazing pedigrees and the names represent iconic personalities in the UK outdoors market, but whoever takes on the challenge will not succeed with some superficial brand communications tweaks. I fear some radical and painful brand reassessment and restructure will be fundamental.

Who would play your brand in the movie?

A quick snapshot of brand personality – start casting your brand movie.

For a couple of decades now, I have used the brand-as-person model when working with clients, to help them get to grips with the intangible issues of brand and corporate personality. We all saw the recent findings from Interbrand, that people like brands the way they like friends – nothing surprising there. But perhaps a more accessible way of approaching it is to think of casting your brand’s movie.

The great advantage this approach has is that it makes you think of your brand’s story – you can look at it as a narrative of screenplay. Every story must have a hero or heroine – your brand. Who would you cast? Then think about what qualities that actor would bring to the role – the qualities and values you would want for your brand. Robert DeNiro would bring very different qualities to Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry or Kenneth Branagh. So what are those values and why are they important to the brand?

Let’s go a stage further: now you have your hero – what about the rest of the cast? We usually have a villain in our brand story who would play them? What qualities would they bring and what competitive advantages does your hero have?

This approach is also useful get a snapshot of how your brand is viewed internally. Asking colleagues or staff to identify brand strengths and weaknesses is rarely productive. They may have an agenda, but there will certainly be demand characteristics in the question and the questioner. Asking others in the organisation to cast the role of the brand in a movie is much more innocent and less demanding. But it can also be very illuminating.