Brand as communications. Fail. Brand as service. Win.

Brand as communications. Fail. Brand as service. Win.

Image by Econsultancy in association with Foviance

Brand spending is different to brand experience. A brand that concentrates of providing a positive experience will always do better than a brand who simlply promises (= only communicates) such an experience.

Econsultancy published a survey this week on the most important tenets for retailer brands to focus on. The most important area for retailers to focus on – whether that be online or in physical stores or across the whole journey – is the quality of service. The prime influencer, even in these tough times, is not price. It is not communications or advertising. It is not even quality or products. It is a positive customer experience.

Equally critical to note is that a positive customer experience then leads to almost three quarters of consumers to recommend a retail brand.

A customer journey for retail has many touchpoints to influence customers & reinforce the overall experience. The danger of 20th Century brand thinking is that the brand is thought only in terms of communications, in terms of image, of logo, of website design and as a tactical weapon to stimulate consumers.

Brand is vital throughout the journey – in ensuring the whole experience is positive and consistent. The brand story starts with the staff, from the board to the support people; from  those on the retail floor and on the phones to those in after sales care. The brand should be in the performance appraisals with the same KPI for the CEO, the CMO, the CIO as well as all the people who actually meet, talk to and actually deal with customers.

Brand is not simply about communications anymore. Brand cannot be how something is executed.  Brand experiences are designed and planed to influence the whole customer journey. Marketing understand this but not all management do. Marketing’s influence on other departments like Sales, IT, HR, Supply Chain is decreasing. Too many departments act as silos, and create their own KPI’s to keep their own departments on message. The trouble is that is only part of the overall message. The brand story is about the customers’ experience throughout their journey with the retailer. A brand led KPI system that focuses primarily on the customer experience can help bring these silos back together.

The Econsultancy survey makes clear the importance of good service = good experience. It demonstrates how communications are increasingly less important. However, they limit their description of brand to communications and consistency. The best retailer brands are all about a positive experience. One that is promised and delivered throughout the customer journey and as rated by the customer not the retailer’s specific, separate departments.


Too big. Too slow. Too much noise. Choose to collaborate & create rather than efficiently manage

Too big. Too slow. Too much noise.

Choose to collaborate & create rather than efficiently manage

I had a good discussion over the weekend about the future alignment of big agencies and big brands. The debate focused on three core issues

  • How we need to test more things out to meet the changing needs of customers
  • How much quicker everything has to be
  • If the big agencies are geared up for such fast turnaround & innovations

Really the debate was around the final question – I know they are trying to change but not always succeeding. Time is running out. I believe that this current downturn will cause fundamental changes to the relationship between clients, brands, agencies and consumers. The pressures that will force this tipping point are both from clients and from within the agencies and, specifically, their top talent.

The proliferation of specialist agencies that started 20+ years ago with media separating from creative, relationship marketing execution separating from advertising, identity studios involving into brand consultancies, the rise of digital specialist beyond web developers and online advertising and the formation of a few places that are more generalist idea not execution offerings has left clients dealing with too many agency contacts, all great at some things but not everything. During the same period, the Management Consultants have proliferated exponentially inside many of the same clients. It’s no wonder senior clients feel time starved, over advised and generally frustrated.

Even though many of the Holding Companies have been successful in pitching a “one-stop-answer” for Billion Dollar businesses, these pitches are so in the sights of procurement that the decision is only over lowest price and how many people (sorry, FTE’s – full time equivalent people) are involved in the deal. Therefore the focus is driven by a combination of efficiency (to make the deal profitable) and management (to ensure consistency of service) as much less on delivering better creative ideas. Consumers and customers (and indeed staff) need to be understood, connected too, delighted and heard, which are driven by creativity, insights, cut through and smarts = better creative ideas.

Sure, the Holding Company has a number of specialist agencies who are geared up to deliver their specialism brilliantly – and they do. A lot of clients form their own rosters of specialist agencies who are world class at their specialism. There is great talent in these agencies – but too much overlap and duplication stops the talent performing at their best for the brands.

The overlap takes the form of big teams with too many different disciplines working apart and only occasionally meeting. A big brand may have between 5-7 agency teams working on it. These teams usually work in different agencies or on different floors within big agency groups. All teams have roles that are specific to the agency and not for the client. They are assigned by a basic billing model that allocates a percentage of time per task.

Too many agencies still have first-point-of-contact people who represent the agency to client rather than create things or provide insight. Many of these traditional roles are replicated across each of the client’s agencies – whether from the same holding company or not. Too many account managers or project managers or junior this and still-in-training-for-that. Important internal roles, less important external roles, but all the roles are accounted for, paid for and in each process from each discipline & in each agency. Clients also have proliferated roles to look after executional disciplines and follow the process to execute things with too many levels and with a niche focus aimed inside a company rather than in gaining real insight with their consumers outside,  in order to provide meaningful, rewarding experiences that is demanded of 21st Century Branding.

We hear a lot about noise from a consumer’s perspective with millions of messages in too many channels – ironically there is an internal noise in these agencies that can be distracting for both clients & negates the very reason they may have hired agencies in the first place – namely to create and improve brands and their relationships with consumers, customers and staff -  but also the noise affects the top talent inside agencies. The ‘noise’ takes to form of

  • Running an agency – reporting, communicating, managing, meetings, meetings
  • Reporting to the holding company
  • Internal processes (often to update people for not at client meetings)
  • Being allocated to other clients (it’s not uncommon to add the FTE percentages so that people are allocated 3 months for every one month of time)
  • New business gathering
  • Training younger people – or use them as blockers.
  • Meetings, meetings, meetings, politics, politics, politics

This noise not only distracts the top talent away from building brands, it frustrates them. Everything slows down the processes of creativity. The talent spends less & less time with the client and at the client and/or in the world learning – it has a big knock on frustration at the client too. The frustration has always been there, but today, the holding companies are so pervasive, a lot of options for clients and agency talent can seem to be out of the frying pan & into the fire.

Their clients need talent to succeed in getting new ideas our more quickly but are getting increasingly frustrated when the good ideas are slowed by over burdensome process & models and or in forms that are difficult to test – these days testing has to be done in real markets not in real market conditions or focus groups and be small enough to fit on a model of “do, learn, do again, do different.” This includes having dialogue with consumers on a weekly basis not in annually or for a big launch.

The change has begun. Some of the clients are early adaptors. Much agency talent are leaving to collaborate with other talent to create new models, to choose to work on projects they want too, or with other talent they respect. The freelance model of choice. Smaller creative boutiques are happy to recognise they don’t know everything but know enough talent outside to mean the client can get access to the best talent. Clients are picking specific teams from their agencies to work directly with together rather than via each individual agency. Virtual networks, collaborative villages used to be the prerogative and vernacular of tech start ups.

Hence the rise of “open source collaboration” – whether within smaller, more fleet of foot, agencies set up to keep that way or choose to work as an individual or dynamic team to focus on creating & making things. Clients want to work with the best creative and strategic talent. They are rarely all in the same agency. And they are always the most sought after in the agency. Holding Companies don’t always give top talent the freedom of choice or the full freedom to create. Clients themselves  have too many balls to juggle to stand still.

Creative collaboration direct with clients and consumers is one way of ensuring that breakthrough ideas are tested quickly in order to build growth back into a clients business. At the same time, it breathes passion back into creative people – right and left brained brand builders who want to make a difference  – who are not turned on by efficiency and management process that they are increasingly frustrated with.

Smaller, faster, focused creativity is like adrenaline to the best agency talent – not managing efficiently. It’s choosing to give your all to a project or a brand. The same at the client. The same for consumers. The effect is positively infectious. Of course there are times when it still happens at big agencies and big brands. At pitches and launches – in times of crisis management. The trick is to make these acute one off periods more regular, more often. Otherwise what will happen is that creative brand projects will be worked on by a creative collective – to deliver a powerful impact to a consumer’s experience or a meaningful role for a company’s staff on the customer journey.

These collectives will not be retained to work beyond the agreed project. Another project could follow but not immediately with the same brand. The teams will mix and match themselves over time to complement each other to drive each solution and then move on to choose another. As this process developed, creative talent & innovators will merge with other advisors in the management consulting field. Choosing to collaborate, whatever the fee or reward is for the collective or the client will be based on short term shared goals and outcomes. This form of collaboration provides the opportunity  for each person, client or creative, to keep being curious,  right or left brained, to make an impact, to be a part of a wider community, to solve difficult or interesting problems quickly and feel increased self worth, beyond the measure of a salaried job with the accompanying processes and management responsibilities.

So yes, it was an interesting debate on Saturday night. An optimistic one too, because these are times of change, where action will trump inertia, and fear fuelled doom mongers do not have to be right. The debate happened at a charity ball for Mencap’s Grove Cottage. The power to do good by many for a few was apparent, in our little community.




Digital changes everything and nothing. Brands still need emotional connection.

Digital changes everything and nothing. Brands still need emotional connection.

I met Tor Myhren, President and Chief Creative Officer, Grey New York a couple of years back. The agency he leads has been transformed from the one I used to work with 10 years ago. Grey NY is the only ad agency to get in Fast Company’s most innovating firms. Grey was the bastion of account management led agencies. Tor’s background is as a Creative & that’s central to Grey’s turnaround.

In this little movie, Tor shows himself to be a great storyteller and charmingly shows how the customer journey has changed over the time of the digital revolution.

While the tech-driven media channel has turned so much upside down in terms of speed, access, influence, participation, user experience and the other traits that a  21st Century Brand must address – Tor’s real insight is that Brand storytellers still must connect emotionally to consumers. Understanding them allows the story to be heard.

Creativity remains the brand’s best friend and proves that all brand advisors have a future as long as creativity is at its heart.

Brand advocates are the most important salesmen a product has.

Brand advocates are the most important salesmen a product has.

Graphic courtesy of The Times & Bain

Personal recommendations ensure brand preference, even in the toughest of times.

A survey of 6000 shoppers by Bain reveals that consumers are more likely to “treat themselves” by spending more on premium and luxury brands during these tough economic times. Bain note that consumers recognise the there is an emotional pull by these brands, who are deriving reassurance of quality in their purchases.

In tough circumstances, consumers are cutting back on big ticket purchases (think Best Buy & Comet issues), are holidaying at home (BA reports another drop in passenger numbers) and in terms of homes, they are either holding on and not moving (stagnant housing market) or can’t get mortgages to get on the housing ladder and will continue (or even restart) to rent (today’s Grainger report indicates up to 50% of Brits will soon be renting).

While these are understandable indicators of such hard economic times, many consumers want to afford themselves to the occasional “treat”. When they do, in a surprisingly wide range of categories – including fragrances, restaurants and personal technology – they look to brand-influenced decisions. What is interesting in the Bain study, is the confirmation that

  • advertising continues to  diminish as an influence on 2st Century brand choice
  •  personal recommendations are the most important influence
  • online activity is important but not as important as the massive shifts in marketing expenditure to internet expenditure suggests.

As Bain says ‘Companies overestimate the importance of online and are underestimating the importance of advocacy.  A lot of companies have spent a lot of money on the internet but they should be spending more on getting people to be influenced by their friends and family”.

Brands can succeed next year despite the gloom and doom, by creating advocates, by listening to and creating dialogue with these consumers and by recognising that by doing so, consumers imbue these brands with quality associations, beyond the basic product attributes. Brands that do this understand the new customer journey has many touchpoints that require new thinking and smaller, consistent actions that reinforce the expectations of the brand promise.

Hailey’s Comet – innovate the brand rather than cut off the tail

Hailey’s Comet – innovate the brand rather than cut off the tail

When Best Buy shut down UK operations yesterday, a John Lewis spokesman got it right when saying :there was no gap in the market. Today, Kesa shed itself of Comet for £2 to a group of companies under the name “Hailey” advised by retailer turnaround specialists OpCapita.

Hailey’s Comet – geddit?

Kesa have invested £50M into Hailey and covered the staff’s final salary pension fund. Hailey’s Comet will burn for at least 18 months (they “promised”). The goal is to sell it on then or after for £70M+ assuming the chain has indeed turned around. Kesa had already been fighting the downturn by shutting down 17 stores and was “right-sizing” more. Hailey will no doubt be fast tracking this faster and deeper to drive profitability on declining revenues.

Which makes one wonder what the future of these bigger out of town operations? Especially for infrequent big ticket purchases? No doubt people will still buy what the big Electrical Outlets offer – once a year or less rather than what was twice a year or more.

But with everyone becoming savvier in online research and the importance of recommendations, what will drive people into the stores that they do not pass frequently? Smaller High Street stores work for smaller electrical and tech offerings (Carphone Warehouse’s skills not Best Buy’s) or offer an all encompassing experience (Apple Store) that will draw more regular visits without a desire for specific purchase. Argos has cracked its digital search app brilliantly to order & reserve before going to store to pay & pick up – and use GPS to make it yet more relevant.

How can Hailey turnaround what Kesa couldn’t? Cost optimisation will not be enough. The Comet Brand Experience will need to be reinvented – and that cannot start with price promotion advertising but with innovations on the whole customer journey. Innovations that should include a new digital dialogue or friendly & rewarding search and information applications and then through to expectation beating in store experiences. The aftercare option cannot be confined to selling expensive and unwanted product liability insurances.

There are enough Comet stores that Hailey can test out different experiences on different customer journeys – and then accumulate the total learning into the whole group. Such a programme could and should lead to turning around revenues as well as whatever Hailey decides to do with cutting off its tail.

If they fail, there may well be a gap in the market – the real Hailey’s Comet is due back in our solar system in 50 years…what will be happening in retail outlets then?