Are you selling a brand or a product?
Are you selling a brand or a product?

Whether to focus on promoting a product (or service) or the brand is a question that often comes up with clients. Is it better to focus on the attributes and benefits of the product? Or the ethos and values of the company behind it?

In many quarters, the latter approach has a bad reputation. It is often seen as lofty and idealistic; not rooted in commercial reality. Yet there are plenty of examples that prove otherwise.

In 2002, Honda launched a bold new approach to their advertising, starting with a television commercial entitled OK. This was followed by their Perfume and Banana press adverts. And then in 2003 came their Cog television advert. These talked of a company philosophy, not the features and benefits of Honda's cars. Yet by December 2003, less than two years later, annual sales had risen by 22%¹.

 

John Lewis have just launched a major new advertising campaign focusing on the partnership structure of their company. This strategy has served them well. Between 2012 and 2015, following the introduction of their now-famous Christmas television advertising, sales increased by 37%².

Focusing on the brand isn't right for everyone and therefore people are right to question the commercial validity of this approach. Many have had their fingers burned. So when should you focus on the brand and when should you just get on with selling a product? Our work is often about finding the right question to answer. In this case, the question is: Is your brand anything more than your product or service?

To understand what I mean, let's return to Honda. The agency team that worked on the campaigns said this: "We'd never encountered a corporate culture like it; maverick; feisty; inventive; still behaving as though their unpredictable engineering genius of a founder was stalking the corridors looking for engines to tweak. They were frustrated that this fantastic culture never found its way into the advertising. They really wanted a positive engagement with society. The Power of Dreams was true. It sprung directly out of their culture, not from a series of global focus groups, and that kind of human truth about a company was a powerful weapon."²

When people try to promote their brand and fail, it is often because they lack authenticity. A purpose or why has been invented in a workshop, but it's not a truth that permeates through every corner of the organisation. A wonderful image can be projected through communications, but if this doesn't ring true when people deal with customer service or experience the product then it will quickly fall apart.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was on the brink of collapse. One of the first things he did was create an advertising campaign, which he launched internally, saying: "Our customers want to know who is Apple and what is it that we stand for. What we're about isn't making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. Apple's about something more. Its core value is that we believe people with passion can change the world for the better. What we're going to do in our first brand marketing campaign for several years is to get back to that core value."³ The campaign they launched was Here's to the Crazy Ones. And it worked because it was true. It encapsulated the values Steve Jobs stood for. It was the vision he pushed through the business. And it was something every Apple customer knew to be true when they used one of the products.

Patagonia are a more current example. They've recently launched a campaign called The Dam Truth4 about how damaging dams and reservoirs can be to nature and the environment. This is far from a token CSR initiative. Yvon Chouinard's book, Let My People Go Surfing, details the lengths he goes to push his vision through the business. He details at length how they embedded their ethos and values through a series of philosophies: product design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, human resources, management and environment.

Promoting something bigger than a product or service can be immensely powerful. Honda, John Lewis, Patagonia and Apple prove this. But it has to be authentic. If it isn't, then it's far better to focus on the features and benefits of the product or service. But in the meantime, start work on building a vision internally. This will take time; it won't deliver results overnight, but one day the company might just be able to advertise like these great brands, and experience the same commercial returns.

— RG

The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family
The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family

The Questions We Asked goes behind our work and gives an insight into the issues or opportunities our clients were grappling with prior to briefing us. Sarah Dunning, CEO of The Westmorland Family, takes up the thread:

We’re a second-generation family business. Mum and Dad were and still are hill farmers just outside Tebay in Cumbria. In 1967 the M6 was being built through the corner of their farmland. The government decided there was to be a motorway service area at this point and my parents, in their 30s and keen to get on, made a bid to build and run it. They won the bid and in 1972 they opened Tebay Services northbound.

Westmorland-Family-Grade-66

Over the next 30 years they grew the business and in 2005 Dad handed over the reins to me. The challenge for me was to retain the DNA of the business whilst redefining it for a new generation. It is easy to feel between the devil and the deep blue sea – you don’t want to be the one that destroys the work of the past generation but you know you must be bold if you are to move it on.

We formed a new leadership team and agreed that we wanted to grow and that another motorway service area seemed like the logical step. It took seven years to plan but we finally opened the northbound side of what became Gloucester Services in May 2014. So in the last 10 years we have gone from a local Cumbrian business employing 450 people to one with businesses 300 miles apart, employing 1,000 people.

Westmorland-Family-Gloucester-Shoot-04

One of the decisions you have to make as a business is when to bring in external expertise. This can be difficult, especially when it relates to your core brand, but that’s sometimes when you need it most. In 2012, prior to opening Gloucester Services, we were discussing problems that were strategic but also creative. Squad were a small and young organisation, they knew our business and had some empathy with it and they came with both a strategic and creative background. And so we set about working together.

There were many questions at that time, which tended to pose themselves in the order that the problem arose. One of the first ones was what to call our new services in Gloucestershire, partly because we had to invest a lot of money in motorway signage. However, in trying to answer one question, we often found that we couldn’t do so without first answering a series of other questions. It became apparent that the initial question wasn’t always the most important one. Often there was a question behind the question that we needed to address first.

It became clear that the most important first question to resolve was what the brand stands for. Our ethos, which sat at the heart of the business, was very much about being a Cumbrian family business that had grown out of the farm and remained tied to it. However, we had to square this with our desire to grow the business and specifically with the opportunity we had to build a business in Gloucestershire, which inevitably would take us out of our own Cumbrian farming community. This dichotomy extended to many aspects of our business - our product offer, our buildings, our branding - so we had start with some fundamental questions.

Should the buildings in Gloucestershire ‘feel’ like Tebay Services? Should the food be from Gloucestershire, or should we bring some from Cumbria?

We knew our businesses couldn’t be ‘rolled out’ as Costa, Pret and M&S are. It’s much harder to grow a business this way, because each business has to be bespoke. It also means we’ll never grow to be a giant as some businesses do; but perhaps that’s a good thing – there is something to be said for staying smaller and true to purpose.

However, whilst Gloucester Services should have its own personality, as distinct as Tebay Services, we wanted the customer to feel that they were still siblings, albeit not twins. We had to consider how the buildings and landscape should read back to our identity. We wanted to capture the essence of our Cumbrian businesses but re-express it in an appropriate way for a new build. So whilst both feature heavy timber and stone, and feel quite earthy in their way, we exchanged the agricultural and rustic approach of Tebay, for a more contemporary and sleek design.

The Westmorland Family Gloucester Services-Shoot-50

So how could we create a brand and branding that ties together our businesses with a recognisable thread, yet preserves that character and independence of them?

I have always believed that a business’ ethos should be the compass for every initiative and every innovation you undertake. Only by doing this will the customer understand what you are about. It is not enough to articulate your ethos (even if you can) but you have to deliver it through every touch point because some things are better felt than articulated.

Delivering it through every touch point is quite involved for us because we have around 100 acres of space, about 15,000 product lines and 1,000 people working in the business. We have 10 million customers a year through our businesses and our aspiration is that each one will leave with a sense of what we are about. I have no doubt that we regularly fall short of this aspiration, but we have to keep on trying.

So how could we make sure our branding was present but with a light touch - not like a rubber stamp?

To see how The Westmorland Family’s questions were answered, read the case study here.

Sarah Dunning and RG gave an extended talk based around this article at the 2016 Family Business United Annual Conference and the Cumbria Family Business Conference at Rheged the same year.

Out for a duck
Out for a duck

Sir Nigel Gresley was an imaginative man.

A gifted inventor.

Probably the most famous locomotive designer associated with the London and North Eastern Railway.

He designed arguably the most famous locomotive in the world: the Flying Scotsman.

And as well as being a great engineer he had an eye for beauty.

Designing engines with muscle and elegance.

The attractiveness of his locomotives were not wasted on the advertising department of the LNER at King’s Cross: many of his engines appeared regularly on posters, luggage labels and booklets.

Anywhere the company could take advantage of the locomotives’ impressive good looks.

But when LNER were able to prove that their engines were not only safe and stylish but very, very fast, they had a real marketing property on their hands.

On the 3 July 1938, driver Joe Duddington climbed into the cab of the Mallard: an A4 class locomotive with sweeping art deco lines.

Joined by fireman Tommy Bray, and the inspector, Sam Jenkins.

Attached to the engine was a dynamometer car full of charts and instruments to record their speed.

Turning his cap back to front, Duddington took the helm and they started their outward journey from Wood Green.

Resting at a siding in Barkston, thoughts were collected and packed lunches eaten, as Jennings and Bray made the fire up, right to the doors of the firebox.

The train left at 4.15pm, rising through Peascliffe Tunnel and on to Barrowby Road Junction, where the line levelled out on the way to Grantham.

Work on the line meant that the train slowed to 24mph temporarily then gradually picked up the pace, passing through Stoke Tunnel and heading uphill towards Stoke summit.

Passing Stoke Box at the top of the climb, Duddington gave the Mallard a head of steam at 85mph.

And she jumped to it like she was alive.

After three miles the speedometer in his cab showed 107mph, then 108, 109 …

Before he knew it the needle was at 116mph.

Bray and Jenkins shovelled frantically.

Duddington nursed her through Little Lytham at 123mph.

The excited passengers in the dynamometer car urged her on.

And then for quarter of a mile they all held their breath as they reached previously uncharted speeds of 126mph.

The Mallard had booked her place in history, clinching a new world record for steam locomotives.

So it feels very fitting that a statue of Sir Nigel Gresley should be commissioned by the Gresley Society Trust.

And unveiled at King’s Cross Station next year: the 75th anniversary of his death.

A seven-foot-tall bronze figure of the man, created by sculptor Hazel Reeves.

And here’s the clever bit: he has a bronze mallard duck at his feet.

An inspired idea.

A duck that will make people stop and take notice.

A duck that will help spark interest in the story of how the Mallard broke the world steam record.

A duck that will mark out this statue from the plethora of other statues celebrating the great and the good around London, and make people remember it.

Without the duck, it’s just another statue of a kindly old gentleman.

But it appears that’s exactly what a minority of trust committee members would prefer: to remove the duck, because it may invite ridicule and detract from the dignity of the statue.

So after widespread consultation with their president, vice presidents, members and Sir Nigel’s family, the duck is no more.

That’s the danger of design by committee: you’re rarely going to please everyone.

Compromise can lead to watered-down designs or strategy that everyone likes (or can live with), but that no one really loves.

Which will be picked up by your audience.

Your audience aren’t always as interested as you think they are.

You need to make them sit up and take notice.

It takes daring to be different.

Different doesn’t need to be wacky.

It should be salient and meaningful.

It should stick something in people’s memory banks.

Relevant difference is a calculated risk.

But far too often people fear too much what will happen if the risk is taken.

But the question should be: what are we risking if we don’t take it?

Because if your brand doesn’t provoke a reaction then it’s the equivalent of a kindly old gentleman.

Hold your breath and give your brand a head of steam.

And don’t let your best ideas be out for a duck.

- DB