Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why brands, and branding, have no place in politics

A correspondent took Jason Cowley, editor of The New Statesman, to task this week, for his use of the phrase "Labour's brand is still strong." He objected not to the statement's accuracy (although that is, following the past few months, highly dubious), but to the use of the term brand. "Political parties," he wrote, "used to have principles, not brands."

My initial reaction was a hostile one - that the sentiment came from the outdated (and discredited) brand-as-logo school of thought. Surely the more holistic, modern definition of branding - a clear, concise and authentic distillation of the values, behaviours and experience provided by an organisation - is exactly what today's parties need, to re-engage and inspire apathetic voters who think "they're all the same." Mind you, take my own favourite definition of a brand - "a promise, kept"  and it certainly doesn't seem appropriate to our politicians - eh, Mr Clegg?

Which party is currently hogging the limelight, the headlines and (in some places) the votes? It's UKIP, the only one that has succeeded in striking a simple, "authentic" tone, and possibly the only one that can be called a strong brand.

Therein lies the rub. If Brand UKIP's success can be put down to the simplicity of its brand and message, is that really an example other parties should follow? Some might say yes, many brand experts among them (particularly, the cynic in me says, if there's money to be made).

I say no.

Branding is about simplicity and clarity, and politics is neither simple, nor clear. Moreover, the electorate is so complex, and diverse, that trying to come up with simple, concise messaging with universal appeal is an exercise in futility. It explains why we end up with such vague and homogeneous promises from all the parties, appealing to universal desires like fairness, meritocracy and "choice" that they can neither substantiate, nor deliver. As the hierarchy of needs shows, we largely share the same basic drivers. The parties aim to appeal to those, without telling us how they might approach their fulfilment. Benefits, not features, the marketers say. But in politics, features do matter.

So, this is an appeal to brand practitioners to stay away from the politicians, and to the politicians to stop trying to be brands.

To paraphrase one of the more famous examples of political marketing: branding isn't working.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Need to lose weight? Try commuting.

Anyone who found themselves delayed, standing, or indeed both, on a busy commuter train this week may be consoled by a new study reported in the British Medical Journal, suggesting that people that use public modes of transport are thinner than those that use private means.

A study by "boffins" at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has finally proven what I've been saying for years - commuting is good for you. The study assessed around seven and a half thousand individuals for BMI and percentage body fat. They found that both male and female "active commuters" (a definition covering walking, cycling and public transport) tended to have significantly lower BMI scores than those who drove.

With such sensationalism in reporting on the obesity issue, it's a useful reminder that exercise doesn't have to be extreme to do you good. It may not make headlines like the 5:2 diet, Zumba or streetdance, but your journey to work can have a real impact on your health, good or bad. Of course, with train fares set for another hike, joining a gym might end up looking cheap by comparison.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why it's time to rethink "choice"

I take a packed lunch to work most days. In part, that's because it's expensive to buy lunch in this city (and, indeed, most other places). But there is something else, too. There are so many options, before I've got as far as the end of the street, that selecting one takes more mental energy than I have spare in the tank, after a busy morning. I used to think it was just me that suffered from this choice-aversion. Now? I'm not so sure.

The big news in the retail sector, where choice has always been the only option, is the rise and rise of the discounters. Aldi and Lidl now have 8% of the grocery market, and rising, while the Big 5 flounder from one ill-advised price cutting gambit to the next. They won't beat them at their own game, but what if it's the only game in town? The price is right, so come on down!

When I first came into branding, the virtue of choice was received wisdom. Before "greedy" Andrew Lansley (to quote the viral song) and the great NHS privatisation push, there was Michael Howard, in opposition, banging on about giving more choice to patients - neglecting the fact that informed choice relies on knowledge, something which most patients (through no fault of their own) just don't possess.

My wife and I sat down in front of the telly this evening, and I pulled up the Youview menu with its smorgasbord of televisual cheese. Neither of us could be bothered to choose, so we flicked back over to regular telly. Weren't we all supposed to be watching on-demand now? It was meant to be the death of advertising. But it's not happened. Faced with almost limitless choice, people have chosen to let the broadcasters make the appointments to view.

Ironically, for a blog ostensibly about commuting, the one area of modern, mainstream, everyday life where consumers don't have a choice is on the rails, despite what the franchise model may promise. But that's okay, because it gives us no choice but to complain, and we Brits love a good moan, don't we? Which brings me back to the supermarkets.

Look "below the line" at the newspaper articles reporting on the discounters' expanding market share and you'll see comments such as "Limited choice? No problem, less chance to waste money" and "few choices, honestly priced." It's counter-intuitive to marketers, but it seems that consumers actually want less choice. Why? Perhaps because they have too many other meaningful decisions to make. So, an (over)crowded shelf, stacked with brands offering essentially the same product in a slightly different pack doesn't really provide a choice at all.

The rise of online shopping is well-documented, but the fact that its dominance increases when people are shopping for gifts less so. There are several considerations at play here - lower prices, lack of time, avoiding the shops at busy times - but it seems likely that the curated nature of online retail is surely a factor. Why spend ages on the High Street, agonsing over what to get a distant relative for Christmas, when Amazon, say, will make a selection for you based on a few vital statistics. It's bad news for sales of socks.

It seems we may have finally reached the point where we have too much choice. There are so many big choices to be made, the people are looking to avoid the small ones.

What does all this mean for businesses, and marketing in particular? Simplifying and streamlining may not be the answer. Those businesses that have been big news this year - the likes of Uber and Airnb - are offering something genuinely different. How does that work for a product sitting on a supermarket shelf? Innovation, not NPD, is the answer - innovation that starts with in-depth customer insight, and translates that into a genuine benefit, that offers the user not just more choice, but better choice.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

For a man called Brand, Russell's Revolution shows a lack of marketing nous

I remain in two minds about The New Statesman's Brand-edited edition. For a magazine that can usually be relied upon for intelligent debate and factual analysis, it felt alarmingly close to satire, and I get Private Eye for that. It did generate a lot of publicity, from both ends of the political spectrum - it can't be often that TNS attracts the attention of the Torygraph.

Russell's essay was readable, certainly, if only because his prose flows like a babbling brook on a warm Summer's day. What he, and his various respondents, failed to do, was to suggest an alternative to the failed democratic model he decried and disavowed. Brand's position appears fatalistic - democracy is broken, the young feel disengaged, and the powers-that-be don't care. His solution . . . well, he doesn't really have one, beyond recalling Billy Connolly's joke "Don't vote, it just encourages them."

His critics' response can be summed up as "Put your money where you mouth is" - suggesting that Brand abandon his hedonistic Hollywood lifestyle, return home and run for public office.

Except that isn't where his mouth is, is it?

Robert Webb's injunction to "read some fucking Orwell" certainly did read well, but again, doesn't really address the central tenet. Webb went straight out and "rejoined the Labour Party" before taking to the pages of The New Statesman to list New Labour's Progressive achievements, from the minimum wage onwards. Personally I don't disagree with him. But if the point is that young (and older) people feel disengaged, and disenfranchised, by party politics, throwing it back in their faces isn't going to change their minds. The last twenty years have seen new social, economic and media paradigms emerge, and be enthusiastically embraced by Generation Y. Should politics be any different?

In this, I believe Brand's "revolution" shows the value of a good marketing strategy.

I'm wary of invoking "the power of the market" to cure every ill - just look at what it's doing to healthcare. But Porter's five competitive forces of any market include "threat of substitutes" - perfectly illustrated by the old (and possibly apocryphal) Parker Pens story. The one where the Marketing guy says "We're not competing with other pen makers. We're competing with the entire executive gift category, everything from Filofaxes to the complete works of Dilbert."

If you apply Porter's model to British politics, the absence of substitutes is keenly felt. Both the suppliers and the "buyers" (voters) are locked in an uneasy circle of diminishing returns. UKIP typifies the threat of New Entrants. "Threat of substitutes" is the one big hole in the competitive picture, and I believe that this failure to offer a reasonable alternative democratic option is holding the system back. Proportional Representation, and of course the dead duck that was the AV Referendum, were the nearest we got. But it's at a local level that people "feel" politics, but at a national one that they "see" it. Infrastructure, policing, traffic, parking - these are the issues that affect voters on a day-to-day basis. I'd never pick up the phone to my local MP (Peter Lilley) because he's a toxic Tory. Likewise, I'm unlikely to join a political party of any stripe, because of the confrontational model they represent.

It's party politics that needs a proper rebrand, not the parties themselves. Until that happens, these political comics are just having a laugh.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

My own Rickie Lambert moment

Rickie Lambert’s Boys’ Own rise to the status of England’s saviour may owe a fair bit to fortune (or, at least, the misfortunes of others – Rooney, Welbeck, Sturridge, and one might argue, Roy Hodgson), but there’s no doubt it’s a stirring reminder that, even in today’s money-mad, largely predictable game, the unexpected can still happen.  To compare very (very) small things to great, it brings to mind my own fairytale footballing moment, when, from nowhere, I was presented with a golden opportunity to put years of mediocrity behind me, and write my name across a tournament.

The tournament in question was the five-a-side championships, a one-day event for the media and marketing industries. It was March, 2002. Arsenal were on their way to the Double, prompting Sir Alex to postpone retirement. England was awash with the joy of Becks, after that late free kick against Greece that had secured World Cup qualification. Nobody, outside of the medical profession, had heard of the metatarsal bone.

I was in my first job out of University, as a glorified telesales person, helping advertising agencies to get meetings with minimally influential people from the marketing world. After some cajoling, and a few midweek training sessions, we had assembled a team to compete against the best our glamorous industry had to offer. I was captain, inspiration, and on the bench. Our team contained a former Sunday league player, and two ex-professionals, one of whom even featured in 1990s computer game Sensible World of Soccer. By contrast, I had been described, by one uncharitable observer, as the worst footballer in the world (and he was a Middleborough supporter, lending his opinion of crap players some weight). I had arranged our participation, hence my elevated status within the squad – but there was no way I was going to get in the starting five. I am under five and a half feet tall, so I couldn’t even justify picking myself in goal.

One of our ex-professionals had procured some bespoke kit for us, a striking yellow jersey, combined with blue shorts. From the waist up, it was a little bit like watching Norwich City, albeit at a particularly low ebb in their history. From the sidelines, I could summon up the spirit of Jamie Cureton, the striker who scored with his first touch for the Canaries after coming on as a sub. The tournament kicked off without me, and we breezed through our early group games, our veteran brigade defying aging legs and creaking knees to score some tasty goals, and our hastily-recruited goalie (a ringer from outside the company – like one of those overage players in the Olympics) even saving a penalty. I paced on the touchline, biding my time, awaiting my chance.

That chance finally arrived in our final group game, when I was able to get on the field, with our passage already secured. In fairness to myself, I must point out that I had already played in our second group match, and even claimed the assist for the opening goal, before being substituted for kicking one too many opponents (I get a touch of small man syndrome when playing football). Nonetheless, it was in this climactic match in the group stage, that my chance for goalscoring glory finally arrived. Charging forward to support a quick breakaway, I headed for the far post, as my good friend Tony hared down the wing. As he rolled an immaculate low cross into my path, I drew back my bright green Diadora astroturf boot, as our ex-professionals roared their encouragement from the touchline, and took aim.

We reached the final of that tournament, though I can’t claim much personal credit, where we came up against a client, and lost one-nil. Probably for the best. I got a round of applause from “the lads” for organising everything. But the team never played together again. The recession hit, and we couldn’t get the money to enter in 2003. The company then fell apart, as various people left. Most of them turned up for my Stag Day, a week after the tournament, which began with a game of football that wasn’t allowed to finish until I’d scored. These days, I’m playing a few times a month, and rather better than I used to. Tony’s doing very well for himself, too – MD of a flashy digital agency, and playing hockey for Staines. So maybe there’s a lesson for Rickie Lambert – even a fairytale moment doesn’t have to be the very pinnacle of one’s career.

And my own Cinderella moment? I swung my left foot, missed completely, and ended up on my arse. Not all fairy tales have a happy ending, after all. Good luck Rickie. You deserve it. End of story.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Is the "Right" Fracking Up?

I don't know about the rest of you, but I for one am really enjoying this fracking debate., purely because it has shattered the unity of the right wing, whose ascendancy in the past few years has seemed so unstoppable. Having largely prevailed in the economic discourse since 2008, and with UKIP's (admittedly overstated) rise seeming to show that they have gained the upper hand in that most contentious of arguments, that over EU membership, it seemed that the cosy certainties of small "c" conservatism were set to dominate the national agenda. Energy, however, remains the Achilles Heel of conservative ideology. Put simply, if you want things the way they've always been, what happens when you absolutely have to change?

Previously, the only real alternative to traditional forms of power generation (discounting the Nuclear option, which would surely be even more contentious than the fracking issue) could be easily label "leftie." Suddenly, this has been shaken up (pun intended) by the emergence of (allegedly)earthquake-inducing fracking as a viable option. And suddenly you've got hordes of homeowners from the traditional Tory heartlands of the South East joining forces with environmental activists to stage direct action against Big Energy and Big Government.

In the Big Issue this week (buy a copy - it's worth it) there is a feature on so-called Nimby-ism, in which one resident of Balcombe labels herself a Lamby ("Looking After My Back Yard"). This may make her seem a bit selfish (what about everyone else's back yards?), but it does underline the problem the Right is going to face as it tries to manage a stark conflict between two of its dearest causes - generating profit, and maintaining the status quo.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Fairground Attaction

My wife and I took our two boys to a funfair. We chose a roundabout for their first ride. Our youngest burst into tears.

We introduced them to candy floss, a delicacy that failed to impress him. I bought a toffee apple instead, and he painted his pushchair with sticky pink goo (some of it might have gone in his mouth, too).

Finally, we called at a hook-a-duck stall, and they both had a bash, before picking a prize from an arsenal of plastic firearms. We felt they were too young for semi-automatic weapons, so got them a gun that fired nothing more lethal than bubbles. It later turned out not to work.

It was time to leave, an unpopular decision. We made our way home half-dragging, half-carrying two screaming boys. So much for the fun of the fair!