Friday, 14 November 2008

Cheerful Children

As I cycled across Chiswick Back Common in the miserable drizzly rain yesterday afternoon I was cheered by the wonderful bubbly giggling and chattering of innumerable small children. The local primary school were out on the tennis courts, the five-a-side pitches and indeed the soggy grass for their PE - and enjoying themselves. In the face of the deepest, sharpest slow-down/recession/depression of recent times these diminutive innocents were as happy as the proverbial Larry. Brand 'child' is alive and kicking.

The experience was somewhat enhanced by the fact that I had indeed cycled through the grim weather to the big Sainsbury's just to buy some strawberry shoelaces. Inadvertently I had promised these to my own diminutive innocent as a bribe to get her to go to drama club. I didn't know then how hard they are to find - but as I searched various newsagents and convenience stores I remembered the packet at home that had distinctly borne a Sainsbury logo. So I pushed on to reach the superstore. The marvel was that I scoured the store for the sweetie section, located the desired product, found they were '3 for a pound' which coincided beautifully with my requirement for 3 packets - and managed to check out and leave the shop having spent only the one pound. I was probably bucking the typical Sainsbury shopper trend as their profits are up 15% and there were healthy queues at the checkouts of well-stacked trollies. 

I however felt strangely noble in my reserve, and of course very worthy on my bike. The lovely cheerful children was the added icing on top of the strawberry shoelace success. How hard times make us appreciate the small things. Next wave of optimism - preparing for the upturn...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Westfield Empire storms on

I am simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the new development of Westfield London at White City. Week after week Design Week announces the design of a flagship designer store in the centre. It must have created a huge boom for retail designers over the last 12 months or so and must, I believe, create job opportunities for the local population - which must be a good thing. It has a 'village' of high-spec designer outlets, it has a rich mix of high street standards, it has 'anchor' stores like M&S, Waitrose and Debenhams. It has 50 restaurants. It has a fourteen screen cinema. It has a gym, a luxury spa, a new state-of-the-art library, and even a wildlife centre (of which I have no details) - so it must be good. So why my feelings of discomfort and mild horror?

It's big - very, very big. It has been built on what Time Out's Maggie Davis described as 'what was a vast area of wasteland.' Well, I'm sure that is true in many ways - but I happen to be rather a fan of those odd gaps in cities that you always think, 'Why has no-one built on that?' They are often populated by sprouting purple buddleia - a favourite with butterflies, and turn out to be the home of some long-lost snail or microscopic worm thought to have become extinct in Roman times. They create a breathing space in the proverbial concrete jungle. And this wasteland in particular had the last remaining buildings from the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 - a fantastic place, its pearly white surfaces giving it the enduring name 'White City', including the Olympic Stadium used for the 1908 games and host to 8 million visitors. The incongruous white arched hall that used to be next to Shepherds Bush Station was one of the remaining structures until its demolition.

So there's a curious nostalgia, a sense of loss, based on lots of stuff I never really saw - but somehow connected me back to the past, past pride, past achievement. Something I feel should be recognised, respected and remembered.

The things that irk me most about the new mega-mall (apart from the homage to retail and potential wasting of young lives as mall rats), is its total lack of respect and recognition of the local area. The name is purely a global brand building exercise of 'the largest listed retail property group by equity market capitalisation.' ( Every development - in the USA, Australia, New Zealand or the UK, is pre-fixed Westfield. When I first saw the Westfield name on the hoardings surrounding the building site I innocently thought maybe it had some connection to being in West London. How very wrong. The naming of the site as Westfield London doesn't even recognise its westerly position. A corporate quip quoted by John Ryan in his article for Retail Week suggested that Westfield had succeeded in 'rebranding a London suburb.' Urgh. And since when was Shepherds Bush suburban anyway?

Then there's the hideous green glass exterior. It has that two tone green effect that just reeks shopping centre and makes me feel mildly ill. The 4,500 parking spaces - that'll be fun at going home time on a Saturday afternoon - especially if it's a match day at Queens Park Rangers.

Underlying its detachment from the local area is the way almost every article describes White City and W12 as amongst the most deprived areas of London, if not the UK. So a Prada shop and a Tiffany shop are going to be a real boon to the locals. No surprise the 80 security guards and 680 CCTV cameras will ensure that no hoodies contaminate the pristine, marble-floored galleria. This of course is an outrageously poor understanding of both the local community and people who like wearing hooded tops.

And finally my feelings are well summed up, again from Maggie Davis's piece in Time Out, by the 'crude red 'Westfield' logo the size of a bus' attached to the 'ugly green, metal-panelled exterior.'

Surely in this cathedral to good design and taste, with its top New York architects and cutting edge retail, we deserve a good logo that looks like it might have been created within the last 20 years.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Thursday, 18 September 2008

That Microsoft brand thing...

I have been meaning to write an article about the new ads from Microsoft, you know the ones – with Bill (Gates) and Jerry (Seinfeld). I had developed a theory about just what Microsoft might be up to, but before I could put the proverbial finger to keyboard, the interweb became awash with rumours that the ads have been pulled, or have possibly ‘done their job’ – depending on the spin you believe.

For those of you who haven’t heard about them (where have you been?), or seen them – here they are (assuming youtube continues to show them that is).

So what was Microsoft up to?

Well before I go too far, I have to express an interest in Microsoft, having just worked on an assignment to help rebrand most of the advertising revenue generating businesses within Microsoft – snappily called Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions (MDAS for short) into – wait for it – Microsoft Advertising.

Now I know you may think that job didn’t need a whole heap of consultancy thinking, but as I like to think – great brand ideas in hindsight should always look kinda inevitable. The fact was that working with Microsoft was a delight – and that they really do have more big brains than you can shake a stick at, but unfortunately they are mostly huge brains that would rather focus on technology and products and functions and ‘neat stuff’ than branding – so this is where we came in.

So, far far away on another Microsoft planet (it really does feel that big) some big Microsoft brains have been pondering the ‘b’ word (brand – keep up), and why they aren’t the most loved brand on earth, as they rather feel they should be.

For 25 years they have increasingly dominated the I.T. world – particularly with those two huge cash cows, Windows and Office, but somehow their enormous portfolio of industry dominating products and services still doesn’t seem to add up to a great brand – why not?

Well, like most brand problems, the answer is incredibly simple, and incredibly complicated all at the same time. For why?

Microsoft is a very very complicated company (however hard it tries to simplify it’s organisational structure), with some very complicated products, services and propositions. It has a vast workforce of smart people coming up with smart things – and mostly what Microsoft loves best is coming up with more and more new smart things.

I have to admit I have sat through more than one meeting at Microsoft where I hadn’t the least idea what they were talking about (but hey, I am a brand consultant), and as I have already said – Microsoft is an awfully big and complicated place.

On the other hand, you have a company like Apple, that has been socking it to Microsoft on a daily basis for the last few years with their ‘Get a Mac’ campaign – you know the one – ‘Hi, I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC’ (I’ve included a few just for fun – see below).

Obviously Apple aren’t the only competitor, but for brevity lets stick with them.

I may be an aknowledged Mac fanboy, but even the most diehard Microsoft fanatic has to admit that Apple have successfully positioned themselves through this campaign at the expense of Microsoft, and we have heard barely a peep from Microsoft in defense.

Apple want their brand to stand for simplicity and elegance, with a hip and stylish panache, because they truly feel that the purpose of their products is to be simple and elegant – ‘they just work’. Their vision is delivered through the customer experience, and they are fanatical about every aspect of the experience – user interface, visual identity, websites, products, they all seem to be guided and created by one hand (and we all know who – right?).

The fact is Apple probably has the single most well managed branding programme on the planet – and it shows. They clearly pay top dollar for design talent, but what most impresses is the sheer attention to detail – it ALL looks so consistent – not in a uniform, dull and boring way, but in a beautiful, stylish cool looking way. And make no mistake – this cost a lot. But it works.

Alas Microsoft just doesn’t have such a well connected vision to experience. In fact Microsoft seems to think what it does is just too diverse to have any singular visionary idea that can be translated through a consistent brand building experience.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of really smart branding people within Microsoft, but the empire is just so large, so very VERY large, that very few people get a sufficient overview to draw a sufficiently singular and collectivising vision together, and the organisation doesn’t have the will or the discipline to deliver a consistent and desirable customer experience.

Microsoft is run much more as a business than a brand, so where all decisions within Apple feel like they have come personally from the hand of Steve, the decisions passing up and down the layers of management in Microsoft just don’t appear to have any cohesiveness – and that’s assuming you actually understand what most of the guys are talking about, because from my very limited experience and perspective, the one thing Microsoft really seem to enjoy is complexity.

And so this is where I think the super smart guys from Crispin Porter & Bogusky came in – the hottest advertising agency on the planet – and tasked (or challenged – you choose) to come up with an advertising campaign that will help to reposition Microsoft (and most likely create a repost to the Get a Mac campaign) with some sort of coherent Microsoft vision.

Crispin Porter & Bogusky have made a reputation creating smart, funny, insightful and effective advertising (and like all advertising guys – they all use Macs! But like a challenge) and the feeling is, if they can’t do it, nobody can.

But what is that singular vision, and how to coalesce it into a 30 second advertisement. We all know advertising on it’s own won’t solve the vision thing (right guys?), but I’m sure the Microsoft troops and their friends would at least like something to make them feel better about being at Microsoft.

So what was the big idea (at least so far…..?) because much of the commentary (and there has been lots) in the blogosphere has been along the lines of ‘what is this about?’

Well, for what it’s worth, here is my view on what the advertising is all about….

Apple is cool – the ads are cool, the products are cool, Steve J is cool.

Microsoft is not cool, the products are not cool, and Bill G (and Steve B, especially Steve B) are not cool.


Apple is kinda smug. And PC (John Hodgman in the Get a Mac ads) is kinda sweet in a not cool way. And whilst Microsoft is not cool, it is useful, and it is successful, and and (take care now – hold back the Microsoft instinct for world domination) it creates some useful products which – ahem – mostly work.


Lets portray Microsoft (ie use Bill – because he IS Microsoft – and incidentally, who knew he could be so funny?) as a personality living in a dreamworld of hyper normality – Shoe Circus, Grannies that mow the lawn – ie create a rich everyman world where Bill (Microsoft) is part of – a world where Apple wouldn’t fit in, because it is just too cool and elitist.

Microsoft is anti-cool, just like the rest of us. And by making Microsoft just like the rest of us, they mis-position Apple as an outsider.

So if Microsoft is more like us (warts and all) then we are going to feel better about them, and feel more and more that somehow Apple are just too smart, too slick, too….. unlikeable.

Of course, to follow through with this strategy, Microsoft would have to build that sense of ‘us together in un-coolness’ into something wide and deep, and then drive it into the muscle of the business.

It could be a brand that reflects what we are actually like – ordinary, funny, kind, quirky – and it could help us do the things we really need to get done, and the things we actually want to get done. It could be our friend, someone you would have a beer with (not just a Starbucks), someone you would welcome into your home without worrying about how tidy your house is or whether they will hit on your wife or daughter.

But as I have said, they just don’t have the instinct, will or discipline to collectivise that vision into a consistent customer experience. And more significantly, I don’t think many of the senior executives will want to jump on the ‘us together in un-coolness’ bandwaggon. You need great discipline to subvert your own instincts for the greater good of the brand vision.

It’s a size thing, but it’s also a culture thing, and in the end I’m not sure Microsoft really have a culture that understands or accepts the basic principles of singular visions and connected collectivised customer experiences.

But hey – it makes a gazzillion dollars a second and has bred more millionaires than any other company. So who knows what will be the next move on brand Microsoft – I for one am looking forward to what Crispin Porter & Bogusky do next, and three cheers to Steve Balmer for giving them the chance…

Chocolatier invests in branding

Thornton’s, the chocolatier, announced improved profits this year. Profits were up 19.6% for 2007/8 as compared with 2006/7. The really big news was, though, that in the press release ‘brand’ was mentioned as a success factor. Mike Davies, Thornton’s Chief Executive was quoted, “Underpinning this growth is the strategy we have been implementing to return Thorntons to sustainable, long term profitability by investing in the brand, developing innovative products, modernising the in-store environment as well as attracting and retaining the best people.”

What is really lovely, from a brand observers point of view, is that all the elements in his strategy are aspects of how to develop a great brand. With the central premis of ‘investing in the brand’ he then surrounds that with three major deliverables of brand experience – and thereby the customer’s reason to choose Thorntons.

1. Innovative products – no brand can exist without a genuine customer experience – the brand promise must deliver at the point of impact – the quality and ingenuity of the product is defining – just as Apple has achieved, again, with its delightfully brand endorsing iPod Nano-Chromatic – a rainbow feast for the eyes before they even reach your ears. Thorntons products had begun to be less than you hoped for rather than the classic brand goal of ‘exceeding expectations.’

2. Environment – the total brand experience and all that. The benefit of having a brand that has an outlet is that you can control and enhance the shopping experience. Chocolate is a gift of a product to work with – smell, taste, colour, texture…... Thorntons has (at least) twice been the theme of Marketing’s Brand Healthcheck. In 2001 Nick Moon of Futurebrand offered the advice, “See the film Chocolat and apply the little shop philosophy.” In September 2006 Futurebrand’s Jasmine Montgomery mentioned that, “Bizarrely, the brand fails to dazzle most where it has the biggest opportunity – in its own retail outlets. Plastic bins, crowded shelves, busy packaging, cheap plastic price frames and overuse of ‘offer’ stickers on the fascia contribute to an overall diminution of the brand experience.” Her advice,”Refit all outlets and remove all ‘free’ and ‘special offer’ window stickers. The windows should be the seducers of women.”

3. Best people – this is one of our favourite brand tenets – and so often not closley enough connected to brand programmes. It is essential that brand positioning works for the people in the company and is delivered internally in such a way that it motivates and excites. We always recommend working with HR to develop recruitment and remuneration processes that build the brand and reward brand behaviour. It’s not really just about getting and keeping the best people – it’s all about the right people.

So it seems that a focused and committed approach to investing in the Thorntons brand is really paying off. Their promise of ‘The Art of the Chocolatier’ is coming to life. A comment on Qype noted, after a visit to the new shop in KIngston, “Thorntons was just re-opening, after a brief but effective revamp. I didn’t recognise them at all…This new store is the first of five to open in the UK. Known as project Ruby, it’s bright, fresh, and very inviting. The counters are white marble, with tantalising display areas, each with their own distinct appeal: children, traditionalists, ice-cream lovers and sophisticated palates are all catered for. The feel is more modern, cutting-edge and deli-delights than olde world chocolate shop.”

Hats off to Thorntons for embracing the potential of real brand development. May their success continue. (I’m still looking out for the chocolate ears…)

Monday, 28 July 2008

Brands up to snuff?

There is a small revolution going on in the tobacco sector, and the main players may not have even noticed. But it could over the next few years change the nature of the market, and save a few lives at the same time.

Snuff, (the dry tobacco that you sniff, note: not snort) the product that brings to mind elegant georgian dandies brandishing their jewell encrusted snuff boxes is making a comeback, and strong branding is a key feature of the marketing mix.

Snuff was the main way tobacco was taken 200 years ago (at least in Britain), far outselling pipe tobacco. It had taken longer for the British to take to snuff, which had long been a European passion, but during the 18th century snuff became a phenomenon - something every man and women of culture took, in astonishing quantities. Napoleon was said to use 7 lb. of snuff a month!

Snuff went into a steep decline as the popularity and availability of machine made cigarettes increased. It still survived as the nicotine product of choice by workers like miners and factory workers, where fear of fire prevented 'sparking up'.

By the 1980's snuff was down to a few specialist suppliers, the big guns of the tobacco trade having long lost their enthusiasm for the product and followed where the profits were greatest. Cigarettes.

Come the turn of the millennium and the landscape has really changed, the full health implications of smoking are now known, and the opportunity to smoke is under serious attack, it seems the game is up for smoking (at least in the 1st world countries), and smoking in public is becoming seriously difficult.

And this is where snuff might make a comeback. Firstly there is no credible medical research that shows any negative health effects. It's the inhalation of the smoke from the cigarette that causes all the diseases. There are admittedly question marks around nicotine, but no research to suggest that the sorts of quantities in snuff are any more dangerous than say drinking modest amounts of coffee or the odd glass of wine. 

Many of the snuff manufacturers have been in business 250 years, and have had not one claim or prosecution in their records. Anti-smoking activists might prefer to suspect that snuff must surely have some problem associated with it, but the research and crucially anecdotal evidence simply isn't there, and actually tobacco (unsmoked) has traditionally been associated with many health giving properties.

And the news gets even better. Many people (including myself) have found that the best way to give up smoking is to simply take snuff whenever you have a hankering to smoke. It also has the benefits of tactile accoutrements - i.e. things to do with your hands. The tins and snuff boxes and colourful handkerchiefs give you plenty to take your mind off smoking, and you don't have to go outside to do it - you can snuff to your hearts content at your desk!

Unlike smoking, where the majority of smokers are incredibly brand loyal, the general snuff taker doesn't so much take snuff, as collect it. And there are now plenty to collect. Probably for the first time in a generation brands are launching, to take advantage of the voracious snuffers appetite for new brands and new snuff experiences.

A small collection from a snuff taker called 'Filek' on one of the many online forums

Snuff comes in different textures and moistness, and crucially in literally hundreds of 'flavour' variations. From traditional 'tobacco' aromas, to florals, menthols and mints, to citruses and spices, and more recently food and drink flavours like chocolate, coffee, cherry and grapefruit, there is even gin & tonic!

And then there is the cost - snuff is not taxed, so a snuffer can indulge their passion for new smells and textures at a fraction of the price of cigarettes. A 25 gm tin of snuff will cost you less than £3.00 and last - well a long time... A pinch in each nostril roughly equates to the nicotine of one cigarette, and there is a mighty number of pinches in a tin!

So the average 'collector' doesn't just have a handful of different snuffs, they have shelves of them, drawers full of precious tins and tempting aromas. And snuffers are passionate about their 'hobby', there are specialist websites where snuffers exchange views on flavours, qualities and everything under the sun you could think of about snuff.

There are online shops breaking out all over the world (traditional retailers don't even know most of this exists - when was the last time you saw a tin of snuff in your local newsagent? Ever?), and new brands are starting up, offering tempting new packages of nasal promise.

There are a handful of traditional manufacturers, some who have just continued (no mean feat in itself if you were established 250 years ago using a water-wheel), some who have even tried to innovate, experimenting with modern packaging concepts. Interestingly, and possibly uniquely, the avid snuff connoisseur values all the manufacturers, creating an infinite world of possibilities, and all under the noses of the mainstream smoking public, who barely know this sub-culture exists.

New brands are being developed by one man start-ups, exporting around the world, brought together by the online network of enthusiasts. One Indian manufacturer is developing 'western style packaging' as they tap into the online market, and an interesting modern touch is that the brand owners are getting very close to their customers, contributing to the online communities on a personal basis, classic attributes of the passionate brand leader. They don't just listen to what's going on, but use the forums for research, development and just to 'keep it real'.

Where will it go? How big could it get? 

Well the chances are you didn't even know it was going on, it hasn't yet gone mainstream, the major tobacco makers have shown little interest in the area, although cousins of snuff like Snus and Dip (tobacco you stick under your lip) have large and growing markets in the USA and parts of Northern Europe. These products have more dubious health implications, although still far far less deadly than the average cigarette.

It does seem that the issues of health, price, product and brand innovation, the customer's urge to collect and online distribution have coincided to create a fertile ground for a potentially huge market. 

At the moment, the market isn't probably worth much more than £100m worldwide. So if it took off, it could be worth a 1000 times that (and probably then some). The product is presently untaxed, and could cause a serious tax shortfall if customers switched in any significant quantities. How many governments could resist taxing snuff if it seriously offered competition to cigarettes. Of course if it did that, the cost to health services could liberate enormous costs in future years.

The present brands are essentially not competing with each other, such is the nature of the customer usage. If the product was to seriously penetrate traditional retail, then the stronger brands would compete for shelf space, and a more traditional competition model would resume. Brand positioning would seek to carve out space in the greater snuff landscape, seeking to fulfill customer needs. It's likely the newer entrants would do better than the traditional players, since they have not relied on heritage and habit, the new players will be more innovative and experimental.

The real challenge is how to build the market as a whole. Every player will help, but the tipping point for mass awareness is probably a long way off yet, and the anti-smoking lobby may well continue to put all tobacco related products in the same basket. Large brand owners, the manufacturers who years ago lost interest could afford the sort of lobbying and promotion that could build a real platform for growth.

It's possible someone somewhere is going to realise that snuff just could be the most phenomenally profitable replacement for the evils of smoking tobacco. Someone just might make a fortune!

It just needs one serious player to take responsibility to build the market, and the benefits of brand primacy will be theirs, but in the meantime, all the players will help to build a mutually larger market.

What if every smoker turned to snuff, how many people's lives could be saved? 

Probably the main barrier to entry is the indecorous thought of what comes out of your nose, eventually, after you have spent a day snuffing. Still it's better than the thought of what your lungs probably look like if you smoke, and you'll need more than a brown handkerchief and a good blow to get rid of that!

Some of the Interesting Brands:

A longtime german player, they have invested in innovative packaging and are extremely popular in Europe. Their mainly moist menthol inspired flavours are found widely in Europe. 

A UK startup based in Berwick upon Tweed, CEO Roderick Lawrie has created a powerful brand based around lively freshness, mostly food flavours, with contemporary branding and has been nominated for packaging awards. Roderick has spent a fair bit of time researching the market and health issues, and is a strong advocate for the benefits of switching from smoking to snuffing. Imagine the motivation if you thought your brand could actually save lives?

Based in Leicester, England, they have a funky flash based website and a history going back to 1926, and the owner of one of the market standards - 'Original and Genuine'. 

Dholakia Tobacco:  
An Indian company with 150 year history, they have kept their ears to the online ground, and are launching a range to suit more mainstream western tastes. Their traditional products are valued for their fineness and exotic flavour variants. The world is truly shrinking and offers infinite opportunities for the brave and adventurous.

Wilsons of Sharrow: 
One of the grandaddies of the english snuff market, tracing it's foundation to 1737. They also produce the illustrious Friboug & Treyer range of snuff, which was once sold from it's famous regency premises in the Haymarket London right up to the 1980's. Snuffers are grateful to manufacturers like Wilsons who carried on regardless through good times and bad.


Online stores:


Thursday, 17 July 2008

One to watch...

The Co-op has just announced its takeover of Somerfield's - making it the fifth largest supermarket chain in the UK. I've seldom read a more ambitious statement from a CEO, "This is great for our business and in my view propels us back to the Premiership of food retailing. People talk about the big four. I hope people will soon talk about the big five.” He talks of the deal leading to a renaissance of the Co-op brand. 

And I think he's got a point. The headline in Times Online was, "The Co-op ready to capture the magic of the Sixties with £1.6bn Somerfield deal." Indeed in 1967 the Co-op had 25% market share and was Britain's biggest grocery store. But I hope they do more than get bigger, I want them to recapture some of the essence of sixties shopping - cleaner, simpler, sustainable.

The Co-op have been doing a huge amount of re-branding and advertising lately to establish their ethical credentials and do have a great deal of credibility in the area. I think they are also poised to be the really green supermarket. There's a gondola of green ideas that will both tap into their core values of social responsibility and co-operative practices, suggest that intangible nostalgia of 'when things were better (and more green)', and create a modern, ethical brand with new ideas for the current environment.

Already I'm hoping that they come up with genuinely new ways of selling fresh produce, less packaging, less air miles, more seasonality. They are 'the UK's largest farmer', according to their website, which gives them a great opportunity to take control of the supply chain, get organic, sort out their chickens and eggs (chickens first presumably) and provide produce in a sustainable and responsible way. I'm hoping they re-introduce the habit of getting your deposit back on your bottles - glass or plastic. As a child this was always a useful way of getting a bit of cash to buy a few sweeties. Perhaps revolutionary re-designs of their shops to reduce energy use, capture natural energy, re-cycle stuff, fill your own bags etc etc. They could way out-green all their competitors. They already have over 4,000  branches (I think this must include some banks and funeral directors as they only have 3,000 grocery stores after the takeover...) powered by wind and water. They are the UK's most eco-friendly retailer (YouGov Online Poll 2007). They sell over 180 Fairtrade products.

The Co-op has so much brand authenticity. From their website, "A co-operative is a business, but more than this, it is a group of people acting together to meet the common needs and aspirations of its members, sharing ownership and making decisions democratically." This seems so right.

I want them to do well. I want them to save the planet. After all they are "good with food". And I'll keep watching.

Monday, 14 July 2008

One that got away...

Little Big Planet is one of our 'ones that got away'. We were asked by Pete Smith at SCEE (Sony Computer Entertainment Europe) to go along to Media Molecule and help them out with a name for a game back in 2006, with the working title Craftworld.

What we found was a rather chaotic 3 room studio in Guildford and a vision to build the maddest, most cute interactive game you have ever played.

Pete very cannily negotiated a special naming deal with us a few years ago when we first developed MotorStorm, with a fee upfront and then a 'success fee' only payable if we nail the name they eventually use. 

What we ended up doing with Media Molecule was more than a name, but not the name itself - although I would argue we came up with lots of great names - Pete just didn't happen to pick one of them, because he suddenly got inspiration in his car one day and thought of the name (it just goes to show anyone can come up with a great name - well at least one Pete!).

We helped Media Molecule bring a bit of focus to the concept (Pete had told us what an insane idea it was), and helped them hone the proposition into something that Sony eventually found palatable enough to back with some real money.

So we have a very warm feeling about Little Big Planet - it feels like one of ours, we just didn't happen to have coined that exact name - and we didn't get our win fee!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Perception? Reality?

Some brands seem to work better in my head than when I encounter them for real. This experience is often paired with a twinge of sadness. A strange empty nostalgia for something I can no longer grasp. One such brand is Woolworth's. It's poor performance is well documented but in my mind I still expect a brand experience that fulfils my internal brand image.

New look F. W. Woolworth in Gallowtree Gate, Leicester in 1965

I suspect outside the UK, may be in the States, or South Africa, New Zealand or Australia things are very different. In a description by The Exquisite Art Company in South Africa, "The Woolworths brand is a symbol of quality, consistency and trust, earned through its efforts to continually innovate and adapt to market demands." 

A far cry from our UK experience summed up neatly in this Brand Healthcheck in Marketing Week by Pragma from October 2006, "Shopping at Woolworths these days can hardly be described as a pleasure. A cacophony of visual noise bombards you (half price, price crash etc) setting the expectation of cheapness and bargains. Aisles are often cramped and stock piled high, the in-store radio is often loud, as are the gawdy colours of the merchandise." Pragma also kindly give some good advice, headed up with "Re-establish traditional core brand values with a modern interpretation." 

I'm thinking it's unlikely that any of Woolworth's management team were reading Marketing Week that day. Just in the way that I have a nostalgic brand vision built in the 60s and 70s, Pragma look back to thirty years ago for clues, "The brand stood for convenience, value and reliability." Convenience is an odd value these days, it seems too easy. Convenience is all sorts of things now: shopping from home, getting everything in one place, easy to park... What is convenient about Woolworth's is that it is always there. It is in the middle of every town. It is even in those odd seaside towns when you need to buy a CD player for the holidays. But in my head it is full of useful stuff. And often it has the useful thing I'm looking for. It does household (although this seems to be diminishing), it does toys of the bright plastic variety, it does games, it does children's sandals, it does dressing-up clothes. But it doesn't do much better, or more reliably than anyone else. And I think it has so much potential. It could be the Google of shops - you want something - you'll find it here.

Inspiration for the current Woolworth's team could well come from the rather eccentric Woolworths Virtual Museum. It's rich with history, innovation, architectural confidence and price quizzes. It's delightful. I found out that the first modern record department was in Leicester (the very shop in which my own Woolworths internal brand picture was created) in 1965. The Annual Report described it, "The gay record corner is well-equipped to meet the demands of the most with-it teenager."  The site also evokes the Fablon, floor tiles and cafeteria I remember so well.
The shape of things to come - the first modern Entertainment department in F. W. Woolworth of Leicester (No 49) in 1965
There are a few high street retailers that fall into this mis-match between the brand in my head and the one I walk in to. WHSmith is definitely one. Smiths used to be an Aladin's cave of, well, magazines, books and stationery. I still remember a rather cramped store in the Market Place in Leicester that was a treasure trove of 'going-back-to-school' goodies - and had wood panelling. Over the years the range has been denuded and 'rationalised', the book offer has been canabalised by the likes of Warterstone's, the environment has been modernised and sterilised, yet cluttered in an annoying way. I still want to go in to Smiths and enjoy a browse and buy a good pen, but the experience I get seldom delivers the brand I expect. 

Boots has faired little better. Again the march of modernisation has delivered a discomforting mixture of sterility and disorganisation. A blandness in the design and signing leads to an almost perpetual sense of an inability to find anything. Added to that discomfort is the blaring '3 for 2' signs that are always difficult to fully know which products they actually relate to.

I don't know whether these are just the ramblings of an old nostalgic, or whether there really is a lesson to be learned about getting back to core brand values. I certainly believe that a focused, differentiated offer is a good start. A clear purpose and aligned brand experience is a joy. Some experiences fulfil the brand in my head: Waitrose, Cath Kidstone, The Apple Store, Starbucks, Waterstone's, Carluccio's. The Marks and Spencer brand perception helped it survive a rocky time recently, people felt good about it long after the reality had slipped, resulting in a rallying 'Your M&S' campaign. Things are looking hard again, so can their brand pull them through?

I hope Woolworth's can re-invent. They're not in a good financial place and it's hard to invest when the competition and potential returns look challenging. But a clear purpose and genuinely differentiated offer would be a good starting place.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

A brand icon for the noughties

A couple of months ago I was disappointed to see that my local Oxfam had closed – and I assumed that the newly opened Oxfam Books round the corner was now a replacement rather than an addition to the empire.

How very very wrong. The shop has now reopened as an elegant and inviting Oxfam Boutique. No smell of old ladies. Junky white elephant stuff artistically displayed round the back. Appealingly labelled fashion items. I loved everything about it.

Oxfam has been the gold standard of charity shops for longer than I can remember. It has also clearly articulated what it does – tackle poverty, probably most accurately the effects of poverty, as perhaps the political implications of ‘Make Poverty History’ make the task a tough gig. What struck me most poignantly, whilst standing in the Oxfam Boutique in Chiswick, was the brilliantly successful brand that could both be the face of fundraising in innovative, topical and reciprocal ways, as well as the face of effective, credible aid giving.

In the 60s we had an Oxfamilybox at home.
The innovative idea was that you made the box up (it arrived as a flat piece of card) and passed it around at mealtimes when you were appreciating your food and worrying about ‘starving Biafrans’ – the first serious famine that I can remember – and maybe the first one that got decent TV coverage. My interest in graphic design was kindled by the brilliant name/perpetual branding that ran right around the box. It still plays around my mind like one of those Escher staircases that has no end. 

Oxfam had been born in 1942 as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief and openend the first of its shops in Oxford in 1948. Their innovative thinking and willingness to invest to accumulate (for which charities always gets criticism) has now really come of age. The boutique has beautifully captured the freecycling-recycling vibe in an elegant way. Those canny enough to know have always used charity shops as a source of ‘individual’ fashion – especially those amongst us with an art school background. The concept of reusing cast-offs is so green that it hurts. So much more ethical than the five-minute thrill of the Primark frenzy (despite the fact that we are now stressing over those children who are unable to help provide for the family as it’s unethical to employ them – help!) The boutique has cleverly divided its sustainable fashion into five categories (or is that sub-brands?):
  • Loved for Longer (which I think is a lovely idea) – high quality donated fashion
  • Fair Trade Fashion – labels like Green Knickers, People Tree and Wright and Teague
  • Reinvented (which I think is truly inspired – and inspiring) – pieces reworked by young designers and fashion students
  • Made with Love – accessories made by volunteers
  • Good Fashion Sense – designed to be different: organic, recycled, alternative fibres…
This is brand success indeed. I felt a mingled sense of pride, ehthusiasm, nostalgia – and more importantly probably, a strange willingness to pay the not inconsiderable prices attached. We are no longer talking ‘jumble sale’ prices – a trend that has been eeking in over the past few years but now seems more justifiable. And the very definition of a brand.

The whole Oxfam identity has been recently overhalled and refreshed by Interbrand. The new strapline, ‘Be Humankind’, which I think is delightful has met with, I think, surprising, controversy. Some people say they ‘don’t get it’. Some say it’s not campaigning enough. I think it has a touch of the Oxfamilybox about it. A compilation of appropriate words in a new and moving way.

What can we learn from this as a brand story? It’s a brand with authenticity, focus and purpose. It has been modest in its expansion over 60 odd years. It’s invested where it had to to create reputation, recognition and convey a message. It’s lucked into a trend. Respect to this brand icon.