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.