Thursday, 8 October 2009

A clear vision

It is always a joy to see clarity of thinking and optimistic ambition encapsulated by a brand. Cass Art has got this delightful vision emblazoned above their shops - this one is in Berwick Street in Soho.

The area has always been a hot bed for artists - and other things - but the move of St Martins up to Kings Cross may reduce its arty reputation. And conversely the bohemian Soho chic of St Martins (yes I still call that bit St Martins) may be eroded by the move. Having in the past been one of the top 5 Cool Brands in the UK (along with Aston Martin, Marc Jacobs, Bang & Olufsen and Apple) it needs to work on maintaining its reputation. There is however a lovely project being set up by Central St Martins where alumni are being asked to be part of 'Mapping the Move' by drawing bits of their old college spaces. So get down to Cass Art, sharpen your pencils and balance on your drawing stool to add your mark making to the archive.

Image of Richard Long by Oded Halammy, see it here

Friday, 2 October 2009

Insight overload...

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a breakfast briefing by Breaking Trends called "Re-booting for Growth" - a summary of key headlines from their Breaking Trends Global Briefing 2009. The presentation was rather a sensory overload with a fast-paced video of 'trends' and lots of buzz-word sound-bite type information. I would love to say that I have distilled down some key signposts for 'smart ways to evolve out of the downturn' - but I suspect my early morning brain was not wholly up to the job. However a few snippets still seem interesting and potentially relevant. With the recession being such a big influence and focus (and challenge) a lot of the insights seemed a little more like just good common sense and not startlingly new/surprising - but let's face it there's nothing wrong with common sense - and how often is it actually acted upon?

A few things that sound interesting (in no particular order):
  • Differentiation is the big challenge - transparency, trust and tone should be the new bywords
  • Consumers are looking for "beacons of truth and constancy"
  • Shared narratives cut across silos - a rather nice example of this, I think, is Nick Hand on his slow bike ride around Britain
  • There is a need to re-tribe consumers eg Gen Y - under 26, sceptical of traditional media, tech savvy, creative conversations; Boomer woman - thoughtful messaging, set to inherit from both sides of the family (parents and husband)
  • Conversation is a big thing - consumer centric behaviour will be embodied by creative conversation companies, conversations are peer to peer, consumer to company, company to employee, employee to employee etc
  • the rise and rise of the conversational company
  • "treat employees like customers"
  • we are entering the "era of consequences"
  • As Elmo's Mum said, apparently, "Sometimes waiting for something makes you value it even more when you get it."
  • Invest in smart R&D
  • living standards will drop by 20% in the next 2-3 years
  • belt-tightening becomes a fine art
  • big growth in health stuff
  • twitter facts - 85% of people on it use it less than once a day; 53% of users are women; 5% of twitter users account for 75% of the activity
  • the rise and rise of the 'android' phone
  • 10% of all UK internet traffic is iPlayer
  • we'll be tracking our kids soon
  • technology will be used less as virtual life and more to enable/facilitate real life
  • those who succeed will be those who have global insight, invest in it and act without hesitation
Action is key. Good information is key. Communication is key. Imagination is key. Contextualised thinking is key.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Anniversary heaven

What is it about years that end in 4? or 9?

In 1909 the 'Amazing Oxygen Washer' was launched in the UK. Persil. The current TV ads give a delightful amble through the last 50 or so years of persuading Mum that her kids will love her more if she keeps their clothes clean. And yes 100 years is indeed an achievement to be celebrated. But it seems that today's rather unsettling economic climate makes it even more important. I have never noticed so many significant anniversaries being so vociferously celebrated.

The connection with the past, being here for the long-term, having bricks and mortar behind you, having a heritage, a provenance, a human core, seem to be more important than ever. Brands depend on a central idea that outlives the short-term ups and downs, that makes a connection with its customers. Those ideas are damaged by thoughtless, 'commercial' decisions and enhanced by heart-warming, well-rooted endeavours.
25th Birthday Cake
The human side of Virgin Atlantic, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has always been embodied by Richard Branson. And sexist or not, its recent advertising has capitalised on its reputation for beautiful girls and glamour. Virgin has taken that opportunity, only available to those who do have something to celebrate, to demonstrate their comparative age and reliability in a fairly threatened business sector. Other things that are celebrating 25 years - the launch of the Apple Mac and Michael Jackson's Thriller. Of course 2009 may now be a rather more poignant Michael Jackson anniversary.
Whilst you can only have a good anniversary year if you clock up a reasonable number - which has to end in 0 or 5, it does seem more people are taking the opportunity this year than usual. It was indeed 200 years since Charles Darwin was born and 250 years since the founding of Kew Gardens, taking its year if 'birth' from the date that William Alton was appointed to take care of and expand the gardens for Princess Augusta. It is 200 years since Arthur Guinness signed the contract for his brewery in Dublin, and started brewing porter and ale, 80 years since the first Guinness advertising in 1929. And, wow, 800 years since the founding of Cambridge University. All fantastically great achievements, but probably all needed a little bit of extra research to firm up on the best date to actually celebrate.

The celebrations are a welcome relief in the doom and gloom of this recession-laden time, don't require any new investment and elevate the discussion to something higher than just survival (which for most of us today is achievement enough).
Probably the most effective anniversary from the 'it wasn't that important a number but it's good enough for our purposes' perspective is Marks and Spencer. 125 years is a great number of years, but I think more importantly has given M&S a reason and focus to their communications, an effective brand story that links them back to what we all feel is important in life, matching nicely the slightly more make-do-and-mend mood in the air, and giving them lots of new product and packaging ideas. Or as The Guardian put it, "Marks and Spencer have jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon." They even had 'Penny Bazaar' days selling certain items for 1p. It certainly stirred up some news stories and plenty of tweeting.

Writing in January, Lucy Barrett had warm things to say about the Virgin Atlantic campaign, including 'The ad portrays a brand with self-belief' but also had a dire warning for another brand, "And I may be wrong, but there is one birthday celebration I can see being put on ice. This year will mark 125 years since Michael Marks, a Russia-born Polish refugee, opened a stall at Leeds Kirkgate Market. He went on to build the empire that we know as Marks & Spencer. Although it has 100 years on Virgin Atlantic, given its Christmas sales, gloomy outlook and store closures, don't hold your breath for the retail chain to throw a spectacular party. And it would be right not to. A milestone can be in danger of being a millstone if it is flagged up at the wrong time." Ah well.

If this year is anniversary heaven, what will next year bring?

Monday, 15 June 2009

Photographers' self-branding

Catherine Gratwicke

An article for the current (June) issue of the Association of Photographers journal, Image:

What’s the point of employing a photographer? I’ve got a Nikon DX40. I love it. I need an image. I take it. Download onto the laptop. Into iPhoto. And there it is, ready to use - whether it’s just for a blog, an article, a report, a bit of packaging, an ad - what’s the problem?

Along with all the general cut-backs, downsizes and rationalisations going on - everybody thinks they’re a photographer. And on top of that, what about picture libraries? Do they just create a Getty-esque photo-soup where buyers can search, click and buy with no human interaction?  What can you do?

One approach is to ensure people know who you are and why they should contact you, in particular. We have two rules of thumb in deciding how to communicate a brand: Who are you? and Why should I care? The first question implores you to sum up your ‘brand positioning’, where you place yourself in the market, what you stand for, what sort of photographer you are. The second question ensures that you have an offer that is appealing to your target market - what is it you are doing that will improve their ad, design, exhibition, book, report - how are you going to make them look better - and how is this different from the next photographer (or any old bod with a Nikon)?

The good thing about brands is that they still work when you’re not actually there. There is a story, a point, a raison d’etre, that exists and lives beyond your physical presence. Your task is to communicate. There are lots of avenues to pursue, with varying cost/time penalties attached. An exhibition is great - but who, how, where, why? A bit of PR would be lovely. Lots of phonecalls to artbuyers. Using Shank’s pony to take your portfolio from glitzy ad agency to warren-like publishing house to too-often overly resourceful designers (who are quite good at d-i-y photography).

A relatively simple way of creating a shop window is a website that works for you. This helps because it gives you somewhere to refer people to if you meet them at a party, give them a card, phone them, leave details, drop in and leave a card at reception.  If you are one of the 1800 or so members of the AOP you can get a link from their website - the AOP Members Portfolio.

I’ve been commissioned to write this article from a position of knowing little about photographers these days, not being over familiar with their websites, but having a professional practice developing brands. I’m fresh to what’s out there and unbiased. I’m just going to react to what I see.

The first place I go to to look for photographers’ websites is the above mentioned AOP Members Portfolio. There’s lots of ways to search it - by specialism, by region, by country, by photographer’s name. 

I start by a few random clicks just to see what sort of things are out there. There’s two things you can do. Click on the photographer’s name and get a new little window open. This gives a mini-portfolio on white, contact details, as much info/biog as you want and a link to your website. Alternatively you can go straight from the listing to the website.

The first few I look at give me some clues to what works best. A good example is David Parmiter . His home page, whilst clean, fresh and uncluttered, includes a slide show of his photographs, his contact details and a straightforward proposition, “I specialise in the creative photography of commercial and domestic interiors and exteriors, working throughout Europe.” Others take too many clicks to get to a photograph, two clicks to get to contact details or lost me so that I couldn’t get back to the homepage. Another very elegant site was Sophie Broadbridge’s. You do have to click to get to contact details, but her portfolio comes up by default and looks stunning. So simple, white, show off your work seemed to be the first general hints.

My next ‘search criterion’ was people I know. First I looked at Edmund Clark’s site. A beautiful site, white, elegant, an intelligent mix of pictures and words. Ed’s site begins to articulate his position in the world of photography. He clearly communicates why I should care about him. He is a story teller - his documentary work has curious, moving narratives. This illustrates the next vital ingredient of the self-brand. Somewhere on the internal map of the potential buyer you must plot your space. What are they looking for? Narrative? Colour? Texture? Commercial and domestic interiors? What’s your thing? Ideally something people can’t do so easily themselves. Just look at the work of Martin Wilson, an intriguing designer/artist/photographer or Cenci Goepel and Jens Warnecke at Lightmark.

What’s the role of your website? Step one is to prove you exist. It’s a reassurance to any potential commissioners. A good example of a simple, straightforward website that can achieve this initial result, without too much financial outlay, is Richard Cooke’s  where he has created a simple online portfolio. He has the problem of having a namesake photographer so has had to be a bit more creative in choosing a domain name.

The next step is to use it as part of the relationship you build up with your client base. I talked to Catherine Gratwicke about her website. She didn’t think that it brought in work, but it did give people something to look at before calling in her book. It creates a focal point for maintaining relationships with the loyal clients that she has nurtured over the last ten years. Her original brief to the designers was, “Simplicity, no music, no flash plug-ins, quick access to the pictures.” Importantly for Cath, the website is just part of her toolbox. By refreshing her website, and then mailing her clients, she can renew contacts, remind people she exists and point them in the direction of her new work. She shies away from looking too flash and slick and likes to keep something textural and tactile in her work, and a personal touch to all her communications - redolent of her roots as a textile designer. When I ask what is her point of difference, her ‘why should I care?’ she’s very lucid, “My work is painterly, tactile - I’m known for rich colour, textural images.” A clear point on the commissioner’s mind map.

Relationships tend to work best when you are alive. A dusty website with images a couple of years old often worries a potential commissioner. A useful tool is to add a blog. Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche perhaps, but it does give you an effective way of communicating your personality, posting up your latest work very easily, show that you’re active (you can always talk about ‘personal’ projects) and create a two-way exchange with your audience. 

Another way to both create interactivity and keep control and ownership of your brand is to create your own archive. With people turning more and more to picture libraries, there is a temptation to take pictures specifically to sell to them. Yes, it’s an income, but there is a tendency for you to become anonymous and commoditised. With your own transactional offer you can retain your distinctive position. Tessa Traeger has a career’s worth to offer, but everyone has to start somewhere, and the potential of technology today makes things a lot more possible.

10 top tips to using a website to help build your personal brand

  1. Why should I care? What’s the thing you want to be known for? What can you be best at? That’s your positioning. That’s the start of your design brief.
  2. Simplicity
  3. The photos should be hero - have a look at Rankin's
  4. Build a relationship with your contacts - contact details on homepage, blog once a week, link to other sites - exhibitions, galleries, friends
  5. How are you driving people to your website? Get some good cards, try moo via flickr 
  6. Use your toolbox - anything you do on the website is worth telling people about - e-newsletter, postcards, phone calls...
  7. Keep control of your brand - think about your own picture library
  8. Make it personal - make sure you love your website, it feels like you and everything you send out has that little extra you-ness, tell your story
  9. List yourself wherever you can - AOP Members Portfolio for example
  10. Don’t let the dust build up - refresh, renew, re-energise

Friday, 12 June 2009

Unpacking the brand

Never knowingly disappointing. Unwrapping our new MacBookPro is as satisfying and delightful experience as ever unwrapping an Apple product has been. Dramatically slimmed down into a briefcase sized box, it reveals its layers elegantly in chichi black and white, the carved aluminium of the MacBook itself temptingly oozing style and potential.
The experience of being in the Apple Store is still a delight, embuing a sense of feeling good in this tattered world. The staff are lovely with their sky blue t-shirts and perky attitudes. Jonathan had to go back today because he was worried about a kind of screen drag/ripple when he plugged his mouse in - I suspect he might just have wanted to bask in the Apple-ness and enjoy the feeling of belonging to a better place. 

Monday, 8 June 2009

The roots of branding

So...carrying on from the idea of "there's never been such a good time to create a brand", we thought we'd have a go ourselves.
Whilst brand strategy is all very intellectually rewarding (and still our proper job!) both Jonathan and I have (a not very well hidden) artistic streak. Both having been trained as designers we have over the years maintained a strong interest and practice in drawing, painting and illustration and have a deep love of letterpress printing, pattern paper and book design. We decided to dust off the printing press and create a brand offer combining the best of today's empowering technology with our love for the smell of ink, texture of paper and satisfaction of pattern. And bring to bear our branding expertise.
Starch Green is something we love doing and gets back to our roots as artist/designers - and is an excellent exercise in developing an authentic brand and seeing if we can grow it organically with a community of customers - we like the idea of 'viral' word-of-mouth growth, responding to what our customers like best and hoping they'll become advocates. A few key drivers that we have learned from developing brands are:
  • authenticity is king
  • real brands take time 
  • believe in what you do
  • listen to customers
  • reward advocates
Our aim is to develop a brand that is charming and delightful. We have an offer of handmade design that stretches the not very great distance from wood engraving and pattern paper, through what is these days known as graphic design but we might prefer to call commercial art, to artefacts decorated with our pattern papers. Our inspirations are Ravilious, Picture Puffins, Curwen endpapers and the growing band of artist/retailers inhabiting Artisania including St Judes, Harrington & Squires, Labour & Wait and Rennies
While Brand Guardians consultancy carries on from strength to strength, there's a thrilling excitement about creating a new brand that is all about doing things because we like them. Listening to Start the Week on Radio 4 this morning Katie Mitchell, opera director, asked Sir Peter Hall on what basis he put his repertoire in Bath together. His answer, "The basis is entirely egocentric based on the plays I want to do and the actors I can get." Which leads me nicely to the other ingredients of branding that we hope to exploit:
  • a vision that we are passionate about (what we want to do)
  • that we are able to do (available 'actors').

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Here’s one we almost forgot about...


We have been working with Sony for a few years now naming computer games, and one we were particularly proud of was MotorStorm for the Playstation 3 – a top seller in Europe (and everywhere else for all we know). A year ago our client rang us up and said we had a week to come up with the sequel.

Much scratching of heads and game playing took place (strictly for research purposes you understand) and our list of names was dutifully despatched.

Due to various conference/presentation client complications our client told us the final decision was on hold, but he would definitely get back to us when the powers that be let him know what name they would be going with.

We promptly forgot all about it as other assignments took our attention, and before we knew it – there it wasMotorStorm Pacific Rift – and it’s one of ours!

Now all we need to do is send off the invoice for the success fee…

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Another day, another launch...


It’s always nice when a brand you have been working on finally gets to launch, but it’s especially nice when the brand that emerges fulfils the promise you saw when you first won the job - and extra extra special when it is a johnson banks design.

It’s a little over a year since I first went to see Debbie Bannigan, the CEO of Swanswell Charitable Trust, a drug and alcohol charity based in the West Midlands, and although she had a number of specific issues about the existing brand image, her main brief to me was ‘give me a brand my people and service users deserve’.

Nice brief eh?

Ones like these don’t come along very often, and true to her word, Debbie set the bar high, but was invariably open and positive as we closed in on our solution. As all our clients will confirm, I never tire of telling them brand development is less about invention, and more about archeology. We know the solution is ‘in there somewhere’, it just has to be revealed.

So we spent a fair amount of time talking to everyone we could; interviews, workshops (I like workshops because someone will usually have the solution without always knowing it!), service users (they swept away a few of my own personal pre-conceptions), in fact anyone who would talk to us.

Debbie also had a compelling vision for where she wanted to take the organisation – expansion of the service, expansion beyond it’s traditional regional base. We got a very enlightened bunch of trustees to buy in to all these new plans and endorse a new vision and mission.

Once we had done our brand strategy ‘thing’ (capabilities, competition, customers, vision and mission etc) we pitched out the visual identity work. We were delighted when our old friend Michael Johnson of johnson banks won the pitch, he impressed everyone with his usual combination of creativity, wit and charm.

Michael and his team did a great job, interpreting our creative brief, and bringing to life a brand idea that is both eye catching and engaging.

So what are the highlights?

1. We got rid of the multi-various names Swanswell had been operating under (and there were quite a few) and re-named everything Swanswell

2. We broke away from the generic market language (which tends to be rather grey and neutral) and adopted a defiantly upbeat message – ‘Change and be Happy’ (no glass half empty here!).

3. Michael came up with a great visual device/metaphor that underpins the identity, something we call ‘crumple’. The logo (and many of the other components of the identity) is a half crumpled piece of paper with the name written on it (see below) – this device illustrates the process service users go through as they change their habits of substance abuse – from crumpled to smooth. We even have business cards that staff have to half crumple before they hand them out, so they have to explain what it means (we’ve had amazing feedback on how well this works, it’s funny, surprising and amazingly touching!).

4. Michael developed an entire visual look and feel that helps to simplify the language and messages for the brand, that is distinctive, fresh and like nothing else in the sector.

5. We have a very hard-hitting photographic route suitable for advertising and promotion, which we are holding back until the right opportunity arrises.

6. Michael and his team have diligently worked through the minutiae of stationary, leaflets, printwork and ‘stuff’ to ensure the brand embeds itself into every nook and cranny of Swanswell (lets face it, designers never make money on this stuff – but it has to be done). They oversaw a quick ‘re-skinning’ of the existing website, which will undergo a more significant upgrade later in the year. Oh, and lets not forget creating a comprehensive visual identity manual, powerpoint templates etc etc.

7. We have taken every staff member through the brand story – ‘the why where what when how what-if’ of their new Swanswell brand.

Well I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture… Why not visit the website?

Thanks to everyone who worked on it – the management team, their clients, the service users, the designers, the trustees, the staff, the printers, the web designers…. I love you all!


Swanswell Charitable Trust - before...


Swanswell - after...


The New England Kit

Now I'm not an all out, rattle-waving football fan, but I do like to watch a good match and I always get a thrill watching England play. And it's been hard not to be aware of the controversy surrounding the new England kit revealed on Saturday at the friendly against Slovakia. 5 Live's Alan Green even went as far as calling it "grotesque".

I think it's fantastic. It has tapped into the mood of a nation. It's reserved retro styling, soft, aertex-like appearance, and neat tailoring sums up beautifully the nostalgia-austerity-mend and make do era that we have now entered. Rather than the gaudy go-faster stripes, chavvish cut and wealth flaunting designs of the past this kit has introduced a bespoke reserve, requiring that, as Simon Mills says in the Guardian today, "every England player's ham-sized thigh and ripped chest was measured for size." Not only is this expression of Brand England hitting the crest of the national mood wave, it's also creating a level of interest and excitement way beyond that of just watching football (if that is possible!)

As a complete sense of Englishness oozes through every fibre the three lions look better than ever and the logo of Umbro proud and relevant. Established in 1924 this English brand has been tailoring kits for the England football team for 85 years. Their approach to this season's kit is refreshing and sensitive, involving the primary customers, the team, and distilling the essence of the brand beautifully. The website announces, "Once again, Umbro brings together the traditional values of classic tailoring with modern fabric technology and a revolutionary design philosophy. The new England kit is the proud result. Honoring the past, looking forward to the future. The right shirt at the right time. Tailored by Umbro. Tailored by England."

If the welling pride and ham-sized thighs and ripped chests haven't made you feel like a lie down, watch this...

Friday, 13 March 2009

Subcultural creatives

Many brands succeed by their attachment to a tribe or their ability to "find a parade", as Marty Neumeier promotes in his excellent little book 'ZAG'. Reading Tom Heuerman's latest pamphlet 'The Cultural Creatives' I see that brand Obama's success was largely due to the wave of Cultural Creatives in the US nurturing the right climate for his optimistic leadership.

Cultural Creatives have a lot of resonance with the Brand Guardians leadership. The basic values of authenticity, engaged action, idealism, globalism and ecology, and the importance of women are close to our hearts and implicit in our work. We are also highly sympathetic to the less than perfect creative process. In the article Heuerman says, "Creativity is messy and inefficient. Mistakes will be made as we move beyond our knowledge. Not all will be done well. Such is the nature of transformational change."

The thought of influential tribes and cultural leaders reminded me of the extraordinary 'Exactitudes' project by Dutch photographer Ari Versluis and profiler Ellie Uyttenbroek. Their work brings a visual analysis to ideas of individualism and identity. They were featured in an episode of 'The Culture Show' last year (which incidentally briefly shows our eldest son as a 'bonkerboy').

Perceptiveness and sensitivity to cultural tides are heightened at the moment, and essential to chart our way to a better future.

Monday, 23 February 2009

The best time for branding

"Recessions force you to be more creative and mean that the fundamentals of branding can be rewritten. I think people will be looking very hard at their branding to position themselves post-recession."

So says Dave Allen, former Brand Union CEO and two weeks in to starting his new brand consultancy, BrandPie. There are a number of aspects of this comment that I rather like:
1. Changing the way we think about branding, being more creative is grist to our mill
2. Preparing for post-recession - an optimistic view is always appreciated
3. Branding is great value now - you can rewrite your brand now ready to be ahead of the game come the upturn
4. There is a wave of new brand consultancies starting with a few people offering real expertise and experience 

Creative thinking
One of the things that we have tried to stick to over the years is our creative heritage. We are trained as designers and use our creatively wired brains to help solve problems and communicate clearly. We have never embraced marketing speak and the complexity of brand valuation, but offered sharp minds that use the eclecticity of design thinking to add richness and common sense to brand strategy. At this time there is a re-evaluation of the value of branding; is it relevant, is it worthy, is it useful? What is useful is cutting through marketing-babble, getting a sense of 'the after-taste' of a brand, the commonality that triggers customers understanding and communicating this effectively internally and externally. Brand or be branded has never been more relevant. Have a look at this great soliloquy
on branding. But brands have to be managed creatively, innovatively, with customer empathy and with a real sense of how the business it represents fulfils the brand promise - and accordingly how well it is run to deliver a great product, great experience and a sense of good value. Indeed the idea of brand valuation is a vacuous idea if it is expected to have value despite the poor management of the business - the two concepts are completely symbiotic and that's why brand is so important to businesses - not because it's an intangible value that can be added to the balance sheet, bought and sold, or add pence to the share value.

Not much to say on this except that what we know is that recovery is all about confidence. The war time posters were all about a gritty resolution that would see out the rather grim reality all around, our current favourite of course being "Keep Calm and Carry On." It won't be long before "Dig for Victory" becomes even more relevant as the unsustainability of our farming/retail sysytems become ever more apparent.

Great Value - do it now
According to a report by The Survey Shop, commissioned by the Principle Group called 'Implementation, Rebranding and Design' this is a great time to consider rebranding:
  • 56% of marketing directors of blue chip companies believe that a downturn could be the best time strategically to rebrand 
  • 63% of business leaders agree that the act of launching a new brand identity in uncertain times signals a bold embracing of change 

  • 65% of business leaders believe that rebranding would help large corporate institutions get back on track 
What's more, I think most branding agencies will welcome your business, be particularly responsive, have an eye to the future of brand thinking and a new reality and be very good value for money. And when the tide turns, as it will, you'll be ready with a shiny, well-placed brand to embrace the new world order.

Small, close, independent and in control
The current wave of start-up consultancies with senior brand figures establishing small and personal businesses feels like  a trend that is finally catching up with us. We have stuck to our guns over the years, determined to be the people that do the work, the thinking in our case, and talk to clients rather than run a business. This hasn't always been fashionable, but is great for our creative juices, insatiable appetite for new challenges and inspiration, and our work life balance. Being essentially 'creatives' we are far more at home in a studio surrounded by art, crafty objects and living clutter than in an office with clean-cut lines and open-plan sterility. 

Michael Peters describes his new venture as a completely different approach to branding, "We will be working directly with clients around my kitchen table." Which is both extraordinarily refreshing and a convenient strategy to take in difficult times - I'm pretty sure he has a jolly nice kitchen table too. Smaller groups can offer well-managed costs and low overheads. Shaun Bowen, who has just left Pearlfisher where he was Creative Director to set up B&B, comments,  "Keeping it small, you can get back to having relationships with clients where it's just you and them. You can be selective about clients and have that intimacy - with big consultancies, constantly chasing big accounts, you're missing opportunities to work with smaller challenger brands that want to make it big." 

The other thing we have fiercely guarded is our independence. Here's a last word from Dave Allen (who gives some good do's and dont's here) that resonates with our philosophy, "There used to be loads of independent groups, but over the past 15 years these have all been bought by the big conglomerates," he says. "It's now very difficult to get independent advice, in my view. We've tested out this idea with clients, and it resonates." Us too.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Comfort Brands

Asda has reported a wave of nostalgia shopping. Sales of classic food brands such as Fray Bentos pies and Bird's custard powder are soaring as customers "shopped like their parents".

This is great news. One thing that breaks my heart is the loss of some of the most iconic and beautiful packaging over the years. A trip to the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill generally just goes to prove that packaging tended to be a lot nicer. Some of the brands that have been sidelined over the years have managed to keep their rather idiosyncratic packaging - like Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup and Atora. Maybe now their time has come. Their deeply nostalgic outfits and their reassuring contents, delivering in the case of the trinity above the perfect dessert of treacle suet pudding and custard, are perfectly matched to the mood of austerity, make do & mend and home-bound cocooning. 

Other packaging that needs to stay as it is come-what-may include: Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Biscuit, Potter's Catarrh Pastilles, Fillipo Berrio Olive Oil and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. There's a delightful set of drawings of packaging here to mull over. Meanwhile Bird's could do with a bit of retro-designing...

Monday, 16 February 2009

Spring flowers - brand buds

Counting the types of flowers as they appear has always been a staple spring ritual of my mother - bringing a reassurance that spring will eventually come and wipe away the long, grim winter - even if it's in fits and starts. I've been counting a few positives in the rather grim economic landscape.

Number One - It's heartening to hear that Austin Reed has come in to buy Viyella, a brand about which I waxed lyrical. Nick Hollingsworth, CEO, said, "It is a great brand but it had lost its way. It was like a crumpet that was missing the butter." I'd very much like the brand to re-examine its rich history and tradition, dig up its innovative moments and develop an authentic offer for the current customer. I'm not sure that Mr Hollingsworth's desire to "reinvent the brand for today's 50-year old" really does justice to the heritage of the actual fabric that bore the name. Unfortunately the fabric, the innovative mix of wool and cotton, is long gone - but with the trend towards self-sewing and thrifty fashion this may just be the time to re-invent it.

Number Two - Another branded fabric that seems to have become merely a fashion brand is Aertex. Once the pride of every school kid's PE kit, I discovered the apparent demise of the material in a quirky and charming copy of "The Evening Post" from clothes people Old Town. A Miss Willey reports, "I rang my order through as usual - 50 metres of white, 50 metres of eau de nil, 50 metres of pale blue - only to be told the devastating news. No more blue.....Turns out they haven't woven the fabric for the last 25 years. They've been sitting on old stock that has finally run out." If someone would like to order 2,000 metres they might crank up the machines again. Austin Reed interested? Or perhaps Paul Smith might do something interesting with pale blue Aertex? (By the way the positive here is reading "The Evening Post")

Number Three - Another well reported story is the new Wellworths store in Dorchester. The new owner manager, Claire Robertson, has chosen a name that cleverly links to its ancestor, Woolworths, and evokes value and humour. I haven't done the legals so I hope she's not infringing any of the existing Wellworths trade marks but, I believe, she has been canny enough to register the .com and for her new brand. The opportunity she has is to create a local high street brand that can be sensitive and responsive to what the people want. She can stand in the store, talk to customers, put things on the shelf to try, offer testers and tasters and develop a genuinely useful brand. And again the ability to be on trend by stocking cooking pots, haberdashery and, obviously, pik'n'mix. 

Number Four - Stories of improved sales in fast-food are maybe less heart-warming but are nevertheless significant. KFC, Domino's Pizza, Subway and even McDonald's are doing well. They are remarkable 'good value' in as much as they don't cost much and are tasty but are inevitably stoking a health time bomb. Their familiarity, accessibility and instant gratification are things that will all help them as recession busters. Any chance of a sense of social responsibility slipping in?

Number Five - The other great recession buster is the special offer. My favourite, and most stylish, of the moment is Boden's Catch of the Day - they're taking 25% off one item, for one day, everyday. Clear, tempting and with a sense of urgency. And it sounds as though it comes with chips... Yet another example of a small treat to get you through the grey winter of gloom.

Photo from Old Town website

Monday, 2 February 2009

Some brands continue to deliver - even in the snow

Some brands are still delivering the brand essence that have made them the icons they are today. The warm feelings that were ignited in me today were for the lovely John Lewis. 

In the spirit of the times, and being 'on trend' in renewing my zeal for homely cooking, I was on the look out for the perfect pudding bowl. Having seen a couple of pricey ones I had a look at John Lewis's website and found the perfect item - in the sale - with free delivery. So on Friday I ordered two pudding bowls. On Sunday afternoon I received an email to say my bowls were on their way. I 'tracked' my parcel on Monday morning to find that it had been put on the van in Wembley at 8.10 am. And almost no traffic was going anywhere as we were experiencing the biggest snowfall for 18 years. What hope for my puddings?

But fear not. At around 1.00pm there was a ring at the door. Despite the crisp, white and even covering my pudding bowls had got through. Happy day. Good snow, no school and a warm feeling about John Lewis. Simple, wholesome and reliable. Just like steamed pudding and custard.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Brand Roulette


Anyone with an interest in brands must have a mixed set of emotions right now about the economic effect on some historical brands. I'm torn between a faint nostalgia for what was, a frustration around 'what might have been', a smug 'well that was on the cards...' and a terror that everything's about to implode and go down the plughole...

Viyella is the latest victim. And another example of the brand in my head being very different to the brand on the ground (or indeed down that plughole). Inevitably the brands/companies that are going down have been dipping over years, maybe decades or even centuries. I can't help feeling Viyella's problems may have started with the name. First developed in 1893 and registered in 1894, the wool/cotton mix fabric was the first branded fabric - and named after the unlikely location of the mill where it was made - Via Gellia near Matlock. This sounds a lot like it should be in Italy to me - and admittedly potentially quite glamorous. 

However, from my own acquaintance with the brand, from the 1960s onwards - the name always conjured up more musty old ladies rather than svelt bronzed Italians. I do know exactly how the fabric felt, I know exactly what it was good at, I have a kind of 'muscle memory' of the product. It was a beautiful mix of merino wool and cotton that "combined lightness and fashion with warmth and durability," according to Wikipedia. It hang with elegance. It could be plain or patterned. It was great for children's clothes and military shirts. But - the name was more like Crimplene - pure polyester. And the fabric - the core product of the brand - no longer exists. 

So, whilst I'm a strong believer in the theoretical ability for a brand to be able to move away from its primary product - it only does this successfully when it takes on emotional associations and a sense of meaning to its customers that makes sense of new stuff. Indeed the very act of innovation can improve the brand. But despite everything that Viyella has done over the last 40 years or so, I still associate it most with the actual quality of the fabric. I don't have a new positive internal image of what it stands for. It feels to me as if some jewel, some tiny, shiny, brand essence, some super-compressed atom of ingenuity conjured up by the Sissons brothers of William Hollins & Company in 1893, got mislaid.

Viyella, of course, was also taken over by the march of society. Our urge for ever more instant gratification, our embracing of greed and shopping, our enthusiasm for almost disposable clothing has fed the erosion of good, quality products, the perception of benefit from durability, and our ever decreasing skills in dress-making and repair! A short revival of Viyella as a fabric occurred in the mid-80s with the likes of Laura Ashley developing 'modern classics' - and indeed some delightful girls' dresses, one of which I still have handed on from a friend's daughter. But this didn't really halt the trend. Sadly, with the re-evaluation of value, skills and longevity that will surely follow the cataclysmic crunch we are currently experiencing, Viyella (the fabric) would probably have a surge in popularity.