October 29, 2007

Cleaning The Streets

On a recent visit to our own notorious Red Cow Roundabout, I saw something that will be familiar to motorists at busy traffic junctions in cities across the world. Washcloths and wipers at the ready, some enterprising lads had decided it was high time that visitors to Ireland's busiest crossroads had their windscreens cleaned whilst they sat in line waiting for the lights to change.

I must say that I noted their arrival with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I admired their initiative. These sponge-bobs looked like international workers and I was inclined to applaud their get-up-and-go in an economy where the native Irish shun many of the more menial jobs. But on the other, I found myself anticipating where this might all be headed. Whilst these lads were cheerful and not inclined to insist, I could well imagine how it might play out some months down the road, when the days are darker, a little more persistence is called for, and a single, female motorist might find their approach threatening. I know from experience elsewhere that the authorities are quick to discourage the new roadside entrepreneurs as their unregulated activities are seen to contribute to the climate of 'fear and loathing' that often mars urban spaces. I recall that Messrs. Giuliani and Bratton made the squeegee boys the first target of their zero-tolerance strategy in the belief that they and other roadside hawkers were the forerunners of the forces of disorder on the streets.

And whilst the Red Cow Roundabout is a byword for traffic delays, it is not yet known as an unsafe place to stop your vehicle. If the experience of other jurisdictions is anything to go by, the appearance of the squeegee boys is not something that the local authorities can simply ignore.

October 21, 2007

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes

There's nothing like a meeting with customers to straighten out your thinking from time to time.

On Friday, I called in to our local primary school to present to the sixth class assembly on brands and how they work. In many ways, it was like trying to teach my grandchild to suck eggs! As a parent of three tweens, I'm quick to moan about how beholden they are to the brands that are flavour of the moment. But the gathering of twelve-year-olds was quick to point out some truths about the influence of brands in general (and not just on tweens and teenagers).

Whilst we adults are inclined to be a little more coy about our preferences and motivations, I was reminded how almost all of us make our choices based on brand. Try weaning a middle-aged golfer off his favourite brand of golf equipment and clothing or a young mother off her choice of push-chair and you'll have a battle on your hands. I reckon much of the arguments in the home of the newly-weds or newly-moved-in-togethers revolve around which brand of ketchup, butter and marmalade make it into the fridge. The same domestic arrangements come under great scrutiny from the parents (whether in or out of law) and the young woman is often judged on her choice of brand of cooking oil or domestic cleaner whilst the young man is quizzed over his preference of car or power-tool. Like it or not, our choice of brand seems to say something to the world about who we are and what we stand for.

In many ways, we adults are in denial. This was brought home to me as I listened to the radio later in the day. TV personality, Lloyd Grossman, was interviewed on the prevalence of celebrity brands in the world of cooking and radio-host Matt Cooper was perplexed at how Grossman, who is not and doesn't claim to be a chef, had developed a very successful range of soups and sauces. The twelve-year-olds would not have shared his confusion.

Matt Cooper seemed to believe that successful brands were built on expertise. They are not. Or at least they rarely are. More and more, successful brands are built on credibility and influence (and the appearance of expertise). It is the same in the school-yard. My tweens challenge me on a whole range of issues when I am in conflict with the 'experts' in their own circle of friends and influencers. They would not be surprised to know that Lloyd Grossman has fashioned a highly-successful range of soups and sauces out of the credibility prompted by his television profile.

It is not only school-children who must be more critical of the opinions that are presented as expertise by brands and those who champion them. None of us likes to be seen as gullible. We are all of us susceptible to the charms of the brand but our vanity and intellectual pride often has us in denial that we fall under that same influence.

October 16, 2007

A Personal View

Here's a gratuitous use of a glamour shot if ever there was one!

I read in Superbrand's CoolBrands publication that "the humanising of branding in the pursuit of enduring and profitable customer relationships is now firmly at the heart of almost all modern business strategy." The writer suggests that this 'humanising' (what an awful word) is simply an extension of the old ad agency parlour game 'If our brand was a car, what would it be?' as a way of arriving at some meaningful understanding of what a brand's about.

I think he's got it the wrong way round. I believe that as customers we are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of doing business with inanimate objects or faceless corporations. Our first instinct is to look deeper and assign personal qualities to the product or service. Not only do people buy people, but people are really only comfortable relating to other people and not to cold, lifeless objects. We've been at this since the beginning of time but some in the advertising industry have only cottoned on to it in the last few years.

Whilst they asked 'If our brand was a car, what would it be', the most popular cool brand of them all (at least in the UK) was quietly being much more than simply a brand or even a car. The much-loved Aston Martin (see! that glamour shot wasn't so gratuitous after all) is seen by those in its thrall as full of personality and attitude (although the CoolBrands people seem to believe it's all about heritage and style). Heritage and style are only part of it. The great and the cool brands - the Superbrands list includes iPod, Bang & Olufson, Google and Amazon - typically exude great personal charm and charisma that leave the soulless and the emptyheaded products on sale elsewhere trailing after.

October 06, 2007

The Free Lunch

So, there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Well, I was invited to one on Friday and left it well-fed but wondering how the whole thing around perceived value plays out when something is offered for nothing.

A couple of times a year, I'm a guest of the Hong Kong Ireland Business Forum when they host a dignitary from the city that was my home for ten years back in the nineties. I've been attending for the past four years or so, and in that time, I've never once been approached by anyone there to talk about how my experience of running a business in Hong Kong might be useful to others in the forum. Or how I might build on my own links to do business there. As a result, I attend now for reasons that are more sentimental than businesslike. On top of that, the other guests are always an interesting mix and the chat at the tables (although only occasionally about Hong Kong) is usually good fun.

Whilst I suspect that we're invited more as bit players to put on a good show for the visiting bigwigs, this is a real missed opportunity for the Forum which is in danger of devaluing the potential for business between the two economies (as well as the individual contributions that could be made from around the room). I'm not suggesting that the Forum charges for lunch but they should seek a premium of some sort even if that's by way of purposeful dialogue.

In the same vein, there's an ad that runs on local radio here that insists that good advice should be 'free, free, free'. Unsurprisingly, I don't agree. I can't recall what they're promoting - and even if I did I'm not sure I'd tell you as I'd hate to think that I somehow gave those clowns more publicity - but it's expertise of one kind or another. Free expertise.

I find that free advice is usually ignored as the one receiving it puts no value on it. And although it sometimes seems a clever way to attract new business, it almost always results in a lop-sided relationship where it's more give-than-take for the business owner. Which leads in turn to the resentment, begrudgery and corner-cutting that leaves neither party truly happy. It's one of the reasons we at Islandbridge don't participate in tender applications that usually amount to nothing more than free consulting.

When it comes down to it, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Someone somewhere has to pay for it.

The music group Radiohead know this. They're releasing an album In Rainbows and inviting buyers to pay what they want for it (queries on 'how much?' are answered with 'It's up to you' and follow up queries with 'No really, it's up to you') which has led to some in the press suggesting that they're giving it away for nothing. But it's not for free. Radiohead are tapping into the deeply respectful relationship which they enjoy with their fans and it's no surprise to learn that the average price being paid for the album download is US$10. The Radiohead fan knows that nothing of any worth is for free and the group's confidence in the goodwill of their fanbase looks like being rewarded (in addition to attracting heaps of well-deserved publicity).

So don't fool yourself that you can offer a free lunch and get away with it. Even though a generous invitation to dine or take advice at your expense is always tempting, the issue of perceived value must be tackled by the brand-owner as it sits right at the heart of the positioning of the brand in its market. If left ignored, it can quickly devalue the business in the eyes of the customer and leave the owner out of pocket, resentful and feeling like a mug.