May 23, 2008

I'll Tell You What You Want (What You Really, Really Want)

So what’s in a label?

Many years ago, when we lived in Hong Kong, Christine and I had German friends who worked from an office in their apartment selling products for a large European multinational. One day, the husband announced that they were leaving Hong Kong to return to Germany. “But,” he assured us, “you don’t have to be too upset, because we’ve arranged new friends for you to take our place when we’ve gone!” He went on to tell us that another German couple were to take over their business and apartment and we could just take up with these new friends where we’d left off with our old. We could be sure that they would do everything in their power to ensure that the transition would be seamless. And the clincher? “You won’t even have to change the numbers on your speed-dial!”

Now, I know their intentions were good, but neither Christine or I liked to be told to transfer our affections from one set of friends to another, regardless of how efficient the arrangement.

I’m not so sure of the intentions of marketing giant Premier Foods who seem to be tinkering with our affections in much the same way. The company recently announced their plans to retire the Campbell’s soup brand in this country and to sell all of its soup products in Ireland under the name Erin. Their marketing director tells us that this is “a welcome chance to consolidate the Erin brand as a super brand across the entire Irish soup category.”

Of course, customers just love consolidation. And, like Christine and I, they simply adore being told what to do. In order to disguise the switcheroo (or mask the sleight of brand), Premier assures us that their “most important focus is reassuring the consumer that the recipe inside the pack is exactly the same”. Next, we’ll be told that we don’t even have to change the numbers on our speed-dial.

To add to the confusion, Premier followed up the announcement with another. It’s now planning to close its Irish production plant in Thurles and will switch production of its heritage Erin brand (Erin being an archaic term for Ireland) to England. But, we can be sure that the recipe is still the same. That is, an American (albeit much-loved) recipe made in England under an Irish name. Ah, that warms the cockles of the heart alright.

Honestly, I think Premier’s sleight of brand will land them in the soup. In their case, it does exactly the opposite of what it says on the tin – and I don’t think customers will buy it.

Oh, and our new German friends? We got on famously with them, just like our old friends had planned...

May 18, 2008

Fair & Foul Weather Friends

I was heartened to hear that whilst Tourism Ireland expect visitor numbers from the USA to Ireland to drop this year given the economic climate and the weakness of the dollar, they are re-doubling their efforts and bettering their spend in that market.

So often, the temptation in troubled times is to batten down the hatches and hope to ride out the storm. Whilst it's not necessary to spend like a sailor on shore-leave in order to make it through choppy seas, there is huge value in investing in a market when everyone else is running for cover. Tourism Ireland seem to be getting the balance right.

Like people, markets have a memory too, and the evidence is widespread that brands which stay the course in bad times are rewarded with full-sail success when the fair winds return. Even so, it requires quite a resolute head to stay above deck, keep both hands on the wheel and face into the storm when the short-term forecast seems so bleak.

Staying with the seafaring analogy, I commend her courage and wish the good ship Tourism Ireland and all who sail with her godspeed and safe passage.

May 10, 2008

Heart In The Wrong Place

The big news around here this week concerns Diageo's announcement that it plans to shut down its breweries in Kilkenny and Dundalk (where it makes Smithwicks and Harp respectively) and scale back production of Guinness at its St. James' Gate site with the loss of 250 jobs. Whilst politicians and economists rushed to analyse the impact on the workforce, I wondered about the effect on the three brands.

A sense of place is more important for some brands than for others, but it plays a huge part in the marketing of alcoholic drinks. Certainly, the visitors who pour into Dublin make a great deal of sampling a pint of the black stuff in the town where it's made. But whilst they remain in thrall to the notional origins of their favourite species of brand, consumers in general seem to be concerned less and less with where the product is actually made.

We drink Indian beer brewed in England, wear Italian shoes produced in China and watch London soccer teams made up of players from every corner of the world apart from London.

And yet a sense of place continues to be truly important. But not just any place. We're less likely to buy a Chinese brand of shoes made in China than we are an Italian 'original'. That short step from one workshop to another is a step too far.

So maybe it's more about what the place stands for in our minds? Despite the dilution of the ranks with day-trippers from elsewhere, the Kop at Anfield remains synonymous with knowledgeable fans and Scouser wit. Those blow-ins over at Old Trafford meanwhile (whilst drawn from the same gene pool) are seen as ignorant and dull by comparison (not to mention overly-fond of their prawn sandwiches). And, regardless of the quality of workmanship and standards of production, which may in reality exceed anything made in Switzerland, few of us would have much time for a Latvian branded watch.

So are the moves to different production sites likely to misplace the affections of loyal Smithwicks, Harp and Guinness fans? What do you think?