December 04, 2010

Simply Remarkable: Brooks Hotel

Arriving early for a meeting in the city-centre, I had half an hour to kill, so stopped by Brooks Hotel on Dublin's Drury Street for a coffee. Like most hotels at that hour of the morning, Brooks was in full breakfast swing, and I expected to be told that I'd have to choose the whole buffet option if I wanted to enjoy a table in the lounge. But no, a very friendly waiter welcomed me in, set a table for one and offered to fetch me a freshly-made coffee and scone.

Whilst I didn't want the self-service option of the buffet, I also didn't expect to be waited on so attentively, and so I braced myself for a suitably punitive bill (most likely to be a huge chunk of the full buffet tariff if my experience at other  hotels was anything to go by). But again no. Instead, the smiling waiter handed me the invoice with a flourish and told me she'd charged me a special rate, which I saw compared very well with the coffee & pastry deals on offer in coffee-shop chains elsewhere in the city.

How refreshing! Whilst it seems that some hotels have failed to learn the lessons of our recent economic trials, Brooks Hotel has taken a practical and thoughtful approach to the solitary guest who stops by to enjoy a brief moment of their hospitality. What a simple but remarkable way to make a visitor feel welcome.

Naturally, I'll be back, and as importantly, I'll be recommending Brooks to friends and colleagues looking for a friendly haven from the chilly weather on Dublin's streets.

Over To You: Where have you recently enjoyed service that was 'simply remarkable'?

November 27, 2010

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall

So, who's the fairest of them all?

Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, has some interesting advice for brand-owners concerned with their online image: "Make stuff that doesn't suck."

As the focus of so much marketing and sales effort moves online, this cautionary note from the man behind one of the internet's most popular sites (398 million unique monthly visitors at the last count) is more than a little timely.

Social media in particular has encouraged a kind of narcissism, which often has business-owners more concerned with how their face is reflected in the various mirrors that surround them, than with the quality of what they do for their customers.

Off-line, a shopkeeper is unlikely to squeal with delight that, "I've had fifty-five people glance in my shop-window as they passed by today. Fifty-five! That's a whole five more than yesterday." On-line however, a certain hysteria seems to accompany the number of followers, fans and likes that a site or page attracts, which often proves an unhelpful diversion from the real business in hand: "Am I making a product or offering a service that people really want or need?"

In a recent Fast Company Article, Wales suggests that, "more than ever before, people like to talk about stuff that sucks. There's nothing to be done about it, except making a better product.

Of course, it's important to listen to what people have to say about you, but not if it distracts you to the point where it becomes all about the appearance of doing a good job, rather than taking care of the job itself.

Coming from a man who's certainly not short of online admirers, Wales' advice should encourage us all to stop preening, tear ourselves away from our reflected image and concentrate on what we're doing for our customers instead.

For not even the original mirror-gazer herself, the selfish Queen and stepmother to Snow White, ever heard the answer she craved most, when she turned to her reflection to ask: 'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?'

October 17, 2010

Stop Shouting, Harvey, I Can't Hear You

Go, Harvey, Go (& don't let the door hit you on the way out).

I'm so used to hearing international retailer Harvey Norman bawling at me from the radio in an irritating Australian accent that I've tuned out from his messages.

Even when he tried something new this morning, speaking in an unexpectedly reasonable tone to promote a special holiday offer, I was unimpressed. It seemed so incongruous, this personality who seems only interested in interrupting at the top of his hysterical voice, suddenly speaking calmly and in measured tones.

Sorry, Harvey, you just can't win. It doesn't work for me when you shout, and it makes me decidedly nervous when you try to appear calm and reasonable, like a nutcase trying to persuade me that he doesn't pose a threat.

At least when you were screaming hysterically, I knew where I stood. Now, I'm just confused and uneasy.

Over To You: Are you left disconcerted by brands that show worrying signs of split personality?

September 28, 2010

Sticking To The Script

Some of my colleagues at a network event were arguing the merits or otherwise of a sales script. Those in favour maintained that working to a scripted formula enabled the seller to guide the conversation with the buyer to mutual advantage whilst those against thought working from a script made for a staged and insincere exchange between the two parties.

Certainly, my first reaction was to reject the use of a script; I felt that it wouldn't allow for a natural conversation to occur and might lead to the buyer being maniupulated in some way. But thinking about it some more as I listened to the debate, I decided that it might make sense for the seller to take the lead so long as the customer's interests were safeguarded.

In my own experience, it can be both helpful and fun to be taken in hand by a skilful salesperson and carefully guided towards making the right purchase. Think of the waiter who directs you through the details of the menu or the tailor who knows what just what questions to ask as he helps you choose what clothes to wear for the big event.

When you think about it, we have an odd mistrust of the scripted conversation. It's as though we only trust spontaeneity. Yet some of the most influential exchanges in the world have been carefully scripted and rehearsed for maximum effect. Barack Obama's 'Yes, We Can' was certainly staged, whilst Winston Churchill's painstaking preparation for his landmark speeches was legendary.

Closer to home, I was struck recently by how the late actor Mick Lally (who played Miley in TV's long-running soap, Glenroe, as well as being a founder of Druid Theatre) was held in such high regard for his decency and immediacy, as well as his great acting talent, despite the fact that few of us had ever heard him utter a word that wasn't carefully scripted.

Like all the great performers and communicators, Lally used the script to both explore and express something deeper and more personal than words, and there's no good reason why a carefully made sales script can't do the same.

If we take it as read that the purpose of a brand is to help the buyer make the right choice, it stands to reason that we can draw on our experience to script our exchange with the customer in a way that guides us both towards an understanding of whether or not there's a match between what the buyer wants and what we offer for sale.

Of course, there are occasions where spontaneity is what's required, but the more I think about it, I'm all for sticking to the script.

September 06, 2010

Confessions Of A Turncoat

The Liam McCarthy Cup
Round here, we've just had the first of our two annual All-Ireland Finals; it being the first Sunday in September, it was the turn of hurling, with Gaelic football to follow in two weeks' time.

I had no vested interest in the game, but like many others was fascinated by the prospect of a truly exceptional Kilkenny team (some say the best ever to play the game) securing their fifth title in a row.

Usually, I side with the underdog, but this time was different. It seemed only fitting that this team would be the first in either sporting code to go beyond four in a row (I had been at Croke Park myself many years ago when a last-gasp effort denied a great Kerry football team that unique distinction) and I felt that the "Cats' drive for five" deserved to be rewarded against an unremarkable Tipperary team that weren't given much hope of causing an upset.

As I settled onto the sofa to watch the game, I felt that both my heart and head were for Kilkenny, and sat back to enjoy the supreme skills and inevitable procession of scores that would lead to the coronation of these kings of kings.

And then something extraordinary happened. The sliotar was thrown in to the usual opening melee and as the two sides locked horns and went at it to furiously gouge out that first score, I found my allegiance had shifted in an instant. Now, as I watched the commoners forget their supposed place in the order of things, I bayed instead for the head of the king, and cheered on the gallant usurper.

Oh, fickle sports-fan. As I watched this suddenly-remarkable Tipperary team turn the world upside down (they went on to win the match by a considerable margin), I wondered to myself how often our customers settle down to buy something in their heads, and leave with something entirely different in their hearts.

As brand-builders, we can trust too much in the supposed order of things, the logical outcome or proper result, whilst impulses much older and far greater than reason or due reward, wield their influence on our customers. In this case, the age-old instinct to root for the underdog.

Much better to trust to the heartfelt impulses, I think.

August 31, 2010

When Might's Not Right

"Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It belongs to you. It's yours to take, re-arrange, and re-use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head." Banksy, Street Artist

Like many mothers and fathers, I suspect, I'm ashamed to say that I sometimes fall into the 'Don't argue with me, young man / lady' -school of parenting; a sort of lazy, might-is-right, my-way-or-the-highway approach to making and enforcing the rules of the household.

It might surprise my children to learn that this apparently unbending defender of virtue, good manners and tidy bedrooms has more than a sneaking regard for street-artist Banksy, a figure dismissed as a delinquent and vandal in some quarters. And that, although I'm distinctly uncomfortable with much of what passes as street-art and the defacing of public buildings, I see a certain amount of good sense in what he has to say about the imposition of advertising messages on people in public places.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Citizen Tannam is about to storm the billboards of Dublin town armed with aerosol can and black marker, but I do think that brand-builders of all sizes (and particularly those with a budget that enables them to commandeer public spaces) need to think long and hard about how we pitch to customers, particularly when our messages are uninvited.

Of course, many of the new media channels allow the customer to opt-in or out of receiving promotional messages, but even when we're pitching to the unwilling, we need to be respectful of the customer and seek as far as possible to speak only to those who need our product or service. Or we need to at least make sure that our message adds something to the shared conversations in that public space.

Humour is often used in this way to prompt a smile from both targets and passers-by but, on the whole, messages that are socially-aware and inclusive bring something to the street in a way that make them less likely to be the target of Banksy and his fellow-artists, who understandably feel that many brand-owners are inclined to ram our marketing messages down their throats.

So, no more my-way-on-the-highway for this parent and brand-owner.

Over To You: Do you think messages in public places are fair game for confiscation and revision by those on the receiving end?

August 17, 2010

Branding Starts With The Customer

Having difficulty knowing where to start when it comes to branding? 

Here's my take on it from an article I wrote for The Hub on

My customers sometimes tell me that the thing they find most difficult about branding is knowing where to start. And I know exactly what they mean.

When we look at the big brands, the celebrity brands, the ones that make the headlines, it seems that they ooze a power and charisma that’s way beyond the reach of a mere mortal brand. Our own efforts can appear grey and mundane by comparison and we can despair of ever finding something remarkable to say about what it is we do for our customer.

But for most of us, life isn’t a glamorous whirl of parties and high society, and just as I don’t look to the celebrities of cinema and sport for clues on how to lead my own life, I don’t recommend that you look to celebrity brands for guidance on how to build your own brand.

Instead, I suggest that you start with your customer and the problems they face and work from there. All business begins when somebody has something to sell that solves a problem for someone else. This is the basis of your brand, the reason why a customer will choose what you have to offer over what’s for sale elsewhere. The purpose of a brand is to make this obvious to your customer, so that they naturally and easily choose you as their favourite supplier.

So the first question we must ask when we brand is: What problem does my product (or service) solve for someone else?

Too often, we don’t even get that far. We’re so proud of what we have to offer that we don’t bother to ask why that should matter enough to someone else that they would be prompted to pay for it. If we don’t make it obvious to our prospective customer that we will help them to fix something in their lives that’s broken, or replace something that’s missing, then our product won’t attract their attention or win them over.

When we make it clear what problem we fix for our customers, then we can go on to say how we do it in a way that’s better than how our competitors do it.

So how does this work in practice?

Say, for example, that you’re an accountant offering the usual mix of financial services. You’re surrounded by other accountants, most of whom have studied at the same institute as you and have the same qualifications. Now look at the situation from the point of view of the difficulty facing your prospective customer. Their problem is not in finding a suitably qualified accountant. They’re spoiled for choice. You’re going to have to work a little harder if you’re going to stand out from the crowd.

Say that you get talking to that prospective customer and you learn that they find meeting their accountant to review annual accounts a frustrating and demoralising experience. They tell you that this has nothing to do with the actual accounts, just the whole experience of looking at numbers that they don’t really understand.

For them, this is the real problem. It’s also an opportunity for you. You might determine that you will be an accountant who helps your customer get on top of the numbers. Now you have a real problem to fix for your customer and a real basis for branding, a reason why prospective customers might choose you over other accountants.

So when my customers tell me that they don’t know where to start when it comes to branding, I tell them to start at the very beginning. Start with your customer and ask them what problems they face in their lives. When you’ve identified a problem that you can help them fix, you have the basis for your brand.

July 26, 2010

Down In The Mouth

Am just back from holidays in France where part of the attraction for many years has been the way in which the French seem to get their food offerings so effortlessly right, both in terms of what they put on the plate and what they charge for it.

As a result, we've sat on benches and scoffed delicious baguettes, topped with little more than fresh ham, butter and mayonnaise, relaxed over linen tablecloths and elaborately prepared local specialities, dined alfresco on the open space beside our accommodation on the pates, cold cuts, rillettes and salads bought at the local supermarket or eaten crispy pizza washed down with local rose at canteen tables overlooking the harbour.

It doesn't seem to matter where in France we travel; the food is always good and the prices always fair.

So it was a big shock to us to find ourselves in a place these last couple of weeks which flew in the face of all that is good about French food. Beside the swimming pool in Pont Royal where we spent some of our days enjoying the sun and water, there was an outlet which looked like it would provide some tasty snack food, French-style, for those days when we couldn't be bothered to hike back to our apartment to make lunch.

The signs advertised organic food (which might have given us a hint of what to expect, because the French above all have rarely felt the need to promote the credentials of their food) and whilst it seemed a little pricey, we reasoned that it couldn't hurt us to splash out every so often for the convenience of quality food on the hoof.

What a disappointment! We tried it only the once and that was more than enough. The food, a mix of bland barbecued meats and fresh vegetables, was dumped on paper plates by the dour owner-chefs, who seemed to have little interest in whether it appealed or not.

This take-it-or-leave-it approach was so unexpected in a country where food always seems such a joy, that it prompted me to wonder about other sectors where the owners seem to believe that provenance alone should justify high prices, poor service and bad attitude.

It's not only restauranteurs who seem to make this mistake; I've found it too amongst software developers, car dealers and fashion retailers.

Maybe it's an easy mistake for any of us to make from behind the counter: the belief that our product should speak for itself rather than eloquently charm the customer. Judging from the efforts they made to win us over, the owners of the food outlet couldn't have cared less whether we enjoyed their food. Our solitary, cheerless experience was one that we didn't wish to repeat and so we ignored their offer for the remainder of our holiday and enjoyed our own (very tasty) picnic lunch instead.

There were no winners here. They lost customers whilst we had the thankfully rare experience of French food that left a bad taste in the mouth.

June 30, 2010

In Others' Words

Have you noticed the chorus of testimonials appearing in advertisments over the past few months?

Whilst there's always been great power in a third-party endorsement, it seems that customer trust in what brands have to say for themselves has dropped to such a degree that many business-owners now see other's words as the only way to build any credibility in the marketplace.

Here in Ireland, many of our banks, radio stations and insurers are making their own customers the stars of their advertising efforts, and despite my own misgivings about some of these businesses, I find this approach more convincing than most. After all, if a customer is ready to vouch for the seller, then there has to be some merit in what's on offer.

Despite this being an approach that makes sense, it's extraordinary how few businesses use it in developing their brands. Instead, they waste their time and ours telling us how long they've been in business and boasting about how wonderful they are. Frankly, I'm not interested. As a potential customer, I want to know whether what's on offer matches what I need and whether I'm likely to get exactly what I want once I put my money down. Hearing it in a customer's own words reassures me on both counts.

Perhaps brand-owners are too shy to ask a favour of their customers? They shouldn't be. In my experience, a satisfied customer is only too happy to speak up on behalf of a favourite supplier. You only have to ask.

June 23, 2010

Way Past Bedtime

How far can you take brand loyalty?

Earlier this month, we went to see one of our favourite musicians, Natalie Merchant, at Dublin's Helix Theatre. We've been listening to the music of the one-time 10,000 Maniacs vocalist for some time now, since she went solo back in 1994 with Tigerlily; and as far as we were concerned, she's one of the world greats, a true original who can do no wrong.

The singer was in Dublin to promote her latest recording, Leave Your Sleep, a series of children's poems set to music, and given her gorgeous reworkings of traditional songs on The House Carpenter's Daughter, we thought we were in for a real treat.

Instead, we had to sit through a mini-lecture on the poets who wrote the original rhymes and on Merchant's songwriting process, complete with slideshow portraits, and interspersed with what felt like only snatches of song. Even the author didn't seem terribly interested in what she had to say or sing, delivering her seminar with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that suggested she herself found the format less than compelling.

What was remarkable about the evening was the good humoured indulgence of the audience, many of whom faced a long trip home before bedtime and sat half-dozing through the slideshow. It seems that the artist has built up such loyalty in her brand that we were prepared to allow her this sleepwalk through her latest project, like old friends sitting uncomplainingly through pictures of first day at school, scenes at the beach, and darlings in first holy communion splendour, stifling a yawn but too polite to make excuses and leave.

Only towards the end of the evening did we grow audibly restless, and the singer responded by finishing with five of her crowd-favourites, which brought the audience to its feet and sent us out into the night finally feeling we'd been at a concert. Or perhaps she'd always intended to reward us for our patience?

Speaking with friends afterwards, it seems that everyone there was similarly disappointed with most of the evening and I found myself wondering whether a brand can take uncomplaining loyalty too far.

Of course, Natalie Merchant is not the first artist to test her faithful's patience in this way. I remember hearing stories of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and other greats, wilfully refusing to indulge their audiences when they had a new project to promote. Something about the set of Merchant's jaw, even from the distance of the thirty feet or so that separated us, suggested that she too was not inclined to pick up on the restless cues of her audience.

Those of us who work hard to build a devoted following for our brand can count on a certain tolerance from our customers but when this spills over into self-indulgence even the greatest loyalists will have their doubts.

No more bedtime stories for me, thanks!

May 30, 2010

Devaluing The Customer

'As one of our valued customers...'

I was tempted to stop reading at this point and bin the letter, but I knew no harm was intended, so continued on reluctantly.

Now I know it's well-meaning, but I find being addressed in this way is a real turn-off. The thought of being someone else's 'valued customer' puts me in mind of an oily huckster, rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of another quick buck.

In the same way as I don't like to be called 'my friend' by a perfect stranger or 'pal' by someone whose angry tone tells me I'm anything but, the idea of being the 'valued customer' of a brand leaves me cold. Whilst I understand the sentiment (the company wants to tell me that my business matters to them), it's awkward and more likely to drive a wedge between me and them than to bring us any closer.

It's much better for a brand to lose the pompous, over-friendly language and choose words instead that better reflect the real relationship it enjoys with me.

Something along the lines of 'your business is important to us', backed up with evidence of how they value my custom is much more likely to win me over and keep me with them until the end of the message. As it was, only good manners stopped me from tearing up the letter and despatching it to the bin.

Over To You: What type of language from brands leaves you cold?

May 16, 2010

Stealing The Riches To Leave Us The Poorer

We were robbed!

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe's hugely disappointing Robin Hood has raided the classic tale, stripped it of its valuables and left it for dead under the greenwood. The film had looked like the perfect family outing: a director / actor combination that we'd all loved in Gladiator, a great supporting cast, and above all, the promise of a new take on an epic story that always thrills no matter how often we've heard it told before.

But this was no Robin Hood. Sure, he was there in name, as were his merry men, alongside King Richard (briefly), Prince John and the rather nondescript Sheriff of Nottingham. And there was some token taking from the rich but only to give to the hard done by gentry. Yet where was the ingenious rascal, taking on the might of the stolen crown in a series of daring escapades, stunts and rescues? Where, in particular, were the rapier-sharp exchanges between our dashing outlaw and his dastardly and scheming opponent, the Sheriff of Nottingham?

Now, I know these can be (and have been) overdone, but they are at the heart of the charm of Robin Hood.

Instead, this Robin Hood plays like a greener Braveheart or a more sociable Maximus. Meanwhile, his enemies are weak, greedy and disloyal, rather than really bad. The result is a paler, dappled version that lacks the essential appeal of the great story that has persisted in one form or another since at least the early days of the last millennium.

On its own terms, this probably wasn't a bad film but we felt robbed of the promise held out in its title. Whilst the new story was engaging enough at times, by the end we didn't feel as though we really cared about what happened to Robin, Marian and the others. They didn't stand for anything important and the film played like a worthy piece of history rather than the great sweeping epic of yore.

This isn't just about a film that disappoints. There's a lesson in there for any of us who set out to tell a great story through branding. When you find a good yarn, it's up to you to tell it. Stick to your story and don't depart from it just to appear more relevant or interesting.

For my money, this Robin Hood stole one of the richest names in history, messed up the storytelling, and left us the poorer for it. Shame on you, Messrs. Scott and Crowe.

April 05, 2010

Low Fare, High Society

Somebody somewhere has the unenviable task of teaching Mr. Michael O'Leary how to 'smile nice and talk pretty'.

At least, I'm guessing as much with the recent news from our client Ian Cleary over at Razorcoast that Ryanair is finally flying the social media route. True to form however, the airline isn't joining in anyone else's community. No, it's planning to set up a private group for travellers to communicate with one another and with Ryanair.

Here's Ryanair spokesman Stephen McNamara's take on social media:

“Smaller airlines trying to gain market share may engage with it, but from our point of view, being so big, it would take a lot of resource,” he said. “We don’t have people sitting around to answer questions. With social media you get any and every query and a lot of rubbish, like people asking if they can bring a 10kg bag, which of course you can. The information is there on our site.”

Whilst some industry analysts have taken this latest online move as an indication that Ryanair is opening up to its community, I'm not so sure. Its attitude to mixing with customers is more more likely reflected in its announcement last year that "it is Ryanair's policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers."

Hmm, not much smiling nice and talking pretty there.

It seems to me, that given the influence that Ryanair has on its customers, a community of its passengers could be a fairly hostile place, with people jumping queues, ignoring each other and shouting one another down.

In a previous post some years ago, I suggested that Ryanair seems to bring out the worst in people, both cabin crew and customers, so it's hard to take seriously the notion that the airline is planning to socialise with its customers in any way.

Whilst I never underestimate Michael O'Leary and his ability to commandeer a slot for the airline, I can't see Ryanair managing to put the social into high society.

Over To You: Do you think Ryanair can successfully fly the social media route through its new Ryanair community?

March 19, 2010

A Fear Of Shopping

This article first appeared on Bloggertone, a great resource for people in business.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the marketplace…

At first glance, you could easily make the mistake of thinking that everything was normal. On the surface, there appears to be a lot of activity. People are milling about, shaking hands, exchanging cards and talking business. Sometimes, one meeting leads to another and then to an invitation to send on more information or submit a proposal. But more often than not, it just leads to another meeting.

Then it hits you what’s not normal about this marketplace: It seems everyone’s a seller. There’s a great buzz out there but it’s terribly one-sided. People are pitching like crazy but hardly anyone is buying.

If money makes the world go round, this world has come shuddering to a halt.

And then a terrifying thought strikes with the suddenness of a great white: What if this is the new normal?

When you think about it, it’s not so surprising that buyers are in fear of shopping. Like day-trippers at the beach after a shark attack, it’s going to take something special to coax them back into the water.

Simply calling out to them to ‘Come in, the water’s beautiful’ isn’t going to do it. Not whilst the memory of the earlier carnage is still strong.

Of course, there’s not so much money floating about anymore, but it’s much more than that. There’s been a whole breakdown in trust between seller and buyer and nobody feels safe anymore. The ancient warning ‘Buyer beware’ rings out across the surface and never seemed more apt.

So what are you going to do about it?

In many ways, it’s ridiculously simple. You need to address the fears of your customers head-on. There’s no point in pretending nothing’s happened. There’s blood in the water and, as far as your customer is concerned, it’s sellers just like you who preyed on the unwary and spilt it there.

Using the same discredited language as those other sellers doesn’t help. That only confuses things further. You’ve got to find a new way to pitch your wares, a way that dispenses with the hype and rings true for your customer.

Dazzling them with science doesn’t help either. At a time when your customer doubts their own good judgement, it’s up to you to keep it plain and simple. Toss out the jargon and make your offer in layman’s terms.

As you’ll have guessed, this is no time for smoke and mirrors. When people feel safe, a certain mystery or intrigue can work wonders by adding some excitement to the mix. But in troubled times, mysterious gestures or vague promises become furtive and unsettling. Don’t be obscure or ambiguous. Instead, bring everything out into the open.

Be open too about your own motives in making the sale. When buyers have been savaged by offers that were too good to be true, there’s something powerfully reassuring about a deal that clearly adds up for both sides. Your exchange with your customer should work for you both, so don’t be coy about what’s in it for you.

Take the risk out of doing business with you for your customer wherever you can. Clearly display your terms of business and underpin your offer with a solid guarantee. Reassure your customer that you’re genuinely committed to making things work and are prepared to back that up with action.

But above all, be patient. Remember that your customer’s fear of shopping is well placed. It’s not so long since the waters turned red in a frenzy of bloodletting. Whatever you do, don’t rush your customer.

It’s up to you now to make those waters safe, and show them to be safe, in order that buyers can confidently take the plunge again and rediscover their love of shopping.

February 28, 2010

Postbank: Not So Simple After All

It's all too easy to be cynical when we hear the news of the failure of another brand.

Only three years ago, Postbank's promise of banking that's "as simple as it should be" seemed too good to be true for those of us raised on a system of anything-but-straightforward borrowing and lending, even before it had become fully apparent how other banks had tied us all up in knots thanks to their devious machinations.

Their charming TV Ad promised to do without the 'terribly grand' but unnecessary trappings of traditional banking and offered instead a "community-based bank built on a commitment to make banking and insurance accessible to everyone, throughout Ireland."

Why, they even opened on a Saturday!

Now, we learn that partners in the venture, An Post and BNP Parisbas Fortis, have decided that the operation is no longer viable and are dismantling it at the end of the year.

But let's not allow this failed effort to disillusion us. As customers, we all deserve banking that's 'as simple as it should be', and it's up to us to put pressure on the other banks to make personal and commercial banking more straightforward.

And we shouldn't stop with Postbank, of course. No entrepreneur that I've ever met set out to offer a mediocre service or product. Even a beaten brand will often embody something worth fighting for, and its defeat despite a valiant effort shouldn't discourage us from taking up the cause. O'Brien's Sandwich Bars continue to deserve credit for setting the standard much higher than the 'limp lettuce and hang sangwich' on offer before their arrival. And 'Ceol - The Traditional Irish Music Centre' still strikes me as an inspired and brave effort to celebrate a glorious tradition some years after its disappearance from Smithfield in Dublin.

Simply because economic pressures prevail shouldn't mean that we settle for second-rate. Instead, we should be inspired by the lofty ambitions of our brand-makers and continue to demand only the best from those who offer goods and services for sale in the marketplace.

And as for us brand-makers, setting out to make an offer 'as simple as it should be' probably isn't a bad place to start.

Over To You: Which fallen brands continue to inspire you at work or at play?

February 21, 2010

Starbucks' Blend Leaves A Bitter Taste

What a disappointment when a poster child brand fails so badly and so visibly. It really hurts the credibility of all brands in the marketplace and seems to confirm the opinion of the many sceptics out there that it's all just 'smoke and mirrors' anyway.

Visiting Starbucks in the Beacon South Quarter, Dublin on Friday afternoon, I was disgusted to see every empty table in the place littered with the debris of half-empty cups, discarded wrappers and, in many cases, unfinished muffins and sandwiches. A number of the upholstered chairs were spoiled by ingrained crumbs and pieces of sandwich filling and arriving customers were obliged to clear a table and wipe down the seats before enjoying their own coffee. At the table next to mine, a guy spilt left-over coffee on his laptop as he tried to make space amongst the rubbish.

What a far cry from the cool and comfortable 'third place' that Starbucks likes to sell to coffee-lovers worldwide. And what a slap in the face for both its customers and those of us who are in the business of building brands.

As it happens, I had just finished reading a short article from Warren Baxter of Vancouver-based Karo on Building Your Brand In A Recession and I was forcibly struck at how Starbucks was spitting on each of the brand guidelines offered by the author:

  1. Stick to your long-term goals: It seemed that Starbucks had reacted to the downturn by cutting down on staff (I only spotted one person behind the counter during my visit) and had abandoned its objective to be the "most recognised and respected brand in the world."
  2. Be authentic: Even neighbourhood coffee-shops with little time or money for branding get that being true to your offer involves a little cleanliness and respect for the customer.
  3. Maintain or increase your marketing budget: We're reminded by marketing experts everywhere how 'marketing is everything and everything is marketing.' What kind of impression does a filthy store leave in the mind of its customers?
  4. Think beyond advertising: Starbucks continues to display witty and attractive posters bragging about its excellence but clearly hasn't thought much beyond those images when planning the day-to-day operations in its stores.
  5. Deliver on your brand promises: I don't recall being promised a filthy environment and I certainly wasn't delivered a third place where I might feel "a sense of belonging...a haven, a break from the worries outside." Instead, I found myself irritated at the likelihood I'd end up with chocolate-chip stains on my trousers when I sat on one of the grubby chairs.

I've said in a previous post back in 2008 how "I saw much to admire in the business philosophy and practices of a hardworking and thoughtful enterprise" but noted in the same piece how disappointed I was at how a 'dishevelled' Starbucks had translated the international experience of the brand to its stores in Ireland.

Judging from my infrequent visits to their stores since then (I always choose an alternative if I can help it), it seems that Starbucks continues to ignore even the basic principles of hygiene that underpin any coffee-shop offer to market, whether branded or unbranded.

For this customer and brand-builder, the Starbucks' local blend continues to leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

February 07, 2010

Saab Steers Clear Of The Scrap-Heap

In a previous post, I wrote of my sadness at the likely demise of one of the great car brands, Saab.

Naturally, I'm delighted with recent news that the brand has been granted a stay-of-execution, thanks to its buy-out by Dutch luxury car manufacturer, Spyker.

Now, Saab isn't out of the breaking yard just yet; whilst Spyker makes breathtakingly beautiful cars, the six-year old business has yet to make a profit. At the same time, Spyker's attitude towards the brand it's acquired is in marked contrast to the cackhanded management approach of General Motors, which has seen the once-proud brand reduced to a poor shadow of itself.

During early discussions around a possible purchase of Saab, Spyker's owners spoke often about their excitement about taking over stewardship of such a storied brand. As Spyker CEO, Victor Muller, put it: "Saab is an iconic brand that we will be proud to shepherd. I think the unique heritage of the brand requires a very strong focus," he said. "If you are part of a very large conglomerate, it's very difficult to have a focus on all these brands."

Now that Saab is in the hands of an owner that seems to truly appreciate the worth of the brand, there's hope that a car with a personality that's a legend in some circles (Don't believe me? Check out some of the Saab fan-sites online, including Saab Club UK) will soon be back on the road, quirkier and more beautiful than ever.

If so, I'll be one of the first in line to cheer it on.

Over To You: What do you make of the news of Saab's last-minute reprieve from the wrecking yard?

January 24, 2010

Finally! A Game Plan For An Irish Brand

Sometimes I wonder do we Irish appreciate the importance of the scenarios being played out before us on the fields of Thomond Park, the RDS and Croke Park. And on foreign fields too.

For so long, the success of Irish sporting brands on the world stage was the result of shimmering, individual talent or a brilliant, if unlikely, solo run, rather than team effort, and we joked that the first item on the agenda of any Irish collective was the split. Whilst the likes of Ronnie Delaney, Barry McGuigan and Stephen Roche proudly flew the flag in their individual sports, our teams generally lowered their colours whenever sustained collective effort was required.

Of course, there were exceptions, but when the Irish camp split on the eve of the soccer World Cup in 2002, it seemed true to form and suggested that we were chronically unable to build brands that were so much more than the sum of their parts.

Now, I know that sporting analogies can leave many of us cold, but I do think Irish rugby offers a brand-builder something of a blueprint for a successful Irish brand. Whether or not the Irish, Leinster and Munster teams repeat their recent triumphs next time out, all three teams can speak confidently of their ambitions to be the best, and point to the combination of inspiration, perspiration and organisation that they bring to the campaign.

And to the distinctively Irish way in which they do so. For it's evident that these players relate with one another and with their public in a way that marks them out in any international company.

It's quite extraordinary that any team drawing on such relatively shallow resources of talent can lay claim to be the best at their game, but few of us would dismiss the chances of any of the three teams to prove just that in the months ahead. And whilst it seems a tragedy that either Munster or Leinster must do it at the expense of the other, it is, of course, a triumph in any event for Irish sport that we have two competing teams at the very top of the game.

I'm reading Donal Og Cusack's autobiography, Come What May, at the moment, and the revelations that shock me are not those relating to his sexuality (which made all the headlines), but the way in which he describes how a highly-talented Cork team with ambitions to be the very best in Irish hurling fell apart because those who managed it were unable to commit to the combination required to deliver sustained brilliance. Whilst there are two sides to every story, what comes through is the lack of honesty in some quarters, which undermined the efforts of many in the team to do what it took to challenge Kilkenny over the past few years.

And so, although my own sporting roots are less rugby and more soccer and gaelic games, it's to Irish rugby I look for a game plan when I consider how to go about building an Irish brand.

Over To You: Where do you suggest I look for a model of great Irish brand-building in action?

January 17, 2010

Heart-Singing Stuff

Which would you prefer to cross: Patton Island Bridge or Singing River Bridge?

I guessed as much.

One of the results of having Google alert me to mentions of our company Islandbridge is that I get to untangle news about those other 'island bridges' around the world that get caught up in the net. Over the past year, I've had news from such exotic locations as Paradise Island Bridge, Kettle Island Bridge and the wonderfully-tagged Wallops Island Bridge.

This morning brought the timely news that the bridge to Patton Island in Alabama (which had been named by default Patton Island Bridge) is to be formally called Singing River Bridge, both after the Native American name for the Tennessee River which it crosses and in recognition of the local singing tradition.

Why timely?

These past couple of weeks, I've been asked a number of times for advice on naming a company, and I had suggested my own preference for place names in general and for earthy, descriptive ones in particular.

Apparently, Churchill thought this way too, saying something along the lines that 'short words are better, and the old words are the best of all'.

I think he meant Anglo-Saxon in his case but the old languages across the world throw up some great hefty words, even in translation. There's something very immediate and appealing about the Singing River Bridge and, as a fellow 'bridge-dweller, I heartily applaud the good sense of the people of the Singing River valley.

And recommend their approach to you too!

Over To You: What are your favourite place or business names?

January 10, 2010

When The Bottom Line Isn't The Bottom Line

Can a brand really be too honest?

In a recent Brandchannel article on Domino's reinvention of their pizza "from the crust up", Abe Sauer wonders whether the brand's openness in owning up to the weaknesses in its original recipe is stupid or not.

Apparently, Domino's has produced advertising that shows its employees "lamenting consumer criticism of its product and promising to do better." However, reaction to the new recipe has been mixed, prompting Sauer to ask: "If the Domino's makeover is a flop, can it be construed as a sign that honest re-branding campaigns are doomed to fail?"

Now, I don't know about you but I don't believe a brand can ever be too honest. If its purpose is to influence customer choice by building a relationship that works for both, then honesty is the only policy. Whilst Domino's honesty might hasten its demise if its new recipe doesn't cut the mustard, any flop will surely be down to its poor product rather than its admirable honesty.

As a customer, I want to know that the brand is always working for me, not despite me or at my expense. In that sense, Domino's bottom line honesty is certainly not stupid where I'm concerned.

Similar confusion about the role of the brand is evident in a recent post by Denny Hatch, Direct Marketing guru, who says that "I cannot judge good advertising, it judges me". He cites advertising that makes no effort to be pleasing but produces results and suggests that the only judge of good advertising is bottom line results: "Never forget the legendary Anacin commercial that was offensive to millions, ran for years, sold tons of product and cured a zillion headaches".

I don't agree. When I turn to the volume control on my radio to blank out the latest offensive Harvey Norman ad, I judge the advertising as bad. I'm sure it produces results in the form of store visits and sales, which apparently justifies its awfulness in the minds of its producers, but I don't believe businesses should be bad neighbours. Apart from anything else, ugly and offensive advertising pollutes the marketplace and eats away at the trust that makes for good trading.

I do agree with Denny Hatch that advertising (or any marketing effort) that fails to convince customers to buy is a failure but that's not the bottom line for me. Sales is not the gold standard of success. It's the role of the business, through its advertising, to make the lives of prospective customers easier and their choices simpler. It's not its job to make a nuisance of itself to any unfortunate who happens to be within earshot.

It's only when we direct our brands (and those who help us craft and deliver messages) to behave honestly and responsibly that we can expect our customers and the wider world to welcome us in when we have something that we wish to say to them.

Over To You: Do you think a brand can be too honest?

January 03, 2010

Brandwidth 2009: The Brand Year In Review

If talk has always been cheap, then in 2009 it became virtually worthless as the yawning gap between the words and deeds of many high-profile brands was exposed for everyone to see.

This was the year when more and more brands joined the conversation online, but much of what they had to say was drowned out in the buzz of rumour, gossip and innuendo. Whilst the spectacular crash of the Tiger brand phenomenon was naturally the talk of the place, there was much to keep tongues wagging closer to home as many celebrated Irish brands slid into disrepute and disarray.

When money talks, we’re all inclined to sit up and listen and the word coming from our banks and other financial institutions suggested that many of the promises and assurances we were offered weren’t worth the paper they were written on. With a barefaced cheek that should no longer surprise us, many of those same financial brands continued to boast of their integrity and commitment to customers even whilst further revelations of wrongdoing were being brought to light.

Our fascination in this country with any song and dance act, no matter how grotesque, was best mirrored in the way we cheered on the Jedward sideshow. Whilst it was only entertainment after all, there was still something shocking about our willingness to back performers whose selling point was their remarkable ability to offer enthusiasm and hard necks in lieu of talent.

Meanwhile, a failure to walk the walk on a green field in France triggered an outrage that might have been better directed at those whose sleight of hand in the boardroom robbed us of more than a jolly to South Africa. Whilst Ireland’s footballers attacked a dismal French team with admirable courage and abandon, they proved unable to do the one thing that would have put paid to any talk of moral victories (not to mention wheedling requests to extend the finals competition to a clearly unworkable thirty-three teams): put the ball in the back of the net for a second time. For all of their bold fighting talk, this Irish soccer team were unable to back it up when it mattered.

In sharp contrast, two Irish rugby teams shrugged off the label of lovable nearly-men by matching word with deed and capturing the Grand Slam and European Cup. Led by the incomparable Brian O’Driscoll, both Ireland and Leinster set an example of what can be achieved when promises are made and kept. Meanwhile, Munster whose only real blemish in 2009 was to have been beaten on the day by a clearly-inspired Leinster team, reminded us late on of what their extraordinary brand is about when they travelled to Perpignan with the jeers of the mob ringing in their ears and dug out a courageous and inspiring victory against all the odds. What is it they say down there? ‘To the faithful and the brave, nothing is impossible’. There might be something there for all brands to consider.

2009 saw the demise of Waterford Crystal (at least as an Irish-based brand), Budget Travel, a range of car-dealers (including the legendary EP Mooney) and the fall of a real darling of our Celtic Tiger, O’Brien’s Sandwich Bars. Further afield, neglect and mismanagement led to the announcement that the legendary Saab brand was failing fast and was to be put out of its misery. The talk of a mercy-killing from its owners, General Motors, was unable to mask the ineptitude that led to the wasting away of a brand rich in story and inspiration.

Not too surprisingly, talk was at the heart of the continuing success of two of the year’s highest-performing brands. Twitter appeared to get everyone talking in 2009 (or perhaps only those talking loudest or most often), whilst Apple remained a must-have brand based on its ability to enable customers to communicate easily and elegantly through its boy-wonder iPhone. No other brands really got close.

In the end, it was a near-legendary Irish brand that best demonstrated that whilst talk may be cheap, it doesn’t always have to be worthless. Mr. Tayto – The Man Inside The Jacket showed many bigger brands how best to capitalise on a powerful story. Described as “the incredible story of one man’s journey from the tilling fields of Ireland to become the nation’s top potato’, the book did go on to top the non-fiction bestseller’s list at home, displacing worthy tomes by leading commentators on the economic bust. Displaying a savvy understanding of what’s required to get people talking about your brand, this particular hot potato has proven to be flavour of the year for 2009.

So what can we expect this new year on the branding-front? Perhaps the sobering lessons of the last year will prompt more of a matching of word with deed and 2010 will see our leading brands walk the walk as boldly as they talk the talk.