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.