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?