October 24, 2011

When A Brand Turns Sour

It wasn't the boarded up premises that surprised me; it was the signage that had been left in place since the restaurant closed down some two and a half years ago.

Gary Rhodes has worked long and hard to build his reputation as a leading British chef. A quick visit to his website suggests that this is a business-owner who knows the value of a strong brand. Chef, restaurateur, celebrity and author, he owns a range of restaurants and has published almost thirty books.

Yet he continues to allow his name to sit sadly above a failed enterprise, the Rhodes D7 restaurant which briefly threatened to make the Capel Street area a fashionable destination back in 2006. Rhodes slipped out of town without a word in 2009, but the abandoned signage speaks volumes of a brand that's suffering real neglect.

Rhodes is not alone. Brand-owners around town continue to leave their signs to grow shabby and rusted, labelling their own brands as left out in the cold. Is there anything as forlorn as a neglected sign on a run-down premises?

Whilst there is nothing to be ashamed of in a hard-fought failure, it doesn't make any sense at all to continue to attach your label to a forsaken shell.

I wondered whether Rhodes' apparent neglect was simply a legacy of his Dublin landlord? It seems not. A visit to his website reveals content that hasn't been updated since 2009, whilst his online biography continues to make reference to his Dublin restaurant. 

There's a lesson in here for all of us brand-owners. A brand that isn't regularly refreshed quickly turns sour.

August 09, 2011

When It All Adds Up

The decision of my mother, always a canny housekeeper, to shop at higher prices should have confused me, but somehow it didn't.

Growing up in the Dublin of the seventies meant that our family, like others across the city, had to carefully watch our outgoings. I can picture my mother at the kitchen table on a Saturday, doing the household accounts, and carefully balancing each penny earned with every penny spent. We lived comfortably enough, but my parents had to work hard to make those ends meet, and there were few extravagances in our home. While my mother was no natural beancounter, circumstances meant that she had to keep a close eye on what she spent and where she spent it.

And yet she chose to shop at Superquinn, where the prices were noticeably higher than at the local Quinnsworth (now Tesco).

With the sale of Superquinn in the news these past couple of weeks, I'm reminded of the apparently unaccountable behaviour of my mother. And of her neighbours and friends. And of the thousands of others like them across Dublin.

It was Oscar Wilde who said that the cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Clearly, Mrs. Tannam was no cynic for she knew the price of everything on the shelves of her local supermarkets, but saw the value in shopping at Superquinn.

Superquinn at that time could claim to be one of the truly great Irish brands, one whose achievements were recognised by retailers worldwide. Sometimes, here in Ireland, we don't quite appreciate how Superquinn and its founder Feargal Quinn remain a byword for customer service and innovation overseas amongst those who know a thing or two about shopping. Whilst his more cynical competitors trumpeted the price of everything, this retail pioneer set about creating value at every turn.

Our local Superquinn operated from a cramped premises but somehow Feargal managed to make shopping there a genuinely pleasurable experience. He brought his bakers in-store and filled the aisles with the smell of freshly-baked bread. He told us about the farmers who produced his vegetables (long before 'farm to fork' became such a popular marketing ploy). He introduced leftover food-bins where shoppers could find complimentary bread to feed the ducks in the park and complimentary greens to feed their pet rabbits. But, for my mother, his master-stroke was the decision to remove sweet-displays from beside the checkouts, so as to offer his customers (many of them young mothers with toddlers in tow) a pester-free passage through that last step in the shopping-trip that can so easily end in tears. The significance of this was unmistakable. While others led into temptation, Feargal was the guardian angel, ready to forsake the easy profit of the pressurised or impulse buy.

There were many other innovations, too many to recall or mention, but the bottom line was that the Superquinn customer felt both cared for and valued, and, as a result, was quick to value the Superquinn difference and pay over the odds.

With household economics again demanding that housekeepers everywhere know the price of everything, too many of our retailers (including, sadly, Superquinn) are failing to show us the value in what they offer. They may pay lip-service to the idea but, despite the many innovations made in convenience shopping, they are making cynics of us all.

What a pity, for there is great profit to be made by those who are prepared to invest in making shopping a joyful experience and great benefits to be enjoyed by those who are invited to see the extraordinary value in it.

May 23, 2011

The Queen She Came To Call On Us

He thought he saw a buffalo, upon the chimney-piece.
He looked again, and found it was his sister's husband's niece.
'Unless you leave this house,' he said, 'I'll send for the police'
from The Mad Gardener's Song, by Lewis Carroll

He thought he saw a sweet old lady admiring the gardens by the river, but when he looked again, this mad gardener found it was a wise monarch healing the divisions between her people and the peoples of this island.

Islandbridge, indeed.

By any account, this has been an extraordinary week in our island life, and each of us here has been moved in their own way by the words and deeds of Queen Elizabeth as she made friends and deeply influenced people. Her visit had added resonance for me, as it put Islandbridge, the place for which I named my business, firmly on the map, and for so many good reasons.

For most people, Islandbridge is an unfamiliar part of Dublin, its name only heard in occasional traffic reports. Many people would struggle to say where it is exactly. For me, there are strong family associations with the place. My dad played there in the fields and worked in the market gardens as a boy, and rowed on the river above the bridge as a young man. I was born a long stone's throw from the spot, and remember crossing it with friends to get to the playground of the Phoenix Park beyond.

When it came time to name my new business back in 2004, I knew I wanted to locate it by land and water (for enterprise has always sprung up in these places). As I crossed over landscapes in my mind, I naturally came to the banks of the legendary river of the city where I was born, and walked its length, stopping briefly to consider Leixlip (or Salmon's Leap, which struck me as a bold name for a new business) before coming to rest at Islandbridge.

(You'll appreciate that I gave neither Ballsbridge or Butt Bridge a second's thought...)

I liked Islandbridge for all of the childhood associations they held for me, but most of all because it seemed to me to indicate something of what we do for our customers. There is a gap between buyer and seller, and it is the task of the brand-builder to bridge it.

But of course a brand does so much more. It takes nothing at face value but helps the trader to look beyond the thing itself to understand what it means for the other person. And in understanding what that means, the brand honours it. That for me is why the visit of a sweet old lady to my Islandbridge is even more powerful.

She understands that she is not just any old lady. She understands too that she is not even any old monarch. She is someone who stands for so much more in these islands. For some of us, she is the familiar face of a once-oppressive regime. For others, she represents the core of their cultural heritage, the head of their church and the source of their identity. Others again see her as a dinosaur, a relic of another age with no relevance in this.

But this week, she stood for something else again, something that really matters. This week, she played the part of healer, acknowledging the hurtful divisions, and somehow rendering them less painful, less relevant. In honouring our dead, and charming our living, she helped us to find a way to connect again with these neighbours of ours who are so maddeningly like us and so maddeningly not like us. Which is, of course, the case in all extended families.

She also changed for me the meaning of my Islandbridge, and made it even sweeter, more significant and more powerful. For if a little old lady can make such an important gesture at Islandbridge, what can a mad gardener do for the courageous entrepreneurs who make their way to that place?

He thought he saw a queen of hearts, bow down before the flowers.
He looked again, and found it was a crown with healing powers.
'If she mends hearts,' he did declare, 'we'll make her one of ours.'
(with apologies to Lewis Carroll)

April 27, 2011

On The Same Wavelength

Over the years, I've flirted with the idea of developing a sales process for Islandbridge, but have been reluctant to commit over concerns that selling in a systematic way would somehow make for an artificial exchange with prospective customers.

More recently, our work with Ronan Kilroy of Focalpoint has seen us finally embrace the requirement to plan, prepare and rehearse for sales meetings to great effect, but I still struggle at times to shake off the sense that such an approach is somehow wooden or insincere.

Ronan often talks of the need to gauge and mirror your prospect's communication style - to be animated if they're lively, slow and deliberate if they're inclined to be unhurried and thoughtful and so on - and this 'mirror' approach has always struck me as contrived, almost disrespectful. Isn't it more important to bring your own natural approach to any conversation rather than parody the style of your companion?

But of course, that's not what Ronan means.

Listening to him speak again on the topic at a Venture Network event on Friday, I suddenly understood how it works. I pride myself on my own lively approach to discussion and, as I thought about how that would go down in different scenarios, a picture flashed into my mind of a good friend who's just received bad news and is struggling to absorb it. Normally, he and I are well-matched sparring partners and our exchanges are full of banter and playful insults. Of course, I wouldn't rush up to him with my usual gusto, given his current distress; instead, I'd temper my enthusiasm and adapt to his mood and style in order to be able to relate better to him in his difficulty.

And it's the same in business. If we see ourselves as problem-solvers and are genuinely interested in helping our customers fix their problems, then we must adapt to them and how they see the world. There's no parody in this, only respect.

If we insist on our own usual style, there's a very real danger that we seem insincere and interested only in our own point of view. When we get on the same wavelength as our customer, however, we're far more likely to strike the right pitch and get to a real understanding of whether what we've got to offer is a good fit for what they want.

Over To You: What do you think of mirroring your customer (and other approaches to building rapport and winning new business)?

February 15, 2011

Try To See It Your Way

You don't have to work with me for too long to know how much importance I place on seeing things from the point of view of your customer.

Simply put, I believe great brands always take the customer as their starting-point, as it helps them to meet their requirements much more effectively. But a recent chat with one of our clients has persuaded me of another great reason for getting to know your customer better: it can quickly rid you of any sense of entitlement. And a sense of entitlement is one of the great enemies to truly remarkable customer care.

I was reviewing customer research with Tomas Conefrey of Conefrey's Pharmacy in Dublin, and discussing the various strengths and weaknesses of his offer when compared with competing pharmacies in the area and seen from the point of view of his customer. Now this 'warts and all' exercise already demands a certain humility on the part of the business-owner. None of us likes to hear about the shortcomings in what we do. But Tomas took it a significant step further.

He remarked that it was only by looking at his own offer and those of his rivals from the far side of the counter that he'd started to truly appreciate why a customer might choose to buy from someone else. Previously, when a customer went somewhere else, he'd felt a little aggrieved or let-down, but putting himself in their shoes helped him to make sense of their choice. After all, if he wasn't offering them what they wanted, why wouldn't they go elsewhere?

His frankness prompted me to think back to my own recent experience, when a company in Galway that we were hoping to do business with chose a local brand-builder instead. Although I like to think of myself as magnanimous in defeat, my nose was immediately put out of joint when I got the news. Why hadn't they told us that being local was likely to count for more when they'd invited us to tender for the business? I found myself growing more and more annoyed that they'd made their choice on what seemed to me to be an unfair basis.

But when I put myself in their shoes as Tomas had done, I saw things differently. All other things being broadly equal, I'd prefer to do business with a local company too. It's much simpler after all. So why wouldn't they choose a neighbour, someone they could meet with easily and at short notice if required, maybe even known to them directly through a business network? They'd made the right choice for them, even if it was one that didn't suit me.

For our part, we'd simply failed to demonstrate any compelling reason to do business with us rather than a local firm. That wasn't their fault; it was ours. Next time, we needed to do better.

By stepping into the shoes of our customer, both Tomas and I saw the world differently, and were able to move past the sometimes self-absorbed point of view of the shop-keeper who sees things only from their side of the counter. Most importantly, we lost that sense of entitlement that can dog customer-care and send mixed messages to those making a choice as to what to buy.

When we recognise that our role in business is to help our customer make the right choice for them (rather than one that simply suits us) then it changes everything.

So step out from behind the shop-counter and onto the shop-floor. You'll see things better from there.

January 09, 2011

Beauty (And The Beastly Tweet)

One of the hazards of being a brand-watcher in a world of Google alerts is that I know much more than I care to of the antics of a certain Russell Brand. But sometimes this walking, (never stops) talking, living brand has something to offer brand-builders by way of a cautionary lesson.

My daily updates this week have been a-twitter with Brand's latest exploit which reportedly has wife Katy on the warpath. Apparently, her thoughtful husband snapped a not-so-flattering picture of Katy as she awoke and posted it to Twitter for his 1 million-plus followers to enjoy. Katy, unsurprisingly, was less than pleased to be pictured without her customary war-paint, and although Russell promptly deleted the picture from his account, the damage was done as celebrity watchers and news organisations around the world gleefully published the image through other channels.

Now, poor Katy looks no worse than any of us caught unawares first thing in the morning, but of course that's not the point. More than most of us, Katy relies heavily on presenting a gilded image to the world, and it hardly helps her cause to be seen looking less than glamorous, whatever the circumstances.

As it happens, I've been doing a lot of work of late with clients who help their customers to make a strong impression on the world, whether through fitness, dress or design, and we've had a number of discussions on the merits of 'before and after' shots to demonstrate the impact they've had on the face their customers present to the world.

Whilst there's no doubting the power of 'before and after' to illustrate cause and effect, I've got very strong concerns about using 'before' shots of customers, which have been borne out by what's happened to poor Katy Brand. It always seems to me to be patronising to talk of our customers as though we brought them down drooling from the mountains, and shaved, scrubbed and suited them, before showing them off to the world, Eliza Doolittle to our Professor Henry Higgins.

It's evident from the glee which greeted Katy's picture that this brutal 'before' shot only feeds the popular tendency to make mortals of our gods. When we're in the business of helping customers to reinvent themselves in some way, it really doesn't help to show them first in an unflattering light. Of course, we want to demonstrate the impact we've had on them, but much better to find a way that illustrates how we helped bring out the best in them, rather than suggest we've cured them of the ailment of being themselves.

As for poor Katy, I've chosen to use a picture of her looking her best to illustrate this post. The more prurient amongst you might prefer the dreaded 'before' shot, but somehow I don't care to add to the thoughtlessness of this particular Brand.