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Branding’s existential question

Some longstanding brands have survived many more crises than this. What’s their secret?
Luck can’t sustain appeal where it does not exist. There is something about all the enduring brands that gives you the sense that life would not be quite the same without them
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

In a side street in London’s North Kensington stands one of the capital’s lesser-known museums. I confess that I had never visited it myself until recently, despite living in the area for many years and hitting the Virgin Active gym just up the road at least a couple of times a week.

That’s quite an omission on my part, since what we’re talking about here is the Museum of Brands, which – to use an apt branding metaphor – does what it says on the tin, showcasing the nation’s brands and their iconography, going back to Victorian times.

As you walk through its winding ‘Time Tunnel’ of yesterday’s household names, with their uninhibited packs and garishly illustrated posters, you find yourself wondering what combination of circumstances finally sealed their fate.

What became of Gossages ‘magical soaps’, Solvo washing powder, or My Lady canned fruits (‘An orchard in your cupboard’)? What was it that finally laid low Peek Frean biscuits, Keen’s mustard and Zambrene weatherproofs? Once brimming with patriotism, optimism and come-on customer promise, these brands somehow vanished from shopping bags and ended up as curiosities on a museum shelf.

Except it’s a more nuanced experience than that, because, mingled among all those faded brands that didn’t make it to the present, are the remarkable ones that did. There’s Weetabix, Bovril, Kit Kat and Shell, in collages from the 40s, 50s and 60s, like photos in an old family album, where change and familiarity both hit you at once. There are brands that could form their own 100-year club, with origins in the early 1900s, like Shredded Wheat, Marmite, Bisto and HMV.

And there are brands that have been part of our shopping lives even longer, with their first inceptions before Victoria came to the throne: Cadbury’s, Colman’s, Oxo, Carr’s, Lea & Perrins, Schweppes, Guinness, The Times. Think about the crises and crunch moments they have managed to come through with their relevance and appeal intact: the Crimean War, the Boer War, the First World War, the global flu pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the Second World War, rationing, Suez, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the oil shock, the three-day week, the dotcom bust, 9/11, the Iraq War, the financial crash.

What is it that makes some brands thrive over the decades while others slide into obscurity? Some of it will simply be down to luck, which is never far off as an explanation for life’s unfair discrepancies: the manufacturing plant that just escaped bomb destruction while a rival’s succumbed; the parent company that was saved, against all odds, from insolvency.

But luck can’t sustain appeal where it does not exist. There is something about all the enduring brands in the museum that gives you the sense that life would not be quite the same without them; something about the combination of what they do and how they do it that imbues them with a status approaching irreplaceability.

And it’s that ‘something’ that should be the ultimate pursuit of every brand. Not just in times of national or global crisis, to help ensure survival when the dust settles, but as a bulwark against the outrageous rigours of the routine marketplace: commoditisation, retailer bullying, competitor discounting, category disruption. Irreplaceability – as tough a call as it is – should be the ultimate marketing goal.


Whenever I work with marketing teams in workshops on positioning, or brand refresh, or even innovation, there is always a question I include somewhere in the session, to bring everyone back to fundamentals: what would people be missing if this brand did not exist?

This is the existential question, the leveller, the one to put when people start talking targets or big, hairy, audacious goals. It’s the one that furrows brows, prompts silences, disarms hubris and breaches the moat of defensiveness.

Sometimes it will lead to a frenzied attempt to articulate a sprawling list of virtues that cry out for crystallisation. Often it will lead to a renewed recognition of a single, obvious quality, so taken for granted over the years that it has come to be neglected. Or it might lead to the conclusion that there is indeed a unique something, but one that puts off as many as it attracts – the reality that Marmite (est. 1902) so brilliantly exploited.

But it can also lead to the horrible recognition that the answer is ‘nothing’ – that if this brand did not exist, it would be a big deal only to the brand owners, and nobody else. I have interviewed CEOs candid enough to admit as much without hesitation, and cavalier enough to resist investment in the improvements their teams were proposing, on the basis that there is enough business out there to go round. Maybe. Until their luck runs out.

I can see that for marketers in some categories right now the existential question is more than merely theoretical – while for others it will seem irrelevant as they are selling every last pack of what they make. But for any marketer with some downtime over the coming months to reflect, I can think of no better way to deploy it.


As I stand outside the Museum of Brands on a sunny March afternoon just before the lockdown, I am reminded that the building it now occupies has an interesting back-story. It was opened in 1986 as the London Lighthouse – a residential centre and hospice for people with HIV, which later merged with and was ultimately sold by the Terrence Higgins Trust. At the time it opened, the neighbourhood was horrified by what was perceived as a mortal threat. Property prices along the street got hammered. These were the days when the Government was sending leaflets to citizens imploring them not to ‘die of ignorance’, and people thought you could ‘catch AIDS’ on a passing breeze.

Many of us now would look back at our apocalyptic anxieties during that crisis with embarrassment. It turned out to be not quite as it seemed at the time. I am not saying, of course, that this coronavirus crisis will turn out to be any less serious than it currently seems. But what I am saying – as we work from our homes and strive to make sense of our marketing priorities – is that there is a case to be made for optimism, pragmatism and perspective.

Imagine what we would all be missing if those qualities did not exist.