Dirty lessons learned the hard way

Passionbrand’s 15 minutes of fame at the APG/Campaign ‘Clash of the Titans’ event in 2011. On the need for planners and agencies to take client-side issues such as distribution and service delivery more seriously, and apply their imaginations to the ‘dirty’ stuff, too.


  • We're Passionbrand...
  • ... and this is 'Dirty lessons learned the hard way'.
  • But before we get into all that unpleasantness, we're going to start with a few consumer verbatims.
  • The consumers, in this case, are marketing directors, and what they’re consumers of, among other things...
  • ... is planners.
  • We asked marketing directors, on some of the big brands that we work with, what they feel planners bring to their business. Here are some of the things they said: There was some positive stuff, of course. Like this verbatim from a global brand marketer:
  • But there was a more troubling theme, captured by comments like these:
  • Is this fair? Are planners out of touch with the wider realities of marketing beyond pure communications? We took a look at the conversations on the planner blogs.
  • There’s certainly some esoteric stuff there.
  • But what’s striking is how clean it all is. There’s no dirty language.
  • You don’t come across the D-word: Distribution. Or Pricing. Or Service Delivery. Or Supply Chain. Yet these are all hugely important issues to marketers, and in reality, all part of the way a brand communicates. Shouldn’t planners be engaged here too?
  • This is Alice Avis, who used to be a planner at BMP, then went client-side as the marketing director behind the Johnnie Walker ‘Keep Walking’ campaign, then left to run The Sanctuary brand for its private equity owner, investing some of her own money in the brand.
  • That personal investment, she told us, made a big difference to her view of what constituted a strategy. Suddenly, a strategy was the down and dirty task of getting as much orange on the shelf at Boots as possible. Because it was crucial to success.
  • As strategies go, it was far less sexy than anything she’d been involved with before. But not without its compensations.
  • It got us wondering. Marketers want planners to get a more realistic understanding of these gritty realities of business, and bring their imagination to help solve them. Maybe the way to do it is to become more personally, and financially, involved. So our proposal is this:
  • Buy one, and run it. Or rather, the individual members would fund the purchase of a brand through the APG – with varying stakes according to the money they’re willing to risk.
  • There are some complications to overcome, not least of which is that the APG is a charity, so this would have to be a spin-off, but in essence: The brand would be owned as a collective, managed by a tight team, influenced as a community.
  • So decisions across the whole business and marketing spectrum would be shared and discussed by every planner with a stake. It’s a serious proposal:
  • The APG has about 900 members, so even an average contribution of £600 per member, with the tax advantages, equates to a pot of around £1 million. You can buy a brand with a million, but you could also be much more ambitious, and use it as a stake to get private equity funding and go for a bigger brand.
  • We talked with private equity firm Piper about this and these are some of the brands they’ve backed - and, although there are caveats, especially on the precise make-up of the managing team, in principle, leverage could be obtained to go for one of the interesting brands for sale out there right now.
  • What we’re going to do now is look at three brands that, theoretically at least, could be acquired and run by the APG – and we’re going explore the dirty lessons that might come along with them.
  • First up is Jeyes.
  • A range of cleaning fluids for all round the house and outside.
  • Distribution is going to be the principal dirty lesson here.
  • And just one of the distribution problems for a relatively small brand is what retailers call ‘In-line display’.
  • Perversely, this doesn’t mean that the products are displayed in a nice strong line like this
  • – in fact it’s the exact opposite – they’re flung all across the store, to sit in among similar specific product lines – so kitchen cleaner would be in one place, and outdoor drain cleaner somewhere else.
  • For a brand without a big communications budget this diffuse presence in store can really reduce impact. You sort of disappear. Which is why Alice Avis had wanted that single shelf of orange in Boots.
  • So you might as owners look at how other brands have tried to solve the same issue. Here’s one: Burt’s Bees is now a sizeable US brand in personal care. But when it was smaller, and just beginning to branch out of its niche retailer distribution and into the big US pharmacies, it ran into the in-line display problem.
  • Since most of its products were in small containers, the brand just got lost.
  • Burt’s Bees reacted with a combination of imagination and measurement. They designed a special ‘hive’ display unit to run at a gondola end, with all the products in one place, and sought to encourage retailers to work with this kind of display.
  • When those retailers proved stubborn, the brand offered to pay for and run a controlled experiment: in selected stores, Burt’s Bees’ skus would be displayed both in-line and in the hive. The specific products were electronically tagged so the store could measure which kind of display resulted in higher sales.
  • Burt’s Bees was able to prove that sales were higher from the hive displays, because they prompted multiple purchases. Even then, some retailers wouldn’t change, so the brand took the courageous step of focusing on just those that would.
  • Today, Burt’s Bees is a $200m brand, and this was just one of the many tough distribution calls that helped get it there.
  • The same kind of issues would be true for Jeyes – and you can see why solving them would take talent and determination.
  • Here’s the second brand that could be up for sale, that the APG might be able to raise the funds for. Charnos.
  • The brand has been in lingerie since 1954.
  • The dirty lesson today? Incremental innovation.
  • You know those sessions where you ask, why not?, and what if?, and it’s all blue sky and off-the-wall and anything goes?
  • Well this isn’t it. Because the outputs of those sessions are often totally impractical.
  • Incremental innovation is much tougher. It’s about smaller, but regular, upgrades that manage to link what customers want to what’s actually possible.
  • Here’s why it matters: to hold on to distribution, to defend premium pricing and to get people talking.
  • And here’s what it needs: planner-style consumer understanding, but married with a feel for restrictive factors like operations, supply chain, and pricing.
  • So an example on Charnos might be to learn that consumers...
  • ...really wish the elastic part of their bra and undies wouldn’t go a different colour in the wash. But quickly, you’d need to explore the realties of solving that issue, to make improvement possible. Can it be done? Can the current suppliers do it? How much would it increase costs?
  • Then back with those consumers to sense if there was any price elasticity for a brand that offered improved knicker elastic. All done fluidly and fast, with the acceptance that if it doesn’t work you move on, and keep the ideas and the practicalities flowing.
  • It’s always exciting to think about big, breakthrough innovation, but it’s the small ones, that can actually happen, that could keep a brand like Charnos ahead of its competitors.
  • On to the third brand that the APG could invest in. It doesn’t exist yet. Instead of buying a brand, you could create one.
  • In which case, you’d be in good company – because some former planners have had a fair bit of success by building a brand from scratch. Richard Reed was a planner at BMP before starting Innocent. Antony Buck and Robert Calcraft were planners before going on to start REN.
  • We talked to these guys about the difference between planning theory and the real thing when your money’s down. The theme of both interviews was how hard it is to get the practical things right.
  • OK. So what might this newly-created APG brand be?
  • Well, that’s the fun part.
  • More or less anything,
  • at first... Then you come at it with a bit of discipline.
  • The recipe would be to draw on your insights into consumers, and your feel for current trends, and use them to create new market space.
  • That’s the recipe, and to continue the metaphor, here’s one we made earlier. For this new product idea, we worked with Alice Avis...
  • ...and these were the insights and trends behind it. Stress is one of the biggest issues in people’s lives today. Mental wellbeing is a talking point that’s out in the open.
  • The fashion for introspection has filtered down to a mass market level. Witness the success of Eat, Pray, Love.
  • Our idea is a kind of Priory meets Weightwatchers. It would be about some of the lighter things the Priory does, like stress management and mental wellbeing, but with the accessible, no-nonsense, approachability of Weightwatchers.
  • There’d be local meetings, places to go for life counselling and stress management, online advice and encouragement. Names? Another fun bit. Lifewatch is fairly obvious. My Guru makes it a bit more spiritual.
  • We kind of like Mojo though.
  • And the dirty lesson? Service delivery. How to get staff – some of whom will be on the minimum wage – to get the essence of the brand and deliver its specialness to customers.
  • One way to help achieve that is with a symbolic gesture. Here’s how a brand in a related category did just that.
  • Cambian is in step-down mental health care. Semi-secure places for people who have often been in the system for years,
  • many of them sectioned, usually arriving with a bare few possessions to their name.
  • The brand is run by a charismatic owner, Saleem Asaria, who personally created a symbolic gesture to signal that Cambian feels differently about the people in its care.
  • It’s a Wow! pack, that patients get the day they arrive. Often it’s the first time they’re been provided with decent, branded products in their entire time in the system. These were symbolically chosen as the brands Saleem uses himself.
  • The aim was to send a signal. A signal to patients, to encourage them to start feeling differently about themselves. But just as importantly, a signal to staff – many of whom will have come from other parts of the mental health system – to think differently about the patients. It’s extraordinary how the people who work at Cambian – cleaners and cooks, as well as nurses and carers – talk about the Wow! pack, and what it means to new patients.
  • It’s a kind of talisman, part of the folklore of the brand, and part of the reason that staff stay motivated and deliver the Cambian promise: to help the people in its care achieve their personal best.
  • Back to the communications industry, and its familiar lament to be welcomed at its clients’ so-called ‘top table’. That’s what agencies yearn for. Planners are probably the only credible force that could get them there.
  • Even then, though, it would require a recognition that the conversation at the top table isn’t all about top things. They talk about the down and dirty stuff too, because it really, really counts towards commercial success.
  • Right now marketers value planners for their insights and their pure communications skills, but they could use help, or at least a bit of understanding, in related areas too. One way to stay on top of the unsexy stuff like distribution, pricing, supply chain and service delivery is to get viscerally, financially, involved.
  • It’s time to put your money where your brains are
  • – and buy (or create) and run and share and nourish a real, scary, live-and-kicking, three-dimensional brand.
  • Who knows where that could end up?