Watch brands should be special and different

For years, a friend of mine dreamt of owning a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso – or, more specifically, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Duo with dual time zones, stainless steel case and brown croc strap!

His dream, recently, became reality when he reached a ‘significant’ birthday. You can, I think, imagine the excitement when, after months of anticipation, he opened the luxurious display box for the first time. It was everything he had hoped for. He carefully lifts it out, sensing its weight in his hand, admires the perfection of its finish, then slips it proudly onto his wrist. For weeks he felt a frisson of pleasure every time it caught his eye. His wife later told me that it had reminded her of how she had felt, years earlier, when she put-on her engagement ring for the first time! Such is the allure of a luxury watch.

Surely, such emotional, almost romantic, behaviour towards a piece of inanimate technology is irrational even absurd. Yet human nature has a habit of confounding our logic and better judgement when it comes to affairs of the heart; and choosing a luxury watch is nothing less. After all, how rational is it to willingly spend the cost of a home-full of modern technology on a mechanical watch that relies on an antiquated spring mechanism to tell the time (with, at best, tolerable accurately – provided you remember to keep wearing or winding it)? By way of illustration, my friend could have bought a new top-of-the-range laptop computer, an iPad, an iPhone, a large screen HD TV (with blu-ray and surround-sound, etc.) a Playstation for the kids and, best of all, had a nice new Seiko Kinetic watch every year for the rest of his life… and still had change from what he spent on his Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. Not strictly a fair comparison, perhaps, but remember that every single one of these purchases would, in truth, have told him the time with greater accuracy than his Jaeger-LeCoultre! Add the fact that your new mechanical timepiece will need to be professionally serviced every couple of years, at a cost roughly similar to that of having your car serviced, and you have a product whose emotional attraction would have to be pretty fantastic to overcome any rational analysis. Which, of course, it is. The truth is that our relationships with brands, particularly luxury brands, and the emotional promises they make, is, and always will be, illogical, irrational and inherently indulgent.

Curious, then, that most of the luxury watch brands talk to us, above all, about the latest technological breakthroughs in their ‘precision instruments’ – as if these were why we were buying them. Read any of the beautifully-produced booklets of the major brands and you enter a timeless ‘miniature engineering’ bubble wherein the watch manufacturer will enthuse about revolutionary new, prolonged power-reserves, or remarkable co-axial escapements, breakthroughs in blue-steel (or ‘space-age’ silicon) hairsprings or impenetrable new water-proofing techniques for even deeper diving (as if many owners would dive with an object of this value strapped to their wrist!) or, perhaps, the addition of the ultimate technical marvel, a tourbillon (never mind that it is a 200 year-old invention and of no real practical benefit today!). Of course, there is a romantic twist to the idea of a luxury watch embodying such exquisite mechanical engineering… executed by a team of mythical craftsmen working inside a surreal time warp in an enchanted valley deep in the heart of Switzerland!

It is, however, this unique craftsmanship, rather than any technological claims, that is so compelling. After all, if the most advanced innovations and supreme performance capabilities were paramount, most buyers would already have been tempted away by one of the new generations of genuinely-revolutionary Japanese luxury watch designs; yet relatively few have. Indeed, how many owners have ever even seen what lies within within the polished case of their luxury Swiss timepiece? And, of those who have (usually because their watch has an exhibition back), how many could describe what they were looking at and would know how to judge its excellence? With all due respect, most buyers of luxury watches would be unable to tell if a $50 Asian movement had been substituted for their legendary Swiss calibre (unless, and until, it failed, of course!). In essence, they invest in and trust the brand and the integrity of its promise more than any theoretical specifications. So, when Jaeger-LeCoultre describes its Reverso model as having a 21-jewel movement oscillating at 21,600 beats/hour, it will generally be read as the technical reassurance that the buyer wants to hear to justify their choice. It is of little consequence that higher specification movements may be offered, for less money, by other brands. What matters, above all, is that this beautiful timepiece is a genuine Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso with all the image associations, heritage and aspirations that this promises.

The brand promise, then, is paramount. To demonstrate this, imagine being shown two equally-attractive watches, both about the same price. The first offers a list of technical refinements, exotic materials and impressive-sounding claims, but it is from a brand you are not sure about. The retailer works hard to reassure you of its credentials, but it is hard to feel comfortable about spending this amount of money on a name that means relatively little to you. The second appears to offer comparatively few technical innovations, but it bears the name Rolex, Omega or, indeed, Jaeger-LeCoultre. It says all you need to know. Of course, the choice is rarely as stark as this. But any manufacturer with a weak, faded or unknown brand is unlikely to succeed by emphasising its technology without also focusing on, and projecting, a clear and engaging brand promise.

My friend was fortunate in having identified the marque and model that fitted his aspirations and which made a distinctive statement about his personal taste and style. But many (perhaps even the majority) of luxury watch buyers who do not have such a clear sense of what they are looking for. They are confronted with a dazzling array of brands, a few familiar names stand-out, but most simply blur into the background. What do they do? Predictably, they invest in a brand that they know feel they can trust: TAG Heuer, Omega, Breitling, Rolex, perhaps a Patek Philippe. It is hardly surprising, then, that these are consistently among the best-selling brands in their respective categories – particularly through outlets where customers are relatively unengaged with the world of luxury watches, such as airports and department stores.

So the challenge to watch brands is to invest more in developing a unique and truly differentiated brand promise, rather than simply focusing on technology then churning-out the usual cliché watch advertising (black background, wide-angle, close-up of watch with sports car or yacht in the background; or perhaps a celebrity face looking over your left shoulder into the middle distance with the watch prominently on view…) which simply becomes part of the ‘noise’ rather than truly resonating in a potential buyers mind. As if to prove how weak brand differentiation is in this market, there are now ‘watch matchmaker’ websites whose aim it is to capitalise on the confusion by profiling the watch-buyer’s lifestyle then uniting him or her with their supposed perfect horological partner! That such a service even exists is an indication that watch brands have some to go in developing distinctive, relevant and consistent brands that leave buyers in no doubt about what they stand for.

Can you imagine paying a ‘car matchmaker’ to help you choose a sports car (even if you can’t decide between a Porsche, Maserati or Aston Martin, it is unlikely to be because you don’t know what they are promising!).

Get it right and there will be many more keen, motivated and loyal watch buyers like my friend… who is, incidentally, already enthusiastically researching his next purchase, but don’t tell his wife!

Luxury Swiss Watches: Is innovation shifting from technology to brand?

When we hear “made in Switzerland” a host of images spring to mind, among the most prominent is likely to be a classical Swiss watch. Not just any watch, a superior, high-quality, mechanical watch. Explore a little deeper and we enter a world of luxury, privilege and sophistication. Brands like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Zenith shimmer alluringly in our minds.
A recent international survey ranked Switzerland highest in the world as a country of origin associated with quality (ahead of Japan and Germany). Another study showed that consumers all over the world strongly associated Swiss products with ”high quality”, “reliability” and “luxury”. But, curiously, the same people also rated Swiss poorly when it came to “price competitiveness” and “innovation”. For the luxury watch industry, “price competitiveness” hardly matters, after all pricing is always relative and when your competitors are also Swiss the collective impact can actually be quite positive as it reinforces the cost of entry and perceived prestige of ownership. But what about innovation? It seems that many iconic Swiss watch brands seem to regard innovation as a core strength, they proclaim it in their advertising, on their websites, in their brochures and through their spokespeople. Here, for example, are some quotes from three luxury watch brochures:
“…ground breaking technological development that provides better long-term accuracy”
“…a new chapter of horological history for a new millennium”
“…futuristic, daring, high-tech and cutting edge… superior technical solutions”

It would appear then that there is either a growing anomaly between what the industry wants its audiences to think and what their audiences actually believe, or the Swiss national brand no longer reflects the industry with which it has been intrinsically-linked for the last two-and-a-half centuries.
Interestingly, there was a time, a few generations ago, when there would have been no such discrepancy. Watches might be regarded as the first high-tech gadgets in history and Switzerland‘s burgeoning watch brands lead the world in technical innovation. The development curve for the mechanical watch design actually began in the 18th century and by 1800 most of the cleverest innovations (including the chronograph, the self-winding mechanism and, most notably, the tourbillon) had already been invented, with Breguet, the premium-priced technological leader, firmly positioned as the Apple of its generation. By the end of the 19th century most of the major watch brands had established themselves and their biggest challenge was to manufacture these high-tech gadgets in ever greater numbers and at more affordable prices to meet growing international demand. It was in so doing that Switzerland’s legendary watch-making was consolidated and, as its products reached wider audiences, they had a profound and lasting effect on the national reputation. It would not be unfair to say that for much of the last century the basic architecture of the mechanical watch has remained largely unchanged. There have, of course, been significant advances made in the manufacturing processes (finer tolerances providing more consistent quality) and in the application of new high-performance materials, but these are comparatively minor to the average consumer most of whom have long given-up on the Swiss watch for daily timekeeping anyway and for whom a Swiss watch is primarily a luxury accessory.

As if to prove the point, a recent advertisement for the Cartier Santos (the wristwatch created by Cartier for the early aviator Santos-Dumont) simply takes the headline: “Since 1904”. Ironically, you could purchase the same timepiece used by Santos-Dumont to time his record-breaking 21-second flight from the airport boutique before you jet-off on a 14 hour flight across the globe!

It was, of course, the arrival of the quartz watch in the 1970s that changed everything. In terms of scientific innovation the world had moved-on and, by rational analysis, the Swiss watch industry suddenly looked about as outmoded as the record player would look on the arrival of the CD a decade later. But, for similar reasons, its appeal was re-born. It was no longer a rational product to be assessed scientifically, rather it became a subjectively-satisfying product with which buyers connect emotionally, creatively, intuitively. The luxury Swiss watch was reborn as an exquisite, hand-crafted indulgence whose functional capabilities are patently not the primary motivation for purchase. It is, today, a lovingly-crafted piece of functioning jewellery, an object of fascination and desire.

From a scientific/technological perspective, it is fair to say that the gadget innovation baton has now been seized by Japan and the USA (the national brands that rank highest in public perception for ‘innovation’). Products like Seiko’s revolutionary ‘Eco-drive‘ and ‘Ananto‘ and Citizen’s ‘Kinetic‘ models have accelerated the performance expectations of the wristwatch into a new dimension. But then, their customers’ motivations are as different from the Swiss luxury watch buyer as those of the latest Panasonic digital audio system’s are from the specialist hi-fi chosen by the audiophile buyer.

As with any market, it is vital that the brand owners understand their customers’ motivation. Clarity of positioning is essential and, with the best will in the world, no amount of window dressing about cutting edge technology is going to sell a piece of precious time-keeping jewellery even to the most technically-minded customer. While even the very finest Swiss watch mechanisms have now been eclipsed by newer technologies, this is immaterial to the appeal of the brands whose beautifully crafted products and breathtaking intricacy continue to enchant their privileged owners.

It is the brand promise and pride of ownership that will increasingly enable Swiss luxury watch brands to stand-out and thrive in the luxury marketplace. Their ability to deliver a distinctive, relevant and consistent experience will maintain their appeal and customer loyalty over time. It may well be that the key to future success in the luxury watch business will be ever less associated with the mechanism and ‘technology’ within the watch and increasingly with the sense of style, finish, quality of materials and personality that the watch exemplifies as a luxury accessory.

Although it might sound like contentious sacrilege today, is there really any reason why we should not, in future, see a luxury Swiss watch brand with a Seiko ‘Ananta’ or Citizen ‘Kinetic’ mechanism concealed within its stylish gold case? Just as Aston Martin has been dipping its toe in the water with its Cygnet concept car (a genuine Aston Martin luxury experience beneath which is a mechanically unmodified Toyota iQ city car), perhaps the future direction for all luxury brands will be to define, own and express their own authentic, emotional brand experience. Then, to determine the best way to deliver this via the most appropriate technologies currently available. This is, after all, the business model used so successfully by Apple Corporation – spiritual successors of those pioneering 18th century trailblazers, Breguet.

Watch Your Brand | 1

An extravagance that defies logic…

Is there any other product quite as enigmatic as a luxury watch?

As the world gritted its teeth in the face of economic recession in 2009, demand for high-end luxury watches confounded the pessimists and remained defiantly robust. Admittedly fewer pieces were sold, but there was a marked shift towards the more illustrious and expensive prestige brand models. The desire to own a fine luxury watch not only continues undiminished but its purchase has become even more momentous – it might be even be justified as a secure investment in uncertain times. We should, however, be under no illusion that the real motivation is invariably emotional rather than rational, i.e. “rather than seeing my money as a figure in a deposit account earning very little return, I can see it as the exquisite timepiece that I have always dreamt of”. So, when the heightened allure of a fine watch, as a luxurious escape from the grind of daily life, starts looking like an eminently sensible investment, the rational objections dissolve enabling the emotional desire to be consummated.

The fact is, an expensive watch is a personal indulgence by any reckoning, an exquisite object of desire that is often hard to justify. After all, for less than the cost of each of the regular services you’re going to need on that new mechanical masterpiece you could buy yourself a new, top-of-the-range Apple iPod (think of it as a super-accurate quartz timepiece with a free music player attached). Perhaps it is its irrational extravagance that makes it such a delicious object of desire. There are, it seems, few possessions that can generate such emotional gratification and pride of ownership.

“To be considered a success in life…”, says French advertising guru, Jacques Séguéla, “…you must own your first Rolex by the age of fifty”. The legendary brand name, or that of a similarly evocative brand possibly more to our taste, and the expectation that it signifies is a promise to which we aspire and which we know will be recognised.

Continue reading “Watch Your Brand | 1”

Watch Your Brand | 2

Intimate appeal, some brands have it…

With a multitude of luxury watch brands to choose from, some more memorable than others, but each with its own particular style, heritage and personality, how do we choose the watch brand that is right for us?

From the pages of glossy magazines to the wrists of heros, these brands compete for our attention; they show-off their credentials on ritzy websites and jostle for precedence in the jeweller’s window.

So what is it that enables some brands, collections or designs to capture our imagination and finally convince us above all others?

First we need to recognise that a watch is, quite an intimate possession, it is, quite literally, attached to us and accompanies us practically everywhere we go. It becomes an extension of ourselves and, by implication, our personality. It communicates our taste, attitude and lifestyle, or more accurately, different ‘phases’ of our lifestyle: for example, a smart dress watch might express our social evening phase, a chunky sports watch for the leisure phase and, perhaps, something more businesslike for the professional phase of our life? Our choice of fine watch is as personally-expressive as our choice of scent, clothing or the car that we drive. In fact it is arguably a more authentic indication of our genuine personality than any of these because it is typically chosen with a lifetime in mind – rather than a season, or a few years at most.

So, given how personal an expression our choice of luxury watch is, what the criteria by which we judge which one is right for us? Research has shown that the various criteria (mostly subconscious) can be distilled into the following three decision-making themes:

  1. Product design: “Do I like how it looks”
  2. Brand image: “Do I like what it says about me”
  3. Personal engagement: “Do I want to own it?”

Ironically for watch manufacturers the most important of these three components is also the hardest to measure and the least well-understood – brand image. Brand image is the intangible promise that lives in the minds of everyone with any awareness of the brand. It encapsulates everything we know about the brand, its attributes personality and values as well as the people, events and things we associate with it. We are all influenced, perhaps more than we realise, by the emotional package of elements that make-up a given brand, as well as our impressions of others who choose it (many Audi drivers may impressed by the design, comfort and performance of BMWs but they will not buy one because being a “BMW driver” does not match their self-image!). We also develop, in our subconscious, a sense of relative brand worth. As with all brand values this is dynamic and can rise and fall over time.
Although it is often slow to build it can be quick to fall, because while it might take many years to nurture and build a brand’s reputation, this can be lost very quickly when something undermines the trust we place in it.

The luxury watch consumer, like those of any other sector, is continually absorbing information and subconsciously using it to shape and refine the brand images that exist in their mind. Because brands are memorised and recalled in much the same way that we think about people, we find ourselves attracted to some more than others. So, when we go about selecting the brand that best matches our own personal values it is rather like finding a partner and falling in love.

The story begins with a growing awareness of the options available which leads to a heightened sense of those brands with which we feel feel a natural empathy and, more particularly, the products designs of those brands which best express our values.

This can take time and will draw on a number of cues in the journey from ‘awareness’ through ‘preference’ to ‘commitment’.

It is a courtship that might begin with a repertoire of possible suitors which are steadily honed down until we settle on the one that best fits our self-image and then that is the only that one will do!

Continue reading “Watch Your Brand | 2”

Watch Your Brand | 3

Start with the brand, the rest will follow…

With brand image being so important, it is easy to see why watch manufacturers spend such enormous sums on advertising and sports sponsorship. Unfortunately, too many Swiss watch manufacturers, for all their brilliance in creating, manufacturing and selling exquisite watches, have yet to truly master the discipline of strategic brand management. Consequently, most marketing programmes fall into the “just another watch campaign” category (i.e. a backdrop of some aspirational imagery with a yacht, powerboat, sports car, aircraft, etc., a bland English headline, intelligible to all international audiences, a standard ‘ten-to-two’ shot of the watch, some technical credentials and a line about how long we have been making watches…), alternatively, the brand logo might simply appear as the ‘official time keeper’ at some sports event (which, as everyone knows, amounts to little more than ‘name-drop’ publicity). With the greatest of respect to these esteemed firms and their advertising agencies, how many watch advertisements can you recall and describe right now? Leaving aside the exceptional “You never actually own…” campaign from Patek Philippe, few of us can manage more than a couple of others at best. Now, how clearly could you describe the different watch brand personalities? Probably not very accurately – other than to highlight the prestige of big names.
Now try the same test with cars, drinks or clothing brands and notice the difference. In the luxury watch industry, it is as if marketing expenditure is regarded as a necessary ‘cost of entry’ to the luxury brand marketplace and, provided the anecdotal feedback from the trade and the retail distribution is satisfactory (corroborated, hopefully, by the eventual sales of the watches), that is enough. For the average consumer (as opposed to the avid watch geeks), the challenge of differentiating between the many alternative brands means that the most dominant, consistent brands stand-out even more strongly. The retailer can redress the balance somewhat by presenting the case for the others, but, by that stage in the process, many consumers’ minds will already have been made-up. A glance at the correlation between brand strength and sales trends across most markets will demonstrate this.

Effective brand management is also key to mastering the other two decision-making themes: ‘product design’ and ‘personal engagement’. First, with respect to product design, a clearly-articulated sense of the brand’s values, personality and vision will enable a well-defined creative brief to be prepared which can save time and eliminate confusion. All too often new designs rely on the instinct and imagination of the creative studio to anticipate and create what it believes customers will find attractive, within the context of their own personal interpretation of what the brand stands for. Any doubt will generally resolved by erring on the side of caution rather than risk alarming distributors or end customers. So, when a new consumer trend emerges (such as the demand for sports watches with black cases and rubber straps – as pioneered by brands such as Hublot and Bell&Ross), many high-end manufacturers will literally spend years trying to decide whether or not it is appropriate for them stick with the familiar or embrace the trend. A clearly-defined and well-articulated brand, on the other hand, makes it quick and easy to determine whether such an approach was ‘on’ or ‘off’ brand. The third theme, ‘personal engagement’, refers to the final process of actually bonding with the product by handling it, trying it on, evaluating its quality, determining the choice of finish or colour options then, ultimately, assessing its value for money and after sales support, before making the commitment. Once again, a well planned brand strategy will inform and direct each element at every stage in the customer journey so that all touch-points project the same consistent values – from quality of the bracelet (the clasp, like the car door handle, is the first tactile interaction with the product and needs to be “on brand”) to the design of the presentation box, and from the working of the warranty to the price-point that clinches the deal.

There probably is no other product quite as enigmatic as a luxury watch. Nor is there a market quite as enigmatic, nor a strategic brand marketing challenge quite as ripe for change.

Continue reading “Watch Your Brand | 3”

Trust me, I’m a Bank Manager

bank-managerThere was a time when the bank was one of the pillars of the establishment. Together with the church, the military, the civil service and, at least in the UK,  the royal family and even (for much of the 20th century) the BBC. The bank was a dependable institution and the bank manager was as safe as houses – now he is about as safe as house prices!

Whatever happened? Is it any wonder that our society has become so disoriented and lacking confidence when its very foundations have been undermined?

We have, in short, been let down by those we used to trust. Trust is a precious commodity because there is a personal cost involved – we make ourselves vulnerable by depending on someone or something else. Any breach of trust, therefore, can leave us feeling angry, betrayed and disillusioned.

But we humans, however we dislike the idea, remain as dependent as ever on surrounding ourselves with things in which we can place our trust. As Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ demonstrates, we need to feel a sense of security and wellbeing and crave things that can be depended upon to live up to their promise. These used to be the pillars of the establishment, now these have been replaced by what we might popularly call ‘brands’.
From Apple to Omega, Manchester United to Virgin Atlantic, Swatch to BMW, Hermés to Tumi, our lives are not only dependent on trusted brands, but often defined by them. They advertise our values, even our beliefs. They are our personally-chosen pillars of our own individual establishment. If they let us down, we have the power to dump them, if they make us feel good we wear then and share them (we can ‘wear’ a BMW or a Mac simply by being consciously seen with them in public!).

Look at it this way, if you were a committed Mac aficionado and Apple did banking, wouldn’t you open an account? I bet you can already imagine what to expect when you walk through the door? The values, the attitude the service, the white space, the Financial Genius Bar and a gloriously tactile satin aluminium credit card? And how much you would (secretly) love to be seen using that card… If, for any reason, Apple doesn’t happen to float your metaphorical boat, substitute a brand that does and rewind to the beginning of the paragraph. I think you get the picture; we’re living in an individualised new world in which we are personally empowered to choose and maintain our own micro pillars, ones on which we can depend and which reflect our own lifestyle, values, vision and outlook.

The point here is not to lure popular brands into banking, rather to encourage banking brands to become popular brands. They ought to be working harder than ever to project the values that will generate trust and earn our critically-needed customer commitment and advocacy; instead, most of them still seem to be behaving like self-obsessed nincompoops. Balance the column inches on controversial bonus payments, payoffs and management incompetence against those on innovation, new initiatives or customer service strategies.

I’m guessing that if Apple did banking, the words: “trust me, I’m a bank manager” could, before long, take on an altogether more compelling tone!


Will Apple Crumble?

apple-logoApple is a very special brand. Like Virgin, Nike and Coca Cola, it has transcended its category and become a way of life. To its followers, the delicious anticipation of unpacking any new product from that emporium of ‘cool’ (be it an ipod, a desktop computer or anything in-between) never fails to elicit an admiring grin, as they marvel at how clever, how beautiful and how elegant it all is. How did they think of that? Have you seen this? Even humble power adaptors are lovingly-peeled of their shiny, protective skins before their ornamental beauty succumbs to function. Wave after wave of ultra-desirable products have been longed-for, lusted-over then voraciously consumed by millions of Apple fans all over the world. apple_cinema_displayYou only have to watch an Apple-user flush with pride, as they slip their MacBook onto their lap on the train home, to see how the brand ignites passion – the Apple logo on the back of the screen glows as confidently as they do! Like any exclusive club, there is a joining fee and followers have always been prepared to pay a premium for the privilege of owning Apple products and for the status they confer.

Although the Apple universe has grown massively over recent years, it still something of a niche brand in the personal computer marketplace. So, after years of developing passionately-inspired products for the creatively-enlightened, Apple recently decided that seducing the dedicated was no longer enough. Buoyed by inroads into the lucrative corporate world with its Blackberry-bashing iphone and ambidextrous Macs (running Windows on one hand and Mac OS X on the other), Apple, evidently, believes that it is finally ready for the big time. The lucrative business market is beckoning and it is too tempting to resist.

And so the latest generation of ‘imac’ desktop models arrived with their smart and serious new look featuring a high-tech satin silver finish with neat black details, a theme that continued with the MacBook Air (the almost-impossibly thin executive toy that has become the ‘must have’ object-of-envy in business class lounges from LAX to LHR). Now it is the turn of the mainstream ‘MacBook’ laptop range – perhaps the most important product of all. The MacBook (which is successor to the iconic iBooks and PowerBooks) is, quite simply, the coolest computer on campus and, therefore, the laptop on which future generations of Mac users are weaned. In redesigning it Apple is redefining the look of the popular Mac and reasserting the essential values of the brand.


So, it has boldly broken with the past and has left behind the visual language of naïve glossy white moldings, sexy perspex mice, rubbery blacks and tactile finishes that used to characterise Apple’s funky ‘design studio’ image. These have, perhaps inevitably, given way a contemporary formula of satin silver and black – albeit as nicely executed as you would expect from Apple. This executive makeover will, no doubt, prove attractive to corporate customers who can now buy laptops that combine Apple usability with boardroom-friendly styling. The specs tick all the boxes and the prices are reasonable enough when you take all the latest features into account. All of which is satisfyingly rational, but disturbingly un-Apple.

The worry is that, in chasing after the big corporate markets Apple risks ‘going native’ and allowing its uniqueness to be diluted. The creative style and risqué edginess that have always set Apple products apart, engendering it with an emotionally-charged ‘love-it-or-loath-it’ allure, is now under threat. The latest products simply look and feel too sensible and ‘grown-up’ to bear the Apple logo. The new styling might be clean and elegant with some fine detailing, but look sideways at any of the new laptops and you could be looking at a Sony Vaio, Compaq Presario or one of many other worthy but forgettable business tools. The risk is that they could, ultimately, become dependent on ‘spec and price’ shoot-outs with the big PC brands to maintain and grow market share in the commercial quagmire of the business computer market. Can anyone imagine the big guys rolling-over and allowing Apple to come and steal their most profitable sales without a putting-up an aggressive fight the like of which no Mac has seen before?

Has Apple been so blinded by ambition that it risks losing its soul, the very soul that has always set it apart? Frankly, when Apple buyers are reduced to choosing a new Mac on spec and price, the magic will have been lost and the brand reduced to a deflated effigy of its former glory. Apple faces a stark choice, it can follow the money and trade on residual Apple-ness while it lasts; or it can take careful stock of its brand values, work hard to nourish and nurture the special difference that sets it apart and develop the kinds of new products that will continue to thrill and delight its emotionally-driven, opinion-forming, cool-seeking customers.

Apple’s phenomenally-potent brand appeal, based on exciting and alluring products, has always been its secret weapon. It has sustained it for years, even when the products were, on occasion, technically below par. Today, as it squares-up to face the industry Goliath’s, Apple needs to be certain that its secret weapon is up to scratch or the battle will be shorter and the end of the story less victorious than it had planned.

MacBook, Vaio, Satellite

Obama – the power of the brand!

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

People often buy a brand with their heart, before rationalising the product with their head. As this snippet shows, Obama has a great brand promise – even when the product is relatively unknown. Now that America has made its purchase decision we must trust that the product will deliver against the brand promise – if only because the resulting customer satisfaction and loyalty will keep Sarah Palin on the shelf!

Listen here to the power of the Obama brand!

The Management Consultant’s Challenge


Saatchi & Saatchi’s announcement that ‘advertising’ would be dropped from its title is significant. It is evidence that the traditionally narrow discipline of ‘advertising’ is too tight a pigeonhole for a modern agency in an increasingly sophisticated marketplace. Looking beyond the public statement, however, it is symptomatic of a greater realisation that agencies face increasing competition for their client’s time and budgets from some interesting new directions; one of the most dynamic of which is the management consultant. The subject has become an uncomfortable point of contention among most agencies. Attitudes range from an insistence that “consultants will never do what we can” to a dismissal of the threat as “an over-hyped irrelevance”. It is still rare to hear a positive response and a constructive argument for agency change. Meanwhile, the consultants continue to make inroads into agency territory.
Agencies would do well to take the threat seriously. First of all, because it is specifically for strategic planning, the intellectual heart of the advertising agency, that clients are now forsaking them in favour of the management consultant. This was the very discipline that raised the status of agencies from creative execution shops a generation ago, into today’s intelligent communications partners. Without strategic planning, agencies would not only lose creative focus but professional credibility. Given that, for all their foibles, few clients would be naïve enough to invest the kind of sums charged by consultants without reasonable justification, there must be a significant degree of disenchantment with what advertising agencies are currently offering. The door is then left open for the management consultants to move in and seize the opportunity with the analytical precision for which they are renowned. Of course, some agencies write off the current popularity of the management consultant as a passing phenomenon – merely the latest in a series of client fads. There may be an element of truth in this but it conveniently ignores the fact that the door is only left open when the client does not shut it!

So what are the consultants offering that agencies are failing to deliver? Evidence suggests that clients now feel that they are outgrowing their traditional advertising agency partners, that they have moved on while their agencies have stood still (or, at best, moved too slowly). With ever more complex briefs and an explosion in communications opportunities, their demands are growing beyond most agencies’ ability to respond. They are, more fundamentally, disillusioned by the fact that, for all their pretensions of being “full service“ and “media neutral“, scratch below the surface and most advertising agencies remain resolutely and dogmatically locked into that traditional ‘advertising’ pigeon hole. So when the management consultant arrives promising a comprehensive and holistic solution to their total communications needs, the client, dazzled by the scope of the new arrival’s intellectual insight, needs little persuasion to hand over the brief.

If this analysis is true, how have advertising agencies arrived at their current dilemma and why are they struggling to compete against the capabilities of the management consultant? First of all, agencies always seem to be too busy (with their client’s business, naturally) to have a strategy for their own business.

For example:

  1. How many agencies have really focused on the changes that growing globalisation will have on their business in the next millennium – as opposed to simply pursuing a policy of relentless expansion and business acquisition?
  2. Apart from the more progressive media specialists (many of which are now independents), how many agencies are actively engaged in re-aligning their product to meet the needs of the radically different media landscape that is now emerging with the advent of digital TV and the explosion in computer-based media. It is a sad indictment, given the changes taking place, that so few agencies still have no Internet website.
  3. To what extent have agencies put into place the practical operating systems needed to manage pan-European campaigns for increasingly international clients? Too few, for example, offer an integrated network of local offices – making do with an assembly of local agencies trying to hide internal dissent about whose work should run where. One of the major problems facing clients in setting up international advertising is the difficulty in maintaining centralised control (which is often based on informal rather than organisational authority) to reconcile local differences. Imagine then, the added complication of working with an agency network whose local offices are also pulling in different directions with vested local interests. Improved internal communications are needed within and between both agency and client as campaigns go global; few networks make adequate use of e-mail and video conferencing – fewer still can offer multi-lingual account management teams.
  4. With the exception of the international planners, how conversant are most agency staff with, for example, the fragmentation of international consumers into horizontally-segmented tribal clusters; or, for argument’s sake, Michael Porter’s five forces?

If you winced at that last point you will appreciate the next: It is that agencies generally place too little emphasis on education and developing their own strategic vision. How many agency practitioners (excluding, once again, those from the more erudite planning departments) have seriously studied the theoretic aspects of their subject? If advertising is to raise its professional status this must surely be a prerequisite (imagine your surprise if your lawyer had never opened a textbook dealing with the issue on which you were consulting him). It may sound cruelly sceptical but who ever got promoted in advertising for knowing about the theory? The way to the top seems to be a narrow, well-trodden route for shrewd movers hopping from one agency to the next to secure each successive foothold – education is rarely going to get you there any quicker. So, after years of being immersed in an exclusive world of their own, it is hardly surprising that some agency chiefs have become rather myopic about their agency’s future direction and corporate mission. For the same reason, agencies tend to be equally myopic about recruitment. How many agencies, for example, have had the foresight to bring in senior talent with a fresh business perspective from outside the industry (Saatchi & Saatchi springs to mind but how many others can you name?)

In contrast, one of the key success factors of the management consultants can be attributed to their broader intellectual platform which enables them to be totally “solution neutral“ (and not simply “media neutral“ – which is the broadest claim most agencies are prepared to make). This perspective is further enhanced by their survival not being dependent on the selling of campaign executions which means that they have an uninhibited view of the big picture and can recommend solutions well beyond the confines of traditional advertising. This less-inhibited outlook also leads to a greater awareness of the strategic opportunities for their own future which is precisely why advertising agencies are now having to compete against them. What is more, management consultants often have a more aspirational image than their agency competitors. Why? Because they have been working hard to develop their own identities. Unlike most agencies, the consultants have actually been using their own skills to build their brand images (witness, for example, the recent image building initiatives from Anderson Consulting). How many advertising agencies have had the confidence in their own skills to use them to solve their own communications challenges?

Does all this mean that agencies are now destined to degenerate back into execution shops, handing over the strategic planning to the consultants having irretrievably lost the plot? Not necessarily. Advertising agencies have a wealth of experience and possess unique qualities above and beyond the scope of most management consultants. For example, most agency reels can celebrate several miraculous transformations of timid brands turned household legends (Tango, Boddingtons, Pepparami, Martini, The Economist, Brylcream, Lucozade…). The imaginative inspiration that sees the potential in a dormant brand cannot be replicated by any amount of strategic analysis. The impact of a truly memorable advertising campaign that expands the potential of the brand or proposition far beyond the clients declared commercial strategy is no more than an anomaly to the consultant. It is the spark of creative genius at the core of any successful agency that sets it apart from the studiously worthy but rather anodyne analysis of the management consultant.

So if agencies really do have the potential to succeed what must they do to regain their lost momentum and rejuvenate their client offering?

  1. Agencies should take a more progressive attitude to their staff. They should be better trained and educated, they should be broad-minded about recruiting from non ‘classical agency’ backgrounds and there should be systematic client/agency role-reversal. Career progression should recognise wider experience and more clients should be encouraged into agency jobs and vice-versa.
  2. They must widen their scope to offer solution-neutral answers to wider marketing problems. Building on a broader experience base and a higher level of theoretical expertise, the agency should exercise its skills in more diverse areas of marketing communications. To support this strategy, agencies should also aim to work on a consultancy fee basis wherever possible and so avoid being compromised by a perceived vested interest in any particular solution.
  3. The benefits of being responsible for the final execution should be positively exploited. Provided that their strategic thinking has been set free from the formulaic execution process described earlier, agencies have a powerful and unique advantage over the management consultant in also managing the campaign execution. This factor alone can give a progressive agency the potential to successfully crack the client’s brief in, perhaps, one quarter of the time (and at a fraction of the cost) taken by most management consultants. Furthermore, the strategic solution then naturally flows into the creative presentation which exemplifies it. In contrast, the management consultant’s task ends at the very point where the client is getting interested.
  4. Agencies should use their own skills to help themselves. It might be argued that an agency’s credentials may be judged in the work it produces for its existing clients (which is a bit like expecting someone to buy an Armani suit just because it looked good on the last person who was seen wearing one). We should expect to see confident agencies proud of their capabilities, advertising their competencies and meeting their competitors (from wherever they may come) with a genuine USP in their armoury.

There is, I suggest, some serious self-appraisal called for if agencies are to revitalise themselves to meet the challenges of the next millennium. That spark of ingenuity that sets agencies apart from management consultants not only provides their critical point of difference but should now be used to help define their own solutions and to re-ignite client confidence for the future.

Finally, on a personal note, I would like to reassure any indignant agency chiefs that the observations made and conclusions drawn refer to the agency world at large and are not aimed at you! They are, however, the personal and unprejudiced views of an advertising client and will, I hope, help to stimulate the kind of debate needed to get to grips with the challenges that lie ahead.

Keith Lucas

October 1997

This was originally published as a feature in Campaign Magazine, 14 November 1997: