brand consultancy

The Emperor’s New Clothes

mallWho can fail to be touched by the withering into extinction of the great British high street and, to a lesser extent, its anodyne successor the shopping mall? Retailers are closing-down and shops are being boarded-up as ever more of us choose to do our shopping online.

And it is not that difficult to see why. Online shopping, for most of us, is a lot more convenient, it is quicker, cheaper and offers far wider choice without having to leave the comfort of our own home. This is particularly the case for products that are bought on specification (electrical goods, cameras, computer equipment, etc.) where it is easy to research and read reliable reviews before buying exactly the right product at a considerable saving over a retail store. Few of us would miss the ‘personal service’ that surrounds the purchase of such products which, to be honest, usually amounts to some spotty youth reciting a sales script before trying to flog you a product protection insurance you don’t need.

Sadly, it was only a matter of time before the likes of Comet and Jessops were squeezed out of existence. Q1But what about the other sectors coming under pressure, in particular, what about clothing? Surely few could have predicted that so many of us would be buying clothes online to the extent that we now are? After all we need to try clothes on, to check the fit, the colour, the fabric? Yet the market for some online clothing retailers has been booming (not just the Asos phenomenon, but the rise of niche players like Coggles, Boden, Joules, etc. as well as the online offerings from high street retailers), it seems that more of us than expected are willing to take the risk and order clothes before actually seeing or trying them first.

closingIt might have been an inevitability waiting to happen, but the growth of this market points to something more than passive acceptance. It suggests a degree of discontentment with the former retail offering which is better satisfied by the new online providers. Perhaps high street retailers have hastened the revolution by failing to offer what their customers were looking for, giving their online competitors important footholds in their markets? So what exactly have they been getting wrong? Three things: choice, service and trust.

Firstly, choice. The British high street lost its individuality years ago, 80% of shops are chains selling identical merchandise everywhere (most of which they now also sell online). But a more insidious reason why the choice on the high street is rather predictable, is that retailers are inherently risk averse. They seem more interested in looking over their shoulder at what their competitors are doing than looking ahead at what the customer wants. So, if an item appears to be selling well in store A, store B (its key competitor) is desperate to have exactly the same item, rather than taking a risk on a different item the customer might actually prefer. The exceptions are the more visionary and innovative retailers who know what they stand for and how to engage their audience (Primark, Majestic, Poundland and John Lewis spring to mind) as well as the specialist independent retailers run by knowledgeable entrepreneurs, who know their customers’ needs and use their expertise to source merchandise that cannot be found in the chains. Although they are lamentably rare in the UK these days, some are now setting-up online where they can reach a wider, if less personal, audience.

Secondly, service. With a few exceptions, notably John Lewis (again), most UK retailers have become woefully slow and unwilling to help customers. Ironically, these days if the size/colour combination you want is not available in store most retailers will suggest you order it from their website rather than going to the trouble of getting it in for you. Even the former national post-Christmas of queuing for a refund at M&S has become a guilt-inducing ordeal with much tutting and shaking of heads before a refund will be conceded. Is it any surprise that John Lewis is bucking the retail trend, its loyal and satisfied customers keep coming back almost entirely because of the superior service they receive.

Thirdly, trust. With a few exceptions (notably John Lewis, yet again), we simply don’t trust retailers that much anymore. Do we really believe that suit was ever priced at £525 before it was marked down to £399, before being slashed to £249 and finally £199 in the ‘Blue Cross’ clearance sale? Would the store own-up if they knew that the chinos they were selling so cheaply were being churned-out by a sweat shop in Asia? And when we see ‘Bond Street’ or ‘Saville Row’ on a label why are we not entirely surprised to find, on closer inspection, a concealed tag confessing ‘Made in India’ (or some other location miles from London)?

shirtsWell, the web-based retailers ought to have an easy lead with the first point and there is certainly a lot more choice available online. But look more closely and you would be forgiven for thinking that the UK retailers who have set-up online seem to have taken their conservative me-too mindset with them, because they just seem to offer a bigger variety of the same things. Take men’s clothing and smart work shirts in particular. They are fairly regular, staple purchase, easy enough to browse on a website and most men know their collar size and sleeve length, making them an ideal product to buy online. The rise of online shirt merchants such as Charles Tyrwhitt, T.M. Lewin, Hawes & Curtiss, (et al) are testimony to this. But peruse their initially-impressive arrays of merchandise and it is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu. Whatever one offers, they all offer. Where are the distinctive products, the fresh ideas, where is the innovation? It need not all be pseudo Paul Smith edgy, but must it all be so pseudo M&S bland? Part of the defence from such would-be genteel brands is their desire to maintain longstanding appeal built on classical British understatement, conservative taste, discretion and so on. But really, are they not all offering undifferentiated substitutes for one another? Have they not, in fact, created a commodity market for themselves where price becomes the primary differentiator (3 for £60 or 4 for £90?).

With respect to the second point, service, despite their remoteness, most online clothing retailers leave their their high street counterparts in the dark ages with hassle-free returns, refunds and helpful online assistance. This is where the bricks and mortar retailers ought to have the upper hand. But it is, for the most part, an opportunity missed.

Finally, integrity. Once again, this ought to be an area in which the high street retailer should shine. It doesn’t, but, frankly, neither do the online operations that we were just looking at. For example, they all offer a wide range of shirts all of which seem to be permanently reduced from £75-£85 to £25-£30. In one example, a newly introduced design for this season (see inset – and, yes, this brand new ‘slim fit blue dogtooth’ really is about as innovative as it gets) has, supposedly, been launched with a price tag of £85. No sooner has the stock arrived and it is slashed to £29, or you can have 4 for £90 (which, based on its make-believe starting price, is practically a buy 1 get 3 free deal). But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, they are probably worth £85 aren’t they? After all, that is what you might expect to pay for a genuine Jermyn Street shirt isn’t it?
JermynAnd these are genuine Jermyn Street shirts after all, the website says so, the label says so and they have a store in Jermyn Street. Well, the basic cut and construction of the shirt are, apparently, based on traditional designs (as, to be fair, are those in most shops), but the shirts are, allegedly (it is all rather hush, hush) made in places as far from Jermyn Street as Turkey, India, China and Vietnam. Not that we necessarily mind that much, especially if it keep the price affordable, but surely honesty is the basis of trust (ask John Lewis!).

Given that the target market for these products is supposed to be well-educated professional men, how long will they go along peddling the pretence? Probably until a better proposition comes along to displace it.

Q2Perhaps if the high street hadn’t opened the door with its complacency, online retailers might not have stolen so much of their market – particularly the clothing market, which no one would have predicted a decade ago. But just as their predecessors’ introspection, lack of vision and inability to engage and inspire customers sealed their fate, is there not a risk that the same attitudes could, unchecked, yet come back to haunt the online generation?




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Apple Worship

Bishop_CookePity Richard Dawkins. As if it were not hard enough to persuade the world not to worship a supernatural God, a large part of it seems to be enraptured by artificial ones. These man-made, virtual gods, intangible yet curiously powerful, are what we call brands.

If, as it has been popularly claimed by various recent studies, ‘brands are the new religion’, then Apple has probably come closer than most in generating a neo-religious sense of affiliation, devotion and expectation from its admirers. Its iconic products are displayed, like glorious artefacts, in glittering retail cathedrals throughout the world. The brand’s deification has come through the unswerving adoration and worship of its users, whose little white ear buds are worn with pride, like symbols of commitment. Apple does, after all, offer life changing experiences: iPod changed the way the world listened to music, iPhone revolutionised the global smart phone market while iPad carved-out a huge new category all of its own. Devoted followers watch, spellbound, as each new product launch reveals ‘incredible, ground-breaking innovations’ and ‘awesome performance enhancements’ before setting-off on their next pilgrimage, where they will wait in-line for hours to be among the first blessed with the latest product by the Apple priest or, rather, ‘Genius’. Of course, I am exaggerating, slightly, to make a point, but it can look strangely ritualistic to the uninitiated. The truth is, when a brand starts to emulate what we might traditional call ‘religion’, it transitions from being a product to a lifestyle choice and what it says about you matters more than what its products do for you. Are you in or out? Do you get it or not? Believer or agnostic? Have you ‘seen the light’?  AW_q1

As more established religions have found to their cost, problems can arise when faith is blind. When believers forget (or perhaps never really understood) what, or why, they believe; icons become more important than meanings and reasoned commitment gives way to unquestioning dogma. Then, when a crack appears in the brand’s seemingly infallible facade (say, an underwhelming product or a bad service experience), it would initially be met with denial from the believer (too much trust has been invested, there must be some mistake) countered by self-righteous glee from the unbeliever (always looking for an excuse to puncture the illusion). Unchecked rumours spread, discontentment gains momentum and denial turns into disillusionment. Thanks to the wonders of social media, that tipping point can come more quickly than ever. Apple’s recent Google Maps fiasco was a taste of such behavioural dynamics.

When a brand like Apple generates a devoted neo-religious following it might do well to learn from longstanding experts in the field. For example, if it were to ensure that its followers genuinely understood its credo and articles of faith (let us call them brand definition and guiding principles), they might be less likely to stray, disillusioned, when their brand’s omnipotence wobbles from time-to-time (which it inevitably will – it is, after all, only man-made pretender). We all need the arguments on which to base our rational judgements, even if they are merely to justify the irrational ones we have already made. We need to appreciate what a brand can and, more importantly, what it cannot do. This is, after all, the essence of what sets it apart and makes it unique from any of its potential competitors. Yet Apple currently offers nothing more than a vague allusion to ‘detail-orientation’, ‘creativity’ and ‘simplicity’ (which, incidentally, it buries it in the recruitment section of its global website). Maybe it thinks a formal declaration of principles would feel countercultural or unfashionably restrictive? Or maybe the universally-appealing spirit of Apple is so well understood it need not be articulated? My guess is that Apple has never really thought seriously about its brand strategy, let alone its status as a quasi world religion, because there appear to be some diverging theologies emerging, as attempts to define Apple’s core values seems leave experts floundering in contradiction. Some claim, for instance, that the essence of the Apple brand is “innovation”, others insist it is “usability”, some say it is about being “friendly and approachable” or “design-led”, still others suggest it is about being “the ultimate” even “indispensable”. No doubt some wag will claim that the essence of Apple is about being “Reassuring Expensive”, unfortunately that line has already been spent. While many of these perceptions may be correct, they cannot all be equally correct or we will be left with an vaguely-defined, amorphous catch-all – hardly the makings of a robust brand, let alone a lasting deity!
AW_q2But it was not always thus. There was a time when Apple boldly claimed to “Think Different” and its followers adored the vibrant, revolutionary, anti-establishment approach of the brand. Being an Apple-user (or, more particularly, a Mac-user) meant joining an alternative tribe of ‘enlightened’ geeks and designers, who cooed over the operating system, drooled over the aesthetics and would sooner have than swallowed their perspex mouse whole than regress back to ‘Windoze’. Their unwavering belief was based on a fundamental understanding of what Apple was about, and they understood it as intimately as its Californian creators. Today, though vastly out-numbered and out-spent by the majority of Apple-users, they remain the most committed and loyal followers. It is they who will still be there after a shinier new god has charmed away the newbies. Importantly, they know why they are there and, as long as Apple stays true to itself, they too will stay true.

But is Apple staying true to itself? If it were, you might think it would cherish and reward these committed, long-standing users and encourage them to evangelise the Apple brand (like a car owners’ club, a university alumni group or even a retail loyalty programme)? Unfortunately, Apple seems to have become so preoccupied with commercial expansion that it has forgotten the importance of maintaining brand values and customer advocacy. Despite its reticence in declaring what its brand actually stands for, it seems to have had no problem declaring who its brand should be targeting commercially, it is what it calls the ‘post-PC generation’. In other words, Apple now intends to focus on creating accessible devices for the masses, many of whom have never used a computer, and perhaps never will. There are, after all, considerably fewer geeks and designers than potential Apple-struck consumers in the world and fewer still willing to bear the fulsome price-tags and ever-shorter replacement cycles needed to keep the brand’s share price rolling heavenward. Even so, it is tantamount to announcing that anyone who owns a high-spec Mac is Apple history. Would it be so difficult to maintain a foothold in its former heartland while continuing its mission to domination global handheld devices? It seems that Apple’s inability to focus on more than a couple of tasks at once is becoming a major handicap (perhaps it needs a few more female leaders in Cupertino?).

It would be ironic to see the cracks of disappointment appearing first among the enlightened and dedicated few who can actually see beyond Apple’s glossy modern facade. Regrettable? Yes. Unavoidable? Hardly. Could it be that Apple has become so hell-bent on chasing dollars that it has forgotten its spiritual values? Maybe its slogan “Think Different” (which, incidentally, it has not used for over ten years) should now be “Think Dollars”?

Still, the world’s richest company, led by the world best-paid directors, must surely know what it’s doing? Well you would think so, wouldn’t you? The trouble is, power can be intoxicating and before you know it you can start to believe that you really can make up your own rules and walk on water… the illusion of infallibility usually ends in tears though, as Sony, Palm, Nokia, Blackberry, et al. will bear witness.

In conclusion, few would argue that Apple has skilfully produced raft after raft of glorious products. Its brand has, consequently, been propelled to heady peaks that transcend anything that Apple might have planned. For all its product development skills, though, Apple seems to have little grip on the neo-religious zeal that has grown-up around its brand nor on the potential liability that it represents.AW_q3

With due respect to Prof. Dawkins, as long as Apple enjoys its current cult status, there seems little point in proclaiming that there is probably no God. And, with due respect to Apple, the day it actually believes it is God is the day its sense of reality has flown and its ignominious fall from grace begins.

Chocolate Bars and Law Firms

“We are proud of our professional reputation,
but we’re a law firm not a chocolate bar, we don’t have a brand”

ImageDoes this line of defence sound familiar? Such sentiments have often been used by lawyers against so-called ‘branding experts’. To be honest, it is entirely understandable given that lawyers are trained to distrust things that seem to be emotional, superficial and unquantifiable. Which is what brands are isn’t it?

Well, that really depends on who is defining them. In essence, a brand is simply ‘a promise of what to expect’. In most respects, we process them intellectually much as we do personalities (which is why, when a brand is personified, such as in the Apple versus PC commercials or with real life characters like Richard Branson or Paul Smith, they snap into focus much more easily). The way they present themselves to the world, via their appearance, their verbal communications and behavioural characteristics, promises certain expectations. When people pay little or no attention to the impressions they make on those around them they risk being misunderstood, overlooked, disliked or avoided. So it is with a brand whose impressions on its audiences are not being adequately managed.

ImageImagine, if you dare, the senior partner turning-up for a client meeting in the same suit he wore shortly after he became a partner in 1998 (the last time he thought seriously about his image), he fails to spot the client cringing at the frayed cuffs on his stripy shirt or his worn-out shoes or wincing at his bushy sideburns and bouffant 90’s hairstyle. His speech is peppered with hackneyed industry clichés and legalese, occasionally interspersed with contemporary comments, self-consciously delivered in an affected manner. Worse still, he has, unwittingly, developed a distracting tick which has become so familiar to those around him that only new acquaintances really notice it any more.

Ridiculous maybe, but how will you know whether your brand, or ‘corporate personality’ was creating a similarly out-of-touch impression if you are not managing it carefully? When was the last time you systematically reviewed your firm’s corporate personality, considered how well your firm communicates with its audiences, assessed how it is positioned in clients’ minds or evaluated the relevance of its tone of voice? Does it say ‘new’ things just for effect or do they sound natural and genuine? Has your brand developed some annoyed little habits? (mailings, events, perhaps even vernacular?) Is it possible that your brand might be lodged in a fading 1998 time warp? Remember, also, that your corporate personality lives, not in your business development department, but in the minds of your audiences.

ImageThe legal profession is characterised by a high level of personal interaction and every individual in the firm has a part to play in living the firm’s values and reinforcing the ‘promise of what to expect’.

Just as brands are like people, so people are like brands; their reputation goes before them, setting expectations which will, ideally, be born-out by first impressions and fulfilled as relationships grow.

Most successful lawyers tend to be conspicuously good at managing their own ‘personal’ brand, playing to their strengths to build client relationships. But, however conscious they are of their own personal values and characteristics, they tend to leave their firm’s values to evolve passively with little serious consideration. These values, good or bad, become embodied into the firm’s culture and, so, shape its de facto brand personality. For example, if you were told that, in the next room were three IP lawyers all offering predominantly similar services, one from Slaughter and May, one from Farrers and one from Olswang, how many seconds do you think it might take you to correctly identify who was from which firm? You might also hazard a guess as to which was likely to be the most and least expensive, the fastest turnaround, the nicest people to work with? The point being that each of these three firms has a distinctive corporate personality, or brand, which lives in the mind and defines our expectations of it and, by association, those who represent it.

ImageRecalling that imaginary partner for a moment, few would deny that his demeanour would compromise the reputation of just about any firm, even without any specific, quantifiable measures to prove it. Most would agree that he would fall short of the threshold for acceptable professional behaviour and still further short of the standards expected from a ‘prestigious and trusted law firm. It is an instinctive response to human behaviour, it just feels ‘wrong’. But what if the roles were reversed and the brand was the guilty party, compromising the professional reputation of the individuals representing it? Moreover, what if the discrepancy were less marked and needed to be studied more carefully to be appreciated?

Unfortunately, however compelling the case may be, the legal sector has been one of the least receptive to the notion of brand management (unless, of course, it relates to the IP of a client organisation – whose chocolate bar brand, for example, requires legal protection). Perhaps it is because law firms have become used to working in a conservative, risk-averse, personality-led world that so many law firms still remain sceptical. And yet, it could be argued that there has never been a time when law firms have been in such acute need of clear branding to signify a clear, differentiated promise in the mind of a potential client. The legal marketplace has become uncomfortably competitive, winning business has become tougher and it is harder than ever to stand-out from other, similarly-eligible (and equally-hungry), firms jostling for attention. Mergers and acquisitions are accelerating and clients are increasingly calling the shots. How do they choose from the dizzying array of seemingly-identical offerings? Increasingly, by reputation, corporate personality, or, for want of a better word, brand. And the case for developing a more sophisticated approach to brand management is growing ever stronger. First, because quick, easy access to knowledge and legal databases are commoditising some legal services, making it easier for certain routine legal tasks to be simplified, eroding the competitive advantage traditionally held by the more reputable firms; this leaves price and brand as the key differentiators. Second, and more importantly, the introduction of the Legal Services Act has set the stage for non-legal brands to leverage their well-managed reputations and goodwill to offer legal services in direct competition with traditional law firms. Now, a client who currently uses, say, UBS, HSBC or Goldman Sachs, could, theoretically, buy legal and financial services from the same trusted brand. Similarly, brands like McKinsey, Coutts, Sotheby’s, Savills, and a host of other well-known brands acting in adjacent sectors, could start to steal the attention of future clients who might be tempted to trust their promises more those of a traditional law firm.

ImageHow to compete? Develop a great brand for your firm. Great brands depend on three factors: distinctiveness, relevance and consistency.

  1. If your brand is not distinctive it will not stand-out and be heard above the noise in an increasingly crowded marketplace. This is not easy in an environment where your intellectual product is relatively similar to your competitors’. It is the strength of the promise that you offer and the credibility with you you say it that will enable you to stand out (for want of a better cliché: ‘it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it, that gets results’. Just as Virgin and BA will both fly you from London to New York, in Boeing 747 aircraft, at similar times and in similar comfort, for similar amounts of money, each has a distinctive appeal which engages with a different type of customer)
  2. It goes without saying that if your brand is not genuinely relevant to the needs of your market it will fade into oblivion. Remember that being relevant means reflecting the changing needs of clients, what seems relevant today may not be tomorrow. For example, are you expected to be in tune with the latest technology (VoIP conferencing, cloud-based file sharing, presentations on tablets, etc.), do clients expect a more global perspective? (affiliates in global locations, familiarity with international legal practices) are you offering the right remuneration options? (fixed project fees, success-related contracts, or traditional hourly rates, etc.).
  3. Consistency is vital. Could you trust someone who kept contradicting themselves or regularly behaved out of character in certain environments? How then can a client be expected to remain loyal and committed if your firm’s communications speak with a different voice in different places? Might it not seem a little disconcerting if the look and feel of your website was at odds with your annual report and practice brochures, your receptionist sounded like she belonged with neither and the impression gained when arriving for a meeting at your offices was different again; meanwhile, your staff remain oblivious to any of it?

A great brand stands for something compelling and memorable and offers clear, differentiated reasons for choosing your firm. It generates loyalty, raises expectations and adds goodwill and intangible asset value to your firm.

Image

However weak or strong, distinctive or diffused, every law firm, like every chocolate bar, has a brand. The question is not whether it exists, but what are you doing to manage it? And if you are not managing it who is? Could your competitors by stealing your place in the client’s mind?


Finally, remember that brand reputations are relative; market leaders of today can look anachronistic when the rules change (remember how insuperable the Sony Walkman looked before the arrival of the iPod?). The rules for the legal market have changed.
The stage is set. May the best brands win.