Necessity: The Mother of Invention

Part 2. The people and brands that inspire us to go the extra mile

Isn’t it extraordinary how we humans develop superhuman capabilities in the face of daunting Few people really know what they’re capable of until they have been motivated to explore their limits. The pandemic inspired many apparently ordinary people to do extraordinary things, from those responsible for the fastest ever vaccine development programme to airline cabin crews taking on the challenge of frontline healthcare. In Part 1 we looked at how we humans can develop superhuman capabilities in the face of seemingly daunting threats, reflecting on how technological advances in aircraft design in the two decades of 1931-1951 (incorporating WWII) were dramatically quicker than throughout the five peacetime decades of 1967-2017. But do we need a crisis to release our superhuman potential, or can we be inspired to achieve extraordinary things by a great leader or, more particularly, a compelling brand promise?

Brands that inspire superhuman potential…

We know that inspiring brands, like inspiring people, have the power to motivate. Moreover, brands with an inspiring leader at the helm often achieve the most powerful results of all—brand values snap into sharper focus when lived and modelled by the chief that espouses them, intensifying the brand experience for customers and employees (it can, of course, be similarly polarising for rejectors for whom the leader is the very personification of the brand they have come to loath!). 

Two brands that deliver against these criteria are Apple and Tesla.

Apple

Since its inception in 1976 Apple has accumulated generations of dedicated followers with an almost religious zeal for new product announcements. The level of pride in owning a new Apple product has always been legendary (just search ‘Apple unboxing’ on YouTube) and that passion is shared by its employees. Apple is a perfectionist culture that was personified by its single-minded founder, Steve Jobs, and perpetuated by the conviction that ‘we’re here to put a ding in the universe’ with clever thinking, iconic design and pure simplicity; customer satisfaction is not engaged enough for Apple, it strives for ‘joy of ownership’. 

The organisation structure is as simple yet radical as the product and the company takes an entrepreneurial approach to product development with employees enjoying a high level of freedom and flexibility but a high degree of accountability. Every live project has a Directly Responsible Individual (the DRI) who is personally answerable for it. This generates a sense of ownership and responsibility with teams focused on comparatively few products at any one time, before moving, together, onto the next one. Apple’s ‘focused excellence’ approach means that every job is done brilliantly, by not diluting effort across several jobs only the highest quality products are launched (and if others are delayed, that is a price worth paying). By elevating design quality to iconic levels it has heightened the desire for its products, making every rival look and feel ordinary by comparison. Idiomatically, rather than follow the traditional approach of hiring a star designer, Steve Jobs created Apple’s own star by raising the profile of its talented British design chief, Jony Ive. He designed Apple stores to resemble art galleries to celebrate the latest Apple sculptures. Packaging became as exquisite as the products inside them (empty boxes are collector’s items). Ives’ numerous celebrity appearances and awards culminated in his receiving a knighthood in 2006. Sir Jony Ive is Apple’s knight in shining designer armour and the ultimate expression of how Apple inspires superhuman levels of performance. He succeeded in putting a ding in the universe—with an Apple logo on it! 

It is this single-minded approach, inspired by a passion to deliver the values the brand promises, that sets such extraordinarily high expectations of Apple employees. And they repeatedly do whatever it takes to deliver. The result is new generations of customers experiencing the ‘joy of ownership’ that Jobs dreamt of and which has continued to make Apple the iconic brand it is today.

Tesla

Elon Musk is Tesla. An ambitious force of nature that makes the impossible possible and hauls the rest of the world into the future. It is not a place for the feint-hearted, the pressure is intense and demanding. Musk regularly overpromises to the world, then holds his employees feet (along with his own) to the fire to deliver. Employees frequently claim that everyone has to work harder than they would at any other company in the world, but they also claim to have done the best work of their lives at Tesla—even if some leave exhausted.

Musk believes that it is his job to be intimately familiar with the company’s operations and puts himself, physically, in the middle of the action. He leads by example and lives out Tesla’s three brand pillars of Boldness, Openness and Sustainability. He is driven by a conviction to make a global impact and audaciously puts the planet before shareholders. This ethos is embodied in the products and is also manifest in his making innovation patents public—demonstrably putting principles before profit.

Tesla owners are as dedicated and enthusiastic as its employees. They frequently participate in product development and testing, making them feel genuinely invested in the brand and its success. Their loyalty and advocacy levels have been sustained at such high levels that Tesla has never sought to invest in marketing—even with a range of cars starting at $38,000. 

Over time, the brand’s commercial performance has become as spectacular as the cars. Since its launch in 2008 it has brought electric vehicles into the mainstream, completely transforming the way the world thinks about them. The big motor manufacturers were quick to dismiss Tesla as an eccentric niche, today it is worth more than the worlds top seven car companies combined. The Tesla brand is driven by a bold vision, bigger than itself, to create a better, cleaner and more sustainable future for the planet. Tesla’s refusal to accept the status quo, its obsession with reinventing products and sectors from first principles rather than following any existing industry practices, are pure Musk, but have been the means by which the firm’s outrageous ambitions have consistently been delivered. 

He and his staff systematically over-deliver on their conviction that nothing is impossible. If Tesla can claim to have changed the world it is because its employees, mentored by Musk, achieve more than anyone else in any other company.

Superhuman overachievement is always possible… at a cost

The quest to go beyond and deliver what was previously thought impossible seems to be as much a characteristic of a single-minded brand (especially one with an uncompromising culture driven by a larger-than-life personality) as it is of a national crisis or global pandemic. The cost is that such brands can be intensely polarising for customers and employees. But any distinctive brand is defined as much by those it rejects as by those it attracts—Apple and Tesla command a premium precisely because their distinctive values, exemplified by their products, give them an emotional appeal that sets them apart. How many employees of GM or HP do you suppose feel as motivated to overachieve each morning as their equivalents in Tesla or Apple? How proud do they feel when someone asks them who they work for? Have you seen how a Tesla or Apple customer glows and gushes when asked whether the Model 3 parked outside, or that cool new Mac on the desk, is theirs?

Is a personality-driven brand necessary to achieve superhuman results?

There is nothing quite like having a brand brought to life by an inspiring leader (Branson, Dyson, Disney, Roddick, Chanel, et al). Apart from making the brand values easier to relate to, their personal value means that they usually have the power to take, seemingly irrational, risks that would terrify most boards or shareholders. This courage of conviction has been a vital component in the growth of both Apple and Tesla, both of which have endured troughs in shareholder confidence. But it is now a decade since the demise of Steve Jobs and Apple has shown that its brand values are sufficiently well defined and firmly-entrenched to be sustainable without the personal driving force of its founder. Indeed, its market value has risen tenfold over this time to make Apple the world’s first $3 Trillion corporation. Significantly, its employees remain as fanatically-eager to overachieve as ever. 

Unfortunately, the magic of most entrepreneur-led brands starts to fade when the founder is no longer leading them, or when they sell-out to bigger groups (few of which truly understand how to sustain brand values). But Apple has convincingly shown us that, with a zealous commitment to resolutely-held brand values, sky-high expectations can continue to be met thanks to the superhuman efforts of team members—without or without a charismatic chief to model them.

The challenge for boards and shareholders

More people than we might have thought are capable, with the right motivation, of achieving things that go above and beyond normal expectations. It need not take a crisis to unleash they potential. They need a purpose that stirs their emotions and propels them to over-deliver, to be voluntarily immersed in a shared culture where they can believe that their efforts can change the world. 

This is encapsulated in a promise. The promise we call a brand.

Necessity: The Mother of Invention

Part 1. Capitalising on a Crisis

Isn’t it extraordinary how we humans develop superhuman capabilities in the face of daunting threats? Our ingenuity becomes  boundless, teams unite with common purpose to crack the most resilient challenges with urgent haste. We even become more caring, community-spirited (NHS-clapping) versions of our former selves.

We rise to the challenge…

The last year has, for most of us, been one of the most challenging in living memory. We have seen superhuman acts of courage and determination from doctors, nurses, carers, centenarian fund raisers and more. Meanwhile, medical researchers have created, developed and tested vaccines faster than anyone dared hope, then rolled them out across the nation at a similar pace; meanwhile, home delivery services have expanded to enable food and provisions to reach every corner of the nation and web developers have launched new solutions ways to enable home working and socialising. Even the most resolute office-dwellers have risen to the challenge of working from home and adapted to holding meetings on-screen via Teams or Zoom (something many would ordinarily have refused to entertain). 

Plato was right. Necessity has always given birth to invention.
It’s in our DNA. Wind the clock back 80 years and we can see another example of it in action (especially for an aviation enthusiast in lockdown).

In 1931, the Hawker aircraft company’s latest front-line fighter for the Royal Air Force was the Fury. Designed by a brilliant young engineer, Sydney Camm, it was the RAF’s first fighter capable of exceeding 200 mph and could climb to 10,000 feet in under 4 minutes. Then, as war loomed, Camm’s team worked round the clock to redesigned the biplane around the latest Merlin engine and reconfigure its canvas-skinned structure into a faster monoplane, called the Hurricane.

Together with the Spitfire, it gave the RAF air superiority in the Battle of Britain. As the war went on, the relentless pace of innovation continued and, by 1942, Camm’s team launched the all-metal ‘Typhoon’ with an engine twice as powerful as the Hurricane’s enabling it to fly at over 400mph.  

By 1951, just 20 years after launching the pre-war Fury, Camm’s  team had created a jet fighter that could fly three times as fast and climb seven-times as quickly to twice the altitude.

Then we relax…

Just as extraordinary, perhaps, is the ease with which, when the threat subsides, we default to ordinary human equilibrium—as if nothing had happened. 

So, as the world breathed a sigh of relief after the war, aero engineers set about putting military advances to civil use and, by 1952, the first jet airliner, the de Havilland’s Comet went into service. Unfortunately, it had to be grounded with technical problems—the kind of problems that would have been quickly exploited by a military rival in wartime, but for a commercial rival in peacetime the urgency was lost. Boeing spent six years in studious contemplation before finally launching its rival jet airliner, the 707. It was then a further nine years before Boeing introduced a smaller derivative, the 737, for short-haul routes. 

Since its launch in 1967 the 737 has developed comparatively modestly—can you spot the difference? What’s more, after more than 50 years in production, the latest model is actually 60mph slower than the original.  

Who would have thought that the superhuman ingenuity in less than a decade of crisis would be followed by decades of technological torpidity in the era of plenty that followed.

It is sobering to reflect that, had the 1952 Comet airliner been based on a 50 year-old airframe it would have been a hot air balloon (the Wright brothers not having mastered powered flight for another 4 years). 

Reigniting the spirit…

We have seen that crises, particularly the shared fear of a common enemy, are powerful human motivators (as George Orwell warns us in ‘1984’). We instinctively go further if we’re fighting for survival but, without such an imperative, most of us will settle for doing enough to get by comfortably—which, if you are in an organisation seeking innovative solutions (and which of us is not?), seems like a waste of potential, doesn’t it? So, as we emerge from the current crisis, how can we sustain the spirit that has sparked some of us to go that extra superhuman mile over the past year—or reignite it if we have been sidelined by lockdown? 

One approach, of course, is to wilfully contrive a workplace so stressful that it triggers employees’ elemental survival instincts. This might, potentially, work in a totalitarian ‘work or starve’ regime, but is hardly relevant in free markets (though, arguably, some seem to have tried). The traditional capitalist solution is one of bribery—rewarding high performance with, say, cash bonuses. Sadly, this has proven, in the long run, to be barely more sustainable (and a lot less effective) than the first approach, because the impact tends to fade over time and the reward becomes the norm (one reason why directors’ bonuses have ballooned as companies compete to attract and retain high performers). Over time we get used to a bonus and it becomes a hygiene factor for the function, rather than the motivating factor we need to go beyond it. So, what are the motivating factors that will make a difference? 

It could be that the answer lies in our feeling part of something something ‘bigger than ourselves’, something that captures our imagination and drives our ambition, inspiring us to go further? Simon Sinek might describe it as ‘finding our why’. It happens when we are engaged with a company, cause or purpose (let’s call it a brand) with which we feel an emotional connection. A brand that gets us out of bed in the morning, that we would support even if we weren’t being paid to. A brand that reflects and encapsulates the mission and core values of the organisation we work for—as opposed to a set of promises dreamt-up by the marketing team, then superimposed upon it. A brand that lives in the HR director’s domain as much as the Marketing director’s, that consistently shapes and reflects both culture and communications and which employees can relate to as readily as customers. Organisations like this are rare, but they do exist. Not surprisingly, they frequently attract the best talent, who often do the best work of their lives while working there—you might say the brand becomes their chosen necessity. And, for all their flaws in other respects, such organisations buzz with dedicated individuals giving birth to inventive ideas that might just change the world. Incidentally, before he died, Sir Sydney Camm was planning the design of an aircraft to travel at Mach 4. The man who, aged 10, had been inspired by the Wright brothers first flight never stopped inventing.

Who are the people and what are the brands that continually inspire us to go the extra mile? What is their secret?See Part 2

Appleied Technology

How Apple makes hard technology soft and cuddly

People love cats. Cute, cuddly and low-maintenance, they’re doted on by young and old everywhere. Of the 600 million across the world, roughly half are domesticated, with the rest being wild and feral. At which point, we are reminded that they are among nature’s stealthiest and most aggressive creatures: hunting, and killing whatever might look like a tasty snack, or just fun to pick-on. 

It was, in fact, for their forensic rodent exterminating skills that cat ownership grew over the centuries to what it is today—although we might prefer to overlook their undomesticated side when pouring bowls of vegan cat food for our purring friends. It’s hard, then, not to marvel at the brilliance of the ancient Egyptians (assuming it was they who tamed and domesticated wild cats into today’s people-friendly pets) as we stroke Tiddles before letting him out to stalk the garden. 

Curiously enough, today’s information technologies can be a bit like those wild, undomesticated cats: capable of extraordinarily impressive performance, especially when understood by trained experts who fully appreciate their potential. They can be similarly user-unfriendly, too, if they are taken home untamed. Anyone who has experienced the pain and frustration of trying to persuade a promising new piece of ‘life-changing’ technology to connect to, say, a slightly incompatible broadband router will know the feeling; or, perhaps, attempted to pair a device with their smartphone only to find themselves talking into into a neighbours baby monitor. Perhaps, like me, you know just enough to dig yourself into a deeper pit as you stumble through the settings armed with DNS, DHCP, IP and MAC addresses before realising you’ve entered a lion’s den and need that trained expert back to extricate you before things get more serious.

So, when Steve Jobs determined that Apple’s products would be driven by a single-minded focus on simplicity, creativity and humanity he was on a mission ‘to put a ding in the universe’  (his words, not mine) by making high technology cuddly and accessible for the world. It was a tough challenge, but Apple’s $2tr valuation today would indicate that, like the ancient Egyptians, he was onto something. By maintaining a laser focus on human benefits (rather than technology for technology’s benefit) and user-friendly simplicity, Apple promises to create elegant and desirable products that people will smile at and love. That promise is, in essence, the Apple brand. Unlike most other technology brands, Apple stands for a purpose that transcends industry categories and gives it licence to roam into other spaces where clever technology has the potential to be tamed, domesticated and made lovable. What might, today, be appreciated only by trained experts and too daunting for the rest of us to manage, could, in the future, be the focal point of a new Apple product launch. Think how Apple Watch has opened-up wellness, leading to healthcare which, in time, might extend to smart remedies in partnership with healthcare service providers and pharmaceutical brands. Similarly, Apple Maps might pave the way into new travel and mobility services from smart taxis to driverless cars. The Apple brand could even extend its financial services offer by domesticating investment strategies, unlocking the wealth potential of stock markets from the preserve of trained experts to anyone with an Apple device and a will to invest.

There will, of course, always be jealous rivals and technology-minded consumers who will claim that Apple products are over-priced and underspecified, that you can buy better for less elsewhere. But that rather misses the point. That’s not why the Apple brand exists. Most other technology brands are driven by a quest for technological advantage and the desire to be first to offer it—rather than finding technology-driven solutions that offer simple, relevant and usable human benefits. Just as no one ever bought an iPhone because it offered the most dazzling technology for the money, I wager that few buy an Samsung or LG because it didn’t. To stretch the analogy, there may be faster and more potent breeds of rat-catchers out there, but only when they can be reliably house trained and made as user-friendly as Tiddles might they be worthy of our affection.

However you look at it, when a company’s brand is worth around $352bn (second only to Amazon as the most valuable in the world), you know that it is evidently engaging the hearts and minds of a lot of people a lot of the time. Which is what great brands do (something to contemplate as you close your iPad after reading this and put the cat out).

Building Trust

Would you trust a pharmaceutical brand with your life?

These are interesting times. The speed with which the threat of COVID-19 has swept the world has made the issue of our health —as individuals, societies and nations—our number one preoccupation. 

We are in the unusual situation where we face an unknown threat and our only way to manage it is through trial and error. Where once we looked to the experts for a definitive answer, we now realise they are learning along with the rest of us. 

But it’s because of this lack of certainty, rather than in spite of it, that trust in medical scientists is more important than ever. We are being called upon to trust in their advice, trust that they will come up with the right answers and trust that any ensuing medical response will be effective. Pharmaceutical companies are also in the difficult position of having to marry promise to pragmatism. While individuals and governments clamour for answers, these brands understand that there will be no immediate solution. In the meantime, in the absence of solutions, they will need to find other ways to sustain trust; how they do that will have long-term ramifications for their brands, far beyond what COVID-19 holds. 

Now might be a prime moment for a pharma brand needing to build consumer confidence to step forward and prove its mettle

The evolution of trust 

The first challenge is that the global populace has become less trusting overall. There was a time when we trusted the establishment, when the voice of the BBC was sacred, for example. Today, there is scepticism. We have lost our trust in government and other authorities, for a variety of reasons, leaving people unsure where to place their confidence. Often, it’s brands that have taken over where the voice of authority has failed. In fact, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 41% of people agree that brands have better ideas for solving problems than the government. Pharmaceutical companies used to enjoy a level of unequivocal trust. The ‘white coat’ prevailed – the advice from the scientist in the Colgate advert was accepted without question. We still trust Anadin to do what it says on the box, but even our trust in pharma brands is not now without its caveats. 

How do brands earn trust? 

The way we think about brands is not dissimilar to how we think about people. Factors that earn our trust in them should, therefore, not surprise us. Brands we trust tend to be: 

  1. Those that are on our wavelength. Brands can be like familiar friends, they can relate to our needs, empathise with our perspective and tell us what we want to hear.
  2. Brands that tell the truth and are true to their word (even when we’re not looking). They have earned our trust by consistently delivering against their promises and not letting us down.
  3. The brands trusted by those we trust. If a good friend, valued expert (a doctor perhaps) or impartial observer whose opinions we value trust it we are more easily persuaded.
  4. Those over which we can exercise control should they fail to deliver (the promise of a money-back guarantee, the power to refer or maybe seek redress from a higher authority, etc.)

Pharma brands during a pandemic 

With the UK in lockdown and the establishment showing the strain, an anxious public is keener than ever to discover and hold firm to who and what it can trust. Now might be a prime moment, then, for a pharma brand needing to build consumer confidence, to step forward and prove its mettle. It would certainly appear that some have done just that, such as by spontaneously volunteering to turn their labs and resources to testing for COVID-19 and prioritising research into possible cures. 

But words must be followed through with commensurate actions if such acts of apparent altruism are not to trigger the consumers’ now finely honed scepticism nerve. How exactly is the firm helping and how consistently is it behaving across the rest of its business dealings? With the power of the internet and a surfeit of time for sceptical minds, there really is nowhere to hide–transparency is not only critical but inevitable and failure to deliver against public promises will not only be held to account, but could jeopardise future trust. 

The right communications are now more critical than ever, even the geniality (and not just the credibility) of the experts chosen and cited by pharma brands will have a part to play in building perceptions of the brand’s bearing and trustworthiness. There is also the challenge of being artful in communicating appropriately to those with different interests, without appearing disingenuous when these appear contradictory.

Playing on different wavelengths, while maintaining everyone’s trust, can be challenging at times – such as reconciling the imperative for complete transparency against the assurance of absolute confidentiality. Ultimately, this will be the litmus test for pharma brands that have been assiduously gathering and jealously guarding customer data. Who will have access to it? How will they use it? Can they be trusted to safeguard it? Brands in the sector might also consider aligning their goals at a time like this. It is when rivals link arms and behave in a truly open and honourable way, working towards the same goal, that the world sees how much they genuinely care about making a difference. 

The transition from masters of chemistry to
processors of data 

In the not so distant future we will all be using smart wearable devices that can track not only body movement, temperature and heartbeat, but blood pressure, oxygen and glucose levels. They may even track markers of an existing medical condition, in real time, with the accumulated data combined with personal information (such as bodyweight and family medical history) to create a detailed profile which, aggregated across a database of millions of other users, not only tracks our current health, but anticipates our potential future health profile. 

Drug dosages will be personalised to our precise biological needs, with reminders to take them and prompts about side effects. New supplies of medicines (in personalised dosages) will be ordered automatically – perhaps in customised polypills, containing several medications in one capsule. Geo-positioning and access to our emails, social media feeds and diary, will also enable them to anticipate our medical needs – as well as alerting us if we enter a location where a medical risk is anticipated (while providing advice on how to protect ourselves). 

These new technologies will massively improve the effectiveness of medications, as well as reducing waste (in the UK, unused drugs worth an estimated £150 million are thrown away each year, in the US the figure is nearer $2 billion); over time the wearable device is likely to become a lifelong embedded microchip and personalised medications will be 3D printed and machine dispensed. Best of all, many potential conditions will be avoided altogether. 

The challenge for pharmaceutical brands, however, is that they must undergo a radical transformation from being trusted as masters of chemistry, to processors of data. Although we have, over many years, come to trust them with molecules, the industry has yet to earn our confidence in treasuring our private information – the digital imprint of our life.

In the here and now, COVID-19 is all about maintaining confidence while the industry powers up to find a solution. But then as it gathers more and more information about its consumers and works to provide deeply personalised treatments, consumer trust will be built on the whole package, the company’s legitimate need to hold data, what it does with that information and in whose interests those actions are. 

First published in Pharma Times, magazine, May 2020  
(Keith Lucas writing as Strategy Partner, Superunion) 

Once upon a time there was a brand…

gorillaA recent advertising campaign for a certain low-cost supermarket made me smile. It used a tried and tested formula involving a taste test between two similar looking products, one a known and trusted, premium Swiss chocolate brand, the other their own-brand alternative. Discerning chocophiles, after declaring their devotion to the Swiss brand and confidently asserting their ability always to recognise it, are flabbergasted to discover they actually prefer the taste of the supermarket product. It makes me smile not because of its novelty or insight but because it succinctly illustrates two of the key factors of successful brand management.

Promise: make a clear and compelling brand promise to attract the right audience.

Delivery: consistently deliver against that promise to maintain enthusiasm and build loyalty.

No matter what the brand or sector, if the promise is insufficiently relevant and differentiated in the target audiences’ minds they can hardly be expected to maintain a preference for it, particular if a competitor comes along with what appears to be a brighter, shinier proposition. Similarly, however compelling the promise, if your brand fails to deliver against it, they will not stay fooled for long.

The image of lipstick on a gorilla, as an analogy for a brand pretending to be something it isn’t, often seems to strike a chord (visit our website and you’ll see what I mean). Perhaps we might extend the analogy by imagining the customer as a fairytale prince (which should, in itself, prove cathartic) and that the brand is the princess of his dreams with whom he wants to live happily ever after (brand loyalty personified).Q1

We can then think of the brand in the guise of one of the following caricatures:

1. A princess 

A compelling promise, perfectly delivered

The ingredients for a long-term relationship. But remember, there are other princesses being preened to distract the prince, so keep an eye on them and give him no reason to look elsewhere.

2. A gorilla dressed-up as a princess

A compelling promise, hideously delivered

All that pretence will be worth nothing when the prince finds out the truth. She needs a fundamental transformation. Fast. Otherwise she’ll get dumped and, when word gets out, her reputation will be ruined.

3. A princess in a gorilla suit 

An unappealing promise whose delivery might exceed expectations.

There is little point in exceeding expectations if those expectations are so low you that you don’t get invited to the ball (er, shortlist). With so many tempting alternatives on offer what self-respecting (and a little image-conscious) prince will take the risk? She needs nothing less than a total makeover, a fresh aroma, sparkling conversation and a confident smile.

4. A gorilla

An unappealing promise, hideously delivered.

Best not to waste any more time or money on this one. She belongs in the zoo, not the ball.

 

Of course, such caricatures exaggerate to make a point. But perhaps you will recognise some aspects of them in your own brand? The second and third analogies are particularly apposite for most brands. For example:

Your brand might lean towards being a gorilla dressed-up as a princess if:

Trial is high, but loyalty is low (delivery fails to live up to expectations)

The experience surrounding the brand is underwhelming or inconsistent with it

The brand promise erodes or shifts from the one that originally attracted them

Your brand, similarly, be something of a princess in a gorilla suit if:

It has relatively few customers but the ones it has are happy and loyal

Potential customers are reluctant to take a risk and give it a try

It is hard to win distribution even though it is arguably better than its rivals

So, could that supermarket chocolate bar be likened to a princess in a gorilla suit? Well, if what she offers really is as satisfying as the glamorous rival she is ‘aping’, then yes. If, on the other hand, we are being conned with a false promise, she really could be nothing more than the gorilla we always suspected. You’re the prince. You decide!
Q2

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?




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.


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”