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Failing to use good English is costing us sales

April 10, 2013

For the consumer, truth is made demonstrable following the personal satisfaction by categoric examination of recognisable component elements. Fail to substantiate a claim and credibility collapses. This is why integrated marketing communications are critical to commercial success. Yet many brands are let down by poor quality communication. Integration falls at the wayside of output necessity.

Image of Lord Nelson

Engage the enemy more closely! Nelson’s order is as relevant to marketers as it is at sea. Discipline of message is all

In Great Britain, and in other English-speaking countries, we are blessed with a language of fundamental power, flexibility and performance. Eloquence combined with subtlety can be used to extol the virtue of anything from a humble clout nail to a complex aero engine.

Yet many companies have little understanding of message or its fundamental significance in a world where perception is all. Many marketing teams today do not work with the power of the language. There has been a decline in the acceptance of good English and a preference for poor diction, imperfect grammar and “dumbing down”. An obsession with playing to the gallery has replaced a focus on disciplined rigour. Germany, on the other hand, does not tolerate poor quality.

Yet it is surprising that many in Britain take the view that issues such as correct English, detailed definition and fundamental quality can be ignored. Only recently, Waterstone’s felt that the apostrophe was an irrelevance and Mid Devon Council have recently followed suit. These organisations feel it is easier to cower in the shadow of ignorance and to “move with the times” than to enforce “old fashioned” values. Rubbish.

Quality and loyalty, I argue, are defined by attention to detail. We know from bitter experience how British manufacturing has suffered by lazy, surface-led marketing and has ignored the substance of fundamental product delivery. Marketing spin, like political spin, is viewed – rightly – with contempt. The test of any message, therefore, is in the consistent demonstrability of self-evident fact.

Yet managerial indiscipline leads to collapse of message. In their weakness, managers paying scant attention to detail can rot their brands from within. What use is a well-written brochure if a website is unusable? What use a well-designed website if a poorly-written email never leads a consumer there? What use any marketing collateral lest it speak the same language – in a disciplined way – as its fellow components elsewhere in the marketing mix? What use a team of marketers if they know not what they do and have no direction from management? What use a sales person who cuts price to grab the sale and ignores all other marketing message?

Discipline, says Robert Fripp, is never an end in itself, only a means to an end. So it is that discipline in marketing message requires fundamental attention to detail in order to create inherent credibility and, ultimately, sales. So it was recently that the appointment of Kent Youth’s Police and Crime Commissioner,Paris Brown, did enormous reputational damage to the recruitment practices of that police force as a result of crass communications not matched to service delivery. Self over substance, we might say, is a curse of the modern age. An indisicipline of thought process led to significant reputational damage. 

Image of George Osborne

Mockney equals mendacity? Rigour in communication is crucial if message is to be believed.

Yet message structure is also let down by message presentation. Modern politicians from the Miliband brothers to George Osborne and Ed Balls have all adopted a multi-regional “mockney” approach to diction in order to appear as “normal” rather than appear to be “out of touch”.  The result is a lack of credibility. Indeed, careful study of TV performances of these individuals and others reveals that the greater their use of “mockney”, the more likely it is that their message is uncertain at best and mendacious at worst. 

If we seek to speak in language which aims to show affinity rather than being structured to define truth then we will fail in our objectives. Such an approach is rightly seen as patronising; a classic example is the current advertising campaign for Ariel washing powder where two girls are speaking with unfeasible accents as they attempt to portray “today’s youth”. One only needs to observe the stereotypical presentation of flat-capped northerners or be-kilted ginger-haired Scotsmen to realise that this form of presentation is flawed and divisive.

Ordered, structured language – supported by packaged evidence which can be objectively assessed – leads to reader/listener conviction. Squawked claims from a soapbox do little other than to excite the basest of instincts. So it is that when we create any marketing communication it must speak in a consistent fashion so as to withstand the scrutiny of probing examination. Wherever a brand is “touched” – from strapline to sales presentation – consistency will create a much greater likelihood of success.

So marketing message – and message management – is a crucial discipline. Who is the target market? What do we offer? Why is it necessary? What will it provide? How can we prove it? If we make a claim here, are we substantiating it there? Wherever the marketing message touches the consumer – on whatever part of the customer journey – we must hold fast. Indiscipline of message will cost us sales.


The book as price model a thing of the past?

March 18, 2013
Books on display

Bookselling – why should price points determine value rather than content and utility?

If book publishers know one thing it is this: once a book is published, you have to publish more. This is because, behind the glory and beauty of the latest launch, lies a nail factory churning out product to keep cashflow strong or, more likely, just to stay afloat. There must be an alternative to this.

It is argued that pricing for a book is linked to retail practice rather than consumer value. Most publishers today are still as concerned about the retail “price point” as ever before. Yet who defines end value? The publisher? The retailer? The consumer? Ultimately, value is defined by the consumer. He or she is the only arbiter in the final decision. 

If a product is desirable beyond the price suggested, then purchase is inevitable. But only by those who view the value as essential. If value is not perceived, purchase is unlikely – or requires marketing to engender that which is not immediately visible. Consequently, it can be observed, the false application of price points to the purchase of information is a nonsense. The perception of value must be self-evident if either strong profits are to be delivered or targeted volume is to be achieved.

The folly of the price point

Price points either undersell or oversell a product. It cannot be the case that information or literature is “worth” £9.99 or £19.99. Discounting and “three for two” deals for books turn purchase into a money-focused, rather than value-tuned, transaction.

Retailers argue that this tactic works, of course. And it does – with the proviso that the consumer perceives the value of the products in the bundled deal rather than the contents of the package. The only value perceived is the lower price – and the hope that the larger amount expended (spending on two books) will deliver higher intellectual value when the three books are consumed.

Price points are  related only to the promotion of stock movement based on retail-orientated behaviours. They bear no relationship to the potential profit of a book. Unless, as is often the case, the publisher wants to sell out of printed stock in order to deliver the margin to the nail factory. In this case, why is the price point relevant in the digital space?

A price point surrenders value. It leaves profit on the table merely to encourage volume sales.

Try before you buy?

Let us consider the alternatives. Some have argued that digitisation of books permits the part-selling of books. Consumers can try before they buy. If we reflect on the value debate, we can see that whether a book is available in whole or in part, financial transaction is only possible if self-evident value is demonstrable. Why pay for part of something which is not understood? Would a motorcyclist buy a front wheel but not the rest of the machine?

A consequence of “try before you buy” is to create a mini nail factory producing bit-part books whose existence and production take up more staff time. The model is a replication of the flawed larger model of price-point based product.

Maximising the brand?

It can be observed that in selling component parts – consumer testing – relies still on the conceit of brand. Publishers who do not leverage brand are now falling behind those who do. For a brand, in an uncertain world, is an emblem of certainty of experience. Anyone can publish a digital book today but at the point of purchase, the value debate comes to the fore: who would buy a book by an unknown author from a digital platform designed around financial exchange rather than quality and substance?

What use is a price point for an unknown author? It can be seen that brand – service, design, quality, delivery – is crucial to perception. Brand is therefore crucial to a publisher’s freedom in pricing to value.

Lending structures

Library models in the digital space are now seen as offering new potential: consumers rent a product in return for a small fee. If more value is required, the product can be rented for longer. This model is interesting but contains two signficant problems of the publisher’s own, historic, making: a book is perceived as a book and therefore has a known price – both by the publisher AND by the consumer.

It can be seen, therefore, that for information to be leveraged today, the perception of “the book” needs to move beyond the historic book trade model. Consumers require information and are prepared to pay for it. Publishers need to sell product with inherent value. The psychological challenge therefore is in the perception of what a book actually is. A book is currently perceived as a product with a known price point.

Poor quality publishing

If we return to the publisher as nail factory, we can see that a requirement to publish a set number of “titles” per year is part of the structure to deliver an annual margin. A consequence of this process is a failure in quality. If a brand is built on quality but destroyed by the demands of volume then the brand will not survive. Or it will be damaged.

A reliance on price point has created a business model designed around volumes, margins and sales where the focus is on selling stock in sufficient quantity just to keep going. Where then individual product focus, brand potential and leveraged value?


Ways forward?

It is argued, therefore, that publishers need to focus on niches with defined value opportunity. They need to develop brands which are equated with chargeable price. They need to nurture quality through robust commissioning. They need confidence in pricing to value. They need to establish formal links via nuanced marketing with the end user – the consumer. The publisher needs to exist as profoundly relevant in the crowded minds of the consumer.

It is clear that if publishing companies see their future still with the book trade then they are surrendering brand ownership and perception to others whose only aim is to clear stock, not sell value. The price point is the enemy value perception except in those cases where a publisher brand is only to sell product at a certain price. This, as we can see, is why many publishers are suffering with ever tighter margins. If the trade is to play a part in this process then they too need to understand that as book sellers they are selling more than books.

The book as price model? No. The publisher as price model? Yes. Brand ownership and leverage is crucial to future financial success.

Is the marketing of gambling unacceptable?

March 5, 2013
Image of Foxy Bingo

Foxy Bingo just one example. Is it right to promote gambling as a happy lifestyle choice?

Gambling is a business which promotes the possibility of success as being more likely than the probability of failure. Now liberalised in the UK and supported by politicians advocating the freedom to “have a flutter”, gambling has advanced onto our television screens, tablets and phones as a lifestyle choice worthy of envy. Is this acceptable?

The pursuit of excellence, corrupted?

Let us start with the man (or the woman; the consequence is the same). From the moment of his birth, it is suggested that a man’s duty to himself and to his peers is to be excellent. As perfection is impossible, even – as we know – among those most godly, we can see that a man’s duty is instead to be as excellent as possible, in the circumstances. This is, of course, difficult.

For marketers, it presents a problem of a conflict of ethics versus profession. It is the duty, by dint of his (or her) profession, for the marketer to strip away man’s excellence as a deer does the bark of a tree. Temptation leads the mind into forests new so marketing aims to lead us into new experiences, new products, new services. Marketing is the discipline of commercial temptation.

As a consequence, the man who through life maintains as much of his excellence as is possible is a stronger man than he who by distraction weakens. Consequently, therefore, it can be argued that the weaker man is the marketer’s target and that marketing in such a way may be described as dishonourable.  

This is a harsh judgment. However, we can also observe that honourable marketing is that which improves the excellence of the man by stripping away as little as possible of his own soul. We as marketers achieve honour by the bettering of the lives of our companies’ prospective customers.

Yet in human kind, ugliness of spirit is revealed when the good in man is removed. Arguably, marketing which as its consequence reveals an inner ugliness rather than an outer perfection can be seen to be corrupting.

So we must challenge ourselves as marketers as to whether we prefer an inner morality or a blind following of professional duty. This is a difficult contest to manage.

The archer’s paradox, the marketer’s paradox

We know that when an arrow is loosed, it flicks from side to side in paradox of its apparent forward momentum. Marketing is just like the archer’s paradox – placing forces in the way of momentum; in this case the momentum of man to live life honourably and true to himself.

But primacy of moral compass is not necessarily the motivation of men. For marketers, it is well known that a driving force in life is to be better than one’s peers. As Toxophilus says to Philologus in Roger Ascham’s treatise on archery of 1545: “When a man striveth to be better than another, he will gladly use that thing, though it be never so painful, wherein he would excel.”

We can see therefore that in the satisfaction of that need, marketing can be justified. To offer a better drill, a stronger file, a smoother plane, a marketer can make the carpenter better at his bench. Excellence drives excellence and progress is made.

But in the promotion of gambling, as also in pay day loans or drinking, it is debatable as to the higher state achieved as a consequence of commercial transaction. In gambling, the conceit lies in the likelihood – however unlikely – of achieving wealth beyond the price tendered in the bet. Marketing promotes a consumer reward which is statistically unlikely. 

Should any marketer, irrespective of his agnosticism, promote gambling as the desirable outcome of his activities? We are aware today of the not insignificant issue of the problem gambler; when gambling laws are more liberal, a consequence of marketing is an increase of human suffering.

Marketing and the problem gambler

Image of online gambling advert

Sex sells. Glamour is often used to sell gambling.

To help assuage their guilt in this matter, gambling companies advise “problem gamblers” to seek advice from recognised charities.

What exactly is a problem gambler? Someone who loses their home through addiction? Someone who is prepared to cheat on – or steal from – their partner or colleagues? Someone who is deluded, such as those who believe the conceit that in “playing” on their laptops in the loneliness of their bedrooms they are dressed in a white tuxedo in some Monaco casino? Is it the case that a problem gambler believes they are wealthier than they are? Or will be, one day?

Often the reality of the problem gambler is a tired bedsit, a rotting terraced house in a collapsed industrial town, the boredom of a housewife with little to do, the alcoholic with untreatable addictive tendencies.  Occasionally it will be some wealthy lord, as in history, who fritters away his inheritance on the unreliability of a horse’s legs. But rarely. Gambling appears disproportionately to attract the poor in pursuit of freedom, the troubled in the pursuit of happiness. And footballers.

But if these stereotypes are typical, and the suffering so great, is it appropriate for gambling to promote itself using the notion of the exhilarating experience of winning rather the much more prevalent experience of losing? Is it right to promote small lists of winners, rather than significantly larger lists of people whose losses paid for the winners’ winnings? Is it more truthful to offer signing-on “bonuses” to new players rather than promote the inevitable withdrawals from the “players'” bank accounts which form the real business model? Alas, as in all marketing, smiling girls are more endearing than desperate men, sex sells more than sobriety.

But those who suffer at the hands of addiction are the dark shadows that lurk behind the curtain; so famously described by Dickens as Ignorance and Want. As Toxophilus says, “And if there were any so desperate a person that would begin his hell in earth, I trow he should not find hell more like hell itself, than the life of those men in which daily haunt and use such ungracious games.”

It is an unpleasant truth that in times of recession, spending on gambling – like claims on PPI – increases. At the time of greatest vulnerability, gambling appeals as offering an easy way out. And marketers are tempting us. Yet the truth of the model is that gambling companies cannot remain profitable by rewarding desire to all participants. Profit and winnings are the fruits of loss.

Gambling industry statistics – a problem gambler in every hundred

The result is that, according to Gamble Aware between 0.7% and 0.9% of gamblers are defined as problem gamblers: nearly one person per 100, 7-9 people in 1000, or 7-9,000 in every million. The NHS estimates that there may be 250,000 problem gamblers in the UK.

As we have seen, it is not entirely clear what a problem gambler is. But we can be sure that it is not someone who enjoys a flutter of a few pounts every few months on a horse. And it is clear that every “problem” is a tragedy, with more than one player as partners, family members and relatives all have to live with the consequences.

To offset negative publicity, marketers advise PR to position companies – whether gambling company, arms supplier or a tobacco producer – as responsible. Under the banner of corporate and social responsibility (CSR), companies advocate positions to offset the potential harm of their activities. In the case of the gambling industry it does this by paying £5m of its profits to “help fund gambling-related research, education and treatment” and claiming that the problem gambling figures are lower than in the USA or Australia.

Yet it is a condition that gambling begets gambling. The more a man loses, the more he seeks to redress his loss and, as Toxophilus observed, “Now if a simple man happen once in his life to win of such players, then they will entreat him to keep company whilst he hath lost all again“.

It can be appreciated that it cannot be in the interest of a gambling organisation to encourage the winning gambler to walk away. In order to generate repeat business it must encourage addiction in some form, and this addiction must as a consequence of the business model produce more individual loss than it does for the company. Personal loss drives corporate earnings.

Inherent truth

So the question for marketers is whether it is acceptable to portray gambling as an industry based on the successful performance of the few rather than the unsuccessful performance of the many? Is this truthful marketing?

We have spoken before on A Brand Day Out about the need for inherent, demonstrable truth in marketing in order for consumers to make an informed decision. If marketing cannot be honest in how it promotes gambling then can a marketer justifiably work on gambling assignments?

Image of Online Gambling website

Offers abound – online gambling sites encourage participation.

If we accept that it is the duty of man to be excellent, can the marketing of a product which leads to the misfortune of the majority who take part in it be deemed an honourable and excellent professional pursuit, even if “problem” gamblers make up a small proportion of the customer base? Not forgetting that “small” is 250,000 people, enough to fill Manchester United’s ground 3 times over with people to spare.

Toxophilus guides us in our estimation of this question: “if a man consider how many ways and how many things he loseth thereby; for first he loseth his goods, he loseth his time, he loseth quickness of wit, and all good lust to other things; he loseth honest company, he loseth his good name and estimation, and at last, if he leave it not, loseth God and heaven and all; and, instead of these things, winneth at length either hanging or hell“.

Ascham wrote that in 1545. If our job as marketers is potentially to cause through gambling the avoidable unhappiness of others – even if it be the unhappiness of just one man or woman –  then we ask questions of ourselves. Given how hard it is to earn £1000, would our mothers be proud if, through our art, we encourage others to lose it in an instant?

Note: This post is something I have been wanting to write for some time as marketing of gambling has proliferated in recent years. It is written from the point of view of compassion, not first-hand experience of this corrosive issue; nor do I intend any personal criticism of those who work in the industry.

If you know of any problem gamblers, or are affected by the misery of gambling addiction, the following sites may be useful:

Gamblers Anonymous


NHS Gambling Addiction Help Page

The Lamp of Truth – Marketing’s duty if it is to grow and retain customers

February 18, 2013
Acceptable marketing? Can marketing today really be truthful or has it lost its way in a sea of vanity?

Acceptable marketing? Can marketing today really be truthful or has it lost its way in a sea of vanity?

Truth and manifest integrity today are more important than ever to businesses seeking to remain competitive and relevant in customers’ minds. Without truth – demonstrably defined by self-evident fact – businesses and brands will die. But what is “truth”? What is “the truth”? 

In his “Seven Lamps of Architecture” written in 1849, the artist, philanthropist and social commentator John Ruskin attempted to define the aesthetics of architectural honesty by deconstructing the forces which lay behind it. Among these seven lamps, the lamp of truth serves to guide us, as marketers, even today.Let us reflect upon his writing for a moment.

He suggests: “How difficult must the maintenance of that authority (truth) be, which, while it has to restrain the hostility of the worst principles of man, has also to restrain the disorders of the best – which is continually assaulted by the one and betrayed by the other, which regards with the same severity the lightest and boldest violations of its law!

What, indeed is truth? In commerce, we cannot be sure. This is indicative of the forces which act upon the marketer: at once a desire to sell a product yet also to create an image of it in the customer’s mind which may indeed be deceitful. No object means the same thing to every man or woman. Yet marketing messages and products are often tailored to the generic whole.

This must imply a level of deceit, irrespective of whether the marketer believes in an acceptable truth, because a general message to appeal to all must be inefficient in its application to the individual. The technique applied therefore is that “the truth” is defined by the fact that only some of what he or she says must in some part be acceptable to the recipient. Can we accept this way of thinking?

Do we today, through the acknowledged depravity of the world in which we live, advocate partial truth as acceptable – more acceptable than total truth? Total truth, after all, is more likely to be less relevant, commercially, than generic truth by dint of the fact that a refined truth is more likely to be acceptable to a smaller number of people. And therefore – unless we operate in a purist value-based pricing universe – less profitable.

Is there a compromise which can render our approach acceptable to ourselves if not to our customers? Some may argue that at point of purchase or renewal a customer is not wise to the truth: he/she decides to purchase based on the sum of all the facts available. Consequently, truth is defined in its majesty by the inherent limits of the customer’s indolence.

This may indeed show us how we can refine a truth if not be comfortable with it. In judging a product or service, customers are prey to numerous forces: neighbourhood pricing; issues of volume; perception of quality; perceived substitutes; unique attributes etc. So a marketer – using appropriate segmentation techniques – can be reasonably comfortable with the manner of his/her persuasion.

Yet many marketers fail – and many sales people also. Driven by sales targets to move stock, truth often falls at the wayside of necessity. Partial truths to generate a sale replace inherent truths – what some call brand integrity. The indolence of customer perception is replaced by the idleness of persuasive capability.

The use of marketing under pressure results in post-purchase cognitive dissonance (PPCD). This marketing expression should leave all of us – at least those with a conscience – cold. Because it means a customer believes that he/she has been lied to – they are uncomfortable with their purchase. If customers perceive deception – a narcissistic legerdemain – then marketing has failed.

It could be argued that marketers and sales people guilty of inciting PPCD should be seen as dangerous and treacherous threats to a business. The damage to brand perception, emotion, warmth and credible promise wrought by PPCD is – particularly today in a social media environment – one of the greatest risks businesses can be exposed to.

As Ruskin writes: “Nobody wants ornaments in this world, but everybody wants integrity. All the fair devices that ever were fancied, are not worth a lie. Leave your walls as bear as a planed board, or build them of baked mud and chopped straw, if need be; but do not rough-case them with falsehood”.

Falsehood, the deception of inefficient and indolent marketing, is a canker on the branches of commerce which must be cut out. Demonstrable truth, as we have argued before on A Brand Day Out, is the beacon which will guide prosperity through the darkness of uncertainty.

As Ruskin concludes when he cites the destruction of earlier architectural aesthetics and the decadence brought about by architectural affectation developed out of simpler and more pure design methodology:

It was not the robber, not the fanatic, not the blasphemer, who sealed the destruction they had wrought; the war, the wrath, the terror, might have worked their worst, and the strong walls would  have risen, and the slight pillars would have started again, from under the hand of the destroyer. But they could not rise out of the ruins of their own violated truth.

Ruskin wrote these words about architecture. We might argue that our own listless vacuity be seen as equally abhorrent in a world where marketing views its success more in terms of what it sees in the mirror than how it affects and relates with the customer.

Honi soit qui mal y pense?

Cameron, Miliband and the destruction of Brand Britannia

January 24, 2013
Image of England's Glory Matchbox

England’s Glory? Even the matches which celebrated the power of HMS Devastation and the British fleet are now made by the Swedish Match Company

Yesterday’s multi-readable announcement from UK prime minister David Cameron about the UK’s role in Europe – and the predictable vacuous and hand-cuffed response from opposition leader Ed Miliband – highlights in one fell swoop the dark future of Britain under a politicised elite. Control of Britain, its brand and its future is increasingly in the hands of others. This, as any brand owner will tell you, is a bad place to be.

Since the 1980s, the UK has steadily stripped itself of its best assets as industries have either been taken over, asset-stripped or simply shut down. From Terry’s chocolates to Hornby trains, the UK’s major brands are hollow: Terry’s chocolate is now made in Poland; Hornby trains are made in China; Wedgewood pottery is made in Indonesia; Airfix kits are made in France; Bryant and May matches come from Sweden; Dyson vacuum cleaners – the list goes on…

Not Made in the UK

To buy a “British” product today is to expect to see “Made Somewhere Else” on the bottom. Government doesn’t seem to want to promote indigenous manufacture either, preferring to “encourage inward investment” rather than develop indigenous talent.

So in the last few years we have seen leading defence brands such as the Harrier Jump Jet and the Nimrod MRa4 plane scrapped on the altar of cost whilst equally-costly multinational projects such as the F35 Joint Strike Fighter are maintained. Harrier makers BAE Systems itself was nearly merged with EADS, the European conglomerate on the altar of free trade and market forces.

The country appears to have lost its political will; politics has changed from vision to management, from strategy to tactics, from a journey forwards to just muddling through. Often today, British brands are not about the future but about the past, as revealed by the widely-acclaimed but rearward-looking Olympics opening ceremony.

Utilising other countries as brands

Some – particularly politicians in search of a ”sandwich” announcement of positive news amongst the bad – argue that foreign investment has changed British industry and utilises the skills of a gifted British workforce. Nissan, Honda, the BMW Mini are seen as a cases in point.  

But let us be clear, the success of these companies is not their British workforce – it is power of the brands themselves; brands built on the reputation of other countries. Japan and Germany are seen as beacons of engineering excellence. It is this which sells – British workers have been trained to be better by organisations perceived to be better.

There is little “British” in the look, substance or vision of these vehicles. Even the “Mini” is a grotesque branding conceit based on design cues – but little else – of an earlier era. Arguably, even Bentley (owned by Volkswagen) and Rolls-Royce (owned by BMW) trade on their new German owners (and increasingly comprise German components).

In some cases, foreign ownership has taken a “hands off” view and kindled the latent talent of British design and engineering excellence. We can see Tata’s ownership of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) or NSG’s (Nippon Sheet Glass) stewardship of Pilkington’s Glass as beacons of responsibility.

Yet, the opposite is also true. Indian company Venky’s catastrophic purchase and running of famous football club Blackburn Rovers highlights the ineptitude of ownership which has no perception of brand. Kraft’s shameful closure of the historic Terry’s factory in York is another example.

Problems with investment

It is argued in some circles that the way to keep brands British and to ensure the future of engineering and industrial excellence is to keep firms private and out of City hands. We don’t have to look far to see good examples of this: JCB is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of excavators and industrial vehicles and Triumph Motorcycles is now, once again, one of the leading manufacturers of motorcycles, reclaiming its slot in the hearts of enthusiasts worldwide. Both these companies design and build in Britain but have factories around the world.

However we have arrived at this state of affairs, it has left the country and its leadership hamstrung. Britain is still a wealthy country yet its wealth is increasingly driven by inward investment. We saw yesterday that the UK’s new-found defence ally France has happily volunteered to host any British company should the UK choose to leave the EU. Companies with no national links are happy to prostitute themselves in the pursuit of profit – and now the politicians suddenly wake up to the folly of their policies.

Political folly

Brand Britannia, under the leadership of politicians with limited industrial or business skills, has become a pastiche. Brand Britannia, in an environment where investors seek a quick return, has succumbed to a “message over substance” mentality. Brand Britannia has become like a Soviet-Era tower block – astonishing from a distance but not worthy of a close inspection.

For years, I have argued that the way to understand the declining power of Britain is to look at the size of the Fleet. If Britain, an island nation, cannot afford its navy then it highlights the paucity of its national vision. Today, the Royal Navy is at its smallest since the Napoleonic era with a total surface fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers. In 1980, the country had a surface fleet of 50 such vessels. The lion has no claws left.

Why this matters

Image of old England's Glory poster

England’s Glory as they used to be sold – made in Britain. Image courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library where you can also buy copies of this poster.

If we ask ourselves what does all this REALLY mean and should we care, the answer is chilling. A recent survey by KPMG on luxury brands in China – the fastest growing economy in the world – reveals how far the perception of British goods has fallen behind that of the country’s comparable rivals.

Across a range of items from cars to watches, the UK’s best-perceived products in terms of country of origin, were bags, footwear and alcohol (each polling 10% of the survey sample). In these same sectors, the UK was out-polled on footwear by Italy (27%); on bags by France (31%) and in alcohol by France (33%).  

By contrast, and to show how powerfully other countries are perceived as luxury brand generators, Switzerland scored 69% for watches (predictable) (UK=4%)  and Germany scored 57% for cars (UK=7%).

We are repeatedly told that the future of the west lies in specialisation, niche and luxury. For Brand Britannia, nothing is starker than these figures – Britain is becoming irrelevant. Before Britain seeks to punch its weight in Europe or outside, it needs to ask itself: what is my vision? Wherefore do I travel? What do I mean? Why should people believe in me and stay loyal?

Brand Britannia, this country, is no different to a brand in the shops. Its political brand managers need to wake up and smell the (Brazilian) coffee.

Image of England’s Glory poster courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library, where you can purchase copies of this wonderful poster.

Railway companies and their marketing – the horrors of the modern age exposed

January 7, 2013
Image of rail poster

Brand disconnect – railway company marketers stoop to ever lower levels of depravity in dressing up the threatening nature of travel by train.

The complacency of the UK’s rail companies knows no bounds, especially at this time of year when above-inflation price increases yield yet poorer service, delays and aggressive behaviour for commuters. But some of the marketing undertaken by these companies has now stooped to new depths of depravity and their approach is a lesson to us all about what not to do when it comes to marketing products and services.

The corrosive nature of the business model itself

Let us at first be clear. There is no real competition in privatisation, merely a redirection of fares into the margins and dividends of companies. It is arguable indeed whether these companies should be entitled to any profits because (a) the companies are subsidised by the state and (b) there is no uplift in service beyond what would have been provided by the state.

As any rail commuter knows, the “service” provided by the privatised rail companies is simply a re-badged British Rail operating under the conceit of trains painted in different logos every five years or so. The staff remains the same, the contempt for passengers remains the same, the aggressive behaviour of ticket collectors remains the same, and the complaints system remains the same.

This Ozymandias refuses to die and his sneer of cold command and contempt knows well how to keep blood flowing in his veins.

The deception of rail presentation

In an attempt to hoodwink the public, the rail companies offer re-upholstered carriages, repainted stations, new signs, different uniforms. But let’s look at what matters to the customer – the actual train service. Here nothing has changed and, in fact, things have become worse.

The reasons are simple. The system of running trains – particularly in the commuter system – has not changed since Victorian times and because few platforms are able to take more than eight carriages, over-crowding has increased. But there is a wilful complacency within the system that turns its eyes away from the core issue – too few trains, too small trains, not enough station capacity.

Because of the way the system is run, the system is not able to address demand with supply. A focus on short-term profit for short-term franchises means that companies are compelled to focus on costs rather than service provision to drive profits. More people are crammed into the same trains and are given re-painted station railings in compensation.

Image of notice board at a rail station

The staffless station experience – if you’re deaf and can’t hear the announcement then you can ring up (and still not hear it…)

One would imagine that a successful business – let’s say Apple – would be laughed out of town if they attempted to moderate their success by producing a fixed number of products and asking people to share them and (wait for it) for both sharers to pay the same price for half as they would for one…

Over-crowding implies that there are not enough trains and that the trains are not big enough. In the last 20 years, because of a lack of service focus and because of the nonsense of a franchised rail system, nothing has changed and nothing will change.

Profits, it is argued, are advanced not by doing the logical thing and focusing on the customer (after all, newer, bigger trains would only be an added cost to serve the same number of people) but by reducing costs within the system. Creating what the accountants call “efficiency” and what the customer calls “a total nightmare”.

In their most odiously-complacent moments, government and the rail companies argue through their PR that over-crowding is a result of the “success” of privatision and the privatised companies. It is argued by others, however, that this success could have been achieved by running British Rail as it had been run in the past and simply doing nothing.

Even Mrs Thatcher, we are told, felt that rail privatisation was a step too far. For all her faults, she had an instinct for the public need; she would have known that a privatised system of a national public service was merely a mirage. As indeed it is. In the early days we even had the pleasure of the UK government paying subsidies to one privatised rail company owned by the French state-owned rail network. British taxpayers paying into the French state. Singular indeed for an idea drummed up by an anti-European political party.

Inappropriate use of brand marketing

So what has caused me to write in this way today? Well, apart from the cynical increase in prices (“to improve performance”), my eye was drawn to the spectacular poster at the top of the page. Here, smiling, smart staff are helpfully assisting people who have not paid for their tickets.

Let’s look at the grammar of the poster. The “offender” (shown in a hoodie) is assisted politely on the empty (not overcrowded) platform. In the foreground, a curiously pleasant woman is shown helpfully bearing her id. Then there is the headline, “Why risk it? We’ll catch you!” which seems strikingly at odds with the pleasant interchange with the hoodie-wearing passenger. And then there is a most curious claim that “our prosecution team track and investigate unusual travel patterns and fraud”; deviant menace indeed.

In my experience, exchanges on the subject of tickets have always been threatening and barely been pleasant; never have I seen a smiling revenue officer (formerly known as a guard). I have seen people in tears. I have seen genuine fare dodgers. But I have also seen people on trains unable to buy a ticket because of overcrowding at their start station and being told by the pleasant fine-doling revenue collection officer that they will have to get off at the next stop. I have seen crowds of ticketless commuters at the end station being met by gangs of revenue officers threatening fines.

And I have seen a family on a day out to London fretting because the tickets they had pre-booked online was not available at the station because the staff (cost cutting) are on reduced hours and the solitary machine (with a large queue) was unable to recognise the order.

The answer to the rail system is not evidently-untrue marketing. Marketing should only be undertaken when it portrays self-evident truths. On the rail system the evident truth – to all except those who run it – is that the system doesn’t work. It’s focus on profits not customers should be the death of it. But as we know, it’s a state system in all but name and the rail companies simply couldn’t care less.

Why don’t customers renew?

December 6, 2012

Selling to existing customers is widely recognised as the most cost-effective form of marketing, yet often it is the case that these same customers can fail to renew. It can be argued that this is a result of either having a poor product or undertaking poor marketing – or a combination of both. This is often not actually the case – although it is indicative of a style of management thinking which is often prevalent.

How do customers engage?

Brand marketers argue that a customer’s emotional and physical engagement with a brand are what drives both purchase and renewal. By combining effective delivery with a “warm” brand strategy, companies can create reliable revenue streams from a loyal customer base.

We can therefore observe that in such a case, bland or lifeless renewal initiatives have the potential to turn brands cold at a critical point: renewal. It is thus argued that brand warmth is a fundamental of business relationships; brands must be consistent throughout the period of consumer engagement.

Here, of course, we define brand in its widest sense: an emotional connection between consumer and product/company which creates sufficient relevance for both as to deliver a long term commercial relationship.

Business processes can cause renewal problems

But problems arise if we consider the renewal processes within a business. In taking a prosaic, statistically-based view of renewal and, as a consequence, failing to connect individually with those customers who make up the statistical mass, companies can damage the hard work of years. But it is often the case that systems and reports drive business thinking, often at the neglect of what drives business itself: human interaction.

Groupthink within an organisation, it can be seen, can create environments where statistical data have taken the place of the considered account management which delivered the original sale. Accountants can drive the emotions of the boardroom by fixing on percentage point shifts; if these are not discussed objectively then we can understand readily how marketing and sales can be made to panic over critical issues.

Platitudes can replace focus

In a business environment where financial pressure exclusively begins to drive decision-making, problems can begin to occur. “Understanding the customer’s needs” when the sale is made becomes “making the customer help the company” when renewal time arrives. Transactions on these occasions are prompted less through performance promise and more through other factors such as special offers, reduced prices and premiums.

It is the observation of all who have sold that a sale made in haste is repented at leisure. Pressure to hit targets can often result in attracting “the wrong type of customer”. Discounting at birth leads to discounting through life. Sales made on the basis of savings rather than value often deliver unreliable long-term figures.

More, sales or renewals prompted by premiums and discounting create longer term problems – the consumer decision turns less on performance and more on saving money. In this environment, the potential for power transactions based on value is signficantly reduced.

The importance of value

In considering why customers do not review, companies will benefit from reflecting upon who they are and what they provide. Yet soul-searching of this nature is often not conducted with an open mind and a willing heart. Instead, some companies choose a process of data-driven flagellation, conducting simple telemarketing exercises to lapsed customers asking why renewal did not occur.

This method, I have seen, often serves as a statistical exercise in itself, with the telesales staff conducting a “tick box” exercise of “reasons” which often are flawed (“too expensive“; “no budget“; etc). If at the end of this process a company finds out that 30% of non-renewals were due to the product being “too expensive” or the customer having “no budget”, what information does this really provide?

The valid question – some would argue the only question – should be “why do you really no longer want this product?”


It is a fundamental truth of non-renewal that the price being charged does not offer value in excess of that price. The challenge for every company is to ensure that the value it offers is consistently relevant to the consumer. Marketing can “dress up” a tired product; sales can offer price incentives but if the product is stale and has become in itself commoditised, then it is argued that this is the prime reason for reduced renewal performance.