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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.


Where’s the brand warmth?

October 31, 2012
Triumph brochure 1967

Brand warmth – classic brochure for Triumph Motorcycles showing great brand attributes.

Promise. Emotion. Delivery. These are the tricks a brand needs to deliver in order to attract – and retain – customers. Yet many brands fall down because they fail a very simple test: brand “warmth”.

It could be argued these days that there are “hot” brands (Apple, Mini) but frankly for most companies to attempt to achieve hot or super-hot status is difficult. Not least because to do so needs a fundamental overhaul of practically the entire business – from product design to marketing. Yet it is possible to make a brand warm. And warm is often hot enough to get what you want.

A common failure of marketing is to talk brand warmth but to deliver frigidity – production or delivery is out of kilter with message. This is not acceptable. It gives marketing a bad name but, more signficantly, it delivers a bad name to the company hiring the marketers. Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department after all…

Yet the answers to brand performance lie within all companies. Brand lies within the minds of the staff – the experts who will, ultimately, be far cheaper and far more effective than a team of hired consultants with an alluring one word name like “Saddle” or “Valve” (apologies if such companies exist by the way…).

Staff members know what they like and don’t like about the brands they are familiar with. This can be discussed in workshops to arrive at levels of perception, and how companies want to be perceived. Brand promise – the marketing message – is easier to define when a company understands what it delivers and how well it delivers it.

But assessment of capability is one thing, an environment of vision is another. Management has a role to play here in energizing what the brand is, where it is going, where it wants to be. Think about it; if there is a disconnect between this vision and physical delivery then a brand will go nowhere, disillusionment will abound and – particularly in smaller companies – the business will fail. So vision needs to be demonstrably achievable.

Finally of course we come to brand personality. This is the bit that agencies -and rooky marketers – really love. This is the glamour side of the business which marketers wear as a badge of their “creativity”. But let’s be careful here – personality again needs to reflect actual experience. Customer experience. Apple’s recent failed launch of its i-Phone maps is a classic case where brand personality all of a sudden came down to earth with a bump. Google does maps better.

So, looking at promise, vision and personality – and getting all the company involved – helps companies understand better what their brand is, where it interacts with customers and why it matters to them.

The goal of all companies is to make their brand matter – to customers and to prospects. Relevance depends on a fundamental link between this holy trinity of promise, performance and vision. An engaged – and constantly refreshed – strategic brand approach will deliver acceptable brand warmth and, indeed, could heat up your brand more than you ever imagined.

If you do not feel able to review the way your company manages its perception, let Red Page Consulting help…

Red Page Consulting is run by this blog’s author Michael Smith, a professional message specialist with over two decades of business experience. He helps mainstream small businesses understand their brand and how it is perceived to help deliver increased customer retention and to attract new customers.

Visit the Red Page Website

BAE Systems – what’s in a brand?

September 24, 2012
Image of English Electric Lightning

“Being saddled to a sky rocket” – will a merger with EADS bring BAE systems down like a lead balloon?

The recent revelations that BAE Systems is considering a merger with Franco-German company EADS has not gone unreported in the press yet from a brand perspective it makes most interesting reading. The new super company will be 40% owner by BAE and 60% by EADS. It’s described as a merger but you can see by the figures that it’s more like a takeover. Oh dear…

BAE Systems is an accretion of practically all the UK’s leading defence manufacturers since the War: English Electric; Hawker; Bristol Aircraft Company; Avro; Vickers, Vosper Thorneycroft; the list is almost endless.

It is the guardian of significant brand assets which have become almost to epitomise the British ethos: technical skill, novel invention, elegance of design, a paradigm of British engineering excellence. Talk to anyone who knows about engineering (as opposed to those who spout nonsense) and they will say that British engineering exceeds or is equal to that of all other nations; there is no greater case made here than in the case of aircraft, ships, submarines and missiles.

But with the majority of shares of the new company in the hands of France and Germany, where do you think the best jobs, the cutting edge design and the innovation end up?

Alas, lack of governmental vision over the last 20 years, combined with an obsession with “managing” the economy rather than driving it, has led to a state of affairs now so typical of British companies. By refusing to “back winners” (a practice carried out by all the UK’s major competitors), the UK chooses instead to buy at the lowest price. A policy it calls “off the shelf“. The UK chooses to back other countries’ winners instead…

Image of Type 26 Frigate

Type 26 Frigate the shape of things to come? 20% innovation, 80% old technology good enough to drive sales in a competitive market?

Off the shelf buying effectively means helping reduce the cost of production of overseas companies by buying from their production lines rather than your own. Little wonder that the Royal Navy’s new type 26 frigate for example will include only 20% innovation and 80% re-use of old parts. Indeed, many of the innovative elements will come now from abroad (e.g. it’s 127mm naval gun – development of the UK’s new naval gun was cancelled in the so-called “strategic” defence review of 2010).

France, one of the UK’s biggest competitors in this area, chooses not to buy off the shelf. It has its foot in two camps too: a governmental shareholding of EADS and in Dassault, its own manufacturer of military aircraft.

An interesting quirk too is that EADS also has a share of Dassault – the very company which recently won a massive deal to supply fighter jets to India. Unfortunately for EADS, the only other competitor in this competition was the Eurofighter Typhoon, manufactured jointly by EADS and BAE. Make of that what you will but there’s something strangely Gallic about the outcome…

A significant consequence of this misguided approach is now evident: economies of scale of the home producer are not possible. Without economies of scale, no product can be made at a price attractive enough to permit foreign sales volume. Equally, foreign governments will not purchase equipment if it is shown not to have been purchased first by those arbiters of quality the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force.

In choosing a path to bring costs down in the defence industry, the British government has failed to learn the lessons of the past. Practically all companies in the UK exposed to laissez faire policies have either shut down or been gobbled up by predatory overseas companies. Closures are swift to follow.  Some commentators say blithely that this is a consequence of inefficiency. Curiously these commentators go awol when the latest manufacturing balance of trade figures are released.

We may ask indeed, if UK industry is in the hands of overseas companies, and if we have a national debt apparently slated as being bigger than that of Greece, what does it mean to be British? When soldiers and sailors and airmen lay down their lives for their country, what now do they die for? To pay the dividends and debt bills of other countries companies and sovereign funds? 

Government is currently “minded to accept” the proposed merger while at the same time struggling to balance the books. Yet the government itself has largely caused the situation in which BAE now finds itself.

The last Labour government placed orders which it couldn’t afford and then successively reduced the size of these orders to such an extent that the unit costs of the products became unsustainable: an order for 21 Nimrod aircraft became 18, then 12, then just 9. An order for 12 Type 45 destroyers became 8 and then just 6.

The current government chooses to play political football rather than be truly visionary. In scrapping the Nimrod, the current government brought to an end all large aircraft manufacturing in the UK.

Today, one of the last great British engineering companies stands on the precipice as a result of lack of government vision. Come October 1oth, we will know whether the government backs or declines the deal. With thousands of jobs, strategic assets, an aviation heritage second to none and national control at stake, Great Britain is on the verge of sinking in a mire wrought by political fudge and a lack of visionary ambition.

When we ask BAE Systems what’s in a brand, the answer is everything.

Think headline – not article – when writing social media copy

July 17, 2012
Vimto Facebook Page image

Brand engagement – a curious fruit drink from Manchester becomes a funky social media brand icon

I’ve been reading some great material on Blackthorn Digital’s Facebook page recently and in it was a super piece shared from Beth Kanter about basics in social media. One piece of advice stuck out above the rest: Think headline not article. A classic piece of marcoms advice as relevant today as when Siegfried Vogele introduced his dialogue method 30 years ago. How can we use this to best effect?

In her Social Media Postings Guide (which, by the way, also includes helpful tips on Twitter, content and audience), Beth says after the main headline, follow with a question, or an action or a link. Good thinking – this promotes instant engagement. The question therefore is what makes for sharing?

Think backwards

Let’s think again about Vogele’s dialogue method. He identifies that the route to conversion (the order or the action) lies in the levels at which information is printed: headlines, pictures, captions, body text, close. We can use this approach for social media but we must – as in direct mail – think backwards from the (notional) order form.

So, in terms of social media, as elsewhere: what do you want the reader to do and why should they do it? Now, clearly, an overtly commercial approach will oft as not negate the performance of the piece. Consumer perception of your social media will be profoundly damaged if they see social media as merely another version of direct mail. And guess what, your response rate will go down.

Image from the James Lock Facebook Page

Style and elegance – lifestyle and history dominates the James Lock Facebook experience

This is why headlines such as “check out the latest from author x” is doomed to fail. Why should I “check it out”? I’d argue that the over-worked “check it out” has become today’s equivalent of the lazy old “comprehensive and totally up to date“. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t grab attention. All it says is “I can’t be bothered to think of a reason for you to look at this but I’ve grown so complacent that I couldn’t care less”.

So, thinking backwards – WHY do you want someone to do something and read/share/like your post? One thing’s for sure, they won’t be complacent: if it doesn’t engage it won’t exite. It will certainly not be shared. Think strategically here – what ever happens is for the brand’s good; causing improved perception and brand relevance. Your brand needs to develop an emotional warmth so that sharing becomes easier.

Content to inform the headline

So we’ve worked out that we need the reader to do something and that this needs to something worth doing. Beth Kanter suggests the way to achieve this is by (1) asking a question; (2) solicit an action or (3) attaching a link. Thinking about what we said above, let’s examine some strategic brand imperatives:

  • Asking a question. How will the question be attractive enough to answer? This depends on you knowing your target audience. Those brands which engage best with their audience are those which have an emotional bond with them. It is the mark of profound brand success that the company feels free to ask questions which it knows will be answered. It is a mark of maturity that the company will also be able to take the rough with the smooth. Engagement is not just about the good things; remember, politicians today are treated with contempt because they have lost the ability to answer questions for what they are.
  • Solicit an action. Again, focus on the audience. YOUR audience. An action could be a poll, a competition, or even just a bit of fun (but a bit of fun which is brand relevant). Actions which appear to demand a commercial exchange will be less effective than those which are relaxed and not taking themselves to seriously.
  • Attaching a link. This is interesting: a link to be most effective needs to relevant to the overall brand of the company’s social media presence. If we think of Beth Kanter, she works in non-profit; I read her material because it appeared as a link from Blackthorn Digital’s site. Blackthorn Digital specialises in digital marketing but also works in the non-profit area. There is a logical leap – I engage with Blackthorn and trust that those links which it posts will be relevant to its own brand message of improving digital marketing for customers. Blackthorn shares the information for the common good and not to achieve an immediate sale. Notwithstanding, the perception of Blackthorn is increased in my mind and becomes a serious contender as a potential supplier when the need arises.

And so to the headline…

Triumph motorcycles Facebook Image

Go your own way – freedom is a key brand element of Triumph Motorcycles, the British motorcycle manufacturer and master of social media engagement.

As can be appreciated, thinking from the action backwards makes the headline easier. Vogele implies a logical progression from initial headline to substantiated experience through pictures, captions and copy. It is therefore the task of the headline to bring together the experience of the social media posting.

Here are three sample headlines as food for thought:

  • Question: Like eating a piece of the sun? Or chewing iron filings with a mouth full of fillings? How would you describe eating our latest Hottest Ever Norfolk English Mustard? Best answer wins a year’s supply – Yikes! 
  • Action: (courtesy of Vimto of Manchester – the quaintly British equivalent of Coca-Cola): We had a dream last night that everything was purple. Hit like if you’re a super clever scientist who can make this dream a reality.
  • Link: (courtesy of Triumph Motorcycles of Hinckley, Great Britain): Triumph Live Band Battle Final is tomorrow, where 6 bands will compete for 3 places at this years Triumph Live 2012 Event (followed by link)
  • General engagement: (courtesy of James Lock & Co, Hatters of St James’ , London) A lovely quote on a cap by Mr.John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath“: ‘His cap was so new that the visor was still stiff and the button still on, not shapeless and bulged as it would be when it had served for a while all the various purposes of a cap – carrying sack, towel, handkerchief’


In social media there is little time for reflection. Consequently headlines need to reflect an inherent understanding of product, of consumer, of company/brand and of the relationship between the three of these. Nuance is what drives social media performance and enhances readability, “like” volumes and sharing.

Engagement, like brand, is about emotional involvement. This is fundamental to social media. You are dealing with a target demographic and you MUST understand them and what drives them. You must speak their language. You must be a willing participant. You must not be precious in how consumers respond (see our earlier piece about Norton Motorcycles and how NOT to do social media).

Above all, it must be recognised that social media is not something to be done by an unskilled person. It is fundamentally linked to the old marketing mantra of AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. It is also linked to brand longevity. Companies which fail to understand their brand and what it means to their consumers will ultimately not last the course.

Images courtesy of:


Digital Rights Management (DRM) a restriction on learning and a route to bankruptcy?

July 9, 2012
Image of HMS Devastation - a pre-dreadnaught ironclad

Ironclad in action – is DRM shackling sales and marketing in a post-dreadnaught world/

Is DRM as illogical as VAT on books? Is it a route to destruction? In the UK for many years, books in the UK have been free from the so-called “Value Added” Tax (VAT) on the grounds that learning should not be taxed. Alas, the same does not apply to digital versions of those books and nor does it apply to digital information services. A singular distinction which implies that an electronic device appears to add value to information, unlike the cover of a book or indeed the publisher who brings it to market. A bit like DRM…

Like VAT, DRM too chooses to differentiate between a book and a digital version of a book. I can share a book but restrictions exist digitally. The question today – indeed has always been – why should these restrictions exist? Is DRM a restriction on learning and the free dissemination of knowledge? I can share my print copy of Ironclads in Action with anyone I choose, after all (not that any of my friends would be remotely interested in reading it)…

Not a new problem…

Legal publishers were early learners in this area: after years of selling expensive sets of encyclopaedias and loose-leaf works, they then had to protect their income via a range of digital pricing models including “pay as you go” (PAYG), “single user licence” (SUL); Site Licence and Enterprise Licence structures. Problems arose about concurrent usage or a pre-defined number of users which created enormous confusion among the customer base. These issues had never occurred before as books and encyclopaedias were shared openly within law firms.

These models were about one thing only: protecting the revenues and margins of lucrative accounts. Invariably, even today, a legal key account will combine a mixture of print and electronic product as customers like to have an understanding of tangible ownership and the flexibility of digital. Not forgetting that the publisher still needs to cover the costs of declining print-based numbers. Combination packages and strangely structured deals are commonplace (many of which probably wouldn’t withstand a close inspection by a price and profitability consultant).

The book world suddenly catches up…

With the advent of the e-book, these problems were passed onto an even more inefficient business model: the publishing of single-purchase books at a cheap price. Publishers for years have struggled to commission and publish enough books in a year to cover costs and make some sort of profit. Many ignored – and continue to ignore – the importance of the “end user” (the reader) and focused on their old business model rather than grasping the elusive construct known as brand value.

Today, therefore, in an effort to protect a limited slice of revenue as more consumers switch to e-books, DRM comes to the fore. Amazon, the arch-exponent of the offer-led trade business combined with rigorous consumer datasets, has fundamentally understood the importance of data in the management of profit and today has strong market share with its Kindle offering and associated DRM technology.

But what about publishers who have ignored their market, preferring to see their market as the book trade rather than the consumer? There is paranoia in the land – piracy threatens their “list”; piracy threatens their profit margins. DRM is cited as a way of preserving revenues and avoiding cash haemorrhage to the Blofeldt-led Sino-Russian Pact of Digital Piracy hidden in some dark extinct volcano in Outer Mongolia.

A different way of thinking?

Publishers today need to think beyond what they have produced – although of course this if fundamental – and also think about a strategic relationship with their readers if they are to sustain a profitable relationship with them. In a digital world where social media (and multiple platform visibility) have key roles to play, restriction of interaction could indeed be perceived as a restriction on learning – because a part of learning today is about sharing and operating within new social and electronic structures.

As this post from Mitch Joel shows, a modern consumer finds DRM to have a negative impact on what he is trying to achieve – it adds a layer of frustration in his life of digital interchange. Even this early blog post from 2004 by Dan Lockton questions the impact of restriction while the Sony BMG backfire some years ago revealed just how far paranoia can go in alienating consumers.

Meanwhile, Tor/Forge announced a dropping of DRM from its portfolio in a move which has received some positive response within the industry. Many commentators now argue that consumers themselves will always prefer to buy a product rather than to get it free and that this negates the piracy argument. Intriguingly, it is argued that getting rid of DRM will encourage pricing structures to find their own level; to define product value. This is of fundamental importance.

What is clear is that information is about sharing. The question for publishers is how paranoid do you want to be – and why? A bigger challenge for publishers – especially those who have fundamentally ignored the issue of brand and consumer interaction – is how to grasp the strategic imperative: a long term relationship with consumers.

Publishing brands need now to engage consumers in a way they never did before if they are to avoid consumer interaction in the future only being between the consumer and the digital retailers. In my view, a future based on the trade/other retailers is the publisher stepping back into the comfort zone of what it knows best.

Yet digital offers a business to consumer (b2c) relationship far greater than ever before thought possible – provided that publishers invest in brand and strategic relevance. Successful publishers of the future will be those for whom a relationship with their readers – not the trade – will be paramount.  Brand presence and emotional engagement will be key in this battleground.

PublishersRed Page Consulting works with publishing companies of all sizes to develop branding, pricing and positioning solutions for strategic impact. Find out more here.

Image – HMS Devastation, courtesy of the display at the Historic Dockyard, Chatham, Kent, Great Britain

Publishing brand touchpoints – and why they matter

June 28, 2012


Penguin Books Logo

Effective brand management and positioning – the Penguin Books logo highlights the importance for publishers to manage their brands effectively for long term success. But brand is more than just a logo.

Publishers don’t like brands. Or rather, a “brand” is one of those words which has the potential to send shivers down the spine of anyone trying to nurse a decent margin out of a low margin business. Yet today, when the publishing industry is being subsumed by the mega brand which is Amazon, there is no room for complacency…

A brand is an emotional construct of course – a promise of delivery which, when tasted and approved, delivers and retains new customers. For a publisher, the brand rests on two pairs of shoulders: each and every author; the publishing company itself. Most publishers “get” the author side. Few publishers develop the corporate side. Yet the latter is now crucial as the battle for perception is fought in the online space rather than the high street.

Cue the “touchpoint” – where brand meets consumer (consumer being defined as the person reading the publication). Let’s consider brand touchpoints in publishing:

Product touchpoints:

These include: the author; author reputation; the physical product itself; its readability; packaging; readability design; price; quality; availability; robustness; credibility; delivery against promotional claim; availability; perceived value; actual value; presentation in store or online; social media.

All of these touchpoints help inform the consumer of the value of the product. If the value delivered is in excess of the price paid then, to the customer, the product brand is successful. The implication of this achievement has a profound effect for the publisher: referrals from the consumer for others to buy the product (the “Richard and Judy” effect); an increased likelihood of the consumer (and referred consumers) buying more products by the same author; a potential uplift in areas such as rights sales; opportunities beyond the book itself such as films etc. 

Implicit in the product touchpoint arena is that the reputation, brand value and promise centre on the product itself. This is the conventional publishing model: most publishers hope to discover the next best thing which will help offset the vast majority of products on their list – the underperforming make-weights.

Yet product value can and should be leveraged by the publisher to create reflected brand value. Today, publishers are threatened by a significant brand in the market: Amazon. Amazon has taken ownership of the emotional space between product and consumer. If you want a book – on any subject – go to Amazon, research it, find it and buy it. What can publishers do?

Publisher touchpoints

Publisher touchpoints are subtle but relevant and include: web presence; social media engagement; vision; values; passion in practising what they preach; author accretion; management profile; promotional performance; commissioning consistency; delivery against promise; delivery time of product to customer; delivery time to retailer; position on the consumer value chain; visibility; price; sales personnel; customer service performance; reputation; consistency; packaging; logo prominence…

Why should these things matter to a consumer? The answer is that if they don’t matter to a consumer then your company and its products don’t matter either. With Amazon increasingly in control of consumer research and delivery in a digital information world, the battleground now is for relevance in search and for visibility on arrival.

If a consumer is looking for a book on planing techniques for English hardwoods, how can their choice be informed? Brand is now critical: to reassure before purchase; to reassure post purchase – especially if the sales process is in the hands of others.

Why touchpoints matter

With commerce increasingly web-bound, preference is informed by writing and communication – written marketing and written proof. Marketing communications therefore have now achieved a significance far beyond the tired days of cheesy copywriting and back cover copy. In decision-making, brand touchpoints – from the brash to the subtle – all play a part. The greater the reputation, the lower the threat of the perceived substitute and the more natural the purchasing decision.

So, while it is of course crucial to leverage author quality in the online space, this faces significant barriers where an author is unknown. Why then, should a consumer buy a book by an unknown author? This is why an author-focused brand strategy is flawed and why company brand strategy is crucial.

Indeed, with greater brand significance of the publisher, the author-as-brand issue becomes reduced (provided of course that the book has been produced with a genuine need (b2b) or deliverable (b2c) in mind. People buy Mills and Boon – would they buy a boddice-ripper by unknown author Seymour Cleavage? In the legal publishing space, competition is no longer between authors but between publishers: Lexis Nexis v Westlaw for example.

When there are no touchpoints, what then?

A life without brand touchpoints is to invite a life without an emotional relationship between consumer and publisher and to leave commerce in the hands of third parties. A lack of emotional relationship means that, for book publishers in particular, each and every sale comes at a heavy price: intensive marketing for limited return. Touchpoints and reputation reduce per-product marketing costs in the long term.

The most effective publishers right now are those which understand and deliver a relationship between perception, values and delivery. In social media, for example, some publishers are making signficant advances in developing brand-focused communities on a significant and international scale – and, contrary to what you might expect, not just in the B2C field.

As consumers engage with brands, they talk about brands; they spread the news about brands so that other consumers research those brands too. It may not necessarily be the case that consumers then choose to buy direct from the publisher – indeed, why should they when they can buy from Amazon (especially in the book publishing field) – but the publisher can measure performance through conventional sales uplift.

Which brings us to the ultimate touchpoint – the logo or colophon. If – and it’s a big if – a publisher’s brand strategy delivers against all touchpoints, the logo can then – and only then – have a strategic and deeply commercial value. The Penguin logo, for example, creates an image in the mind of the consumer as strong as the author; the two are symbiotic.

Yet many publishers think of their logo as merely a trading badge. This is why many publishers are almost invisible in the consumer choice environment. By leveraging brand strategy so as to emblomise brand assets and touchpoints via a visual device is today a core battleground if publishers wish to remain relevant. Publishers’ profit margins will reveal every year how effective their brand strategy – their touchpoint strategy – has been.

How NOT to do social media: Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd

June 20, 2012
Image of Stuart Garner of Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd in front a poorly-written Powerpoint slide

Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd brand erosion: quality brands need to focus on perfection wherever the brand touches the stakeholder. Alas, not in the case…

Social media today is essential to brand perception, yet get it wrong and all that marketing money goes rapidly down the drain. Here’s a short story about how Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd – the company formerly known as Norton Motors – came a cropper recently when yours truly deigned to comment on their marcoms…

Bad detail checks from Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd…

As regular readers of A Brand Day Out will know, your author is passionate about marketing truth, credibility and perception. Truth and quality brings forth new and renewing customers. Readers will also know how passionate your author is about British-made products; he has supported British companies through thick and thin over the years and believes others should do the same if they want to see the country prosper.

In the past, and until very recently, he has also promoted Norton Motors on Facebook and, indeed, within the pages of A Brand Day Out. However…

Take a look at the picture at the top of this blog. It’s of Stuart Garner, CEO of Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd, pictured at a recent entrepreneur event telling how he rebuilt an iconic brand. Brands are built on all touchpoints readers and see carefully the curious syntax of the slide behind Mr Garner.  Above all, observe an irrelevant comma between the word “iconic” and “brand”.

Passing the (blame) buck…

Cue your author posting some comments about this on the Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd Facebook page. Your author (among several other Facebook users) was keen to point out the error and also to suggest that brands are built upon all touchpoints.

It’s worth saying that Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd rarely uses Facebook for dialogue with fans and instead, like most companies, simply use the social site as a PR extension. However, in this instance, an unknown Norton employee responded to the issues raised by suggesting that the offending slide was provided by a company called “Real Business”. In other words, the slide was nothing to do with them. Story over. Well, no…

In social media, the first mistake was made. Instead of replying a jovial “mea culpa” fashion, the Norton marketing guru replied by passing the buck. Question: if social media fans hadn’t spotted the error, would anyone at Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd have noticed? What does this say about their attention to detail on machines costing upwards of £10,000? German engineers know that quality begins with the smallest nut and bolt.

The second more signficant error was their next one. When your author pointed out that (a) someone at Norton should have checked the slide before Mr Garner went on stage or (b) someone in the Norton marketing team should have chosen to use a different slide, his comments were subsequently removed from the article comment stream.

A Brand Day Out “dissed” by Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd!

And then, not happy with this course of action, Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd chose then to block your author (a 30 year fan of Norton Motors, a member of the Norton Owners Club, and one time shareholder in a former incarnation of the business) from making further comments.

Is this blog a rant? Yes, of sorts. But the main issue is this: in social media it is not up to the company to assume they know their customers. Dialogue creates dialogue; discourse creates engagement; engagement creates interest; interest creates potential sales.

Image of a Norton Dominator Deluxe

Would you like footrests with that sir? A happy potential customer with a Norton Dominator Deluxe in approximately 1960 (author collection).

In blocking your author from commenting on/about a brand he cares about, Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd have alienated a brand fan of 30 years. A fan who has also owned two Norton motorcycles in the past. They have also turned off two potential purchasers in the authors “friend” network, closing the door to essential orders in a time of austerity. They have in fact censored their fans like the Chinese government censors its people.

Old-fashioned management belongs in the ark

 The company has also brought to a broader public the old-fashioned “management knows best” policy still so prevalent in many companies. In the past, when Norton Motors was run by Gilbert Smith, a man famously described as “a foul-mouthed Birmingham businessman”, this style may have been appropriate. But today, when companies need to pay acute attention to brand perception or die, this is unacceptable.

Clearly the slide behind Mr Garner was an error. But the person who put it together needs lessons in perception. The person who stood in front of it should have checked it before he went on stage (or someone should have done this for a respected CEO). The person who posted the article on Facebook should have known better. It is little wonder that companies like Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki grew to what they are in today’s motorcycle world – by paying attention to everything they did.

And Stuart Garner, I’m a forgiving man. I’m even prepared to work with you on your social media if it means getting this essential marketing effort right. But please have words with your existing social media people – they need to realise that customers come in all shapes and sizes.

And it’s important to remember that even brand fans, who might not be able to afford a Norton, can still engage with the brand and encourage those who have the money to support you in your efforts to make Norton a great name again. Purchasers who are supported by adoring fans help customers avoid the “blues” created by post purchase cognitive dissonance.

OK, rant over. As ever, if you or anyone in your company needs help with: their communications strategy; a review of their marketing communications; training of their marketing staff or copywriting for all marketing materials then please do visit my website and get in touch.