Archive for December 30, 2008

Posted: December 30, 2008
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The challenge of a Prague winter

prague-in-winterI am sure that in a former life I was a bear.  I say this because at the first sign of winter I get this barely controllable urge to hide somewhere warm and dark ’til spring … and today in Prague its minus 8 degrees C!  It sort of raises the question I find myself asking with increasing regularity these days – “Why spend so much of my time in a place where I was clearly not designed to be?”

Maybe its something to do with the summers, which, by UK standards are glorious and predictable – you can actually plan a weekend with a reasonable expectation of the weather being good enough to actually leave the house.  Or maybe its some of the quaint habits of the locals.  For example, yesterday I ventured into my local potraviny – the closest thing Czechs had to a supermarket before the real thing, in the shape of Julius Meinl, arrived from Austria, about the time the last Commie disappeared to his luxury mansion in the hills. 

Despite living much of the time in the beer capital of Europe I don’t drink much of the stuff, but I picked up a few bottles for the fridge and took them to the check-out where the lady growled (another Czech speciality) the price.  “Thirteen Crowns each”.  “But it says ten crowns on the shelf” I pointed out.  Three Crowns each for the bottles” came the reply.  I was tempted to make her day by suggesting that she “Forget the bottle.  Just wrap it up and I’ll take it like that” but I am sure the joke, and I’m certain the irony, wouldn’t have translated.  Czechs don’t “do” irony.  They do however have many practices, like charging separately for the bottle when you buy beer, that we would find odd … no ridiculous, even. 

Another Czech trait is their unequalled capacity for denial.  It probably stems from fifty years of Communist rule when you just kept your head down and did what you could to live around the rules.  Or maybe its goes way back.  What we now call the Czech Republic is, after all, the most invaded and occupied real estate in Europe, so maybe folks here have developed an ambivalent gene that enables them to carry on regardless of who is sitting in the big chair. 

The ambivalent gene would certainly explain the tough time I have getting people here fired up about anything (besides ice hockey).  This was underlined a couple of weeks ago by three surveys that revealed that despite suddenly not being able to get mortgages, having their factories closed, thousands of lay-offs and apartment blocks being only 20% occupied twelve months after completion, that Czechs still don’t believe there’s an economic crisis!

I mean, even if you’ve never seen an economic crisis (as they haven’t of course!) you’d have an idea that something was up when your house is being repossessed.  So it has to be denial, don’t you think?  Its both quaint and sad.  A bit like watching a small furry animal walking down the street from a perspective that allows you to see the out-of-control steamroller on a tangential course to the next intersection. 

A friend of mine who runs a pretty big concern in the Czech Republic told me this week that he’s had calls from two separate banks involved in two of his deals, to say that they just don’t have the money they had promised him.  He’s also divested himself of a number of companies.  One, which was making only two million Crowns a year on a multi-billion Crown turnover, had been the subject of productivity concerns for some time (understandably), but despite receiving a number of addresses from my friend, the work-force were, to a man, gob-smacked when “time” was eventually called.  It seems that either nobody quite belived the warnings or they were in denial.  After all, the business was still making two million a year, which, to many (possibly most) Czech-owned companies would represent pay-dirt.  I’ve said before, that many of the Czech businesses I come across are not really viable.  No, sadly, Czechs are still struggling to understand the rules of capitalism and after fifteen years in an economic rose-bed (very much at the expense of other EC members) they are about to learn some hard lessons.

I still believe though, that there are some terrific products and ideas here, that, despite the economic uncertainly, with a bit of western know-how could support some exciting, international even, businesses.  The question is, are locals able or even bothered enough to grab the opportunities, or will their general complacency mean that they just let them pass by?  I think we are about to find out.  With smart and resourceful Western organisations already assessing the soft underbelly of Central Europe’s developing markets as a target for off-setting their projected 2009 home market short-falls things are going to get tough here and if they are not movin’ and shakin’ it like they’ve never moved and shaked before, half the Czech commercial world is going to find itself eating dust!

Hey, is it chilly in here or what?  Pull that boulder over the entrance as you leave!

Posted: December 4, 2008
Comments: 5

Ring a jingle bell?

Digging through all those old commercials to find a clip for that last post reminded me just how bloody great we Brits were at writing jingles, back when they were de riguer.  It all changed I guess, and I’m not saying it wasn’t about time, with the Levis launderette ad.

Until then brand character had been expressed perfectly by custom jingles, but as pop music was becoming more representative of consumer segments musical icons like “Heard It Through The Grapevine” went that step further.  However, looking back, maybe we lost something when we turned our backs on real jingles?  There is no doubt that there were agencies like Allen Brady and Marsh (who I think were responsible for the Wonder of Woolies campaign and jingle that I couldn’t find on-line) and masters like David Abbott, who I seem to recal had a piano in his office and these and others combined to produce a wealth of great sing-alongs that put brandnames on everyone’s lips and left the character of those brands in no doubt.  Even American artists crossed the pond to get involved in what we were doing.  Madeline Bell’s famous “High Speed Gas” was always a great.  We even contributed at Saatchis, although a little after the height of the art, with Do-It-All’s, “How Do Do-It-All Do It”

How many can you remember?  Apart from The Wonder Of Woolies, Do-It-All’s Dodgy DIY and High Speed Gas there were:

  • Murray Mints – Too Good To Hurry Mints – A real oldie!
  • This Is The Age Of The Train – Proving that all great jingles didn’t have to be up tempo
  • Burton On The Button- Great jingle but now I look back, cringing TVCs by Gerry Moira at McCormick Intermarco Farner featuring lover-boy Patrick Mower (recently of Emerdale!)
  • The Number Seven Ready to Wear Collection – Another McCormick classic
  • Beanz Meanz Heinz – I was brought up on this one!
  • Milk has Got A Lotta Bottle- Another from Abbott, Mead Vickers – I don’t know how they kept them coming!
  • R-Whites Lemonade – I haven’t a clue whose this was, sorry!
  • So Near So Spar – Another mystery.
  • There’s only one T in Ty-phoo – Neat lone from somebody!

The list goes on.  What have I missed?  There must be hundreds, so let me know.

Posted: December 4, 2008
Comments: 0

Woolies and other wonders


The thing about Woolworth that I find most wondrous is that they have hung on for so long.  Mind you, they have had a few close shaves along the way.  For as long as I can remember, Woolies have been struggling for a “reason for being” and failing miserably.  Let’s face it, they haven’t done anything original since penny and sixpence stores and pick n’ mix sweets, although they were still doing a great job of winding it up at Xmas as recently as the eighties, as this commercial shows (Anita Harris - sigh ).  However, if you happened to wander into a Woolworth lately (while looking for the loo or something!) you’ll have been greeted by a scene that looked like a stunt from The Apprentice – like Alan Sugar had given a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears graduates a biggish space and asked them to fill it quickly with “stuff”.

I’m sadder about MFI, another UK casualty of the recession, who, though struggling for almost as long as Woolies to find its place, at least seemed to have a strategy.  It just didn’t work, but the reality is that like a load of other retailers who have been teetering on the edge for a while and will undoubtedly be pushed over by the current economic situation, simply, neither has been good enough for a long time.

What we are witnessing right now is Darwinism – adapt or die!  Its not just about retailing, its about business generally.  Sure, we have too many retailers and more retail parks and shopping centres than is healthy, so we certainly won’t miss a few, but we have too much of everything, that’s the problem, especially when so many businesses have no right to be in business anyway.

I work hard with my clients to develop real uniqueness.  I don’t mean the kind of contrived, useless differences that most organisations promote.  I mean a positive, tangible, real benefit that they offer their customers that nobody else does, and its been a point of constant frustration to me that people have continued to be gullible enough to swallow the empty promises fed to them by organisations.  The key question that I ask my clients is “how will you transform your customers lives?” - well what other excuse would they have for trading?  Anyway, excuse my smugness, but the fact that tough economic times have prompted consumers to look beneath the veneers and question the promises made to them, only means that by and large, we’ll be filtering out the dross.

When the grim receiver finally knocks on their door, these failing businesses can’t claim that they were taken by surprise either.  Although I am sure a few will.  The writing has been on the wall for most of them for decades, its just that, usually because the people running them didn’t have any ideas, they chose to just milk the situation for as long as they could and hope to have retired before the shit hit the fan.  Some of them made it and others haven’t, but none of them would still be a round had the artificial affluence we have all enjoyed over the years, not camouflaged their bad practices and disguised their dreadful performance.  For instance, I’m told that after gaining independence from the US operation Woolworth sold its property and leased it back at some ridiculously lousy deal!  Now, if marketing is about leveraging resources someone really blew it there!

It used to be really trendy to own a Renault 5 in Paris.  French role models drove customised 5s just as the Beatles, Roy Wood and endless other UK pop icons drove Wood and Picket Minis and they were practical and useful.  The fact that today suburban Moms “need” an SUV rather than a Smart car to take the kids a hundred yards down the road to school, is just the product of manipulation by auto-manufacturers whose true measurement of success, despite their protests, is clearly the weight of tin and plastic they manage to get onto the streets.  We are in this mess, not because operators in every sector have devoted themselves for years to persuading us to buy stuff that we don’t really need, I can live with that.  What gets my goat is that so much of this stuff we are gullible and insecure enough to covet is utterly useless!

The up side of all this is that the good guys, though tested like everyone else, will still be around and hopefully, buoyed by the success of their past dedication to honesty, transparency, innovation and hard-work, they’ll be giving us new ideas and initiatives to satisfy our genuine needs and distance them from the masses.  While the big auto makers try to blackmail the US government into subsidising their past inflexibility, self-interest, lack of vision and sharp practices and give them license to do more of the same and banks in the UK and elsewhere try to wriggle of the hook of accountability that their recent handouts have caught them with, there are real opportunities and hopefully recognition by consumers for unsung heroes like Robert Q Riley Enterprises, who are taking a new route to eco-friendly transport with build-it-yourself solutions.

I don’t mind at all that this may be the end of life as we know it.  I for one will welcome a few real values and a world where personal worth is measured in something other than the volume of natural resources destroyed in a lifetime.  All of this is just another challenge to real marketers with balls and initiative.  It doesn’t mean that we’ll have no shops, cars, or the multitude of other stuff we have become used to, just that those we will have are relevent, responsible and efficient.

Posted: December 2, 2008
Comments: 0

Wrestling with brand identity?


Anybody who reads this blog will know how important I think point of difference is.  I spend a lot of time with my clients helping them to develop “difference” and I admire brands that achieve it.  I’ve said many times that I always prefer different over “nice”.  Nice is usually insipid, rarely as “in your face” as a brand has to be and therefore can never be responsible for raising anybody’s pulse rate – and that’s what a brand has to do if, ultimately, it has a hope of succeeding.

With this as a backdrop I was delighted to see a brand from the past, in the shape of Mickey Rourke on screen this weekend in a trailer for his new movie “The Wrestler”.  Mickey is one of those “characters” who encountered the key danger associated with “difference” – that though some people (you hope “most”) will love you, there are bound to be a few at least who hate you with equal vehemence.  Its that narrow path that all brands walk.  We all love to be loved and its easy to see why, because of this, many brand managers try to be all things to all people and end up being nothing to anybody.  I tell my clients, its life, you can’t hope to be on everyone’s Christmas Card list so get over it.

It seems that after a spell in excile, self-imposed or otherwise, divided equally, it appears, between the gym and the botox clinic, Mickey Rourke has gotten over it and has come back with new, and in my book, rightly placed confidence.  I always thought he was a great actor, I don’t think I’d bother having a drinking contest with him, but I liked his difference and it seems that he has come to terms with the double-edged sword of popularity.  Listening to him talk about the movie it seemed to me that its a tad autobiographical.  I can’t wait to see it, but moreso I’m looking forward to seeing Mickey Rourke give us his different best for a few years yet.