Archive for September 18, 2014


Posted: September 18, 2014
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Does “Made in Czechoslovakia” still hold sway, or should the Czechs start building their own national brand?

A senior Czech government minister recently asked me “What do you think the Czech brand is?”. I’ve developed a reputation over the years for telling it like it is and I didn’t see any reason to deviate, so my reply was that I didn’t think it was defined and that this in itself was a severe obstacle to the development of the nation. You’ll maybe know from my past rants that I find the subject of national branding fascinating, but the question is particularly relevant because, right now, there is a debate going on between Czechs and Slovaks over a proposal to bring back the combined trading brand “Made in Czechoslovakia”.

When the then one nation was liberated in 1989 the Czechs and Slovaks were quick to proclaim their differences and by 1993 they had become two discrete entities. There might be a point to this if either of them had the capability of building a national identity or brand, but twenty-five years after the Communists left town neither nation has achieved the focus required to make much of a mark on the world’s political or commercial map.

Both these countries boast numerous assets. They were always smart people and this is evidently re-emerging in some of the start-ups and innovations I saw during my last visit. However, someone once told me that this nation (as Czechoslovakia was), being at the intersection of so many trading routes, represents the most invaded real estate in Europe and from what I have seen over my past fifteen years of working there, history is repeating itself. This time though the conquering army is one of global corporations and with no recent history of professional politicians and a total absence of really good leadership the country has, once again, rolled over and, with no clear direction, the nation has allowed global corporations to write their own rules. Meanwhile, intimidated by the bravado of high-flying corporate executives, Czech politicians and civil servants have let them get on with it. So, now the corporates call the shots. There is no national identity, no national brand and the Czech people have done what they have always done – just accepted it. The trouble is there’s no future in this. The Czech and Slovak Republics have become Western franchises and as I write this there doesn’t appear to be any alternative on the table.

Surely this is what government is for? I’m not saying that there isn’t general acknowledgement among politicians of the problem. Indeed there are a few government-led initiatives running right now, but they are limited and restricted by the inter-departmental bickering and siloing that has become the hallmark of Czech politics. As result the initiative has been taken (again) by independent commercial organisations and a very interesting accelerator, JIC, in the Czech second city, Brno who are trying to put Czech business (at least) on the map. However, its all a bit paltry, given the size of the problem and it still doesn’t address the greater need for a national brand, which, if solved, would also make their job easier.

In the First Republic era Czechoslovaks probably came the closest they have ever been to being a proud nation. Their products had a good reputation and were exported certainly to the East and to a lesser extent Westwards and the stamp “Made in Czechoslovakia” came to mean something. The nucleus of this current branding debate resides in the belief that this old badge still holds sway in some parts. As far as I can see this is still just speculation, and even if it is true I suspect that the residual value isn’t great, but given that both nations have failed comprehensively to develop their own national brands and don’t appear to be close to actually getting down to replacing it with anything, it seems reasonable to consider reviving the only potential brand asset in the box. The Czechs on balance seem to be up for this, however, it seems there are sufficient amateur politicians on both sides of the border to mount objections and we’re back to the inertia that typifies development (or the lack of it) in this region of Europe.

Personally I think that the Czechs have sufficient assets to establish a clear and potent national brand of their own that will play a significant part both internally and externally in the future growth of the nation. There’s nothing like a strong national brand to get the people pulling in the right direction and once that happens the world is your oyster. It would help the Czechs achieve the consistency required to pull this off if they could keep a political party in power for longer than a few months and stop the incessant internal bickering, self-interest and obstinacy, but the recently appointed government appears to be making the most sense I’ve heard from any Czech government so far. If the remaining politicians and the people in general can demonstrate the maturity to put national interests above their own and let them get on with it, there’s a chance the Czech Republic might be able to move it forward. However, here is still a long way to go and I think its going to take an outside influence(r) to make real ground on this. This is a nation that has watched opportunities pass by with the regularity of a Prague tram for a quarter of a century already, so they will have to be uncharacteristically efficient and determined to pull it off.


Posted: September 15, 2014
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Are agencies forgetting the basics?

When it comes to communication “keep it simple” is probably the first lesson I learned on my first day in an advertising agency. It’s not so contentious, of course, every agency I have come across since seems to take it as golden rule and every marketing person I talk to recites it often enough. So why then don’t agencies practice what they preach?

Most people who know me are aware of the work that I have done over the years helping marketing services firms around the world (not just advertising agencies) stay abreast of the market and grow their business and the first step in every case (just as it is with every client I am engaged by) is to get them to define their promise.

Maybe it’s a symptom of the hard times the industry has suffered or the paradigm shift that has taken place as a result of the advent of digital and the massive increase in the competitiveness of all our clients’ markets. Many agencies have been left behind (which is kind of survival of the fittest, seeing as we are supposed to be the thought leaders around here) and even some of those who have managed to stay in business have shown their desperation to maintain revenue by adopting a “we can do anything” approach to new business. As a result I’ve witnessed some wholly inappropriate agency appointments and the consequential fiasco this has proven for all concerned, more times that I could possibly recall.

Seeing as we are talking “golden rules” there’s another. It applies to any business, not just agencies and isn’t confined to websites.  The rule is “Get your ‘promise’ front and centre wherever anybody is likely to encounter you”. That means, for one thing, on every conceivable landing page of your website. Again, it’s not a new idea, it’s what straplines are for, but I’m seeing far too many communications where this just isn’t happening.  Tesco were very good at this with their “Every little helps” and Philips’ “Sense and simplicity” was equally effective. If you’ve built your brand model correctly, your headline in each case will be an example of one of the facts or pillars that support your “promise” and any text will serve to connect the dots between the headline and the strapline. Its simple when you think about it. To ensure that this happens you’ll have established a rule for your advertising guys to comply with. Philips, for example, stated that apart from every headline illustrating how the subject of that communication (usually a product or service) was a manifestation of one of its pillars, it would always use the word “sense” or “simplicity” and both these words (or their derivatives) had to appear at least once in any body copy (I can hear writers whinging as I say it but if you are in this business you’ll have to learn to stick to the rules).

A quick surf of the web is enough to illustrate that agencies everywhere are forgetting these basics. They are neither reminding their clients and keeping them on track nor are they representing them in their own promotional material.

In fact, I think agencies are so busy trying to be everything to everybody that they frequently forget what the job is. It’s almost as though they are afraid to commit to one particular offer in case that’s not the one that’s wanted. We all know that to establish close relationships you will probably alienate more people than you attract, but the relationships (or more specifically in this case the “Brandships”) you establish will be all the more substantial and valuable because they are built on stronger traits. People with vivid personalities have their detractors, but they also have more, and better friends than the bland boring guy, who never offends anyone and it’s a simple fact of life that the depth (or loyalty) of brandships is more important than their numbers. So why do agencies disregard this?

Websites should be a very strong indicator of how good an agency is at its job and when I read Bob Sanders’ piece this week it reminded me of some of the dreadful examples of woolly agency sites I have witnessed recently. It’s one thing to have a philosophy, but if your website is a long and esoteric lecture nobody is going to read it and they’ll certainly not click to connect. If your forte is creativity your site should be creative, of course, but if it’s just creative and creative for the sake of creativity, again it isn’t going to work. You need to make it clear how that creativity is going to work for your clients. Sometimes I think that not enough thought r attention to detail goes into these things.

There‘s a simple promise inherent in every brand and it’s our job as marketers to help our clients define theirs and communicate it simply and effectively. If we do nothing more than his, we will have made a contribution, but if we can’t even communicate our own promise then no client in their right mind is going to ask us to work with them.


Posted: September 15, 2014
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Have you left it too late to start building your brand?

I’m a bit bemused by the complaints I am hearing from retailers that times are tough. Sure they aren’t easy. Life isn’t a bowl of cherries in any sector right now, but that’s just progress. In fact, if I were a retailer who was finding it tough, I’d think I’d keep quiet about it, because it only suggests that I wasn’t smart enough a few years ago to focus on developing my brand. Make no bones about it, we’re not going to get back to the days of milk and honey so you might as well be grown-up about this and see what you can make of what you have. And the thing is, there are loads of opportunities for retailers who invested in their brands and can now get their heads from up their backsides and work that to their advantage.

If its innovation you are after (and who isn’t) international markets have been opened up by e-commerce, while the new capability offered by things like Bluetooth Low Energy (Beacons) and mobile mean that physical stores can do stuff that e-stores struggle to achieve, so there’s no limit to the innovation that’s possible there.

With the struggle between retailers and manufacturers for brand dominance (that old argument about whose brand dominated the buying decision) now consigned to history, it’s clear that the retailers who stood their ground and invested in their brands have triumphed. If you are still unsure that this is so consider how Tesco and Waitrose own-label products are now driving easy revenue, gaining exposure for and further building the authority of their brands as they stand-alone on the shelves of other retail groups around the world.

I’ve always said that one of the most powerful arguments for investing in your brand is that a strong brand gives you more opportunities and as if to underline this Primark this week announced their expansion to the US underlining the concept of UK “cheap chic” in the age of disposable fashion. However, the really interesting story to my mind is that of down-market supermarket group Lidl’s decision to launch their fashion range.

Who would have thought only a few years ago, that a no-frills supermarket could make a success of a fashion range? But Primark have established the segment and there’s no reason to suppose that Lidl’s entry won’t be an outrageous success – as long as whoever is in charge of the Lidl brand ensures that the fashion products maintain and leverage its core attributes. Get this right and the fashion products will further enhance the brand, driving Lidl store sales and the products will gain early acceptance because of the brand. It’s a classic symbiosis.

It’s seemed just logical to me since the early days of own label that the name over the doors of retail outlets would turn into something bigger, embracing products that would, in turn, sit well on the shelves of other retailers, thereby providing revenue growth and further enhancing the authority of the brands concerned (both retail and product). Retailers who instead of cow-towing to their suppliers’ have taken the stance that they are the endorsers of the product brands and not the other way around,, are now firmly in the driving seat. Consumers accept the brands that retailers stock, seeing them as representing the core values of the retail brand. (“if its good enough for Sainsbury’s it good enough for me”). When that same retailer introduces own label products they are seen by consumers as the absolute manifestation of the brand (“If it’s a Tesco product I know its good value at that price point”) and this carries through to where they see these products on the shelves of other stores (“I’m not sure about this store, but these are Waitrose products, so I am assured of the quality”). There’s a double pay-off for the host brand too in that they inherit a little of the values of the bigger brand and can effectively short-cut the process of brand development (“I’m not sure about this brand, but they share the Tesco values that I believe in so I guess I’m safe here”).

Lidl's £4 scent

Is it too late if you failed to get to grips with brand development a few years back? We’ll, I guess not if you got your skates on, but the trouble is that if you missed the boat then you are probably lack the dynamism necessary to catch up, brand development, after all, is a transformation process and your progress depends wholly on your culture.


Posted: September 3, 2014
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Radio Shack – a demonstration of what happens when you fail to innovate.

It can’t be much of a surprise to any thinking person to hear that Radio Shack are on the skids. Times are hard in retailing right now and they aren’t the first and certainly won’t be the last big name to fail.

As evolution quickens across all sectors retail gets hit on two fronts – fashion and technology. Retail trends are increasingly short-lived and technology is accelerating the pace of change. If innovation isn’t in your DNA, you are probably going to fail. It’s been decades since Ralph Halpern turned the UK’s Burton Group around and even then a cornerstone of his strategy was to have as many as twenty new formats under test at any one time. HMV and Abercrombie and Fitch are hanging on to existence, right now, by their fingernails because they failed to adapt to changing consumer demands, but there are few offenders who deserve to fail more than Radio Shack who appear to have had an inordinate amount of time to sort it out yet look increasingly as though they are wading through molasses. I don’t know this company intimately, but all the evidence suggests an old-fashioned, bureaucratic culture incapable of innovation, which is a bit of a disconnect seeing as they made heir name servicing the tech enthusiasts whose successors are setting the trends right now.

The most cursory glance at a Radio Shack store is enough to tell you that this is a company who are unclear who their customers are. The products are diverse and disconnected. The proposition undefined. Very little is done well or thoroughly, staff knowledge falls well short of the “expertise” that they built their name on and customers wandering around seem disconnected. In a sector which, as Retail Dive points out is tough, this makes you look like Mary’s little lamb in a field full of wolves!

I thought the Retail Dive article was actually a bit of a cop-out. It offered the excuse that times are hard in electronics these days, but, as I said at the opening of this piece, times are hard for everyone. The question here is “are you man enough for the job?” and when you fail as Radio Shack have there’s no avoiding the conclusion that you are not.

By contrast take a look at a very similar business from Ireland Maplin, who admittedly were struggling a few years ago, but saw the writing on the wall and under the enlightened management of John Cleland have turned their business around, to the point where they have just landed £85million in investment to fund their next phase of their development.

Apart from their size the thing that most distinguishes Maplin and Radio Shack is the definition of their respective brands. Maplin appear to know who they are and are working to build on that with new innovations and really tight execution, whereas Radio Shack seem reluctant to leave the comfort of their traditional and largely now irrelevant positioning and are struggling for a purpose in the new world order.

Until brand basics are fixed, anything else you do with an organisation like this is just papering over the cracks and will only add to the mess and confusion. It seems to me that what Radio Shack need is some serious help with their brand strategy. Once that’s defined, the internal marketing that will pull everything into line, can commence and over time (depending on how much you put into it) they’ll be able to innovate and their current problems will start to go away. Of course, a whole new set of problems will have emerged by then, but hopefully they’ll have learned that you are only as good as your next big idea! Given that they have wasted so much time already though, maybe Radio Shack are at the end of their road. If I was looking for an investment opportunity right now, I might consider Maplin, but as for Radio Shack, why would I want to risk my hard-earned on a business that is clearly so disorientated? In some ways it would be a pity to see them go, but that’s the game.

When it comes to service Luminox walk all over Tissot purely on process

Posted: September 1, 2014
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When processes are bad for business

As I’ve said many times, the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful organisation is efficiency and the purpose of processes is to maintain consistency and therefore efficiency across a business. Along the way processes will overcome shortcomings in skill-levels (It doesn’t fix them, just wallpapers over them), experience or even basic intelligence of customer-facing staff. They are essential to the survival of large organisations, but we are also now discovering that they are the reason for the failure of many of these large companies to innovate and, as we now know, a business that isn’t innovating right now isn’t likely to be around for long.

You could, I suppose, liken processes to powerful drugs. On one hand they are what keep you going, but on the other hand, if you get to rely on them too much they can destroy your life. If processes have become the focus of your organisation, you are in trouble.  Smart companies have realised that processes don’t have to be so rigid, but in order to liberate yourself from their constraints you have to give employees something else to work with. You do this through culture development and training within your brand development programme (Initiatives such as I create with my Brand Discovery programme). However, that takes a little effort and in the past lazy organisations have tended to lean too heavily on the short-term, process-driven fix.

Yesterday I witnessed the best example that I have seen in a long time of what happens when process takes over the running of a business. It concerned two watches – a Tissot sports watch that required a new battery and a Luminox diver’s watch with a broken strap – and visits to the two respective stores in Dubai.

Visit one – Tissot (single brand store)

  • Me: (to shop assistant): Can you please replace the battery in this watch?
  • Assistant: Yes. I will send it to our service centre. If you would please fill out this A4 (small print) form (requiring loads of largely irrelevant information).
  • Me: How long will this take?
  • Assistant. It usually takes between two to four weeks sir.
  • Me: How can that be? The service centre is just a few city blocks from here and all you are doing is changing the battery.
  • Assistant: Yes sir, but we have to check the watch and report to you.
  • Me: I don’t want you to check or report, just change the battery for me.
  • Assistant: Yes that’s no problem sir. Our service centre will call you in around seven days.
  • Me: I thought you said that it would take two-to-four weeks?
  • Assistant: That’s to fix it sir. They will call you to tell you what the cost will be.
  • Me: Don’t you know what the cost of a battery will be?
  • Assistant: Yes sir, its 120 Dirhams.
  • Me: OK, so I know the cost, so just go ahead and change the battery and we will at least save a week.
  • Assistant: But Sir the service centre has to call you to tell you the price.
  • Me: I don’t want the service centre to call me until they have changed the battery. Then they can call me to say its ready.
  • Assistant: But they have to call to get your approval, otherwise they can’t do the work.
  • Me: I have given my approval, I’ve even signed this form here, so the deal is agreed. Please just go ahead and change the battery.
  • Assistant: Sir the service centre will call to tell you what needs to be done and what he cost will be and then they will start work
  • Me: But we all know that you are changing the battery and it costs 120 Dirhams already. Anyway, what is the service centre going to be doing for the remainder of the month?
  • Assistant: Changing your battery sir.
  • Me: What is to stop me taking this watch right now to Mister Minute down the road who will change the battery in a minute for twenty Dirhams?
  • Assistant: Nothing sir, but the warranty will be invalidated if someone other than our service centre works on the watch.


Visit two – Luminox (multi-brand store)

  • Me: Is it possible for you to change the (highly technical) strap on this (specialist) watch?
  • Assistant: Of course sir.
  • Me: How long will it take?
  • Assistant: About three minutes sir
  • Me: (Incredulous): You can do it here?
  • Assistant: (surprised I would ask): Yes of course sir, we are a Luminox shop.
  • Me: And how much will this cost?
  • Assistant: two-hundred Dirhams sir.
  • Me: Done!

Now I know that in future I won’t buy Tissot watches, but I will buy Luminox (should I ever need a new watch because at these prices these things should last for ever) and the moral for organisations is “Don’t allow process to take over your business”.