There’s a new series on BBC television called High Street Dreams in which a couple of entrepreneurs, Jo Malone, who made a success of a fragrances and candle business and Nick Leslau, a property tycoon, work with would-be business owners to help them get off the ground.  I watched the first of these yesterday evening and although it confirmed one of my biggest beefs about “branding agencies” it also gave me a few reassuring surprises.

First the good news.  As one who is often expected to perform miracles on coffin-dodger companies, I always get a lift when I come across people who look as if they have the ability and passion to run a successful business and that was the case with all the candidates in last night’s programme.  The Singh family were hot to take their chilli sauce recipe to market, while newlyweds Roland and Miranda Ballard were already selling their Angus beef products at farmers markets, but wanted to “reinvent the beefburger” with a premium twist.

Both groups had worthy products and they were all hard-working, even well-organised to a point.  It’s good to know that there are fledgling businesses out there that might just keep Britain on the business map.  However, what really impressed me was the grasp that both groups had of the concept of brand.  I have to say their mentors were also plugged in to brands and branding to an extent that I have found rare even among so-called marketers and (and here comes the bad news) in stark contrast to the “branding agencies” they employed who were at best very average and, in the one case, probably a liability.

Of course, the programmes were edited (very well I thought) from what I guess were hours of recordings and for this reason I can’t say for sure what process these agencies had followed to arrive at their conclusion, but it seems that neither took either group through a clearly defined programme of discovery, prior to starting work on their design and as a consequence launched into the presentations of their final proposals by telling the groups what their brand was all about, which as any real marketer knows is rather arse-about-face – only the client knows this for sure and the best any agency could hope to come up with is a good guess.  Starting this way of course meant that neither agency was in a position to ease their client through the process of brand and strategy development that follows the creation of a brand model, but as they didn’t enter that territory anyway, they failed, by any definition, to qualify as “brand consultants”.  In this case the one solution was a whole lot better than the other, which should have been rejected and probably would have been had the brand model and the briefing and judgement criteria been in place, but neither were brand or branding solutions by any stretch of the imagination, they were logo and packaging designs – different planet!

As I have discovered over my years in the business, this isn’t unique in the world of marketing.  There are designers all over the place who have decided to call themselves “brand consultants” without having the first idea of what that is, just as there are advertising agencies that call themselves “marketing agencies” or “integrated marketing agencies”.  Frankly, most of them just talk bollocks, but the problem is, these guys are snake-oil salesmen who talk a good talk and if you are an SME looking for sound advice, the odds are you’ll not have the experience to spot the rogues among the smoke and mirrors.

The really sad thing about this is that for years we’ve worked with the knowledge that in the UK seven out of ten new businesses fail within three years and, post recession, that figure will undoubtedly rise.  The “new economy” is an even tougher battle ground with new rules emerging daily.  The last thing we need are idiots, passing themselves off as experts making the game even tougher for the guys who are enterprising enough to give business a go.

So as a service to would-be entrepreneurs everywhere here are three tips to kick-off your brand development process:

  1. Before you get to do any kind of logo design you need a Brand Model.  That’s a document that defines your brand and its character from as many parameters as you think is appropriate (My Brand Discovery Brand Models have eleven).  Either you must do this for yourself, which is tough if you have no experience of these things, or you should seek the help of a consultant.  A real brand agency will have a prescriptive process that they take you through to establish what your brand is all about and create your Brand Model BEFORE you even talk to a designer.  If they don’t, bid them a polite “good day” and make for the exit!
  2. Next you need to create individual briefs for your logo/package/literature designers.  These MUST be based on your brand model, which is why that comes first.  Among other things, your brief should explain to the designer how you want his work to reflect the important elements of your brand – its character, its promise and the pillars that support the promise.  Again, any brand consultancy worthy of the name will have a briefing format that works with the brand model to provide the designer with the important information he needs to do his job properly.  If they don’t and you are still in the room, think again!
  3. Then you need judgement criteria.  Its easy when you are inexperienced in working with designers to get carried away by the excitement of seeing their work and as a result accept proposals that aren’t spot on.  I can’t over-emphasise the importance of getting details like this right at this earliest stage of your business development.  Start off with the wrong logo or packaging and your business will be compromised until you change it – believe me, you don’t want to go there!  You need a set of criteria against which you will judge each proposal and these criteria will again relate back to your brand model and brief.  If the nice people at your brand consultancy don’t help you with this, its definitely time to take off the rose-tinted specs!

One of the issues that the Singh family were struggling with on the High Street Dreams, was the versatility of their chilli sauce.  They believed that it was good for cooking with, dipping and adding to food like a table condiment, but neither the “brand consultancy” nor their mentors seemed to really address this issue and it came back to haunt them when the category manager at Asda asked “where do you see this sitting in our store.  On condiments or cook-in sauces?”  The answer was both and more, but to make that credible they needed three packaging variation (they didn’t necessarily need three different recipes, although that would have been icing on the cake) A bottle to sit alongside Tabasco sauce, a wide pot to compete with salsa dip and a jar to match cook-in sauces.  Asda wouldn’t necessarily have taken all three, but it would have demonstrated the versatility of their product and given Asda the opportunity to try all three areas of the store to see which gave them the best results.

The Ballards on the other hand had a wholesome product that looked like a lot of things that are supposed to be “good for you” – pretty bloody unappetising!  Their early research had made this point quite decisively.  The agency’s answer was to put it in a box so you couldn’t see it, which is a bit of a nonsense for a product category where customers are particularly keen to see what they are buying.  It’s a dilemma and quite frankly, I don’t have the answer, but then again they haven’t paid me to come up with one, so I’m not at fault.  Unlike their “brand consultancy” who not only failed to resolve the issue, but came up with a package design that looked like a high-school project!

Again, a brand consultancy will sort things like these, because they know about in-store categories and how to work the merchandising.  They’ll also tell you what things you need to do in other areas of your business to bring everything in line with the “promise” that is made by the brand, the product and the packaging.

The new post recession economy is throwing up opportunities every day, but anybody who wants to catch one and run with it is going to have to be smarter and faster than businesses that made it in the old, pre-recession marketplace if they are going to make their High Street Dreams a reality.  If you have your eye on a place in the Top 100 Young Entrepreneurs this year you are going to have to do everything you do better than your competitors and that means hiring REAL experts to help you.  Hopefully I’ll have helped you spot a good brand consultant when you need one.

Michael Weaver
May 12, 2010

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