An interesting article in The Drum this week set out to explore the reasons why supermarkets like Morrison’s have a chameleon-like approach to their brand. In fact this was really all about Morrison’s rather than “supermarkets like them” and deservedly so. Morrison’s are desperate to find their customer and have been running around trying to be a friend to everyone for ages. However, even previous to this they didn’t exhibit the discipline required to build a strong brand. In fact, this may have been the root of their current problems.

Although the article focussed on Morrison’s, there was some truth in the headline. This isn’t just about them it’s a common weakness among businesses in all sectors and stems from a fundamental failure to understand how brands work.

The recent success of budget supermarket chains like Lidl and Aldi has been used by many to argue that brands have no value and if you want to be a retail star you just have to cut your prices. In fact this isn’t so. Sure, price is a factor, but there are others including the inalienable fact that we are and always will be emotional about purchases and that’s where brands score.

Let’s just start with the “trying to be a friend to everyone” issue. Forget it! You can’t. It doesn’t work like this in any context. Even the most well-liked people have enemies and certainly not everyone likes them. Brands work the same way. You are always going to have friends, enemies and a lot of people who fall somewhere in-between. What you have to do is decide who you want to be friends with and court them. By definition, many of the things you do to befriend your chosen group will alienate others. That’s the way it goes.

There’s another factor too. Look around you. Its undeniable that people with the most vivid personalities have the closest friends and strongest friendships. Shy retiring violets don’t get a fan club I’m afraid. That’s another fact of life. Apply this concept to brands and the relationships I called “brandships” and its obvious that the more extreme your brand personality the more likely you are to attract loyal friends, but also alienate people. The question then becomes “What is most important to you, the depth or number of relationships you have?”. The answer generally is that the depth of the relationship or customer loyalty has to be your priority, because your ROI will be higher and companies that invest in relationships are most successful long term.

The worst thing a brand can do is be “woolly”. Once you have defined your brand and created your brand model (which should be an thorough and well-defined process like Brand Discovery, that accommodates all the variables) stick to it. Not only maintain consistency, but constantly up the intensity of the things that you do that are representative of your promise.

Morrisons’ problem isn’t that they don’t have enough brandships (customers). It’s that their business model is based on volume that the market just can’t sustain. It seems that they devised this model during their brief moment of success, when they were moving from a regional operator to become a national player by acquiring the vacant Safeway stores (Which incidentally failed for Safeway largely because they didn’t have the floor space a modern supermarket requires, so this may not have been the wisest move).  It was a bit of a false dawn, but compounded by their inability to keep up with and adjust to events in the rapidly-changing marketplace.

Maybe there’s only one way that Morrison’s are going to escape ultimate oblivion and that’s firstly to define their brand once and for all, then build on it. They need to do this using a dynamic internal-marketing campaign, during which they will begin to address the real issues of structure and practices and possibly even down-size. It’s not what investors like to hear, I know, but a slice of a smaller cake is better than no cake at all.

Phil Darby
November 1, 2014

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