Friday, October 30, 2009

Big Carnival decisions - what's in a champagne brand?

In Victoria we are blessed with one of Australia's most respected locally produced champagnes.... err.... sparkling wines (a few years back the French got very sensitive about the use of the terms 'champagne', bordeaux' etc!). This isn't surprising because our Domain Chandon is produced and owned by the world-renowned Moet & Chandon, that stable stalwart from LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesey).

But the relative merits of brand were recently forced upon me by the imminent task of lubricating friends in the car park at the Spring Racing Carnival. The best price I could get on the Moet was $53 a bottle. The local variety, on the other hand, was $29. When you're buying a number of bottles, you discover this discrepancy has a horrible multiplying effect, to the point where you question the premium you're paying for Chandon relative to, well, Chandon.

Now I am not a champagne/sparkling wine afficianado, but knowing brand is often about perception, I considered buying half and half was a pretty good option. This was based on the rationale that while perceptions and brand awareness were pretty sharp when the first cork popped at around 9:30 a.m., they were somewhat muted by the time the last popped at around 7 p.m.

So, if you're thinking of crashing my party tomorrow on Derby Day, or on Melbourne Cup Day, and you're feeling a bit brand-sensitive (common meaning: "snobby") make sure you're early! And if you're late in the day, you will be turfed out forthwith if you dare to discourse the difference between the morning brew and the local product.

Cheers! Make sure you pick a winner so you can shout next year's Moet & Chandon!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Melbourne's Spring Racing Carnival - a party with substance

From a brand perspective, what makes Melbourne's internationally renowned Spring Racing Carnival so successful? Is it beautiful women dressed for Spring? Is it copious volumes of alcohol consumption? Is it simply great marketing?

While all these things are essential ingredients, I suspect it is because, like all great things, the Spring Racing Carnival has substance built on years of tradition and moments of note. The rest is just the contemporary pizazz required to make horse racing the hub of an extravagant Spring celebration. Without the tradition of the 3200 metre Melbourne Cup (first run in 1861) and the 2500 metre Victoria Derby for three year olds (first run in 1855), this event would not be happening. Better still, without the history, it would be impossible to create the Spring Carnival with the same degree of success.

As I have written in other blogs, the key to the success of branding is remaining true to brand. The Carnival's custodian, the Victorian Racing Club has done this, retaining all the traditions and pageantry while repackaging it to appeal to a new audience.

This year, with brilliant weather forecast for most of the week, the VRC expects the aggregate crowd number for the four days of the Carnival to exceed 400,000 - a huge number for horse racing held anywhere in the world. The worldwide audience for the television coverage, let alone the growing online following, will be in the hundreds of millions for the running of the Melbourne Cup alone.

This is a brand with substance to match the promise. As an avowed follower and unsuccessful owner of throroughbreds, I will of course be included in the headcount for this year's Carnival attendance. No doubt I will contribute heavily to next year's marketing budget and to the general welfare of those employed in racing. But who cares? It's a great tradition, well presented and marketed.

Congratulations to all those involved. I'm happy to pay for the privilege of this great 'brand experience'. Most of all, congratulations to the horses who, with their regally bred ancestors, have delivered the legend that underpins our unique Spring Racing Carnival!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Educating lawyers

This is a brief entry of record. It is to note the date on which I authorised a visit of our legal and compliance crew to our agency in the vain hope of building empathy.

In all probability, it is a foolish plan because a) it assumes lawyers and their ilk can build empathy with another human being and b) they'll probably want to sack the agency when they discover the real world short cuts we take to just get stuff done.

If anything material emerges from this sojourn, I will dutifully record it here - for better or worse. I might even turn out like marriage - when 'worse' eventuates the oath of allegiance becomes a little more tenuous!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tweet, Tweet - The consumer strikes back

You should never promise to write something tomorrow - at least on a specific topic. But, true to word, I am producing a blurb on this at risk of exceeding our modern attention span.

I can remember the days when TV commercials were actually running around 30 seconds, but our creative has to deliver in tighter timeframes these days. Originally, it was to drag media costs down and achieve greater frequency for the same bucks. However, I am convinced that this is one contributor to our diminishing attention span.

TV news has been the additional conditioner massaged in after the cost-cutting shampoo - our pollies honing their skills to deliver their messages in similar timeframes. Or perhaps they aren't. Were they ever able to put more than a dozen sensible words together? At least it gives them fewer words to remember and therefore greater capacity to stay 'on message'. So cynical and unkind of me.

How does this impact on our communication with customers? I believe Twitter is the consumer's ultimate revenge on marketers and also, perhaps, their elected representatives. Consumers are talking in 'tweets' - the web equivalent of the 15-second commercial. So we're all tweeting at each other through various channels. Much of our twitter is inane, but it is eminently digestible, even if it often lacks flavour and looks unappetising.

What our tweeting really achieves is more noise and clutter and, generally speaking, less insight. While you can monitor blogs and responses to track community interaction and conversation around your brand, how can you make sense of tweets? And, if you can detect a positive or adverse trend in all the tweeting, how can you interact effectively and make a plausible argument for or against?

Remember, you have no more than 15 seconds, or 140 characters or less in which to make your point. Can't do it? Sorry, we've already moved onto another subject!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When greed is no longer good

Attended a presentation yesterday on Business and Ethics by Prof. Ed Freeman, who is a visiting scholar to Melbourne University's Trinity College. Ed conducted a quick show of hands around the room to explore common threads in the values we would teach our kids. The three top values were: respect, honesty and selflessness.

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that these are commonly held values - not only in the room yesterday, but around the world. And, proposed Ed, if these values were those we taught our kids, why had they not applied in business over the years. I proposed that Donald Trump's The Apprentice series mantra, 'It's not personal, it's just business', was at the core of the problem. Series like this promote the idea that this philosophy lies at the core of business success (there is an Australian version of The Apprentice built around a mini-Trump, Mark Bouris, currently airing) .

In an era of celebrity and digestible 15-second grabs, how can we expect Gen Ys and beyond to see life any other way when we have shows that promote these values? The interesting thing in the Australia context is that Mark Bouris has already stated in interviews that his success with the Wizard Home Loans group was as much a consequence of being lucky and in the right place at the right time, as well as just bloody hard work. Nothing in that to suggest that you have to be ruthless also.

Professor Ed made a solid case, littered with commercial examples and simple homespun wisdom, to demonstrate that it is the best interests of business to approach and resolve each challenge as you would wish your own children to deal with their issues. But basically, it boiled down to what brand developers have known for years - act in the best interests of your customers and the rest will follow.

I will post on the challenge of the 15-second grab next time!

Friday, October 16, 2009

What happened to the best job in the world?

Remember the award-winning 'Best job in the world' campaign run by Tourism Queensland? Attracted entries from all over the world and a guy from the UK won it. Well, what's happened to it?

Presumably, the aforesaid winner is working his way around Queensland, occasionally parking himself in the penthouse on Hamilton Island to recharge the batteries and contemplate his great fortune. But what about the promotional stuff to flow from it? The beautiful images of Queensland streamed all around the world?

Perhaps I'm in the wrong demographic, but I am a daily user of the web and I haven't seen any follow-up promotion of where I can view this guy's take on Queensland's undoubtedly numerous attractions. And believe me, I drop in on all kinds of websites (no, not those websites you idiot!). I am a great consumer of news from politics down to a diluted round-up of celebrity gossip. The latter is only so I have some vague idea of what my 11-year-old daughter is talking about / listening to when I get home.

But, hey, wait a minute, this all-knowledgeable tweenager living under the same roof as me hasn't mentioned the Queensland reportage either. Must be pitched at a demographic somewhere between me and her.

Alternatively, dare I say it, the follow-up to the campaign hasn't been as good as the campaign itself. If this is the case, it means we just witnessed the execution of the world's most expensive recruitment project!

Cya next week.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Consumer intelligence - is there any?

I attended a conference the other day conducted by, arguably, Australia's leading superannuation fund ratings company, SuperRatings. There you are... my free plug for the day, given because I think these guys do a great job and, most of all, through excellent PR work have convinced us all that they are the leading ratings agency. But I digress.

The conference included a media panel of august journalists from daily newspapers. Notably TV, radio and online media were missing, although newspapers would claim to be the rightful providers of the latter. One journo queried why SuperRatings would readily post info on its top 10 super funds, when it would not readily provide a list of the worst performers - in recent times, these being funds who had lost more of our retirement savings than others. The debate that followed was around assessing fund performance - short term versus long-term and whether it was valid or even misleading to provide short-term numbers.

This led to the point of this blog entry - consumer intelligence. The journos argued, I believe with some justification, that consumers were smart enough to work out that when you're investing for 30 years or more, you should focus on long-term performance - even if you publish short-term (one year comparisons). This is markedly different than the industry view, which is that consumers have poor financial literacy and that it has to spell everything out chapter and verse in monosyllables that, in the words of one of Australia's more colourful Prime Ministers, Gough Whitlam, "even you can understand".

The interesting thing is that the industry, 'guided' by its regulators, then goes on to produce reams of technical and legalistic 'disclosure' information that no one can understand unless they are, not only financially literate, but literary scholars. The point is that by marking consumers as reasonably intelligent, the journos produce a much superior communications outcome.

As I hear the industry lynch mob gathering in the corridors outside my office, I appreciate this is heresy from an industry insider. Our lawyers, actuaries, investment specialists and others will loudly decry the lack and distortion of detail in the general media and even in the industry ratings surveys. They are obsessed with the ifs, buts and maybes that permeate finance - investment allocations within portfolios, risk tolerance, quality of advice.. yadda.. yadda.. yadda...

The point is that punters just want things spelt out in plain English. They want unqualified statements and commentary to help them understand. And I believe they make allowances for media shortcomings. If their fund has stuffed their retirement planning in the last twelve months, or even the last month, they want to know about it. League tables are easy to understand. They say "my fund is great" or otherwise. I believe they are smart enough to not move their money straight away, but they are alerted to the fact that they better keep a closer eye on things over time.

And guess what? This means they are suddenly more engaged with their finances and who is managing their money. Immediately, the industry can stop paying lip service to achieving greater engagement. This is all good......Isn't it?

Oh, wait a minute! That means we're all going to be more accountable and maintain or even improve performance across all facets of the business. Remind me, did we ever assume we would be dealing with informed and engaged consumers in the brand strategy manual? I hope so.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Is entrepreneurism the key to brand success?

Why is consensus so valued in business life? What makes a consensus decision better than a unilateral one? Despite having no natural resources, other than a best-practice geographic location, Singapore thrived under benevolent dictatorship (putting aside various human rights arguments for the moment).

Strategy meetings are only a gathering of varying opinions and perspectives around the table. Apart from views expressed by the lunatic fringe, most ideas from professional people have some merit based on a sequence of logic. But what meetings achieve is one of two things a) a compromised outcome which, by definition, means proceeding with a lack of organisational conviction based on 100% buy-in or b) dominance of strategy presented by the most forceful presence, or person with the highest rank, in the room. The latter can be very positive or negative depending on the quality of the idea.

Outcome (b) is more likely in entrepreneural and/or owner-operated environments. Richard Branson has built the global Virgin brand on the force of his own personality. Analysts might not like the way Virgin operates, or how its finances have teetered from time to time, but at least the company has some clear conviction about what it stands for. Consumers love it or hate it. Enough love it to make it successful. They don't care about those who hate it because they don't have to. Their brand engenders tribal loyalty.

Of course, outcome (a) is generally the province of the corporate world, where executives have become so obsessed with political correctness, analyts' day-to-day doodlings about short-term performance etc. that they spend far too long securing buy-in and not enough time leading. I propose that this model tends to stifle brand conviction and, therefore, success in an era of high-speed communication, hyper velocity of money around the globe and so on.

Consumers have taken control of brand positioning and corporate reputation because, in the absence of clear brand definition and corporate conviction, they are free to disseminate their own ideas on brand positioning to friends, rellies and.... well, anyone with access to their blog or favourite chatroom. But they are merely filling the vacuum that brands with a clear identity should fill.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Are marketing communications skills transferable?

I remember the good old days, when marketing and communications types frequently hopped from one industry sector to another - accumulating insights and experience that they could apply to the next sector on which they inflicted their ideas and practices.

But is it as easy today? When companies are recruiting marketing/communications people, are the professional skills and insights valued more highly than industry knowledge? The reason I ask is that you see all kinds of people promoted into so-called marketing roles. In the financial services sector, in which I am currently employed, I recently attended a meeting with the actuary made reponsible for marketing within a highly regarded international consulting firm.

The interesting aspect of this meeting was that it never proposed a call to action. After 30 minutes, I was prompted to ask "So what are we supposed to do with this information? What exactly are you offering us?" I suppose, as a potential client, I was feeling sorry for the geyser and gave him the opportunity to get to the point. Another prospect would have been more likely to shanghai him out the door.

The point is that, in this case, he wouldn't be able to close a sale to save himself. Even when asked the question, he was desperately searching for a relevant answer!

Now the face-to-face sales presentation is really the pointy end of marketing - the conversion point. But this experience did bring into sharp focus the question of whether companies are recognising that: a) marketing and communications are professions, similar to actuaries and lawyers, with fundamental skills and experience required; and b) that there is substantial value in introducing new perspectives and techniques from other sectors into organisations in order to provide them with a better client perspective.

Obviously, my comments relate primarily to corporate marketing and communications environments. Agency staff, by definition, usually work across multiple sectors, unless they service a massive international client.

What are your experiences of this?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fiji - proof that people are your greatest asset

It's ok folks. Despite a tsunami warning on my last day in Fiji, I'm back. Great place. Great people. But sorry for all the neighbouring Samoans, who appear to be similarly blessed as a community of goodwill. My sincere commiserations to them all. I hope they get their lives back on track as soon as they can, although can you ever do this when you have lost those close to you?

But back to the subject of this entry - people as your greatest asset. I stayed at a resort that shall remain nameless. The point about this from a brand perspective is that, despite abysmal a la carte servings from the kitchen (buffet dinners were ok), starving horses worked to death taking tourists on beach rides and a few other gliches, I would consider going back to this resort.

Why? Well it's not because it is well located, because so are others. The reason is that the people working there were first-class. Ok. Perhaps a little relaxed in true Fijian style, so don't put in an urgent request, but very eager to please and help even the most demanding guests. I won't rattle on about this because I think you'll already get the point. This resort, despite the shortcomings of its product offer was, for me, saved by the attitude of its staff.

It is for them that I would return. There are clear lessons in this for all brand custodians.