One of my favourite research methods for finding out about brands is to get people to talk about their memories and relationship with that brand. What part did it play in their life at various stages? What sounds, smells, images do they associate with that brand?
A recent news item (which I'll come on to) got me thinking about the brand Oxfam, which has long been part of my life. The brand, originally founded as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief had already been going over a quarter of a century when our family established a ritual of picking out the Christmas cards from the Oxfam catalogue. I don't know if Oxfam invented the charity Christmas card, but they were certainly one of the pioneers.
I also associate Oxfam in my late 60s and early 70s childhood with textiles and design. I am sure we had one of the Belinda Lyon tea towels, pictured above. And we still have a (well-used) Twit Twoo cushion.
As the 70s moved into the 80s, and throughout that decade, the local Oxfam shop became a rich source of teenage/20s vitals: second-hand clothes from the 50s and 60s (no-one called them vintage then), books and records. The idea of the charity shop did come from Oxfam - they opened their first back in 1948.
Having dumped armfuls and box-loads of clothes, records and books back in Oxfam in the 90s, as I moved to Germany, I entered a rather Oxfam-lean period, although I now see that there are 42 shops in Germany, and the books are mounting up again ...
Oxfam has 1,200 shops worldwide and is the largest retailer of second-hand books. Another recent discovery for me is the website, the store part of which is a treasure trove of everything from vintage dresses, to original art, to military memorabilia. An Ebay with a conscience.
This brings me full circle to the news. Last week's London Fashion Week kicked off with an Oxfam Vintage Runway Show, titled 'Fashion Fighting Poverty'. Styled by Vogue Fashion Editor Bay Garnett, supermodels strutted their stuff in gorgeous vintage outfits from Oxfam. Pictures and report here.
Back in the 80s, fashion and charity shops were worlds apart. It's wonderful to see them come together to put on a show of sustainable fashion.
I've been spending more and more of my time reading and talking about Brand Purpose in the last few years. And it occurred to me the other day: what would I say if asked what the difference is between Brand Purpose and Brand Position?
Tricky. Those hours I spend these days on Purpose used to be spent on Position and Positioning. Are they maybe one and the same?
I'm not sure, in the end, that the terms are interchangeable. I'm beginning to think that Purpose is maybe a more relevant term for the world of brands and branding today. I've already written here about the static nature of the idea of a Brand Position.
Furthermore, taking a position, or positioning a brand suggests we're looking at things in a market or category, in comparison to other brands in that category. It's the Spice Girls principle: oh, that's the expensive one, that's the fun one, that's the cheap and cheerful one, that's the grown-up one. It's all about differentiation of items that are all basically similar.
But with categories today such as 'mobility', or brands like airbnb, does that really work? I'm not sure.
What I like about the idea of Brand Purpose is that it gets you to nail down what is unique about that brand, not merely what differentiates it within its (artificially-defined) category. And it's something active, that can inspire and drive everything you do with the brand, rather than merely defending your corner, which positioning sort of implies.
I don't think Purpose necessarily has to be high-falutin' and about saving the planet. It is, in simple terms, the answer to the question: what is the point of your brand? Why does it exist (beyond making money)?
To continue the Spice Girls analogy, I suppose finding their purpose is what each of them had to do when the band split.
The actor Morgan Freeman, when asked once about Black History Month, said that it was 'ridiculous', and maintained the way to get rid of racism is to 'stop talking about it.'
I'm getting a bit like that about sexism - at least as far as Western markets go. I don't deny that there is serious work to be done (and probably not by brands) to achieve gender equality in some parts of the world. But I wonder whether some of the recent (Dove/Always- esque) campaigns on this theme that I've seen create problems where maybe there aren't any.
Practically every female-orientated product that I buy these days seems to be promising to empower me in some way or another, whether I like it or not. And these are inevitably accompanied by campaigns of the sort above. Cue that melancholic keyboard, cue the cute little girls.
I'm beginning to wonder if it's a US issue. Somehow, growing up in the UK, where our best kings were queens, and living in Europe where female leaders are everyday, it just doesn't seem to be an acute problem. The campaign above, from BBDO and called Put Her on the Map is a public service campaign to get more US city streets and public landmarks named after women. The idea is: Let's inspire girls by celebrating inspiring women.'
Can't girls just get inspired by inspiring people? I know I was.
Maybe I am cynical, but I wonder if all this 'female empowerment' marketing is simply lazy. And, more worrying, whether it's the same old marketing trick: creating needs and problems in people's minds (in this case young girls') that aren't really there.
Yesterday it was stubborn stains, today it's gender equality.
I must admit to having felt slightly queasy about the Budweiser 'patriotic rebrand' this summer, whereby the 'great American lager' was packaged in a new design where 'US' replaced 'AB' and 'America' replaced the brand name, along with the slogan 'America is in your hands.' Odd, really, as I have no qualms about brands from the UK getting all patriotic now and again .
Maybe the difference lies with the tonality: the British way is almost always tongue-in-cheek and rather self-deprecating whereas the Budweiser packaging seemed bombastic and taking itself far too seriously. I wasn't the only one, however: plenty of liberal-minded commentators found the Trump-style rebrand a little hard to swallow.
Budweiser is now coming in for criticism for its Super Bowl commercial: Born the Hard Way, which follows what I expect is a new advertising trope for 'story of our founder starring a moody and hunky young actor' - see Burberry.
Born the Hard Way tells the story of the founder of Anheuser-Busch, the brewers of Budweiser. Adolphus Busch was born just down the road from us, funnily enough, in Mainz-Kastel. He emigrated to St. Louis in 1857, at the age of 18, and the rest is history.
The film emphasises the difficulties faced by immigrants, and the hard work put in by Busch to found and develop what has become 'the great American lager.'
So now the criticism is coming in from the other side: the Trump supporters who see this as blatant anti-Trump propaganda.
I'm not too convinced that politics and beer is a good mix, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see a few more of these 'founder stories' doing the rounds.
When I was little, I wanted to be a spy. I got off to a good start, studying Psychology at Trinity College, Cambridge but somehow got side-tracked into the wonderful world of advertising and marketing.
My children's books: