Wednesday 28 May 2014

Nostalgic Brews

As soon as summer breezes in over the green poppy-lined fields, there's something inside us that gets all nostalgic for the tastes of our childhood. Retro-style sweet shops seem to be dibdabbing up all over the UK and here in Germany, Aldi even has a retro-style own brand offering conserves like Oma used to make as well as flying saucers, sweetie watches and other tooth-rotters from yesteryear.

But it's on the drinks front that most of the action is. In the UK, asking for a ginger beer used to be a case of "do you mean Ginger Ale?" It's now something of a science, with a number of brands on offer, some of them offering alcoholic variants as well as quaint sounding alternatives such as Rose Lemonade and Dandelion & Burdock. Yes, Fentimans - I mean you!

And in Germany, there's another species of drinks that are being pushed, I would guess as the breweries' defence against Bionade. This lot are known as Fassbrause and you can see them up there in all their glory. As far as I understand it, Fassbrause is a sort of brewed lemonade, using malt extract as well as various fruits and herbs that you find knocking about in Wald and hedgerow - typical flavours include Holunder, which is Elder, and rhubarb.

There's a lot of "artisan/Handwerk" chat in the communication as well as "no nasties" - although some of these products are based on alcohol-free beer so are not entirely child-friendly. Krombacher and Veltins are prominent brands, as is Malvit from Bitburger.

Fassbrause was purportedly invented in Berlin in 1908, but I have to say that Fentimans got there first - they date from 1905.

I was wondering if there is an element of rose-lemonade-tinted specs about all this, though. Thinking about it, I didn't spend those long lost summers of childhood drinking Dandelion & Burdock. My memory takes me back to Cresta, Corona, R.Whites and Tizer - a dentist's nightmare if ever there was one!

Friday 23 May 2014

Bad Brands

In the old days, you could spot a bad brand miles off. They spilled oil, or invested in countries with dodgy regimes, or tested cosmetics on baby kittens. And, if you felt strongly enough, you could quite easily boycott them.

But these days, rather like James Bond villains, the bad brands have evolved. Their villainy is less about a big event - it's more subtly ingrained in their way of operation. These brands are quietly instrusive. They insinuate their way into your life through the back door, bearing gifts, posing as a friend. They do a deal with you - your info for my added value. You may go hand in hand for years, singing their praises. But occasionally, they will breach your deal. It may be something small and insignificant, like automatically posting something on your Facebook feed without you having to tick a box. It will make you wonder for a second or two. But the value you get from that brand will probably outweigh the bother of closing the account.

But if it gets more serious? What if a series of articles and documentaries about dodgy practices combined with bad personal experiences pushes you to want to boycott that brand? Unfortunately, these days, it is almost impossible to extricate yourself. I used to love amazon - as someone living abroad, they were a godsend. I started giving something back by writing reviews and, of course, when the time came, Kindle was the obvious choice for my ebook reader.

Amazon, I see, are currently looking for a European agency to help them with their image problem. I expect I could delete all my reviews and my account, and buy another e-reader and all the books I have on my Kindle but, well, life's too short. So I grudgingly continue with amazon, and feel a pang of conscience when I read yet another article about how they treat their staff.

Would it be possible to boycott Google? I doubt it. Even if you did, as from today, your traces remain. Once it's out, it's out.

Privacy is one of the biggest issues for brands today. There's a good report from Flamingo research here which shows how privacy is a pact.

I just hope that privacy, as the new luxury, will not end up being something that can be bought at a price.

Saturday 17 May 2014

Which would you rather be?

For global brands, especially those in retail or fast-food, consistency is still high on the list of desired ways to communicate and behave. We want to be sure that the customer has a similar experience in each of our outlets, and that the picture of the brand he or she gets from our communication is clear and doesn't contradict the reality.

This is fair enough up to a certain point. Of course we want someone in a strange town to recognise our coffee shop and feel a sense of familiarity and knowing what to expect. And design manuals do have a place in terms of making sure that our badges and logos don't start running off and doing their own thing. This is the positive side of consistency - stability and constancy, reliability if you like.

But is it enough? The buzz words describing brands in the 21st century also include a lot about flexibility, adaptability, agility and 'embracing diversity'. And can you really stay ahead if you never pleasantly surprise your customers? Consistency can also mean lack of change, lack of deviation, uniformity.

When people talk of consistency in relation to brands, it is worth looking behind the word to see what the speaker really means. If it starts to sound like speaking with one voice (dictated from some global HQ), regardless of who we are speaking with, dressing in a brand uniform with no regard for individuality, carrying our "matching luggage," then warning bells should sound. This is about control of the organisation, not doing the best for the customers.

I prefer to use the word integrity with its dual meaning of unity/coherence/a whole and the quality of honesty.

It's more difficult to achieve, but in the end, which is more likely to attract more support - a consistent brand or a brand with integrity? 

Sunday 11 May 2014

Not just consuming, but creating

I have always loathed the word "consumer", particularly when prefaced by "the". Yes, I know it's an economic term meaning the person or people who are the end users of products and services and yes, I know it's long-winded to talk about "the people who use Bloggo or the people we'd like to use Bloggo," but I still loathe it because it's de-personalising and lazy.

One characteristic of "consumption" is that the product is not normally improved through the consumer's use of it. OK, this is all fair enough in the case of products which are literally consumed, but in the case of durables or technology, I'm not sure. If I add a personal touch to my IKEA bookcase, or a super-groovy playlist to my iPod, I've certainly improved the product in my eyes through individualisation. It's worth a lot more to me, not just because it's got my name on it, as it were, but because I've invested time and creative energy in it.

And that's just products. Now, consider brands. I'd argue that brands, even those where the product is consumable, are improved through people's use of them. Co-creation has become a bit of a cliche these days, but all brands are co-creations and always were.

Creativity is a fundamental human need. Strangely, it doesn't pop up as such in the 16 Basic Desires of Reiss, but it's on Manfred Max-Neef's 9 Fundamental Human Needs and Maslow has it up in the pinnacle of the pyramid somewhere in the lofty heights of self-actualisation.

Please pause for thought next time the phrase "the consumer" comes trotting out of your mouth. People use or consume your product, but do they consume your brand? I'll leave you with a quote from Bruce Nussbaum's Creative Intelligence from the chapter in which he talks about "A Making Renaissance" and how Making can create a more satisfying life and a stronger economy:

"Perhaps the biggest barrier to making things is the fact that we don't really have to. You can lead a comfortable life without ever lifting a hammer or directing a video or even making dinner from scratch. But all around us are hints that a life without making might not be as satisfying as one in which we do not just consume, but also create."

Sunday 4 May 2014

A nation of shopkeepers?

In Napoleon's day, the English may well have been kings of the retail trade, but the crown in the 21st century for the European country with the most successful retail brands goes elsewhere, according to Interbrand's Best Retail Brands 2014.

Yes, it's the shopkeeping Swedes who have the Top 2 places, with H&M and IKEA, two brands that have rather more in common than their provenance.

Spain takes third place with Zara, while even Napoleon's country of origin beats the Brits with Carrefour in fourth place - and the French have two other retail brands in the top 10. Britain occupies the 5th and 6th spots with Tesco and M&S respectively, but the future doesn't look too rosy for either of these brands, with double-digit year-on-year declines in value (-16% and -14%). One has to look much further down the table to find the relatively small star of British retail - John Lewis at position 39, growing by 36%.

Given the size of the country, Germany is not particularly well-represented in the retail world, with Aldi popping into the Top 10 at number 10.  But that may well change, especially with Lidl showing healthy growth of 15%.

For the meantime, though, the Swedes are Top of the Shops.

P.S. The advertisement above is from my grandfather's shop!