When something just works

Last week I was lucky enough to be given some money. Won’t elaborate on the circumstances but it was a really nice surprise. And good timing too.

I like my music and have gradually been dragged into the modern age  – i.e. the one that my children regard as the norm – through fantastic products like Spotify and Sonos. In particular I’ve been mesmerised by two Sonos products: the Play 1 and its software, and one supporting brand in Flexson. I have a ‘proper’ system but I’m beginning to realise that these components are seriously good alternatives and allow you to build a listenable system initially for relatively little cash. A very clever idea.

Quite often, you have great tangibles let down by less strong software. It’s a common grumble in the world of photography for example and my DVD player software is a homage to Space Invaders. It’s quite a challenge for businesses to decide whether they’re a software house selling hardware or vice-versa. It’s uncommon to get the balance right. But after Apple, this is a brand that really does impress.

So, with said windfall I decided to ‘twin up’ on the existing Play 1 and make a stereo pair, which Sonos tells me is a piece of cake. I then have the quandary of where to put them. I decide a pair of stands is best and chance upon the Flexson Play 1 range – built specifically for the Sonos system and British made.

Then I look at the reviews. On the page the stands look almost flimsy but they are reviewed highly so I ‘click and collect’ at John Lewis and wait 24 hours. In the meantime I located mains power points for the units, and pondered where I was going to get some black ties to deal with the wires which were bound to show, given how narrow the stands were. Wasn’t looking forward to that.

So I collected and drove home then unpacked the goodies. I had to move around a number of the Sonos units and reprogramme them but that was so simple, so straightforward. As I said, great software.

Then came the Flexson stands. Clear instructions, minimal tools, options for carpet or solid floor positioning AND…. a channel up the rear of the stand strut to hide the wire! Genius.

In a few minutes the newly-enabled stereo system was ready for another little marvel: Sonos Trueplay. I’d not heard of this before. It apparently optimises the units to their location, given that some sitings are less than ideal acoustically. Suddenly it felt like an episode of Dr Who or something as strange pulsing, hypnotic sounds and some mandatory arm-waving (with an iPhone in hand) were involved. Was I joining a cult? Was I giving over my brain to some distant power? Weird, but in the end, Trueplay simply announced my room acoustics were OK and it was all going to be fine.

Single stand in-situ
Look, no wires!
The pair together. And what a sound they make.

So, call up Spotify, choose a track and go. My goodness, I thought the Play 1 was very good on its own but put two together and it’s breathtaking what comes out of these very modestly sized units! I listened to it for about three hours and tried all sorts of stuff on it. I realised after a while I had had a broad grin on my face for most of that time.

So, firstly this is a completely independent review. I am not associated with any of these companies in any way. I just like products that over-deliver in a very understated way and make the whole experience of putting things together even simpler than you ever thought possible. This marriage of hardware, software and third party add-ons gives you an insight of how the right people doing the right things really do make life a pleasure. So, Spotify, John Lewis, Sonos and Flexson, take a bow. I hope you all have a prosperous Christmas because you deserve it! And I am now just that little bit more loyal than I was before.






‘So This Is Christmas…’

…opens John Lennon’s infamous seasonal offering, and we TV viewers are all now in the thick of the retailers’ annual assault on our buying power.

Christmas UK retailer advertising. Is it advertising or a movie show? And does it work?

The trend towards the big, cinematic statement has been growing in recent times and there is now an established divergence in approach from the traditional ‘this is what we sell to complete your Christmas’, to a much more nebulous articulation of brand values – to the extent that I’m not quite sure what some of these brands are trying to say.

On the back of this is an increasingly breathless media commentary peddling the notion that the launch of these ads in itself is an important event – like Paris Fashion Week. Really? Maybe the media is genuinely interested in how our Christmas shopping habits are influenced by retailer advertising, but maybe it also helps to massage the egos of the various retailer brands involved who, let’s not forget, are all significant media spenders. Harry Wallop in the Daily Telegraph give us the low down on Waitrose and on the rest of the season’s key offerings or maybe look at this too? Certainly  the people at the Telegraph watch a lot of telly  – and I appreciate their help with my content.

Over recent years the ‘flagship’ ads have evolved into something way beyond a humble advert. They are mini-features with big screen production values. Running with the leaders – John Lewis, M&S and the like – is a big budget affair. This year John Lewis spent £1m to literally put their man on the moon and a further £6m for airtime. Another one weighing in with a tangential approach is Sainsbury’s, with three and a half minutes of Mog the cat. Both are liberated from any direct product references. Only at the end do we even find out who the retailer is, although the retailers are absolutely confident that this is implicit.

In amongst the links above, you’ll find Rachel Swift, head of brand marketing at John Lewis, explaining: “It is has become part of our handwriting as a brand. It’s about storytelling through music and emotion. The sentiment behind that hasn’t changed – and that is quite intentional. The strategy behind our campaigns is always about thoughtful gifting”. Sounds amazing but I’m struggling to see the USP?

There is also the sub-text of John Lewis asking us to think about the lonely at Christmas. Sainsbury’s and the Royal British Legion last year is another memorable (and notorious) example: an increasing feature of ad offerings in recent years as CSR builds momentum in Annual Reports. And how is the ROI on that measured I wonder – purely on the Christmas trading performance or is there an aspiration for a deeper-seated, longer term affinity to the brand? How do you differentiate in your board report?

But not all the big guys follow this route. Compare these with the direct, more traditional approach of say Aldi, ASDA, Morrisons and Tesco. It’s people-centred in terms of both employees and shoppers, and with simpler objectives. A clear divide has emerged between the cinematic and pragmatic.

It’s hard isn’t it? Retailers are all desperate for a good trading season, yet their customers have mostly become more hard-headed about Christmas spending. Certainly, technology mercilessly exposes price so is appealing to our emotional side alone the better option? I’m not sure.

In October The Retail Bulletin forecast a ‘good not great’ Christmas and pointed towards evidence that the growth of online spend will slow down. Maybe it’s driven by shoppers now guilt-free about shopping with discounters (where fewer have a developed e-commerce channel)? Or due to past disappointments with fulfilment. When all is said and done, people have very simple needs: give me some ideas, prove that you have the products and promise to get them to me in time for the big day.

So, for me, these will be the cornerstones of success for Christmas trading. And not much of it is steeped in emotion. Unless you have to hand out empty stockings on Christmas morning:

  • Keen prices. Winners will either genuinely offer the best for less, or will have a differentiated offer based on pack size or ‘added value’ bundling.
  • High and low-end ranges will do well. The middle ground will be far more patchy. Value is king.
  • Flawless availability. The winners will have stocks and good supply chain.
  • Crucially, they will get it to you in time. This will not only mean offering guarantees about pre-Christmas delivery, but may also play into the hands of the bricks and mortar stores where ‘a bird in the hand…” could be crucial. Watch out pureplay: you are a one trick pony.
  • My one concession to emotion is that in-store merchandising and theatre is a big deal. Department stores are good at this. And if you are looking at an area where John Lewis really does excel, then here it is. Quite why the food retailers still think it just needs a few red and green shelf barkers and ceiling-high shelving of packets of things to create in-store experience beats me. It’s the most important day of the year for goodness sake!! Show us how to cook the turkey, show us how to dress the table, show us how to create a domestic idyll, and let us taste a menu to get us salivating! And do it in-store. That’s where the disconnect between ad creative and reality really does kick in. And it shows.


Whilst it’s all mildly entertaining to watch the various retailer offerings, my spending will be determined by the rational, hard-headed decisions we are all increasingly pulling into even this notoriously mushy area of household budgeting. I’m putting on my Greg Lake record now. Bah, humbug!

Update: 16 December 

With the season now well on the way to being done and (sugar) dusted, I came across this progress report in Marketing Week. Admittedly it’s verging on old news, and I hadn’t seen the Aldi ‘Man on the Moon’ ad, but it seems my view that John Lewis was relying a little too much on the grand cinematic gesture seems to be borne out by the media analysis. As usual the nimble pretender stands a very good chance of running rings round the behemoths. But it’s not quite over yet: watch this space!



(Cyber)Crime And Punishment

Cybercrime. Should it now be a key concern for marketers wanting to protect their brand equity?

Yesterday I woke up to Simon Jack’s business slot on BBC R4’s ‘Today’ programme. He was interviewing Nick Hungerford of Nutmeg Asset Management who admitted to being kept up at night by the responsibility of handling personal data. This was a prelude to the big story around  Talk Talk’s trading update and a further opportunity to give CEO Dido Harding a grilling over the recent hack (although it was compared to the infamous Heartbleed hack as a ‘hackette’ – maybe a new one for the 2016 edition of OED’s new words). I missed his interview with Dido Harding but she didn’t get an easy ride off Bill Turnbull on BBC Breakfast. The results are not bad – all things considered – although the hack has cost them £35m so far, as well as 30% off the share price. That’s a big slice, and as the voice of the consumer, Bill Turnbull asked the probing questions we all expect, and CEO’s dread, about ‘trust’ and ‘security’.

It’s a vexed question. Ask any marketer what they aspire to instil in customers for their brand and ‘Trust’ probably figures very close to the top. As we all know, hard to win, easy to lose… etc. So maybe brand-responsible marketers have to ask some questions of their IT counterparts?

It now goes beyond the usual headache of protecting personal data for CRM campaigns and the like. It is on an entirely different scale. Few of us like to be bombarded with unwanted texts, emails and junk mail. Neither do we like our details being hawked round to the highest bidder. But it’s an irritant, not a crisis. When we entrust suppliers with our bank details, only to find that someone has run off with our hard earned cash. THAT’S when ‘trust’ really does become a big deal. Make no mistake, the time, stress and uncertain outcome of dealing with losing the contents of a personal bank account is going to test the brand loyalty of a saint.

And when it happens the spotlight’s glare is strong. Dido Harding has been criticised for saying too much, saying too little, being delphic about encryption – and so on. But Ms Harding put up a robust and common sense defence. She decided to break the news early and openly, as most media advice states. She also made the discomfiting point that this is now an everyday threat for all e-trading businesses where the walls constantly need to be built higher and higher.

We consumers have now woven e-commerce into our daily lives. If I asked you to tell me how many companies you had shared your bank or credit card details with, would you know? How many of us have asked about security arrangements, encryption etc BEFORE we hand over the information? And yet as victims, when the worst happens not only are we poorer, we are mad. Very mad. Brandowners need to think hard about this. Brand trust is no longer just about product performance or the general consumer experience, it’s increasingly about the unglamorous fundamentals of privacy and security.

So. Firstly, a ‘Talk Talk’ scenario could happen to anyone trading online. Even you. Secondly, regardless of who is managing your back office, the buck stops with you. Do you know what the protocols are? And do you have a Crisis Plan that talks to this type of event? Thirdly, the stakes are high. Once it’s public, customers are quick to judge. What would 30% off your share price mean to you? How would you recover that trust and the lost sales? Instead of thinking about your next product-centric campaign, why not consider the following proposition:

‘You can absolutely trust us to keep your data safe. Oh, and by the way we also make really nice widgets……’ .

It might be on the campaign plan sooner than any of us think. And ‘Guaranteed Data Security’ could very soon be a big plus on your next strategic SWOT exercise.

Postcapitalism. The beginning of the end?

Paul Mason, Economics Editor of Channel 4, has a book out (‘Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future‘, Allen Lane £16.99). In this month’s  Marketing (Nov ’15) it gets a fair amount of comment. And so far it has an average of four stars amongst Amazon’s reviewers (46 reviewers as of today), plus a positive and detailed review by David Runciman in The Guardian (15 Aug ’15).

They are both extensive commentaries and it’s a heavyweight book, judging by the breadth and depth of sources he namechecks: from Shakespeare to Marx, to – would you believe – Kondratiev’s long-wave theory. No, I’ve not read that one either. So I won’t go on regurgitating the views of other any further, as I want to dwell on one of the main points that maybe all we marketers should be dwelling on.

It appears that Marketers may not in future have much in the way of ‘product’ to market. There is a shift from revenue-based marketing to sharing. If you are a manufacturer that scoffs at that notion, what are you doing about 3D printing? And before those in the service or knowledge-based sectors are overcome with smugness, this means you too. When was the last time you or I subscribed to a magazine like ‘Which? Or indeed any other publication?  How many of us feel we any longer need an Independent Financial Advisor for advice on pensions, insurance,  savings etc.? We no longer need experts. We rely on each other: on an inchoate, anonymous but nonetheless respected group of peers to advise or validate almost anything we buy.

In fact, consider this very piece. So far, absolutely everything I have read about Mr Mason’s book has been ‘free’. In the public domain there is a fair chunk of stimulating knowledge. All gratis. Eventually I might have to buy the book, having also thought carefully about whether an amateur or professional review holds more weight, although I am a little in awe of  Paul Mason’s learning. And a little learning goes a long way when a very knowledgeable reviewer can ‘gut’ the book for me for free. The rest, on the broader subject of capitalism and socialism in their various forms, I got from Wikipedia and my own hazy recollection of my university Politics lectures. Neither are perfect, but who needs perfectionism anyway?

And maybe it gets worse. We are increasingly uncomfortable with buying from new. We share or exchange furniture, garden tools, car journeys, even restaurant meals  – much to the consternation of the Parisian restaurant owners amongst others. Although, to be fair, in that case you aren’t eating in restaurants but in someone’s home. I knew someone who was strapped for cash but loved eating out of home. She regularly went to these in Manchester and loved it. But the point is clear: ecological guilt, straightened times  and a free knowledge base  – courtesy of the internet –  means an inexorable move towards the question: “why am I PAYING for this? Can I get it free, or simply for as long as I need it?’

It’s long been the default thinking of the anarchist or nihilist, but the respectable middle classes, on whom the whole edifice of capitalism rests upon? See, socialism is sweeping from the very left to the middle and maybe well beyond, right into the very heartland of people brought up on phrases such as ‘you get what you pay for’, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ and so on.  Of course, we could spend a lot of time refining what ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ really mean, but deep down, I suspect that most of us are beginning to feel different about the acquisitive society we have spent most of our lives in.

So can you think of a product or service, be it public or private sector, that doesn’t aspire to having some sort of revenue objective behind it? Money makes the world go round. Marketers invest in selling a product or service, hoping to get a return on what they are selling. Maybe building a brand rooted in ‘value’ along the way. So if in future there are increasingly fewer products for which consumers will willingly part with their cash, where does that leave marketers – and business in general? What do you think?

Marketing Kindling

Right, I’ve started a blog. What now? The first post… along with all the usual writer’s block traits of sweaty palms, blank pieces of paper, screwed up pieces of the paper in the bin (or nearby). You get the picture. So, how about a ‘raison d’etre’?

I’ve been marketing (‘big ‘M’ or small ‘m’?) a long time. Twenty years or so in fact. What have I learned? What is worth passing on? Well firstly, not all of this will be about Marketing. Because Marketing does not exist in its own right. It is epicentral to any successful business but only if connected to all the other functions.

Also, I have a bent for lifelong learning. There’s a lot of advice and instruction around. Some of it sticks and it’s good to share it.

So, what you’ll hopefully find in here – in no particular order – will be my thoughts and discoveries on:

  • People and people development
  • Brands
  • Marcomms
  • Retailing
  • Things I’ve read that I want to share
  • Things I’ve experienced that I want to share
  • General Management
  • Business
  • Random stuff
  • Maybe the odd bonfire – because bad marketing is everywhere and the Emperor’s New Clothes sometimes need burning.

The main thing I want to achieve is some thought and debate. Don’t swallow any of this stuff for what it is. Your thoughts might be – probably will be – better. Certainly different. This isn’t an ego trip. I want to improve. And you’re going to help me with some interaction and warm debate. I hope.