Seen and not herd

What’s the real cost of the sales seasons on the high street?  That’s the question posed and answered by Laurence Green in this well-considered article in The Telegraph. Green quickly hones in on what he sees as two of the biggest enemies of effective branding today: the impulse to discount; and the compulsion to appeal to everyone that manifests itself in communications that stand out from no-one.

What appear at first to be two completely different issues quickly condense into a single problem.

According to Green, discounting comes at a cost that extends far beyond the lost margin. Their effect, he says, is to slowly unstitch everything that the company has been doing to add value in the minds of consumers across the rest of the year. Indeed Green goes so far as to suggest that “resistance to discounting pressure is one of the hallmarks of a strong brand” and backs up that claim by referring to an address by Mark Ritson of MIT Sloan in which the Associate Professor compared The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

The Gap, Ritson says, has lost its way looking to appeal to everyone, and the permanent “on sale” signs are the clearest sign of that. By contrast, Abercrombie & Fitch has held its premium pricing by staying true to its customer target. In retail, and contrary to apparent logic, it’s actually much harder to appeal to everyone than to appeal to specific groups. Ironically, there’s security in having a smaller but – and this is important – very well defined and understood catchment.

Green clearly sees lack of distinction in today’s advertising as an extension of the same problem. In the bid to appeal to everyone, ideas are “steadily sand-papered into sameness”. By way of proof, he asks what chance David Ogilvy’s “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” would have had in today’s highly researched, highly PC environment. It would have been reduced to a catalogue shot, he says, over a full range of apparent concerns.

Fashion permeates so many aspects of life today that it’s hard not to be influenced by it. There are, of course, many positive aspects to fashion – it changes, it challenges, it directs. But it can also restrict. It can also seem to define. And that can make it very hard to break with. Today’s “it” idea can quickly become everyone’s hope for success. And the result is windows that look the same, offers that sound the same, products that pretty much are the same … And when that happens, when many of the offerings on show are “oh so 2011”, distinctualising becomes a lot more difficult.

The sector quickly becomes a crowd. And the crowd quickly becomes a herd.

In today’s hyper-connected, hyper-aware world, it takes a bold brand not to lapse into sale when everyone has a sale, and not to make shouty boring retail ads that sound exactly the same as everyone else’s shouty boring retail ads. But the risk to brands of doing that is of course far higher than the risk of not doing so – and that seems to me to be Green’s point.
Conforming pulls so many brands into a miasma that not only reinforces more of the same destructive behaviours but appears to give them few other options.

No-one I know has started a brand so that they could just blend with every other retailer in the mall or on the street. They did it because they had a passion for the sector, or because they believed in their talent, or because they wanted to make a success of themselves. Mostly they did it because they believed they could compete and win, and they wanted, as part of that, to be recognised for something and to have pride in what they were doing. And yet that miasma is where too many of them end up – because they lose faith in their convictions. They follow what they think is the market, and that decision quickly lapses into taking cues from others around them.

But here’s the thing – you don’t compete by following your competitors. You compete by responding to your customers.

The next time you’re looking to put the “On sale” sign out, ask yourself this. “Why are we doing this?”. If the real answer is because everyone else is, then you are probably not running your brand, you are allowing your brand to be run. And the need to have sales (particularly regular heavily discounted sales) is a symptom of a more pressing problem – you now mean nothing to the people who buy from you, and you haven’t fixed that.

I’m always amazed by the number of people who say they haven’t got time to go through all that “branding stuff”. But there’s a price to pay for not being very clear about your true value proposition, and the two phenomenon that Green describes are part of that price: you follow the crowd; and you throw your net to wide. The true purpose of an effective brand strategy is to give you the clarity you need to compete effectively. Sale after sale after sale is often an admission that, in the absence of such clarity, you are now willing to sell your brand short. Just like so many others around you.

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