The Brand Iceberg

Several times in the past I’ve written about the challenges of managing brands from the top of companies, in particular in a turbulent trading environment we find ourselves in. According to various experts the world we are in is likely to get worse before it gets better.

It would seem French Connection is another retailer having a torrid time based on their stock market profit warnings and I wonder to what extent is the brand a problem over and above the numerous practical issues such as falling consumer demand, pressures on pricing, manufacturing sourcing etc., etc?

In my recent mini-book I talk about a notion of brand health based on a view of brand equity, i.e. the value placed on a brand by all interested parties. The hypothesis is brands fall in to one of three zones; Rising Stars, Orbiting Stars and Fading Stars. For example Facebook continues to be a Rising Star and its IPO reflects that position.

The commentators in the serious grown up press operate with the same perspectives from the finance spot; analysts work on the buy, stick, sell advice on a daily basis. The same applies from the customers spot albeit on a slightly longer time line than analysts.

My contention is that all brands are in one of the three zones and the responsibility of top management is to have a very firm grip of forward navigation. It is all too easy for a brand that has enjoyed Rising Star status for years suddenly hits the brand iceberg and is holed. The question is how fatal the collision might be and the ability of the captain to avert disaster.

I know very little about the market French Connection are in, I’ve never worked in fashion as such although I have worked on fashionable brands, different entities. It would appear NEXT are doing fine so why are they and not French Connection? One question could be the legacy of FCUK which was the driver of growth for a while, it was dropped some time ago however there are still plenty of people walking around sporting ‘t’ shirts with the FCUK logo in  prominent position.

FCUK was for me in the same territory as the Club 18-30 campaign which featured posters talking about muff diving and similar smutty, school boy sniggers. FCUK was a one-off idea, good for a one-off laugh, but not a campaign to build a brand’s future on.

Years ago I found myself in deep water with Cadbury for similar reasons. We had shot a new commercial for Cadbury’s Flake in the South of France and when I saw the edit for the first time a small lizard slithered across a white telephone next to a sexy female. The creative team convinced me ‘it just happened on the day’. It went out on air with the lizard still there. Within days I took a panic call from Cadbury telling us to take it off air due to the sexual overtones of the lizard. The order had come down from the then CEO, Sir Adrian Cadbury. Pretty impressive Sir Adrian not only spotted the ad but also immediately suspected some slight of hand on the lizard front.

His concern was the potential accusation of running soft porn on television across the nation and denting the good name of Cadbury. We did however conduct some focus groups with women and nobody objected or regarded it as offensive. When Sir Adrian was shown the research he accepted the findings and the lizard was back on air.

[By the way some years later I was talking to the creative lead on this shoot and he admitted they had deliberately placed the lizard on the telephone!]

My point here is brand management operating at the very top of a large organisation, concern about the reputation of the master brand, but then being big enough to have a change of heart once a bit of investigation concluded it wasn’t a biggy in the real world.

There are plenty of own goals where massive mis-judgements backfire such as the classic Gerald Ratner remark about the quality of the merchandise his shops sold. He destroyed a business with one comment trying to be amusing but essentially going public on his belief that Ratners customers were mugs because they bought cheap rubbish.

I’m not for one minute suggestion caution and conservatism at all times, indeed I am a big advocate of bravery. However there is clearly a judgement line in the sand that needs careful scrutiny. I do wonder if French Connection has been wounded by the FCUK campaign because I would guess the 27 year old today is likely to cringe about wearing a t shirt with FCUK across the front when they were 17. If true it damns the brand to a certain time zone and to a certain age group.

Where brands flirt with sexual innuendo the fine line in the sand becomes very important. BBH have done it well a few times – Levi 501’s for years and also with Haagen Daaz.   It is dangerous territory to hand a brief to a creative department with sex written in to the brief as it always seems every team has a draw full of vagina and willy jokes ready to present to the client.

I would venture a view that brand icebergs are multiplying therefore that radar needs to be on red alert always, and the Board need to become familiar with the intel. If overall demand and spending is challenged then it is inevitable the brands with less of a relevance today, or have a few blemishes, maybe the odd reputation skeleton in the cupboard they are going to more vulnerable that the brands in a better position. This is based on elementary economic theory, supply and demand and all that good stuff. Most of us need a reason not to buy from Brand A, elimination of options, rather than a reason to consider.

I wish French Connection every success in addressing their challenges.



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