Avoiding the bland trap during times of recession

The worst thing a brand can do is to scrimp on the quality of its products during a recession. Even cutting back on adspend is preferable, argues Sean Brierley

On the first day back from my holiday last week I found that one of my manager colleagues had Tipp-Exed his initials on a wooden coat hanger. His number two had a plastic coat hanger with his full name Sellotaped to the top.

An anthropologist might suggest that they were using the hangers as a totemic assertion of hierarchical authority, thereby establishing a hatstand pecking order in the office: senior managers wooden coat hangers, middle managers plastic moulded and so on and so on until you literally get down to the wire.

My company could take its cue from my colleague by presenting new hangers to newly promoted staff. Further differentiation could be asserted through whether the wooden and plastic variants include the significant trouser bar – not an essential feature of office coat hangers, but symbolically important nonetheless.

Ever since the second series of The Office started three weeks ago, the media has socio-babbled about the way the programme satirises the modern office environment. Psychologists, anthropologists and TV critics have referred to the fact that the grotesque caricatures contain elements of people we know.

But the real reason why this show is so poignant is not because it describes the foibles and failures of others, but because it describes ourselves. The reason we cringe when we watch it is because the central character, David Brent, is someone we identify with. It highlights an essential trait in us all that successful brands address – the desire for recognition.

In this media age of fame and celebrity we all crave to stand out from the crowd. The desire to be somebody important is brilliantly satirised in The Office. From the office manager, David, who wants to be an entertainer, to the team leader, Gareth, who wants to be in the SAS, none of the characters wants the lives they lead.

This powerful emotion gets to the heart of the relationship between consumers and successful brands. Last month the Advertising Association published a new report – The True Cost of Cutting Adspend. Surprise, surprise, it claimed that companies which cut advertising in a recession damage the future of the brand. Successful brands, it claims, are those that spend money on advertising in a recession.

The research said that smaller brands that have maintained adspend during recessions have fared better than leading brands. The report added that even top brands lost brand position if they cut adspend. The research, which spanned 26 years and was based on leading UK grocery brands, found that category leaders tend to maintain market position as a result of steady adspend. The problem with this analysis is that it does not take into account the effect of cutting back on the quality of products during a recession. For the companies that cut adspend are also those that cut the quality of their services.

The confusion comes from a view advertising agencies propagate: that brand building is synonymous with advertising. It isn’t. Advertising is an expensive way of supporting brand values. This is the difference between a successful brand and a bland.

Successful brands add distinct and beneficial values in their chosen markets. They develop relationships with the consumer. They flatter, support and cultivate them. They massage their egos and diminish their anxieties. They address the fundamental fears, anxieties and pettinesses of their customers’ lives. They make people feel good about themselves. Successful brands treat consumers as if they are the most important people on the planet.

Blands such as British Gas, Shell, the Royal Mail, British Telecom, all of the American airlines and all of the banks do not demonstrate the ability to make their customers feel important. They just spend lots of money on meaningless advertising and offer no distinct values.

Virgin Atlantic was once a successful brand. This was not because of its fine advertising campaigns or its frequent flyer programme, which may be one of the most effective loyalty schemes in the history of marketing. The real reason was because of the consumers’ experience of using the service. When people flew Virgin Atlantic, they were treated as if they were special. The aircrew lived the brand. Consumers came off Virgin flights feeling that they had received the best treatment and the best quality of service.

After my flight last week I think of Virgin as just another airline. The food on the trip was anaemic and the entertainment system worked like it had been bought as a job lot from Aeroflot. Worst of all, the staff were indifferent and absent for most of the flight, only appearing to palm off crappy sandwiches on the passengers. The brand had lost its lustre. The magic had gone.

The most damaging thing that can happen to a brand in a recession is not cutting back advertising spend, but cutting back on the quality of the service. When the good times return, Virgin will be in a much weaker position for compromising the quality of its service than it would be for axing some posters and TV commercials. In the meantime, I’m off to buy a platinum coat hanger with my initials inlaid with weapons-grade uranium. That’ll show them.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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