Mark Ritson: Arise archbishops of Cadbury and Yorkie

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One of the central tenets of marketing is always to expect competitors from unexpected places. But the likes of Cadbury, Nestle and Thorntons can rightfully rub their eyes in surprise this week because the Church of England is about to launch an Easter egg.

The Church’s new brand extension will be called “The Real Easter Egg” and will retail at £3.99. Developed with input from bishops, as well as target consumers, the egg’s packaging claims that Easter is not about “cute bunnies, fluffy chicks and eating too much chocolate” but rather the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ.

I am not a religious man, but I do know one or two things about brands, and it appears to me that the Church is a bit out of its depth with this launch. For starters, the positioning of The Real Easter Egg as the authentic, heritage product is a little deceptive. While the Church might claim on its packaging that chocolate eggs originally represented the boulder that sealed Christ’s tomb, the reality is quite different. More than a millennium before the re-birth – or indeed the birth – of Christ, pagan festivals were using eggs as a symbol of fertility and re-birth in spring.

Like many heritage brands before it, such as Budweiser and KFC that have been sued over their trademark claims, the Church of England must now hope to avoid litigious pagans intent on undermining their quasi-heritage positioning.

Then there is the Church’s flawed distribution strategy. While it may have secured a limited presence in Morrisons, Waitrose and the Co-op, the big three supermarkets, who control more than 60% of the Easter egg trade, have yet to sign up. It’s a schoolboy error from the Church, but one that is not unexpected given that until recently it had only operated within its own exclusive retail locations.

It is rare for any brand to master both selling through other retailers and in their own stores. Apple is a notable exception, but the Church of England lags well behind Apple in marketing competence. While Apple enjoyed a whopping increase of 22% in traffic to its stores in 2010, the Church of England’s attendance declined by 2% and is down to 15% of the UK population. Given that Tesco serves more than double that number each week, it is clear that the Church needs big retail more than big retail needs the Church.

But the biggest problem with The Real Easter Egg is the master brand endorsing it. The Church of England bears all the signs of a “faded star” brand according to the Brandz typology. It has a declining market share and an ageing customer base. And while it might still enjoy broad awareness, the proportion of consumers and advocates is declining fast.

Like other fading star brands, such as Gap or Debenhams, the Church of England has been outflanked by more attractive options. Several religions, such as Islam, have remained true to their brand origins and grown stronger as a result. Others, like Scientology, have benefited directly from marketing approaches such as celebrity endorsement. The Church of England has been caught in a classic pincer movement and is now trapped in the dreaded middle.

And the managers in charge don’t look as if they have the ability to turn the brand around either. The current CEO, Archbishop Rowan Williams, is 60 and many of his executive team are even older. Many FTSE 500 brands would consider that well past the sell-by date of a change agent. And it’s perhaps no surprise that core branding questions, such as the recruitment of new believers and the Church’s declining brand appeal, have been ignored while this aged team have laboured over entirely outdated questions such as should women be allowed to be bishops? (yes) And whether gay couples be allowed to marry in Church (er… yes).

The result of all this brand mismanagement has taken its toll on the Church’s employer brand. Recruitment of clergy is at an all time low in the UK and many of its senior executives, unhappy with the liberal approach of the leadership team, have been headhunted by the Catholics. While the likes of Nestle and Cadbury have been rated highly on their employer brand strength and their status as a “great place to work”, the Church is again playing catch-up.

In summary, therefore, I question the potential of The Real Easter Egg. Not because the extension itself is a bad idea, but because you should never extend a brand that is already in decline. Put more bluntly, the Church of England should not waste resources on diversification when its corporate brand is in so much trouble and its core target market is declining so quickly. Fix the base before you attempt to extend it.

So rather than ask whether the Church’s Easter egg will affect the success of Nestle and Cadbury, perhaps we should turn the question around. Given the Church’s vulnerability, might the big FMCG players be considering an extension into organised religion? Given the unparalleled success of capitalism and the unwavering loyalty consumers exhibit for their favourite brands, perhaps they already have.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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