Ed Pilkington: To talk about quality, you first need a story

Brands need to deliver quality across everything they do, it is then marketers’ job to share the core product messages as part of a compelling narrative.

In the early days of brand building most brands talked about their product credentials – why they were good and why you should buy them.

The original four Ps of marketing (for those who may struggle to remember) were product, price, place and promotion – ie get the product right (and tell people about it), be clear on your pricing, know when to promote and what the promotion is, and be clear where you want your products to be sold.

As quality improved across the board brands struggled to make product superiority claims and moved into a more emotional communication space, and on the back of this brands have increasingly sought to talk about their purpose – the difference they want to make in the world.

So in this context, when does a brand talk about its quality? When you have an issue? When consumers think you are not as good quality as your competitor? Or when you have a new ‘feature’ that you are desperate to talk about? And does talking about quality work differently across distinct categories? Do some categories demand more product stories than others?

Before I go into this we shouldn’t forget that most consumers don’t spend their waking hours thinking about our brands. How they articulate our brands doesn’t replicate the language we write in our PowerPoint documents.

In my world they may say “it’s a good whisky”, or “it’s a great whisky; it’s made in that really neat distillery by the sea”. If we are lucky they may say more: “I love the smokiness, and the 10-year-old is my favourite.” What you hope for is a bit of respect and a nugget (ideally nuggets) of knowledge.

Addressing the quality issue

So what should you do if consumers think you have a quality issue? Well, if that perception means your brand is dropping out of consumers’ repertoires, you should address it.

I watched McDonald’s recent campaign with real interest and respect. I love the way it has taken on some of the misperceptions of the brand and dealt with them head on.

The key, though, is that it has done it with a tone that makes you feel warm about the brand. Simply put, when communicating quality, do it in a way that engages and is true to your brand’s personality. McDonald’s has told a compelling, interesting and true story.

Closely linked to this, what do you do when consumers think that your competitor is better? After diagnosing it, you will probably conclude that they are telling their story better. We see it in the world of ‘craft’.

Craft beers and spirits do a fabulous job of telling their stories, often based on founders with a vision for creating great beer, gin or whisky with language around small batches lovingly created and quality ingredients.

If you have an older and bigger brand you may not be seen as so interesting and you may have lost your story. Even if it is based on a visionary founder who wanted to make great beer and spirits, it’s just they had their vision in the 18th or 19th century.

That’s why we went back and told the story of Guinness as a brewer. We didn’t say that Guinness is the greatest stout or beer; we told a story of a vision and a belief in making great beer, which still exists today for all involved. It has helped. I note that Carlsberg is following a similar path as it reintroduces Carlsberg Export, and one of our most successful pieces of content was when the actor Robert Carlyle told the story of Johnnie Walker and his family – ‘The man who walked the world’.

READ MORE: Guinness on how it is creating an ‘ageless’ brand

And what about features? Tech demands it. I watch the mobile world with fascination. Improved features with every new model (needed to keep ahead in that category) and features that I tend to want.

However I don’t just buy the feature, I still buy into the broader brand, the values of the brand and the world it creates. Even in non-tech categories like drinks you will see limited editions and variants that bring in something new – recipe, age, etc. And why? To enhance your story, talk about your credentials and reinforce your quality.

When communicating quality, do it in a way that engages and is true to your brand’s personality.

Do some categories demand more product and quality credentials and communications than others? The answer is probably no. All brands – no matter what category – need to think about how consumers perceive their quality and all brands should understand if they have a need to communicate a product story.

You will only be seen as a quality brand if quality runs all the way through how you show up. Apple oozes quality across all it does, with a strong design ethos. Burberry shows quality from the experience in-store to the quality of communication. Magnum shows up brilliantly across all touch points.

Your product story comes back to the situation you face – hence our need to talk about our beer credentials for Guinness.

Find the right time

A few years ago for Smirnoff we felt compelled to run quality-related content (showing how good and well made the vodka is), because of an increasingly competitive market. While the work actually delivered decent ROIs, it didn’t engage with consumers because it felt off-brand in look and feel, and not in line with the other content and activation of the brand.

Smirnoff already had high quality scores due to how the brand showed up over time. Therefore the product work targeted at consumers at that time was not needed.

READ MORE: What Diageo has learned from its marketing mistakes

However, to this day we will find a moment to tell the Smirnoff story, from Russia to America, and we will remind our trade partners about the high quality process that goes into making the brand. Right story, right time, right audience.

Indeed, for those who have seen it, the recent US Smirnoff work is a better way of talking about the history and the present in a culturally relevant way.


For a brand like Baileys, product is back at the heart of what we do, because the brand is a treat. The brand purpose is about being part of little moments of pleasure. But we don’t talk about how the brand is made and we don’t claim to be the best Irish cream.

We do, of course, run the annual best Baileys cow award to celebrate the amazing farmers and cows who produce the milk we need for Baileys, but that’s because it’s a nice story.

Without giving away all your magic, brands also need to be transparent, as the world demands it. Brands should have all the right information on their product for consumers. This is hygiene. But the key comes back to telling your story in a compelling and relevant way – and we should remember that a story is not a fact, but facts woven into a narrative that you want to engage with.

You cannot talk credibly about quality without ‘being’ quality, and you cannot tell a good story and not live up to it. Simply, you need to deliver quality across everything that you do, with exacting standards, and you need to know how and when to tell your brand story. Talking at consumers also doesn’t work.

Our job is to land those key product messages as part of a compelling and culturally relevant narrative, while delivering quality across all that we do as a brand.

Ed Pilkington is marketing and innovation director, Europe, at Diageo



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  1. Nick Kendall 16 Aug 2017

    Nice reminder of an eternal truth-its not ‘either or’ but ‘and’.
    First decent work I did in my career at BBH was for Levi’s -we told the ‘story’ of Levi’s appearance in modern American literature such as On the Road and One flew over the Cuckoos nest. Some of best work in my book-alongside Johnnie Walker’s ‘Man who strode the World’ ( ta for the shout out Ed!:) ).
    But both sit alongside my other fav work in my book -Humans for Johnnie- ‘I am not the future , you are’
    The best ideas like Keep Walking and Levi’s -The Original can and should flex both ways-into product and into emotion. Otherwise they simply are not big ideas and you should dump them and get one quickly. Big brands deserve big ideas

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