Be like Plusnet and ‘do a Ritson’

BT marketing director David Stratton says Plusnet has ‘done a Mark Ritson’ by simplifying its brand codes to differentiate from sister brands EE and BT – a no-nonsense approach our columnist is proud to associate with his name.

Your average commercial airline pilot is 45. That means most of them grew up acutely aware of the great, now late, Chuck Yeager who passed this week, aged 97.

Yeager was a mountain of a man. His most famous moment was breaking the sound barrier. But that was merely one of his achievements. And what makes Yeager all the more special is that he did it all with the casual demeanour of someone who never lost their cool or perspective. He constantly downplayed his amazing life and when questioned, in that very American way about his special God-given talents, he would pour an almost immediate bucket of cold West Virginian water all over them.

Look at this profile photograph. I mean just look at it. Gaze into those eyes. It’s hypnotic. Do you sense what I sense? The total and unmitigated absence of BS. It’s like the negative of every CMO profile photo you ever saw.

Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier (Photo: US Air Force)

“There is no kind of ultimate goal to do something twice as good as anyone else can,” he once calmly explained to an interviewer. “It’s just to do the job as best you can. If it turns out good, fine. If it doesn’t, that’s the way it goes.”

My favourite Yeager quote is when he was asked to reminisce about his early experiences of flying. “The first time I ever saw a jet,” Yeager quietly said, “I shot it down.”

Even after achieving his most famous 18 seconds of existence, flying faster than the speed of sound, Yeager still avoided oration. Conscious of secrecy and what he could, and could not, transmit over an open radio frequency, Yeager simply told his control base that there was something “screwy” with his machmeter – a coded way of letting them know he had just passed Mach 1. Then he landed his plane and had a drink with the two other people that knew what he’d just done.


How to ‘do a Ritson’

This calm, bullshit-free approach to communications when faced with enormous pressure became a trade mark and then, through his subsequent fame, the standard for pretty much everyone who followed him. If you’ve ever sat on a plane after take-off, you will know that after wheels-up the pilot comes on the PA and does a 60-second summary of the trip ahead and the expected conditions. Whether they were born in Bangladesh or Bradford, every pilot delivers that message in Chuck Yeager’s calm, low-key fashion. You can almost catch a slight West Virginian drawl, even though the announcer has never been near the place. ‘Doing a Yeager’ in the air has become shorthand for delivering a tight, calm flight update.

Clear, simple, practical brand position. Tight, relentlessly applied codes. Then repeat forever without any fucking-about or fanciness.

Yeager adds his name to a short list of professionals whose surname has become synonymous with a certain move or approach. In marketing we have our own shortlist. It’s a fraction of a fraction as famous or impressive as the league that Yeager plays in, but it’s there nonetheless. Ehrenbergian. Doing a Ratner. Kotleresque. Running a Steve Jobs meeting. Fordism. You know your marketing onions if you not only recognise the name but also the associated move that it connotes.

So, it was with some deal of delight and trepidation that I read about a brand ‘doing a Ritson’ this week. The last time that phrase was widely used, about 30 years ago, it meant drinking too much on Tuesdays and sleeping in shrubbery in your underpants. I was pretty sure that’s not what David Stratton – the marketing director for BT – was suggesting when he invoked my name this week. But I was quick to read the article to check.

‘We did a Mark Ritson on it’: How Plusnet rethought its marketing codes

Sure enough, there was no mention of shrubbery. Instead, Stratton was talking about Plusnet, BT’s value brand. And the even better news was that, even devoid of the titular reference to yours truly, he sounded like the smartest thing in Marketing Week for many a month.

Research had revealed that the company’s house of brands architecture, which accommodates BT, EE and Plusnet, had become a little too cosy and proximate. As is so often the case with this kind of multi-brand approach, sister brands can become perceptually, strategically, and tactically similar. I’ve seen it so many times. A company houses all its brands in the same HQ, with the same leadership team, within an often overpowering holding company culture. And you push all the back-of-house synergies just a little too close to front of house execution.

Before you know it, your blue, red and green brands have merged into three vaguely shit-coloured identikit offerings, which contend floppily with each other for the same customers while getting smashed by more focused, single-minded competitors.

Kudos to Stratton, therefore, for diagnosing some of these issues within his own portfolio and doing something about it. He has sharpened Plusnet’s position around value and being happy with the basics. He has tightened the palette of brand codes down to the logo, pink, the phrase “That’ll do”, a Yorkshire tone of voice and the eponymous ‘Plusnet Joe’ who fronts the brand’s campaigns.

And then there is the last bit, the endurance part, in which Stratton and his team will now keep banging away with the same message for many years to come. The tactics, media and creative executions will obviously vary and adapt but the fundamental brand position will not change. And the Plusnet team will relentlessly and offensively deliver this message with the same blunt instrument of a palette of codes that will never change. Pink, “That’ll do” and Joe become redolent of Plusnet, saving money on your broadband and being no-nonsense.

Poor brand management

Clear, simple, practical brand position. Tight, relentlessly applied codes. Then repeat forever without any fucking-about or fanciness. I’d be genuinely honoured if that became known as ‘doing a Ritson’. It probably should be known as ‘doing a Stratton’ – he is the one doing all the work. But as that has never stopped me taking the credit in the past, I’ll step up selflessly and take the plaudits.

Standing out is the key brand challenge – that’s why great brands play with their codes

Less experienced marketers are probably scratching their heads at this point, trying to work out how the Plusnet approach or ‘doing a Ritson’ are special in any way, or deviate from traditional brand management.

They don’t.

But what you are missing is just how badly and impractically most big brands are currently managed. We have lived through a decade of horseshit in which tactics invaded strategy, purpose bent brand positioning into all kinds of stupid shapes and time horizons went from years to weeks. As a result, very few marketers manage brands properly anymore. They wank about with politically correct, commercially appalling agendas that have almost no efficacy or any potential to generate value.

Most marketers, for example, don’t believe in positioning any more. They have been influenced by an over-educated, under-experienced marketing Twitterati that keep talking shit about differentiation. “All brands are perceived to be the same,” they say. “Once you control for size, brands don’t have any relative differentiation from the others in the category.” Bollocks.

That’s only true if you see differentiation as some 1950s quest to own unique brand associations. Or if you try to position your brand on generic, meaningless or overly ambitious associations that have nothing to do with consumer needs. If you make strategic choices about a few attributes that you then focus on, and drive your marketing activity around delivering and communicating them, you can enjoy relative improvements in brand perception. Sometimes even superiority.

Most marketers don’t believe in positioning any more.

Similarly, most marketers don’t understand the brutal simplicity of brand codes. They overcomplicate their marketing execution and mistake their own involvement with their brand for the almost total lack of awareness it gleans from target consumers. It takes eight months to create a 30-second ad, and three seconds to ignore it. The asymmetrical nature of how marketers do marketing versus how consumers do consumption needs to be the first thing we think about each day. Brands are little, meaningless things. Ads pass target consumers, like ships in the night, with almost no awareness or attribution.

You need a logo plus three or four codes. And then you need to spend a disciplined decade just making sure that everything is painted from that palette. Every fucking pixel. Your agency will grow bored and suggest a colour change. Someone in a focus group will say they are tired of Nigel the Snail. A new CMO will arrive from Germany and tell you that she is really impressed with the way Nike uses that new dingus. But you, you maniacal marketing bastard, you just double down with the same codes because you know that the most important rule of branding is that if they don’t know it’s you then all bets are off.

And, finally, most marketers are so short-term they piss their pants before they even realise they need to visit the restroom. If I am asked one question more than any other it’s how to persuade a company to be more long-term. My stock answer is to recommend sitting back in a meeting, letting off a giant sigh, and then shouting: “I just can’t stand to see you short-term, ROI junkies losing us so much fucking money.” And storm out.

Because that’s the point. You need to be more long-term not because of Pete and Les. Or because I write about it in Marketing Week. Or because every single study points to the same positive correlation between length and impact. You need to be more long term because it makes you more money.

It. Takes. Time.

Binet and Field’s research may not be perfect but that doesn’t make it wrong

You need three or four years to get to a place of familiarity and differentiation and advocacy. Sure, you need your short-term marketing to hit targets and keep the wheels turning. But you also need your long, mass, brand-building game to be growing in the background – free from the stupid, adolescent expectations of ROI and ROMI. You have to make the decisions on positioning and codes and then, the hardest part, hold the wheel and drive your branding ship toward the horizon.

Holding your nerve

When I train brand managers on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Brand Management, I make them execute the brand plan they have been building throughout the course in a final five-year simulation. Their final grade comes not from some fancy essay or crappy group presentation but from their share price at the end of this five-year period.

I set them against tough, AI-driven, short-term competitors. And I turn the bastardy setting on their AI to 11. In year one and year two, most of my brand managers get their heads kicked in by their short-term rivals. Many of them lose faith and start moving their own budgets away from long-term investments in brand-building and into short-term fodder. They fail.

It’s the brand manager that keeps driving short-term sales, but also supports long-term brand budgets, who eventually smashes the sim. As brand equity builds and starts to catalyse the impact of the short-term marketing efforts, the brand starts to gain traction. And by year five they have a decent share price, a spanking grade and – most importantly – a big fat lesson in holding the wheel.

That’s what Stratton is doing with Plusnet. He has a clear and simple position. He has distinct codes and a determined approach to their application. And he is going to hold the strategic wheel through turbulent waters and then watch the money come rolling in. In a sea of marketing idiots, he is the captain of a well-run ship. And if he wants to call that ‘doing a Ritson’ I am delighted. It’s not exactly Chuck Yeager territory, but I’ll take it nonetheless.

And I hope the old pilot is up there taking flight in the celestial skies as I write this. I highly doubt it, however. Yeager’s approach to the afterlife was as low key as taciturn as everything else. “I don’t think about life everlasting,” he once said. “If something doesn’t have scientific evidence to back it up, I don’t believe it. I’m a straight shooter.” Amen Chuck.