Quest for protected brand status

It is a marketers dream to work with a bubble-wrapped brand; one that consumers never want to give up whatever the economic climate. This status is difficult to achieve, not least because the recession is making consumers think more carefully about how they fill the kitchen cupboards.

It is a marketer’s dream to work with a bubble-wrapped brand; one that consumers never want to give up whatever the economic climate. This status is difficult to achieve, not least because the recession is making consumers think more carefully about how they fill the kitchen cupboards.

Professor Gerard Hastings, director of Stirling University and the Open University Institute for Social Marketing, has identified a group of what he calls “protected” brands.

Even when money is tight, these products still make it onto shopping lists as consumers can’t bear to trade down to a cheaper alternative or buy a generic version.

While Hastings’ protected items include much-loved vices such as cigarettes and alcohol, he says if marketers position their products in the right way any brand can become an essential buy, no matter what the larger economic picture.

So how can brands ensure they become part of the establishment of protected brands? Marketing Week explores six steps to success.

Step 1: Decide internally that you are “an essential buy”. Hastings says that answering a basic need is the first step towards becoming protected. He argues that you need to add real value to someone’s life to be considered indispensable. You must constantly keep this in mind within the business to focus all efforts on this goal.

Hastings says while staples like bread and milk are among the brands that are most likely to be “protected”, it could work for other categories too.

He explains: “If marketers push their brands under our noses and deliver satisfaction on an ongoing basis, then they have the potential to become protected brands.”

Kellogg has been attempting to make its cereals appear indispensable to consumers for more than 100 years. With multiple other breakfast options now available to consumers, it cannot take its traditional market leadership for granted. It must battle not only increasingly popular varieties of breakfast, such as granolas and mueslis, but also cheaper own-label variants.

Kellogg UK marketing director Kevin Brennan says the company always carries out all its marketing or innovation endeavours with the idea that the brand has “a role” in consumers’ lives that cannot be replaced (see below).

But Fred Burt, UK managing director at brand consultancy Siegel & Gale, warns that companies should not fool themselves internally. He says customers will assess each brand on its merits and decide if it is really essential. “The question comes down to ‘can I live without this brand’?”

Step 2: Communicate why people can’t live without you. Brands need to ensure that consumers can’t exist without them but how should they let people know about this? Burt says this can be communicated in a number of ways, but the best marketing uses a mix of both functional and emotional elements.

Supermarket Morrisons has spent the past few years attempting to communicate better why it must hold protected status for consumers. Marketing director Michael Bates says it is about getting across two core messages – fresh food tastes best and fresh food needn’t be a premium offer.

Bates says telling people the story of how the food makes it into Morrisons, emphasising how much of the process is run by the supermarket itself, rather than anonymous suppliers, helps people feel more attached to it.

“We believe there is a unique opportunity to be the food specialist for everyone,” he says. Morrisons backs this up by using a “demanding” set of celebrities in its ads, calling for fresh food at low prices, to act in the place of the consumer.

While Morrisons may not yet be entirely protected, Bates points out that its share of the UK market increased to 11.9% last year from 11.1% in 2007. He plans to continue mixing informative and emotional messages to help protect the brand in future.

Step 3: Create a historical context for your brand. Tapping into the current mood of the nation will make your brand relevant. Those companies with a history should play up their heritage. Brands that can be remembered by several generations should play on these emotions to make them relevant to those who want to feel comforted by reliable products.

Heinz is playing up its heritage in a Beanz Meanz Heinz nostalgia ad campaign. Giles Jepson, marketing director for beans, kids, meals and soups, says that this campaign captures the nostalgic mood of the nation, reminding people that the brand is relevant to “generations of Brits”.

He says: “In the current economic conditions, this style of advertising resonates well and is proving effective when consumers are choosing familiar favourites they trust to bring a great sense of security and stability to their lives.”

But the history tool is not in everyone’s bag. So what can newer brands dig out from the marketing toolbox to become a people’s favourite?

Step 4: Develop an innovation tool. Innovation not only garners people’s interest but can genuinely add value. Playing this up can fast-track products into the shopping basket.

Burt says: “Ariel’s recent run of innovation will mean its perceived utility as a brand is valued far above own-label equivalents. I’d expect toothpaste, grooming products and household cleaning to hold up well.” He claims shoppers believe that branded goods will perform better than own-label equivalents. 

Even heritage brands such as Heinz don’t just trot out historical references to captivate their audiences. Heinz also focuses on innovation to drive the brand forward and make it relevant. It has invested £6m on the launch of new variants including Snap Pots, a convenience product for time-poor consumers.

Jepson argues that even though Heinz could be defined by heritage, it strives to be an innovation-led brand: “Heritage alone is not enough to ensure long-term survival. If you don’t move with the times and with consumers then you become less relevant, less appealing and ultimately left behind.”

Step 5: Emphasise relevance in the current market. Simon Duffy, co-founder of Bulldog Natural Grooming, agrees that relevancy is just as important as history. He argues that protected brands don’t change what they are, but they might change what they say in order to resonate with consumers. He gives the example of confectioner Cadbury.

He says: “Dairy Milk isn’t changing its recipe, but it’s changing the way it communicates in the market to keep itself relevant.”

The chocolate maker’s recent “raised eyebrow” TV campaign aims to capture viewers’ attention with a quirky ad. It is designed to provoke discussion and excitement around the content of the ad. Spoofs have already been posted on video site YouTube. The business has managed to build interest around a brand outside its usual retail environment.

Step 6: Build a meaningful relationship. While all marketers aim to make their brands become part of popular culture, this provides businesses with a problem. Once a product or marque has moved into what is seen as public ownership, it can be dangerous to forget how embedded your brand is in popular culture.

Hastings says Coca-Cola forgot its shared ownership in the Eighties when it launched New Coke, which in taste tests faired better than regular Coke. All the research might have suggested that launching the new recipe was the best option, but consumers were so unhappy that their brand had been tampered with that the company had to return to its original Coke recipe.

“Classically, what Coca-Cola did was get too focused on the competition and forget that the brand isn’t just theirs but it also belongs to the consumer,” explains Hastings.

Brands with a history build these relationships with consumers over a long period, but newer brands have to be more innovative to make these connections. One way brands with less heritage can tap into shared ownership is via co-creation. Apple has been successful by allowing  consumers to become part of the brand by opening up its application store on iPhone so that anyone can create and sell an application. People can feel part of the brand and share in both its public and financial success.

While the term “protected” brands may bring to mind instantly some of the heritage brands such as Kellogg and Heinz, businesses outside these staples can also work their way onto the list with clever marketing.

Consumer needs go far beyond beans and gravy. In 2009, they can be about an online application or a unique service. These can be just as valuable and protected for people today as food and drink products.

The challenge for marketers is to spot exactly what is the essential value in their products or services. Then they have a chance of gaining protected status and ensuring boosted bottom lines, whatever the financial climate.

Why no brand can be ‘protected’

Jonathan Salem Baskin, the author of Branding Only Works on Cattle, writes: “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a ‘protected’ brand.  I can’t think of an example of a single product or service that is benefiting from all the money that has been dumped into building brand integrity, equity or whatever nonsense measures marketers like to use. 

“The conundrum is simple: when people have less to spend, they spend less on things. This leads them to discover that much of the supposed ‘premium value’ of well-known products is really a ‘brand tax’ on consumers, requiring them to pay more for functionally identical items.  So they choose other, cheaper brands and are otherwise oblivious to any impact on their experience.

“Whatever benefits Heinz, Kellogg or Cadbury can claim has far more to do with generic awareness, the shelf space they’ve earned (or bought) at retail and whatever unconscious customer buying “routine” survives every reason to change it. 

“With that said, since the only really meaningful definition of a ‘successful’ brand is one that consumers are buying and makes a profit, I wonder what it takes to be such a business?

“There’s no avoiding the dual and related qualities of ‘relevance/utility’ and ‘value’. Brands need to give consumers meaningful benefits at a fair price, and do so consistently, through bad economic times and good.

“Apple’s iPod/iTunes combination doesn’t keep customers loyal because of some magic of branding, nor via the best prices: rather the hardware/service combination delivers a uniquely relevant set of functional benefits, and does so at a cost that doesn’t arbitrarily move up or down.

“Companies need to throw out their definitions that rely on image and customer intentions and embrace behavioural, functional and real-time actions to engage with them. The only real measure of brand success is profitable sales.

“A successful brand is one that beats its competition every day. Once the sun goes down, there’s nothing “protected” about the appearance of its market the next morning.  It has to start re-earning it once the sun comes up again.”

The wannabe protected brand: Bulldog

The Bulldog Natural Grooming male brand already appears in major retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Boots but at only two years old it has aspirations that it can become a “protected” brand of heritage.

The small brand aims to forge close relationships with its male consumers and break down ideas about natural goods being premium or unattainable by positioning itself as a mass-market brand for ordinary men.

Simon Duffy, co-founder of Bulldog, claims being a mainstream natural male grooming brand places the products in a unique position in its category as most men’s products are more synthetic.

But is this enough to make the brand stand out from the crowd? Duffy admits: “You’ve got to have very real values within your company because it’s about having integrity and a degree of transparency in the way that we do things.”

Bulldog takes this to extremes – from working in dog-friendly offices, where Duffy’s dog Bruno accompanies him into work, to the in-depth information available on the firm’s website about product ingredients.

Duffy argues that telling the Bulldog story is all part of the process to reinforce the brand’s aim to become “protected”. He says that it’s vital to make emotional connections that go beyond the rational elements of the products in order to elevate your brand to protected status.

Using an iconic British symbol is one of the ways the company is looking to make consumers connect with the brand. Duffy says the personality of its bulldog mascot helps communicate friendly values because the canine breed is loyal, tenacious and a man’s best friend.

“Once that story is told and people understand, then I think that will help people see the story behind the products on the shelves,” he suggests, adding that he hopes this will help the company build “a relationship” with its users.

He argues that having a two-way dialogue with your consumer is essential if you’re aspiring to be a protected brand. Bulldog is using the web to start this relationship with its target market, launching a podcast with comedian David Mitchell. The project is also in partnership with mainstream men’s magazine FHM to make sure it gets further exposure to a mass market.

The podcast appears to be hitting the mark – it became the top podcast appearing on iTunes in the UK, according to Duffy.

But building a protected brand takes time and Duffy admits that only being able to balance innovation with continuity will work over the long term.

He says: “It is unfortunate for brands that there is no magic dust you can sprinkle over what you’re doing from the start. You have to be there and consistently deliver through the good times and the bad.”

The protected heritage brand: Special K

People have been starting their day with a bowl of Kellogg’s cornflakes for more than 100 years. But the brand doesn’t just rely on its history to retain its protected status. The company’s Special K brand – aimed at people managing their weight – has been around for 50 years. But Kevin Brennan, marketing director at Kellogg in the UK, says you can only remain “protected” if you remain relevant.

Brennan claims research carried out by the company shows that Special K is a protected brand even in the current economic climate, as slimmers buy into the “shape management” messages it promotes.

“We keep bringing new reasons as to why it’s the right choice rather than just running engaging ads to drive branding,” he says. “We’re constantly showing how the brand has a role.”

Brennan says that the current “relevant” message promotes ten different varieties of Special K because: “One of the difficulties of shape management is eating the same thing every day.”

But launching different variants is not just about being new, claims Brennan, it’s about listening to customers’ needs and responding. He says the brand doesn’t simply want to be “noisy” and guilty of “putting more and more stuff out there”.

Brennan claims that one of the most important reasons for Kellogg’s overall protected status is that it is “trusted” by consumers. It was the most trusted cereal maker in the market in 2008, according to the Reader’s Digest Trusted Brands survey.

“When consumers are looking at categories like cereals and seeing a trusted brand, it makes them much more resistant to moving to cheaper or own-label brands,” Brennan adds.

As well as running ads for 48 weeks out of 52, Special K is exploiting new media to communicate its weight management programme. It has recently launched the ShapeMate website, offering support to those taking the “two-week challenge”.

Brennan says the strategy’s online element aims to add more value for the brand’s consumers than they can get from the cereal alone. Special K can remain “protected” by embedding itself more deeply into the way people live their lives.

But is the brand going to focus more on its price in a recession to avoid consumers trading down to own-brand alternatives? Brennan claims research shows that people don’t want to hear about how cheap the product is, they want to know about how it works as a slimming aid. Value comes from the results, not the price ticket.

The Special K variant is worth £120m and is growing with a market share of 9.8% at the end of last year – up from 9.5% the year before, according to Kellogg.

Understanding when to strike with key messages, says Brennan, is vital to maintaining growth. For example, the summer marketing programme is about getting people into holiday mode, reminding women about the relevance of taking the two-week challenge. But this doesn’t mean the brand is abandoning its history. The latest ad, which broke on Monday, focuses on 100 years of Kellogg’s cereals.

The company is hoping it can keep its brands “protected” for another century by emphasising that value can be obtained from more than cheap prices.


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