Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, reviewed the Riverford Cottage Field Farm, the restaurant spin-off of organic vegetable box scheme Riverford, in his latest piece. What’s this got to with marketing, you say? Well Rayner, who likes to appear outspoken, opens the piece with this:
Have you ever lifted an organic veg box and wondered why it was so damn heavy? It’s because it is weighed down by the hopes, fears and aspirations of the entirety of Britain’s guilt-sodden middle classes. That and the cannonball-like swede that always seems to end up in there. I cannot understand why a serious cook would allow a random collection of ingredients into the house, and hate the smug satisfaction that those who order them exude. They think they are doing something to save the planet. They aren’t. They are making affluent lifestyle choices and supporting apparently alternative business – but ones built entirely on conventional marketing strategies.’
This isn’t the place to debate the rights and wrongs of vegetable boxes (for what it’s worth, I get a vegetable box, but am well aware I’m not saving the planet; as I’m not a ‘serious cook’, I quite like the challenge of being sent whatever is in season and trying to work out what to do with it – kohlrabi, anyone?)
What I found interesting was his final comment – that an ‘alternative business’ is somehow undermined by using ‘conventional marketing strategies’.
I went to visit Riverford for a piece in Marketing mag nearly six years ago. It was a much smaller business at the time, but two things stood out: first, that it really was trying to achieve something (it wasn’t trying to save the world, just get people interested in cooking and eating fresh food); and second, that Guy Watson, the guy in charge, was a seriously talented businessman.
Is it a bad thing that Riverford has used a franchising strategy plus smart branding, online and word-of-mouth activity to build his business? Would it be better if Riverford were still a small collection of farms in Devon? That might suit some in the hairshirt brigade (and Rayner’s patrician outlook), but it isn’t going to help Watson achieve his goals.
The thing about conventional marketing strategies is that, by and large work, they work. If an alternative business is to remain in business, why shouldn’t it use marketing?
In fact, Rayner’s view is a little out-of-date – there are plenty of ‘alternative businesses’ building themselves into bona fide brands (eg Divine Chocolate), and even some general ‘good causes’ (Fairtrade, for example) using marketing principles to raise awareness of some of the issues around food. Maybe they do tap into middle-class guilt (why are only the middle classes guilty?), but as long as nobody thinks that they can change the world with a few purchases, isn’t it a good trade-off to pander to those feelings in return for a bit of consumer education? And given that the recession has allowed far fewer of us to make ‘affluent lifestyle choices’, those businesses that have used branding to build a relationship with consumers are more likely t0 survive the cull. That, surely, is a good thing.
It’s been a very busy few weeks (freelancing, wedding preparations, even the odd weekend away), so I’ve not had chance to update this blog after the pretty astonishing traffic surge my last post created.
What’s more, I’ve been glued to the election coverage (on which point, it’s nice to see my earlier post questioning the role of social media in the election seems to have been on the money). It’s been an incredible few weeks in British politics, and from a branding perspective the creation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (ConDemNation, as it has quickly been tagged) throws up some huge issues.
First, what does it mean for the Tories? The interesting thing is that the coalition, though apparently a compromise born of necessity, may help David Cameron and the Tory brand in the long run. Cameron has been trying for years to reform the party’s image – he realised that a Conservative Party that appealed to the English shires could not win power on a national basis. But that message has not got through to huge swathes of the party. Cameron is unpopular in parts of the Conservative party because his leadership is based around a small clique; he does it that way because, frankly, he doesn’t trust lots of his own party. And you only have to look at what happened with Chris Grayling to see that he is probably right.
Cameron is a centrist that has tried to modernise the Tory brand with a new political positioning and a new ‘compassionate’ image (as well as that curious kids-drawing-of-a-tree logo). Yet he never quite managed to ‘seal the deal’ with the electorate because plenty of voters still didn’t trust the braying element of the party (or Cameron’s own posh-boy background).
So tying up with the Lib Dems, a centrist party with strong environmental and civil liberties credentials, is a masterstroke. It’s an astonishing attempt at partnership marketing, co-opting your partner’s brand strengths. If it works, it will detoxify the Tory brand, help make them a bit cuddlier, and make them far more electable whenever the next election takes place.
Then there’s the Lib Dems. It’s a much more complex situation for them. Arguably, part of their brand was their sheer powerlessness. They were the voters’ moral conscience, cash-strapped but high on principle, who could be employed as a protest vote either for fed-up middle class Labour voters or Conservative defectors. They were a way of reminding the big two parties that they couldn’t take their core vote for granted. A few years ago they veered to the left, and still have some pretty out-there policies, but for much of their existence they have sat neatly between Labour and the Tories.
Getting into power changes everything. Their left-wing credentials will be undermined by the fact they are propping up a Tory government. The hairshirt brigade, who previously could quite happily commit the Lib Dems to all sorts of crazy policies safe in the knowledge they’d never be put into practice, now find the party making compromises to get into power. This is a brave new world for the party, and one fraught with danger. There is a very real danger of a defection to Labour by some of its voters; to counter that, it must show voters of all persuasions who previously saw the Lib Dems as a wasted vote that the party has a role to play in power (and making that case will be easier if they push the Alternative Vote system through).
In short, what Nick Clegg needs to do is rebrand the Lib Dems. And the only way to do that is to be seen to deliver in government. If he fails, the Lib Dems could be wiped out at the next election, just as previous coalitions wiped out their predecessors, the Liberal Party. It’s a big risk – the Lib Dem brand could be completely undermined over the next few years.
Then there’s Labour. It actually polled better than many feared in the election, but it’s clear it needs a brand refresh. The departure of Brown and the end to the New Labour project means the party has to start again. For all its troubles, the New Labour machine proved one thing: to win elections convincingly it needs a credible, centrist vision. It took the Tories nearly a decade to work out it had to follow suit; can Labour now do it again more quickly? Bookies’ favourite David Miliband seems to recognise the scale of the challenge, but with the ConDemNation suddenly taking over the centre ground, Labour needs to find some new ideas. And it faces a core urban, working class vote the party has gradually alienated. For an intellectually and financially exhausted party, this rebuilding may take a while.
Finally, there’s the issue of the forthcoming spending cuts, which as we all know will be brutal. Mervyn King recently predicted these would severely hurt the popularity of the party in power, and that of course is possible. Cameron’s cuddly image may be compromised by the resurgence of the ‘nasty party’ in voters’ minds, and the Lib Dems’ role in the cuts will be under heavy scrutiny. But actually, I think Labour’s brand may suffer here too. The great realignment of politics in the 90s was built on two factors: the loss of confidence in the Conservatives’ ability to manage the economy in the wake of Black Wednesday, and the ability of Tony Blair to convince voters that Labour had moved on from its former financial recklessness. And for a decade, it seemed like Labour had buried its reputation for economic incompetence.
The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will be hurt by having to make savage cuts. But if they make them competently and fairly, and if they actually show they can deal with the deficit, they may be given some ‘tough love’ credit. And assuming they spend the next couple of years blaming the situation on the former government, Labour may find it has a mountain to climb to convince the Middle England voters it needs of its economic competence.
The beauty about branding in politics is that it is always at the mercy of events and the foibles of individuals. That makes the next few years impossible to call, but fascinating to watch.
Last night I went along to the Revolution Awards, celebrating all things digital. And I ended up chatting to one of Britain’s top marketers. I won’t divulge his name, but it’s safe to say he’s the man behind some of the best-known ads in the UK of the past few years and has a pretty formidable track record across the industry.
So naturally, I decided to probe him a bit for what he really thinks about the agencies that he’s worked with. And after a few glasses of wine, he was more than forthcoming. In no particular order:
1. The best you can hope for from an agency is a couple of good ideas a year. Often you won’t even get that. And he’s talking about some of the best agencies in London when he says that – BBH and Dare are two he mentioned.
2. BBH are ‘difficult to work with’, but obviously get results.
3. He really didn’t think much of Rapp – ‘you’ll be waiting a long time to get a good idea out of them’. They are ‘just a machine’.
3. Ogilvy are another agency he thinks are all mouth and no trousers. And they should never have moved to Canary Wharf.
4. JWT are now a very weak agency in his opinion. In fact, he questioned WPP’s takeover strategy, saying it seems to have created big, bland networks.
5. One of his biggest complaints was the sheer lack of talent within agencies. There are normally only a handful of people in an agency he’d actually want to work with. That’s a common complaint, and the reason agencies are such brittle businesses – a couple of important people moves and they can be in real trouble.
6. Media agencies could have cornered the digital space (a couple of Revolution Awards actually went to media shops). But they’re not smart enough to see the opportunity.
Pretty damning stuff, really.
So after all that talk and months of planning, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp has finally unveiled his grand scheme to make his newspaper websites turn a profit.
And it is, er, a paywall.
NewsCorp’s The Times will charge £1 a day or £2 a week for access.
Bit of a disappointment really. I was at least expecting some form of tiered charging system, a la the Financial Times. But on a global level, a micropayments system, similar to the ones used in online gaming, does seem to have traction.
Can it work? I asked that months ago on my old Media blog. And frankly, we’re no nearer any answers. It seems crazy to think that people will pay £1 to read a news story they can read anywhere else for free. The BBC is still out there, of course, and even if it goes through with plans to scale back its online content, there is still the Guardian, which has pledged itself to a free-access future. The Times is really going to have to show it can deliver value-add content, or rely on a very loyal minority. And let’s face it, Murdoch’s online track record isn’t exactly sparkling.
Still, the sums involved are pretty substantial, according to the Guardian:
Assuming that only 5% of daily users convert to the paywall system – a standard metric for paywalls – that would bring in £1.83m if they each buy a £1 daily pass. At a 10% conversion, it would net £3.66m per month for the two papers. If more people of those choose to buy the weekly pass, the revenues would be lower.
Compare that with the £40m made by The Guardian’s web division in the last financial year, according to outgoing CEO Carolyn McCall.
The big question now is what to do about Google. We all know that if you paste a headline into Google you can bypass a paywall – just try it with the Wall Street Journal. Should The Times block Google and protect its paywall but hurt search traffic? Or should it be like the WSJ and just pretend nobody knows about that?
There’s been a lot of sabre-rattling toward Google from NewsCorp, suggesting it might seriously pull back from Google. Instinctively that feels like a mistake, and something that could seriously set The Times back years. From personal experience I know that news sites get more than half their traffic via search. What’s more, The Times seems to be looking for one-off payments rather than tying people in to annual subscriptions. That approach will require regular traffic through the site.
One thing’s for sure, though. If Murdoch starts making money from this, there will be a lot of others following him. And the more of them that do so, the less free competition there will be for The Times.