Are we accountable in the battle of our brands?

In the immortal words of Spiderman (or Voltaire, depending on your preference for entertainment) “With great power comes great responsibility” and this is certainly true for our superbrands. Our expectations of our brands are evolving rapidly as we become more discerning, more demanding and certainly more judgmental of success and failure. We take our brands personally and can feel cheated by the way we feel treated by them. Look at our evolving relationship with Facebook for example or how we’ve reacted to Starbucks’ position on being a ‘fair, community-inspired organisation’ in light of events, or the effect of the recent horsemeat scandal on our attitudes. The impact of social media for our brands too means there really is nowhere to hide.

There’s a lot of noise around the concept of the smaller brand as the ‘challenger brand’ (Adam Morgan, eatbigfish) but what’s in store for all of our brands, small and big, the David and the Goliath? Is the story different depending on size or do both face equal challenges?

We have the privilege of working with both superbrands as well as small brands across a variety of sectors here at Marketing Sciences, and while our approach to the way we work with these as clients does not differ, the diverse challenges they face today as a result of our attitudes towards ‘our brands’ fascinates me.

I don’t know if it’s inherent to our ‘Britishness’ but we do like to support an underdog.  We can find success and certainly domination rather galling as if it will definitely lead to the abuse of power and exploitation.  We like humble, we like a good moral story. Is it the same for our brands? Do we really harbour such a disdain for success, the big brand?

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

The problem for any brand nowadays is they can be damned for their success or their failure. We hear company profits and losses both reported very negatively – ‘You’re useless and unprofitable!” vs “You’re now successful and profitable and we don’t like that you’re making that much or how you go about it, we’re being ripped off”. What a fine line for a business to walk!

Why does success get such a hard time? It’s not just about the P&L or how you make us feel anymore when we buy into you. It’s about who you are as a brand, what you stand for, what your story is, your corporate and social responsibility! Essentially, do we ‘like’ you and do you deserve our custom?  We’ve seen what’s happened to our high streets, to the independent retailer, the smaller retailer, to our farmers and small businesses and it ain’t pretty and we think we know who’s to blame…

Take a big brand – do we see them as a great success story or a savvy business meeting the needs of many or the devil, arrogantly seeking world domination? Well, we continue to buy into them whole heartedly but like to think we have the moral high ground by saying we’re not too comfortable with it.

Take a small brand with an excellent product offering, a great identity, positioning and a ‘story’ we like. We may love the idea of them but do we seek them out and then will we pay more for them and on regular enough bases to sustain them?

Isn’t it time to pick a lane?

How on earth can the small brand ever compete? They can operate largely unsupported and investment is needed – where does that help come from? – a bank maybe (we do love them), an investor, a large corporation? “Heaven forbid” I hear you say. In order to achieve enough success to continue we see these small brands as selling their souls to what we perceive to be the devil and we don’t like that either? Ben & Jerry’s, Seeds of Change, Innocent, Burt’s Bees – guilty!

We’re fed headlines and we draw our own swift conclusions.  We don’t want to know the story, the context or understand why. The vast majority had never given a moment’s thought to the food supply chain a few months ago. In our defence, why should we have to dig deeper to make sure we know the whole story before casting judgement, isn’t that someone else’s responsibility? We’re harsh customers and can be very unforgiving.

Recently Tesco has suffered negative press about its investment in the ‘artisan’ coffee shop Harris and Hoole – ‘Not content with its string of supermarkets….’.  It appears that the small brand in this scenario is as doomed to our criticism as the large brand – what chance do our brands stand at all?

Taking accountability for the future of our brands

So what is our problem and where do the brands even begin in terms of facing our demand for perfection?  Well they continue to invest in research to understand what we want, what we need, what will make our lives easier, better? And most of the time they do a pretty good job of it otherwise they wouldn’t be where they are. We want smaller brands, niche, British-based and independent, which is the key challenge if we won’t pay the price. They’re able to help with this and perhaps they’re having the last laugh on the complexities of our consumer conflictions e.g. our desire for innovation vs nostalgia.

But why as consumers don’t we contextualise more or try to better understand in order to really make the differences we seem to expect?

Can we really expect David and Goliath in the same market, independent of one another – serving our need for the best value and convenience as well as for the uniqueness and variety? Of course, but in certain circumstances they will need to work together and we as consumers need to understand this and, more importantly, that we are driving it!


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Sara Spinks
01962 842211
Article date - 03/04/2013
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