Getting the proposition right. Or catastrophically wrong. A tale of two gyms.

In 2014, a sizable East London waterfront retail space which had been conspicuously empty for years, suddenly took on a new look. Gaudy red hoardings appeared, with an oblique strapline about ‘a better you’, or words to that effect, plastered all over them.

Over the year that followed, nothing much happened, except rumour. This space, atopped by multi-million pound apartments, and overlooking a swish marina, was apparently to become a gym. Not just any gym. But a top-flight boxing gym, tipped to attract pro-fighters to train alongside affluent locals.

Then the tradesmen arrived, and things started to take shape. In went the electronic neon-trimmed turnstiles, the plush concierge desk, digital key-free lockers and of course, state of the art fitness equipment. Part of the venue was earmarked to become a restaurant: a ‘destination’ of haute cuisine, where pumped punters would blow-out.

Eventually, the doors of this super gym flew open. Passing by, one could see the top of the concierge’s hair-do, peeping over the imposing counter, on which perched an equally imposing vase of orchids, refreshed every few days.

Outside, multiple spring-mounted signboards assaulted passers-by in the breeze, sporting the now-evolved strapline ‘Our focus is you’. Membership deals abounded. In this age of fitness fixation, here was a cutting-edge gym, meeting a burgeoning demand.

Or was it?

All the ingredients of a vibrant business were in place, with its proposition metaphorically etched into the Victorian railway arches behind which it was located: ‘you’re rich, we’re high-end, our focus is you’.

One thing puzzled, though. Day after day, evening after evening, the place was deserted. You could almost hear the concierge’s nails drumming with boredom on the highly lacquered desk.

Something wasn’t right, and that something was the proposition. To cut a not very long story short, a year later, the gym quietly closed – without the restaurant having even opened.

The reason, as is often the case for boxers, was right in front of their noses. Namely, the new growth-craze, personal trainers. Walk around London’s parks and you see them out in force. Typically, a fit-looking young man, bearing over a bulging, perspiring lycra-clad office worker, and pushing them ever closer towards cardiac arrest. As a business model, it’s ultra-efficient, and ultra-low budget. No concierge, just a ‘meet you in the part at 6.45 (am or pm)’. No orchids on the counter. Just daisies on the grass.

Market analysts IBISworld value the personal trainer market at around £626 million, and growing at almost 3.5% a year. Contrast that with fixed location gyms, which although valued at £2 billion, carry much higher overheads – and revenues are slowing, as fitness fanatics trim their outgoings.

Just before the gym closed, one particular personal trainer modified the fly-by-night, one-on-one format, and started using the local park’s Victorian bandstand as a pop-up gym.

Like the ‘big’ gym, this one offered a pleasant environment (the park), some pretty serious equipment lugged in and out on a daily basis, and a credibility which only a static venue (even if it’s only a bandstand) affords. At the same time, fees are presumably a lot lower, and there are (again presumably) no tie-ins or contracts.

Every morning and evening, it attracts whole classes of fitness folk: rowing, lifting, pedaling, contorting and noticeably, smiling. If all the people who use this gym had taken out expensive memberships with the other one, it may never have gone out of business.

So what do we learn from all this?

I think the main thing is, don’t make assumptions about your target market. Just because an area looks affluent, it doesn’t mean its population have money, as well as fat, to burn. Don’t simply arrive in a location with just demographic data to go on. Use intelligent, honest market research to ascertain the true picture.

What’s more, ironically, the better-off tend to be the more parsimonious. That, they say, is how they became well off in the first place.

Finally, look at trends closely. Today the fashion is for the hipsterish temporary feel, hence all the pop-ups. Tomorrow things could change, with a return to solidity and permanency.

Ignore these factors, and your business will end up as yesterday.

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If Europe was a brand, would you buy it?

First, a quick reminder that a brand is defined as ‘the name given to a product or service from a specific source’. (The cynical might point to the origin of the ‘brand’, as a device for identifying cattle, as being especially appropriate to Europe and its advocates.)

As an entity, Europe produces nothing as such (though some might say it produces nothing but trouble). So for the sake of this analysis, we can view Europe simply as a service provided from its headquarters in Brussels.

Anyway, on June 23rd, we get the opportunity to take part in the United Kingdom European Union Membership Referendum. It will be the political equivalent of a visit to but unlike with a comparison site, there won’t be an array of alternative brands vying for your custom. Just one, Europe’s competitor brand, Brexit.

So how do you arrive at the answer to ‘should we stay, or should we go’?

Well, perhaps the way to decide is no different to the decisions you make about which broadband, energy, insurance, mobile and other brands you stick with, and which you ditch.

So, question number one is, are we better or worse off financially staying with brand Europe, than we are leaving it?

Often, the deciding factor about whether to stay with a brand, or go, rests upon whether you think you’re getting a good deal, or not. When it dawns on you that you’re paying well over the odds for a service (aka being ripped off), that alone can prompt a sudden switch.

Sometimes, as with your energy account for example, it’s very difficult to work out the true picture, as the presentation of the evidence is frustratingly complex, to the point where it’s impenetrable.

This same confusion, multiplied billions of times, is true with brand Europe. How are you expected to calculate whether Britain pays in more than it gets out, or vice versa? You probably can’t, but it is vital that you convince yourself one way or the other before voting – otherwise you could end up inadvertently doing yourself out of a good deal.

Question number two is, do you trust brand Europe?

Do you believe what brand Europe says about itself and its direction? Big corporate brands struggle most in this area as they are generally viewed with suspicion, and Europe is more comparable to them than to the leaner, cooler, challenger brands.

Virgin is often cited as a sizable brand which has maintained a high level of trust, but brands like this are few and far between. Then there are brands which have maintained sound reputations over long periods, only to one day reveal their filthy underbellies, which completely reverses their fortunes. The Cooperative Bank, would be a recent example.

So which kind of brand is Europe? A lumbering behemoth? A cool challenger brand? Or a brand which started out with the best of intentions, but then became the author of its own misfortune.

Question three must be, do you buy in to brand Europe’s proposition?  

Every brand should have a compelling reason to exist, otherwise it shouldn’t exist.

Until sullied by the Clean Diesel scandal, VW’s proposition was reliability. Volvo’s is safety. Tonka Toys were the strongest toys you could buy. The Economist’s proposition was always knowledge to help you get ahead in business.

So what is Europe’s compelling proposition? Lasting peace? Opportunities to trade? Equality for peoples and nations? Or what? Britain has already rejected many of Europe’s central ideas, such as Schengen, the Euro, and Economic and Monetary Union, so we are fairly unenthusiastic participants in the project. Successive British governments have metaphorically unchecked all those webpage boxes that brand Europe asked them to check so they could foist more and more Europeanness onto us. We’re not, in naff marketing lingo, ‘valued customers’ of brand Europe.

To arrive at Europe’s proposition, it’s worth taking a look at how the Remain and Brexit campaigns fight their corners.

Remain has earned the nickname ‘Project Fear’, which worries me as a professional marketer. Instinctively, I need a clear, positive message. You only knock your competitors when you are desperate. Brexit, on the other hand, stands accused of providing positivity, but without any substance, and that is also a concern, because in marketing, persuasiveness is really all that matters.

I am not going to suggest you vote one way or the other.

But I do suggest we apply the same criteria to brand Europe that we have applied to all those brand Xs we have bought into, or rejected, at one time or another. This will help us decide what we really think, rather than blindly accept what we’re told we should think by ‘brands’ (Remain and Brexit) which don’t seem to know, themselves.

Oh, and here’s another question for you. If Europe were your spouse, would you stay with them, or dump them?

I know what I’d do.

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A lesson from beyond for Volkswagen: always come clean.

It’s ironic that the man who said ‘the most powerful element in advertising is the truth’, was the same man who put Volkswagen on the road to success some sixty years ago.

Probably a good thing then, that Bill Bernbach, joint-creator of Volkswagen’s earliest and most memorable advertising, isn’t around to witness the car crash that the brand has recently become.

Bernbach knew that the strongest advertising asset of any brand is the truth behind it. The sole differentiator, which sets it apart from all those ‘me-too’ offerings.

For much of my time behind the wheel, VW’s truth was its reliability, which we all thought felt credible. Later, it became ‘unbelievable value’, which again we believed. And more recently, it evolved into the compelling ‘Clean Diesel’.

Except this time, the truth wasn’t true. TDI Clean Diesel was a lie. A cynical, calculated deception. Obviously, VW have sinned royally. But what does lying mean in advertising terms? What should VW have done?

You can see why they lied. And why they did it in the USA. Their product couldn’t function within stringent American regulations and still be a fun ride, so they elaborately faked the first bit – on 11 million vehicles.

At that point, the lie was born, and it was over to their ad agency to, albeit inadvertently, disseminate it.

Although those outside the industry find it hard to believe, adfolk adore the truth. It’s far easier to write an ad that’s unequivocally true, rather than one riddled with weasels. Although this may not attract your sympathy, I am sure the ad people who worked on Clean Diesel believed it was yet another clear, honed, and above all, true VW proposition. They will be as outraged as the customers they unintentionally deceived, because this event has perhaps irreversibly damaged a brand considered sacred (well, in ad circles, anyway).

When a brand crosses the line and wilfully lies, as Volkswagen is experiencing, things backfire on a massive scale. Instead of Bernbach’s truth, it’s the lie which becomes the most powerful element in everything they say and do. If you’d run a poll before this scandal broke, asking ‘what does Volkswagen stand for?’, you’d have received answers such as ‘cleanliness’, and ‘environmental awareness’. Today, the answers would be ‘lies’, ‘deception’, and so on. Right now, anyone driving a VW TDI must be thinking, ‘I’m driving a lie’.

There is nothing advertising can do for VW right now, or for the foreseeable future. Advertising has a nasty habit of exacerbating a bad situation. Think of all those cringeworthy ads about trust that the banks put out after they were rumbled.

It’s too late this time around, but Volkswagen should have been honest. With themselves. With the regulators. With their customers. With their dealers. They should have come clean and said, ‘our diesels can’t meet the US regulations and still be exciting to drive, so we’re going to stop making them’.

Insanity? No, just plain honesty. Yes, it would have cost them many billions of dollars to rationalise their range to petrol-only. Then again, another uncomfortable truth we all have to face is the slow but sure u-turn European politicians are currently making on diesels, having previously told us to buy them. It could be that diesels will eventually be phased out anyway, and VW could have led that crusade by recognising the truth and being the first to cease their production.

In any case, rationalisation could have turned out to be a relatively small price to pay, compared to what they will now lose, not just for going against their former mentor’s wise words, but for brazenly going off in the opposite direction.

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The best copy I’ve read in a long time.

It’s not by AMV, BBH, or any other immortally-acronymed advertising agency. It’s by a garage.  Yes, a garage.

A few weeks ago, I suspected I might have overfilled my beloved 1997 Mini with too much engine oil. I didn’t know where to go for advice, so I went to the place where we always go these days: google.

And here’s the first search result I found, courtesy of Young’s Garage of Tealby, which if you didn’t know (as I didn’t), is a rather lovely village in the Lincolnshire Wolds:

What happens when an engine is overfilled with oil?

So you topped up the engine when it was warm after getting a faulty dipstick reading, or you put too much oil in when you changed it yourself. What’s the worst that could happen? Well the problem with this is that the next time the engine is run, the windage in the crankcase and other pressures generated by the oil pump, etc. place a great strain on the seal on the rear main bearing.
Eventually, often much sooner than the ordinary man in the street might expect, the rear main bearing seal ruptures, and the engine becomes a ‘leaker’. If you’ve got a manual gearbox, this means one thing: this oil goes right onto the flywheel and the face of the clutch disc. A lubricated clutch is A Bad Thing. If this still goes unnoticed, the front seal is the next to go, and the engine then becomes a ‘gusher’ (or to be more colourful, it starts pissing oil all over the place). As well as smothering the clutch with oil from the rear, the oil now coming from the front leak will be neatly distributed about the engine bay as it hits the front pulley – often propelling it out as far as the brake discs. At the same time as this Hollywood disaster movie is unfolding outside the engine, things aren’t working out any better on the inside. As you can see from the diagram, the correct oil level is really close to the rotating crank. Overfilling will mean the crank dips into the oil and churns it into a froth. Froth is good on certain types of coffee but not good in an engine. The mixture of aerated oil will be forced into the bearings and in case you didn’t know, air is not a lubricant. Typically this means that bearing damage will follow quite rapidly, especially if you are driving on a motorway. You’ll know bearing damage when you get it. The engine smells like a garage mechanic cooking over an open flame and the noise coming from the engine is the sort of thing you’d normally hear in vaudeville plays when a piano is pushed down a flight of stairs. As if that all wasn’t bad enough, the excess oil gets thrown up into the piston bores where the piston rings have a hard time coping with the excess oil and pressure. It gets into the combustion chamber and some of it will get out into the exhaust system unburned resulting in a nice patina of oil all over the platinum surfaces of your catalytic converter. This renders it utterly useless for good. Well, you did ask.

So there it is.

Copy that actually tells you things you don’t know.

No dumbing down, on the assumption that the reader only wants inanity.

No contrived ‘tone of voice’, but just informed writing, with the author’s wit and personality mixed in for good measure.

It reminds me of one of the greatest ads ever written, Charles Saatchi’s 1970 poster for The Health Education Council (see below). There, the copy could have come straight from a textbook on food hygiene, with a tweak here and there.

Equally, the garage copy could have (but I’m sure didn’t) come straight from a Haynes manual, but with the extra wit added in to make the subject of engines, unlike the subject of flies landing on food, more palatable.

So thanks, Young’s Garage. As it happened, I hadn’t overfilled my engine. But if I had, I’d have had the car put on a trailor, and taken straight to Tealby. Testimony that good copy brings in the customers.

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Don’t talk to me about f@!**%g tone of voice.

Much of my professional life has involved helping large corporates – it’s just the way the account-cookie has crumbled. What’s struck me, is that they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what they should communicate. Instead, they obsess with how they should speak. And that obsession has a name: ‘tone of voice’.

On the back of this rides a lucrative industry of specialist writing agencies whose proposition is to create a shiny new unique ‘TOV’ for you. What this really means, is that they highlight your company’s jargon-ridden, officious, charmless and downright poorly written communications, then introduce a lighter, breezier style and vocabulary, with lots of ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples and workshops to illustrate where you were and where you could be.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ I hear you ask. Well, in its own right, nothing.

However, writing in an informal and friendly style is something which companies should easily be able to master by themselves, mainly by hiring folk who can write, express themselves without routinely resorting to jargon, and who always view things from the customer’s POV (sorry, I mean point of view). I have seen numerous ‘TOV makeovers’ for many different brands, and just for the record, the ‘new’ tone of voice such an agency will arrive at for one company, is pretty well identical to the one they will come up with for another. In short, even they have only one tone of voice to peddle – they just keep re-packaging it.

Tone of voice is, in fact, largely a nonsense.

Think about it.

You as a human being are continually thinking about what you’re going to say next, otherwise you’d just spout gobbledygook. But what about the way you are going to say it? Are you going to think about that too? No, because unless you are the affected type, that bit comes naturally. In other words, how you say something is determined by what you are saying.

It is this ‘what’, rather than the ‘how’, on which we as communicators should concentrate and this is something the advertisers of yesteryear understood. Remember Leagas Delaney’s insightful Timberland work, or Abbott Mead Vickers’ amusing campaign for The Economist, their safety-conscious one for Volvo and compelling ads for the RSPCA (yes, David Abbott and Co have been disproportionately responsible for much of the industry’s decent output)? These days, Arnold KLP’s cross-track posters for Jack Daniels are a rare example of work which enlightens its audience. I am no whiskey drinker, but even I still read them.

Many moons ago, I produced some ads for high-end hi-fi brand, Linn. Its customers are aficionados; hi-fi anoraks, whose mouths wow and hearts flutter at interesting product facts. One fact we found out, was that to achieve the precision they needed to manufacture parts for their turntables, Linn had to eliminate vibration from their factory floor. Ingeniously, they did it by suspending the factory off the ground, which removed all but minimal contact with it. That fact gave us something to say which we knew would fascinate our audience, so we didn’t need to worry about tone of voice, not that we were going to anyway, of course.

As my Watford tutor Tony Cullingham used to say, ‘a good idea writes itself’ (and that from a man whose nickname was ‘Tone’). It simply doesn’t need the contrivance also known as tone of voice.

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Planning a start-up? Here’s your agenda for success (using my beloved Poundland to illustrate).

[Warning: this post employs a degree of flippancy to make some serious marketing points] 

A year ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of setting foot inside any of the pound pleasure palaces. Then, I started working in Staines upon Thames – where there are two ‘price point’ retailers, Poundland and Poundworld, in the same short high street – and I found myself pleasantly surprised.

Since its inception in 1990, the main protagonist, Poundland, has become a multi-billion pound business, and although it’s frequently jeered at, one thing even the naysayers can’t discount is its pure entrepreneurial genius.

So, what did they have on their agenda that you should have on yours?

1. Get the proposition right.

At Poundland, the proposition is clear: every item costs a pound.

However, when I first arrived in Staines, the high street also boasted a third high-stacking cheap-selling outfit, called ‘98p+’. You can see what their thinking was: to seemingly undercut the pound-peddlers, while permitting themselves to charge exorbitant prices (such as £1.09) when they could get away with it.

A few months later, 98p+ went out of business, I believe because it aroused its target audience’s suspicions that they might get ripped off, albeit not too seriously. Pound-punters are a no-nonsense breed who need to know precisely where they stand on price. That little ‘+’ could have been 98p+’s undoing.

2. Start as you mean to go on.

This is something Poundland didn’t do when they started, and it led to prejudice which dogs them to this day. Prejudice that’s mooted by a colleague each time I return from the outlet. According to him, they only sell tat. Even if it says ‘Heinz’ on the tin, he postulates, am I not aware it’s foreign-sourced, and tastes odd?

He’s wrong, of course. These days, the quality is largely sound, and Poundland now boasts bespoke contracts with major brands in the UK, many of whom package lines especially for their stores.

3. In a crowded marketplace, concentrate on quality control above price.

On the face of it, there’s not much between the pound-peddlers (I sometimes quip about visiting each to compare prices).

However, I once had a couple of duff recordable CDs, and a pair of crackly earphones from Poundworld. There was something awkward about taking things that cheap back to the store, so I didn’t bother. But from then on, I’ve always given Poundland first shout for my business.

4. Always think things through.

A few weeks ago, there was a demonstration (quite literally) of what happens when you ignore this brand-essential, at the Wrexham branch of a ‘99p Store’. Despite their everyday low prices, 99p Store saw fit to run a half-price sale. But when they became inundated with customers, the store halted the event in a panic – much to those customers’ chagrin, especially as some of them were already in the checkout queue at the time.

It required the North Wales police to restore order, and all because the shop had not bothered to make it clear precisely when they were going to restore their prices back to 99p.

Any other business?

Well, always think laterally and do something unexpected to wrong-foot the competition.

For instance, I was meandering down the posh King’s Road the other day, and found myself thinking, ‘why not open a Poundland here?’ I don’t mean to stereotype, but affluent older consumers watch not just the pounds, but every single penny (which is how they became affluent in the first place).

All the pointers above may seem obvious, and a tad flip. However, they could mean the difference between desperately trying to keep your business afloat, and (as Poundland will be doing soon) floating on the stock exchange.

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A new strategy for those thinking about advertising on the internet: stay well away.

Until recently, I viewed the internet as a medium like any other. I was convinced all it needed to up its game was decent ideas. Now, I’ve changed my mind. The digital ‘space’ isn’t the same as other media. And it doesn’t need those fantastic advertising ideas – it doesn’t need ads at all.

We’re just annoying people

Recent research by Adobe revealed that UK consumers find internet advertising ‘annoying’, ‘irritating’ and ‘invasive’ – and I’m with them on that. When I want to watch a video on YouTube, I first have to endure an ad, up to 30 seconds long. I’m not allowed to kill the ad until given permission, which can be infuriating.

Those ads add up to a lot of wasted time. US statistics from March 2012 alone show that people were forced to watch 8.3 billion ads before getting to what they wanted to watch.

If ads are annoying on a PC screen, they’re even more so on a mobile one. When I download an app, a good slice of the screen is hogged by an ad. I can pay for an ad-free version, but like the vast majority of Android users, I choose to put up with the ads in the name of being ‘free’.

But is that where we, as an industry, really want to be? Forcing our wares on an unwilling, captive audience?

Anti-social media

Unlike any other medium, Social is the one we share with our audience. The problem is, the relationship doesn’t work. Why? Because although we can’t do without our audience, they could well do without us. They’re there to socialise. To show off. To sell themselves. We’re there to sell product. No matter how much we pretend we’re socialising, we’re not. We’re the uninvited guest, who only got in because they paid. Sandwiched between posts. Getting in the way.

If the audiences don’t see us off, the devices will

Twitter’s floatation brings audience rejection of an ad-funded platform to the fore, once again. But unlike Facebook users, the Twitterati are concerted and mean business, and brands could swiftly be damaged by their wrath – just ask MacDonalds, who incurred it recently.

Alongside diminishing public tolerance, the devices are shrinking, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear Watch, for instance.

Due to the paucity of space, it’s difficult to communicate anything genuinely engaging. That’s why agencies have persuaded clients to generate ‘content’, engage in social media ‘conversations’, and enter into ‘storytelling’ (I saw a recruitment ad for a ‘Head of Storytelling’ recently, which for me, signals we have now entered the ridiculous phase).

I think brands need to think carefully before rushing into their customers’ lives, despite the pressure they may be under from their agencies to do so.

To establish social presence requires extreme skill, but is frequently ill-judged, with lamentable results. Just skim through the current chatter on certain energy providers’ Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, which demonstrates the clear blue disconnect between these companies and their customers. Such brands are under siege on their own virtual doorsteps, which have descended into venues for publicly-aired complaints, with brand staff humiliated and hardly daring to chip in between the insults.

What should we be doing on the internet?

I’m not suggesting we all pack up and go home. There are massive opportunities on the internet, but in my opinion, largely not advertising ones. (I can honestly say I’ve never responded to an internet ad – I always know what I’m looking to buy, and a search engine, not an ad, is usually all I need to find it.)

The internet is, above all, a functional medium. We should apply our expertise to this aspect, helping our clients broaden what they can do for their customers, rather than just what they can say to them. We should be innovative, rather than just jump on the monetisingly-challenged creations of Silicon Valley internet entrepreneurs.

We’re too obsessed with forcing people to connect (awful word) with us, absorbing our brands into their lives. But just listen to the customer. Many are telling us they don’t want us there – and it’s time the ad industry got their message, for once.

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