We talk to Zoe Fenn, director at Flamingo, the global insight and brand consultancy, about how brands need to adapt to stay ahead.  

Zoe FennQ: Zoe, there’s been a lot of talk around the death of the brand, do you think this holds water?

Zoe Fenn: Not at all.  Of course, some of the really big brands that have been around for a long time will fade.  So will many of the new ones.

It’s always been that way.  The brand graveyard always gets bigger.  But that’s different to the death of the brand.

What we are seeing is that brands are changing and that the role brands play in our lives is changing too.

Q: How is that change playing out?

For instance, many traditional FMCG brands, personal care, consumer healthcare and food and drink categories are facing a threat from “own” brands on the one hand and “niche” brands on the other.

The challenge for these brands is how to remain relevant, and where to find new growth.  That’s why we’re seeing a lot of expansion in new and developing markets.

The rise of the own brands illustrates the challenge the supermarkets face.  In response to the rise of the discounters, the big four have introduced more own brand products and give them better shelf placements.  Traditional brands have to work harder.

At the other end of the spectrum, the rise of niche beer brands has squeezed the big beer brands, for example.  They face a growing threat from the long tail of craft beers.

Q: So we’re seeing an increasingly ‘squeezed middle’, to borrow a phrase?

ZF: That’s right.  Brands have to be very clear about what their offer is, and to whom. Those that are not premium or discount are likely to come under pressure.

For instance, take Ibuprofen. A pharmacy own brand is probably a tenth of the price of the branded version. Once the pharmacy is trusted as much as the label why would you continue to pay more?

Part of the challenge for brands is that they are doing a different job for consumers, who themselves are much more savvy about what reassurance they need from a brand.

Q: Why are consumers becoming increasingly cynical?

ZF: It is not so much that they are becoming cynical.  They always have been.  They are becoming more savvy.

As we are all used to juggling many more brands in our lives, we look to each of them for different things.

Remember, at its most simple, a brand is simply a promise to meet an expectation.  In a battery that might be for long life.  In medicine it is to be trusted with your health.  In washing powder, to clean, without ruining.  In fashion, to be what you want to be.

Q: What’s the point of a brand anymore then?

What we are seeing now is that consumers have much wider brand repertoires and are looking for different things.  Very often, the way they mix their brands will be what they want to say about themselves, rather than the brands themselves.

That provides challenges for brands in the future. Not only do they need to deliver on their own promise.  They need to understand how they will fit with other brands their customers use and aspire to.

Part of the new brand is not just the promise of how a product or service will perform once it’s been bought.  It is also shaped by the performance of the company that produced it, and how the product was produced. In a world with little differentiation, the key differentiator may be the values of the business.

In short, brands now need to do more than simply attest to the quality of the stuff we buy.

Q: What about premium brands? Where do theyit into this picture?

ZF: Premium brands are very interesting because there’s much more at stake than the function, performance or taste of the product on offer.

Their differentiator is very often around the values they represent, or the club that customers buy into (even in their own heads) when they buy.

A more interesting beer, more interesting clothing, a more bespoke lipstick. All these choices are essentially to do with appearance and are part of making up our identity.

Those attachments can command a higher price. Think about Patagonia. Its customers buy into both the product quality and to be members of the tribe.  They self-identify as being able and willing to pay a little bit more to do the right thing.

Q: What’s the key consideration for brands that want to remain relevant?

ZF: Brands must be clear what their offer is and then deliver it consistently.

That builds familiarity and trust.  Look at two examples within Marks & Spencer.

Its womenswear hasn’t been consistent.  Customers feel the retailer flips from a younger market by advertising with models such as Alexa Chung to more traditional clothing.

It’s food offering is completely different. The store has been extremely clear and consistent about its food for a decade or more now. We know it’s exciting, experiential, different, fresh and sexy. That is often what holds up its quarterly results.

Q: So be consistent?

ZF: Yes.  Clarity on what the brand stands for among which customer segments and consistency in delivering it is key.

When you’re faced with 30 different ales to choose but you don’t know which to try.  Many people will fall back on the one they know will deliver something they have had before and enjoy.

Consistency makes that an easier decision, even for the most savvy and cynical consumer.

Zoe Fenn, is a director at Flamingo

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