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4 Apr

I recently wrote a piece for on the importance of feedback for brands (wonder how long it’ll be before someone comments how ‘pants’ the piece is…).

martin o'toole lingerie insight retail branding feature

3 Apr

Proof they’ll print anything these days…

Here’s a recent piece I did for Womenswear Buyer, Menswear Buyer, and Footwear & Fashion Extras magazines, on the importance of brand for independent fashion retailers.

martin o'toole branding

Lingerie branding and Cupid’s arrow

8 Feb

“Have you seen my pussy?”

So the petals are falling off the roses, the cards are gathering dust on the mantle, and our bank balances are a chunk lighter than they were last Wednesday, and I’m wondering about some of the brand messages I imbibed over the Valentine’s period.

Since we work with the luxury lingerie brand Something Wicked, I’m on the mailing list of a number of lingerie brands, to keep a close eye on lingerie branding and creative strategies. This means my inbox usually contains a rather interesting array of imagery – from the decadent to the downright kinky. The annual pre-love-day push is usually pretty full-on and this year it showed no sign of abatement.  However, the thing that struck me was the sudden shift in brand messaging, as the target audience shifted from women, to men – and the apparent misunderstanding of how a lingerie brand might wish to communicate with a male audience.

Having spent seven figures rebranding last year, Ann Summers underwent a largescale brand overhaul. Speaking in an interview in Jan 2012, Jacqueline Gold commented on the lingerie branding exercise:

“We realised Ann Summers had lost its mojo. Customers were saying we were less edgy compared to the rest of the high street and that there was a lack of naughtiness when comparing the Ann Summers of today to the Ann Summers of old. We recognised that we had become a little too safe and had started to lose what made us different. It gave us the opportunity to reinvigorate our brand. Some businesses might think we were mad to spend on research at such a difficult economic time, but for me it was crucial. It’s the businesses that stand still and stop listening to their customers that will suffer more.”

The rebrand was designed to reposition the brand as one which was influenced by pop culture and women like Rihanna and Christina Aguilera – raising the profile and credibility of the brand, essentially making it more up-market.

For the most part, they’ve done a fantastic job; sales are up, brand awareness is up, and Ann Summer has positioned itself as an open and accessible sex-cessory and lingerie retailer. Their advertising creative and brand messaging has taken a really positive leap forward. Then I saw their 2013 Valentine’s Day offering (clearly targeting men). Surprising to say the least…

Copy-wise, it starts well, with what promises to be a smart script, but then quickly sinks into a pretty tacky approach to marketing the brand’s Valentine’s lingerie range – the low point being a badly edited close-up of a woman’s wide open mouth, catching copious amounts of goo (one assumes lubricant) as it’s poured all over her face. From a brand perspective, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s taking the brand backwards after all the hard work in raising credibility; from a consumer perspective, I cringed to the point of whimpering.

In the same week, I received the first of a suite of slick, well styled/shot emails, from my old friend Agent Provocateur

Ever since I saw their cinema ad featuring Kylie Minogue, I’ve been a big fan of AP. I’ve loved their brand advertising; their e-commerce, their packaging and indeed their products. Top-class lingerie branding and always have been. From an ECRM perspective, they’re smart and intuitive; and I can’t help but smile every time they catch me out with content-fed online display ads shortly after I’ve been browsing through their site. All-in-all, a phenomenal luxury lingerie brand in my view. And then came their 2013 Valentine’s Day ad:

“Have you seen my pussy?” REALLY??!! 

So what’s going on here? Two brands with aspirations that were clearly shot down by Cupid’s arrow – both of which have sold out this Valentine’s Day, in favour of using tacky, low-market, unsophisticated creative. I’m not sure what this says about the brands’ understanding of the male partners of their typically female clientele? Are we (men) all mindless morons, driven by heinously unsubtle images of lube-soaked lips? Are we so thick and unsophisticated that we need the use of the word ‘pussy’ in lingerie ad creative, in order that we’ll engage? I genuinely don’t believe so.

Perhaps we as consumers will forgive the brands we’re loyal to, for their occasional off-brand blips? Or is it possible that having such tangent ‘cease-fires’ on brand strategy, could seriously damage our perception of the brands we know and love? Only time will tell I suppose.

Demystifying the brand wheel

30 Nov Brand Wheel Martin O'Toole

The foundation of the creative work I’ve been involved with always focusses on clients’ customers first; considering what they view to be important and how they are likely to engage with that brand.  This is a constant, regardless of whether the creative is targeting B2B or B2C audiences.

brand wheel brand onion

Secondly, it’s important to consider the nature of clients’ brands – the essence (what makes it tick).  This is usually done either by working with existing research or, in many cases, a combination of new and existing research – drilled down into an understandable melting pot.  How?  Simple.  Talk to a load of costumers and ask a load of the people working within the brand (from board level to reception) about their honest views and experience of the organisation.  This work is key, as it sets us on a process to define a number of things needed in all future brand communications work for the brand in question.  E.g. positioning, tone of voice, the way the brand communicates etc.  This is done by creating a ‘brand wheel’.  Now none of this is particularly revolutionary, as people in our industry have been using ‘brand onions’ for years.  Personally I’ve always felt the soubriquet ‘onion’ to be a bit pretentious, so I guess that’s why I prefer a wheel (it is round, after all).

Marketers can very quickly get carried away with brand wheels/onions!  I’ve often shared a cartoon by a rather witty ‘marketoonist’ called Tom Fishburne.  He creates cartoons designed for business and marketing.  Tom semi-mocks the notion of organisations worshipping their onions – something that never ceases to make me smirk, because it’s genuinely true that these things can be completely over-developed.

As worthy for consideration as Tom’s cartoon is, brand owners and marketers alike do obviously need at least some guidance; an onion, a blueprint, a DNA, a wheel – whatever.  Just something that keeps us all on the path when it comes to consistently communicating brand personas and messages.  So, for the time being (I’m currently working on an entirely new and unique one), here’s the wheel I favour – first & foremost for its simplicity:

Preferred brand wheel

Brand Wheel Martin O'Toole

Brand Personality (‘Walking & Talking’)

How the brand looks, behaves and talks.  An outline of how the brand acts; how it engages with others; the tone of voice it uses in its communications to customers (and prospective customers).

Brand Internal Drivers (‘Heads & Hearts’)

The vision, values and belief of the brand.  Whilst the vision and belief are usually single-minded statements, the values will always be an array of (usually no more than five) adjectives, detailing the features/benefits of the brand.  Doubtless there will be a distinct difference between service and product brand values.

Brand External Drivers (‘Proof & Pudding’)

I suppose this would be the bit where the ‘brand magic’ comes in.  The bit that requires more thought than a simple customer feedback summary.  Here we have to position the brand; back that positioning up, and summarise it with a strapline (external proposition).

So there’s the brand wheel…  Potentially as daunting as ever, even after this guide.  With that in mind, a good start for anyone interested in putting this into practice is to do a brand wheel on yourself – or on a friend or colleague – or in a group.  Happy peeling…

6 ‘musts’ (or ‘must not’) in B2B brand marketing

24 May

B2B marketing communications ‘musts’:

Must use glossy stock photography of pointless wanky-looking individuals in suits gathered around a laptop whilst engaging in some ‘blue-sky thinking’.

Must use images of open doors (because “business is all about opportunity”)

Must talk about the business as a third person, to convey seriousness and authority, because there are no humans in business, and because to appear human is to appear weak, and to appear weak means we couldn’t possibly be successful in business.

Must use as many technical words and references as possible (with very little punctuation) in order to convey an obscene wealth of knowledge and experience in one’s field, at the same time as explaining (in the third person) that the essence of the organisation’s goal is to create ‘bespoke solutions’, whilst at all times demonstrating a ‘client-centric focus’.

Must use (Reflex) blue or grey somewhere (if not everywhere), steering clear of any bright colours, to ensure that seriousness is conveyed at all times.

Must have a stock image of a handshake somewhere-actually WHEREVER POSSIBLE.

I could go on all day. Suffice to say that the above will ring bells on one of two levels; either you recognise it’s not a great idea, or your company is currently utilising some or all of the tactics above – because either you’re not a marketer (fair enough), or because your agency thinks and works like this (not fair enough at all).

So can we be serious about business, without always seriously communicating our abilities to do business?

Can we be serious about business, whilst at the same time conveying the humanity of the business to clients and prospective clients..? My answer to both questions is of course “yes”.

So why aren’t more business-to-business brands marketing themselves in a more human way?

I recently had the unspeakable pleasure of dealing with a chap who calls himself a ‘B2B marketing consultant’.

I’d love to say this is the first time I’ve met someone like my new friend, but the sad truth is that our industry is full of these so-called ‘specialists’, who are creaming the top off marketing budgets from hard-grafting businesses, by selling smoke & mirrors marketing advice to clients who simply do not know better.

So to B2B brand owners, I simply say beware. Beware because one of the many things to come out of this recession has been the emergence of a growing market of average ‘marketing professionals’ who, despite never having grasped the concept of commerciality, are more than willing to convince you of their unequivocal expertise in the world of commerce and marketing. Don’t get me wrong. The recession has (depressingly) also left some incredibly talented marketers out of work, and this is in no way a smite at them.

If I think about it, there are two thoughts in one here: One about the dangers of trusting so-called ‘B2B marketing consultants’ (with little or not experience in business), and the other about B2B brands working within a mould, because they know no other way.

Rant aside, I guess my point is that business-to-business marketing does not need to be entirely ‘corporate’, or lacking in personality. It does not need to use Dalek to speak to its customers. It does not need to use false imagery to convey the customer or staff experience it provides. It does not need to avoid using creativity or bright colours or honest words, at the danger of trivialising its offering.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that all B2B brands should consumerise their marcomms, as it would be simply impossible for some. However, there is a myriad of ‘human’ B2B brands out there, who do not see what promise there is in some simple honesty – which is more likely to attract rather than alienate customers.

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