Look back before you leap

Strategy is delighted to welcome back Forum's prodigal columnist, John Bradley, from his globetrotting author sabbatical. Our monthly dose of Bradley's inimitable marketing wisdom and brisk brand reality checks is long overdue.

Since I last penned this column, I have spent my time doing what no marketer ever does but every marketer should do: discovering and documenting the history of a brand. Not that I’m suggesting today’s hyper-stressed champions of the consumer should devote 13 months to it as I did, but not to do it at all should be a hanging offence.

Why so? Because behind all the modern-day hullabaloo of change, very little is truly new. For example, in the packaged goods world, the shift of power from manufacturer to retailer generates much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I have yet to meet a manager from that sector who doesn’t at some stage ask, ‘How are we supposed to deal with the ever-rising power of the retailer?’

But the manufacturer has not always held sway. Three of the largest retailers in the world prior to the Second World War – Sears, A&P and Woolworths – were all-powerful in their relationships with their suppliers. Sears and A&P sold predominantly private label goods, and Woolworths brought in cheap, unbranded products from low-cost producers overseas. Is this starting to sound familiar yet?

And the changing media landscape? Within four years of the introduction of commercial television into the U.K., 60% of all confectionery advertising was going on TV. That’s up from nothing four years before. And I’m supposed to be wowed by brands now devoting 10-20% of their media to the Internet a full decade after its emergence?

In addition to better comprehending and responding to some of the underlying shifts taking place, looking to the past is also essential to understand what actually constitutes the equities of one’s brands. This is because brand equity is nothing but history. It represents the sum of the consumer’s interactions with the brand over a lifetime, and some memories prove to be far more enduring than many brand managers, versed as they are in the primacy of the here and now, might imagine.

This was compellingly brought home to me a few years ago, when I approached Pigeon Branding & Design to take a look at redesigning the Caramilk wrapper. The package design hadn’t changed for at least 10 years, and the brand is ubiquitous, so surely everyone was as fed up as I was with the horrendously dated graphics. But much to my surprise, not only were people not fed up, hardly anyone was aware of what the graphics actually looked like.

Pigeon had done a simple exercise of recruiting heavy Caramilk users and asking them, sight unseen, to draw the bar. The results represented pretty much the entire design history of the brand, going back 60 years. It was obvious which design equities had become part of the brand fabric, which had been wrongly discarded in the past and which had never taken root. The way forward was glaringly apparent to a blind man on a galloping horse. Similarly with my book: all the information Cadbury needed to avoid just about every pitfall that befell the brand was in their own archives.

So never even brief an ad, let alone approve one, without seeing the entire advertising history beforehand. Never dream up a new channel of distribution without analyzing all the previous ones. Never approve a pack design without having the design history of the brand laid out in front of you. Never do

co-branding activity without examining the history of the other brand. And never let anyone tell you that you must deviate from the real brand essence because ‘things are different now.’

Just because soldiers don’t use chariots or muskets any more, officer cadets haven’t ceased to study the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon. Obviously, tactics must evolve in line with new technologies, but that’s no excuse to assume that history is bunk.

After 20-plus years in the marketing trenches (and 30-plus columns for strategy), John Bradley’s first book, Cadbury’s Purple Reign, will be available in all good bookstores in March 2008. He also appreciates feedback to

Johnbradley@Yknotsolutions.com.