What You (Tell People To) See Is What (They Expect To) Get

It must be my age, but meeting old friends and colleagues often dredges up the beginning of beliefs and insights I frequently use but whose provenance I had forgotten, and which have been added to over the years and repeatedly demonstrated their value. So it was that lunch with the (long ago) ex Group Communications Director of ICI took me back to the genesis of my interest in branding in unusual places!

In the late 90’s, the ICI I worked for was trying to work out what sort of company it was. At the beginning of the decade, they had separated off the pharmaceuticals and speciality chemicals businesses as Zeneca and majored on “bulk chemicals”, but had then acquired Unilever Speciality Chemicals in 1997 (in what was widely seen as a strategic blunder). Selling chemicals is primarily a B2B activity, but the chemicals industry was suffering in reputational terms and ICI was widely cited as a UK leader (how I learned the word “bellwether”) in the chemicals industry, so finding a way to explain its activities to both the investment community and wider society was recognised as important. Of course, the truth is that selling chemicals is very different from the retail industry that most people interact with. Chemicals are not (mostly) used directly (they are quite often colourless liquids or white powders) but are buried in the supply chain that results in the products most people see, and transformed many times before the final product. What ICI came up with was, as far as I saw as an employee, rather clever. Their strap line, “The Vital Ingredient”, conveyed both the fact that what they sold wasn’t obvious in the final product but that, without it, the final product probably wouldn’t exist or would have inferior properties. In hindsight, I understood that ICI had worked out who they wanted to influence, understood what they contributed in the supply chain and communicated it in simple terms.

A little over 10 years later, a similar challenge confronted the Technology Strategy Board. It had been spun out of government as a quango in 2007 and was beginning to understand that its role (to support economic growth) required it to know UK based companies that wanted to grow. Its historical community was derived from the LINK programme it grew out of, and consisted mainly of larger companies and universities. It had also inherited a government approach to communications – and issued press releases about how the government was about to give out, or had given out, large amounts of money. There was also a belief that announcements made by Ministers got more coverage than those made by the organisation itself. By 2010/11, they had realised that they needed to build their reputation with the companies who wanted to grow – many of whom were suspicious of any government involvement in their business. So they focused the content of their communications on the companies they had supported and told their stories. Companies tend to read about their competitors, customers and suppliers, so the TSB could enhance their reach by promoting the stories of companies who they had supported. Local and national media would pick up these stories, and the government would get the credit it craved by a roundabout, but validated, route. As with ICI, by understanding the community they needed to influence and what they contributed to that community, their communications became more effective, and they started to become known for the right things.

This simple approach works at all levels. I am now working with a company called Oxford Advanced Surfaces. It started almost 10 years ago as an Oxford University spin-out – based on some neat carbene chemistry – but had slightly lost its way, engaging in joint development programmes with large corporates, adding extra technologies to broaden it portfolio and so on, but had not made any money. The primary use of the product is to enable adhesion to difficult surfaces, in composites, for adhesives and paints. But, as one clear thinker I used to work for said “people do not buy adhesives, they buy two things stuck together” and adding an extra step in achieving that goal was a difficult sell. However, after many years talking with all sorts of people with adhesion problems, the team at OAS now have a very broad view of what sorts of problems people encounter and know how to solve them. They have now switched their communications to focusing on what customers do with their product and the sales are now beginning to come through.

These three examples show, at least to me, that branding is not about adverts and slogans. It is, as I have been told by several people I have been fortunate enough to work with that “the creation of a world-class brand comes from creating a great product or service experience, at a consistently high quality, over years". You have to tell customers what you are doing to help them, but getting a reputation that helps you be effective as an organisation has to be based not on what you say, but on what those who determine whether your product or service sells think about you. You cannot build a brand without a lot of hard work and taking your time, but get it right and it pays off!

Innovation "Theory" Small Companies
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