Today I launched Brand Motor Limited, my new business. Oh, and it was my 46th birthday. There is a connection — but more on that in a moment.
Brand Motor is not, as some scurrilous friends suggest, a second-hand car dealership. It’s a branding consultancy aimed at powering business growth through branding. To be exact, Brand Motor exists to power the growth of small and medium enterprises in the Midlands, UK, by giving them big business class brands.
I’ve been doing branding now — to a greater and lesser extent — for twenty-four years. This has been mainly alongside marketing, PR, public affairs, social media, internal communications, advertising and event management. When I went for my Chartered Public Relations Practitioner viva voce in 2009, I told the panel that when I was 25 I knew 100 things about PR and marketing, but now (that is, then) I know just five things. I’ve narrowed it down again: now I only know one thing. But it’s the right thing.
If that is a little cryptic, let me unpack it somewhat.
When you start out in PR or marketing there seem to be hundreds and hundreds of things you have to know and remember. What’s the difference between ROI and ROAE? When do you use your 4 Ps, (or 7, or 9, or I once found a list of 16)? Above the line or below the line? Exactly where is the line, and how do you draw it?
After a while in the business it begins to settle down. You discover what works and what doesn’t. You discover that some things are fads of the moment, some are longer lasting but equally faddish (like USPs). And some apply whatever you’re doing.
At the age of 46 (that number again), I’ve come to the conclusion that if you get the brand right, then everything else falls into place. If you don’t, then you’re just pouring money into bad marketing, bad PR, bad advertising, bad social media campaigns, bad publications and bad staff newsletters.
By the brand, I don’t mean the logo. There are great brands that have no logo, and some beautifully designed logos which contribute nothing whatever to the brands they are supposed to represent.
Ultimately, a brand is a promise, and the strength of your brand isn’t based on how magnificently you make the promise, but on how well your customers think you keep it. To make it work, of course, it has to be wrapped up in something identifiable and memorable. That’s where a logo might come in — or not. Often it’s just a name. Radio 4’s Today Programme may well have a logo, but I have no idea what it is. My relationship to it is entirely auditory. The Spice Girls probably had a logo as well. My relationship to them wasn’t even auditory (except by accident). The Spice Girls represented something, and I knew more or less what it was. They seemed to fulfil their promise to their target market (which definitely wasn’t me) pretty well, at least for a time.
But I digress.
When asked to go in and help with PR, marketing or advertising for a company, a charity, a not-for-profit, a special event, a new product or even a political candidate, what I’ve learned is that if the promise is right — which is to say, it’s promising something which the promiser can deliver, and which the people who it’s being promised to actually want — then all the PR, advertising, marketing, publications and so on are fairly easy to do, and to do well. When there’s an issue about the promise — not delivered consistently, doesn’t solve a problem for the people its aimed at, doesn’t do it distinctively or uniquely, or is just too hard to explain and remember — then all the other bits move painfully slowly, they cost more money, and they deliver less results.
Which brings me back to launching a business in branding for SMEs in the Midlands.
Britain’s economy has taken a knock over the last few years — not just in the banking crisis. We became more and more reliant on banking because we spent less and less time either making things or delivering services that enhanced our economy in some other way. That doesn’t mean that other activities aren’t valuable (they are). In solely economic terms, though, it’s the business of doing business which powers a stable economy.
The backbone of Midlands business has always beens small and medium enterprises — essentially businesses with a turnover now of £1 million to £15 million. Although the big names such as Lucas, Jaguar LandRover and Cadbury’s were individually the big employers with enormous turnovers, it was (and is) the network of small and medium enterprises which served them and each other which were our powerhouse.
In a global economy, though, local and regional businesses that used to do very well are under threat. It’s as easy to source from Czech Republic as it is to source from Wolverhampton, and as easy to source from China as Czech Republic. Businesses which were the sole provider of a trade or skill in a region are now facing competition from overseas. Equally, they have new opportunities for serving markets from Dresden to Delhi and from Moscow to Mexico City.
The contribution I want to make here is in strengthening their brands. So that when they go to international trade shows, Midlands business leaders can by solid in their confidence that their brand will compete with anyone else’s. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a trade show with a rag-tag collection of bits and bobs to see your main competitor there with a glossy stand which is pristine, organised and confident. Actually, there is something worse. It’s going to a trade-show with the best stand you can possibly get together, and then discover that someone who didn’t have a stand at all, and just went from one place to another with his business card, stole the march on you. Great brands don’t need a tonne of marketing collateral behind them. If the promise is right, it sells itself, and every other almost-right promise, no matter how glossy the brochures, serves only to accent the difference between getting it right and getting somewhere close.
Everyone should start a business at least once by the time they’re 46. At least, that’s what I’m saying now. We are all living much longer than we used to. Life expectancy is going up in some places faster than we are aging. But it’s still for us to make the most of it.