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February 21, 2019

Brand attributes: Excellence not always necessary

I always enjoy reading Rory Sutherland wherever he crops up. You can find him on Twitter, in UK and US marketing magazines and in sundry lifestyle publications. Rory is the vice chairman of Ogilvy Group in the UK and has decades of advertising lunches under his belt. These have lent him the demeanour of a wise and insightful raconteur.

Recently he was talking about selective inefficiency in brands. That sounds complex, but it isn’t really. It’s about understanding what customers and prospects want and then deciding where to place your marketing focus. Unfortunately too many marketers see things in black and white. They imagine that only excellence of delivery will do. They don’t invest in research of any great sophistication, but rely instead on feedback from staff, directors and the optimistically named customer satisfaction survey. As a result, their strategy often prescribes unrealistic objectives for the poor old brand.

I came upon one just the other day: ‘To be the leading player in integrated financial services solutions at a cost which customers find affordable.’ This sounds all right if you say it quickly. But it doesn’t survive more than a few moments of real reflection. Let’s forget the enormous ambition and consider it from a business standpoint. It suggests a programme of effort and investment that only expects to make modest returns. So as a contribution to profitability it reads more like a suicide note than a credible statement of intent.

I have worked with a number of telecoms companies in my time and always been astounded at their inward focus. The one I am thinking of held a marketing development meeting that I facilitated, where the head of customer care stood up and set the objective of delivering world-class customer care within 12 months. Bold ambition; unrealistic timescale. Twelve years later the customer care delivered by this brand is barely on a par with other operators in East Africa.

To return to Rory Sutherland, he cites the importance of the Kano Model as a reference point for developing brands. Professor Noriaki Kano, from the Tokyo University of Science, has spent years trying to understand which elements of a brand’s offering have any impact on customer satisfaction. His study has revealed that it is often elements that seem tenuously connected to a product’s main function that have the biggest influence on whether people think the brand is good or bad.

Sutherland suggests that the extent to which a business cares about the finer points of what they are selling is a clue to the psychology of the seller. Just as you get a better idea of a person’s character by noticing how they behave when no one is watching them, so you get a better idea of a brand by judging the things it does which aren’t strictly necessary. He cites a man he once knew who owned a chain of hairdressing salons, into which he installed very smart marble washrooms. He explained this unnecessary investment in these terms "everyone expects the salons to look smart, but the loos to be at best average." So he was confounding expectation.

Last week we had to bury a much-loved relative. The funeral company was a division of a very old established British brand – The Co-operative. Similar to the movement we all know and respect in Africa, the original co-operative began in low cost retail and financial services. Helping people to afford the goods and services they wanted and to save for the future. Interestingly, the provision of dignified funeral services is one of the brand’s longest established lines of business.

It has been a long time since I had any contact with this brand, but two aspects of the service impressed me. Firstly, any contact with the bereaved family was properly informed. By which I mean that each of the four or five Co-operative staff involved in setting up the funeral were part of one seamless conversation. There was no need for anyone to explain, or to catch up – which is so often tiresome.

Secondly, when we went to collect the ashes of the deceased we found them not in a gloomy pot, but in a carton. A carton I can only describe as resembling the packaging of a malt whisky brand. Beautifully printed with scenes of peaceful rural idyll and neatly labeled with the details of the remains it contained. Quite apart from being an appropriate container for the individual involved (he loved the occasional single malt) it softened what could have been a gruesome moment.

Oh yes, the coffin was fine, the cars were polished and the service ran to time. But for me?  I’ll remember the phone calls and the carton and I’ll return to that brand when next I have to.



Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people. 



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