Sticky-label success stories

Brand Warriors
April 17, 1998

The publication of Fiona Gilmore's Brand Warriors could not have been timed better. Brands and branding are all the rage. The government wants to "re-brand" Britain; Labour's electoral landslide has been dubbed "a triumph of branding"; the monarchy is researching and polishing its "brand image"; businessmen buy and sell brands at prodigiously inflated prices; designer labels - posh brands - are de rigueur; a recent survey showed that the public now has more faith in famous brand names than in Parliament, the church or the police, which nobody seemed to find remotely surprising; and people describe as "brands" everything from universities to football clubs.

Yet not so long ago the pundits and panjandrums were declaring that brands had collectively and comprehensively passed their sell-by date. Articles titled "Brands are dead" were commonplace. Marketing ran a feature headlined "Brand graveyard beckons", and even The Times queried "Brands: who needs them?" So Brand Warriors, a compendium of brief case histories, has hit the bookshops just as interest in brands is, as the stockbrokers would say, maximising its upside potential. Yet the decision to write it must have been taken when brands were still in downside mode, and was therefore brave or prescient or both.

Brand Warriors takes as its theme the thesis that, in order to survive and flourish, commercial brands must constantly be at war with their competitors. The analogy between business and warfare is not a new one. But in her perceptive opening chapter Gilmore neatly points up the similarities and tees up the reader for battles to come. Unfortunately the 16 case histories which follow rather let her down. Instead of describing wars they wallow in victories. And this was, I suspect, inherent in the book's structure.

Each chapter is written by a top businessman. The businessmen work for the companies that own the brands about which they are writing. And while they have been too clever to make it blatant, naturally they have grabbed the opportunity to publish case histories which are pretty good PR puffs. (They are all men, incidentally, apart from the editor. Women at the top in business are as rare as sunny days in winter, but it seems a pity Gilmore could not find a single sister to carry the feminine flag - and burnish the feminine brand.) Top businessmen are not known for their humility. They do not rush to admit their mistakes. Or to be more precise, they admit to a trivial blunder or two, to establish their modesty and enhance their credibility. But otherwise, in their own eyes, they can do no wrong.

The Brand Warriors authors exemplify this vainglorious phenomenon perfectly. They display all the modesty of strutting peacocks. The outstanding example is Robert Holloway, of Levi Strauss jeans, who uses the word "successful" or its derivatives to describe his company 19 times in his short chapter, on two occasions using the adjective three times in a single paragraph. Not that his piece is all chest-beating puffery, not at all. "We may miss some opportunities or are slow to respond to others", he admits in a momentary lapse into self-flagellation. But he continues: "Iwe would argue it's a good price to pay for the focus and integrity we have with our brands and our customers."

Such tiny, carefully qualified self-criticism is typical. Indeed, in so many of the case histories do the authors admit to a single insignificant error that at one point I began to wonder whether they might not have been briefed: "Remember, nobody is perfect, not even you, so please include at least one tiddly little cock-up". But I am sure no such instruction would have been necessary. Nowadays top businessmen do it instinctively.

All of which exacerbates the endemic problem with business case histories. These inevitably imply that aims were clearly defined, events occurred in a logical sequence, everything happened as planned, and the results were exactly those intended. About 99 per cent of Brand Warriors fulfils that blueprint. But life is rarely so malleable. As Scotland's great bard so sagely (almost) said: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley - except in business case histories."

Not that the Brand Warriors case histories do not include some interesting and profitable lessons. It would be impossible for anyone in business to read first-hand accounts of the development and growth of such brands and companies as Asda, British Airways, Cadbury's, Levi Strauss, McDonald's, Rentokil and the rest without picking up useful and usable insights and tips. But the book should have been called something like Brand Successes (a title that would have commended itself to Levi's Mr. Holloway). Brand Warriors - the book that tells the stories of the battles, warts and disappointments and all - is still waiting to be written.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Bozell UK Group.

Brand Warriors: Corporate Leaders Share Their Winning Strategies

Author - Winston Fletcher
Editor - Fiona Gilmore
ISBN - 0 00 255867 X
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 237

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