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The ‘truth’ about branding

The recent scandal of repackaged chickens uncovered by the Guardian led to some interesting statements by Tesco and its supplier 2 Sisters.   The real story is about 2 Sisters and sell-by date labeling, but the spin-off story is about branding.

Tesco had been doing very well selling budget chicken drumsticks attractively labelled “Willow Farm, reared exclusively for Tesco”.  The sales had gone well – an improvement on selling very similar drumsticks without the Willow Farm branding.  Unfortunately the investigation by the Guardian revealed that some of the chickens were returns from Lidl and simply repackaged by 2 Sisters as Willow Farm.  So neither exclusive, nor from the charming but imaginary Willow Farm.

Tesco were quick to respond and act, but apparently there was no deception, just ‘confusion’.  Customers were “savvy” about how marketing works said boss Dave Lewis.  “Do they (the drumsticks) come from farms? Yes. Can one farm satisfy all the demand from Tesco? No”.  Conclusion?  “The product truth is absolutely right.” Of course!

To help matters along, 2 Sisters solicitors weighed in with “The Willow Farms brand is exclusive to Tesco, but the raw material is not.”

So while there may be an implied connection between the words exclusive, the Willow Farm branding and the actual drumsticks, they are quite separate.  If you think otherwise, the confusion is yours.

So does branding work?

The Willow Farm story would suggest that branding can be very effective. It is over a year since it was hatched, and even though, as the Guardian reported at the time,”The use of fake British-sounding farm names, such as Woodside, Willow and Boswell was controversial from the outset with the National Farmers’ Union“, sales went well.  With a few more farm names up its sleeve Tesco might paraphrase Groucho Marx and say “Those are my farms, and if you don’t like them…well I have others.”

The Sunny Delight story also proves that branding can work well, but as long as there is no great discrepancy between the “truth” of the product and the “truth” of the branding.  The decades fastest selling soft drink traded on its apparent healthy properties.  But when it was realised that “the kind of healthy attributes that were being given to it in the marketing campaign might not actually be justified … consumers began to lose faith in the product, particularly when a little girl turned orange having drunk large quantities of it”.

Solicitor Flor McCarthy addresses this point in his award-winning book “The Solicitors Guide to Marketing and Growing a Business“.  “If anyone mentions advertising in terms of your brand” he writes, you should “nod politely but run away as fast as you can”.  For solicitors, he argues, the integrity of the lawyer is the brand.  Packaging will only cheapen it.  This is a sound point.  The moral of the story, let’s hope, is that if your branding is true to your product, and vice versa, you won’t experience a Sunny Delight or Willow Farm moment.  As Douglas Adams put it, “to give real service you have to add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity”.  Or as George Burns put it  “Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.

The research view

Marketing is a tough job and is flying in the face of our essentially conservative natures much of the time.  As reported in the Harvard Business Review, “American families… repeatedly buy the same 150 items, which constitute as much as 85% of their household needs”.  So not surprisingly “only 3% of consumer packaged goods exceed the sales goal benchmark of a successful launch”.  In other words, 97% of newly branded products fail to sell.

On the bright side, a University of Zurich research team examined “the relationships between brand equity and customer acquisition, retention, and profit margin”.  It concluded that  effective branding is “significantly associated with CLV in expected and meaningful ways”.  In particular “customer knowledge of a brand has an especially strong positive relationship” with customer acquisition and retention.

So the question is, will our improved knowledge of the brand mean that we want to buy more Willow Farm drumsticks?