Brands and authenticity

July 2009

About 12 years ago I moved to Towcester (pronounced ‘toaster’ not ‘tow-sester’) with my wife and daughter. The move had all sorts of benefits to the family, but one specific one for me was some proper pubs in the high street. And by ‘proper pubs’ I mean ones which served real ale and didn’t have wall-to-wall TV screens showing non-stop sky sports.

One pub in particular became a favourite: The Watling Well. Now for those not too hot on their Roman history, the name ‘Watling’ comes from Watling Street – a Roman road which ran from the Kent coast to north Wales and, for its best part, is now the A5 (and if you’ve ever driven on the A5 you’ll know it adds much weight to the theory we’re all told about in infants school about Roman roads being very straight). Anyway, I digress.

What was the pub like? Well pretty old and scruffy really, with no two tables alike, a stone floor so uneven it was a potential health and safety hazard, and décor which could best be described as ‘been like it a while’. It was a free house so always had different real ales, and, vitally, the landlady knew how to keep them (cloudy real ale normally means there’s something wrong with it or the pipes it flows through aren’t clean). And whilst mentioning the landlady, she was the proper thing – traditional, been around for a few years, friendly and took no nonsense from trouble makers (not that the pub attracted many).

So for the first few years of our time in Towcester, the Watling Well became a popular destination – perhaps a Saturday lunchtime on my own armed with a copy of the Times (ah… the days when we all bought newspapers) and on Friday evenings with my good wife to watch a live band. Then it all went horribly wrong…

The pub was bought by a Northampton company called McManus (though I don’t think they own it now) who promptly spent a reported £350k wrecking it. For a start they called it a pretentious name – The Monk and Tipster – (no doubt the strategy of the marketing dept being to change the name to get the old crowd out and bring the Budweiser-swigging youngsters in), but actually what they did in entirety was epitomised by one single totally crass action: they replaced the wonderful old gnarled and eclectic mix of table and chairs, with new tables and chairs that were made to look old by chunks carefully carved out of them. Ridiculous nick-knacks were added to every wall and the historic floor covered with one of those highly patterned carpets reserved for ‘let’s make it look all traditional’ type pubs and hotels. What were these people thinking.

So what we ended up with was a pub which they’d tried to make look old and traditional, but actually they could never come close to the genuine thing they started off with. Of course it now had the obligatory large TV screens at every vantage point showing the latest Man U triumph over a hapless team at the foot of the premier league, but I couldn’t help wonder if such screens couldn’t have just been added to what existed – assuming of course the strategy was to get the old crowd out and a new younger one in (though, given how popular the pub was in it’s old guise, I also wondered what sort of viability study McManus had carried out ahead of embarking on their mission of change).

And the real ale? They kept a token hand pump on the bar, but the beer was cloudy and undrinkable (the new landlord no doubt being more comfortable serving bottles of Bud and Magners straight from an easy-to-manage fridge).

There’s a number of morals to this story which would include not applying your standard business model to every new opportunity that comes along, but instead opening up your mind and looking at other, perhaps local factors – in this case heritage and an existing and healthy customer base. (A robust viability process to look at such things before committing to capital expenditure would also be smart.) But actually the one I want to focus on is about authenticity. The old Watling Well was a brand; a strong local brand and one which was entirely authentic. When the new owners took over they threw out that authenticity (literally and metaphorically) and naively tried to recreate it.

That isn’t to say that every brand has to be truly authentic to be strong and excel – such a value might not be appropriate for a brand in a particular market. And ‘authentic’ also doesn’t have to mean ‘old’ – I’d say Green & Blacks is authentic and they certainly haven’t been around for centuries. But the point is that trying to be authentic and doing so in an entirely superficial and false way, is something most consumers will see straight through (with the possible exception of underage drinkers with their eye on a fridge of over-rated lager, reinvented cider and alco-pops).

Those wonderful old tables probably now have a new life in renovated million pound terrace houses in Notting Hill, but I bet the ancient stone floor still sits below the now-grotty with trodden in chewing gum carpet, and is just waiting to be revealed by a more enlightened owner. I hope so anyway.

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