It isn’t true brand essence if you don’t fully deliver on it

October 2008

Anyone reading this will probably have at least some knowledge of marketing and branding. That being the case, you’ll know our industry has more than its fair share of terminology and acronyms. Some of these are good and add both value and clarity, and some are rather less useful.

One term I especially like though is ‘brand essence’. By definition, brand essence can summarise what the brand stands for in a few words or even just one. Actually, and largely determined by how complex the brand’s offer is and how well it differentiates itself, this can be a near impossible task. For example, describing the essence of the Virgin brand in a word or two – given the diverse sectors it operates in and how it does it – would certainly be challenging.

There are though some brands that have identified their brand essence and use this to add clarity and a firm foundation to their brand and marketing strategies. We’re going to look at two examples here, one which delivers on its brand essence and one which doesn’t entirely.

Starting with the one that does, Marshalls – as in landscape materials and block paving etc. – describe their brand essence as ‘transformation’. And that’s just what they do – they transform your garden, patio or driveway. They say this with confidence because they don’t just achieve transformation with high quality and attractive product, but because they also ensure it’s installed to a high standard (providing, that is, you use one of their ‘Marshalls Register’ installers).

So this example is simple, appropriate to what the brand does, helps give internal clarity within the business to aid decision making on brand, marketing and operational issues, but, above all, they deliver on it.

My example of a brand which doesn’t entirely deliver on its stated brand essence is Argos. Now this story is rather longer, rather more personal, and largely because, as some of you reading this will know, I spent 20 years working for this great brand. And it is a great brand and one I continue to love to this day. That said, I must confess though that there is an element of exorcism in this tale of woe!

During the late 90s and working with Interbrand, I was privileged enough to head-up a brand review for Argos. It was far-reaching and the results revolutionised the way the brand looked and how it spoke to its customers. At the heart of the work with Interbrand, was defining just what it was the brand stood for and how it differentiated its offer from other retailers – in Argos’ case an awful lot of them.

The terminology then was more around ‘core proposition’ than it was brand essence, but actually what we ended up with was the same thing. The word was this: convenience..

It’s worth saying at this stage that convenience had become central to the Argos brand but it certainly wasn’t what it started off with in the 70s – that was low prices. And in the 70s and early 80s a brand could just differentiate itself on low prices – in particular if it stocked so many product categories as Argos did then and of course still does. But that all changed with the emergence of reinvigorated specialists or newcomers in each of the product categories Argos stocked – e.g. Curry’s and Comet for the former and Toys’R’Us for the latter.

So in a social environment that was progressively becoming cash rich and time poor, Argos, fortuitously and given the unique nature of its operation, emerged with total brand relevance – convenience. So where’s the problem? It’s in the level of ability to deliver through its main shopping channel, and indeed the unique and unfortunate reasons that lay behind this.

To go back briefly to the brand review, having got buy-in at board level on Interbrand’s main thrust around convenience, we agreed that the challenge would be to ensure ‘convenience’ manifested itself in an appropriate way across all media and all shopping channels. (And my role, as Corporate Design Manager, was largely about setting out how this should be done.) For the catalogue – the hero of the Argos brand – this was relatively easy to achieve: Get rid of cluttered, abstract and confusing page spreads, and replace them with neat, simple and structured layouts – just what you need to make browsing or referencing the Argos catalogue convenient.

The emerging website followed a similar visual logic to the catalogue, and coupled with the expertise of people which understood how convenience should manifest itself in terms of ease of use, it all worked very nicely indeed.

The problem though sat with the stores. Well, less the stores themselves and more the people that ran them. For the actual store design we created a blueprint of operational efficiency: A place that customers could get into and out of in the minimum of time and the whole experience would, at least, be tolerable (and no need for anything better given what the brand stands for). The majority of the people who ran the stores had other ideas though.

Before going further, let’s be clear on what the deal is with Argos and how you shop it. It’s pretty simple really; you either look through the catalogue at home and then go into the store to pick the product up (the majority), or you phone up and have it delivered, or you order it online to have it delivered. There are a few variations and other scenarios but these are the main ways. Oh and over 70% of all UK households have an Argos catalogue, so a fair few consumers go through one of the processes.

Back to the problem: Argos stores aren’t like most shops and stores. The product is of course sat in a stockroom behind the bit the customers goes into (so unlike pretty much every other retailer) and therefore requiring different skills to manage the operation. Despite this though, the people that ran the stores, their bosses and their ‘bosses bosses’ largely came from – and no doubt still do – conventional retail backgrounds. In conventional retail, the people making decisions largely influence sales through what happens with product on the sales floor. Not so Argos because the product mainly isn’t there and, anyway, the vast majority of customers coming through the door already know what they want (because they chose it from their catalogues at home).

The outcome was this then: convenience couldn’t routinely manifest itself in the Argos store environment because the people running the stores had a different agenda. In fact – and because conventional retail instinct told them to do so – they made the store inconvenient by cluttering them up with bulk stacks of product (thus confusing the core offer and also risking customers trading down to cheaper options than they intended to buy), putting up home made POS, moving the key ‘system’ fixturing around and, even worse, directing already limited manpower to do all this work instead of doing what they should do – serving customers. Incredibly, local marketing activity wouldn’t just be in addition to that organised nationally by Marketing, but sometimes instead of it! Yes they could influence sales with what they personally decided to do with product on a local level, the problem was that the influence, on balance, could only ever be negative.

This extraordinary situation knew few boundaries and field management would actively compete – and often be rewarded for – the levels of non-compliance they could achieve in stores (I kid you not). In addition, the culture of the ‘Operations’ division running the stores was quite different to others within Argos and certainly central to this was a stance of superiority. As an example, a standard line from them was that the Marketing division was a ‘support department’ – so in other words to deliver to their demands. My boss at the time – a man with a brilliant strategic mind but, even by his own admission, not really a fighter – once said to me that actually Operations had this the wrong way around. So what he meant was that Marketing should largely dictate the shopping experience in an Argos store, and Operations were simply there to deliver on it. He was absolutely right of course, problem was he wasn’t about to go and tell them the same.

When I think back, the situation was even more bizarre because the other shopping channels delivered on convenience and indeed still do. For example, if you order something via the Argos call centre and have it delivered to your door, you don’t have the telephone operator making up their own system or the delivery driver determining his own schedule. No, they follow the rules and the customer benefits as a result.

The clue to the solution to all this probably sits with a particular type of person often employed to run the stockrooms in Argos stores. These people were ex-military and, in my time with Argos, were popular recruits with HR for such a role. Why? Because they did what they were told (even the Operations division didn’t want innovators in the stockrooms…), ran a tight ship, and maintained a level of operation efficiency that a nuclear submarine captain would be proud of. And the relevance of this to the stated brand essence of convenience? Customers got their goods quicker.

I’m not too sure what the current situation is at Argos as far as running its stores with a clear, agreed and brand-led policy is concerned, but from what I see – recently Inverness, Cardiff and St Albans (can never resist a look when I’m away on business) – they’re still pretty shambolic. And actually what’s worse is that it’s a different shambles most times (though I’m sure there’ll be positive exceptions now as there were in my time). In truth I’m also sure the situation now is much better than it was 7 years ago, but clearly it isn’t yet fixed.

I still shop with Argos but I do it online. I choose this channel not just because it really is convenient and it works every time, but because I know what I’m getting and there are no nasty surprises along the way. In a brand sense for Argos, that’s how it should be and it’s more than a shame that their one point of real difference – indeed their brand essence – isn’t fully delivered upon. How could they do it? Forget about employing retailers to run the stores. What they need are supply chain experts, distribution centre managers, or even tank commanders (probably with some customer service training ahead of going live though…). In fact anyone who can efficiently run a process and therefore deliver true and consistent convenience.

Convenience remains a fantastic point of difference for the great Argos brand, they’ve just got to do what’s necessary to get it working across stores as well as their other shopping channels. That way they can truly call convenience their brand essence, and indeed give further substance to their current strapline: Don’t just shop for it, Argos it.

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