That Special Ingredient

Someone gave my wife a 1960 edition of Vogue Magazine (yes you can figure out why but please keep your inferences to yourself) and I could not resist having a quick thumb through purely to check out the Ads. The comparison with today’s Vogue is hilarious – they all feature demure Audrey Hepburn look –alikes. It was interesting if not unexpected to see that only a very few of the brands advertising are even close to famous now. Selfridges had a spread as did dear old Bentalls but most are long gone – any of you ladies wearing Polly Peck tights by any chance, I thought not. But one defunct brand caught my eye in particular. There were two full page ads for Bri-Nylon. I recall in my youth that nylon – bri or otherwise – was heavily promoted and for a while we all aspired to wear this new miracle material, sleep in it and, as Vogue 1960 was featuring, use it for our ball gowns. A few years later it was a by-word for cheap, nasty and smelly. Polyester took over and while seen as the poor mans cotton or wool still finds widespread use but I don’t remember seeing any ads for it anywhere.

Courtaulds were a well known purveyor of materials and there was an ad budget for them as well back in the day.

It got me thinking about the potential for marketing ingredients or components and whether this has any role these days. If people can only ever buy your product as just part of many other peoples’ brands is there any point doing any more than B2B marketing? Is it worth going over the heads of your business customers and talking to end consumers to create some pull, increase your leverage and therefore margins?

Until recently we used to know all about Intel and demand only those computers that had their chips. I don’t hear so much about them now and doubt many people care who makes their micro-chips (do you know who makes the ones in Apple products – thought not). Will we pay a premium for any brand of outdoor wear that uses Gore-tex or just the Northface brand irrespective of what material they use? Who makes the electrical components in your car? Most of you will answer BMW, Ford or whoever has their badge on the car, the rest will simply say they don’t care. Back in the ‘70’s when I used to do a little work on cars I knew all about Lucas, I even knew the relative merits of SU versus Webber carburetors and would pay a premium for Castrol Oil.

Back to the world of tech, are we witnessing the demise of the Microsoft brand? It is still famous but do we care far more for the hardware than the software? Shell and other petrol brands used to advertise heavily and those of us of a certain age can still remember going well on Shell or putting a tiger in our tank with Esso. The Oil brands now market themselves much more on the service station, even the coffee they serve, rather than the petrol you buy. You spent thousands of pounds on your car, one of the biggest capital investments you make, and yet will not drive 100 yards to buy a better petrol.

On the other hand, what is your emotional attachment and loyalty to your washing machine? You cared a bit when you were buying it and were possibly persuaded by the sales person – or on-line reviews – to fork out a bit more for a Miele or Bosch (or anything German rather than Italian or British frankly) but the brands you still care more for are the detergents you use in them.

The question here is what is the chicken and the egg? Did ingredient or component brands lose their points of difference, did we lose our naivety or did they stop investing in marketing (which ain’t just advertising, it is also innovation which delivers meaningful points of difference) just as all the end products upped their investment? The Persil/Ariel versus washing machine example would suggest it is the latter. The white goods industry has always been so f*** up and fragmented and in my experience – somewhat dated I must acknowledge – home of some of the worst managers, and their marketing reflected this. On the other hand P&G and Unilever have ploughed billions into their brands and this money has been invested by some of the very brightest and best managers and marketers.

I once gave a talk on this theme to a group of Shell senior managers. One them, the head of technical development, stood up at the end and said “I don’t think you understand, our petrol is only 3% better and that would never be noticed by anyone”. As a former detergents boy I replied that we would kill for a performance difference as big as that. The trick is to make the difference relevant and important and find ways to explain the benefits and consequences.

“But who on earth would really care?” he came back at me. It is 3 o’clock in the morning and you have to rush your sick child or pregnant wife to hospital in the family car. You have just taken delivery of your highly expensive sports car and are about to fill it up for the first time. An expert explains the savings in service costs and the increased residual value of your car if you protect the engine by using the right fuel.

Marketing starts with differentiation and ends with the investment to make sure the right people know, care and trust. On the way you make sure you create more value than you add cost.

Those are the ingredients for success. If you stop investing in your brand because in truth you have stopped believing in your ability to deliver something different that is worth paying for then you become a commodity.

Leave a Reply