How can Northern Ireland businesses use branding and marketing to turn the current economic situation from a crisis into an opportunity to engage with customers and grow sales? Ulster Business talked to some leaders in the field to find out
A recent survey by London-based Superbrands UK found a host of familiar, premium brands continue to be the country's leaders in both the consumer and business sectors.
Well-known names such as Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, Coca-Cola and BMW were among the top consumer names while tech giants like BlackBerry, Apple, Microsoft and Google joined engineering firm Rolls-Royce as the leading business brands.
The fact that most of the companies on the list were multinationals indicates that having a well regarded and trusted brand costs money. These are companies which invest millions of pounds every year on maintaining and promoting their brands as part of their business strategy, even in a recession.
Though we don't have many global brands, Richard Houdmont, Director for Ireland of The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) says branding and marketing have played a critical part in helping a number of Northern Ireland companies experience business growth during the downturn.
"The agri-food sector in Northern Ireland is growing and companies such as Ballymena-based Doherty & Gray and Fivemiletown Creamery have not been afraid to grow their business through producing own-brand products for the Sainsbury's supermarket network," he notes.
"Likewise for just a couple of examples of what I see as success consider local companies such as Andor Technologies, First Derivatives, Linwoods and Autoline Insurance Group. Here we see examples of investment in marketing and branding, including brand extension or diversification used to great effect in the current climate."
Houdmont says there is still a misconception that branding is simply a company name and logo and that marketing is something only large companies do. But CIM believes every company needs to have a brand and marketing strategy to help it build strong customer relations, get buy in from its own employees, and succeed in the long term.
"A recession can be a great time to build a brand when your competitors perhaps aren't investing in marketing as they should," he said.
"Successful branding is about thinking and behaving like a leader. Look at the opportunities for expansion, repositioning and growth during the downturn. Think about the long-term strategy where you invest in not only the basic product and service distinctions but at the more emotional levels of creativity, values and core social contribution."
Here three experts give their views of why investment in marketing and branding is still worth it.
Try to stand out from the crowd
says Grainne Convery of Vision Brand Consultancy
In a recession the perceived value of a brand can become extremely vulnerable. But well established brands that stay true to their core values and commitment to quality can actually benefit from a recessionary economy.
Marketing expenditure is often the first area companies slash during a recession, so brands risk becoming less visible. This is not the best strategy as customers make basic decisions about whether or not they actually need the product at all or if they will pay a premium price for a favoured brand.
Unless the brand is truly important to them they can just as easily abandon it and turn to a generic version of the product.
Lowering prices also appears to be the common approach during tough times but it is not the only solution and over time can weaken brand value and squeeze margins and profitability. It's time for brand owners to do the hard work of understanding the core of their brands, the quality of their products and every single aspect of interaction with their customers.
Paul Rankin's Belfast restaurant Cayenne is one of Northern Ireland's best loved and most successful brands. Paul's attitude has been to stick rigidly to Cayenne's core values by investing to make his brand more visible. He is working harder with his team to ensure they understand and embody Cayenne's brand values so that they in turn deliver them consistently to customers. His commitment to delivering exceptional food and wine and a truly memorable experience at great value has meant that customers are getting what they want and coming back for more.
Belfast City Airport is another good example of a local brand rising to the challenge of more selective business and leisure customers. Despite being hit by the recession and losing Ryanair in 2010 the strategy is to continue with significant investment.
This year will see a £5m investment on an upgrade to the front of the terminal, continued improvements in the departure area and arrivals as well as the recent BMI international route announcement which will add significantly to the brand offer.
Both these brands have shown the need to seize this opportunity with a compelling message backed up by unfailing commitment to quality customer service in order to succeed in a crowded marketplace.
Learn from the mistakes of others
says Paul Malone of Paperjam Design
The last few years cannot be seen as anything other than a crisis. You will not see any brand worth its salt openly proclaiming the recent economic times have been positive – this will be viewed as commercial suicide.
Out of the crisis however exists an opportunity to learn from the companies that were clever and made it work, and the companies that made mistakes and are sadly no longer in existence.
Our company can trace when the recession hit back to a single month in 2008 when a large chunk of our private sector clients started to panic. We saw two trends emerging – companies that simply chose to disappear from view and companies that kept their marketing spending almost the same, but redirected it from creative professional services into bulk buying of media adverts.
During this time, certain companies had stopped talking directly to targeted customers and simply reduced their price to appeal to any random customers that just happened to stumble in. This is what we called a ‘firesale' strategy and it resulted in a weakening of their brand position. When they left the stage they removed themselves from the game, any potential opportunities were lost – they relied on people remembering their brand values and hoped for the best. They forgot that a small voice in an empty room can still be heard.
Of course there were the companies that still engaged in marketing but had taken the decision to manage the creative work in-house. They cut corners on professional creative services and tried to create money-saving options which in fact turned off their loyal customers.
One of our clients, Little Wing Pizzeria, opened in the height of the recession and has subsequently developed into one of the best-known local pizza chains. The strength of the brand is the fact that it is chatty, open and informal and of course not forgetting that the pizzas are great. Our brief was to create something that would stand out in a crowded market – and we feel we got it. The overall success of the campaign is due to the management team – a creative bunch that has embraced and implemented our ideas on using new and innovative ways of branding and marketing to appeal to a pizza loving audience.
In your company stop and look around. Are your competitors still silent? If so then this is the time to shout. But shout the right message, at the right time, to the right people.
says Jonny Kelly of Origin Partners
They say that there are winners and losers in a recession? In a business context not many marketing departments would consider themselves winners in the scramble for budget. This is understandable yet somewhat ironic as the winners in a recession are those who identify and seize new opportunities, grab market share and innovate their product or service offering.
Digital techniques and channels have changed the game entirely. Big company, small company, big budget, no budget – there is always an opportunity to communicate to your market with a digital strategy. Admittedly, massive budgets can be spent very effectively on digital strategies, however there are also huge opportunities to be realised by small companies bootstrapping on tight budgets.
Some Northern Ireland brands are embracing these opportunities to drive their businesses up and out of the economic rut we are in.
MIS Claims is a great example of a local brand keen to fully integrate digital into its marketing and communications. We worked with them to create a mobile App for the iPhone and Android which enables customers who have just had a car accident to pin-point their location, document and photograph the incident, find a recovery truck and start a claim.
This tool not only adds value and provides service for the customer but it also creates efficiencies for MIS by reducing call-handling time, it captures customer data for future marketing and it differentiates them from the competition.
Although MIS is one of many local companies embracing digital, many others are doing what they always did and getting less than they used to get. Marketing directors across the country are fooling themselves into believing that by having a website they have digital covered.
I am not suggesting that we forget traditional methods but I am suggesting that if your company does not have web, social and mobile plans embedded in its marketing strategy, the writing could be on the wall... and not just the Facebook wall!