When old isn’t gold – how do you know when to change a winning marketing formula?

I had a fascinating conversation this week with Hannah Rhodes, which made me think about one of the conundrums of business and marketing, that a winning formula can quickly no longer be one, and that it can actually be harming your business without you knowing it. So, how does that happen, and how do you avoid it happening to you?

Jan 21, 2022

By Neil Davidson

Can you be so hip it hurts (your business)?

Hannah has been part of the craft beer revolution with Hiver, founding a business with urban beekeeping and honey at its heart. In that heady mix you’ve got a sector that had an incredible rise but is now suffering growing pains and two topics that became trendy almost to the point of parody. (Bearded hipster in a checked shirt on a Shoreditch rooftop, anyone?). However, there can be as many risks as well as rewards to building an on-trend business, and the troughs are deeper than the peaks if you aren’t careful.

Be wary of the gentle green giant

I once worked with a successful FMCG business that had grown and grown on the greenest of green credentials, with a growth strategy built on reinforcing and communicating these green credentials. The louder the criticisms of some businesses ‘greenwashing’, the harder and deeper this business went in reinforcing its impeccable credentials.

However, after an exhaustive audience research project that brought together quantitative and qualitative data, we discovered that its growth formula was now killing growth. New recruits to the brand saw ‘green’ as shorthand for chemical free and gentle, so ‘deep green’ messaging wasn’t just something they didn’t want to hear, it was something that had them hiding the products in cupboards for fear of being seen as an environmental warrior. It also left the brand susceptible to new brands who didn’t obsess about communicating their green credentials and focused on engaging design and light-hearted messaging instead.

Don’t always say what you do (but do do what you say)

The topics of brand purpose, urban beekeeping and natural honey are pretty diverse, but the common themes are that marketers need to think carefully about the difference between what you do and say, and that the quality and quantity of what a business does (e.g. in sustainability, in giving something back to the world, or using honey in beermaking) should not always have a proportionate effect on the quantity and quality (particularly tone of voice) of your communications in these areas. It may be motivating within the business, but it may put off consumers, and shareholders (witness this week’s attack on Unilever’s purpose driven agenda).

I’d also make an impassioned plea to smartphone brands in this context, mainly because I’m sick of seeing bits of smartphones that all look the same, along with a bunch of claims that I don’t understand. See also: shampoo brands with their parabens, ceramides and ‘hy-a-lu-ronic’ alchemy. Granted I’m not necessarily the key target audience, but I’m now thinking back to some point in the early 2000s , to when L’Oreal had the decency and self-awareness to pay the likes of Jennifer Aniston to invite us to tune out for ‘the science bit’. Someone should also probably tell the dairy industry, still admirably trying to convince us that ‘bifidus digestivum’ is something we care about in the real world.

Your buyers are your canaries in a coalmine

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the last two years it has to be to never take the status quo for granted. The same applies to how your buyers feel about your business, your brand, your products and your communications as these can change swiftly.

What’s the solution? The most obvious canary in the coalmine is change in the composition of your buyers (particularly when you are graduating from niche to mainstream), closely followed by changes in the sector (we all felt craft burnout as too many brands assaulted us with the same worthy messages) and changes in attitudes. Things change fast in business and marketing and while Bill Bernbach was right to point out the need for marketers to focus more on the unchanging qualities of humans, he was lacking in one crucial input to his worldview. He didn’t live through a global pandemic.