Throwing his toys out the pram: Were Lego right to deny Ai Weiwei?

You may have read in the news this morning that famous Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei and toy manufacturer Lego are in the midst of a brick-related bust-up. The altercation arose when Weiwei, known for his politically-charged works aimed primarily at the Chinese government, was refused a bulk order request of Lego for a new exhibition in Melbourne, Australia. The company stated that it could not endorse “the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda” and refused to send him any.

In response, Weiwei has accused Lego of “censorship and discrimination”, and has sparked a social media storm with supporters around the world offering to donate their old Lego to him. He has even set up “Lego collection points” across the globe to receive these donations.

So, did Lego make the wrong decision?

On the face of it, it seems a dud move. For a brand associated with creative freedom and self-expression, it is perhaps short-sighted to annoy a celebrity artist, particularly one so widely known for standing up to, in his view, an oppressive government. Additionally, the fact that many (at least if Twitter affirmations are anything to go by) have stated they’ll never buy from Lego in the future as a result, may suggest that Lego have played this wrong. What would be the harm of sending him a couple of bricks?

Scratch the surface however, and I reckon Lego are in the right. At their core, Lego has a playful, innocent quality that is focused on encouraging children to create. It does not, nor should it, engage in political debate, because that goes away from this brand persona. Refusing to supply Weiwei doesn’t prevent the artist from using Lego in his work. The subsequent #legosforweiwei hashtag has proven he won’t have any issues finding materials, but it does clearly stop Lego from implicitly endorsing Weiwei’s work.

Is this in itself a shrewd business move, by not antagonising the political class of a key future area for growth? Or is it an equally shrewd brand-led move, which protects the child-like innocence of Lego by refusing to engage in the big bad world of political dissidence?

Regardless, I think Lego got it right, by not (for once) letting Weiwei play with its bricks.


Perhaps the most significant event in any marketer’s calendar, The Super Bowl, aired last night. Whether you were cheering on the Seattle Sea Hawks or the New England Patriots, I’m sure many of you had your eyes glued to the screen during the ad breaks too. With these ad spots costing $3.5 million for 30 seconds of primetime viewership, are they really worth the money? Regardless of what you think, here are some of my favourites:

T Mobile

Using Kim Kardashian in your ad campaign is pretty much guaranteed to get you attention, but is the Kim Kardashian brand a good fit for T Mobile? Probably it doesn’t matter, if #KimsDataStash trending is anything to go by:


Dove Men

Continuing along the same vein as normal with previous campaigns, Dove Men is championing Dads with a typically schmaltzy affair:



As a James Bond fan myself, KIA’s use of Pierce Brosnan in a “car-chase” sequence ticks all the right boxes:

What were your favourite adverts from this year’s Superbowl? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!



Swing and a miss- Golf’s branding problem

What does the future of golf look like to you? At first glance you’d be hard pushed to argue that the future was anything but bright. It is played by 55 million people globally. It generates over $300bn revenue annually. It is quickly being adopted in key emerging markets, capitalising on growth in the Middle East and South Asia. Its key brand advocates are international superstars, battling it out across the globe to win multi-million pound cash prizes live in front of thousands of adoring brand advocates. Sports brands such as Nike and Adidas compete to kit out the world’s best, and luxury brands such as BMW, TAG Heuer and HSBC clamour to endorse and sponsor tournaments around the world.

But there is trouble looming. It could be argued that the upfront costs of time and money attached to learning the sport and hence being able to appreciate it (!) is a cost not worth paying. It could also be argued that the inherent structure of the game, taking 3-4 hours on a blustery Sunday afternoon could be deemed too long in a world of hyper-connectivity and short attention spans. It could even be argued that the rigidity of the golf rules and “etiquette” is alienating to this rebellious, stick-it-to-the-man younger generation.

Although concerns surrounding the game’s structural and financial restrictions are valid, I actually thing there is a greater intangible challenge to face. Golf has a branding problem which is a more potent threat to its long-term prosperity.

This seems like a strange admission for me to make. Look at Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, I hear you cry! Look at their adoring fans! Look at their sponsorship deals! Look how much money the golf brand generates! Every sport has their flagship athletes who elevate the sport itself, becoming stars in their own right. Yet despite the success of young professional golfers such as Rory Mcllroy and Tiger Woods and their associated sponsorship deals, amateur players appear to be switching off.

So why aren’t more people taking up golf? How can a sport which attracts so much sponsorship money and commands such an arm-chair following at the professional end of the industry struggle to recruit amateur players? There appears to be a clear divorce between perceptions at the professional end of the industry, and the “Sunday-hackers” brigade. The professional end is shiny, young, diverse (but still rich). It is part-celebrity, part-sport. Yet the amateur golfer, and courses frequented by amateurs, remain steeped in tradition and prestige. Although this is “how it has always been” it isn’t exactly inclusive and welcoming.

Let me ask you a question: What is the typical person that springs to mind when I say the word golfer?

If you’re thinking of anyone other than an old, rich white man then I applaud you for your open-mindedness but I would argue that this is the archetype that most people associate with amateur golfers. I would hazard a guess that most people think of country clubs, back-slapping business deals and “old-fashioned” attitudes rather than the recent and admiral schemes to get players who are younger and from more diverse backgrounds into the sport. Although the actuality of this perception is probably less true now than they once were, the fact that most non-golfers would see golf in this manner is itself a problem. And this cuts right to the heart of my issue with the golf brand: the brand is seen at large as one not for the masses, a brand for a very specific type of person. And the fact is that this type of person is aging and *cough* dying. And so the brand must evolve and address these perception issues to recruit new consumers. Although breaking the financial and logistical barriers is crucial, repositioning the golf brand to be more inclusive is equally important. You can bring a horse to water, so to speak, but you can’t make it drink (or play golf, for that matter.)

The alternative of course is to let golf die. Why should new anyone bother to pick up a club and play this old man’s game called golf? Although this attitude could be popular, especially with golf’s traditional associations with a wealthy elite, the thing is, I love golf and think that everyone should play it. I think it’s valuable not just because it’s fun, but crucially because it teaches you unique life skills. It teaches you the value of etiquette, sportsmanship and addressing the challenge of combining brute force and laser-like precision. It’s analytical, mentally stimulating and physically challenging. There is rarely a sport where a two players with a 30 year age gap can compete toe to toe too. Further, in a world where you’re constantly connect to technology, taking the time to spend four hours on a golf course is probably a break most people would welcome. The logistical issues aside, the challenge of the industry is to re-brand for the modern consumer- making the golf affordable, welcoming and enticing to all. And this isn’t just a pipe-dream: facilities such as TopGolf are completely revolutionising traditional perceptions of the game, turning the driving range into a sociable hub for twentysomethings. Here’s hoping it will continue to go from strength to strength.

Someone once said that golf is a good walk ruined- I just hope that by the time I’m a miserable old golfer, I’ll have enough brand advocates around me looking to ruin their walk.


Cadbury’s Creme Egg- Why Firms Must Embrace Irrationality


Have you tasted a Cadbury’s Creme egg recently? I have. And I can’t taste the difference between the one I ate this year, and the one I ate last year. Now maybe my taste buds aren’t refined enough to pick up the subtle changes in the taste profile (despite being a chocolate aficionado as I revealed in a previous post about Hotel Chocolat). And as any good market researcher would tell you, a qualitative study of 1 (i.e. just me) is rarely robust enough to make broad generalisations. Nevertheless the media circus surrounding Kraft’s revelation that the chocolate shell of a Cadbury’s Creme Egg is now no longer Dairy Milk chocolate but “standard cocoa mix chocolate” is bewildering to me, at least from a taste perspective. To prove how different the new Creme Egg chocolate tastes, the BBC broadcast a taste test with renowned chocolatier Paul Young to demonstrate just how dastardly Kraft had been.  Yet, when you get down to it, I’d suspect that, like me, few non-professional chocolate eaters would be able to taste the difference.

So why all the fuss? Why are consumers reacting so negatively to the recipe change despite my theory that they can’t really taste the difference anyway? This story draws distinct parallels with the infamous New Coke story, in which Coke reformulated their recipe in order to compete with the supposedly “better-tasting” Pepsi, which in fact alienated their core consumers who thought it sacrilegious to change the original Coke formula. This classic marketing story (which if you don’t know can be found here) has set a premise in marketing that the recipes of well-established products with significant brand equity should not be tinkered with, for fear of a mass consumer revolt. From a marketer’s perspective, this leaves you with little room to manoeuvre if your input costs go up and squeeze your margins, or the competitor landscape changes to make your product’s ingredients less popular. The difficulty is that when the media gets wind of a change, it tends to generate a consumer backlash even if consumers themselves were otherwise unaware. Somewhat amusingly, this can take some time (case in point: Heinz reduced the salt in its HP Sauce in November 2010, but it wasn’t until September 2011 that anyone noticed.)

Why did Coke’s consumers react so negatively to New Coke, a supposedly better-tasting drink? And why, also, are consumers reacting just as negatively to the Creme Egg chocolate change? To solve this mystery, let’s look at the situation from two perspectives: through the eyes of  Creme Egg manufacturer Kraft, and through the eyes of Creme Egg consumers.

From Kraft’s perspective, changing the chocolate recipe to presumably a cheaper quality chocolate than Dairy Milk lowers their costs. In order to quell any fears about potential taste changes, I imagine Kraft ran focus groups, testing the new and old recipes, and concluded that, like me, consumers can’t really tell the difference between the two and so wouldn’t mind if they changed the recipe. What a result! We can use cheaper chocolate and consumers will still buy it! (Cue much back-slapping, job-well-done-ing and a celebratory drink down the pub).

From a consumer’s perspective, the Cadbury’s Creme Egg is a treat. It is a chocolate with a strong ritual attached to it (Do you eat it whole? Do you bite the top off and lick the filling?). It is a chocolate with deeply nostalgic memories attached to childhood and the run up to Easter. It is a chocolate than, unlike most, can only be bought in the first four months of the year. This limited time sale period generates a heightened sense of anticipation and satisfaction when you eat the first Creme Egg of the season. And now you’re telling me you’ve changed the chocolate of my favourite treat. The treat I always look forward to every January and have looked forward to every January since I was a child, and OH WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LEAVE IT ALONE.

Consumers can have strong emotional attachments to iconic brands. It doesn’t really matter that they can’t taste the changes made to the chocolate, it’s the fact they know there is a difference. For them the product is now not the same as the one they have grown to love. This may demonstrate a certain irrationality, but from a brand perspective this is understandable and should not be underestimated. A brand at its essence is a promise to deliver a certain product or service, and a good brand consistently delivers on that promise time after time. Changing the chocolate breaks the consistency, weakening the promise and making consumers feel short-changed. Therefore by considering consumers as purely rational beings, rather than appreciating the irrationality arising as a result of consumer’s emotional attachment to the brand, Kraft have missed the point, explaining the current consumer backlash they are facing.

Now it’s all well and good saying that Kraft must revert back to the original recipe, maintain the status quo and not rock the boat with cost-saving recipe tweaks, and I would NOT recommend that Kraft engage in cloak-and-dagger changes without informing their customers that they are doing it. However, I appreciate that in a world of input cost fluctuations and such, it is not always feasible for Kraft and other corporations to stick to the status quo.

So what would I recommend to Kraft? Ironically, if in a few weeks they reverted back to the original Creme Egg (with the associated fanfare) they may well see a surge in demand by “giving the people what they want”. I reckon they’ll win a lot more customers in the long run by not messing around with the chocolate recipe and consider other cost-reduction strategies. Embracing the irrationality of consumers and how they react to your brand is crucial in informing a successful consumer-centric strategy.

But reducing the number of Creme Eggs in a pack from 6 to 5? A bloody disgrace.


Like what I’ve written? Disagree entirely? Good, bad and ugly, leave a comment in the comment section below! I’d love to hear your thoughts.


How to determine your brand’s stretchiness: A Marmite case study

I am a self-confessed Marmite addict. I slather the stuff lavishly on toast, crumpets, and croissants. It comes out surreptitiously at breakfast buffets abroad, a foreign stowaway that liberates me from the dreaded blandness of continental breakfasts. I’d even admit to eating it with a spoon.

And I am not alone in my love for Marmite. Their figures are nothing if not impressive- the £37 million brand produces 17 million jars a year, Marmite has over 1 million likes on Facebook and its recent controversial “End Marmite Neglect” advertising campaign generated a 14% increase in sales growth in the eight weeks after launch.

So what’s next for Marmite? In order to continue its strong vein of growth, and cement its place in the hearts and minds of British consumers, where can the Marmite brand extend to? And how should brands generally decide which extensions work, and which extensions clash with their brand message? I’m not talking about minor tweaks to existing products here. I’m talking bold innovation into new categories. Over the years Marmite have entered as diverse product extensions as cheese, chocolate and branded merchandise, but is there scope for even more adventurous product innovations (and not just because I yearn for an even greater Marmite fix)?

In order to establish what extensions are right for a brand, we first need to take a step back and think about what associations the brand conjures up. Then we can determine the brand essence, and hence the scope for innovation. The purpose of defining these associations is that we can then begin to clearly identify what product categories could potentially be in scope and potentially out of scope from a brand essence perspective. By considering new product development through the lens of these brand associations, we can therefore come up with new product ideas that could authentically carry the Marmite brand name.

The added advantage of describing the Marmite brand in broader ways than simply describing the product- namely, as a savoury spread- is that it allows us to think about what the Marmite brand represents and hence, start thinking about the brand outside its current category. Taking these associations as the starting points for Marmite could therefore prove rich territory for future new product developments.

With my thinking cap on I wondered if the Marmite brand could stretch into the following categories:

A table sauce- Marmite is traditionally served on toast at breakfast, but what if it were to accompany another traditionally British breakfast, the fry up? Both ketchup and brown sauce are typically associated with this dish, but a combination of Marmite’s British and breakfast credentials could see it sit comfortably on the table too. Brown sauce is a similarly savoury breakfast sauce with a unique taste profile. What’s stopping Marmite from moving from the back of the cupboard to sitting proudly on the tabletop?

A range of dry rubs– Marmite’s savouriness is a winning alternative to the ubiquity of sweet spreads typical at breakfast time. Yet breakfast is surely not the only time a hearty kick of savouriness would be appreciated. What about a line of Marmite dry rubs for beef and chicken to turbo charge your evening meal? Think about the complexity and depth of flavour a Marmite rub could bring (FYI my mouth is watering).

A range of savoury hot drinks- admittedly Marmite’s kid brother Bovril has historically had some success being served diluted in hot water as a beefy drink. Yet, in the same way that Marmite is the savoury alternative to jam, could a Marmite drink be the counter to milky coffee and hot chocolate? With consumers growing increasingly fearful of the amount of sugar in their drinks, a savoury alternative may well be exactly what the health-conscious consumer is looking for.

A fashion tie-up– Marmite is synonymous with Britishness- and has notably released a limited edition Diamond Jubilee Ma’amite, but why should it stop there? What about Marmite announcing tie-ups with other brands which similarly play on their British heritage such as Burberry, Jack Wills or Harrods? A fashion tie-up would be particularly interesting, since a love it or hate it attitude is not necessarily a bad thing in the fashion industry, where cutting edge style is often divisive.


I wonder what a Marmite trench coat would look like…



Food for thought anyway.

Hotel Chocolat: Why chocolate tastes sweeter in store

As brand consultants we are often tasked with taking our clients into the 21st century by advising on how digital platforms can work with, or replace, their offline channels. Although digital platforms are fun and shiny and new, I still think offline channels have a very real and important role to play for brands. There are in fact some cases where an in-store experience can better communicate brand values than a website ever could.

Take for example Hotel Chocolat: a British premium chocolate brand. With their slick online operation, Tasting Club membership and affiliations with high-end department stores, they truly are a multi-channel retailer. Yet aside from being a purveyor of delicious chocolaty nibbles, I knew little about their brand story. More recently however, that changed. While traipsing round Borough Market a few weeks ago, gorging myself on free samples, I stumbled across a restaurant, in a state of cheese-fueled delirium, called Rabot 1745.


Unbeknownst to me, it is in fact a restaurant owned by Hotel Chocolat and is, in effect, their restaurant sub-brand. Not only can you buy Hotel Chocolat chocolate there, but you can also have an entirely unique “cocoa cuisine” experience in the restaurant. For those of a foodie persuasion, check out their Anglo-West Indian menu here, with every dish including cacao in various guises. One would expect that since the restaurant is owned by a chocolate brand, the menu would be sweet. Too sweet. A Willy Wonka-style overly-saccharine emporium of chocolate for starter, main course and dessert. Not so. Consider the delightfully subtle inclusions of cacao in such culinary delights as:

Not so scotch egg: a hen’s egg cloaked in softened pearl barley and penny bun mushrooms, cacao nib crust, roast garlic and pumpkin puree

Slow braised cacao glazed lamb shoulder, garlic mash, buttered carrots

(I’m a foodie, sue me).

Although perhaps not to everyone’s tastes (and those high sugar chocolate fiends can also indulge at the restaurant’s bar with a salted caramel hot chocolate or two), what most struck me about the restaurant was its presentation and visual representation of the overarching Hotel Chocolat brand and its story. The reason the menu centres around cacao is because the Hotel Chocolat brand centres around it too. Their website says it all: “Making our chocolates, our mantra has always been: More cocoa, less sugar, for a healthier and more satisfying cocoa hit.” This is not chocolate in the Swiss-style of Lindt, the American-style of Hershey, or the British-style of Cadbury’s. This is chocolate grounded in the provenance and quality of the bean, straight from Saint Lucia.  In 2006 they even bought a 250-year-old cocoa plantation in Saint Lucia named Rabot Estate to formally establish this link.

The décor, too brings their story and brand experience to life which, in their own words “evokes the character of a 18th Century Caribbean plantation estate house in the heart of modern Britain.” You brush past the bar, made from hurricane-felled ironwood, brought home from their own cocoa estate in Saint Lucia. You sit atop wooden high-top stools nibbling on freshly roasted cocoa nibs in Hessian sacks. And all whilst dining on the authentic flavours of the West Indies. For me this establishes the core brand essence of Hotel Chocolat with great clarity because it is multi-sensory- you can taste, touch and smell the brand in a way you simply can’t through a computer screen. Brands are at their strongest when all their actions communicate a consistent message, and Hotel Chocolat demonstrate great consistency around championing their core ingredient and celebrating its country of origin.

And although I didn’t sample anything from the menu (but I will), I actually left the restaurant feel more engaged with the Hotel Chocolat brand than I ever had been. It just goes to prove that bricks and mortar stores do play a key role in the brand narrative. They add tangibility to a brand and establish a key point of difference- Cadbury’s may have the whizz bang advertising, but Hotel Chocolat owns the cacao bean.



“Why do I love Starbucks so much?” I mused, wistfully staring into the middle distance on a cloudy day, large cappuccino in hand, open copy of The Economist on the table in front.

Okay, so that didn’t happen.

And it’s not the most ground-breaking admission anyway. And yes, I know in recent times Starbucks have come under fire for their dubious tax policy. And no, I don’t like Starbucks just because they write my name on a cup.

But what is it about Starbucks that means I’d rather schlep there than face Costa, Caffe Nero, and a whole host of other independents?

When Howard Schultz came up with the idea for Starbucks whilst visiting coffee bars in Milan, he believed a coffee shop should be so much more than a place that served coffee. He envisioned Starbucks as being “the third space”- a safe space, away from the office and home, where customers could come and pick up their coffee, but more importantly somewhere they could stay too: a place to engage or rewind, to be active to work but passive to everyone else. It was this conception of the third space that was truly revolutionary; when the majority of Starbucks’ target audience split their time between work or home, Starbucks’ positioning as somewhere else you could go and socialise was powerful. Traditionally the British pub was (and still is) a comparable place: a safe space where you can meet friends and be yourself.

For me, that’s why Starbucks works. It means that no one will rush me out the door once I’ve drunk my coffee; it means that I can work and not be disturbed, or meet a friend and not be hushed. Because that’s the point- everything about Starbucks encourage you to stay for longer: its comfy chairs, funky jazz background music and muted colour scheme all encourage you to pause. And one could be cynical and say that this is so that per person Starbucks can squeeze an extra few pounds out of you, since one person is more likely to make multiple purchases over a prolonged period of time. Yet I don’t think that this would necessarily be the most cost-effective way to boost sales. Adopting a fast-service policy to get more customers through the door would surely be more effective, rather than waste space and money housing a multitude of languishing, bespectacled, Apple Mac-tapping hipsters.

So a coffee addict becomes a tech addict-Starbucks has arguably been at the technological forefront in the coffee industry (and high street at large) too. They offered free wifi, the lifeblood of the 21st century consumer, to customers before the rest of the market did, which was such a simple way to encourage you to stay and loll about.  I’m mad about the Starbucks app too, the epitome of London convenience, a battering ram for the anti-cash brigade. For the uninitiated, you download the Starbucks app to your smartphone, pre-load it with cash and pay with it, seamlessly enabling you to collect loyalty stars for free coffee, as well as build up your Starbucks Rewards status for extra freebies.

But I think at its core Starbucks is all about connections- which is why their latest campaign resonates so strongly. Because let’s be honest- coffee is coffee. Despite initially being a bastion of good coffee, the likes of Costa, Caffe Nero and others offer very good (and some better) coffee than Starbucks. And I do frequent them, WHEN I NEED A COFFEE. But if I want a place to go, and stay, then Starbucks it is. Starbucks has seen them all- high octane panicked revision sessions, low octane super-casual non-date coffee dates, no-octane pre-caffeine pit-stops. Starbucks services my need for coffee but delivers so much more.

Plus my name is almost impossible to mis-spell on a coffee cup.




Barcelona. Istanbul. Paris. Rome.

I’ve visited these four cities in the past two years, and sampled for myself each with their own distinctive and rich food cultures. Each is filled with a plethora of markets, restaurants and cafes. As a food enthusiast, I have trawled through spice bazaars, lamb kebab in hand, sat on the end of piers eating sea-fresh crab, sampled authentic Roman pizza while wandering alongside the Coliseum and scooped out of their shells garlic-scented snails in a French bistro.

And on day 2 I walked into a McDonalds and ordered a Big Mac.

Why do I do this? What possesses me to forgo all that authentic, local cuisine for a meal I am so accustomed to? I can (and do) have a McDonalds any time I want in the UK. As I write this, I am a mere 20 minutes away from a McDonalds. Yet surely, when I am on holiday, I should experience the native food of the country I’m in, and not succumb to the Golden Arches? Does it not speak of my cultural ineptitude, the fact that I can’t last so long as a week away from my beloved burgers, French fries and chicken McNuggets?

The tendency for me to walk into a McDonalds despite myself on these occasions has often amused and baffled me. Could it be that I am simply scared of trying new foreign food? On seeing a McDonalds in another country, it becomes more than a fast food chain- it becomes a symbol of a reliable food. McDonalds is the wearer traveller’s comfort blanket- a safe haven from the uncertainty of foreign tap water, poorly translated menus and unaccredited hygiene standards. The core to the McDonalds brand is its reliability. Whatever time, wherever you are, when you see a McDonalds, you can rely on the fact that a Big Mac will taste like a Big Mac. And that is true for any McDonalds, anywhere else in the world.


Think about that. This reliability of product delivery in food is unique and unprecedented- think of the logistical difficulty of being able to deliver exactly the same product across cultures, across market conditions, and with different levels of local resources. It is truly impressive.

Now the thing is, I love trying new foods. I have no real issue with eating off the beaten track- in side-street restaurants, from market stalls and all that malarkey. I don’t run to McDonalds because I don’t feel safe eating anywhere else. So I don’t think that’s the reason.

Some would argue that the ubiquity of McDonalds globally is a symbol of cultural homogenisation, and the fact that I can be in almost any country in the world and have almost exactly the same food experience is a bad thing. The reason I enter into such establishments, the logic goes, is because I am culturally naive and, further, arrogant that nothing I sample locally could ever usurp the superiority of my beloved Filet O’ Fish. I am a Western traveller with an unsophisticated palate and no more.

I don’t really buy that either. I don’t eat McDonalds as a replacement to a local meal, rather in conjunction with it- swinging by a McDonalds to refuel rather than actively choosing it instead. McDonalds is simply there, when I’m hungry, and will suffice. And, well, what is really wrong with there being McDonalds restaurants across the world? If the demand is there, does it not seem reasonable for McDonalds operate? Even the mighty McDonalds will have to open a few more restaurants around the world before they risk threatening the global food landscape.

Of course I go on holiday to eat food I’m not used to. Of course the whole point of going abroad is to broaden your horizons, experience new things and come back home renewed, refreshed, and with a new perspective.

But sometimes, I just can’t help myself. Call it cultural fatigue. Call it capitalist dominance. Call it whatever.

Screw it- I’m supersizing the next one.



On hearing the news that TFL may sell off the names of some stations to corporations, I wondered what a tube map covered in brands would look like. I’ve put together this tube map (positioning as far as possible brands which seem appropriate to the locations they would be taking over!) and would love to hear your thoughts on whether you think I’ve got it right. Is Burberry an appropriate sponsor for Knightsbridge? Is Google the Euston of brands?





And what kind of tube experience would you expect from Harley Davidson? Jack Daniels? Samsung? Would you prefer having a station sponsored by Aston Martin on your doorstep or one by Marks & Spencer?

(Originally posted on The Value Engineers blog on November 19th 2013)




To buy or not to buy. That is the question.

Apologies to the Shakespeare aficionados amongst you for the blatant bastardisation of perhaps the bard’s most famous quote.

However, it is a question that many corporations often ponder (presumably with a copy of Hamlet to hand) when considering how to defend themselves from a young upstart in their industry, or when judging how best to enter a new market. Do you pour your resources into building a brand, or do you save yourself the hassle and buy up a rival?

The former seems exciting, and the creative amongst you wouldn’t undoubtedly be chomping at the bit to launch a new brand with all the vim and vigour of a start-up. Yet a new brand is unproven and unfamiliar to consumers, and with this comes an inherent risk of failure. The alternative, buying another company outright means you acquire a key strategic asset in their brand. A proven, ready-to-market brand with an identity in consumers’ minds and a consumer base with which it resonates is surely an enticing prospect. But such acquisitions do not come cheap, and thoughts immediately go to how best reclaim the significant investment.

These musings were undoubtedly swirling around the minds of Coke executives when they decided to purchase a 16.7% stake in Monster, the energy drink brand, a few weeks ago for $2.15bn (£1.28bn). The move will be great for Monster, who will surely benefit from Coke’s behemoth global distribution network. Coke will probably do well out of a stake in Monster too, which is the largest energy drink brand in America, and the only real global competitor to Red Bull.

But spare a thought for Relentless and Burn, the two existing energy drinks brands in the Coke portfolio. Much like a kid with a new toy, Coke has cast aside its existing play things and plumped for something new and shiny to take on the energy drinks market. In recent years Monster has powered ahead of Relentless in terms of market value in the UK (£108.1m vs. £59.9m) with Burn energy drink not even making the top ten. And with the positioning of Relentess, around the alternative music scene, feeling like a subset of Monster’s broader positioning around alternative music and sports, one wonders what the fate is for these lesser energy drinks brands within the Coke portfolio. Is there room for all three brands? Will they be repositioned, catering to an even smaller niche to accommodate their bigger brother? Or will they end up on the scrapheap, their assets consumed (ironically) by a turbo-charged Monster?

To me, the Monster brand has always felt more dynamic and exciting than its Coke contemporaries, with an underground grit that Red Bull had, but seems to have lost in recent years as it has gone more mainstream. So I approve (if they care) of Coke’s decision to buy, not build, its way to greater success in the energy drinks market. However, I suspect that Relentless and Burn will be sleeping less easily with this Monster nearby.