Brand Breakfast: Building a Brand against the odds

By Serena Donne

It’s relatively easy to create, manage and build a brand with a relevant cause, a brilliantly thought out product or a fantastic service. Brands like Apple, First Direct, John Lewis and Virgin are testament to this, and vie for top slots in the ‘most loved brand’ listings. But how do you find the motivating angle when promoting causes some might call unpalatable?

The sell out event delved into the hard business of developing and managing a brand when the odds seem stacked against you. As the founder of the Brand Breakfasts, I have been waiting for a while for this topic to come up.  Andrea Barrett, of British Gas shared how they manage their profile against a background of almost constant negative debate. Katy Emck, of the charity Fine Cell, told us how the polarising idea of helping, indeed paying, thousands of prisoners for their needlework, has turned into a charity that is having a real impact.

Understand me…!  –  British Gas

Whether it’s about overpayment of execs, the price of gas, or the profits of the company – British Gas is constantly vilified, with criticism amplified by social media. Andrea shared top tips on counteracting negative press, and building and maintaining brand reputation. There were some pertinent stories for our own sector especially on how to build trust and relevance.

First, go back to basics. REALLY listen to customers and ACTUALLY do something about it.

British Gas Customers said: 

“Save me money”, so they gave transparent billing and tariffs 
“Give me control”, so they innovated remote control and smart meters
“Deliver great service”, so they’ve not been afraid to stop doing some things and start doing others – a thought for us all!

Second, take care to differentiate and build loyalty. British Gas knew that by sharing some of the values of their customers, they could build loyalty. They set up a Utility Trust to help those unable to manage or pay for fuel, and by partnering with well regarded and local brands such as Shelter and the Citizens Advice Bureau, they have benefited from some of those brands’ equity and credibility. Partnerships are a strong topic for us all, and one that if integrated across a charity can have an incredible effect both internally and externally.

Andrea spoke about how, using the classic marketing tool of engagement through product placement, and the more modern and powerful ‘brand referral’ – kitting out key influencers in the social media sphere with the latest products –  a story of trust and peer to peer recommendation was built.

Andrea finished by emphasising that this is long-term work. Building brands is never a short term game!

Tell me a story – Fine Cell

Next up was Chief Executive of Fine Cell, Katy Emck. From its early beginnings Fine Cell were committed to selling  high quality products – cushions, quilts etc at the top of the market and to paying prisoners for the work. They quickly saw and highlighted the power of the paradox – the harsh world of prisons and prisoners side by side, with the beauty, creativity and craftsmanship of exquisite needlework.

Katy emphasised: ‘our product is our brand’ and that it has the power to transcend negativity. This early insight gave clarity to their strategy. Through the help of volunteers, who teach and support the prisoners, remarkable tapestries are commissioned, created and sold through retail and interior design channels.

Bravery and honesty seem to run through the core of their brand. They have always been transparent about where the work comes from, with labels stitched into each product giving the name of the prisoner, making it possible to send a much appreciated thank you letter.

The power of story-telling has been central to bringing understanding to their work, and has helped boost PR and word of mouth. Their stories are about morale, accomplishment, community and pride within prisons, as well as externally tapping into a feeling of a long lost era, when we all had more time on our hands.

“Fine Cell Work has given me the chance to move on with someone believing in me. This gives me the will to live and achieve.” Sally, HMP Send

Another core strand of their early success has been celebrity endorsement, and setting designs for work which have been subsequently auctioned.  Our celebrity obsessed culture enables another audience to engage in a positive way.

Fine Cell is building an increasing reputation of bringing two very different worlds together in a surprising way to create products that are without doubt beautiful. But most importantly they recognise and use the depth and complexity of their story to build their brand, rather than shying away from it.

See you at the next Brand Breakfast on 'Rebranding' 12 September!