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Spoke easy

Designate went underground with the first Speakeasy we hosted last week. We found a suitable stylish cocktail bar where a select audience and a prestigious panel debated a range of topics around the importance of brand.

The travel industry was particularly well represented, with speakers from Travelzoo, Tropical Sky and G Adventures, but we had the benefit of some experience and insights from the insurance sector in the form of our client LV= too. And to add some sector neutral science to the debate, our very own Tim Davis contributed an evidence-based marketing perspective.

Moderated by the inimitable Graham McKenzie, MD of TravelMole and Designate NED, and egged on by an engaged and lively audience, we tapped in to a spectrum of strong opinion in prioritising the roles of brand, price, product and promotion. And the perspective did vary across the panel.

Mike Collins, MD of Tropical Sky, was honest about the fact that consideration for brand in his business only became relevant to him once he was established and growing in terms of range of products and destinations. In his view, service was and is still the key component of his story, but that story is now a brand story, where happy customers can be cross-sold and upsold through the family of ‘Sky’ destinations. There was an acknowledgement that his cherished service proposition is in fact a brand promise, that is more important than price.

Louise Hodges, Head of Global Communications at Travelzoo, was challenged on her MD’s assertion that it’s all about price. She made the point that her company’s customers are short of two things: money and time. So whilst price is important in the sense of ‘getting a deal’, the real value that Travelzoo offer is in checking, curating and filtering deals to ensure they are manageable, they are real and they are accessible.

This is the tangible brand guarantee that builds customer trust and loyalty on a global scale. In terms of communications, price may be king online, at the point of decision-making and purchase, but the brand story has to be told further upstream in order to build recognition and trust.

Brian Young, MD EMEA at G Adventures, was clear that brand wins over price in his sector. Great products alone do not offer enough differentiation in a highly professional, specialist and competitive market. G Adventures are the biggest operator in their sector globally because they have at the heart of what they do, a different reason for doing it. Their core values are different to other operators: they define themselves as a social enterprise business with a ‘purpose chain’ that connects their 2,000 people, their travel agent partners, their customers and the local people benefitting economically in the destinations they serve. For them, telling this story – in effect their brand story – is their most important marketing priority.

Nick Whitnell, Head of GI Marketing at LV=, outlined some of the challenges the highly commoditised insurance sector faces, and how LV= have beaten the odds. By following a strategy of layered messaging that has a strong emotional resonance as well as rational price-competitiveness, they have changed the model.

By being consistent in their messaging and brand story, they have outperformed the competition in spite of being heavily outgunned in terms of marketing spend. The ninth biggest spender is now the fourth biggest brand in the marketplace, and perhaps most tellingly, the most recommended. Where price is constant, the brand is the differentiator.

Tim Davis, Strategic Communications Planner at Elicit and Designate, made a number of key contextual points that are relevant across industries and sectors. Whilst products are tangible and owned and controlled by companies, a brand, he argued, is a theoretical construct in the mind of consumers. It is expectations, perceptions, experiences, reputation. These are the kinds of factors that provide differentiation when there is a choice to be made.

A focus on products and prices is often not enough, nor is promotion, which is effectively often in the hands of consumers now. Brands must ‘do something’ for a customer. They must be meaningful. They must give confidence when all other factors are equal.

Our very own Adam Hill volunteered the view that in an age when experiences are increasingly more important to people than material things, a brand that promises a particular experience will win the battle of customer choice, and may also command a premium over the ‘also-rans’ that don’t set the same expectations.

So in an age when the power is with the consumer, invest in your brand to differentiate yourself – and to protect yourself in a volatile and unpredictable market. Put some metaphorical bubble-wrap around your product, so you have a second chance with customers if something goes wrong. A brand that is recognised, believed and trusted gets given just that.

Please note, we are planning our next Speakeasy to take place in early July – watch out for more details.

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