Helen Edwards on Branding: Big Society or the big so what

Helen Edwards on Branding
Helen Edwards on Branding

The Big Society debacle provides a clear illustration of the difficulties of creating a sub-brand.

You can see how former adman Steve Hilton came up with his Big Society idea. Socialist administrations are about big government; conservative ones, the opposite. But 'small' would not have been an attractive concept to the former Saatchi strategist in the run-up to the 2010 election. Not inspiring enough, not 'blue sky' enough, too mealy-mouthed - too, well, small.

Switch the emphasis from the decentralising State to the hapless millions who must now pick up the slack, though, and hey presto - look what you get. Hence the big idea that probably cost the Conservatives a clean election win was conceived.

The error then was to create what amounts to a sub-brand - note those initial capitals - at a time when, from lack of recent 'purchase', many were unclear about what the masterbrand stood for.

When they looked for 'Conservatives, meaning of', they got, 'see Big Society'. When they checked out 'Big Society', they got a fluffy, 16-page document that waxed lyrical about nebulous and oddly bellicose concepts such as 'national citizens service', and 'little platoons of civil society'.

The error now is to keep flogging a dead horse. Big Society is the Ford Edsel of political sub-brands, managing to alienate those who might be natural supporters, alarm those whose inclination is to blame everything on 'them' and confuse pretty much everyone.

Its focus on volunteering was made without due acknowledgment of the millions who already give their time for nothing. Most people think that organisations such as Victim Support and Citizens Advice are state-run. In fact they are charities, manned by volunteers. In politicising their unpaid work for electoral gain, Big Society angered the very people it should have attracted.

Those who prefer not to get involved became uneasy that they might now have no option. A delicate nuance here is that ethnic minorities are significantly under-represented in volunteering, and in public-minded activities such as donating blood. Does Hilton ignore that, and risk Big Society becoming something just for the white middle class, or try to change it, or seek to 'explain' what is none of his business?

As for confusion, look no further than the need for David Cameron to 'relaunch' the idea last week, spelling out what he means by what he is now calling 'a bigger, stronger society'.

Hilton is rumoured to be fuming that people have failed to grasp his concept. This makes as much sense as the originators of New Coke or the Midland Bank Vector Account ranting about the consumers who didn't 'get' their sub-branding genius.

For marketers on humbler career trajectories, the fiasco highlights three terse lessons on the notoriously tricky issue of sub-brand creation.

First, on no account launch a sub-brand while there is any kind of issue with your masterbrand meaning. You will merely add to the confusion.

Second, names are a trivial item compared with the product they represent. If the product's attractions, to a clearly defined customer sector, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, then all the brand-name catchiness in the world won't save you.

Third, most sub-brands fail, sometimes through sheer bad luck. There is no stigma in this. The vital thing is to be realistic in your assessment of the early results and know when to pull the plug.

Guys, it's time.

Helen Edwards, PPA Columnist of the Year (Business Media), has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers.


As with many areas of branding, the definition of what is and isn't a sub-brand is somewhat fuzzy; however, most would agree that a sub-brand is overtly linked to the masterbrand but can appeal to a different audience and therefore will have its own set of values and associations.

- McDonald's Arch Deluxe In an attempt to shake off McDonald's child-oriented image, the Arch Deluxe was marketed as 'The burger with the grown-up taste' and launched with a multi-million-dollar campaign in which children declared it 'yucky'. Adults did not find it great either: it was dropped.

- Cadillac Cimarron At number 35 in the Time magazine list of the 50 worst cars of all time, the Cimarron was launched to compete with European imports such as BMW, Mercedes and Saab. The problem was that it didn't cut it when it came to performance. Sales never took off and some say it even damaged the Cadillac name.

- Marks & Spencer M&S has been an enthusiastic launcher of sub-brands, with clothing labels including Portfolio for women over 40, Per Una for younger women and Blue Harbour for men who like 'laid-back, classic styles'. With Portfolio criticised as 'frumpy' and boss Marc Bolland saying the brands lack clarity and suffer from duplication, many are likely to be culled.


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