Helen Edwards: Why borderline decisions can make or break a brand

The reported impact of Heathrow's passport control queues on businesses in London holds lessons for brand marketers.

Some years ago, I worked at a mid-sized agency that had a very good record in pitches. It had claimed the scalps of most of the big shops, but there was one sexy UK agency it had never once beaten, despite many confrontations. Every time the pair had been on the same list, the rival walked off with the spoils.

So when a big airline account narrowed its list down to just these two, my old agency threw everything it had at the final showdown: the best creative talent, the most original media planning, sparkling strategic thinking, a brilliant brand video, all polished and rehearsed to make an unforgettable pitch presentation.

Weeks passed. It was, the intermediary reported, too close to call. Then the result came. The client had found nothing to choose between the two agencies on all the key disciplines, yet the other agency snatched it. How?

Well, explained the intermediary, their toilets were cleaner and they were quicker answering the phone. Loser disappointment turned to incredulity. Who chooses a vital business partner based on phones and loos?

No one does – at least, not as first-order criteria. It is an example of a tie-breaker, the business equivalent of the penalty shoot-out. When all is level and only one can prevail, performance in a fragmentary task with only tangential relevance to the core skill is the difference that carries the day.

High stakes

Tie-breakers are more frequently brought into play than most marketers would probably wish, especially in commoditised markets, or where the stakes are high. They are often pivotal in business-to-business purchasing, exacerbated by group decision-making.

A deadlocked business team can't exactly choose between the final two contenders on a fancy, so they cast about for a reason, any reason, to separate them. Multimillion-dollar decisions can come down to factors that might previously have been considered incidentals.

Right now, there is a tie-breaker at work on a daily basis at the very highest commercial level, threatening an entity we might call Brand Britain. It is airport queues, and it is having an effect on badly needed inward investment.

Government purse-holders will argue that no one chooses where to build a factory, locate a corporate headquarters or hold a global conference based solely on the length of border-control lines. They are right, at that first-order level – but what about when it comes down to the wire?

Penalty shoot-out

It's not hard to imagine. Picture the committee of a major international congress, held every three years. This time, the organisers have reduced the consideration set down to two cities – London and Amsterdam. On all the important criteria – facilities, security, relationships, service, infrastructure, cost – there is nothing to choose between them. The team has reached deadlock on the final choice.

Then someone suggests that they look at 'other, softer factors' that might separate the two. A list of five factors is drawn up. We have reached the penalty shoot-out stage.

Street-life: both score. Weather: both miss. Restaurants: London goes ahead. Bars: Amsterdam draws level. Now Schiphol and Heathrow step up for the final spot-kick: airport queues. Guess who just lost yet another borderline decision, and all the fabulous spoils that go with it?

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw


  • Jo Valentine, chief executive of London First – which represents the capital's leading employers – told the government to 'get a grip' on the queuing problem at Heathrow as it greatly harms the city's investment-attracting ability.
  • Boris Johnson, London's mayor, has voiced similar concerns. 'We're working so hard to attract inward investment to London and the UK,' he wrote in a letter to the Home Secretary, 'but our main point of entry gives a terrible impression.'
  • BAA chief executive Colin Matthews revealed that recent meetings with foreign executives confirmed his fears that the queues are discouraging investors from returning to London to do business.
  • LondonLovesBusiness, a digital newspaper for the City, learned from a high-profile source that businesspeople from China and other emerging nations are 'increasingly holding important meetings in Germany or Paris to avoid Heathrow border queues'.
  • The Twittersphere has been vociferous on this issue. Joan Collins tweeted a directive to Home Secretary Theresa May to 'listen up – (we) need more (passport control) officers!' After Immigration Minister Damian Green blamed queues partly on the wind, tweeters have been vocal in their disbelief.


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