Helen Edwards: 'Know your brand' is a neat winning formula

The recent achievements of John Lewis and Greggs illustrate the importance of being true to your brand, and your market

As you read that John Lewis Partnership has broken through the economic gloom with a 60% profit hike, you find yourself muttering, 'How do they do it?' It's not rhetorical, either; you're asking for real.

You seek a formula - simple, neat, transferable - that could be unpicked from their success and adapted for your situation.

The closer you look, though, the more it dawns that, if there is a formula, it a) isn't simple, b) isn't neat, and c) will be hanging in rags by the time it has been hauled across the marketing void to your tough sector, your tricky target, your mucked-about brand.

The most obvious thing, of course, is that they're always knowingly understated: quiet, good taste everywhere, a home-from-home for the metro middle-class. Even those results were passed off with modesty - taking care not to raise future expectations too high. That kind of sotto voce everything is never going to work where you work.

Then there's the patience. These guys come up with a staff-ownership model that stays out of fashion for decades - unexciting in the 60s, irrelevant in the 'loadsamoney' 80s, failing to gain traction even in the supposedly 'caring 90s', but now catapulted into the zeitgeist, ever since the banks did their bit.

If only you could wait that long for your 'deep brand' moment.

It's languor in the ads, too, lasting more than a minute, unveiling scene after crafted scene to connect the shopping dots of our shared national history. If Downton doesn't get you reaching for the Kleenex, good old John Lewis will. How do you extrapolate that to your brand's local radio slots?

Just to complicate the issue, you note with mild satisfaction that one reason John Lewis could post a 60% jump was a moderate performance last year - but that's hardly a pointer to learn from.

Branching out

Having divined no magic formula, you start to fold the newspaper, when you spot another retail success headline: the Newcastle-based baker, Greggs, is branching out successfully overseas.

How does that work? How does this purveyor of 'strawberry-milkshake donuts', triple-chocolate muffins, and corned-beef pasties get to export products created specifically and unashamedly for the lethal British palate?

Well that's the clever thing. Turns out they've brokered a deal with the British Army, to get its savoury snacks into Naafi canteens abroad. It's what the regular soldiers crave and miss. As the Army spokesperson says: 'It's not about nutrition'.

Fair enough: these fit young men, who might see active service in some of the world's nastiest places, have more pressing concerns than low-density-lipoprotein. Never mind health warnings, they want proper sausage rolls with proper reconstituted meat and proper, fat-filled pastry.

Two British success stories, you muse, yet neither provides that insight you need to look afresh at your brand. Well, not singly they don't, but take them together and that all changes, as you see the connecting thread: 'Know your market and be yourself.'

So there it is, the reward for your scrutiny of the business pages. A formula of sorts: simple, neat and, as formulas go, not a bad one, either.

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

30 SECONDS ON: WINNING FORMULAS

It's not easy to find a simple formula for business success, but that hasn't stopped people trying:

- McKinsey's classic '7-S' model claims that putting shared values at the core of the firm is the surest route to success.

- Formulas don't come any pithier than Peter Drucker's view on the drivers of business success: 'the enterprise has two - and only two - basic functions: marketing and innovation. (These) produce results; all the rest are costs'.

- Many chief executives, including Innocent's Richard Reed, actively recommend Jim Collins' Good to Great as the definitive business tome. Collins studied 1435 companies, looking for why some made the titular transformation while others stagnated. A common three-stage pattern emerged: disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action.

- The late Steve Jobs believed many firms underperform because they try to satisfy consumers' desires. His theory: 'people don't know what they want - you have to show them'.

- The latest to throw his hat into the ring is former Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy, who claims in his latest book that management success can be boiled down to 10 words, the first of which is 'truth' and the last 'trust'.

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