Helen Edwards: The importance of thinking inside the box

Forget about outside the box - easyJet has demonstrated that marketers need to think inside it if they are to refocus on the basics in a way that boosts the brand.

What's the story behind easyJet's up-and-away 2012 financial results? As ever, there is more than one: a dismal summer that got people flying, the Olympic fillip, the retrenchment of flagship carriers in basket-case Mediterranean economies, and deft realigning of bases and routes.

The most edifying story, though, is the one the airline chooses to emphasise itself, since it can be extrapolated to any brand, in any category, anywhere: a focus on fundamentals.

Taking big ads in the City pages that reported its 28% surge in profits, easyJet promoted its ability to fly business people around, efficiently, at modest prices - taking a swipe at the 'free' fizz offered by legacy airlines that charge far more for 'business class' travel.

'Airline goes from A to B, charges reasonably' - not exactly news, is it? It feels more like table-stakes. Where's the uniqueness? Where's the differentiation?

That's exactly the point. The question that brand fundamentalists constantly ask is not 'How can we be different?' It is 'How can we be better?'

In fact, it's sharper than that, since better at the fringes doesn't cut it. This isn't about sexing-up the on-board sandwich fillings, it's about hard-won improvement in the basics that customers come to the category for.

For marketers who have sought 'edge' and failed to find it, a refocusing on the basics can have a surprisingly galvanising effect on brand fortunes. Here are three pointers for those who sense it is time to nourish the core.

1. Encourage inside-the-box thinking. Next time the team meets for one of those innovation brainstorms, lay down this rule at the outset: for every idea we generate at the fringe, we will create two at the core. It won't put a stop to the whacky, 'blue-sky' thinking, and it may not even achieve any great ideas on how to improve the basics, but it will at least signal that the brand is serious about a refocus on its day-job.

2. Do not conflate communication with substance. Marketers spend a lot of time with agencies, who preach the gospel of 'zagging while others zig'. They cherish differentiation because it makes their job easier. Yet in markets where consumers still wait in queues, are let down by product failures and pay too much for too little, the best advice at the substantive level is: 'Zig better'.

3. Track down a copy of the 2004 'back-to-basics manifesto for business', Simply Better (see 30 seconds). This is one of those seminal texts that should be on every marketer's desk - especially those who have a weakness for segmentation. One of its seemingly obvious, yet easily underestimated, points is that improvement at the level of fundamentals is something that appeals to customers across the board.

As with most business classics, the case studies in Simply Better feel dated, even though the thinking remains relevant. The story of how Orange bested One2One may bring back memories, but it does nothing for currency.

Should the authors ever decide to update their book, perhaps the first person they reach out to should be easyJet's Carolyn McCall.

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: SIMPLY BETTER

- Written by Professor Patrick Barwise of London Business School and Professor Sean Meehan of IMD, Simply Better won the 2005 Berry-AMA Book Prize.

- Its central contention is that 'your first priority should be to improve performance on the things managers often dismiss as being mere "table stakes", "hygiene factors", or "order qualifiers" (as opposed to "order winners").'

- Barwise and Meehan propose five rules for being 'simply better': think category benefits, not unique brand benefits; simplicity, not sophistication; inside, not outside the box; opportunities, not threats; immersion, not submersion.

- Being 'simply better' is a never-ending story, because managers can never get the basics absolutely right: the authors argue that a 100% customer-satisfaction score is both unlikely and unsustainable. In addition, new opportunities will constantly add complexity.

- Since publication, Professor Barwise has written: 'The problem comes when advertising people go beyond the valid insight that the best advertising and other brand communication stands out from the crowd, and start telling marketers to base their whole business strategy - including the core offering - on being different from the competition.'

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