Mark Ritson on branding: One minute distinct, the next generic

I spent last weekend visiting friends in Holland and headed home on Sunday evening from Schiphol Airport. ING has heavily branded itself throughout and the connecting 'jetbridge' that links the departure terminal to the aircraft was one long ad for the firm. 'Let's talk about your future' exclaimed the ads, as I headed for the plane.

I boarded my British Airways flight and dropped gratefully into my seat. Within seconds I was offered a drink and a steaming towel. Having foregone lunch to make the plane, I delved into my bag to find the sandwich I had hurriedly purchased in the airport. It was from a Dutch company called Sanday's Bakeries and the packaging was strangely familiar. In a tight, clean typeface it proclaimed 'All handmade naturally' and continued with the confirmation that each sandwich was 'made in our own kitchen, every day, fresh'. It ended with the handwritten signature of Sanday's boss.

The use of packaging to make clear statements of intent, the emphasis on quality and the handwritten signature of the chief executive are all hallmarks of Pret A Manger. When Pret entered the snack business 20 years ago, the standard approach to packaging was mass-produced and generic - just like the food. Pret's distinctive packaging was an effective way to signal its differentiation and communicate its brand equity. What was all this doing on a very average Dutch sandwich?

The answer is as old as marketing itself. Occasionally a great marketer consults a brand's positioning and then breaks the rules of standard marketing practice. They invent a new way of doing things. In Pret's case, its resolute focus on its core brand values of quality, freshness and being handmade led it to a very different kind of packaging. But last year's brand-specific innovation is this year's industry standard. Pret's success has meant many of its radical approaches have been copied by rivals and gradually subsumed into the standard way most sandwich chains do business. Where once there was brand-based differentiation, now there is just generic parity.

The same is true of the jetbridge ads in Amsterdam. Five years ago, HSBC practically invented this form of advertising. Peter Stringham and his team were struggling to find advertising media that was both global and local to be consistent with HSBC's latest brand positioning. They opted to sponsor the connecting jetbridges in airports in London, New York, Paris and Asia to communicate the two dimensions of the brand. Just like Pret, however, its success led to competitors such as Bank of Scotland and ING copying the tactic.

Go further back and even the standard hot towel handed out on aircraft was once an innovative, brand-building technique. When Singapore Airlines began to battle its bigger rivals 60 years ago, it did so by offering a superior customer experience. One early initiative was to distribute hot towels - a traditional Singaporean gesture of hospitality - to customers. The tactic was so differentiating and surprising that it rapidly became generic and expected, as every airline followed suit.

So as 2006 dwindles away, there are two seasonal messages for marketers. First, congratulations to those who built brand equity by questioning and then altering the generic practices of your industry. You are heroes in our field. Second, do it again in 2007 because all your good work will rapidly be copied by your competitors. The battle to build brand never ends!

30 SECONDS ON ... AMSTERDAM SCHIPHOL AIRPORT

- Schiphol started life as a military airbase in 1916, comprising only a few barracks. It is now Holland's main airport.

- Its name means 'ship hole'. Before 1850, the area on which the airport is built was a lake. Its original name was Schiphel, which means 'ship hell', so called because many ships were mysteriously lost on the lake.

- Last year, the airport had the fourth-highest level of passenger traffic in Europe, at 44.1m people. It serves 260 destinations across 91 countries.

- Schiphol has won more than 120 prizes, including best airport in the world seven times between 1980 and 2003. It was named best European airport every year between 1988 and 2003.

- It is the world's lowest major commercial airport; the base of its air-traffic control tower is 5m below sea level.

- Schiphol has five main runways, the most extensive of which is 3800m long.

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