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The 2014 thoughts archive

Christmas: We've Put Our Stamp On It

As the design team gathered together around a warm Macbook to discuss their ideas for this year's True North Christmas card, there seemed to be only one option.

Earlier this year we had the honour of creating the Christmas Stamp collection for The Royal Mail – a job that generated so much festivity we wanted to recreate them, but with our own True North, Manchester twist.  Taking inspiration from the stamps we sought out the most festive locations in the city and recruited the jolliest team members to create a True North Winter Wonderland.

Harriet Green: A Brand Decision Over A Business One


The six-year tenure Harriet Green had forecast for her role as Chief Executive of Thomas Cook came to an abrupt end last week. The rumor mill churns, spitting out the party line that the departure, with immediate effect, was unanimous. Were there other reasons the chief exec left in such a hurry? Had Green been raising her profile with an eye on a different prize? Had she angered the board with her “personality cult?” Either way, this departure was a brand decision rather than a business one. 

For the last two years the Thomas Cook brand has stood in the shadows of its Chief Exec. For many, the media and the city insiders in particular, Green came to represent this brand. The fact that the share price rose from 14p to 139.9p is credited as her success not theirs. It was her who graced the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine back in October hailed as a “super boss” and her who was invited to advise David Cameron on the countries business matters. It seemed that the only time Thomas Cook had any attention was as a footnote to Green and, more tellingly, after her departure was announced, so was the news that the company’s shares had taken a 20% tumble. 

For many successful businesses moving a member of your senior management team out into the public arena is a wise move. Steve Jobs, most famously, became almost as iconic as the Apple logo. Sheryl Sandberg has taken her role as COO of Facebook and used it as a platform to promote women in business - both examples show the successes that can be had. However, what seemed to be missing from the relationship at Thomas Cook was this brand unity demonstrated by the most successful examples. 

When the travel agents refreshed its brand last year, with Green leading from the front, they claimed that it was more than just a logo. It was a “renewed promise to our customers, our people and suppliers. A promise that we’re putting them at the heart of our transformation.”  What has become clear over the last twelve months is the brand promise existed only in that logo and that although Green managed to become the face of Thomas Cook, the reality was much different. For Green and her colleagues any interaction they had publicly should have come with a responsibility to that promise. To show how every part of their brand is defined and motivated by this. What happened instead was Green was allowed to put herself at the centre rather than the brand. The brand promise was therefore weakened by those responsible for delivering it. 

What happened last week exists as a fine example of the importance of understanding brand and reminder that it exists not only in your visual identity and your advertising, but in every part of your business.

Fedrigoni Chapter & Verse

Last week we had the honour of being invited to Fedrigoni's
Chapter & Verse.

Even though it was the first time Fedrigoni had hosted an event up here in Manchester they couldn’t have chosen a better location than The John Rylands Library. 

It’s beautiful neo-gothic architecture and rich historical collection of printed materials made it the perfect place to host an evening dedicated to celebrating the printed page.

Throughout the evening we enjoyed talks from Anthony Burrill, Si Scott and Studio Thomson. They each gave an inspiring insight into their specialist areas of design as well as some great examples of both their commercial and personal work.

Afterwards we were met with a huge table adorned with all things paper based, from a range of posters which had been specially designed for the event by each of the speakers to a handy booklet on how to prepare your pixels for print. 

We have got to say this was definitely our best haul yet and would like to give a huge thank to Fedrigoni for all of the goodies, drinks and an overall inspiring evening.

Hopefully we will see them back in Manchester soon.

Bye for now.

Jenna and Leanne.

Keeping it simple. For fish, fowl and all of mankind

A couple of us are off next week to run a workshop on branding at the annual BIAZA Communications and Education Conference in Cork.

BIAZA is the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums and we have been asked to take part because of our relationship and work with Chester Zoo.

The importance of brand in a zoo or aquarium differs not one bit from its importance in any large organisation. Multi-faceted stakeholder and audience environment, competition from within and outside the sector for customer attention and affection, and the requirement for a distinctive, unique proposition and positioning, delivered with brio across every conceivable touchpoint and experience; not just comms and marketing.

Now, there are a multitude of brand models out there to help those who lead to make sense of and maximise brand benefit and apply a brand proposition well across the piece. But in our opinion, there is a risk of theory, checklists, models and matrices getting in the way. Or even worse, a risk that the business of following a process and generating outputs acts as a substitute for genuinely useful and uplifting brand positioning.

And this will be our message to our friends from Zoos and Aquariums next week.

Keep it simple - but get it aspirational. If you want to put the brand proposition at the heart of your organisation (why wouldn't you?) and then work to get every stakeholder to get excited by it, we suggest you could do worse than set yourself the challenge of answering two, connected questions -  “What do we want to be famous for. And what is the big idea that will help everyone get excited?”

There, that doesn’t sound too complicated, does it?

There and back again, 100 miles on a bike.

All smiles before the start. Barely standing at the end!

There are occasions, in life, when you agree to take part in something that may be beyond the usual parameters of your day-to-day existence. Those occasions usually come at a time when you are most relaxed and at peace with the world, the sun is shining the beer is flowing. Climb a mountain 'sure', run a marathon 'no problem', cycle 100 miles 'no sweat'.

You agree because the event seems so far into the future that with casual arrogance you convince yourself that with training, diet, sleeping, meditation, a complete change in lifestyle you will be able to take on the challenge.

Then you wake up the next morning and think, 'not again'. Did I consider the consequences, has my ego got the better of me, did alcohol convince me I was an athlete? I had one of those moments, over a few beers, when a friend asked 'Do you fancy cycling 100 miles?'. This was early Spring, the event was the end of August, far enough away to be confident that, despite not be a regular acquaintance of exercise, I would be fit, able and willing to rise to the challenge.

The weeks and months passed and the realisation of a commitment unfolded. This was not a light Sunday excursion, this was one hundred miles in the saddle, and a very thin, hard saddle it is. This was also a commitment to a cause, a fundraiser and a chance to help improve the lives of others. We often get into these situations and take part in these events to recognise an innate altruism, to feel good about ourselves, to fulfill a sense of achievement and to become better, stronger human beings.

The chosen charity and the selected event give us the drive and purpose to be audacious. Our charity was the Rose Blossom Trust, a trust that supports sufferers of Dravet Syndrome, and their families. Dravet Syndrome is a neurodevelopment disorder beginning in infancy, characterised by intractable seizures. It is very rare and requires almost constant care. Cycling 100 miles is a mere token gesture to the friends and people who live with this condition everyday.

With a cause and a responsibility, the training began. The commute to work became a 13-mile cycle from Bolton to Manchester instead of the train. The sunny summer mornings were perfect conditions to get bike-fit. There was a test run event, Manchester to Blackpool, 65 miles in four and a half hours. I gradually became more prepared for the undertaking ahead. Something like this will focus the mind, help you to prepare, eat well, look after yourself, we all need a goal, a benchmark. I felt I had done enough to complete the journey.

Despite preparation, you can't predict being knocked off your bike three days before the event, lying in the road worrying about the consequences of being broadsided by a taxicab. So you pick yourself up, brush yourself down and pick the gravel out of your knees.

Then the day arrives, if you could you would have done more, but you didn't and it's here. Filling up on pasta and drinking plenty of water the day before may help, porridge may help on the day, but now you've just got to get out there and pedal. And we did, we pedalling for six and a half hours, with a few stops for traffic lights and re-hydration. The weather was kind, the motorists were tolerant and roads were mostly flat.

From Wythenshaw Park down through the Cheshire Plain and the muddy, moneyed lanes we rode. Hundreds of luminous, lycra, lidded participants, huffing and puffing striving and gliding from there and back again. Like runners in a marathon the psychology takes over to get you to the end, there's practice, there’s training, there’s fitness but when you are feeling tired, the energy has drained and the muscles and joints are screaming, it is willpower and brainpower that drives you to the line. We needed it, we were flagging, we were spent, we were chafing. At 85 miles it became willpower, just 15 miles to go, nearly there.

We stuck together, my friend and I, we helped each other along, we pushed each other to the line, and we crossed it together. It was done. The challenge was met, the fears were conquered and the cause was championed. We beat personal bests, broke through our parameters, and the coffers of our cause were boosted with over £900, generously donated, by work colleagues, friends and family.

To go beyond our comfort zone and to push ourselves that little bit further for a personal cause, a personal best, to raise the bar ever so slightly will always make it easier to achieve the next challenge with more confidence and vigor. To quote Albert Einstein, ‘Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving’.

Don’t get integrated, get integral

We catch a whiff every now and again of ‘industry debate’, without necessarily looking to engage with overly introspective chest-beating or group therapy.

And one of the notions that seems to be in the ether right now is the seemingly age-old notion of ‘integrated’ agency offerings and of bigger comms agencies sneakily stealing work that should be the domain of the design and branding agency community.

We have a point of view. And it’s one born of our work partnering with clients to generate business-changing ideas.

Integrated agencies – and the clients that appoint them, presumably - appear to assume that communications/marketing in its broadest sense will be the output of their efforts. They talk about 'ideas' that are media neutral, truly integrated and produced by multi-disciplinary teams

But in our opinion, brand is increasingly the 'idea' and a brand idea is by its definition a business idea. The task of creating a truly useful brand idea requires a relationship and an alignment with a client organisation much deeper than that required to generate an integrated comms or marketing idea.

Whilst this of course isn’t always relevant to every brief, for those clients looking for a cohesive, unifying and differentiated idea to generate increased awareness and affection from internal and external audiences, we believe that brand is the key.

And therefore that branding agencies are the obvious home and genuine source of a truly media neutral idea because we don't even assume 'marketing' is the answer.

The real benefit of truly useful brand ideas is that they can – and should – be applied beyond marketing. The brand idea as business idea can provide cohesion as well as new excitement across all business areas. The same core idea will drive internal comms and culture initiatives and values and corporate behaviour programmes. Why shouldn’t this same idea underpin service design and R&D / NPD programmes? And be reflected in the customer experience and physical environment, regardless of whether your is a retail, manufacturing or service business?

Enlightened business recognizes that all systems and processes can be organised around a unique brand idea or principle that differentiates from competitors and encourages all stakeholders to expect a unique experience.

And if that is the output of engaging a partner to generate a big brand idea that is truly integral to business success, we ask ourselves why would an integrated agency delivering a comms idea be a threat to branding expertise?

There will be sectors – and FMCG is an obvious example – where a big new marketing idea can drive consumer behaviour and commercial success. But even here, we would argue that wider adoption of a more integral idea could drive even more benefit.

In fact, we would challenge any brand or organisation to demonstrate equal depth and width of sustained business benefit arising from an integrated marketing idea over a truly integral big brand idea.

This core belief will be expanded upon in future True North thinkpieces and publications. We are putting the finishing touches to a presentation on internal alignment with the big brand idea. If you’re interested in seeing it, please contact us at any time

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