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Big Brands, Big Trouble

Older people are often referred to as "old trouts" because they're wily, set in their ways and have dogmatic opinions, and they made better eating when they were younger. I feel a bit the same about Jack Trout on the basis of his book Big Brands, Big Trouble, Writes Hamish Pringle

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Alternatively amusing and irritating, insightful and simplistic, this is at best a quick read suitable either for the beginner who needs a basic route map in marketing, or as a reference for the more experienced who needs a reminder of some hygiene factors they may have overlooked recently.

On the amusing front, Jack's not afraid to take a pop at some of his ex-clients who've failed to follow his advice or to volunteer in public his proposed strategy for a project. He does this on Bridgestone with breathtaking chutzpah.

On the irritating front, he makes assertions that appear initially plausible, but which on a nano-second's reflection are superficial, if not plain wrong -- for example his damning of the "me-too" strategy. I think he would get short shrift if he argued this line with Dixons vis-à-vis Matsui or Tesco with their extensive retailer brand range.

On the insightful dimension, he's absolutely right about marketers' over-emphasis on the rational dimension of brands. We know now that there are three other aspects that have to be developed in order to create a total brand (the emotional, the political and the spiritual). Together with the rational, these can translate into a complete personality as William Gordon and I have argued in Brand Manners.

By contrast, his view of qualitative research is simplistic in the extreme. It's simply not true to suggest that this kind of research does not take account of the competitive context for a brand in developing its positioning.

In terms of insightfulness, Jack makes a good point about "corporate distancing", especially when success leads to arrogance and a lack of objectivity. Companies that stop listening to their employees at the customer interface soon get into trouble. He's also good on the dysfunctions of size and the phenomenon whereby companies or operating units, which grow to have more than 150 people often, work less well than smaller ones.

I enjoyed reading about the Xerox strategy and the reasons that led to its loss of the copying market to Hewlett-Packard. His case histories on Burger King, Crest, Miller, DEC and AT&T are also interesting, but a little remote for non-USA residents, and parochially he doesn't have enough UK or European stories.

When he does attempt one, as in the case of Marks & Spencer, his analysis of the genesis of its fall from grace is rather thin and he fails to predict the potential for recovery, as evidenced by its current sales and share price.

He writes an amusing diatribe against management consultants and I do believe their relative added value is questionable. These consultants can command £4,000 per day (or lawyers and accountants £3,000), versus top agency people at £1,500 and my own view is that our industry needs to develop a long-term strategy to close this gap.

Trout is also good on boards of directors and I concur with his ideal line-up, which should include a marketing expert. IPA research, supported by other studies, reveals that less than 20% of top UK companies have a director with responsibility for marketing on their main board. This lack of representation almost certainly was a factor behind the M&S and Sainsbury problems. Though not referred to by Trout, Tim Ambler's book Marketing and the Bottom Line is very good on all this.

We know that the average tenure of a marketing director is about 18 months, and while they are in office many instigate an agency review, often with a personal career enhancement agenda, which results in real damage to the brand of which they are only the temporary guardians. Why do CEOs and finance directors let this happen? Why don't more City analysts ask for an explanation about the stewardship of brand assets?

This is why Jack is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of leadership. Today, a CEO has to be in control as the ultimate guardian and "author" of the brand and continuously retell its evolving story in a compelling way to all its stakeholders.

In my opinion, the best aspect of Big Brands, Big Trouble is what he says on competitive strategy. It's one of those obvious points that can so easily be forgotten, or not pursued rigorously enough when focusing hard on one's own brand and a company's internal issues. Trout brings it back into sharp focus.

He elaborates well on the following elements of competition:

-- number two has to attack number one

-- avoid a competitor's strategy and exploit their weaknesses

-- always be a little bit paranoid about the competition

-- competition will usually get better, if pushed

-- when business is threatened, competitions aren't rational

-- squash your smaller competitions as quickly as possible

-- if you're losing the battle, shift the battlefield

-- if a bigger competitor is about to attack, you should attack first

Wily Jack's mantra is "know your competitors": he's worth reading just for this.

Hamish Pringle is director general of the IPA and co-author of two best-selling business books: Brand Spirit: How Cause-Related Marketing Builds Brands with Marjorie Thompson, and Brand Manners: How to Create the Self-Confident Organisation to Live the Brand with William Gordon. See Brand Manners.


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