The 4 brand lessons I learned from 19 topless northern men

There has been a lot of rhetoric recently about how branding has changed in the modern era. For example, there is a mantra about the importance of our brand’s purpose to customers. And then there is the notion that customers ‘engage’ with our brands. A short while ago, I put those modern brand theories to the test, with the help of 19 topless northern men. They cleared things up for me quite nicely…

This post (slightly revised from my original post I published by B2B Marketing Magazine) is a 10 minute read and, in exchange for your time, I’ll share my literally revealing tale (including some visual descriptions that may put you off your tea and biscuits), plus four conclusions I’ve reached about brand purpose in B2B marketing. There is also a spoiler alert for Game of Thrones viewers among you that haven’t yet watched season 6. 

Setting the scene

Before I get to the brand insights, I need to provide a little bit of a backstory…

My fabulous wife is from Yorkshire, a county in the north of England. It’s the county that gave us the Brontë sisters, Wallace & Gromit’s favourite cheese – Wensleydale, and also legendary plumbing engineer Thomas Crapper. Opting for a stereotype, Yorkshire folk are famously down to earth and plain spoken – you tend to know where you stand with a Yorkshireman, particularly after a few pints of ale.

My wife and I go to Yorkshire quite often, taking our kids to see their Grandma. But there is a problem. Grandma only has access to freeview TV channels (i.e. she doesn’t have satellite or cable TV), which means I can’t watch live Premier League football when we visit her. And I’m quite partial to a bit of live football. So if I want to watch a match while I’m there, I have to go to a local pub. And that’s where this marketing tale begins.

19 topless northern men

On one of my recent visits to Yorkshire, in the middle of a Yorkshire winter, Liverpool were playing Manchester City – one of the must-watch games of the English football season. I wanted to see it, so off I trotted, down the hill to a nearby hostelry that was showing the match. And what sight greeted me as I walked in and ordered a pint of Guinness? Yep, 19 topless men.

Now when I say 19 topless men, these guys weren’t about to start Instagramming selfies of their abs anytime soon. They were about as far removed from the Diet-Coke-TV-advert variety of topless men as you can possibly imagine. (I think they preferred the full-sugar version of Coca Cola, if you catch my drift). They were a bunch of big, typically quite hairy fellows, with generous bellies hanging over their jeans. I guessed they probably ranged in age from early-twenties to early-thirties. Yep, they were millennials. Millennials who had evidently just dropped into the pub for a few pints after watching their local football team – Huddersfield Town. And there they sat, quite happy in their trainers, beer guts, tattoos and nipples.

Now I’m not sure about you, but that’s not a sight I’m particularly used to seeing when I pop out for a Guinness. I was a little bit taken aback, if I’m quite honest. Alas, the situation quickly became worse. It dawned on me that the only place to get a decent vantage point of the pub’s TV – and therefore the football match – was if I nestled right in among the 19 semi-nude fellows. Which presented me with a bit of a dilemma. Either squeeze in between Portly Phil and Stocky Steve, or go home and listen to the game on Grandma’s radio. Which she wouldn’t like, since she’d be watching Pointless or The Chase on her TV, and I’d be a distraction.

Just to further underline the precarious nature of my situation, I’m from the south of England. I have a London accent. Which translates, in Yorkshire-speak, to being a soft, shandy-drinking pansy. As an analogy for Games of Thrones fans (SPOILER COMING RIGHT NOW!), picture the scene at the end season 6, sitting in the hall with Jon Snow, where the horde of large, well-lubricated, hairy northerners are screaming ‘King of the North’ at the top of their lungs. Now imagine what might happen if southern peacock Jamie Lannister had strolled in at that very moment and asked if they could all budge over a little bit to let him watch the telly. You can imagine what might have happened next. That was the mental image I had as I stood alone at the bar. A southerner amidst the well-lubricated, hairy horde.

Thankfully, I’m WAY tougher than Jamie Lannister (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t fancy my sister). And Liverpool vs. Manchester City is a big game. So I went for it. Keeping my shirt on, I joined the jolly band of blubber. And what happened next burst the bubble of brand purpose, engagement and the like…

The marketing bit, at last

After a moment of silence, accompanied by 19 stunned stares at the southern, shandy-drinking soft-boy, the chaps made a space for me to sit down. It turned out that Portly Phil and Stocky Steve and the rest of the nipples-out crew were a thoroughly nice bunch of fellows. They didn’t mind at all if I took the weight off my feet and watched the match. It was all very convivial. We had a nice exchange of views about how manly it was to go to a football match in a northern winter without your shirt on. (* Take that House Lannister *).

At half-time, one of them asked me what I did for a living. Another soft, southern-pansy look ensued when I told him I worked in marketing. He sought clarification about my profession…

“What, do you mean you’re one of those tossers that keeps stuffing pizza and curry vouchers through our letterboxes?”

Thankfully I was saved from having to point out that marketing is, in fact, the management discipline responsible for generating sustainable competitive advantage. Instead, a few of the other gents came to my rescue, butting-in to say they were quite happy with their endless supply of pizza vouchers. Marketing was quite alright by them.

Now I promise I hadn’t been thinking about marketing up until that point, but marketing nerd that I am, I couldn’t help myself with what followed. The door was now open for a bit of impromptu research. I pretty much had a ready-made focus group to observe. And so that’s what I did…

An observation on brand engagement

One of the gentlemen – let’s call him ‘Bulky Barry’ – asked his friends if anyone wanted a beer. The responses were simple – his friends asked for either lager or bitter. No-one, bar one chap, mentioned a beer brand by name. That one guy asked for a standard Carlsberg, which is a weaker brand of lager in the UK. The others mirthfully suggested that maybe he too was a southern, shandy-drinking softy. They pointed out that he would have the strongest available lager, just like everyone else. No-one seemingly cared what brand it was, as long as it was the strongest.

Bulky Barry then asked if anyone wanted snacks. ‘Peanuts’ or ‘crisps’ was the uniform response. A couple were specific in their preferred flavour of snacks (e.g. dry roasted or salt & vinegar), but not one of them mentioned a brand. There was no Planters or Walkers or Doritos to be heard of.

This seemingly innocuous moment was telling, since modern marketing rhetoric would have us believe that customers actively ‘engage’ with brands. That we don’t use products and services, rather we enter a relationship with those products and services. Engagement has consequently become one of the biggest marketing buzzwords du jour. Some modern brand gurus would try and have us believe that people don’t drink beers, they engage with beer brands. They don’t read a brand’s blog posts, they engage with them. All of which, of course, is nonsense – as the 19 topless northern men quickly proved. They ordered lager and crisps, not Heineken and Walkers. They wanted to get a bit drunk with their friends and have a few salty snacks, and that was it. [By the way, for B2B marketers among you – I get to the B2B conclusions soon].

I couldn’t help but notice (because I was sandwiched between them, and because the copious amount of strong lager made the chaps increasingly loud), but there were other examples of that throughout the evening. Bulky Barry told his pals that he was going to have to buy a new washing machine the following morning because his “f****** s***” old one had finally packed up. As laughter erupted about his unwashed underwear, I noticed he’d just referred to washing machines – not ‘my Zanussi has packed up and I’m off to buy a Hotpoint’.

In another example, the chaps enquired where one of the group had got his new trainers (they didn’t say ‘Pumas’), to which he responded “on the high street” – not “at JD Sports”. In yet another example, one of the blokes bemoaned that he had forgotten to visit the supermarket before going to the Huddersfield Town match. He didn’t say he’d forgotten to visit Tesco. And I doubted very much that any of them wanted to have a conversation with one of those brands on social media. (Although I suspect that Bulky Barry’s unwashed underwear was likely to get a mention).

Over the entire course of the evening, brand names were hardly mentioned at all. I couldn’t discern any level of brand engagement, brand relationships or brand love. The whole premise of people engaging with brands seemed a bit of a fanciful concept in this environment.

Which prompted me to conduct a quick bit of qualitative research on another piece of popular modern brand theory… brand purpose.

What 19 topless northern men taught me about brand purpose

If there is one aspect of modern brand rhetoric that has intrigued me more than any other, it’s Marketing’s peculiar fascination with ‘brand purpose’. The notion that customers buy from us nowadays not because of our product (or not just because of our product), but rather because of our underlying purpose and ideals. The notion that people don’t start with what our products or services can do for them, but instead they start with why we deliver those products or services. And the notion that our company’s underlying, driving motive is the best way to distinguish our brands.

I’ve heard marketing folk express quite strongly-held beliefs for and against the voracity of those notions – often deteriorating into angry confrontation – and so, while the second-half of the match played on, I thought I’d get my focus group’s opinion on the topic. I wanted to know what 19 topless and now half-pissed, millennial northern men had to say about the topic. Brace yourselves…

Plucking up the courage, I asked Portly Phil, Stocky Steve and Bulky Barry if they knew what the snack and beer brands they were consuming stood for, or why they existed. If they knew what the different brands’ purpose was.

For a few moments, the gents looked at me with blank astonishment, as though Jamie Lannister really had just walked into the room. And then the anticipated responses came.

Several of the chaps enquired what the actual duck I was talking about. (* They didn’t say ‘duck’ – they said something else *). One chap reminded me that I was indeed a southern, shandy-drinking weirdo. A slightly more helpful fellow pointed out that the lager’s purpose was to get him pissed, and the snack’s purpose was to… He stopped at that point, and instead pointed out that maybe marketing was a job for tossers after all.

No-one asked me for any more pizza vouchers after that (which was a blessing, since the law firm I work for doesn’t offer pizza vouchers). Attention thankfully returned to the football and whatever other life problems Bulky Barry was having. I decided against asking the gents any further questions about branding and marketing, and the rest of the evening passed without incident. I returned home to Grandma’s house after the match – safe, sound and with my shirt still on (although donning a coat did earn me a final reminder that I was indeed a soft, shandy-drinking southerner).

They were a solid bunch of Yorkshiremen. I liked them a lot.

A big, old marketing commotion

Again, there are a lot of very eloquent people with diametrically opposing views on modern brand theory. On one side you’ve got disciples of Jim Stengel (and his famous book ‘Grow‘) and Simon Sinek (and his seminal Ted talk ‘start with why‘) – both of which advocate the importance of brand purpose. Similarly, Havas Media have claimed that meaningful brands outperform the stock market. On the other hand you’ve got the very clever folks that have debunked Jim Stengel’s research (examples here and here) and have pointed out that Havas didn’t publish their research methodology, so it’s hard to verify it. They are supported by Professor Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, who have conducted probably the most comprehensive scientific research ever into peoples’ relationships with brands, only to determine that things like ease of purchase, habit and familiarity are key determinants in how brands grow. Brand purpose doesn’t get a look in.

With all of that conflicting argument, it’s all very confusing for us marketers. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Is brand purpose the central, most important tenet of successful brands, or not? As I left the pub that night in Yorkshire, and walked back up the hill to Grandma’s house, I reflected on the marketing lessons learned from the 19 topless, millennial, northern brand gurus. Here are some of them…

  • A lot of people will look at you weirdly if you suggest they are ‘engaging’ with your brand, rather than just eating it / reading it / wearing it / typing on it / collating your invoices with it / stapling papers with it / etcetera. Marketers shouldn’t fall into the trap of overstating or over-believing the importance of our brands in our customers’ lives. Many brands are just a utility.
  • A lot of people have some preferred brands. They may even go out of their way to purchase a few of them. But that isn’t always the case. In a lot of situations, a lot of people will happily make-do with an alternative product. In fact, in many cases people will be agnostic altogether about particular brands. Often, people will make purchases out of habit or convenience.
  • Some times, some people might buy or avoid some products or services because of what the brand stands for, but quite a lot of the time they won’t care. As above, people will often buy your product or service simply because they’ve heard of it, because it looks trustworthy, because it works, because it’s the easiest or cheapest option, or because it looks / tastes / feels / sounds nice. Or they may just buy it because it’s the strongest lager available. ‘Brand purpose’ simply doesn’t exist as a concept for many people (including millennials).

Now I’m not saying one night with 19 topless, millennial, northern men should be taken as the definitive view of marketing or brand theory. Quite the opposite in fact – it’s important to always observe our own respective buyers and see how they feel about our brands. To observe whether they have some deep-rooted emotional connection to what we’re doing and picked us because of our mission statement and purpose – or whether they simply picked us because they liked our product, pricing, promotion, packaging, habit, ease or for any other simple reason.

And I believe another important reminder provided by Portly Phil, Stocky Steve and Bulky Barry is that we shouldn’t instantly believe every bit of marketing rhetoric out there. The notion that every single person out there cares about the purpose of every single product they’re purchasing is, frankly, ludicrous. 

But what about brand purpose in B2B marketing? Four observations…

I hope all of that was is somewhat interesting, but this is a B2B marketing blog post, so I’m going to close by venturing some B2B marketing parallels and conclusions…

Firstly, It would be easy to dismiss my night with 19 northern topless men – and their views on beer, nuts, washing machines, trainers and the need for shirts in winter – as not being relevant to B2B marketing. The semi-drunken B2C purchase of lager and salty snacks is, of course, a very different scenario to our more circumspect world of business cases, long-term contract cycles, multi-person decision making teams and procurement processes. Yet I still believe the lessons from Portly Phil, Stocky Steve and Bulky Barry apply to our world – and here I’m going to share four heartfelt opinions why. The last of the opinions I share is perhaps the most important one…

1. Low involvement and high involvement categories

B2B is a big, diverse area. It encompasses everything from companies receiving a 25 year contract to build and maintain a new nuclear power station, right down to companies supplying paper clips and drawing pins to our offices. Buyers and users of B2B services will be ‘heavily engaged’ in some purchases, and largely ambivalent to others.

For example, it would be a major problem if the company building our nuclear power station went out of business or proved to have a dire record on things like employee wellbeing. It would be a minor, short-term inconvenience if the company providing our office paper clips had the same problem – we’d simply find a quick alternative and get on with our life.

In other words, different levels of circumspection and pressure apply to different B2B suppliers and situations. To say that things like ‘brand purpose’ applies equally importantly to every scenario just doesn’t make sense. Any marketing advice that claims to be universal in application is likely to be universally misleading advice.

2. Start with why? Really?

If you’re about to go to prison, or are getting sued for £1billion, do you honestly think your opening question to your lawyer would be “I don’t care if you can keep me out of prison or save me £1billion, I care why you want to stop me going to prison or save me a billion“. I just can’t see that happening. Similarly, I don’t think either of the following scenarios are commonplace…

  • “I don’t care if you can stop millions of our bank records getting hacked – I care why you want to stop us getting hacked.”
  • “I don’t care if you can get me a taxi to the airport at 3pm – I care why you provide airport taxis.”
  • “I don’t care if you can clean and restock the office toilets – I care why you’re a toilet cleaning specialist.”

OK, I know I’m being a little bit flippant – but if you phoned your Office Manager or CIO right now and asked her what her primary motivation was when she hired your photocopier supplier / chair maker / security staff / cabling company / carpet fitter / etcetera, what you you think she’d say? Do you think the supplier’s brand purpose was the first thing on her mind, or do you think she was more motivated with product quality, cost and delivery times?

Looking at an example closer to home, when you last had to hire a design agency / translator / printer / caterer / shipping company to deliver a marketing project on a deadline, did you honestly start your procurement process by investigating the supplier’s underlying brand purpose (i.e. did you ‘start with why’?), or was your first priority whether they could get the job done to a sufficient standard and at a reasonable price?

I just wanted to make the point that, while some B2B purchasers may be motivated by some suppliers’ purpose (i.e. they may indeed ‘start with why’ in some cases), I don’t believe that every B2B purchaser starts with why in every case. 

3. Brand purpose is important

I want to be clear at this point that I’m not against brand purpose. Quite the opposite, in fact. Looking internally, I think it’s massively important for our companies to have a clear purpose. I’m convinced that having a clear, shared purpose and vision that our colleagues believe in and can get behind will contribute to employee motivation. A strong purpose can inspire our people to fight harder, together, in order to win. 

Furthermore, having a strong sense of what our company stands for sets expected behaviours for all of our people. Which is critical, since our brand is our promise to the market of certain standards. It is our bond. And since our company’s reputation will be enhanced or undone by the customer experience of using our services and working with us – i.e. whether or not we live up to our promise – consistency of behaviour is key. Ensuring all employees understand the ideals of our brand is central to achieving that consistency.

And looking at our marketing communications, having a clear underlying purpose provides a good platform to bring our respective stories to live. And more importantly, it provides a sense of direction and destination for our brands that help us to avoid distractions. And avoiding distractions will stop us changing our course and messaging every five minutes, which is also central to building consistency and trust in the market.

4. And my main conclusion – don’t focus on the wrong things

So I hope it’s clear by now that I believe the lessons learned from Portly Phil, Stocky Steve and Bulky Barry apply to B2B. I do think having a brand purpose is important – I just don’t believe our brand purpose is the starting point for all (or even most) customer buying decisions. Many B2B buyers will simply want our product to do what we said it was going to do, at the price we promised, so they can get on with their lives. And customers getting on with their lives brings me to my biggest concern with applying too much emphasis on brand purpose…

Focusing on our brand’s purpose, and communicating that purpose to customers, is self-centred. It focuses on what we are all about. Well I’m one of those marketers that believes that the starting point for our marketing communications – the first focus of our attention – should be on customers and their problems – not our internal purpose.

We all know that our customers are the heroes of our world. We all know that our B2B companies are solely here to help them to succeed. We’re only here to help them fix their problems and/or make their opportunities become realities. That’s our real purpose in life, and that’s the sole purpose that our customers typically care about. In other words, what can we do for them?

And do you know the big problem that causes? Every single one of our rivals is trying to fix the same customer problems and facilitate the same customer opportunities. Every one of our rivals in our category pretty much has the same underlying purpose as us. To many customers seeking to protect their companies, firewall provider A pretty much has the same underlying purpose as firewall provider B. To many customers seeking to get a critical widget to Shanghai by 10am tomorrow morning, overnight-shipping company C has effectively the same underlying purpose as overnight-shipping company D.

Rivals in our B2B sectors are each simply trying to be a better answer to our customers’ wants and needs. Which means, if we all have the same underlying root purpose, then purpose isn’t necessarily the only or best way for us to differentiate our brands and win. Instead, standing out from the crowd and winning preference are just as likely to come from other classic things like owning a leadership position in a defined market niche; product innovation; pricing; being more noticeable and more memorable than our rivals; building clearer brand associations than our rivals; dominating share of voice; delivering more exemplary customer service; or a host of other ‘traditional’ brand-differentiation approaches.

Differentiation may come from cause-led things like having the most environmentally responsible supply chain in your sector, for example, but it may equally come from being the easiest to buy from, or having a completely distinctive brand personality, or from offering the most risk-free pricing structures, or a host of other things. It may come from just offering customers the strongest lager and best salty snacks at B2B events in Yorkshire.

The point is, brand purpose isn’t necessarily the first, only or even essential thing necessary to differentiate our brands and earn customer preference. It may be or it may not be for different brands.

What is perhaps more important to focus on is both how we will help our customers to achieve their purpose, and what we need to do to make sure customers remember we’re the very best choice at doing that.

Further reading

There are so many conflicting viewpoints on how brands work that I’m not going to sit here and say my views are definitively the truth – although I stand by the opinions I’ve shared. For further reading on the topic, I strongly urge you to read both ‘How Brands Grow’ by Professor Byron Sharp, and also Professor Mark Ritson’s regular column in Marketing Week (here’s one such article). Those two heavyweights don’t even fully agree on all aspects of brand strategy, but in my opinion they offer a heck of a lot more sense and evidence than the ‘brand purpose’ disciples.

I hope that helps. Good luck fellow B2B marketers 🙂

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