New Life for Old Brands

If you're the owner of a product with a washed-up image, received wisdom states that you should offload it with the minimum of fuss. But there is an alternative. MT meets the brand whisperers who have put fresh pep into old names ranging from Plymouth Gin via Burberry and Lucozade to post-modernist crooner Morrissey. John Morrish reports.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This is the day of the brand whisperers, skilled individuals and organisations who take tired, poor-performing, under-appreciated brands and breathe sweet nothings into their ears until they start to perk up. It has been tried, with varying degrees of success, with food and drink (Plymouth Gin, Complan, Lucozade), with fashion (Burberry, Ben Sherman, Lee Cooper) and with cosmetics and household products (Harmony, Stergene). Every week brings new attempts.

'A brand is a reservoir of goodwill that takes a long time to build up,' says David Haigh, founder and chief executive of Brand Finance, a consultancy that applies financial analysis to the buying and selling of brands. It can take a century to build up not just awareness, he says, but affection and trust.

'Now if you've been through all that, and you've built a brand and it declines, it would be better to refurbish that than to go out and build a new one,' he adds. 'The commonsensical view is that if there is something there that can be repaired, it's better to do it.'

Says Alexander Uhlmann, who teaches brand management at Ashridge Business School: 'The advantage of reviving a brand is that you leverage the awareness that already exists. One of the reasons why it makes sense to revive is because of how fragmented the media is. Cutting through the clutter of messages is easier if you have got something to hang the premise on.'

There is plenty of demand for brands. Manufacturers, especially from the Far East, want to use brands as a front for their manufacturing capacity: this is the story of many of Britain's audio and consumer electronics brands in recent years. Then there are venture capitalists, who have, says Haigh, 'an absolute tidal wave of money'. Previously, they were looking for companies to buy for their net asset value; now competition means they are often paying for goodwill, which means brands. They want to know what they are getting for their money.

Brand investigations such as Haigh's 'brand due diligence' process might reveal a brand in terminal decline, or show that it has been mis-managed and could be revived. It might also suggest a brand extension, bringing in other revenue streams. There are plenty of examples of these principles working in practice.

Complan was a Heinz brand acquired last year by Saatchinvest, a new arm of M&C Saatchi, on advice from Brand Finance. Taking a 51% interest, this specialist firm repackaged the meal supplement, directed it away from the sick and the elderly towards a younger market (it offers 'complete nourishment when you need it'), and even added a brand extension: a Complan breakfast cereal.

More flagrantly successful was John Murphy's acquisition of Plymouth Gin. A famous brand in its day, it passed through various hands before ending up in the portfolio of Allied Domecq, which seemed not to know what to do with it. Murphy, founder of Interbrand, bought the distillery in Plymouth, reformulated the drink and repackaged it with great flair. Sales rose from 7,500 cases in 1995, the year before he bought it, to 70,000 in 1999. He went on to sell a controlling interest to Vin & Spirit, Swedish owners of Absolut Vodka.

And then there was Ben Sherman. The shirtmaker was one of the big names of the 1960s, but had fallen on hard times by 1993, when it was saved from receivership by its management, with £4 million in backing from 3i.

The equity group then backed a second takeover in 2000, headed by CEO Miles Gray, and the company closed its factory in Londonderry before moving into women's clothes, footwear and global export, with endorsements from sports and music personalities.

Earlier this year, 3i sold it to Oxford Industries of the US, which owns the licence for the Tommy Hilfiger brand. The price was £80 million for a company that last year made £5.3 million profit on sales of £83 million.

'I'm not sure I would buy Ben Sherman for £80 million with no tangible assets,' observes Haigh, 'because it could go unfashionable again in the UK, which is its core market. You're up to a pretty high price when you're up to £80 million.'

But the deals go on: this year Brand Finance helped in the acquisition of Hunter, Scottish supplier of green wellies to royalty. Haigh expects the venture capitalists who bought it to bring in lower-end products from Malaysia and to extend the brand to other clothing. Meanwhile, companies such as Lornamead of Dubai have acquired a string of cast-off cosmetic and cleaning products from the multinationals, including Harmony, Stergene and Lypsyl.

Yet brands can be revived without changing hands. Uhlmann cites Burberry, which has found a huge younger market, not only by adjusting its product range but by using younger media. (Mind you, Burberry's embarrassing prominence in the so-called chav market - checked baseball cap, anybody? - serves as a warning: it is possible to move a brand too far.)

And there's Lucozade. 'The idea is to balance the awareness of a brand with the negative perceptions you have,' says Uhlmann. 'If you can turn the negative into a positive perception you can do well. With Lucozade, the heritage was "recovery". They have made that into a positive: "energy".'

Lucozade owner GlaxoSmithKline has just hired Mark Borkowski, doyen of showbusiness PRs, to revive another of its elderly brands, Horlicks. It wants this name to be cool, rather than a euphemism for cock-up.

When they investigate a brand, Haigh's team look at the product's distribution to see whether that is holding it back. They ask trade buyers why they've stopped buying it to discover whether there might be something simple that can be reversed. They look closely at pricing. And they research the product's public image. 'When you boil it down, it's common sense.

But you have to understand all the little elements and work out how to do them. That's the art of being a good marketeer, I suppose,' says Haigh, admitting that in the end, 'it's about intangibles: it's about opinion'.

And after working out what a brand is, you need to think about where it can go. Some time ago, Haigh worked for a VC in acquiring a brand called Fat Face, famous for 'fleeces for blokes that went ski-ing'. The new buyers wanted to turn it into a broad-based family sportswear brand. 'You have to understand what the brand does and doesn't let you do. In that particular case, there could have been resistance from women to what they saw as a blokey brand. The question was, would Fat Face make the transition and if so, how?' It did. The brand now has a complete range, and a string of shops around the country.

Dealing with human brands - performers in entertainment and sport - is particularly tricky. You can take a consumer product, reformulate it to suit new tastes and present it in new ways, but you can't do that with a human being who has a strong sense of values and identity. Morrissey is not Lucozade; yet both the sticky drink and the morose crooner have made a comeback.

Andy Taylor, CEO of Sanctuary Group, the listed music management and record company, has built a strong business by picking up 'experienced artists' that others have neglected. He and partner Rod Smallwood, president of the management division, started as rock managers. In 1979 they began managing heavy metal band Iron Maiden and have looked after them since.

You could hardly wish for more experience of handling talented (and volatile) people.

'An artist is a brand, to a degree,' says Taylor, behind his desk in Olympia, London. 'The difference is that the loyalty to that brand is based on a wide range of issues. Lucozade is a brand because people know what it is, they know they can rely on it to be that, and it has fond memories... for argument's sake.' His face suggests that this is not necessarily the case. 'In terms of working with established artists who by default have become brands, it is much more about the integrity of the fan base and of the artist than it is about fringe issues you might have with a normal product brand. What we are really doing is not reviving the brand in the sense of doing something different to it to make it current and sexy; we're just caring for it.'

Caring for its acts has helped Sanctuary through troubled times for the record industry. In the past six months it has made a profit of £6.9 million on a turnover that rose 36% to £89 million. Records constitute less than 40% of its turnover, but they're still important. In recent years, it has revived the recording careers of people like Stevie Winwood, Alison Moyet, Kiss and Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as doing well with younger acts such as The Strokes, The Libertines and British Sea Power through its Rough Trade joint venture. But its greatest coup has been bringing back the notoriously reclusive and difficult Morrissey.

The former Smiths singer hadn't released an album since 1997. That one, for part of the huge Universal records empire, is said to have sold just 26,000 copies. Sanctuary put him back in the studio with a deal based on a sale of 500,000 copies. When You Are The Quarry came out in May it sailed rapidly past that, thanks to the extraordinary visibility of the singer, who even popped up on BBC1 to exchange stilted banter with Jonathan Ross.

'A lot of people asked how we got Morrissey to do those things,' says Taylor. 'Our argument is it's not that he's difficult, but you have to understand what is acceptable to him and what isn't.' The major labels, he adds, habitually use the 'difficulty' of artists to excuse their failures.

They simply need to be handled with care: they need to feel they are promoting their record, not the record company.

'The artist has to have the first say about what they want to do with their career,' he explains. That might mean discussing producers and material, but it's 'a process of mutually agreeing rather than ordering'. Taylor cites Alison Moyet. Her previous record company wanted her to do an album of cover versions, which she resisted. So she came to Sanctuary, did a successful album of her own material, and then happily came up with her own idea for a new project - an album of cover versions. Voice reached no. 7 in the UK album charts.

It is an art that the major labels have forgotten, Taylor believes. He sees the major labels as descendants of companies that were interested in records only as a way of selling music-playing hardware. They have ended up product-facing rather than artist-facing, whereas Sanctuary's background is in artist management, in promoting live music, in merchandising and in the licensing of rights, all of which are increasingly important as sales of what Taylor calls 'little discs' decline.

The business model of the major labels was formed in the unrealistic era of the CD boom, he says. Then they turned to 'song-driven marketed pop', creating 'products that a large proportion of the population don't want'. Record companies are like toy companies: they find a novelty each Christmas and buy sales for it through marketing. Then they find another.

That doesn't help established brands. But neglecting those artists is a mistake in today's market. 'Nearly half the marketplace is older buyers,' he says. 'It no longer is a youth market. The people who were youthful when this new music came along are looking for either the acts that they remember from their youth or acts of a similar quality and standard. But certainly not song-driven, fashion-based pop.'

Taylor may be a loyal rock manager - his mobile ringtone is Maiden's 'Two Minutes To Midnight' - but he started his career as a chartered accountant. Every new signing, no matter how venerable and revered, is subjected to rigorous financial analysis.

He likes to boast that his A&R (artistes and repertoire) staff have total artistic freedom. But 'in terms of the commerciality of it, how much they're going to pay for that act and how much they're going to spend on it, then they have to conform to our rules. They've got to go through an approval process for that.'

Sanctuary uses the historical sales record of an act and projects it forward to create a profit-and-loss structure for every signing. Like every record company, it pays advances, but it expects to know exactly when they will be repaid, based on the sales record. It does not buy sales by massive promotional spending that may never be recouped. Sanctuary artists tend not to be plastered on the side of buses: instead, they are expected to talk to the music press, to do television and tour. It is cheap and effective, but the artists have to want to do it.

'If you take your Lucozade example,' says Taylor, 'there's nobody to argue back. If you make the Lucozade bottle look like a naked lady, the Lucozade bottle isn't going to say: "That's stupid, that is; that isn't what I'm about." But that's the first thing an artist will say if you try to remodel them.'

But reviving brands is no longer easy. The obvious targets are gone. Brand Finance's Haigh is gung-ho for brand revival - he'd like to see Tata of India buy Rover, make the cars in Bangalore at a quarter of the price and spend the surplus on better marketing - but sees it getting tougher. The big companies have noticed what they are letting slip. Allied Domecq was heavily criticised when Plymouth Gin started to do well. 'Quite a few of the big groups are now being much more careful about selling off their underperforming brands, which adds to the competition and the tension. You can't just go and get steals very easily any more.'

Derek Ralston, MD of brand consultants Mountainview, adds another note of caution. Brand revivals of consumer products depend on the co-operation of retailers. 'You're dealing with retailers with immense power these days that will have the number one brand, maybe number two, and then their own label. Your difficulty is not that you haven't got a good brand. It's getting it into distribution.' He sees better prospects for the revival of retail chains, as Philip Green has done with BHS.

For those competing for shelf space, life is hard. 'Doing work on the brand itself is often not the issue. Say you have a new confectionery product: you're going to be competing against Cadbury and Mars. They offer volume discounts across 20 well-known family products, and you've got your one. The margins aren't going to be there for you. I don't think it's a great panacea for people to pick up things and do them.'

He makes an exception, however, for existing brand owners that already have distribution clout. 'Retailers are now unbelievably powerful, and media has become fragmented and costly. Big brands in the past were built on manufacturers being stronger than retailers and media being cheap: those conditions don't apply today. You have to be very clever in what you do. But it can be done.'

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