The L shaped room

Thisweek I’ve been mostly helping Sir Martin Sorrell with his imagery for the Recession.

A few years ago, he came up with the “bath-shaped recession” all by himself – he got the idea, in fact, while lying in the bath.

And the image was a worldwide success.

T-shirts were printed in the Far East showing Sir Martin in a bath.

I take a certain pride in knowing that when a Recession hits this country, and even if advertising budgets get cut by 30%, the man we can rely on to get the image right is one of the most powerful men in the ad industry.

So everybody was looking to Sir Martin to see what he’d come up with this time.

Initially, we tried various other rooms to see if they’d work. I suggested a “spare- bedroom-shaped recession”. Because they’re horrible and uncomfortable and they always have a badly designed cupboard jutting angularly into the room and they just feel like whoever designed them didn’t have a f*cking clue what they were doing.

But then I made an instinctive leap, and said “Sir Martin, it’s a toilet”.

“Why ?”, he asked – in that narrow-eyed, perceptive way he has about him.

Several reasons, I said.

1. It’s not somewhere you want to spend an awful lot of time.

2. There’s a sense of somebody in the next cubicle papering over the cracks.

3. Nobody wants to really, deeply lookinto it. We’d rather just sit down and read the Sun.

I’m afraid Sir Martin pooh-poohed this straightaway. He told me he didn’t like the look of my number 2.

And then he came up with his genius insight of the “L-shaped Recession”.

(And, incidentally, talked about it all rather brilliantly on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line.)

But the Recession also led me into thinking about brands and branding.

For instance. Say your Mum switches her weekly shop from one of the Big Four intoLidl or Aldi.

(And why she was doing her weekly shopping in a high street bank in the first place is anybody’s guess.)

But by doing this, she isn’t just loosening her tie with Tesco or Sainsbury’s. She’s potentially loosening her ties with 100s of brands which Lidl and Aldi do their own versions of.

Massive, household names that we’ve all lived with for years.

Because the trouble with a lot ofthose brands is that they’ve been content to build relatively loose ties with their customers. And that’s worked very well for them for the last 50 years or so.

(I think this is what Robert Heath is describing when he writes about Low Attention Processing. I.e. Nescafe works on the level of “there’s a bunch of coffees here, I trust Nescafe, I can’t be arsed to stand here all day weighing up the various merits and demerits of instant coffees, Nescafe it is.”)

But in a Recession, you start asking a different question.

To wit, how many brands are you REALLY loyal to ?

And probably the list wouldn’t extend further than 10.

So – what’s the secret of the ones you ARE deeply loyal to ?

Well, that would be a big question to answer, wouldn’t it ?

My view is that it tends to be brands that fight a battle on behalf of the consumer.

Apple vs Microsoft. Or Virgin vs BA. Or Nike vs the forces of obesity.

You get a sense that they’re on our side, against something else.

Which is probably why it’s worth asking this question when you work on a brand:

“What battle should this brand fight on behalf of the consumer ?”


“How can we put the brand unmistakably on the same side as the consumer ?”

Overall, I’m fascinated by how few genuinely sticky brands we seem to have created.

And the greatest minds in our industry are asking similar questions.

Russell Davies has talked about how “the branding machine has started to run out of steam”.

Mark Earls has written about “learning to live without the brand”.

John Grant has talked about how these days branding is essentially “voluntary” – people will only engage if they want to.

Compare that with the old model – which worked brilliantly for 50 years – and which I think is best summed up by this quote from Paul Feldwick. “Somehow”, he wrote, “ 30 seconds of entertaining nonsense leads to a situation where people pay 35% more for (PG Tips).”

But this approach to brand-building – which I might loosely describe as “create a brand personality, put it across with entertaining nonsense, and they will come” may well be found wanting as we flail around in the large L-shaped room.

Because the thing about an L-shaped room is that, from most positions within it, you have no idea what could be lurking around the corner.

  • rachel carroll

    Hi Steve,

    Re: “How can we put the brand unmistakably on the same side as the consumer ?”
    Think this is absolutely right. Big brands can no longer get away with being merely entertaining, but need to actively demonstrate that they are not bastards. Brands like Persil, Innocent

  • rachel carroll

    ( Oops, finger slipped) and co use part of their marketing budget to ‘give something back’. Thus showing they are on the consumer’s side and earning loyalty.

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