Monday, 25 November 2013


In a week where the poor self-righteous Co-op has wobbled in woe as allegations and revelations have poured out I was thinking about brands like theirs.

Everything and everyone tried to become a quasi-brand a while back. “Brand-me” was being promoted by recruitment agencies. Politicians and political parties used brand consultants. Countries were called brands. Yet it all smelt a bit phoney. Most of these entities had profile (or not), reputation (or not) and advertising or some sort of marketing positioning – key word that - “positioning”.

But the acid test of what happens to a product or service is when it hits the rocks does it sink like a stone or does it somehow scramble to safety, battered, wet and still functioning? If it’s the latter then it’s a real and worthwhile brand.

Do you remember John West’s horrors? Well it survived those and thrives today.

Mercedes triumphantly weathered their new A4 dramatically failing the Moose Test and turning over.
And Nestlé, after some scares on infant healthcare, has probably the most assiduously prepared baby food brand in world now.

Brands like Coke are primarily valued for their relationship with their customers. Their value is in brand assets not in in tangible assets like factories.

In crisis – the launch of New Coke in 1985 when the consumers rebelled against this innovation - Coca-Cola responded by listening to their consumer again and changing back to Classic Coke.
Their brand has thrived but others suffer as their owners dither and try to control the uncontrollable flow of news.
BP received astoundingly poor advice in its media handling of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and is lastingly damaged.
Whilst Carnival’s Costa cruise ships seem to have survived the Costa Concordia debacle the hole below their reputational waterline will probably do for them.

But back to the poor, legs-crossed-in-embarrassment Co-op. A bankrupt bank, a laughing- stock company and in denial too as, they try to manage the news. Staff, I believe, have been advised to turn round newspapers they sell which have nasty headlines. Its very worthiness as a brand and its ethical stance exposes a vast weakness – the brand has had little humility and no sense of humour. I doubt if they’d have found Peter Brookes’ cartoon of a Co-op Funeral Parlour with a notice in the window “No Flowers” in the slightest funny. Nor would the other good line about “Chrystal Methodism” have raised a smile.

How brands behave in a crisis defines them. Because the real truth is that memories out there are short. Recall of Flowers will have withered soon enough but what will remain is an overall impression of the Co-op brand.

It’s a fabulous opportunity for them to say sorry and whilst everyone’s focused on them say what they stand for.

The alternative to being up front and cheerful is oblivion.  

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


I want you to imagine it’s the Olympics (again) in which there are two streams of competitor, A and B.
A are the real high flyers and B are what we’ll call average. It’s been noted that stream A are getting disproportionately more medals, faster times, greater attention from coaches and greater funding attention.
It has been decided this imbalance must be adjusted. So less attention is going to be spent on nourishing the potentially best talent and the less promising are going to be helped more. We’ll put our money on the guy in orange.

The result?  Whilst the number of medals won has gone down dramatically we have a great deal more 5th and 6th placed athletes. Which just goes to show that being fairer improves things for more people.
Rarely has a piece of work irritated me more than the recent report “Rebalancing our Cultural Capital”…. on three counts:
  1. Until I’d read it I would have broadly agreed with the proposition that the rest of the UK got a poor deal when it came to sharing out funds. London it could be argued was getting not just the cake but all the cherries too. But on reading it my mind was changed mainly because the argument was based on a basis of equity not quality, on spreading the butter over bread both fresh and stale and that won’t do.
  2. The argument that London is a population of 8.2 million is a little misleading. Add in tourists and it’s some 24 million. And they need adding in because tourism counts and that’s where the return on investment in the arts is irrefutable. It’s the quality of London that generates the tourist revenue (interestingly the most cited reason for tourists coming to London is going to the theatre).
  3. The rather careless use of data should concern us. Anyone indicating a calamitous trend in share of funds for the rest of England from ACE – from 19.6% in 1980 to 17.8% in 2012/13 – using a vertical axis going from 16.5% to 20% deserves to be rebuked. 
Simon Jenkins in the Standard praises London theatre saying “it rules the world” but adds a caveat a bit limply “The reality is that London is where ministers live and minsters look after their own”. Others have said “there may be a point of sorts here but it’s the same old hammer and the same old nail isn’t it”.


The more gold medals in artistic terms that London wins the better and the more inspiring a role model it is, or should become, and the more rewards are reaped by everyone.

But there’s a fourth reason I fell out with the report which is this. The story is not about how you cut the cake but how big the cake is in the first place. For successive governments to be embarrassed about the elitist nature of culture and the arts and accordingly give it small crumbs to spend – less than Financial Services used to get and about a quarter of what we spend on intelligence and spooks.

No you won’t find it below. Not important enough.  Under other.

To be fair it gets a bit more than the Statistics Authority which may seem unjust given how inspiring government statistics can be.

Ultimately, I think for little Britain to have the greatest city in the world thanks to a large extent to its brilliance in the arts and culture, vindicates the imbalance that exist and because of the celebration that creates it should make the less favoured rest of Britain lift their game too.

Written by Richard Hall and first published on the Business of Culture website

Monday, 18 November 2013


We’ve just entered what I call the “nudist phase” of our lives when current political thinking is that we should show it all. And I’m not sure it’s too practical or what people really want. A little bit of mystery is usually more interesting and may allow greater happiness.

Would people on a flight really like the pilot to be more transparent?

“This is your pilot. We are flying at 30, 0000 feet and my co-pilot has just passed out and we’re running low on fuel. We have a 50:50 chance of landing OK at Heathrow. Thank you for flying Consul Airlines.”

Knowing more when you can do nothing about it may actually work against the desired result (and in this case provoking a hysterical riot).

Quite often sorting out a cock-up and getting everything back to normal in private may be a far better option than confessing to it before you’ve had the chance to fix it calmly.  Yet from NHS to education we have acquired a perverse need to show everything that’s going on behind the scenes which, whether in a play or in any business I’ve ever been in, is not always a good idea or an inspiring spectacle.

Now I was intrigued to see that Doctors will be forced to be transparent and disclose their salaries to patients. I’m not sure why? You go to see a doctor to be told what to do to feel better.

There was a joke about medical transparency.

A doctor goes to see a patient in a hospital bed. As the curtains are closed he says:
I’ve got good news and bad news.
The patient says “Better give me the bad news doctor
I’m sorry you are going to die and there’s nothing we can do
Oh God…but what’s the good news doctor?
You know that blonde nurse? Well I’m giving her one

And we don’t want to know that. It’s irrelevant to our condition and needs as would be a doctor saying:
Sit down. Well I thought you’d like to know that I trousered £150,000 last year. Now what can I do for you?

But there’s something else. I have a grave suspicion of anyone who says “to be perfectly honest” as it implies this is an unusual condition for them. Equally when journalists, politicians or doctors claim to be totally transparent I know there’s a fair chance they are concealing something really important from me.
It’s like this trend to glass fronted kitchens. I don’t want to see the cooks; I want to eat the food. And why is there a belief that a less than wonderful meal that you saw being prepared is somehow going to be improved by your watching?

Don’t confuse honesty with transparency and don’t be deluded into believing transparency is a substitute for quality of delivery.

As Dr Johnson might have said but didn’t - transparency is the last refuge of the mediocre.

Monday, 11 November 2013


I’m an unashamed optimist. Not that being cheerful come what may always makes sense – the First World War was full of optimistic generals. But clicking on the “let’s go for it” switch – click - usually results in a better result than wrenching at the “aagghh! How typical, I feel awful - I expect today’ll be another shocker too” switch.
Is it too much to expect there’ll be more good nature than bad? Is it a surprise that crime, teenage pregnancy, house fires, drug abuse and alcohol consumption have all massively declined in this country over the past decade. Don’t believe me? Go check.
Is it a surprise that we have a bigger manufacturing industry than France, that we make more vehicles in the UK than we did in 1980 and 50% more than we did 4 years ago?

In a developed world increasingly dependent on service industries is Germany with its relatively old fashioned industries and high labour costs concerned about its lagging service sector – only 2/3 of its GDP compared to the UK’s 80%?

Are we all doomed in the UK?
If you listen to the hail-fellow-well-met Mr Farage you’d think so.

I saw a bit of Question Time on Thursday. He was on the panel. It was in Boston, the one town in the UK where immigration is a particularly tricky issue. Well in the part I saw our Nigel was murdered by a reasonable “immigration may be difficult but it’s an integration issue and as much our fault as theirs” audience. They were brilliant, open minded and kind.
But especially encouraging was Benjamin Zephaniah, the Birmingham born Rastafarian poet who is best known through his brilliant poem “Talking Turkeys” which starts, but you’ll remember it…

Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos' turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.

The panel was talking about the closure of the Portsmouth shipyards. Grave faces all round.  Farage “it’s a crying shame”. There was talk about our strategic vulnerability as an island and the prospective invasion of the Falklands. And Benjamin quietly said:- “I just wonder what would happen if peace broke out worldwide. I mean would we need these warships? Mind you I worry about all those jobs. Can’t we make nice cruise ships there instead?

Click. On goes that switch.

And finally a great quote from the American writer, William Saroyan:

Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Click. Click. Click

Monday, 4 November 2013


Well, that’s easy to say but harder to do.

It was on Wednesday that I got really angry the Times for its smug insensitivity. They’d run a piece about “glossophobia” – that’s the fear of public speaking. As someone who helps people with this problem I feel sympathy with anyone who suffers from it.

So what made me cross was not the news piece on page 5 (of which more in a second) but the leader – yes they actual wrote a leader about it – which said it was not obvious why people should feel anxious about public speaking. Try talking to the 75% of people who do feel bad about it. Even Steven Spielberg said he thought it would be the next topic on which he’d do a frightening film.

I’ve worked with people who when confronted with the prospect of speaking to a hundred of their peers forget their own name. That’s an extreme version of drying up. Others feel ill. Others simply want the ground to swallow them up.

The Times leader writer doesn’t get that.

Nor did the Editor of the Times either seem to get that his leg was being playfully pulled. The piece on page 5 winningly headlined “Speaking in public ranks worse than death for most” had been derived from a dodgy piece of promotional research by OnePoll who describe themselves as “creative researchers” and to go a step further as the “pulse of the people”.

Creative research like creative accounting may need to be treated a little sceptically.

In their research fear of public speaking came ahead of being buried alive and death as something to be avoided.  Holes in doughnuts and woolly jumpers were regarded as pretty frightening too.  Women were more frightened of public speaking than men.  And dogs were absolutely incapable of doing it at all (I made that up.)

I want to consider this “pulse of the people” idea.

52% of people think cupcakes are a bit rude (squashy like well you know…) and breadsticks are hardly ever bought by men (penis envy). Ed Miliband is regarded as a sex symbol in Manchester (those eyes staring with unrequited passion) and research proves Pepsi makes you fart whilst Coca Cola doesn’t. And 90% of Times readers believe what they read.

This is not a hallucination: this is the pulse of the people.

But cutting through all this I strongly believe that teaching people to speak with confidence and with wit and charm is as important as teaching them to read.

But not as important as Britain’s most serious newspaper stopping behaving like a stand up comedian.