Tuesday, 29 November 2011

George splashes the cash, but is that an elephant I spy in yonder room?

Just a quick take on the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. How can I do that when he has just begun speaking in the House of Commons you ask? Well, this statement has been so well trailed in the press that we know exactly what Georgie is going to say with the exception of how big the deficit actually is!

We know, for example, that the Chancellor is going to unveil an infrastructure investment plan worth at least £25bn, the lion’s share of which will come from pension funds. We also know that he has plans to unlock £40bn of bank lending for small businesses which the government will underwrite and from somewhere (loose change down the back of the Treasury sofa presumably) we’ve also found a whopping £400m fund to enable housebuilders to build up to 16,000 new homes. Oh, and not only is he going to splash the cash but he is also going to take less into the Treasury coffers by deferring a 3p rise in fuel duty which was due to be introduced in January.

All good news and with money so cheap at the moment, due to historic low interest rates, now is the time that business should be investing, if only companies could be sure that demand will hold up and also gain access to finance.

Which brings me to the crux of the problem. The elephant in the room this afternoon will be the Euro. Friday’s analyst note from Nomura spoke of ‘probable’ rather than ‘possible’ collapse, the question is when?

The nightmare for George is that all these good intentions are blown away and calculations are declared null and void by a monumental Eurozone default which requires a further bailout of the banks. In a week or a month’s time this Autumn Statement could have all the relevance of a little piece of paper waved around by a former Lord Mayor of Birmingham called Neville Chamberlain in 1939!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Another bashing for the Greeks - in the kitchen

The WPR team enjoyed an insightful update on the Eurozone crisis this week from our Head of B2B PR, Tom Leatherbarrow. After picking myself up from the misery of impending doom, I wondered whether the latest news events were having any affect on food and drink markets. And it threw up some fascinating results.

As you might expect (and like most markets), it seems UK food exports to Greece are on the decline – down 14% YOY in September. But interestingly, the troubles in Greece also seem to be influencing eating habits on our own shores too; sales of chilled Greek ready meals in the UK fell 7% in the year to September according to Kantar Worldpanel.

It may not all be George Papandreou’s fault but the lethargy for lamb koftas and moussaka is in contrary to healthy increases enjoyed by Italian, French and Spanish chilled ready meals. And you fear there is worse to come for the Greeks.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

British Gas transparent tariffs must be more than a marketing tactic

Today’s announcement by British Gas that it is to introduce simple and transparent pricing structures, involving one fixed and one variable rate, whilst welcome, will be viewed with cynicism by many consumers, media commentators and the company’s competitors.

Let’s make no mistake about it, this has been done under duress. The energy sector is under pressure. The Big Chiefs have already been called into 10 Downing Street for a dressing down by the PM (although not much constructive came out of it), OFGEM is investigating the wholesale markets and the media is getting increasingly cynical about a lack of competition and seemingly orchestrated movements in pricing. Today, on the BBC, British Gas’ Chief Executive admitted that the sector had lost the trust of consumers, with more than 500 different tariffs available.

But are BG’s motives entirely altruistic? Perhaps, but the energy market in the UK is mature and BG has been losing market share. Many customers will unquestionably be attracted to the transparent British Gas model and I have no doubt that the company will gain customers (however many thousands will still be out there on the old tariffs).

The true measure will surely be whether customers actually save any money. Many years ago I was told by one energy employee that most of the top jobs in the British energy sector were held by ex-British Gas employees who liked nothing more than to get one over on their old mates.

If today’s announcement ultimately turns out to be a tactical grab for market share, dressed up as corporate altruism, with no real customer benefit, then trust in the whole sector, not just British Gas will erode even further.

One to watch!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Leveson is the tabloids’ worst nightmare come true!

Just a quick take on the Leveson Inquiry which started slowly but is now building up a real head of steam.

For years the British tabloid press went about its business secure in the knowledge that it would always have the last word. Got caught printing a false story? “Never mind, we’ll print a retraction on page 42 and if the ‘victim’ tries to take it any further we’ll set the attack dogs on him.”

It was enough to ward off even the bravest of the brave. But now, as a result of Leveson, the last word goes to the victims and it is compelling viewing.

For the tabloids the impact of their modus operandi on targets is being laid bare for all to see and hear. The count so far is four alleged suicides, a burglary, a stay in a mental health institution, job losses galore, heartache and cruelty.

Much has been written about the Dowler family’s testimony yesterday, but Hugh Grant’s was equal to it. Responding to charges that he traded on his good name to get publicity he told the inquiry: “I don’t have a good name. I’m the man who was arrested with a prostitute.”

The Daily Mail responded today with characteristic venom to allegations of phone hacking by Grant, but it’s anger only reinforces the victim’s narrative of bullying, arrogant and heartless behaviour.

These are dangerous times for the Red Tops. The tables have been turned and the narrative of the story is beginning to run away from them. Crucially, social media and online news sites are giving the British public unfiltered updates in real time.

By the time the Daily Mail is read next morning we’ve been chewing over and discussing what we’ve seen and heard for the best part of a day.

The truth is that the tabloids have lost control of the situation and their traditional defence that these are "victimless crimes" has never sounded so hollow!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Internet statto nerds get journalism’s old guard in their sights

It’s not easy when those you admire prove to have feet of clay. Barely ten days after lauding him on this very blog as being a ‘must read’ in the Independent, James Lawton crystallised the problem that many old guard journalists populating our national newspapers are facing.

Writing in Saturday’s Indy, Lawton used selective statistics to demonstrate how Kenny Dalglish’s reign as Liverpool manager is actually little better than that of his predecessor Roy Hodgson. In particular Hodgson’s points per game percentage of 1.25 compared to Dalglish’s 1.79.

Unfortunately for James, the internet is an unforgiving place. Nowadays, there is an army statto nerd football supporters out there who are able to tell you the exact pass completion percentage of an individual player in the final third of the pitch during consecutive February’s and illustrate it in the form of a venn diagram. More importantly, in the digital age, comment boxes below articles give this army of nerds an opportunity to voice their opinion.

And so it came to pass. Within a few hours of the piece being posted Lawton was skewered on his own stats by football supporters of multiple allegiances, not just Red. Here are a few of the most choice (and repeatable) comments:

“You make a point of Dalglish's average points haul being 1.79 over 29 games, when your beloved "English Arry" at Spurs is worse at 1.76 and Wenger's is 1.66”

“The difference between 1.25 points per game and 1.8 is relegation and Champions League form”

“How can you use numbers which undermine your point to make a point?”

I suspect Mr Lawton won’t have lost much sleep over the reaction to his article, but he should. It may well have been a crude attempt at generating link bait but credibility is hard won and easily lost. He must realise that the days of being able to slop together a thousand words of ill-thought out comment five minutes before deadline are over. There is an army of statto nerds out there who have done their research even if he hasn’t.

Anyway, Mr Lawton can take what little solace there is from the fact that the Tomkins Times, run by the doyen of statto nerds, Paul Tomkins, has nominated him “Media Muppet of the Month”!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Purple reign: Cadbury purple ruling is a big relief

I read an interesting story today that Cadbury has won the latest ruling on the pantone 2865c shade of purple.

After a long battle it has finally been confirmed that only Cadbury can use “Cadbury purple” on chocolate bars and drinks (although the UK Intellectual Office is still to decide on the ruling for all chocolate products). Hurrah!

Living close to Bournville myself, I’m delighted about a ruling which goes far beyond the colour of Dairy Milk wrappers. Cadbury might have faced many bigger challenges in recent years but this is a fantastic victory for the team in purple as it fights hard to keep hold of its history and traditions against the backdrop of a huge American shadow.

Whatever Nestle say, pantone 2865 IS Cadbury. From packaging and advertising to street furniture and architecture, it’s an instantly recognisable symbol of a proud Birmingham brand.

And for that reason anybody who has walked past the purple lampposts down Bournville Lane, stood on the purple platforms at Bournville train station or even played football against Cadbury Athletic in their distinctive purple kit, will, like me, breathe a sigh of relief.

Government’s Feed-in Tariff cut was a masterpiece of miscommunication

I’ve had a series of very interesting conversations with parties involved at various points in the supply chain for solar PV products over the last few days. Invariably, there is bemusement at the Government’s ham-fisted changes to the Feed-in tariff. As I said to one contact, “You know something has been b#&*%ed up when it creates an alliance between the CBI, the Local Government Association and Friends of the Earth.”

However, it is the manner of the communication and timing which has left me truly dumbfounded. The decision to announce a 50 per cent cut in the tariff, but delay implementation for over a month has created chaos in the marketplace.

It is the equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer announcing that he intends to double cigarette duty in his April Budget but delaying actually starting until May. I think we all know what would happen. There would be a gigantic surge of fag buying with a stockpiling of Benson & Hedges on an unprecedented scale! Of course, that boom would lead to an inevitable bust as soon as the change came in.

Much the same is now happening in the solar PV market. Much better in my view would have been a solution which has been rumoured in another sector, namely a fuel price stabiliser, whereby consumers would be cushioned from the impact of fuel price rises by a corresponding reduction in fuel duty.

It is easy to see how this sort of solution could have been implemented in the solar PV market. Unit cost of solar PV has been falling sharply of late. A stabiliser system would have reduced the Feed-in tariff in line with any reduction in the unit cost of equipment, thereby ensuring that nobody was making a killing, but at the same time not collapsing the entire market.

Instead, the heating industry runs itself into the ground trying to satisfy short-term demand, all the time knowing that the market is going to go into free fall on December 12th.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Have Twitter missed the boat here?

How much do you think a twitter endorsement costs from the Doggfather of rap? A 140 character shout out for a brand? Well, $10,000 (£6,256) apparently – at the very least, that’s $71 (£44) per character!

Yup, brands can now slip Snoop Dogg a couple ‘G’s for him to give you a ‘holla’ on Twitter. Ask Toyota, he’s already bigged up their ‘swagger wagons’ and he’s not alone either. Plenty of online celebrity influencers are using their enormous tweet reach to push advertising messages for big brands.

Ad.ly, social marketers and online conversation starters have set up this service for brands to tap in to their target audiences on twitter, reaching them through the hyper-connected twitterati – celebrities or influencers. They’re not alone either, Izea are another market leader in social media sponsorship, an industry that is unsurprisingly on the rise.

Now, rather than question the ghetto credibility of a Toyota minivan (It’s actually a really good campaign) and also bring Snoop Dogg’s good name in to disrepute by suggesting that the quadruple platinum hip hop star, has *ahem* sold out, there’s one thing that is clear to me here - celebrities are Twitter’s bread and butter. It begs the question really, why haven’t they already done this?

But perhaps they have just missed the boat. I read an article earlier this autumn in New York magazine which described how Twitter, if anything, is a talent company, dominated by an influential, media-celebrity-blogger elite who are connected to the millions. In effect, they tweet and everyone else listens. Twitter has to look after this talent like an entertainment company would look after its star attractions because without them it faces a digital backwash of MySpace proportions. 

Makes sense really. Adverts can now form part of the serendipitous chatter and reach audiences with the frictionless immediacy that only a micro-blogging site could provide. But whilst this dream has already been pounced upon by silicon valley vultures, have Twitter missed another lucrative opportunity?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Crowdsourcing - devaluing an industry?

My wife has just had a very expensive trip to the dentist for a new dental crown.  In fact, the cost was far higher than we’d expected, but you have to pay the price for good dentistry don’t you?  While sat in the dentist’s waiting room, ignoring the random pile of two-year old magazines, I couldn’t help thinking that this ethos of getting what you pay for doesn’t always extend to the world of design.

In the good old days, if you wanted a logo designing, you would go to a reputable marketing or design agency, and you would be quoted for a new logo created by an experienced designer.  You could be confident that the professional designer would do a great job – quite like the highly trained (and highly paid!) dentist.

But back in the real world, the internet plays a massive part in finding suppliers; and there are adverts all over the internet promising logos and design work via crowdsourcing websites for a ridiculously small cost – sometimes even for free.  It sounds like a no-brainer right?  Wrong!!! 

Crowdsourcing sites – of which there are many – allow you to put your job out to tender.  You can get designers (and non-designers) from all over the world all competing for work and it seems projects are generally won on cost. 

The benefits are for the individual designers – it’s a great way of generating plenty of quick work.  However chances are your logo will be identical to hundreds if not thousands of others, and I’d be very surprised if you were happy with the result.

An experienced designer will take the time to get a thorough brief from you, and to get an in-depth understanding of your brand and company culture.  He'll then research your industry, looking at what logos have been successful, what colours are common, and what ‘classic logos’ have been created. 

This will be backed up with a forensic knowledge of trends and experience of what works. Various ideas will be sketched out, far more that you will see at the presentation stage as different colour schemes and layouts are experimented with along the way.

It’s likely that the logo will need to be reproduced on cardboard boxes at a small size as well as on 10 foot banners.  The experienced designer will factor this in, to ensure it will reproduce as legibly and beautifully on a brown box as on the expensive but beautiful vellum paper which has been recommended for your letterheads.

You'll be given a choice of designs, including single/two- colour options which will keep the costs down for box printing – see, we’re thinking of your bottom line after all! The logo has been designed with you and your business in mind, and looks great. Happy days, you never know you may be sitting on a future design classic like Carolyn Davidson's Nike 'Swoosh' or Saul Bass' Kleenex logo.

With so much expertise going into the creation of a logo and other design work, crowdsourcing simply devalues the whole creative industry.  Yes, there are cheaper options – you can go online today and buy 250 business cards for £5. When they arrive in the post, they look and feel awful and chances are you'll see another card looking exactly the same. 

Remember, everything that you see and touch has been designed. Imagine if the task of designing the iPod hadn’t been entrusted to Jonathan Ive.  I’m sure it wouldn't be the design icon it is now.  There’s a man who knew exactly what he was doing, just like my wife's dentist.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Kids Are Alright

It’s the easiest trap to fall into. Let’s all have a pop at the so-called ‘youth of today’. They have zero respect for anyone, they grow-up too quickly, they spend all their time writing in indecipherable shorthand on Facebook, and they all want to be WAGS or Premiership footballers.

Oh and let’s not forget that they are so driven by consumerism, they all whipped out their BlackBerrys back in the summer and took to the streets en masse to get their hands on a free pair of designer trainers. Of course, this was at great expense to good honest taxpayers and it was also a massive inconvenience to anyone who just wanted to enjoy a quiet Monday night catch-up with friends at The Mailbox (i.e. me and me).

Earlier this week, I walked into a school for the first time in a scarily long time and my experience has made me rethink all my negative perceptions of young people. I was so pleasantly surprised by the students I met, I came to the conclusion that they are getting a rough deal from certain areas of the media.

I was invited to St. Francis of Assisi Technology College to supposedly pass on the benefit of my wisdom to the group of students who worked on the school newsletter - although at a whopping 32 pages, I would argue that this is more of a magazine! I would also add that the magazine is very well put-together and does its job perfectly – but that’s an aside.

Apparently the word had gone out that an ‘expert’ would be giving a masterclass, and I was greeted by a classroom full of kids including those on the newsletter team and quite a few Creative Writing students. This was quite a turnout for an after school session and I must admit I was surprised, whatever happened to the apathetic generation?!

What followed was an engaging one hour session, where the students dutifully listened, asked questions when prompted, and generally acted as though they were genuinely interested in what I had to say.

When I spent more time with the Creative Writing students, I was again quite surprised to learn that far from using the internet to Google Justin Bieber, some of these young people had their own blogs. In fact they were so passionate about writing they actually enjoyed working on essays and would spend their own free time writing blogs, song lyrics, poetry – anything and everything!

They were particularly interested in the career opportunities open to them and I left feeling very positive about the next generation of media stars. In total contrast to me during my teenage years, they all seemed to be very focused on life after education and were thinking about where their passion for writing could take them.

I also have to say that the teachers I met do a truly magnificent job harnessing this talent and giving young people an outlet for their writing i.e. the school newsletter.

Now, I’m sure every school is different, but if certain pockets of the media are allowed to generalise about our so-called disaffected youth, then so am I – and I think they deserve a little more credit.

Amidst the doom and gloom of the current economic crisis, these Bright Young Things are the symbol of a much more prosperous and positive future, so let’s not talk them down before they’ve had a chance to shine.

Friday, 4 November 2011

New Independent website is [expletive deleted]

The new Independent newspaper launched earlier this week and I am still waiting for it to work properly! Try it, go on, and see if you can go two minutes without resorting to language you only usually find down at Liverpool docks.

Broken links abound on a site which was trumpeted as a rival to the Guardian’s site and the Telegraph's. I’d give you an actual quote but the page won’t load.

In an excellent piece in The Drum magazine on Wednesday, Matt Lindop, a digital marketer from London commented “It’s clear the site just wasn’t ready for launch.” He goes on to list a host of technical and advertising “don’t dos” which put into context the disaster this has been.

I’m no web designer, I really can’t comment, but denying me my regular fix of three of the best writers in UK journalism is driving me mad. For me there are three ‘must reads’ in the Independent, namely Hamish McRae on economics; Steve Richards on politics and James Lawton on sport (I’d post links to some of their best stuff but all you get is “The Webpage Cannot Be Found”).

At a time when the world is undergoing a seismic financial shock; we’ve just witnessed the biggest rebellion by Conservative backbenchers since Maastricht and racism has reared its ugly head again on the football pitch, the fact that I can’t read any of them is [expletive deleted].

I can’t think of a worse start for new editor Martin King.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The new £50 note celebrates manufacturing - oh the irony!

The Bank of England releases its new £50 note today. The note portrays two innovators with Birmingham connections, namely Matthew Boulton and James Watt, who were instrumental in bringing the steam engine into the textile manufacturing process.

"Boulton and Watt's steam engines and their many other innovations were essential factors in the nation's industrial revolution," says Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King. "The partnership of an innovator and an entrepreneur created exactly the kind of commercial success that we will need in this country as we rebalance our economy over the years ahead."

You'll have to forgive me for noting a certain irony with all of this. Business is facing an unprecedented squeeze on its lines of credit, which has brought investment to a standstill. The very entrepreneurs that the Governor wants to encourage can't find the cash to put into new ventures. In this environment, Boulton and Watt wouldn’t have been able to raise a penny and yet the Bank of England, the lender of last resort, puts both of them on a new note as a celebration of our entrepreneurial and manufacturing spirit.

Back in the real world, figures for the British economy released yesterday showed that manufacturing had unexpectedly slowed during October. As one client put it to me recently, "the bubble hasn't burst but it's definitely deflating and we can't find the hole."

If we carry on like this, the ultimate goal of ‘rebalancing’ our economy will recede ever further away. What can the Government do? Well, in my opinion, the Government’s role is to create the right environment to encourage companies to invest – but all too often the environment in the UK, in particular interest rates, has deterred long-term investment. The irony now is that with interest rates at historic lows the banks won’t lend business any money!

If we are to rebalance then what extra support does industry need? Well I’ll first tell you what it doesn’t need, namely grants to individual sectors of the economy or to geographically specific areas. Government cannot pick winners, if history tells us anything it’s that. I would argue for something much more subtle, such as the ability to write down capital equipment costs against tax. That would be a boost which both Boulton and Watt would support I’m sure!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

YoooOOOoooTube: Best Halloween Viral Videos

Brands do well to piggy back off national holidays when they come around, and Halloween is no different. With a see and share social web, it's no surprise that each week there's a new viral sensation.

So, it's only fitting that on the back of Halloween we have a look at some of the very best spooky viral videos. Brace yourself for the heebie jeebies, happy viewing.
Even the un-dead benefit from the Axe effect (Lynx to us back in Blighty)
Missing a Phones4U deal will haunt you - for at least 18 months until your contract runs out.
Not a branded video but it kills the better part of 5 minutes.
Our younger blog readers may have never heard of Dirt Devil but I fancy them over a Henry Hoover after this Exorcist remake.
Put down your brew, seriously, it will go everywhere.

Forced removals will cap a PR disaster for the Church of England

So the countdown is on. Within the next 48 hours protesters outside St Pauls Cathedral in London will be forcibly removed from their makeshift campsite. Stockbrokers and fund managers will be free once more to go straight from the Stock Exchange, which is just around the corner, to the church for a little light prayer before lunch.

If you thought things could not get any worse for the Church of England think again. The sight of the Met’ piling in and dragging people off in police vans (perhaps we could kettle them first!) will sink the church to new lows after the resignations of the Canon Chancellor and then the Dean yesterday.

As Andrew Rawnsley pointed out in The Observer at the weekend the protesters are not menacing, untidy, drunk or badly behaved. In fact their tents are arranged in rows, debates are apparently significantly more polite than those you will hear in the House of Commons and many protesters have been popping home for regular showers.

The reaction of the authorities to all of this has been so staggeringly unnecessary it defies belief. Instead of letting the whole thing peter out, the Corporation of London has issued eviction orders, the Mayor Boris Johnson has piled in and even the Prime Minister has put in his two penneth.

All of this pales in comparison to the reaction of the Church of England which has been like a rabbit caught in headlights. Warning lights should have been going off all over this one. Just a little light reading could have told the Church that the vast majority of the public would take banker bashing to its literal extreme if given the chance.

Brownie points were there for the taking. Photo opportunities of men of god serving soup from makeshift kitchens were not taken up. More importantly neither was the opportunity to place the Church at the centre of a global debate. Instead the Church literally locked its doors and metaphorically closed its eyes and ears.

Where in all of this was the leadership? My mother has said for years that Rowan Williams was, in her words, “ a wet blanket”. Being pretty much an atheist I didn’t much care, but now I have to admit she is right!