It's a Binary World After All

It's a Binary World After All

Everyone in the UK marketing world is asking the 64 million dollar question - how will British brands fair long term in a post-Brexit Europe? Will import tariffs make British goods less competitive and less desirable when British brand owners have no alternative but to pass on some or all of the increased costs to the consumer? Or will a weakened pound neutralise the impact of tariffs or even make British goods cheaper? 

Regardless of the economic question, what is truly fascinating is a wider set of trends that Brexit, not to mention the reign of Donald Trump in the States, points toward. The world is increasingly going “binary.” However much of a “remainer” you might be for personal, moral or business reasons, embracing this brave new landscape of “X-or-Y”/ “in-or-out” could mean a brighter future for your brands in Europe and beyond. 

Arguably the binary trend started a while ago. Cast your mind back to the years immediately after the economic meltdown of 2008. That’s when we started to notice a serious change in shopping habits in Britain.  A general mood of fear and doubt coupled with very real money-worries for many households spawned a whole new generation of “canny shoppers.” 

The multiple retailers had new competition from Aldi and Lidl at the value end of the market and suddenly “repertoire shopping” became well worth the effort, regardless of income. Range Rovers in the Aldi car park (a phenomenon that’s by no means unusual in Germany) was a clear sign of a new attitude to “value.” These new retailers were as much for the clued-up as the hard-up. Despite the massive efforts of the big multiple retailers to build loyalty, the result has been an increasingly binary attitude to shopping – a pattern that shows little sign of abating. I go to X for my basics and Y for my “treats.”

In fact, super-premium has now become so ubiquitous that even within the walls of any single retailer the binary story continues. The major players have invested heavily in their basic/essential ranges as well as their premium offerings. I can even go to a value retailer and get a basketful of basics as well as whole host of totally credible “special” stuff.  (Lidl famously sold lobsters for under £5 at Christmas.) 

The old system of “good, better, best” feels decidedly out of date, and any brand that sits between the essential and the super-premium needs to make a very strong pull on my heart strings if it’s going in my basket. Some of our most iconic “family brands” are perpetually on offer, behaving like value brands as they cling to shelf space for dear life.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing body of psychological thinking that suggests that too much choice is a source of considerable conscious or subconscious anxiety. The argument, espoused by the likes of sociologist and philosopher Renata Salecl is that these anxieties are provoked by a desire to be liked and seek the approval of others (accepted as part of a tribe); the constant quest for the “perfect” choice or a dread of the “loss” that results from making the “wrong” choice. This anxiety in turn leads to a paralysis and indecisiveness. Like rabbits frozen in the headlights, perhaps we are only too willing (albeit subconsciously) to turn our backs on the plethora of choice that made us modern and cosmopolitan.

In the political and cultural world, the “binary bus” has been gathering pace for the last few years, culminating in both Brexit and “The Donald.” Political scientists talk about the death of liberalism and the rise of a “new populism.” By populism, I think they mean simplicity and a thirst for raw honesty, as unattractive as that might be. Woolly stuff in the middle just simply doesn’t wash anymore. Some switched on brand owners have noticed the winds of change and acted accordingly, or simply found themselves with the right approach at the right time. They’ve embraced the binary world and adopted a world-view that they are more than happy for half the world to be turned off by. As the Chairman of US outdoor brand Patagonia recently said, “If you’re not pissing off 50% of the people 100% of the time, you’re not trying hard enough."

Even truly global brands with their over-elaborate brand portfolios based on equally mind-boggling segmentations are deciding that it’s time to stop pleasing all of the people all of the time. In the face of Cadbury's ubiquitous and democratic targeting, Galaxy/Dove chocolate concentrated its efforts on attracting women with the proposition 'Temptation heightens desire.' In alienating around 48% of the population, it created a $1bn confectionery brand. 

So my advice to British brand owners in Europe goes something like this: Innovate, delight, and surprise as much as you can. If you own an architecture of SKUs, think about how you can simplify, making consumer choice easier and more intuitive. But most importantly, understand that consumers trust brands about as much as they trust politicians – especially it seems, the woolly middle-of-the-road ones. 

As the world becomes increasingly ‘binary’ with powerful, polarizing forces fighting in their separate corners for constitutes, people are tasked and empowered by making all-or-nothing choices all the time. This presents an incredible opportunity for courageous brands – to be a “why” brand, not a ‘what” brand; to define what it stands against as much as what it stands for (How ahead of its time does Marmite suddenly feel?); and to use raw honesty to resonate with your real audience instead trying to please the masses with lukewarm messages. 

Play in the value tier, if you must (you’ll know the metrics far better than me), but it’s the niche and premium spaces where the magic surely lies – particularly in a Europe where provenance, artisanship and heritage are values long associated with Britishness and are bi-words for a certain “quality” that’s worth paying more for.  Moreover, where Britishness can mean the unexpected, the quirky or the downright bonkers – just like Brexit.  In brand terms, be brave to have a you-can’t-win-them-all attitude.

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