Friday 11 June 2010

First Edinburgh Festival thoughts and BAC One on One festival

The Fringe programme launch is one of my most eagerly anticipated days of the year - although I'll be no clearer to actually knowing what to go and see.So far I've only had a chance to have a quick spin through the programmes of two of the main venues: Assembly, which is still close to my heart, and the Traverse.

Assembly present the usual safe mixture of mainstream dance/light entertainment fusion blockbusters, Guy Masterson productions and easy been-around-for-years-thus-bums-on-seats comics (Jason Byrne). It's a disappointingly familiar programme. Camille O'Sullivan, "downgraded" to the Assembly Rooms proper after a couple of years on the Mound, will be a highlight (I'm now a full-fat fan). Other big guns wheeled out by Assembly include the Soweto Gospel Choir - nearly as inevitable as William Burdett-Coutts using the press launch to call on the Fringe and International Festival to merge. Taking up residence on the Mound are the brilliant Pajama Men with their unique show, one of the funniest things I've seen in years. Other shows I'll be keeping my eye on include No Child, Tripod Versus The Dragon and Jack the Knife.

Assembly are going to have some sort of tent in Princes Street Gardens which, if WBC has chosen well, could be the highlight of the festival. A quick look at the programme, however, and I'm not so sure: the insistence on programming granny-friendly "fusion" acts such as the Bala Brothers (described as "the latest singing sensations from South Africa...soaring harmonies...infuse opera sounds with popular African music." In other words, business as usual for Assembly. A daytime Best of the Fest is a great idea, and The Crack is likely to create the most word of mouth. Meanwhile something called Guilty Pleasures is already showing up as sold out on the Assembly website for the first few days, which I find hard to believe. Burlesque singer Meow Meow, who I very nearly booked tickets for at the Soho Theatre a few weeks ago, is another one to watch. Will it be the new Spiegeltent? Who knows, but fair play to assembly for taking on the mantle as it was an obvious hole that needed plugging, and putting it in Princes Street is a novel idea, despite being slightly less part of "Festivalville" than George Square.

I can't think about Assembly comedy without remembering Daniel Kitson at Best of the Fest in about 2003, when his voice when he teased Adam Hills about playing is safe at the Assembly Rooms was laden with deep scorn. The intimation was clear: Assembly is a venue deeply committed to playing things safe. Yet they inevitably end up with an unexpected gem or two - I'm sure the same will happen this year.

The Traverse programme is more heavyweight than ever: productions from the likes of the Royal Court, citizens and Birmingham Rep. Like Assembly, the Traverse have their favourites - Daniel Kitson returns with It's Always Right Now, Until Later, Druid put on another Enda Walsh play (Penelope) while Ontroerend Goed will be a short price to take awards for Teenage Riot which will presumably be some sort of natural sequel to the brilliant One and for all... One of the most promising shows is a dance production, Ballet Work No 1020 by Martin Creed - it sounds like a minimalist ballet production. Ever dependable Grid Iron showcase their Fringe First winning Decky Does A Bronco. To be honest, I would see any show blind at the Traverse, but others which look especially promising to me are En Route, The Girl in the Yellow Dress and Apple.

The main problem with the Traverse is the cost of the shows. Weekend performances are now £19 - I'd like to see virtually everything that's being put on, but can't afford to spend hundreds on a few plays. For a Londoner like me, the temptation is to wait until they come down to London; many Traverse hits will filter through at some point in the year following the Festival, to off-West End venues like the Tricycle, BAC, or Lyric...where the tickets will be barely half the price. Holding out is a risky strategy, as theere's no guarantee that any of the shows will make its way down - but historically, many of them do and I may take my chances on seeing most of them in London, if only for financial reasons. While I don't have a problem with the Traverse charging relatively high prices, it's a shame that there's no discount for multiple purchases. There will be many people who would be prepared to book tickets for several shows at once and some sort of "loyalty card" scheme would be a nice touch.

I'll only be in Edinburgh for the last week of the Fringe - note to self: stay on top of the reviews, the blogs, the rumours, the gossip, and get those tickets booked early for the must-see shows. Otherwise you'll just spend the time getting pissed in the Princes Street tent or sitting in the Traverse cafe.

Rather more pressing is the need to get tickets for the One On One festival at the Battersea Arts Centre which brings a whole host of shows exploring intimate theatre and the on-on-one performer-audience experience. Ontroerend Goed are the standout highlight - their The smile off your face is extraordinary and I still haven't seen Internal which is supposed to be similarly mindblowing. The ticketing concept is intriguing - a ticket buys you admission to three shows (out of over twenty) but due to scheduling requirements you don't have much choice in what you see other than one show of your choice. I hadn't heard of many of the companies and artists but pretty much everything looks right up my street and well worth a look. For me, this is what real modern theatre is about and I'll be like a kid in a sweet shop. Have a look at the programme here. My problem is that I have no idea how to go about choosing...I want to see them all...

***Update*** Review here.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Film roundup

I'm not going to bother with lengthy film reviews on this blog (if you want great film reviews let me plug my mate Ben's blog which is excellent). However, as much for my own records as much as anything, I'll throw a list of micro-reviews on from time to time. Here are a few films I've watched recently:

Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010) *****
Believe it or not, this film isn't particularly dark, or even particularly satirical. But it's definitely a Chris Morris film.  It's basically a farce - the humour is borderline slapstick at times - but with some daft ideas and trippy moments. And it's about terrorists. Killer lines include "The Jews invented spark plugs so they could control global traffic, blud.". Don't worry about it being offensive; it's not. It's just funny.

Spartan (David Mamet, 2004) ****
I'm a huge David Mamet fan. From Oleanna (one of my all time favourite plays - even thinking about it gets me enraged, such is the power of the script) to Glengarry Glen Ross, virtually everything written by Mamet is tighter than a gnat's arse. The dialogue, or course, is charged with testosterone in typical Mamet style and with few wasted lines, although, unusually, one or two Hollywood teethgrinders slip through the net. However, lines like"Honey, you got all the slack in the world until I leave this room. Then I'm gonna zero you out" make up for it. Val Kilmer is hard as nails, with a good supporting cast, although little is made of William H Macy's character, which is a minor disappointment. Overall, however, it's a tough thriller which is very well put together, despite its rather conventional storyline, and well worth a watch.

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) ****
I had been expecting some weird "somehow-brilliant-schmaltz-fest". Far from it: think City of God rather than Dreamgirls. Danny Boyle strikes gold again as Slumdog shows up the best and the worst of both India and human nature. "Feelgood" yes, but mainly because you feel good that you haven't wasted your money on some overhyped film. Strong.

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2005) *****
This was my third experience of a Mike Leigh film which I went into with some trepidation: whilst I enjoyed Secrets & Lies, Happy-go-lucky was one of the biggest cinematic turds I've ever sat through in my life. This was a "make-or-break" for me. As it happens, I needn't have worried - it's a superb film. Unusually for films which revolve around a Terrible Secret, where the tension is relieved once the Secret gets out, Vera Drake only really kicks into action once Vera's backstreet-abortionist sideline is revealed. Tensions between family and friends are unbearable at times thereafter thanks to brilliant directions and acting, and the transformation of Vera (Imelda Staunton) from local Pillar to pariah is extraordinary - the portrayal of a woman's demise is exceptional.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Millward Brown's Nigel Hollis - The Global Brand: a review

The majority of books I've ever read on branding are mostly vacuous bullshit. Top of the pile for guff to substance ratio is possibly Kevin Roberts' Lovemarks, crammed full of nebulous, sweeping soundbites, whereas the only meaningful point in the entire book was summed up beautifully in a single "love/respect axis" graph. Most other books on branding that I've come across are written in a similar vein.

It's refreshing, therefore, that The Global Brandby research giant Nigel Hollis of Millward Brown, is completely different: a rigorous study of branding concepts, similarities and differences between consumer behaviours globally, and the business and marketing strategies required to take advantage of these, in order to expand brands internationally.

I should point out that I am definitely not the target audience of this book, not being in charge of global marketing strategy for a major international brand! The book provides a very specific "brand promise" of how to expand a successful brand into the global market, but in reality the book covers concepts that are pretty universal to branding and marketing, making it a cracking read for anyone interested in the way fluctuations in consumer behaviour affect the performance of a brand or product.

Hollis takes a methodical approach from first principles from the start: starting by making an empirical definition of a brand (concluding that a brand is a macroscopic collection of perceptions of a product). Key to his ideas are principles of neuroscience - the way that the brain stores information, breaking it down into knowledge, actions and feelings critical to the way marketers can set up their brands. Hollis shows that consumers' balanced understanding of a brand is crucial to its success: consumer reactions or heuristics to physical cues, functional benefits, an the emotions the brand invokes, are all important features, and a successful brand is likely to be positioned in such a way that all those features strike a bond with the consumer. It seems to me that this holistic approach fits in with the trend for "360" marketing. Hollis says that brands are "clusters of associations" - and a successful brand must work equally hard to enhance the perceptions of all the advantages that brand can derive.

Consumer/brand relationships are dealt with in depth - whether it's the split second heuristics which can sway a customer from purchasing one product over another, to more deeply rooted loyalty. The Millward Brown Brand Pyramid defines the relationship as a sort of journey consisting of heuristics from the superficial (is the product available? Can I afford it?) to the more profound (being unique, or safe, or "for people like me"). The strongest bonds are forged when the consumer feels that there are tangible advantages to choosing that brand which overcome any shortcomings or competitors. If the aspects of a brand which create the strongest bonds could be neatly scooped up and taken across international markets, then global domination would soon ensue. Alas, it's not quite so simple as that.

Hollis goes on to show that a brand's future performance can be predicted by using two measures - existing brand presence, and a Millward Brown metric called Voltage 2.0, calculated using quantitative research, which is basically an indication of how strong the brand's perceived advantages are (I imagine a brand with high Voltage 2.0 would be very similar to Kevin Roberts' definition of a Lovemark). Combined, the two figures give a reasonably good forecast of the brand's likely future prospects; good brand equity is a good sign, but startup brands find it tough going as you might expect.

So far so good, and I found these early chapters amongst the most interesting of all. But the objective of the book is to explore how brands across multiple countries, and here Hollis states his core point, which is repeated throughout like an idee fixe: that successful global brands achieve a fine balancing act between adapting products and marketing strategies specifically to local markets, vs global economies of scale arising from centralising resources. Those that get the balance right, will become the great global brands which "transcend cultural origins" to strike affinity with consumers across countries. But it's a tricky balance to achieve. In developing markets, a western brand may or may not have associations of quality, which consumers may or may not be willing (or able) to pay a premium for. Yet in general consumers will feel more attached to brands which are perceived as local, even if their origins are the other side of the world.

Hollis stresses to brand owners the importance of considering how their brand can create a feeling of authenticity, of resonating with local values, and of integrating with local culture. Much of this, he argues, stems from management technique: indeed management is a microcosm of the book's theories as a whole - as a global company tussles with the advantages of centralising resources, with the local knowledge and motivation that comes with localising functions (I must confess I ploughed through this section full of visions f American films with the FBI telling the local sheriff "We'll take it from here.")

Hollis cites the example of Efes lager, which has such a strong local identity in its homeland (Turkey) that no other brands can get a look in. This, in turn, is due to the company being involved in external projects, CSR if you like, to become a strong part of local culture. Then there is the example of American car manufacturer Buick, which despite being a rather tired brand in the States, was careful to adjust to local tastes when launching in the Chinese market - with highly successful results. These are but two of the case studies which bring the concepts to life bring the theories to life. I wasn't aware of Red Bull's origins as a Thai drink "discovered" and "reinvented" by an Austrian businessman - whose positioning of the brand has barely been changed since. The brand stuck to their principles, hardly amending their product or target market - and also marketing - even when they spread geographically.

My favourite chapter isn't actually penned by Hollis at all. How strong global brands create lasting value is contributed by Joanna Seddon of Millward Brown Optimor and is perhaps the densest chapter of all. The first diagram is pretty clear though: if the share prices of brands are normalised as of 1995 and then traced over time, dividing brands up as "strong" or "weak" according to global MB "BrandZ" data (another metric, this time based on surveys inviting respondents to directly evaluate brands). The strong brands outperform the weak ones by 20%, by virtue of a larger customer base, commanding price premiums and holding a stronger position in the business market; this, in itself, should give the willies to any board or directors who underestimate the importance of their brand strength. Seddon argues that a tangible value can be put on a consumer brand as opposed to its parent company, by a combination of splitting up the company's assets by brand, working out to what extent the brand's equity strength fuels the financial value of those assets (in other words, how important are those heuristics to the brand's value?) and applying a calculation to predict future performance (called, naturally enough, "brand momentum"). Everyone loves a "top 20" and indeed there it is (for the greedy, the appendix has the top 100) and all the usual suspects are there, but what is striking is that FMCGs are relatively low in number in the top echelons. This equating of an intangible asset like a brand, with some sort of strict financial value, is a bold one; the case is made compellingly.

Opponents of globalisation should stay right away from The Global Brand. It is unashamedly a manual for those wanting to sell western brands to consumers in developing countries. Although the importance of not riding slipshod over local cultures is touched upon, there is nothing at all on the ethics of globalisation itself - neither social nor environmental implications, which I thought was a shame, as it is otherwise a pretty comprehensive one-stop-shop for companies wanting to extend the distribution of their brand. Very occasionally Hollis comes across as slightly patronising, but in his defence, everything is steeped in facts gleaned from research, which may conform to stereotype in some cases. This also excuses the fact that the explanations of Millward Brown metrics can occasionally make it feel like a sales brochure - the fact that he uses his own examples for case studies and insight really manifests itself. It's real primary insight, and after all you might as well stick to what you know.

Hollis' clear enthusiasm for the subject matter, combined with his skills for bringing statistics to life, mean that this book, which is grounded in research-based insights, is a gripping read. The chapter on consumer behaviour in Africa, written by two local researchers, is not as eloquently written as Hollis' own work, but still conveys enthusiasm and includes some of the most interesting insights: from the concept of price - budgeting is something that is done day-to-day rather than month-to-month - to status of certain objects. I loved the anecdote of the Malawian who buys washing powder - which conveys greater social status - to place proudly on top of the washing machine; yet she also buys laundry bars, which she considers to work twice as well!

If I had any criticism it would be that the writing loses its sparkle when Hollis moves away from his core territory of insight and branding strategies and onto marketing tactics - it's clear that Hollis isn't a marketeer; the last few chapters of the book drag on a bit, and tend to repeat much of what was said earlier in the book. His principles are clear enough and enlivened by so many case studies that there's really no need to set out step by step instructions for what to do - Part Three is almost redundant.

Ultimately The Global Brand should have universal appeal - while it contains specific, practical instructions on how to evaluate the sustainability of a brand for global expansion, more generally it consists of convincing arguments for how to (and not to) extend the range of a campaign or business into new areas.