Allow me to go back to late 2002 to make my point today. There were two stories that dominated the business press. Most of the media began by sounding the death knell for McDonald’s. Citing falling US sales and litigious obese Americans, the press concluded that the fast food company’s days were numbered.
The second story to the grab column inches was Marks & Spencer and its poaching of Vittorio Radice, chief executive of Selfridges, to run its home furnishings division. Even typically sober newspapers swooned over the photogenic Radice and his impressive CV. The FT described him as the man who single-handedly transformed Selfridges “from a down-at-heel department store into a cutting-edge house of brands”. So there it was. McDonald’s was finished, M&S all powerful.
Two years before the same media were being equally strident about these two brands, but the stories were very different. M&S was finished. The media cited its awful ads, poorly positioned products and incompetent Dutch chief executive as proof that M&S was soon to be RIP. Meanwhile, fuelled by Naomi Klein’s ramblings, the media were bemoaning McDonald’s worldwide growth. McDonald’s was portrayed as a sinister, but effective global marketer set to achieve world domination.
How could the respective fortunes of these two powerbrands have been reversed in little more than two years? The answer, of course, was that they hadn’t. M&S was never in anywhere near as much trouble as the media suggested. McDonald’s was never as dominant or as effective as the media portrayed it to be.
Which leads me to the thrust of my thoughts today on Branding Strategy Insider. Seasoned marketers should always take the media’s oversimplification and miscomprehension of the business world with a generous pinch of salt.
McDonald’s, strategic problems or not, was and is still a company with billions in assets, an aggressive international expansion programme and it also owns or co-owns a diversified portfolio of profitable national brands (Pret A Manger anyone?). Similarly, Radice was considered an extremely good executive, but it defies belief to suggest that he alone had masterminded the rise of Selfridges. What about the rest of the management team? Was Selfridges really “down at heel” back in 1998 when he took over?
The media do not describe the business world. They write stories. And when they do, they start with the message and then work backwards toward the facts. A good story is simple, has a narrative, and ends with a message.
The problem comes when this framework is applied to the complex, convoluted world of business.
I once met with a BBC producer who was interested in using some of the case studies taught at London Business School as the basis for a business documentary series.
After several hours discussion he let out a sigh: “I’m sorry,” he said, “these case studies don’t have a ‘story arc’. We need to see the firm rise quickly and then at its zenith have an Icarus-like downfall followed by a moment of revelation”. I began to explain to him that the world of marketing rarely follows this formula, but he was already heading for the door, desperate to maintain his simplistic assumptions and to avoid the big bag of salt I was throwing his way.
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