How to find your brand story and tell it well (not)

by
September 10, 2018

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Successful brands tell compelling stories.  And they tell them well.  Most, however, struggle.  Cotswold Outdoor is an example of a brand finding it an uphill slog and losing their way.  If you want to avoid the same mistakes, and create a brand story that has a clear sense of direction, then I hope you find this post helpful.

Follow me if you want a brand story that sells

I try to help brands get it right.  In my book “The Authority Guide to Creating Brand Stories That Sell” I provide a route map, with simple steps to follow.  The journey starts with working out what your brand has to say for itself.  Then it looks at how to shape that message so it differentiates your offering from that of competitors, then mould it further so that it resonates with the target audience.  The final stages involve distilling this message down into a simple clear story, one that sells by using the power of emotion to move people.

They had a brand story but threw it away

I know a little bit about Cotswold Outdoor.  About five years ago I worked there in a freelance capacity, helping them create, and tell, a brand story.  I was really pleased with the result – a story that gave them a compelling point of difference and was told in way that was engaging and emotive.  I think it would have worked well for them, if only they’d told it for more than a couple of months.  You can read about it here, in the portfolio section of my website.

Why didn’t they stick with it for longer?  I’m not certain, but I think it was because they were torn (like many retailers) between the need to create a brand (a long term strategy) and the pressure to sell specific products and hit immediate sales targets (a short term strategy).

For the last few years, looking at their websites, stores and advertising, they’ve been very product and price focused – anything over and above that, any attempt to promote more general brand values, has been dispensed with.

Why has this approach won out?  I suspect it’s to do with their owners.  Cotswold Outdoor is part of the A.S. Adventure Group which runs 150+ stores under various operating names in Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg.   A.S. Adventure Group is owned by Paris-based PAI Partners, an enormous private equity company that buys businesses with a view to selling them at a profit.  In their own words “we always seek to build excellent companies into sector leaders that can attract a strong premium on exit.”  In other words it’s all about the bottom line and returning value to investors.  This suggests to me they are more interested in screwing down costs, and making the numbers, than on anything else.

That goes some way to explaining why they’ve not been trying very hard to articulate any kind of brand story or put much emphasis on building brand values.

Why that was a mistake

If you come from an investment bank background, you have an MBA from a leading business school, you sit in a swanky office in Paris and your fat annual bonus depends on hitting your financial targets…then this strategy makes sense.  You are obviously going to focus on squeezing out every cost that does not immediately make the balance sheet look sweet.

However, if you are someone like me, who lives in Somerset and buys outdoor gear on quite a regular basis, this approach doesn’t look so smart.  I can shop at Cotswold Outdoor (Bristol and Bath) or Go Outdoors (Bristol or Taunton) – geographically there’s nothing to choose between them.  Go Outdoors tend to sell lower quality brands at incredibly competitive prices.  Cotswold Outdoor tend to sell slightly higher quality brands that cost a bit more.  Cotswold therefore looks expensive by comparison.  Then again, as a member of Amazon Prime I can probably get anything Go Outdoors or Cotswold Outdoor offer for even less money, delivered very quickly, for free.

Given this situation Cotswold needs to make a persuasive case for me to buy from them.  They need to convince me that their merchandise is higher quality, that it is worth the extra money, that they offer a better shopping experience, that they add value by providing better advice and assistance, and then wrap that up in some kind of emotive packaging that makes me feel good about buying from them.  In other words they need to add value with a compelling brand story.  Their failure to do this is making it easy for Go Outdoors and Amazon to eat their lunch.  The private equity guy in Paris can will tell me I’m wrong (and have the figures, the charts, the spreadsheets and the smart suit to prove it).  But I’m the customer.  And until I’m persuaded otherwise, by a brand story that sells, Cotswold Outdoor is the last place I’m going to shop.

OMG – we need a brand story

Like the rest of the middle class I’m a member of the National Trust.  So I see the Cotswold Outdoor ad in the quarterly magazine.  The latest one suggests that somebody, either at Cotswold Outdoor, A.S. Leisure or PAI Partners, has eventually woken up to the fact that the lack of a brand story has become a pressing problem.

Some bright spark in the organisation has realised, belatedly, that everyone in marketing jumped onto to “storytelling” bandwagon years ago and that it’s time to catch up – in a hurry.

As a slight aside I’d just like to make the point that marketing and branding has always been about storytelling – but each generation entering the industry has little interest in learning about what has gone before (they’re far too cool for school) and so simply reinvent the wheel (while loudly proclaiming their own brilliance).  For the record I got on board with the storytelling buzzword earlier than most, which is how I managed to secure the storiesthatsell.co.uk domain name ahead of the crowd.

Anyway, back to the ad in question.  It has all the hallmarks of a rushed job.  Let’s look at it, one element at a time.

Headline

The point about telling a story is that you have to tell a story.  Just plonking the words OUR STORY at the top of the page is not storytelling.  Turning it on its side does not turn it into a story either (it just makes it hard to read).  Putting the words “Autumn Winter ’18” underneath in brackets does not make it a story either – it is just stating the bleeding obvious (as it is in the Autumn Winter ’18 issue).  Crass, lazy, inane – this is what you get when you ask a designer to write a headline in a hurry.

Image

Of all the dramatic landscapes in Britain, of all the wonderful properties cared for by the National Trust, of all the exciting things you can do in the great outdoors, is this the best shot they can come up with?  Two people, in the drabbest clothes imaginable, walking along a featureless estuary, under a dull grey sky.  Hardly an image to fill you with an irresistible urge to get out and explore.  Wet weekend in the Lake District anyone?  No thanks, I think I’d rather sit in front of the telly with a takeaway and catch up on Strictly.

What were they thinking?  My guess is that it’s the result of a failure to decide which part of their target audience this ad is aimed at.  Cotswold Outdoor’s overall target audience is very broad and diverse.  It includes everyone from serious alpine climbers to elderly ramblers, gadget freaks to families with kids, macho mountain bikers to fashion conscious athleisure-wearing mums, Duke of Edinburgh students to couples taking a foreign city break and trail runners to dog walkers.   Pick a shot of one audience segment and you alienate all the others – that was probably the thinking.  So in trying to avoid leaving anyone out they went for something blandly inclusive.  In trying to appeal the everyone they ended up appealing to no one.

The smaller shot.  What, exactly, is he doing?  Taking a selfie, trying to get a signal on his mobile, monitoring the pollution levels?  If it is meant to be telling a story then I cannot spot a plot.  Also, why is the edge of the shot overexposed?  Is this a camera malfunction?

Copy 

The body copy is a mess.  I’m probably the only person who will ever read it, because as a copywriter I have a professional interest in how words are used.  It starts with “The Cotswold Outdoor story” then switches to “your next chapter”.  OK, I get it, you are trying to make the Cotswold story part of the reader’s story.  But the next line labours the point horribly: “But our story isn’t just about us, it’s about you too.”  It suggest that they think the reader is thick and will miss the point unless they’re hit over the head with it.  Treating your reader as a moron is not likely to endreat them to your brand.  The next sentence is back to Cotswold.  Us, you, us, you, us – it’s all over the place, a clumsy mess.

Brand story

So what is this Cotswold Outdoor story?  The line at the bottom “Writing our story since 1974  Read more at cotswoldoutdoor.com” suggests that the website will enlighten me.  No.  It takes me to the website homepage, where all I get is a message about the sale, and savings.

The smart thing would have been to take the reader to a landing page that told the Cotswold Outdoor story.  But that would have required some thought and effort.

Strapline

Finally, the strapline.  Let’s go somewhere.  How inspiring is that?   They could at least have added an adjective like “amazing”, “inspiring” or “exciting”.  It’s so limp that the obvious response to this injunction is “I know where we can go – Go Outdoors!”.  At least Go Outdoors has a strapline that makes a clear promise that’s true to the brand and motivating to their cost-conscious target audience.  “You can’t beat it” says “you can’t beat our prices, you can’t beat the pleasure of going outdoors, you can’t beat the feeling of saving money…”.  It’s simple and it’s compelling.

How did Cotswold Outdoor end up with such a sad strapline?  I can only imagine that, after a handful of meetings at which nobody could agree, they just gave up.  Oh, go anywhere you like, I really don’t care, it’s Friday afternoon and I just want to go home!

A sad way to go downhill

This ad does tell a story.  But not the one that’s intended.  It reveals a brand where nobody knows what the heck they should be saying, or how best to give competitors a run for their money, or what is going to strike the right note with their target audience.  A brand where attention to detail is sadly lacking.  A brand without the emotional clout to punch its way out of a wet paper bag.

The blame appears to lie with the marketing department.  But I suspect that’s unfair.  I’d point the finger at the bankers, beans counters and finance vampires in Paris.  It looks to me (based on this ad – I’ve not talked to anyone at or from Cotswold for about five years) as if they’ve simply sucked the life out of the business and the people who work in it.  It’s sad.  This was once a great business, full of enthusiastic people, doing a great job for outdoor enthusiasts and a terrific British success story to boot.

Brand story – go find out how to do it properly

If you want to avoid falling into the same bog of brand story myopia, or are already there and are looking for a way out, may I suggest you buy “The Authority Guide to Creating Brand Stories That Sell.”  Not available from all good bookshops (sadly) but you can order from my site (free delivery) by clicking here, or from Amazon by clicking here.

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