I think of brands rather like pop groups. On the one hand, you had The Beatles: a collection of individuals with a common goal, born out of originality, vision, talent and passion. On the other, you had The Monkees: a manufactured, derivative group, put together as a commercial proposition. Unoriginal, manipulated and visionless.
The John Lewis Partnership, formed in 1864, is a great British brand. Because of its unique staff ownership, it has always engendered trust, friendliness and exceptional customer service. With its long-lived mantra “never knowingly undersold”, people still flock to the flagship store in Oxford Street for the ‘John Lewis experience’. Because of the partnership ethos, people believe that all the staff are singing from the same song sheet because they have a written constitution with a set of principles to sing.
The late Ingvar Kamprad
One global company that has stuck rigidly to its founding principles is Ikea. This is very much due to the close attention paid by its creator Ingvar Kamprad, who started the company in the 1940s; he ensured that his philosophy permeated throughout the staff, wherever they were located. Even after he retired, his values remained the guiding principles: “create a better everyday life for the majority of people”.
He insisted that his employees’ behaviour was 100% focused on meeting customers’ expectations. This is eulogised by all the staff working for Ikea. Even though Kamprad was wildly rich, he continued to live modestly and travelled on public transport to save money. A rare example of a founder actually ‘living the brand’.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield
Interestingly, private-sector companies are often started by unconventional, enthusiastic individuals with a passion to express their ideas, void of the artifice of manufactured hype and PR, and they are often successful. In 1978, two twenty-something best friends, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, started a homemade ice cream company in Burlington, Vermont – they called it Ben & Jerry’s. Their wholesome product was a big hit with the locals. People just fell in love with it and them. Word spread, and everyone wanted the delicious, no-additive product. Keeping close to the coalface and their customers, Ben & Jerry’s added evermore recipes to its growing range. The best publicity, word of mouth, spread far and wide. A Ben & Jerry’s poster read “Business has a responsibility to give back to the community” from Ben and “If it’s not fun, why do it?” from Jerry. The company grew, shared profits with staff, gave money to charity and sourced suppliers with similar values.
Innocent's Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright
In 1999, three former university friends, Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright, sold their homemade smoothies from a stall at a music festival. They put up a sign asking people if they should give up their jobs to make smoothies: they had a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No’. When they totalled up the results, they quit their jobs. After being turned down by every bank, venture capitalist and business angel in London, they sent out a flurry of letters to the rich and famous. Their prayers were answered and financial backing was in the bag. And so Innocent was started. Following a similar path to Ben & Jerry’s, they sold locally, monitoring people’s views on their smoothies. They had little cars painted black and white to resemble cows and other cars covered in grass, buzzing around London.
A grassed up Innocent van.
The very first McDonald’s
Both Ben & Jerry’s and Innocent followed in the footsteps of Dick and Mac McDonald, who set up the very first McDonald’s in San Bernardino, California, in 1940. They made it a success by working their socks off, and they were obsessive about the quality of their products. But that all changed when a young salesman, Ray Kroc, talked them into franchising their burger bar idea. Against their better judgement, the brothers were hoodwinked by Kroc into corner cutting. They tried to stop the expansion but were outsmarted by Kroc’s lawyers, who turned the whole enterprise into a real estate company with Kroc as CEO.
Whenever successful enterprises like the above three stories pop up, the corporate sharks begin to circle, clutching money in their teeth. Ben & Jerry’s was bought but Unilever and Innocent was bought and is controlled by The Coca-Cola Company – not exactly sympatico with Innocent’s wholesome aims. The moment this happens, things change. A whole host of interested parties will be in the room: unsympathetic management focused on cost-cutting (so the quality of the product declines); hungry investors looking for a good return on their investment; and so on.
My personal liking is for what I call ‘pure brands’: my Beatles, if you like. Here are two that I have a lot of respect for.
Classic simplicity of Margaret Howell clothes.
The first is the fashion brand Margaret Howell. As a young fine art graduate, Margaret was rummaging through a jumble sale stall when she came upon a vintage shirt. So taken was she by its clearly handmade quality, something missing in mass production, that she had an epiphany. She would make shirts to that quality and find a market for them, believing that there would be others like her who would respond to quality. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Margaret’s classically designed quality clothes are still made to last, just like that jumble sale shirt. You will also find her passion for books, art, furniture, textiles and ceramics in her serenely designed stores. Since opening her first in 1976, she has stuck rigidly to her values and is a leader in her field.
The 606 Universal Shelving System designed by Dieter Rams in 1960 and made by Vitsœ ever since.
Another ‘pure brand’ is Vitsœ, a manufacturer of classic products designed by Dieter Rams. Mark Adams became its managing director in the 1990s and moved the company and production to London, where international markets would be better served. Vitsœ stands for “the inordinate power of good design in everything we do: designing thoughtfully, responsibly and intelligently for our company, our furniture and the many people who share a profound interest in all of our tomorrows”.
The 606 installed at my London studio.
As a Vitsœ customer, I can vouch for the supreme quality of its end-to-end service. It is everything the brand promises.
Today, global web-based monster brands like Facebook, Google and Amazon are not particularly transparent with their business practices and complex tax arrangements. Just look at the recent controversy over Facebook and Cambridge Analytics, where millions of private customers’ information was sold on to other organisations without permission. No doubt more stories will follow.
Trusting a brand is no longer as straightforward as it used to be. The Internet is like the Wild West all over again. And if nothing else, remember that a brand is not just a logo.
To hear a recorded interview with with me and Margaret Howell click here.