Horsemeat scandal: a shock reminder to focus on substance, not spin

The horsemeat scandal* shows that "Marketers have lost their sense of what the word 'brand' actually means. They have fallen prey to the view of 'branding' as the 'frothy bit', all gloss and image," according to Helen Edwards' latest Marketing column. She goes on to say: "Branding is 90% substance. If the product isn't right, it really does not matter how brilliant you are with the remainder."

* For non-UK readers, a number of UK retailers (including Tesco) and manufacturers (including Findus) have been exposed as selling beef products containing horsemeat. Sales have suffererd, with a 50% drop in the sales of frozen beefburgers for example.

I nodded so vigorously when reading Helen's words that my head almost fell off. Marketing teams' neglect of product is something I've been ranting about since the very first post on this blog, back in 2006, entitled "Where's the sausage?: building brands on substance, not spin", and in the subsequent book with the same title. Ever since I've been campaiging for more focus more on the "sausage" of branding, relevant product features and benefits, and less reliance on the "sizzle" of emotional values for differentiation. Sure, sizzle can help to sell, but it should reinforce the product idea, not work separately from it. 

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The horsemeat scandal is an extreme example of neglecting the importance of product. But it does raise serious questions that every marketing team should consider. 

1. Do you believe in the power of the product?

Are you passionate about your product? Or have you been seduced by the sirens of emotional branding, such as Kevin Roberts with his Lovemarks approach, that is based on the idea that "Price, service, quality, and design advantages are no longer enough to win."?  This neglect of product quality is dangerously flawed in two ways.

– On the one hand, you risk missing out on chances to upgrade your core product and make it better.

– Second, you increase the risk of a major quality problem, which could seriously harm your brand reputation. This has happened with horsemeat. But there are other examples, such as Apple suffering from their iPhone mapping mess-up, and Blackberry's problems being made worse by their major outage.

2. Is product passion lived out in your business?

Its one thing to believe in product. But do you live out this belief on a day-to-day basis? Helen suggests that "Product has come to be taken for granted. No time now even for that rite-of-passage factory visit; today it's all focus groups, insight mining, communications and media."  The odd factory visit is fine. But true product passion goes much further. Take Mars for example. All their marketing offices are located not in sexy city centres, but next to their factories. Every marketing trainee doesn't just visit a factory, they work on a production line as part of their induction. And product is tasted DAILY on the line. 

3. Are you building sourcing into your brand model?

Being passionate about your product is a good foundation. But the biggest oppotunities are for companies who have mastery of their supply chain and sourcing. These companies have a chance to make this part of their marketing program, to build consumer trust as a source of competitive advantage. 

A good example is Charlie Bighams, who are talking on their website about "Good food, with no horesplay". They can do this because they can trace back all their beef to specific farms they know and trust.

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In conclusion, I hope this horsemeat scandal might be the electroshock that finally forced marketing teams to kick their additction to emotional sizzle, and re-focus on product quality.