"Politically incorrect and electrifying. Our delegates loved him."
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Whilst still a teenager BJ Cunningham started his first enterprise, importing classic cars and Harley Davidsons from LA to London. When the market collapsed he used his considerable debt to launch DEATH Cigarettes - positioned as 'The Honest Smoke'. It gained such a foothold that BJ found himself taking on the combined might of the industry in the European Court of Justice.
Then, with a growing reputation for challenging norms, BJ set up a brand marketing agency and built a client list including Volkswagen, B&O and Nokia. Having sold the company and proved his credentials as a true serial entrepreneur, he and his wife created and ran the luxury shoe designer Georgina Goodman until its acquisition by venture capitalists.
BJ is a Visiting Professor at Brighton University, serves on the council of Business Superbrands and travels the world giving inspiring keynote presentations. He believes that while customers are magnetised towards 'need' over 'want' in the wake of recession, genuine premium will still remain resilient: "Loyalty in business is a long-term relationship, discounting is little more than a one-night stand."
BJ's message is that a brand is a promise, not a logo; it's about depth, not awareness. A business must know what it stands for, say it with clarity and do what it says. With wonderfully engaging examples, he shows that customers want to understand the authentic soul of the organisation and become part of your community.
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The Brand as a Promise, not a Logo
Deepening the Customer Relationship
The Power of Telling the Truth
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JLA: What have you learned from the recession?
BJ: Building flexibility into the organisation's structure helps ensure resilience. This and the need for trust, based on transparency and clear communications. Solid relationships secured today will become profitable partnerships tomorrow.
JLA: How can you regain trust, re-build confidence and rekindle ambition?
BJ: With truth, authenticity and energy. Consumers want a relationship - to feel part of a community, a working friendship. This means demonstrating integrity and responsibility, and telling it like it really is.
JLA: How do you motivate when pay rises are out of the question?
BJ: The magic to motivation is belief - allowing your people the opportunity to take pride in the organisation. Treat your employees as you would have them treat you - like a marriage, rather than a one-night stand.
JLA: How can you persuade the risk-averse to embrace innovation?
BJ: Remove the Fear.
JLA: Does the entrepreneur's attitude to risk change in a recession?
BJ: Business prudence aside, the attitude to risk does not change. If anything, things become more exciting. Opportunities are more visible and more extreme and the world swings in your favour. Recession is a great time for entrepreneurs.
JLA: How can you build brand loyalty in this climate - isn't it all about price?
BJ: Loyalty has never been about price. It is about being in an authentic long-term relationship (whereas price is about having a one night stand). Consumers want a relationship. They don't want to be treated like a commodity or a number on the bottom line. They want to be part of a community.
JLA: What advice do you have for businesses with no experience of recession?
BJ: Don't be afraid. Be prudent, be frugal, remain open but do not bow to fear. Stay in constant contact with your creditors and your bank. Be flexible, treat nothing as sacred. Look to the very core of your business and be ready to dump everything surplus to requirements. Be honest, tell your staff and suppliers what's going on, and involve them in your story. Never pretend.
And remember that there is a light at the end of this tunnel. The world is not going to end. It may well be different to the world we planned or hoped for, but it will be a world nonetheless and you will be there to live it.
JLA: Assuming winners as well as losers, where are the best opportunities?
BJ: They lie in exactly the same areas as the biggest problems. So credit offers a huge opportunity. Flexibility is a huge opportunity. Think of everything you are seemingly unable to do and therein lies an opportunity. Companies that can massage the market seizures and relax the frozen muscles will be the winners.
Understanding that your customer's problems are your problems and helping your customer is the road to success. Companies that stand fixed in the headlights and refuse to shift will be the losers.
JLA: Do the lower exchange rates offer real opportunities?
BJ: If the exchange rate moves in your favour for goods and services manufactured or offered in the UK, you can take advantage of an effective price discount. But remember that rates move both ways. Building a strategy on low exchange rates is a bit like pissing in your pants: its warm for a bit but then it gets very cold.
JLA: Will recession dramatically change medium and long-term trends?
BJ: Absolutely. All bets are off. Game plans have been torn up and are in a state of flux as business tries to decide on the likely shape of the recession - whether it's a V, a U or an L. And because nobody really knows, prudent businesses are planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Budgets are being slashed, terms are being revised and anything deemed risky is being reduced. Business is looking for solid ground to build on but can't feel anything underneath. Whilst uncertainty is the only certainty, a systemic sense of fear is taking hold.
Fear is the key word for the short to mid term. This then impacts the longer term, so all forecast trends must be reconsidered. With customers magnetised toward 'need' over 'want', they will demand authenticity and uniqueness from brands or rock bottom price points from products. This will benefit both a 'stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap' approach and 'genuine premium,' where the value added is tangible and transparent - but the middle is going to take a pounding. Pretenders will be brought down and true value will shine through.
BJ ON BRAND
In this way all communication says what the organisation really means (not as easy as it sounds) and all action aligns with and serves the vision. The internal culture, the product portfolio and sales & marketing process are all expressions of the promise. Every action the organisation takes becomes a part of external marketing.
In summary.... Clarify the thought and direction, say what is so and do what works to create an unmistakable organisation united by a brand that unleashes the passion of your people, so that what you sell and the way you sell it reflects your values and attitudes and is an authentic expression of Who You Really Are.
This is a process of evolution. It takes time, courage, commitment and love. Most of all it takes leadership and the will to be the change you want to see.