Saluting the sole traders


I was talking to one of my friends, who is a sole trader running an internet business recently and mentioned the course I am running, next week. At which she said that she and a few of her contacts would be probably be interested, but as a sole trader start up she didn’t have the budget.

Is big always beautiful?

This got me thinking about how marketing people are sometimes too focused on the growth big companies, forgetting that thousands of sole traders are also also drivers of the economy. They don’t have the CBI or Institute of Directors to represent and lobby for them. Even the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) are for businesses of up to 249 people, which seems quite large to me.

When it comes to professional support and development it is the same. I have been a proud member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing for 10 years and while there is a lot to learn from their events and online materials, nearly all the case studies are of well-known big organisations in finance, food retail or corporate consultancy. The case studies always focus on detailed research, large scale website redesigns and tailored apps, brand and design agencies and spends in millions across the globe. The bottom line always almost about market share or mass engagement.  Of course, the CIM needs to meet a majority of their members needs, but small businesses rarely get represented.

While you can always learn and translate ideas, and I do, I feel it is a world away from the work I do, and I have done throughout my career in tourism, education, medical research and community engagement. Even most business books are by entrepreneurs who made their small business global, or researchers set in a similar mindset.

Sole traders overlooked

And yet 3.4 million sole traders make up the economy, according to FSB, making up 59% of the total business population.

In my experience, many sole traders and small start-ups are not all aiming to go global.  They love what they do and want to make a difference, but in a way that is scalable to them. Many of them are also jack of all trades having to know their specialism that they are selling, but also has to be finance director, marketing manager, procurement manager and operations director all in one. In some ways they need to have the full set of business skills to survive, while big companies can afford specialists.

Getting the support they need

Part of the challenge is that sole traders they sometimes need advice and support and don’t know where to get it. Sometimes, there are good Chambers of Commerce, like Brighton & Hove who pride themselves on having bite-sized learning at affordable prices or there are council- supported business courses like Ride the Wave. I have personally benefited from courses like these and met a number of sole traders there. Banks have also seen the value and NatWest Accelerator and Barclays Eagle Labs are also supporting start ups and small businesses to grow to a sustainable level.

Saluting the sole trader

That said, I was reminded by my friend who runs a internet business, how tight finances can be. Even with my storytelling for business course, she felt it was beyond the reach of those sole traders starting out. So to salute the work they do, and enable them to take part, I have made a special offer of just £25 for my two-hour session.

Core to my business model is making a difference to clients so they can get to the next stage. Helping them communicate what they offer and reason why they do it is key. While helping them find the clients that want what they do and then ensuring their needs are met are core to any business. But most don’t have money for agencies, and branding workshops, they have to make every penny count, so that my way of supporting them.

By the way,  I am still taking off £10 for not-for-profits and Brighton Chamber members making the course an affordable £44 which should not impact many training budgets too heavily.

Let’s learn and share knowledge and become better and stronger by learning together. What an inspiring thought for the coming year.

You can book and find out more about the course on Friday 7 December here.

Inauthenticity 1 – Authenticity 0

Christmas advert time is here and a good time to see how different retail brands are positioning themselves and trying to show their competitive edge on their rivals.

It’s been a tough year for department stores, with the near collapse of House of Fraser and Debenhams looking distinctly unwell. Even the normally reliable John Lewis announced job losses, which is almost unheard of, and have recently branded under John Lewis and Partners to emphasise their distinctive status compared with companies owned by private equity firms or large investment funds.

It’s not the budget that matters, it’s the message

Which makes it all the more surprising that they pitched their Christmas advert, The Boy and the Piano, on the theme of the power of gifts, by focusing on the career of Elton John (in reverse). It starts with the man himself sitting on a piano which then shows previous incarnations of the rock star, back to childhood, where at the age of 3 he got a piano – the same one he is now playing. In some ways it is a rather lovely video, the sound quality changes to reflect the earlier sound technology, the colours and clothes of the time give a nostalgic feel. Having watched the advert, I was reminded of my own desire to acquire a piano for my family this year.

And yet there is a problem, John Lewis don’t sell real pianos and they have no reputation for selling any musical instruments. Having checked their website, they do now sell a small number of Yamaha digital pianos at £870, a sort of trumped-up keyboard, but I can’t imagine Sir Elton recommending or playing those.

It is a great selling point suggesting your gifts can change lives and it works if most of your merchandise could be said to do that. A bookshop or music retailer perhaps could make that claim at a stretch, or even the shop that sells musical instruments. But this is a strange claim for a department store to make, will a hat or coat, toaster or a watch change lives?

This could have been done other ways

Perhaps they could have presented an angle to support their claim. Maybe by suggesting that a percentage of profits made from Christmas sales might go to a charity supporting young musicians or even Sir Elton’s charitable trust. It is clear not all gifts change lives, and it is quite inauthentic of John Lewis, who used to be the sensible shop on the shopping mall to suggest otherwise.

They also missed an opportunity to show their distinctive position as a partnership, which they could have shown in so many ways, particularly with the subtle name change. Instead they have dedicated their advert effectively to a trailer for Elton’s now well-publicised Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour for 2020, of which I saw a promotion for yesterday, and paid Elton considerably for the job as well.

Iceland gets the cold shoulder from the ASA

Meanwhile at the less fashionable end of the high street, we have Iceland’s seasonal advert, or we would, had it not be banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for being too political. Iceland released this on YouTube unofficially, a week ago.

So what is the controversy? It is a short animation of an orangutan leaping round a small child’s bedroom causing chaos. Why? Because his home has been destroyed by palm oil plantations. It is a story simply told and it is effective. It finishes with Iceland reaffirming its commitment to not stocking any item in their name which contains palm oil until a sustainable solution is found. The inconvenience of this decision to drop lines to stand for an ethical position is remarkable. It has got me thinking about what is in my food, spending a while to see if I could source a palm-oil free shampoo or spread. This advert is entirely authentic, and rips up the rulebook that suggests budget-cost providers are about keeping costs low and cannot make a stand for a better world.

Keeping to your values is not a new idea

What I find so confusing is that the ASA has taken a stand on this issue. It is not unusual for brands to take on political stances. The original Body Shop built their entire brand on doing that and changed the landscape of beauty products forever. If it was an advert selling Corbyn cola or Theresa May teacakes, with proceeds going to support specific political parties, you could see the politics of it all. But this is an issue which is not subject to political interpretation. A number of reliable sources question the idea of sustainable palm oil, and Iceland have made a brave commitment to drop lines, and use a powerful story to show this.

So there we have it. A story based on an authentic commitment to make a difference to the world is banned, while a charming flashback story about a gift the shop cannot sell you is approved. One inspires, the other confuses and misleads.

It is a pity as I hold both John Lewis and Sir Elton with a degree of respect, both being great and distinctive brands, but this was not the way. These campaigns also show the weakness of the ASA in this digital world, as Iceland still get the campaign online to send the message and change minds.

This is the time for reflection, I hope that more brands think about the authentic values and build on them, telling compelling stories like Iceland to bring change and distinctiveness, rather than think of multi-million pound one-off campaigns that do nothing to enhance the brand story.

Lets hope Iceland score more goals and John Lewis fewer own-goals in the coming year.

Telling stories through singing a song of science

John Hinton’s Ensonglopedias of Science and Animals show how you can tell stories of complexity with conciseness and wit.

Science is complicated. Lots of difficult of words usually in Latin, complex terminology, and a need to really know your subject well to be able to articulate it to others. Many scientists struggle with sharing their knowledge, lost in their erudition, or just focused on their work.

Sometimes it takes an outsider, to be able to communicate science in an effective way. Cue John Hinton, theatre director, actor and science communicator, who has been delighting audiences internationally for years on science themes.

He started by presenting full stories of scientists’ lives such as Marie Curie (The Element in the Room), Einstein (Relatively Speaking), Darwin (Origin of the Species), which alas I have not yet seen, but what interests me is his Ensonglopedia of Science and and Ensonglopedia of Animals.

My daughter and I first came across John in 2017 when the University of Sussex had an open Astronomy night, and he was then trialling his Ensonglopedia of Science, where he took an alphabetical tour of science from Atoms to Zero. It was such an entertaining half hour we signed up to see him present the whole show at a packed Komedia as part of the Brighton Science Festival. Here he gave the full 26 A-Z, not just subjects, but also applying a different musical style to each letter, encouraging the audience to guess which style it was. So, we learnt about nuclear explosions through the style of beatbox (Big Band, Little Bang), how scientists seek knowledge via klezmer song and danced about quantum nuclear physics to the quickstep.

The songswere entertaining, informative and amazingly work for all ages. In one hour he effectively told 26 short musical stories.

Having taken this to the Brighton Fringe in 2017, he returns this year with another Ensonglopedia, this time of Animals. This time the whole family attended and again we were presented with 26 songs, each reflecting a letter, but this time organised by phylum, (animal classification by main features), starting with humans and working back through history to consider other mammals, lizards, fishes, worms and finally cell-like creatures. Each story again is packed with facts, presented in such an entertaining fashion that we enjoyed and learnt new facts and gained a better understanding of natural history.

If you never heard of a quokka, leafy sea dragon, or chocolate chip sea star in text, let along in song, go to his show. We got to know so much in such a short time, that it did feel that we had a tour of not just of the animal kingdom, but also through time.

The Brighton Fringe quite rightfully has built its reputation as the place to see the wild, wacky or just plain unusual. This show perfectly fits the bill, by telling stories of animals, of the natural history of animals, and of life on earth itself.

You learn, you wonder, you understand. That is storytelling at it’s best and John’s ability to be witty, concise and informative, makes him one of the best I know.

His last performances at the Fringe are this Saturday and Sunday at 12.00 at the Old Courthouse off Church Street, take an hour out and learn more about the natural world in an hour than you ever imagine.

A better way to run our economy?

On Wednesday night, I had a very interesting evening at Circular Economy Club Brighton & Hove – Mapping Session. It brought together businesses, academics and anyone interested in running our economy by using resources in a more effective and beneficial manner.

I have to say I knew very little about the circular economy until I met Peter Desmond (pictured above), through events at the Brighton & Hove Chamber of Commerce.  He made this the subject of his Masters in Globalisation, Business and Development at the University of Sussex and is now leading the Brighton & Hove Circular Economy Club network.


So, what is it?

In short, a circular economy can be described an ‘alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.’ (Wrap‘s definition) 

One of the challenges about green and sustainability agendas is that they are sometimes seeking to completely change the way we run our economies by often in utopian dreams or untested theories.

In contrast, what I see with circular economists (if they like being called that) is that they fully integrate sustainability and reducing waste into an existing effective working economy. It is about making the current economic system better rather than rejecting it completely.


Based on reality

What I liked about last night’s event was the optimism that things could be better, and that real-life examples taking place in my city, country and globally as I write. Indeed, that was the point of the mapping event: to see what was out there. This is part of a wider global mapping week taking place and Brighton & Hove will be contributing to research in this area.

The challenge with introducing new concept such as the circular economy is in the communication. Having been created by economists and academics, the language is sometimes dry and technical, all about processes, systems and methods.


Unpacking what it is

So, what was refreshing was the introduction from Steve Creed of Wrap, an organisation that works with governments, businesses and communities to deliver practical solutions to improve resource efficiency. He asked three simple questions to assess whether a business fits the circular economy model:

  • How does it reduce the amount of resources?
  • How does it maximise use of resources?
  • Does it increase the value of the resources?

As a good example he considered whether Real Junk Food Project, who had just fed the event’s attendees with some lovely curry, beans and rice, was truly part of the circular economy.  It’s business model is to take ‘intercepted’ food destined for land fill and use it to feed people who need it, on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis.

So, does it work as a circular business? People eating this food are shifting from using new food resources to use these. It maximises the resources which had already been destined to be wasted and actually reduces further costs more in terms of transportation and destruction. The value of these resources in increased both economically in that the ‘pay as feel’ brings economic value. However, much more importantly, giving significant social value in feeding those who are on low or no income with nutritious well-cooked food. To Steve, it was a strong example of the principles of the circular economy in action.


A simple story can make the difference

Never did I think as I was eating Real Junk Food’s meal that I was partaking in an effective social and economic model described as the circular economy. And that seems to me to be the challenge. How do we explain the complexity of the circular economy in a way that people who are not economists, researchers or theorists understand it?

I would suggest by simple stories of input and impact like the Real Junk Food Project is a good start. It is real, it is impactful and it is happening in cities across the UK as we read this. What better way to change attitudes, behaviours and therefore priorities than a clear story.

As a result of Wednesday’s event, I have just signed up to the Circular Economy Club, which is free to join. It breathes some optimism and  positive real action that the world can practically run on better lines. I encourage readers of this blog to get involved as well.

Experts or experience – Can we have both, please?

Yesterday, I was at a CIM Chartered Marketer’s event at Mintel, where the Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine, talked about his new book, What I Learnt – What My Listeners Say and Why We Should Take Notice.

He opened his session by asking us to choose between hearing from an astronomer who can see the moon and stars from a distance and has dedicated their life to becoming an expert, and an astronaut, who had actually been on the moon.  Who would we want to hear from? Well of course the astronaut with his experience will be more interesting, compared with an expert looking far from a telescope.

His point is that personal experience is challenging accepted expertise. Experts may have a professional and academic knowledge of complex matters of economics, medicine and society, but that does not mean they are hearing or understanding what is happening at a personal level.


Do the experts really know?

In trying to understand recent surprises that experts have not predicted, such as Trump, Brexit, Corbyn and Leicester City, does customer experience or choice may be a better prediction of expectations?

Previous experts have not historically got it right either. Until recently diesel was the wonder fuel, now it is considered worse environmentally then petrol; eating sugars not fat makes you fat as previously thought for decades; and outsourcing building contracts through private finance initiatives was considered more efficient than keeping things in the public sector, now the Audit office suggests otherwise

The rise of social media and people sharing their views more readily and easily means experience is starting to win. No more are the experts just trusted. In Jeremy’s view one phrase captured to mood of the whole Brexit debate (and it wasn’t the one about expert from Michael Gove): “One listener said: ‘The experts built the Titanic’ – those words took us out of the EU.  If you listened to Radio 4, you could not see it coming; listen to Radio 2 and you knew it was coming.”


Anecdotes are not always evidence

There is a particular challenge with anecdote skew. He had a discussion on his show about statins. A renowned academic presented evidence based on experience of 7000 patients that suggested statins worked. One caller rang in stating very embarrassing physical and digestive issues that his mother had, which they put down to the statins and the debate was over. Of course, we will never know whether she might have had some other condition which might have caused this, but the perception stuck. This happens every day on so many issues.


Less time to focus

Add to this that due to mobiles and social media, people’s attention span is getting shorter, then spending 11 minutes debating the effectiveness of statins is going to be difficult, let alone a complex issue like the state of the NHS.

For experts, this is a challenging time. With wider sources of information, people can take control and bring in their own experience and this can be a good thing for democratising debate, but there needs to be a balance


Experts need to make the case

For me, personal experience is strong but not enough. Expertise is needed, but experts need to train themselves to be at their best all the time, to continue learning and not be defensive when personal experience shows other results to theirs.

I also feel that the power of the anecdote, the personal experience of the person, be they right or wrong, needs to be respected, but politely challenged. You can bring the respect of sensible rational debate to this, if experts are prepared to use case studies of real people, rather than relying on statistics. It’s not the 7,000 statin users that wins the day, it is the strong case studies of 10 or five or even one, who said their life has been positively changed as a result.

A good case study also supports a clear message of cause and effect, of process, it shows the lived experience of the issue being discussed and makes the experts case stronger. This isn’t dumbing down the message, but making it lived based on real experience.

The experts are still needed, but they need to work harder, to communicate their view.

And by the way, experts can also have experience: as a friend said to me today, the astronauts are real experts, they just happen to been to the moon as well.

Embracing the Unknown – Scanning for Gold

Back in 2009, I oversaw marketing at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), and was thinking about how we could raise our profile.  One afternoon I met Cara Courage, an inspirational arts practitioner who asked me if we wanted to be involved in a project called the Creative Campus Initiative, delivering innovative community art projects as part of the Cultural Olympiad for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. She asked me what we could offer: “We’re a medical school… “I said, a silence filled the air for a moment, “…”but we do have an MRI scanner… and a student who is a prospective Triathlon candidate.” Somehow the conversation ended with “Perhaps we could scan them and see how their toned bodies look”.

Little did I know that this would be the first step in a journey into the unknown. I learnt so many new things: to curate exhibitions, to promote and arrange tours, to wrestle with paperwork and ethics committees to get humans in physical perfection to be placed under an MRI scanner for art as much as education. 

The project snowballed. There was a very tight timescale, all achieved in three months, on top of my usual challenging workload. Working with a local photographer, James Lewis, we profiled prospective athletes as they trained and under MRI. This included multi-gold medallist paralympic cyclist Darren Kenny. Also while James snapped and I watched, weightlifter Halil Zorba lifted weights equal to the British record in his class!   

I had an ambitious six-month tour of local hospitals and education venues in 2010. We had a fantastic interactive launch Fringe event, delivered with aplomb with the inspirational Professor of Anatomy Darrell Evans and Chelsea School sports science specialist Dr Gary Brickley. We gained BBC news coverage on South Today. As a result, we were awarded an Inspired by 2012 Marque for our significant contribution to the Cultural Olympiad. In 2012, we produced a new exhibition, which had a seven-week residency at the Jubilee Library through both Games, giving BSMS unprecedented consistent profile in the community.

The impact of this was a game-changer in BSMS seeing what it could do in terms of community. In 2014, just before I left, it pitched a medical discussion panel event to the Brighton Festival in 2014, which I am glad to see is now a regular fixture. The exhibition changed even the way we designed our prospectus cover, with Todd Leckie recreating his poster image for our 2012 prospectus. This publication itself won a HEIST Higher Education Marketing Award in 2012, as applications rose that year by 15%.

What did I learn from this project? That sometimes you have to break the mould and do something different. Plans and strategies are great, but sometimes an unexpected opportunity is worth taking a leap of faith for. It was hard work, it was at sometimes worryingly tense, but then any leap into the unknown is. For me, it was one of the best projects I have ever done.

How the collecting bug can motivate your customers

The human need to collect and solve challenges can be used by small businesses to raise their profile even if the inspiration is from large public art displays.

If you are looking for an example of innovative fundraising and profile building, you cannot go further than a campaign last autumn run by a Sussex-based Sussex Martlets charity which raised £337,000 in one night through an auction.

Not a bad night’s work, but what were they auctioning? Nothing more than giant-sized fibreglass interpretations of Raymond Briggs’ Snowdog, the auction finale of an two-month campaign of public art and events that had dominated Brighton & Hove late last year.

There is no doubt that significant investment, and therefore risk, was put in to make this a success. After all, 44 fibreglass Snowdogs and a sand sculpture, each individually designed by an artist and sponsored by a local business or organisation, and placed at a wide number of locations across the city would take some significant logistics and planning, but the results were impressive.  

I must say I wasn’t sure when I saw the first couple of dogs around Brighton’s Preston Park and the Duke of York’s Cinema.  But a chance meeting at the Brighton Chamber of Commerce Summit with their project leader change my mind. She  explained how the sense of loss in the story of the Snowman/ Snowdog chimed with their work around hospice care, and I got to see how it fitted with their profile.

Then I saw the map of the 45 dogs dotted from the Amex to central Brighton to Hove Lagoon and Hove Park, I saw the scale of the project and suddenly that collector’s bug started in me.

 From the Panini Football '86 sticker album.
From the Panini Football ’86 sticker album.

Thirty-one years ago,  my collecting bug was like most boys – Panini Football Stickers – and a determined need to find David Preece of Luton Town to finish my collection. You see, there is a human need to collect sets of things, it may be thimbles, vinyl records, books, but also people like to collect locations. Every year groups try to visit every London Underground station in one day. I once knew someone who said he visited McDonalds in every place he visited (rather dull). This same spirit of going on a journey, to seek and find, had come again, so I decided I would visit all 45 in one day by foot.

It was a long day – taking me 9 hours and 15 minutes starting at the Amex Stadium in the East walking to the Marina then Kemptown, Queen’s Park, Preston Park, central Brighton, Seven Dials, Hove Lagoon and Hove Park. My rough calculation is that it was 19.5 miles, but since I had to walk a mile to my bus to the Amex it was over 20. I was tired but there was a sense of achievement. My wife and daughter managed to walk 20 the next weekend and we picked up another 20 as as family before they were taken in for their final show. In the end, through generous contributions of friends and family, we raised a nice sum for the Martlets.

 Somewhat tired at Snowdog 45 in Hove Park (9 hrs and 15 minutes after I started).
Somewhat tired at Snowdog 45 in Hove Park (9 hrs and 15 minutes after I started).

What I found interesting, is that before this, I knew a little about the Martlets Hospice but I had never thought of fundraising for them. This impressive display of public art and a challenge to visit them all took me to new boundaries and I understand I was not alone. Some keen cross country runners ran the route, others cycled, and some joyfully took eight weeks to visit them all – we don’t all need to rush you know. There was even an app which linked in with local businesses offering deals and value for the visitor which VisitBrighton sponsored, adding more profile, gaining 8,500 downloads and 180,000 QR code clicks. As a result, Martlets’ profile has risen significantly, and in some ways they can say they have written a page into the history of the city.

Of course, the ultimate collection is owning one, and many congratulations to their new generousowners who put their hands in the pockets or business bank balances to buy one. My eagle-eyed son noticed that my favourite one based on Blue Willow pottery is now in the reception of Bright Blue Wealth Coastal in Kensington Street. But even this was well thought out, with porcelain models on some, t-shirts and books at pocket money prices, so everyone would have a souvenir.

Yes, this was a big budget exercise, beyond the abilities of most small charities and organisations, but that doesn’t mean smaller firms cannot learn from this campaign. 

Is there an innovative way you can raise profile and engage with local businesses, making them feel part of a club? Maybe you can present your services in the form of a set of collectable postcards?  Or you can engage with your customer to interact with you by setting them a challenge to learn more about what you do?  Even advertise in a limited number of locations with thought provoking questions encouraging customers to seek out the other adverts and find the answers like a treasure hunt.

This might seem light and unbusinesslike,  But before this campaign would you have thought that giant fibreglass Snowdogs would have any link with hospice care?  It captured the imagination. By doing the same with your customer, donor or service user, by producing something creative and distinctive, you might well see profile and interest in your company increase.

A visual feast

I was drawn to the London Metro newspaper a couple of weeks ago by the impressive double-sided cover advert profiling the new Asda Christmas campaign, which has taken the Christmas dinner to a new perspective, quite literally.  Some say a picture can tell a thousand words, well this portrays 27 diners and their dinners from an angel on a Christmas tree perspective. 

 Outside front cover, making full use of every inch of the page
Outside front cover, making full use of every inch of the page

Look closely and you will see that not each plate is the same. The redheaded lady bottom left, who clearly loves the Brussels sprouts, next to the grandma who doesn’t seem to be eating vegetables at all, on the other side an empty chair since the boy has left his laden plate in favour of a toy. Meanwhile a pregnant Mum holds her bump contentedly while contemplating another plateful. A grandfather sleeps his meal off. While the all the famous stereotypes are there, but they have been presented in a totally different way.

 I actually did not notice that it was a fold around until a little later, I was more interested in the validation quotes and marques.
I actually did not notice that it was a fold around until a little later, I was more interested in the validation quotes and marques.

It carries on inside, even down the motherly hostess bringing food to the table and the additional circle table on the end over flowing with calorific cakes and delicacies.

Christmas must be a difficult time for the supermarkets, how do you show off your wares without looking the same? Those hackneyed catalogues of Christmas hampers look dated, the traditional laden table with white tablecloths look old fashioned, and images of children or grandmas eating mince pies, just too familiar.

Of course this campaign displays the wide range of food, it’s a supermarket after all, but it allows a story to be told, or at least allows your imagination to interact and follow the link between the guests, or just wonder at the range of food. You feel you could be there.

What was equally impressive that on the same day, the display screen at Brighton Station showed the same advert with an arrow moving around showing the items and prices and you get the full spread on their website, which shows how you can be consistent across all formats.

 The whole story - the digital version of the full spread on their website
The whole story – the digital version of the full spread on their website

What made it more impressive is that it was validated with a nice quote from Gillian Carter of the BBC Good Food Magazine Christmas Taste Awards, and a series of award marques. It is one thing to present the food beautifully, another to get that neutral external validation.

Of course the campaign was beyond the budgets of small business and organisations, but you can learn for their philosophy. How can you bring a different perspective to the products or services you produce? How can you present the interaction of your products or services with the customer?  How can you weave in the external validation, be it your customer or influencer?  Maybe you can produce your own visual feast to inspire interaction, engagement and sales.

Will it go round in circles?

There has never been a better time to sell products as a small business, but showing authenticity and great customer service will give you a distinction over your larger rivals.

I had given it my best shot, changed the needle, even taken it back to where I had bought it, who, bearing in mind it was two years out of warranty, still checked it for me, but to no avail. It was now making a strange noise, particularly on the quiet tracks. It was time for a new record turntable.

In these days of MP3s, IPods and Spotify it seems strange to talk about a technology that has been around in some similar form since the late 1870s, but I have always loved the tactile nature of vinyl. It is like you are holding history in your hand and when I think that some of my records are over 50 years old, like books, they have aged well. Somehow CDs don’t have the same appeal, perhaps because the oldest ones are not yet 30. Being a digital immigrant when it comes to music, I have gone through my MP3 stage (useful to run to) and come out the other side. 

So my search for a new turntable began, and the process of finding one took me on a customer journey that was a cross-section of past and present, old and new, analogue and digital. I feel that anyone running a small business can learn from this customer journey. 

So where do you search when you want something new? Well of course Google is the obvious start, but you need to be careful where you get your advice from. Reputation is everything and there is a lot of misinformation out there. I ended up viewing What Hi-Fi’s best turntables page. Twenty years ago, I would have needed to go to my local newsagent or even a trip to a WHSmiths to buy the magazine, but now it is there, at a touch away on the tablet.

I decided on a Rega RP1. I could easily see professional reviews and those of purchasers and with What Hi-Fi being an established information brand in this area, I had the confidence that it was a reliable source. I am not a Hi-Fi-head, I know little about the technology and had not heard of Rega before I viewed What Hi-Fi. Which reminded me of the power of finding and using influencers. It is no good having a great product or service if no one can find it. For the influencers to review you, you need to have a good product and service and a good package to offer either you as seller or buyer. They have to believe in what you offer.

Returning to Google to purchase this turntable, I came up with two sellers: Amazon and Harrow Audio. Now nearly everyone knows Amazon, but I suspect few of you have heard of Harrow Audio. Twenty years ago, still living in my home town, it was through their shopfront in Springfield Road that I gazed at extraordinarily beautiful but very expensive Hi-Fi equipment. Never in my dreams did I ever think that I would purchase from there, then or even this year. But the power of internet brought that little shop in central Harrow to me.

What brought me there was of course the quality of the turntable against my budget, but the fact that a smaller specialist supplier could compete shows good business sense by Rega – they seem to sell only though small specialist dealers across the UK. And it got me thinking about the power that the internet now has for small businesses like Harrow Audio. Twenty years ago, I imagine their clientele was all north west London, maybe Hertfordshire. Today, with some careful use of keywords, the world is open to them.

Google has made it in some ways a level playing-field. If you are selling goods now, it doesn’t matter where you sell them from, the world will come to you, but that is not enough.

When I rang up to run through the specs of my potential purchase, I had all my questions answered confidently, concisely and without any pushy sales talk. The advantages and disadvantages were laid straight, and I was left to make my choice. I pondered a little while, as I do, and a short-time later was prepared to order online,  but then decided to call, book over the phone, which actually was much swifter than online booking and had the benefit of conversation as well. Which led to another thought: it is not enough to have a good internet presence if you don’t follow through with excellent customer experience. 

The conversation went beyond the purchase and into the business. Ten years ago Harrow Audio’s focus was on home cinema, but in the last five years there has been a steady return to vinyl with them selling more and more of these turntables. What could have caused this trend? 

Well undoubtedly, vinyl has a different quality to CDs and MP3s. I am not saying better, but I do prefer it. CDs and MP3s have all the remastered smoothness delivered through a series of 0s and 1s, but lack the crackle that only diamond and carbon on plastic can give. Now today in our digital world there is even an app that will put the crackle back into your MP3s, which tells you about demand for authenticity, though through the most inauthentic way possible. Which got me thinking about how important authenticity is. Why buy an app to put fake crackle in when you can have the original? 

While MP3s have transformed the way we buy and listen to music, never before has so much music been so easily available, yet something has been lost. The concept of an album has been replaced with individual tracks, and yet the great sets of the truly classic music (that which is still played 20, 30, 50 years later) are presented in the form of an album. 

In the summer, large crowds in Hyde Park, saw two famous albums performed live with Carole King singing Tapestry and Stevie Wonder playing Songs in the Key of Life. Down in Brighton in September, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys played the whole of Pet Sounds. Clearly, there is still a demand for complete albums of music.

Why is this? I believe they tell a story. I think small businesses and organisations can learn from the revival of vinyl and of turntables. People still want tactile items they can show hold and store, they want items that have authenticity, they want reality, and they love a story. 

In my case the purchase has been as good as the customer experience – I am listening to music from it as I finish writing this piece. I am happy to say that it was a great decision. I once met a very successful salesman who said that he did not sell things, he just helped the customer make the right decision. Well that is what happened to me, and I am more appreciative of the service I received and so mention it here, which now adds to the supplier’s customer service story. 

And it is this reality, the story that no one else can tell about your business or organisation, that brings distinctiveness and authenticity, and as the return of vinyl has shown, that means a lot to people.

By telling the story of your business, or of your customers experience, through text, photography and video, you show your distinctiveness, and that may lead to better sales. Digital is important in getting you there, but don’t forget the attraction of analogue – the reality of needle on groove and finding a new and creative way of being distinctive. As the legendary Billy Preston said “Will it go round in circles… or will it fly high like a bird in the sky?”


 Harrow Audio... just a few minutes walk from Harrow on the Hill Station.
Harrow Audio… just a few minutes walk from Harrow on the Hill Station.
 This is what all the fuss was about.
This is what all the fuss was about.

The rules of attraction

I have been spending the last two years telling anyone who visits me in Brighton & Hove about an innovative new attraction. For short-hand I have described this as a ‘Polo mint on a stick’, but no longer do I need to do so since today, the British Airways i360, which at 450ft  is the tallest viewing platform in the world, has opened. 

Us local residents have seen this develop over the last year, but now it is finished it looks no less spectacular. I’ll leave their PR team to tell you the rest, but I am interested in this because of what it says about the history of Brighton & Hove – and therefore how it is distinctive from similar British seaside resorts. This can provide inspiration for marketing your organisation, large or small, or thinking of innovating their products or services or the way they are presented.

Since the i360 was first proposed as a way of invigorating a rather untidy part of Brighton seafront, where the remains of the West Pier stand, it has, and continues to be, met with derision by some. The historical societies and residents point out that it contrasts badly against the historic Regency and Brunswick squares nearby, while some have complained about the large public sector loan which the Council has negotiated to support the funding of this project, which could have been spent on other facilities for Brighton & Hove.

Both miss the point. The  i360 is the latest chapter in the history of Brighton and Hove as a resort, a place of attraction. Indeed it could be said that those squares might never have been built without attractions like the i360 of the day being created. 

Brighton was the first true seaside resort in the UK. It never had any heavy industry, it started as a farm, and was a fishing village and key defensive point on the map in the time of the Armada. When Prince George decided to build his summer house, Brighton was a tiny community.  Originally a pretty standard classical style country house, it was later modelled to become one of the most outrageously original buildings in the form of the Royal Pavilion, so distinctive that it is still, two hundred years on, the definitive icon for the city (although as of today it may have a little competition). The story of Brighton is one of new forms of attraction, from dramatic squares, to large hotels, and once two magnificent piers..

What powered its development was tourism. The new London and Brighton Railway, a major innovation of its time, brought the capital and the town closer together and new hotels, pubs, squares and shops caused the town to develop, and make it what it is today. What powered its success was the power to attract.

The i360 is just the latest attraction in the story of Brighton, as ambitious as the Royal Pavilion, Grand Hotel and Brighton Centre before it. Yes, the Brighton Centre might be looking old now, but in the late 1970s it was the cutting edge in conference facilities only recently overtaken in the last ten years by Manchester and Liverpool which are much bigger metropolises.

Of course, Brighton has grown in other areas. It hosts two universities which have profoundly changed the economy both in terms of students, academia and businesses linked to research. It has an award-winning library. The new hospital development – the single largest investment in one project in the history of the NHS – will make Brighton and Hove the centre for medical care outside London in South East England. And you need to look no further in terms of transformational change then the football club, once homeless and nearly out of the league and now hosted resplendently at the Amex Community Stadium and knocking on the door of Premiership (please let it be this year!). In terms of industry, it is the clickable digital media that is becoming the lifeblood, along with a few green enterprises, with some stating it is the UK’s San Francisco, but tourism is still the key.

The i360 is the epitome of ambitious progress that has kept Brighton & Hove as the leading seaside resort in the UK. Once upon a time Blackpool inspired the world with its Tower, Golden Mile, and use of new technology of electricity, but somehow that city seems lost between the fairground and the stag weekend, although it is still the place for ballroom dancing, see below. Bournemouth seems comfortably middle class and middle of the road. But Brighton & Hove is still cutting edge in terms of attractions.

And there is some inspiration in Brighton & Hove’s story, for organisations, large and small. It seems these days that business magazines, podcasts and advice is around innovation. It is good to innovate, for one thing it shows you are distinctive from your competitors. But it cannot be innovation for innovation’s sake. You need to look at the core values of your business and organisation, and what you are known for and then innovate in line with these.

You could say that Brighton & Hove has built its whole existence on being the place of unusual attractions, ones you really cannot see anywhere else. The i360 would look out of place at Margate, or Hastings, but they have innovated through new distinctive art galleries the Turner Contemporary and the Jerwood Gallery.  Sometimes you just need to wait for a trend, twenty years ago ballroom dancing was seen as dated, and shown on TV at 11pm, now the BBC broadcasts hours and hours of ballroom dancing every autumn. Blackpool Tower Ballroom is the place to ballroom dance, and this has made a difference to Blackpool’s tourism for the last few years – although perhaps Blackpool needs to widen the appeal beyond this, maybe a 21st century theme park.

 That’s why as an organisation or business, large or small, selling or influencing, you need to work from your core values and then innovate. Look at the market, at your competitors and see what you can do to give distinctiveness as long as it aligns to your values. And sometimes the opportunity is not immediate.

The  i360 is the follow-up to the amazingly successful London Eye, designed by Marks Barfield and indeed has got the same original sponsor of British Airways on board. It has taken sixteen years for a similar distinctive landmark viewing centre like the Eye to appear on our shores, but I think, worth waiting for.

May your company soar to new heights and view new horizons.