Startup lessons in branding…from Amazon & Bovril

In 1937, the world’s first-ever live football match was transmitted by the BBC. Arsenal faced Arsenal Reserves in a training match at Highbury, the only ground the Beeb could reach from their Alexandra Palace studio with their big roll of cable.

Eighty-two years on, Amazon joined the fray. Enter Jeff Bezos, the man who sold the world back to itself in cardboard boxes whilst overseeing the digital logistics of the human race. Amazon Prime will stream its initial package of twenty Premier League games across December. Coverage started last week, bookended by a simulcast of five games on Wednesday night and then six more on Boxing Day.

A mob-handed posse of 43 talking punditry heads have been hired in a reassuringly glossy package, underminned only by the prospect of substandard UK streaming speeds. Amazon is nothing if not a mind-bogglingly expert cash-raking machine.  With the entry of a third major broadcaster of Premier League football, it remains a late-stage capitalist play offering a macabre dislocated digital dance of choice.

Amazon is now a ubiquitous household brand, offering much more than ordering books online. In talking with a friend last week, it was clear she has a personal relationship with Alexa, the voice service that powers Amazon’s Echo. She talks to Alexa about the weather, films, restaurant reservations and the temperature she wants the house to be. She acknowledges that the more she interacts with Alexa, the more she buys on Amazon, from electronics, deals of the day, to everyday household items.

Alexa, in concert with Prime, has become more indispensable to her life than the mobile phone. Through Alexa, Echo and Prime, Amazon is creating an on-demand, personalised, signature experience and is becoming the world leader in delivering on its brand promise: the Earth’s biggest selection and most customer-centric company.

Amazon is betting that Alexa and Echo will drive consumers to interact with, and ultimately purchase more, with Amazon and Prime. The smarter Alexa becomes at knowing your needs, preferences and behaviours, the better she is at delivering a seamless experience – and the better experience she delivers, the more indispensable she becomes to consumers’ lives. Imagine the levels of customer loyalty it could achieve.

We are living in an on-demand world, led by companies such as Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb, but Amazon is redefining what my experience should be. Customer obsession is one of the hallmarks of brands that stand apart from the rest – think Apple too – but Amazon is the brand I am obsessing over right now.

So how can a startup build a brand like Amazon? Ok, you don’t have deep pockets, so let’s take a step back, way back, and look at how a foodstuff brand forged its own market position and reputation, and combine the learnings from traditional product marketing with today’s digital tools.

Bovril is the brand to learn from – yes, that thick, black, glossy, meat-based extract – enjoyed with butter on toast, or with hot water as a beef tea. It has been an iconic brand for over a century. Now owned by Unilever, it’s been in our kitchen cupboard for donkeys’ years, with its reassuringly heavy cauldron-shaped jar, chunky red lid and no-nonsense red label.

Just over a century ago, a revolution took place in the food industry, when the boom in urban population fuelled a need for the mass production of affordable, non-perishable foodstuffs in cans and jars. Advances in processing and preservation of foodstuffs saw the emergence of branded convenience foods, marketed as nourishing and nutritious.

Bovril was one of these, created by John Lawson Johnston, a C19th Edinburgh butcher with an interest in dietetics. Shortly after emigrating to Canada, Johnson won a contract to supply one million cans of beef to Napoleon III’s Army, following their defeat due to starvation during the 1871 siege of Paris. The challenge was that he couldn’t source enough beef.

So Johnston produced an extract made by heating carcasses of cattle and reducing the liquids that came off into a residue mixed with powdered dried meat – and Johnston’s Fluid Beef was supplied. He subsequently tweaked the recipe, and in 1886 Bovril was born.

The name Bovril was an inspired name, marrying together meat, myth and magic. The first part of the word ‘bo’ comes from the Latin for Ox and the second part ‘vril’ from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s science fiction novel, The Coming Race, in which the Vril-ya were an underground people with awesome powers.

Bovril hit the sweet spot for Victorian consumers. Amid the temperance and health movements, it was promoted as a constitution-boosting, meaty superfood, a drink that was alcohol-free but not namby-pamby. It had a dark, macho look and a meaty, macho smell. Where is Bovril today? It’s still on the supermarket shelves but in many homes the squat black bottle slumbers at the back of the kitchen cupboard. The brand is owned by food giant Unilever and sales tick over at a modest three and a half million jars every year.

So on one side of this blog Bovril, an established brand with heritage and longevity. The contrast couldn’t be starker to Amazon, a tech behemoth rampaging its way seemingly into any market it wants using tech and data as their go-to-market weapon, a company less than twenty-five years old.

Start-ups must balance their focus on their target market, while also pushing an innovation edge. As a traditional brand, how do you innovate (experiment) in new areas while maintaining strong execution on your core business? If you’re a start-up, your creativity, agility, and risk-taking are your hallmarks but you have to invest on building a brand to trust too. So let’s combine the marketing and brand building lessons of Bovril and Amazon, what are the key six lessons here?

1. Segmentation, targeting, positioning 

Amazon uses demographic and psychographic data to segment its markets, based on actual purchase behaviour, with micro-level segmentation on each individual customer, enabling them to convert web site visitors into long-term, high-value repeat customers.

From the start, Bovril was heavily advertised through campaigns that tapped into the mood of the public. It was British and the company worked hard to make sure it was a food of choice of the army – it was patriotic and nutritious. Bovril was cannily marketed as a food that could make the infirm well, the elderly strong, and the young healthy.

Takeaway: Be clear with your purpose and connect with people as individuals, crafting a brand message that resonates with your vision.

2. Customer analysis

Amazon’s target market is people who use e-commerce portals and comfortable with online shopping. The majority of their customers have busy lives and find it convenient to purchase online rather than visiting a physical outlet, to save time and money.

Bovril became a staple for thousands of football supporters up and down the country, gulping down steaming hot cups of the stuff, easing the chill of a winter’s afternoon and sometimes the pain of conceding a goal. After all, it’s what the good old Thermos flask was invented for. This widened their customer base and generated repeat business from habits – every Saturday afternoon.

Takeaway: Answer one simple question – What’s the special thing only YOU can do that your customers will miss out on if you never existed? Understand your customers’ problems and how you can solve them, then ensure you provide enough touchpoints for repeat purchases, building customer retention and loyalty.

3. Distribution strategy

Amazon understands that the most important thing customers want is the quick delivery of products ordered, and has more than 55 fulfilment centres in the UK – this does not include Amazon’s new ‘under-the-tent’ strategy of using existing vendor warehouse space for consumer-packaged goods to quickly serve customers. Their strategy of improving their distribution network enables Amazon to continually connect quickly with more customers as they scale.

In Bovril’s case, by 1888, over 3,000 pubs, grocers and chemists were selling the product, and it became so popular that an electric advertising sign was erected in London’s Piccadilly Circus in 1909. However, advertising was only part of the story. The company needed to source beef extract and protein, which meant working with ranchers overseas, with shipping lines and hundreds of retailers. The Bovril company was adept at building networks with people of influence.

Takeaway: Ensure your startup has clear routes to catalysing a market, enabling rapid, simple and quality connections that reach both your customer audience and suppliers. Create a brand promise and experience, create a real tone of voice that energies your network.

4. Build Brand equity

From being an e-book provider to emerging as the second largest e-commerce company in the world, Amazon has steadily made its brand stronger. Amazon broadcasts using television commercials and billboards, online advertising networks and search engine marketing. Bezos had this in mind when creating the company, deciding that it should start with an ‘a’.

For Bovril, inventor Johnston’s also enjoyed publicity – on Christmas Day 1902, near the South Pole, Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton supped on a cup of Bovril after a chilling march.

Advertising also connected Bovril to the fashionable and popular physical culture movement by getting sporting celebrities to endorse the brand. One of these, the world’s strongest man at the turn of the C20th, an Adonis-like star called Eugen Sandow, had developed his rippling muscles so that his body resembled a classical sculpture which he showed off to enormous crowds in the music halls – claiming Bovril game him the physique.

Bovril as a product has hit a few blips, with horse-meat scandals during the late 1800s, and in 1906 sales of Bovril dipped as result of public horror at the appalling human and animal conditions in the massive Chicago meat processing plants, whilst the BSE crisis in the 2000s also hit demand.

Takeaway: Build your brand reputation, and illustrate for engagement. Differentiate yourself and create your image – but go beyond a logo.

5. Product

Amazon initially started with books, and became the largest book seller in the world. Now, it is a multi-product gregarious feeder, satisfying consumer demand for almost everything.

In 2004, Unilver removed beef ingredients from the Bovril formula, in response to the growing popularity of vegetarianism, religious dietary requirements, and public concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (‘BSE’). In 2006 they reversed that decision and reintroduced beef ingredients to the Bovril formula.

Takeaway: Great brands have great products, they stand for something that they extend as a ‘promise’, and they’re consistent about their values in everything they do. Keep your product thinking agile and relevant to future markets.

6. Promotion

Amazon can be seen to rely on the best source of promotion there is – word of mouth. People telling others about the site, or mentioning it in a positive way is a sure way to have new future customers. We all marvel at the next day delivery – even on a Sunday. While Bovril used to be marketed using symbolism of beef, today its advertising taps into Britishness as symbolised by energetic outdoor pursuits in all weathers.

Takeaway: Show your identity, and be memorable. Effective branding builds reputation and trust. Determine who you want to be, create a narrative, be authentic but defy expectations.

Bezo’s forward-thinking strategy makes Amazon one of the world’s top brands, maintaining the customer-centric concept from its original foundations in every part of the company and its business model. It is the entrepreneurial eye for customer innovation, and scaling the execution, that are Bezo’s legacy for other entrepreneurs to admire.

For Bovril, reflect that people don’t necessarily buy just what your product is. They’re buying into your story, the values you have and the experience you will give them. You’re not just buying a foodstuff that they’ve had for years, they’re buying interactions with you.

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