All that glitters is not gold

You have probably noticed that Shakespeare is getting a lot of airtime at the moment, as the 400th anniversary of his death is commemorated.  Probably influenced by all the events, articles and TV programmes, when I heard a news story earlier this week I was transported back in time to my school days when I studied The Merchant of Venice and this particular quotation.  The literary purists amongst you will have noted that I have used the more modern version, the original form uses “glisters” rather than “glitters”, but I’m sure that the Bard would be OK with a touch of modernisation.
So what was the news story?  It was about Birmingham City Council’s children’s services (click here for the BBC story), which are deemed to have made insufficient improvement, and are therefore to be run by a trust instead.  The external commissioner found “significant improvements” but that more was needed.  However, the council will “retain control of design, delivery and the trust itself”.  Now, I don’t want to get into a debate about the details of the story and certainly not the politics of it all, but it does rather feel to me that the change is a bit superficial, hoping that a ‘rebranding’ will change the performance.
The City Council wouldn’t be the first to try a rebrand to fix a problem with their product or service and I’m sure we can all think of a few others.  I just don’t think it’s the right solution.  If the product or service isn’t meeting requirements, then that’s what needs fixing, not the name, logo, colours, stationery etc.
When the product or service has been fixed or is well on the way, it’s often then a question of perception and reality.  In general, perception lags reality, so it takes time for reputation to catch up with real performance, whether that be improving or declining.  Brand image is built of many elements, but over time, customer experience is almost always the most important.  It’s really hard, if not impossible to create a strong brand if the product doesn’t deliver.  The opposite isn’t necessarily true, but a competent marketer should be able to build a good brand if the product is good.
One of my favourite examples of how to do it properly is Skoda.  Around 25 years ago, the brand was quite literally a joke, with a reputation for poor design, engineering and build quality.  “How do you double the value of a Skoda?  Fill the fuel tank” typified public perceptions of the brand.
Over time, Volkswagen, the new partner, worked on the product and then when they had something to be proud of, started to address the issues with the image.  You may remember some of their advertising; challenging us to revisit our now out of date perceptions with a nicely judged self-deprecating humour that accepted the low base they were starting from.  Now Skoda is a well-respected brand, representing a smart choice, with a tag-line of ‘Simply Clever’.  If they had tried to move to this brand image in the early 1990s it would have lacked credibility and almost certainly would have disappeared without trace.