Is marketing. Is good: Why brand strategy is so important

By Justin Ware. Published at Jan 16, 2019, in Features

Nick Hickford, the man behind Bulla Dairy Food’s rise to prominence, has joined Don Smallgoods (George Weston Foods) as Marketing & Innovation Director.

In his four year tenure as Bulla’s general manager, Hickford transformed the Australian owned company to become the number one most recognised dairy brand in the country.

Hickford has been tasked with doing something similar for this once ubiquitous brand. You may remember the all-pervasive Is Don. Is Good. campaign.

Is Don. Is Good. Is arguably one of the most influential advertising campaigns in Australian history along with Erich Planinsek’s summer sale, Yellow Pages’ Not Happy Jan, Cottee’s My dad Picks the Fruit, Toyota’s Bugger and the Slip Slop Slap campaign among others. In fact, there’s a whole range of advertising directors in Australian history who ‘oughta be congratulated’.

The man taking over Don Smallgoods’ marketing reigns is no stranger to advertising. He also served as the CEO of Wilson Everard Advertising and ran the Bridge Consulting Group for ten years, working with brands including Woolmark, National Australia Bank, Dairy Australia, Murray Goulburn Dairy, SPC Fruit and Europcar.

Hickford recently sat down with Finfeed’s Justin Ware to discuss his journey in the industry to date, and how companies can get the most out of their marketing strategy and campaigns.

Justin Ware (JW): Morning Nick, thanks for joining me today.

Nick Hickford (NH): No worries, happy New Year!

JW: Where did your passion for marketing innovation come from?

For me it comes down to two things: curiosity and creativity. I grew up as an only child, and because of that I had to find ways to keep engaged.

One of my favourite books when I was young was Joe Kaufman’s Big Book About How Things Work. It really kickstarted my curiosity: that desire to understand how a particular product or process works, it originates from those days.

That curiosity naturally extended into creativity, and creativity is woven into every aspect of marketing and advertising. It’s not just the output in the finished product, it’s how you think and analyse things on a daily basis.

I love that feeling of success you get when you know a campaign is having an impact. You often hear that around 50% of all investment in advertising is wasted, and I spend a lot of my time trying to understand how to overcome those hurdles and streamline what I do.

JW: You’ve recently been appointed as Marketing and Innovation Director at Don Smallgoods (after a highly successful stint with Bulla): what is it about forming a brand identity that appeals to you?

NH: It’s all about the question: how can I get this business firing on all cylinders?

I love the challenge and it excites me. Finding that single motivating factor that changes the perception of a brand (whether it’s a consumer campaign or for internal purposes) is the key to everything.

A great example of this was during my time with Bulla. We spent a lot of time drawing attention to the authenticity of its products. Unlike competitors (who use milk powder or vegetable fat in their ice-cream), Bulla used real dairy in all of their products.

That, combined with Bulla’s passion and strong heritage in this country (owned by three families for over 100 years), gave us a really strong authentic selling point.

When you establish that point of difference against the competition, you’re well on your way to results.

JW: As a former CEO (at Wilson Everard Advertising), you have a unique perspective and skillset (combined with your marketing and strategy prowess) that few others would in such a position. What are your core beliefs for creating a strong brand identity and campaign?

NH: For sure, working on both sides of the fence has definitely had its advantages.

When it comes to establishing a clear and strong identity I have two core beliefs: credibility and consumer contributions over and above brand.

Credibility ties into the point I made above about the motivating factor or point of difference. Nothing frustrates me more than pointless fluff. Devise an authentic, no marketing frills campaign for why consumers should trust or buy your brand. Why should they part with their hard earned money? It’s the first thing I did at Bulla and I’m in the process of doing that now at Don.

Contributions and support above brand may be a little left field, but it’s equally important. What is the brand doing for the country/consumers?

During my time at Bulla, the way that panned out was the emphasis on Australian owned and made products (origin labelling). By supporting local farmers, we were driving the Australian economy and giving consumers another reason to trust our brand.

I think once you have those two things locked down, you have a pretty compelling story to tell.

JW: Some companies have a strong brand presence but fall off over time, innovation and strategy can be broad terms: what advice would you have for fellow marketers and/or CEOs looking to stay relevant?

NH: Really good question. Above all, invest in smart research.

Falling off is often a result of complacency, stay proactive where possible.

To date, the first thing I’ve found very helpful is in-home barcode scanning (consumer panels), which is actual behaviour and not claimed or projected behaviour. A lot of the time claimed/projected data is sourced from surveys which rely on consumers to remember what they bought etc. The beauty of actual behaviour is you can take that to your board to support investment.

You can then use that in depth research to make smarter campaign decisions moving forward and correlate it back to certain campaigns or initiatives.

Mobile phone research continues to gain relevance. Especially when it generates data closer to the point of decision making for a consumer, a lot of research tools will ask users to take their phone shopping and take photos/provide feedback etc.

The final form of research I like to call on is neuro testing, for analysing new TV ads. The user wears a EEG headset while watching ads and their reaction is measured. This can be pretty helpful when trying to optimise a 30 second TV advertisement for example.

Smart research flows nicely into the always-on strategy: which is the simple act of maintenance. It sounds simple, but maintaining your reach and engagement across platforms and mediums ensures you never stagnate.

JW: Adoption of digital trends has allowed companies to get their story in front of more eyes than ever before (mass exposure), but do companies fall into the trap of ‘more = better’? Have you noticed a correction or refinement in advertising practices over the past few years?

NH: Definitely. Digital was the new shiny thing a few years back, everyone wanted a slice of it. While it certainly has its place, I don’t believe digital marketing has been the revolution we thought it would be.

In my roles, especially in low engagement/CTR categories within the food industry, I’ve opted to utilise the digital medium as a simple reach tool.

It’s great for getting some eyeballs onto the brand/product and raise the awareness, but I view it as just another avenue. It’s not the be all and end all, I’m not too focused on trying to convert reach into engagement via digital campaigns.

JW: That’s really interesting, considering how overwhelming digital marketing can be for any company. In your experience, what are the core components or functions that should be locked down? Social media, video marketing, prioritising inbound marketing etc?

NH: It is easy to get overwhelmed, but the key is to go to where the people are, don’t try and bring the people to you. That’s going to be a unique case by case thing for each company, but if you can try and stick to that philosophy you can cut out a lot of dead end platforms before you even begin.

My advice is to lock down your social media presence and develop the framework for a paid search/reach strategy. Facebook is not the performer it once was but it’s still massive. Instagram is a must.

Keep your website clean yet simple, have the information you need on it, but don’t invest a lot of time and resources into it.

JW: Extending off the above: Not every company has a sizeable budget to play with: what are some low cost yet effective marketing/campaigns tactics?

JW: An avenue worth pursuing is influencers on Instagram and other similar platforms, which can be highly lucrative for both sides of the equation. It’s cost effective, you can tap into influencers that are relevant to your particular field or those with strong loyal followings.

They are pretty easy to find and engage with.

Your brand needs endorsement and trust, and influencers need content. It’s a win win.

JW: That’s great advice. Thank you Nick, all the best in the new role.

NH: No worries, any time.

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