Whilst researching my latest branding project, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Ted Wake, CEO of Kirker Holidays, some years ago now. One of the snazziest dressers I’ve ever met and a delightful, intelligent man, Ted clearly knew a thing or two about ‘brand’ as his own persona is distinctive, memorable and very, very likeable.
Having stepped up when founders Chris and Angy Kirker stepped down in 2005, Ted has led Kirker Holidays ever since. I was their account director back in the day, and clearly remember a fact-finding meeting with Ted. During that session, I asked him to define a USP for me, to differentiate Kirker from the competition. The conversation that followed, has stayed with me ever since, and what happened after that taught me a very timely and important lesson.
“We care” boasted Ted. Not that I doubted him for a second, but doesn’t every business care about the service they provide? Actually no, they don’t I’m afraid. At least nowhere near as much as Kirker do. I glibly observed that everyone claimed that, so it’s hardly unique.
“OK, all our people are really knowledgeable about the destinations they’re selling. Most have stayed in the hotels we use so can speak from first-hand experience.” Getting there I thought. But again, there are plenty of tour operators and travel brands who claim to be experts.
“Attention to detail” said Ted. Again, without doubt Kirker DO consider every detail of their bespoke itineraries for the benefit of their customers, but the competition will claim that too. Pushing Ted hard now, I asked for specific evidence to support this claim. “When our customers book a trip to Porto in Portugal, we know that you need a €1 coin to release a luggage trolley at the airport. Remember, this was in the relatively early days of the Euro, and not all suitcases had four-wheel drive back then! “We tape a €1 coin to a compliment slip and post it to our customer before they depart so they can use a luggage trolley when they get there, just in case they didn’t have any local currency on arrival.”
So now I understood the Kirker brand. True attention to detail, a cultural customer-focussed approach that set the user-experience apart. It’s all in the detail as they say. Now I felt that I really understood the Kirker brand, the Kirker personality, the Kirker ethos. Now I can get on with developing appropriate, Kirker-friendly marketing. I was wrong.
A few days later, I was in a large supermarket. They were promoting their bank brand and were giving away freebies. Who can resist? I picked up a branded keyring with a detachable token to release their shopping trolleys in the car park. Immediately I remembered my conversation with Ted. Instead of taping a €1 coin to a comp slip, they could send their customers a branded keyring (with a Kirker token attached) to keep forever.
Back in the office later, I called my merchandise supplier and requested a sample to show Ted. He’ll love this. Or so I thought.
When the sample arrived, I hotfooted it to the Kirker offices. Once there, I excitedly told Ted about my great idea. He didn’t look particularly impressed, so I played my trump card. I pulled out the sample keyring, resplendent with an AA branded token attached. “Sit down Mike, let me explain”.
By this point the wind had most definitely been taken out of my sails, but I had no idea why. My idea was brilliant, a masterstroke. Surely this smart piece of branded merchandise would be memorable, useful, distinctive - and affordable?
“Mike, our consultants get to know their clients. They develop a relationship and almost become part of the family. When they tape a coin to a comp slip, write a handwritten message, sign it and pop it in the post, it’s not a company policy or a customer service process. It’s simply one kind, thoughtful, caring person looking out for their customer. So you see, when I told you we care, we’re knowledgeable and we pay attention to every detail, I meant it. That’s our USP. Corporate branded merchandise is something very different, and we won’t be ordering any of your key rings.”
Lesson learned. Thank you Ted. You were so right.