From Marlborough country to Porsche’s open-door Stuttgart factory, there’s always been a place for place in branding. But while marketing channels may be turning increasingly virtual, Dave Waller discovers those physical roots are only becoming even more important.
It was October 3, 2018, before dawn, and the headlights of a 4x4 glanced off the mist that clung to the asphalt. They began their ascent on foot. A hand stroked a cold rock, a boot splashed through puddles, the dew glistening on hardy hillside plants. As the dawn lifted the skies, revealing the vast sprawl of the valley below, the purpose of the climb became clear: they were going to distil a gin. Here. At the top of this mountain.
With its Summit Gin: Mountaineers Cut, created at the summit of Mount Snowdon, new Welsh distillery Aber Falls became “the first to produce gin at 1,085 metres above sea level”. At least it says as much at the start of Aber’s branded film of the caper. You may wonder what on Earth altitude has to do with the price of botanicals –but Aber was also showcasing its local environment, picking botanicals on the route up, and partnering with other Welsh businesses, not to mention slapping its name in Welsh on its logo (Rhaeadr Fawr) at the end. There’s a clear statement to all this: this brand is about the where, as much as the what
Aber Falls also happens to be the first whiskey distillery to open in north Wales for 100 years. “Being a whiskey distillery is a very long-term project,” says Aber Falls’ MD James Wright, who has previously looked after Corona Extra and China’s Tsingtao beer, and was part of the team that launched Red Bull in the UK. “So regionality is key, community is key, even as we build a brand that is globally recognised. We're building something with very clear provenance, using 100% Welsh malted barley and other local natural resources, so we’re able to say, hand on heart, we're Welsh. But it has to be accessible, so people can find something to connect with.”
For Aber Falls, that connection comes through planting a flag firmly in Welsh soil. Which may seem curiously old fashioned. Place has always had a major role in branding, helping to sway punters through a product’s apparent authenticity or exoticism (seen everywhere from Marlborough cigarettes to China’s phenomenally pricey Maotai liquor). But we’re now living in an age where brands speak to individuals through platforms that mock the notion of borders and territories, in curated feeds that not only thrive on being fragmented and individual, but which bypass the physical environment entirely as they shoot a stream of messages straight into the brain. Anyone watching branded content may easily be doing so in the back of an Uber – another brand that appears beyond place, coming from nowhere, appearing everywhere – their eyes glued to the screen while the business of the real world flashes past the window unseen.
But against this backdrop, the stories evoked by particular cities, countries and wildernesses are not only still important to brands, they’re taking on new meaning. Instagram users may be trapped in their own feed, but they can also transport their mind anywhere in the world with a quick swipe of the thumb. Or, with a relatively cheap plane ticket, even go there themselves (and so drop that crucial pin). Jon Tipple, chief strategy officer at FutureBrand, which has conducted extensive research into place and branding for its ‘Made In’ country reports, believes there’s been a major generational shift in place branding – from building associations through imagery to cherry picking actual experiences.
“Kids are much more comfortable being more fluid about all sorts of things, and don’t feel the same pull back to place as my parents’ generation did,” he says. “It’s the ability to be a global consumer and take the best from round the world that seems to be inspiring people. But what really makes the difference is the experience you have once you’re there.”
So while the values that power Aber Falls – “local”, “community”, “regionality” – may seem more nostalgic than aspirational, this isn’t about clinging to the past; rather it’s about opening it up to the future. The whole point for Wright, who is actively collaborating with the Welsh tourist board and promoting other Welsh brands through his own, is that people come and soak up Wales for themselves. “We've not spent all this money on a distillery just so we can say it looks nice,” he says. Aber Falls’ parent, drinks giant Halewood International, launched the brand at the end of 2017, and it has already reached Thailand and China, as well as Europe, and is gunning for America in 2019. Halewood has invested more than £4 million in the launch – a chunk of which is being spent on a visitor centre in North Wales.
Come with us
Something similar is going on in north Cornwall. Finisterre, a cold water surf company based in an old mining engine house on the cliffs outside St Agnes, is a leading proponent of the open door approach to branding. Its marketing materials are basically an invite to live the team’s Cornish lifestyle, surfing off the craggy coast, the rain soaking into their woolly hats on cliff walks, even profiling the folk repairing jackets in its Cornish workshop.
Tipple suggests Porsche offers a similar experience. Anyone buying a new model can physically visit the Stuttgart factory, see the car being made and drive it home when it’s done. “Feeling that degree of personal connectedness is really important,” he says. “Will I ever go and visit the factory that made a certain product? Maybe not. But I do like the idea that that place is somewhere that I could see working and living, and I know that it’s there if I need it.”
Finisterre has gone a step further by embarking on trips to other less explored surf spots, and documenting them in evocative Instagram-friendly landscape photography, film and blogs. By sharing insider stories of camper vans and bothies on surf trips to the Outer Hebrides, and of friendships forged while surfing the forbidding seas off Iceland, it’s able to carry its family of brand champions on a vicarious ride to the far-flung too.
Follow the leader
It’s worth noting that these locations aren’t exactly among the A-list of global locations. They’re not London or Tokyo. But FutureBrand research has found that, as these more prominent places become prohibitively expensive, and as technology enables increased flexibility in work, other centers are becoming more creative in luring interesting people their way. Hence you’ll find secondary cities like Milan, Turin and Copenhagen increasingly branding themselves – to attract the kind of business that will, in turn, draw more inward migration. And there’s plenty of kudos in finding the cool that lurks in these unexpected places. The Frankfurt branch of the 25 Hours Hotel, for example, is an oasis of boutique cool in what Tipple describes as “the most boring city in the world”.
And that same equation works for brands in Iceland, the Outer Hebrides, Cornwall and north Wales. If that brand is able to position itself as an unexpected point of connection between a place and a category – Cornish cold water surfing, whiskey from Wales – its appeal will only increase, not just because it stands out from the crowd, but because it shows that anyone espousing the brand and its story must be especially discerning. And that is very, very important.
“To defy the conventions of the category, to be able to say, for example, that an English or Israeli wine is the absolute daddy, takes deep wisdom and discernment,” says Tipple. “You’re saying: ‘I know there’s no associations with it, but trust me – this is the one you should buy’. It’s an unusual choice and it shows you’re knowledgeable and interesting, that you’re one step ahead of the rest, and that you’ve been there and done it and brought new things to the table. People want to hear that story. There’s huge credibility in that. This is a really interesting emerging trend: people’s confidence to challenge conventions. ‘Fuck Cumberland, go to Timbuktu for sausages.’”
So is there a right way and a wrong way for brands to hitch their flag to particular places? If a location is lending the brand any kind of cache, whether that’s the authenticity of Cumberland, or the surprise of Timbuktu, does the brand owe it anything in return? Some would argue that it doesn’t. Take Superdry. The fashion brand is synonymous with iconic Japanese script, which it uses to gain an easy shot of Asian urban cool. Never mind that Superdry is from Cheltenham. It’s hard to imagine it becoming a multimillion pound global brand by trying to peddle the latest in Cotswold fashions. And the fact that its Japanese touch is entirely superficial, that the kanji on its jackets (translated by one Japanese blogger as ‘Extreme Aridity (do it)’ is nonsense, doesn’t seem to matter at all.
Aber Falls is proudly taking a different route up the mountain. Its dedication and commitment to its region goes beyond branding in Welsh. It has an explicit mission to connect its consumers to other Welsh brands, from the local Air Ambulance and mountain railway to other local food producers; it’s working with local farmers on sustainability; and with the Welsh government and tourist board to push the region in both food and drink and tourism. Wright insists this is a two-way street: with genuine roots in the region, the brand gets to benefit Wales, and that in return benefits the brand.
“On a regional level, people want to know what you're actually trying to do to support the community and the greater good,” he says. “And you can use elements of that on the national level to really bring people into your brand. A lot of people ask why we're collaborating with other local brands. And I say why wouldn't I? Our business will be here for another 100 years, and it's really about looking at how the consumer buys into the brand, how I build brand collateral and how they come along on the journey, not just with my brand but others in the region. The more touch points you have, the more it creates that groundswell for each other's footprint, and is a better way of reaching consumers you might not target directly.”
But the Superdrys of this world are clearly on to something: the meaning of a place depends very much on who’s doing the interpreting – and where they happen to be sat at the time. A brand like Uber, for example, may seem a convenient shorthand for a global, faceless, borderless corporation, but that may be a peculiarly Western perspective. Tipple cites the example of black South Africans, who may view Uber not so much as global, but international. He makes a clear distinction. “In London, where you’re more comfortable and not at risk of death, you may view Uber as a generic global service,” he says, “because it’s there with you wherever in the world you travel. But in South Africa, it’s seen as safe – because it’s from somewhere in the West. So people send their kids to school via Uber instead of on the bus. It feels like an international brand – simply because it’s not from there.”
In other words, even if you don’t consciously root your brand in a particular place, your punters may wind up connecting to it in their own way, regardless.
“When you sit in London or New York or Tokyo, global means just being from nowhere,” says Tipple. “In other places it means something different. It means you’re connected.”