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Ground Effect Balances Creativity and Discipline

30 June 2006

The Christchurch Press

Interbrands Top 100 Global Brands Scoreboard is coming out next month. Marketers will be poring over the results to understand how to create brands as powerful as IBM, Disney or McDonalds. But there are lessons on branding to be had closer to home. From a humble old building on Christchurch's Bedford Row, cycle clothing company Ground Effect have built a stellar brand.

Before understanding the lessons from Ground Effects it is important to establish what a brand is not. It is not a tagline like "Red Bull gives you wings", a symbol like the Nike swoosh, a shape like the Absolut bottle, a spokesperson like Vince Martin of Beaurepairs, a sound like The Warehouse jingle or an actual product or service like the Apple iPod.

A brand is all of these things and much more. It is best understood as the sum of all of the experiences, positive or negative, a customer has with your company and your product. The more positive that 'sum', the more likely people are to buy your product.

Ground Effect is a good local example. The Christchurch-based online and mail order provider of cycling (mainly mountainbiking) clothing has grown from small beginnings to being a significant export business. It is 12 years old and according to media reports is recording solid growth.

First and foremost strong brands are built around a clear customer need. "We saw an opportunity to make cycling and cycle clothing less serious - more fun, like surfing with big baggy shorts 'n' all", Ground Effect's founders say on their website. They thought they'd have a good business if they backed this sort of product up with better service than typically offered by mail order businesses.

Telling a compelling story is another ingredient of effective brands. "No nonsense cycle clothing for hammering the single-track, leading the bunch, terrorising the city, or just hangin'. Conceived by cycle nuts, refined by style police and constructed in NZ from hi-performance fabrics". Ground Effect's company description is both clear and attractive - contrast that with the typical marketing-speak companies employ.

They capture the same spirit in their product names and catalogue. "Crawl out of bed and into Frosty Boy - then stumble out the door for a wake-me-up blast on the treadly. "Fanging it down the firebreak, scything through the traffic or doing the post-race lounging thing. The Manta Ray delivers hot-weather cycling performance without requiring you to squeeze into a body-hugging mobile billboard".

Even their warranty sings the same song. "If it breaks when it shouldn't have, we'll put it right. No horsing around. No excuses. No cost to you. No problems". Most companies use a 300 word legal statement from their lawyer for their warranty statement and bury it in the small print. The intent is normally to protect the supplier rather than providing confidence to the buyer.

The litmus test of a brand is of course its buyers. I conducted a wholly unscientific survey and asked a dozen or so active people their view of Ground Effect. Comments included "Good service, reliable gear". "Local, good service, not fluro road stuff". "Great New Zealand product and website". "Quality, quirky". "Excellent quality, fast service, put something back into the sport via slush fund". "Specialised biking gear with a New Zealand favour, very quick and efficient delivery". "No frills, quality product". "Friendly, good service, good pricing, functional products".

These comments are remarkably consistent with the original vision of Ground Effect's founders. They have been able to build this customer experience with no retail stores, no actual interaction with people, no television advertising or celebrity endorsements.

So what lessons about branding can be taken from Ground Effect?

  1. Start with customer insight - strong brands are built on insights into an unfulfilled customer need. Ground Effect could see a group of bikers like themselves who wanted good quality gear backed by great service.
  2. Build an exciting story - Ground Effect has a clear style and flavour. They are serious about cycling but not that serious about themselves. That wouldn't work for everyone but it does for their brand.
  3. Implement consistently - wherever a customer 'touches' the Ground Effect brand it looks, feels and sounds the same. From the style and quality of their products, to the technical tips in their newsletters, to the speed of delivery, the customer gets a consistent view of their brand.

Ground Effect hasn't been an overnight success. Founder Fraser McLachlan was quoted in Unlimited Magazine saying "One thing we hadn't figured on was how slow it would be to build that brand from the ground up - we were horribly optimistic". Many companies are, but unlike Ground Effect they don't use the combination of creativity and discipline required to build an effective brand.

Owen Scott is from Christchurch-based marketing company Concentrate Limited. www.concentrate.co.nz