City & Gild: Cutting back on brands won’t help firms grow

Craig Wills
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It was a sad day for many when the news reported that the West Cornwall Pasty Company was about to go under last month; anyone who has said yes to “one for the road” has undoubtedly stood trackside gobbling down the unctuous beer sponge that is a pasty. Stodgy, trusted and just what you need at that hour; the West Cornwall Pasty story is the stuff of legend.

The threat of administration and the heroic rush to save the company by Danny Mills made me wonder how a company founded on a simple story, that was built up by family and friends and that sold for £30m-plus barely six years ago was under threat.
There are a multitude of reasons for administration, but stories like this raise the fear that innovation, passion and true integrity in delivering your brand story are harder once a venture capitalist grabs the reins. How do we continue to nurture the very thing that makes small, trail-blazing innovators what they are?

In the UK it is with some reticence that we watch people grow a business from kitchen table to million pound sale – one can hear the harrumphs and sighs of resignation from loyal customers that the brand they supported through brand-puberty, the brand that they discovered and loved is about to overnight become homogenised, compromised and well, just not what it used to be. It’s a loss of brand value that the venture capitalist and investment groups need to focus on as much as the margin, the EBIT and the eventual [but never guaranteed] payback.
Reducing costs and trimming portions, refining suppliers and looking for new innovations is all admirable stuff – but the brand must remain the light guiding how these changes are executed.

I saw the West Cornwall Pasty Company stretch into pizza slices, coffee, cakes – all manner of soft drinks and frankly bizarre product ranges that embellished no brand narrative or story. I had similar, disappointing experiences recently at an upmarket burger chain which has enjoyed a multimillion-pound VC swoop; the detail had gone, along with the knowledge of the meat source and the flexibility in menu. Such a head-office, cookie-cutter approach erodes exactly the elements of the brand that were counted among its success criteria pre-VC investment – the very reason it was loved in the first place.

It’s a false economy to economise on the spirit of the brand: that’s what gives us human reasons to make the choice to spend or not. When that passion goes and the focus wavers, the story lacks credibility and we move onto the next hot treat on the block.

In hope that the pasty business stays afloat, the new owners must use the past to inform the future – simple, focused, trusted, playful, Cornish. It’s not a rich man’s Greggs, it’s Cornish and it’s pasties, people – get that right and the rest will follow.

Craig Wills is the executive strategy director of strategic branding consultancy The Gild,