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How to recycle your brand

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The Morgan automobile … also available in a pen

Marketing alchemy: turn castoffs into brand gold

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, enterprising Germans sold off parts of the wall at ever-increasing prices. That rubble was no ordinary rubble—it had symbolic value.

We all understand that a product is just a commodity unless it has a unique story attached to it in the form of a brand. Why, then, are brand managers happy to forgo so much potential value when old products, marketing materials and components of the production process are thrown out? Imagine if the Berlin Wall was simply pulled down and carted off to the nearest dump.

Although brand managers may believe in recycling, they primarily use investments in clean production, recycled raw materials and recycled packaging to reinforce brand image, comply with the law, reduce cost, or achieve triple bottom line results (all good things). They rarely recycle the substance of the brand—the bits of the brand that have latent value because of their symbolic legacy.

I recently looked at a few items I had bought and realised they shared one trait: recycling. For example, one of my pens is made from English ash. Not just any ash, but the ash frame of a 1961 Morgan +4 roadster (an iconic handcrafted British sports car with a wood frame). The pen comes with a picture of the car of origin and a certificate of authenticity signed by Morgan Motor Company chair Charles Morgan. As a result, what is usually thrown away (car frames are replaced when they rot) is now transformed into a valuable item (US$225, to be precise) that reinforces the Morgan brand.

And it’s not an isolated example. Whisky producers have always stored their single malts in wooden barrels. Old barrels are used because, unlike wine, whisky does not require the strong wood-based flavour that new barrels impart. Producers typically purchased old bourbon or sherry barrels and no mention was made of the origin of the barrels. They were commodities and viewed as a cost to be managed.

Enter Jim McEwan at the reopened Bruichladdich distillery on Islay in Scotland. McEwan realised that different barrels created subtle flavour variations so he began experimenting with old wine barrels. As these vessels were so crucial to the story of each individual whisky, Jim began to use the barrel’s origin as a point of difference. Some of these barrels come from the most iconic names in the business: Sassicaia, Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafleur among others.

This immediately tells you several things. First, for those in the know, these wineries are purveyors of authenticity and quality and thus Bruichladdich must share this spirit. Second, it speaks the language of wine—that quality and taste differ depending on the ingredients used. Such a practice got me interested in whisky. Third, it leverages the symbolic value inherent in these old wine brands onto the reborn Bruichladdich brand. Finally, like wine, a more diverse range enables consumers to experiment and revel in the complexity of the product.

Next is an example of missed opportunity. Several years ago I bought a pair of adidas shoes that were branded in Goodyear colours and used the same rubber as its tyres. This is a classic example of co-branding—use the reputation of one brand to enforce your own brand proposition. In this case, the grip and durability of Goodyear adds a very real performance benefit to a running shoe.

But what if adidas had used old racing tyres to make a limited line of shoes? Because of the performance demands of Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar, tyres are changed regularly and remain one of the least recycled items today because they are difficult to dispose of cleanly (a colleague of mine actually sells ex-racing tyres to Ferrari owners at substantially less than new ones—the teams almost pay him to take them off their hands).

Adidas has a strong heritage and links with the world’s best sports teams. As such, it has a tremendously rich and authentic set of stories to tell, which it often uses to differentiate itself from larger rivals. Adidas could develop a range of limited edition shoes based on tyres from different car marques, countries, years and events (say, tyres from the car Lewis Hamilton drove when he won the Grand Prix). These would immediately appeal to racing fans, who are often intensely loyal to a particular marque, and to collectors that pay exorbitant sums for rare or unique shoes. Adidas would take the lead on an important environmental issue and build a strong point of difference that goes beyond imitable functional benefits to include emotional ones.

There are four ways brands would benefit from this approach.

1. Recycling builds or enhances the sincerity of a brand’s commitment to environmental responsibility

In the past decade, Morgan has addressed emissions standards for its sports cars (unlike many others), emphasised its use of renewable materials in production and even led the way in electric engines with its LIFECar prototype. Likewise. New Zealand’s award-winning bottled water producer Antipodes (see page 50) is committed to environmental purity and a zero-carbon footprint. As a result it aims to recycle all aspects of what it does, such as turning its old billboard ads into sought-after laptop bags instead of dumping them in landfill. These bags are given to key restaurant customers to reinforce the brand’s commitment to environmental purity.

2. Enhance the customer relationship

The Morgan pen is the first time I have been able to buy a piece of a real Morgan car. I see it as a real step towards fulfilling my dream of ownership. This is why many luxury brands invest in accessories—buying Louis Vuitton sunglasses is cheaper than buying a bag.

These extensions do run the risk of diluting the brand because they decrease exclusivity, can be easily counterfeited, may be adopted by non-target markets, and are seen as driven by commercial considerations (and from a recycling point of view, they are wasteful).

But as well as building brand relationships, such activities may enhance an existing one. For example, a pen made out of Chateau Lafite Rothschild barrels by luxury pen-maker Omas can be used more often than the wine is drunk. Products made from recycled brand materials enable consumers to experience their loved objects in day-to-day situations.

3. Enable consumers to feel a sense of authenticity

Melbourne-based design company All the King’s Men attaches ex-Boeing aircraft seatbelts to its laptop bags. These bags (and all the examples above) are made from things with a real history. In an age were authenticity is often faked or stylised, consumers can connect to real places, people and traditions by buying products recycled from old brands. They can also buy brands that reflect their personal ethical values—be they sustainability, thrift or a preference for handmade products. Where the new product is made from a particular barrel of Chateau Latour, say, or a seatbelt from a particular airline, the final product is unique and evocative.

4. Creates high-value secondary markets

Even a cursory glance on auction sites such as Trade Me and eBay will prove that everything is worth something to someone. Even the seemingly most arcane products—old Crayola crayons, Anzac Biscuit tins and Pez dispensers—have their fans.

Prices for old sherry and wine barrels have risen dramatically since whisky makers such as Bruichladdich began using the barrel-of-origin strategy—previously they were sold as commodities or cut in half for planters. Niche producers such as Chateau Latour can therefore create valuable secondary markets to enhance cash flow. Perhaps New Zealand’s wine industry, with genuine icons such as Cloudy Bay, Palliser Estate and Te Mata among others, could benefit from this, particularly given our clean and green positioning.

So what can be recycled? And can any brand do it? The answer to the first question is literally anything. Consumers reward producers that recycle, they are always looking for something to express their desired identity and they seek authenticity through brands, so any part of a company’s operation can be a source of recycled products. Objects that are integral to the original brand’s story and are inherent in the production of the product will leave a positive imprint on the recycled product and offer a strong symbolic fit with other brands.

As to whether any brand can do it, it depends. The value of any brand-related refuse will be determined by the symbolic value of the brand. New brands can gain significant value using recycled materials from iconic brands. An experienced team of whisky industry insiders may run Bruichladdich, but as a revitalised brand it is a newcomer on the scene. Being able to name the barrel of origin on its labels gives it substantial legitimacy because no great wine house gives its name away carelessly.

Recycling is the new black. But marketers should not overlook the substantial opportunities that can be derived from recycling the symbolic as well as the substantive value of brands. Then they may finish the job started by the original alchemists.

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