A compelling brand is built on 4 pillars: category, consumer, company, culture. But one of these is more important than the rest.
While the impact of brand-building can take time to see, when it's done effectively, it is the core driver of growth. The statistics show over a three year span it has a much greater impact than sales activation across almost all business metrics from price elasticity to market penetration.
Building a brand isn't always easy. Most of what you'll find online talks about the basic brand assets: logos, colours, voice, and slogan, but few go into depth about what building a brand really means.
A big part of it is developing a purpose or mission bigger than yourselves, one that gives customers something to believe in beyond the functionality of your product. And that takes work.
This week’s interview is with Iona Ratcliffe, CMO at Ocean Bottle, and previously a brand and comms strategist at Wieden and Kennedy, Portas, and Droga5 where she worked on projects with brands like Converse, Nike, Google, and Gucci.
Ocean Bottle is a reusable water bottle, and each one funds the removal of 11.4kg of plastic from the ocean.
We use the company as a case study to talk about building a brand. We look at the four truths: consumer, category, culture, and company, and how we can weave a thread between them to create a compelling brand story.
We also look at the major activities Iona has used to promote and build their brand mission over the last year: including a partnership that led to Ed Sheeran becoming a customer!
The Four C's of Building a Strong Brand
An Interview With Iona Ratcliffe
How the Fxck: Hi Iona, how are you doing?
Iona: Really good thanks, Ben. It's great to be talking to you.
How the Fxck: Great. Yeah, it's great to have you on here. Let's just jump straight in, so you joined Ocean Bottle over a year ago, why did you decide to join the company?
Iona: Firstly, because of Purpose. I've always learnt from people above me, and also myself from research, working with brands and businesses, that unless you have a kind of purpose and a mission to what you do and just hammer the shit out of it, across not just communications, but the people that you employ, the way that you do business, and how you sit within the competitive marketplace, then you're in danger of being short-term, short-lived, short-traction company.
I think that to really carve out a space you have to find whatever your mission is and then stick to it and be consistent and distinctive. I used to talk about that a lot with brands and businesses. They had huge marketing budgets and spent lots of money advertising, but I quite often found that the mission or that purpose just got a bit cloudy and a bit saturated in just producing all this amount of work. And that was quite disheartening.
And also, on a personal level there was a real awareness in the back of my head around like what was happening with the climate, and the fact that I was in this role that was essentially just selling people things that they didn't really need. So, I used to spend a lot of time scrolling the internet looking for startups that I felt really kind of balanced profit with purpose. And, they had a purpose that I felt was really true and really exciting, but there was an opportunity for me to help shape it.
I really revel in the scrappiness of things, and so I wanted to find a quite small company and a startup that was quite young. And so I just reached out to Will and Nick, who had met at London Business School, and they'd just come up with the basic tenants of the idea and the mission. So I sent them an email and just said, can I come and talk to you about what I think you should do with your brand?
I actually just had my one year anniversary, like three days ago.
How the Fxck: Oh, nice. Congrats. So, the founders, do they share the same philosophy as you? Do they want to be a purpose driven company and a social enterprise?
Iona: Yeah, definitely. They do. But I'd say that what happens a lot with startups and tech brands, less now because we've seen the likes of AirBnB and, well, Airbnb is, I think the best example of a tech brand that's really prioritized what I would call like brand thinking and brand strategy. But lots of startups and tech product companies are very driven by quick, short-term results. Because you would be, because you can see where your money's going straight away, and those things tend to gear towards sales-driving, digital activity, rather than emotive fame building purpose activity.
Whereas actually, if you want to create a brand that's built to last and a mission that lasts, there are some things that you need to invest in that you don't necessarily get a quick payback on. Educating them of that, was quite an interesting journey, but I think they're into it now, so that's good.
How the Fxck: It's interesting you should say that because the first interview I did for this was with a partner at Spill. I don't know if you know Spill but they're very much this purpose driven company and they're trying to change the way people think about therapy from this thing for mentally ill people to this thing that everyone should use to have a clean mental health routine.
They did an advertising campaign in this interview that was talking about the 60/40 rule and that you need to invest 60% of your money in brand and 40% in short-term sales activation. And that brand 60% is something that pays off in the long-term.
Iona: Totally. Yeah. I completely adhere to that school of thought. And it's been proven like, I mean, we'll learn from the big guns and I think it's like Binet and Field, isn't it.
How the Fxck: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So do you mind giving me a detailed explanation of what ocean bottle does and your purpose and mission.
Iona: So, we're fighting the war on ocean plastic, by connecting as many people with that issue as possible, with reusable bottles. Because 22 million kilograms of plastic pour into our oceans each day. I think everyone knows how bad the ocean plastic problem is, but I think a lot of people don't necessarily know that actually there's a really simple solution: waste management.
Something like only 9% of global waste is actually recycled, and the reason is because a lot of our plastic goes off to places like Asia. And, they don't have the waste infrastructure at the rivers and waterways where there's just this huge like waste overspill before it goes out into the ocean.
How the Fxck: At this point, we took a pause and Iona took out the presentation deck to show me how they present the company to their clients.
Iona: So, as I mentioned before, we always start with the fact that 22 million kilograms of plastic enter our oceans every day. By 2030, it's estimated that the weight of plastic in our oceans will double. A lot of people think that beach cleanups and going out into the Oceans is a really positive, great thing to be doing, and we just need as many people doing that as possible.
But, actually 75% of ocean plastic is due to a lack of waste management infrastructure. So basically, we haven't got enough resource or infrastructure to be able to deal with all this waste that's coming from everywhere.That’s where Ocean Bottle comes in.
How the Fxck: So what actually is waste management infrastructure?
Iona: Yeah, I know. that's my challenge. It's like how do we talk about waste management infrastructure in a way that people get, I mean, sometimes I say 'people powered waste management' or 'people powered recycling'. It's tricky. But I think the other thing to think about is that when you are brand or when you're communicating, people will take different things from your brand and your messaging.
And so if you can be relatively consistent across quite a few channels and in different ways, that's okay. If I were to describe Boris Johnson like loosely, we'd have shared opinion on him in many respects. As in he's got blonde hair, he's scrappy, he's confident, he sometimes says some obtuse things, but then we'd have a different opinion about his politics. So it's kind of like that with a brand.
So some people really get the waste management thing, and to be honest, most of our B2B clients do because a lot of them are already interested in that world and the world of ocean plastics, so they know that it's a language.
But, I think on the direct to consumer side, that's trickier. So that's why we always push something more succinct and simple. With the sale of every Ocean Bottle, we fund the collection of a thousand plastic bottles.
How the Fxck: Yeah. I really liked that. It puts it into a language that I can directly see the impact of the bottle.
Iona: Yeah, but then I think if you think about the purpose and the mission, then it needs to be bigger than the product claim. And for me, that's the difference between brand role versus your product’s offering.
How the Fxck: So with Ocean Bottle and with any brand in general, when you start thinking about, you know, I'm going to build this brand, where do you start? What elements do you have to get right?
Iona: So, truth. I'd look for four truths in four areas.
It's always the best place to start because as a marketing person or a strategist when you're faced with having to identify the single, most interesting thing about this brand or what your mission might be it's hard to know where to start.
All you need to do is just start and then you start finding threads and then you can build out. So, how I would start would be to look in the four areas: consumer, category, culture, and company.
For consumer truth, for example: of the consumer that you think that there's an opportunity with what's the truth about them that is compelling and that's potentially missing from their life?
How the Fxck: And so just quickly, what's an example from Ocean Bottle for that truth?
Iona: People don't know how to, take part in the Ocean plastic crisis. And a lot of people are just paralysed, you know, a lot of people are just like: "fuck this situation is so bad, but I don't really know where to start". It's like: "is this recyclable? Is this not recyclable? Oh, the ocean is actually just in a really tragic state. Anyway, I'm so far away from it now. Why would I possibly get involved."
How the Fxck: So it's that sense of I want to help, but I don't know how to help.
Iona: Yeah, exactly. And that's why I think this is so clever because it taps into people's wanting to effect change by using their purchasing power, which is nuts, like people are always going to want to buy things. And so if you can harness that for good, then you're really, you're really laughing. Even better, if you can create something that's super functional, it gets used every day and it then becomes the kind of symbol of your involvement.
How the Fxck: Great. That's so interesting. So that's what you should look for first. And what are the other truths that we should look for when we're starting to build a brand?
Iona: Then there would be a company truth. So, and by company, I mean, that could either be something about your company's story, or it could be your business story, or it could be a product story, but it's under the umbrella of your company.
So, for Ocean Bottle, one would be that we all genuinely believe in purpose over profit.
And then the other one would be culture. So what's a truth within culture, like what's going on within the world? What's cool, what's moving people, what's upsetting people? And then the other one would be category. So what is the truth about the category that is not harnessed? So for example, our category truth might be , there could be a few, but I think what's compelling is that in the UK there's little to no loyalty.
So Chilli's stormed onto the scene. They've been valued at £35 million last year, and they were like number one on the Times fastest growing companies last year, but that might not be a huge amount of loyalty that just kind of in the bottle that I use. And the other thing that's bad for them and unfortunate is that the shape has just been completely copied by so many other brands.
How the Fxck: Yeah, definitely. You can buy that, I think on a wholesale website just exactly the same, but without the graphics.
Iona: Yeah. Which is smart, that's how I think they're trying to keep that kudos, and that would be a brand move. Right. Because it helps toward maintaining differentiation and pricing power.
How the Fxck: Yeah, that's definitely what makes them unique in my mind that the Chilli Bottles work with actual designers and come up with nice patterns and things. Just to come back to your category truth, what was that?
Iona: It was that basically there's no loyalty, but they're all caught in this arms race of trying to buy purpose. And, we're in the fortunate position that the market was already there. So we could, we could look at the market and look at what they've done wrong and then be like, let's not do that. Or let's, this is a space for us. But I think what they're doing now is that they're trying to buy the sense of purpose.
So, Chilly’s is more around kind of 'a bottle for everyone', or like 'a bottle you can make your own' with like the personalization and stuff. And it's all around like accessibility.
How the Fxck: So, just to come back to my original question, when did you start with the brand building at Ocean Bottle?
Iona: So, basically all that we're doing now is we're building a story that's kind of grounded in truth of each of the four c’s. And then the dream is to find a truth that unites all those together. Okay, so i if you found those truths. You might then be able to find an insight.
You would then probably be writing a lot and you'd boil it down to around four slightly different sentences that are angles on that uniting truth.
It's important to involve people all along the way, so you don't go back with what you consider a finished project and they aren’t in on it to. That makes the sell-in easier, I think quite often strategists and marketers think it's sort of like a relay, where you get the brief where you get the challenge, you think on it, and then you pass it over to whoever's going to execute it, whether it's the dev team, the PR person, the product designer, but it's not like that. It's a scrum and you need to be up for being in the scrum and not be precious as well.
We didn't go into the kinds of research that you do in those four areas of company, culture, consumer and category. In the company one, I would always do stakeholder interviews and so like speak to everyone. Like if you're doing something for Sainsbury's, or if you've developed like a food delivery service or whatever, go and speak to the people that make the food. Go and speak to the farmers. Go and speak to the CEO, speak to the marketing people. You need to speak to lots of stakeholders to understand the full picture.
And I would always ask everyone the same set of questions.
A while ago, I worked for this retail consultancy called, Portas, which is owned and headed up by Mary Portas, who's the queen of the high street. You might've seen her on TV, she says some quite punchy stuff like "retail's dead."
I remember she went and worked in Sainsbury's for a day, because you really have to understand the company culture. In an early-stage startup it's different obviously!
How the Fxck: Yeah. I was just going to say, from my perspective, from working in a startup, it's I feel like I am working in Sainsbury's all the time.
Iona: I know. I know. That is literally, as I said, what I was like, so am I. Because it is just so scrappy, isn't it? And you're like in the weeds all the time and the amount of time that I used to spend like crafting these decks, now it's just out the window. It's been a massive sort of eye opener just to kind of be cool with that.
I think I used to be a lot more precious, whereas now I'm just much more kind of relaxed and that's important to get everyone involved and you just can't spin out thinking about things for too long.
How the Fxck: Yeah, definitely. So my next question, what kind of things over the last year have you been doing to put into action that brand story, to build your brand.
Iona: So it was really important for me to get the logo looking slick and I worked on the brand strategy project for the first month. Then because we had a really small voice and no one yet knew who we were, partnerships became a big string to our bow.
Because if you can get on board companies and businesses that have clout and reach, you can use that influence to get your voice heard with their communities. That's kind of free and that's cheap, so that was really important. To do that we would sell them bottles. The B2B side of things was really good because, I suppose Nick and Will focus mostly on the more corporate end of the clients who would just be great for helping us get money in so that we could grow, but then I'd focus on doing partnerships with brands that I felt were going to bolster our credibility and our kudos.
Partnerships could be everyone from tech companies to ocean conservation platforms and NGOs and stuff. Just to help get that credibility because then you can talk about that. And social proof is everything right?
And so, we didn't have product until September. And it got delayed. it was shocking. It was awful, but we learned a lot in making the product.
But, we had a couple of prototypes, so we'd go out and we try and get these partnerships and that helped build the brand cause we could then go into another meeting and say: 'Oh, well, you know, we've only just got going, but we're lucky to count Airbnb as a partner'.
And that becomes a social currency, and that's the same with on the B2C side. Social proof is everything and I'm sure you know this: having people that say 'I really enjoy this product because X' or 'this product helped this', or ''this product changed my life X'. That's obviously the dreamiest thing to say that is by far more powerful than so many other things in marketing. So once we launched it in September, we really needed to harness that.
So the first thing was, was getting these partnerships to kind of establish our currency, and then the second thing was building the community behind the scenes. Like we haven't got a big social following at all, but it's all about email in my opinion because the people that read emails are the people that really give a shit about your brand. It's much more intimate. It's much more engaged and much more personable.
It's much cheaper as well. And then the third thing would be PR. So, Trying to just build, a story that the journalists can latch on to.
How the Fxck: I'm glad you brought up partnerships because we interviewed a CMO about 'how to build valuable partnership' that echos the benefits you just mentioned. So you also mentioned PR, on the PR side do you want to be writing about articles dedicated to the bottle itself, or are you more wanting to evangelize the ocean plastic problem?
Iona: I would like it to be more about the ocean plastic problem and the fact that we need like a new value for plastic and we need a new plastic economy. We do that because that's what we're about and our mission is bigger than selling products. But, still, quite often it was something that was more focused around the bottles.
How the Fxck: We then went on to talk a little bit about a new bottle addition that is being launched by Ocean Bottle, and some pretty exciting and very random celebrity endorsement.
Iona: We're going to launch a limited edition black bottle that today only Ed Sheeran and his tour have them. So that's quite a claim to fame. So we're going to kind of launch it with that and we're going to donate 25% from every bottle sale to collectors who need help right now when isolation is a threat to their livelihoods.
How the Fxck: How did that happen with Ed Sheeran, how did you get him on board?
Iona: So we did a seeding at Glastonbury Festival last year, where we basically persuaded a really boutique campsite to buy the bottle at a really reduced rate, so that they could I give them out to VIPs.
And so they put the bottles in the back of all the trucks that picked up people from the helicopters. And so that's like a brand building thing because a lot of people would be like: 'how did you know that anyone would pick them up or use them?' And we were like, well we didn't and we had to take a punt on it and use the story as much as we can.
But since then, Ed Sheeran then became a client. A really high profile person had a wedding and bought them all for her guests and Bicep, who are my favorite DJs, they've ordered bottles as well.
How the Fxck: Wow. That's so exciting, congratulations. I'm really looking forward to seeing that come out. And, thank you so much for coming on here. It's been super useful, and we've got so much insight from that. So thanks a lot.
Iona: Likewise. It's really fun. I hope it was helpful and look forward to speaking to you soon.