Can sensitive marketing be successful?

I have rarely received so many email sales messages about Father’s Day. Perversely this is because traders have taken it upon themselves to check if I am going to be triggered by messages about Father’s Day.

It many ways this is admirable. In a year when so many have experienced the unexpected death of elderly relatives it is advisable to tread lightly. Naturally that’s complicated somewhat by asking the question in the first instance. Would it have been better perhaps to just avoid the F word in your seasonal marketing plan, rather than ask whether we mind you mentioning something which involves you mentioning it?

I suspect that asking once is better than then sending out repetitive emails on the subject. I didn’t read any of them deeply enough to know if it would prevent companies ever mentioning it again or if they’ll have forgotten about it by next year. That’s a whole separate issue. My concern is whether people recognise that a brand has put in the effort to avoid offending them, whether it enhances their brand reputation.

Our attention is assailed by thousands of marketing and other messages every day, it’s unlikely that we will recall that nice company who tried to protect our feelings – but some might. We should recognise that doing the right thing is a great sign of integrity, a demonstration that you know the correct ‘behaviour’ even if it may hurt your bottom line.


Sensitive Marketing and Father's Day
Don't mention the D word. Images by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash.

I did not leave any lists this time around, I appreciated the effort if not the execution. My father has been dead for over a decade and I take this opportunity to reflect how difficult he was to buy for – that cliché that exists around older men. Likelihood is that I didn’t try hard enough and also that there are now many more options. Being a dad myself, I have a self-interest in the ‘offers’ being touted. I want to see if something appeals to me, for me. It’s all self, self, self.

I also take a perverted humourist’s view of the products that are punted at ‘older’ men: Beer and beards, shaving, shoes, sunglasses and saki mugs (?), Alcohol and audio products (high-end, naturally). Of course, some of my messages are driven by my browsing and purchasing habits, which always begs the question: ‘if they know so much about me, can they perhaps anticipate my sensitivities?’

It’s been a tough year for advertisers, for brands and marketeers. Crushed by the demise of high street retail, harried by a crisis of consumer confidence sparked by Covid. Sometimes you have to go back to basics. If you want to show your sensitive side about cultural or personal issues check with the source. Ask people who know, do the research, talk to the communities. It’s always been about knowing your audience; nothing ever changes on that front.

Influence, and when to exert it

The recent arguments about ‘cronyism’ within the UK Government have piqued my interest, causing me to consider how mine and many other businesses operate and interact with the wider world.

At its most basic there are allegations that leading businessmen and former politicians were able to exert undue influence and have a direct line to policy makers and influencers. In some cases, I would reflect that this was the entire purpose of their role or employment, it’s why and how they got the job.

At most stages of business, you are interested in having influence; a belief that when you call or write it will be noticed and responded to. Many of us are engaged as much for who we know as what we know, and ideally a combination of the two. As business consultants or for marketing and events, people talk to us because of our experience but also in the belief that we can do the job better or quicker than others. Some of this is down to knowing who to call upon; having built relationships over periods and projects we will know who can do the best job and that when we call, they’ll answer.

Of course, it is different when this applies to potential misuse or misappropriation of public funds, but there are definitely times when the ability to influence or have input on the decisions of Parliament is extremely useful. Certain industry bodies like the recently established Live, the Music Venues Trust or the Night Time Industries Association exist primarily to give a greater voice to the individuals and businesses they represent, whether in the media or in consultation with government departments. I should add that paying for influence via party donations is something entirely different and that the work of these organisations, often without fanfare, is utterly laudable.

Questions over a level-playing-field are relevant, business can be a contact sport and its rarely fair. I know well that should we pitch for an opportunity and one of the other companies competing has a pre-existing relationship (personal or professional) with the decision makers, we’re far less likely to be chosen.

In certain procurement situations there are well-established regulations and safeguards which should always be observed but, in most cases, as the UK Government is proving, the boundaries are a bit blurred, and interpretations can be open to question. I consequently began to wonder if, and when, I may have unduly exercised influence for personal gain and whether I should be proud or embarrassed by it.

The truth is that the bulk of us work in businesses where relationships are crucial, they’re the very foundation of what we do. We may try to pretend otherwise but we all get by with a little (and often, a lot) of help from our friends. We have only survived lockdown and the absence of events, by diversifying and helping our friends in associated businesses.

Some of us graft for a while to gain an advantage, to become influential. We all want to believe in a meritocracy, even though we know it’s been disproven. All we can do is ensure that our behaviour is ethical, that we act fairly and bring others along with us rather than pulling the ladder up as we scale it. Knowing and acknowledging your privileges is a great starting point. In business as in life, use your influence wisely.

hmv Empire, Coventry, venue, live music,

Writing for PR

I don't do much PR these days but it's a pleasure to be part of the upcoming success story that is the hmv Empire, Coventry - taking live music to the centre of the city. I always like to write a press release and take pleasure in publications that use my words in their entirety. I recognise that this is often due to the dwindling numbers in newsrooms around the country but the story still has to be good enough and well told to get the results. This was our recent statement.

Empire and hmv join forces:

Empire Coventry strikes landmark deal with legendary entertainment brand hmv

Coventry music venue, The Empire, has today announced details of a partnership with leading entertainment brand, hmv. The venue, which is in the process of re-locating to the city centre, will be known as the hmv Empire in this historic three-year deal.

hmv Empire, Coventry will open on Hertford Street this year following a £500,000 re-development of a former retail site and cinema. Although Covid-19 has delayed the opening by a number of months, this exclusive partnership gives the music venue a significant boost, placing them at the forefront of the national touring scene.

hmv Empire, Coventry Head of Programming, Dave Brayley, welcomed the partnership: "We've had a long association with hmv back to our original site in Far Gosford Street where we co-hosted a number of exclusive performances including a fantastic show with Sam Fender.

"This extended commercial relationship is a great step for us, putting the venue and city firmly on the map with artist, agents and labels".

Patrizia Leighton, Marketing and Commercial Director, hmv, said:

"hmv has had a very close relationship with performing artists since we started selling recorded music in 1921. We wanted to show our support for live music, performers and all those working behind the scenes at a time when that support is more vital than ever.

“As Coventry celebrates being the City of Culture for 2021, and as we celebrate our 100th anniversary, hmv’s sponsorship of this incredible new venue will help cement live music’s place at the heart of Coventry’s cultural scene and introduce music fans to new bands and artists. Together with the hmv Empire team, we’re looking forward to offering amazing live experiences as the country comes out of lockdown.”

Empire founder, Phil Rooney, is delighted to have hmv on board: “When we first thought about commercial partners for the Empire, we were keen to avoid the usual lifestyle and utility companies, we always wanted a brand with a strong musical heritage and there’s none better than hmv.hmv Empire Coventry, live music, venue

“Growing up in Cov, the hmv in Hertford Street was the one place you were guaranteed to find me every weekend. To think now that we’re going to have a premier entertainment venue in the centre of the city, carrying the name of this iconic music retailer, it just blows my mind”.

The sponsorship, which runs until 2024, is hmv’s only venue naming deal in the UK and includes the potential for artist showcases and unique album launch events, bringing a host of names to Coventry. Shows already confirmed at the hmv Empire include Tom Grennan, Arlo Parks, Roy Ayers, Maximo Park, Jimmy Carr and a number of events curated by Specials frontman Terry Hall as part of the City of Culture.

Subject to further Coronavirus restrictions the hmv Empire, Coventry is due to open with a socially distanced performance from the comedian, Al Murray, on June 11th.


So far we have gained coverage from Music Week, Complete Music Update and a number of industry titles plus significant social media andall the main local news outlets including a breakfast interview with BBC Radio CWR. When we have the branding in place and the venue is closer to completion, we will look to execute a 'reveal' which will be staged for TV and online use.

Culture war, what is it good for?

Happy Pogues day everyone!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, that annual event when people, usually spurred on by click-bait media organisations, lose their minds over whether Fairytale of New York should be censored. Previously it may have been known as the day when radio stations started playing Christmas songs (a month & a bit prior to the date) and we’d all ruminate over whether it was ‘too early’, but now we have a real argument to get our teeth into.

In some senses it’s a more orderly and less divisive re-run of the Christmas vs Winter Festival or ‘war on Christmas’ debate favoured by the ‘red tops’ and right-wing shock jocks which blighted the start of festivities for many years. At least we can sing-a-long to this one.

The decision over whether to clip or obscure some lyrics which can be construed as homophobic and misogynistic is one of changing and challenging cultural norms. What may have been acceptable once upon a time is not always going to be the case and all media outlets have to be sensitive to the times and opinions of their audience.

fairytale of new york censorshipCulture wars demand that we pick a side and defend it but there are instances, and this may be one, where it is possible to see both sides. When this argument bubbled up again last year, I was minded to reflect that you must always consider the context, particularly in a work of art. The questionable lyrics are exchanged in the setting of an argument, one conducted by characters in a different time and place. This being the case, a fixed mindset benefits no-one and there are rarely any good reasons to willingly cause offence. I might defend your right to express an opinion but choose not to share it with others, and certainly not broadcast it.

This time around the BBC are executing their right to straddle both sides of the fence as befitting an impartial broadcaster.  The decision - playing different versions dependent on the choice of station - seems rational in many senses, in that it changes the use relevant to the market the station is serving and their respective attitudes. It also allows the debate to fester, which in turn promotes the fact that the Christmas songs have started up again. It’s a win-win in a situation that rarely produces a positive outcome.

That Christmas is often known as a time for consternation and celebration, of tradition and turbulence possibly reward the song’s legendary status: it reflects the mood of the times, it is universal, and it is loved. If we remember nothing else each year it should be that The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl created the definitive Christmas anthem and caused almost everyone else to give up trying. Happy Christmas your arse.

How to communicate in a crisis

It’s no great secret that effective communication is important whether faced by crisis or otherwise, however a crisis does heighten the need to convey important messages and ensure that they’re understood.

The UK Government’s apparent inability to take hold of the Covid-19 catastrophe is a lesson in communication, with both good and bad examples. Without heaping further criticism on them it is possible to see what we can learn.

Rule of three

It is obvious that the Govt. comms team are obsessed with the rule of three. Most will be familiar with the rationale behind this, it's a triptych which apparently dates back to Aristotle.  For those who are not, it is an effective means of communicating in both written and verbal forms. A pattern of three units combines both brevity and rhythm and is the smallest grouping to allow this. In the early days of Covid the simple message of ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS and Save Lives’ was effective mostly because it led with a clear instruction. Frequent repetition of the message was invaluable to drive it home, following the holy grail of presenting information: Tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.

It is suggested that the first message was so successful that it became difficult to modify it in later stages. Indeed, the mistake at that point may have been in trying to repeat the process with slightly different messaging, thereby prompting confusion. Latterly, particularly when backed up with simple graphics, they got back on track with ‘Hands, Face, Space’ although they had undermined their own efforts by this point, enabling sufficient doubt and suspicion to creep in during the process. Distrust from your target audience will naturally scupper most of your efforts.

For our purposes, the rule of three to apply to your comms efforts can be clarified, with a bit of alliteration to help it stick. Always communicate clearly, calmly and confidently.


Communicating with a wide audience is impossible without clarity. Ideally you would know your target market and your model customer and aim the messaging at them, in a language they speak – terms and phrasing they’d use. To communicate more widely and take in a broader audience you need simplicity, common words and clear ideas. It is broadly accepted that the most popular newspapers in the country are written for a reading age of 9-12. To be easily understood you may have to mimic the masters.


A crisis often induces panic, and this clouds the mind as it races around trying to find a safe-ground of reason or explanation. In order to cut through this you will have to deliver the message calmly, to provide the solution and pacify the crowd. Choice of words is all important here, think of positive terms instead of negative ones, you want to establish control.


If you want to be believed you will have to appear confident. To be sure of the facts enables you to transmit them to a receptive audience. Clarity, calmness and confidence are the three tiers to any communication, crisis or no crisis. If you’d like to add a fourth, then consistency is also valuable. People distrust back-tracking and u-turns – if you’re following the science one day then ignoring it on another will badly undermine your credibility.

communication in a crisis
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

In the situations and circumstances surrounding Covid-19 it can be argued that there was too much complexity, too many differentials and changing circumstances over too wide an audience and geographical area. It should still have been simplified and having a 3-tier system using both numbers and explainers could seldom hit the intended goal of being readily comprehensible, particularly when the lowest or starting tier is ‘medium’. It’s never a great idea to try and bend widely understood words to a new meaning.

If you want to cut-through a crisis, think and communicate clearly, calmly and confidently with consistency and credibility. Check your thinking and wording with external advisors or consultants if you have any doubts, and always be sure of the points you’re trying to make.

Chris Hadfield 2018

For the third year running we are delighted to be assisting Unique Lives & Entertainment in the promotion of Chris Hadfield's UK tour. The ever-popular astronaut will be appearing in Southampton, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast next February. Full info is here.

Chris Hadfield at Symphony Hall
Howard Szigeti, Unique Lives; Paul Flower, Profound Media; Chris Hadfield; Chris Proctor, Symphony Hall