Few people know Charteredbrands well. Not that it’s intentionally secretive, just that the company has grown by stealth over the last few years rather than through intensive PR. The appointment of former Whyte & Mackay marketer Glenn Gribbon in August last year prompted correct speculation that the company intends to enter the competitive drinks market.
It’s difficult to describe what Charteredbrands does. It’s not a brand consultancy, nor is it an advertising agency despite performing many of the functions that both those types of companies do.
If anything, Charteredbrands could be described as a product development incubator, or as they put it ‘a brand realisation company’. Ailing, or fledgling, brands are purchased and then repackaged or repositioned in their markets, whichever is more appropriate. The company’s success with previously unheard of brands has seen it be overwhelmed by people coming to it with ideas or potential new brands to work with, which has led to it being rigorous in who it chooses to collaborate with.
“All the time we’re bombarded with people saying ‘we have got an idea’ but it’s just too time consuming,” says Dr Angela Pirrie, one of the founders. “Often those people think that they’ve got a great idea, but nine times out of ten it’s probably not a great idea. A lot of people don’t realise just how difficult it is getting products in front of people. We generally ask people what their business plan is but then we’re a very highly modelled company. I’m not a great numbers person but there are people who tear apart business plans and put them back together. Sometimes we talk to people who don’t have much of a business plan, such as a couple of brands at the moment which we’re about to extend. There’s no business plan for the extension so we’re building one instead. There isn’t always a business plan when people come to us. Realising brands is our strap line, that’s our game. We’re about getting more for a brand, and improving the state it’s in when it comes to us. We do that through what we call brand valuement.”
Charteredbrands look at businesses in two halves – brand management and brand valuement. According to Pirrie, the value chain aspect (getting products made, getting things to retailer’s depots and selling products into retailers) is much trickier than the marketing side of things. “The marketing is actually quite straightforward,” she says. “Logistics, finance, cash flow – all of that business stuff is actually more difficult. Also the positioning: ‘where will we spend the money?’. All of that a number of us could do in our sleep, although that’s perhaps demeaning it a bit. The unseen back office is what differentiates us from the market. People see what the advertising looks like, but actually getting the product on the shelf is a huge part of our job.”
The first brand that the company took on board was Glist, a dishwasher tablet, and then Zip, a brand of firelighter. Although both of those products went very well, Charteredbrands is in the process of refining its policy of what brands to take on, to move from household goods to drinks. To achieve this, it has taken on Pomegreat (pomegranate juice) and they have also launched Brooks, a Hertfordshire-based water company, which was completely re-branded and launched a few months ago. Charteredbrands is also looking at a number of alcoholic brands.
“We have about thirteen brands at the moment,” says Pirrie. “With most of our products, we have repositioned and re-packaged. The investment in advertising comes in proportion to ownership. It’s as much about identifying the weaknesses of the business. If someone came to us, asking us to invest in a product and we saw the opportunity to expand the product range, we would. We would own the expansion in proportion to what we owned in the original business. There is a revolving door strategy, in the sense that we will take a company in and look after it for a couple of years and then sell it on. That’s the general rule of thumb. We’re not really into building up a company that in thirty years’ time will have the same brands as it has now. Charteredbrands is about the real world so we actually do things, we don’t just tell people how to do things. We’re about trying to turn these intangible things called brands into tangible returns, growing them and hopefully selling them on. We’re not interested in just doing communications or just doing financial management. Our reputation is very important to us so we have to be very careful about the brands that we take on. Everything that we’ve done we’ve made a success of, and so to keep that untarnished track record you have to be really careful before you take on a brand and you have to be very confident that you know what to do with it.
“We are just trying to extend its brand life but you don’t really have any pretensions that it’s going to become the brand leader. It might be that you can make it last and give it some worth in the market, maybe twenty years rather than five. We need to sell some brands to keep investing – there’s a bit of revolving door. We need to get occasional capital injections so that we can continue to invest in new profits.”
Pirrie is passionate about the Scottish industry, but admits she felt frustrated when she first moved back here in the eighties from London. “We (her and her husband Gervase Cottam, Charteredbrands’ managing director) both just decided we were working too hard and not really experiencing what London had to offer,” she says. Her husband took a job as Pringles marketing director and the couple decided to leave London. “When we decided that we would leave, I was pregnant so I hadn’t expected to be working,” she says. “I thought I’d sort something out when I had the baby.” She was then approached by Hall Advertising and joined it as planning director. “I hated it,” she says. “After London, which was a really creative, ‘can do’ culture, it [Hall’s] was just like this ‘can’t do’ culture. I was the first female board director, and they didn’t know what to do. They [the other directors] would say ‘we usually go out to these golf courses, do you play golf?’. When I said no, they’d say ‘well what will you do? Do you want to meet us for lunch?’ so I’d ask where the PAs went! I just wanted to get out.”
Aside from the corporate culture, Pirrie didn’t have confidence in the agency’s work. “The advertising they were creating wasn’t that good, and if you’re in that world you have to believe in your product, so I just thought let’s call it a day,” she says. After leaving Hall’s, she went on to lecture in marketing at Napier and completed a PHD, before starting a new career as a brand consultant. “I was freelance and my clients were down in London,” she says. “Brand broking was just one of the things we did. There’s limited opportunities for that now but there were loads of opportunities for it in the eighties and early-nineties when a lot of EMEA activity just threw up brands that didn’t have a home.”
A company – Buck – was started by Pirrie’s husband in 1997. He had left Pringles and decided the future was in growing brands, but he met resistance from his shareholders. One brand bought to develop was washing-up liquid, Sqezy, which Buck bought from Unilever in 1999. “We did a complete number on it and took it from its original format and corrected all the small challenges people felt there were about washing up liquid,” Pirrie says.
In 2002, they sold their portfolio of brands to FMCG group Henkel and brought in a management team that had been at Barclays and started up Charteredbrands. The Henkel deal meant Chartered Brands had a contract to manage some brands for the company. “We sold all our brands to Henkel,” she says. “But as they were using Charteredbrands to piggy back them into UK in detergents, we launched Glist. The UK for Henkel was a blind spot, but we had worked with them for the last few years with Buck.”
Charteredbrands also has a London office, which it uses around 40 percent of the time and plans to open an office in Scandinavia. “We’re not into buildings,” says Pirrie. “We don’t want to be Interbrand. It’s really people and their business that we’re about. We need a home, but we don’t all need to be here.”
Although the Edinburgh office houses 22 people – not all at once, Pirrie insists – while recently interviewing for a new brand manager, she has been asking if people would be willing to work in London because there might come a point when they have to spend a lot more time down there. “We want to be up here but we still want to grow a global business,” she says. “Our home is here and our heart is here but we need to be practical about things. It would have been easier, certainly in the nineties, to think either let’s just go back down to London or just start becoming negative ourselves. We just thought we’re going to do what we feel we’re good at. We’ve been self-funded and we’d like to remain that way. There might be a time when we say let’s get a few million in so we can hire another ten people or expand to another country. We can see it going that way. We’re looking for another site in Edinburgh at the moment but we don’t want to build anything. It’s really people that our business is about.”