Bland National

What a strange week for the old and the new world view.
It started last Saturday when the Grand National was run at Aintree. This once fiercesome steeplechase was the pinnacle of the racing calendar for the jumping horse. Not just because it all but brings the season to a close, but that it is an event worthy of its National title, and for the public interest it generates as a one-off racing date for millions of would be punters.
Alas, as with all things in this country today, the do-gooding, bunny hugging, fox loving, doe-eyed, animal rights myopically healthy and safety brigade, have done for it.
Now this is not necessarily a view that will be shared by many people and certainly not by non-horsey folk. But here goes . . .
Due to a rise in regrettable equine fatalities in recent years, the pressure put upon the British Horseracing Authority to lower and soften the fences – was heralded as a success, but to some it made this years ‘spectacle’ almost an apology.
Recent history suggested that apart from the usual shenanigans with the starting tape, the horses ‘go off’ too fast. A shortened run to the first was thus designed to slow the field of 40 down, and a further softening of the brush fences introduced to reduce casualties. Ok, no need to reduce the punters hopes by half in the first few furlongs but to have reached the infamous 6th fence, Bechers’s Brook – the once legendary ‘graveyard’ of the bold and big-hearted, with ALL riders still on board was unheard of. Then to see all 40 still ‘in the plate’ when they moved on towards the 7th, suggested that this race had suddenly lost its serious edge.

Please do not misunderstand me, a horse fatality is as upsetting and regrettable to me as the next man. More so actually, as an owner of more than a few equines, I fully understand the beauty in their presence and the huge sense of loss, in every way, in their departing. But this is Steeplechasing, and with it comes a unique challenge for the boldest of horses and the bravest of riders. The ever lurking presence of danger, injury and death are what made the race unique. On Saturday by the second circuit, there were so many fences in holes that many horses simply hopped through the gaps liked Pony Clubbers on a Fun Ride.
But was ‘dumbing down ‘ the race the only way forward?
Happily for those who would rather like to see the race (and horse racing in general) banned, no horses suffered this year and I applaud that. Then again, only 2 horses fell in the entire race and despite the pelters that I may receive for this view – the art of the race is to stay in the saddle against some terrifying odds – but the spectacle – and the old omelette theory about breaking eggs, rather comes into play – is when those who fall along the way (albeit unhurt) add to the sense of glory. And anyone who knows the hunting wisdom of Cecil Aldin will appreciate his words – “a fall, is like the mustard to the ham”.

Curious statistics show that since the tampering with the fences started during the past 30 years, the fatalities had actually increased, in that 25 poor beasts failed to go home.
Whilst in the preceding ‘bad old days’ of the 50s,60s and early 70s, half of the races in that era evoked no fatalities at all. And almost half the number in total.
So why should an old-fashioned race of bigger, less yielding fences give a better chance of survival? Well a wise old jockey tells me that “the ‘orses respected the big old stiff birch, so the jockeys didn’t go so quick, so they jumped better.” The fear factor was truly a contributor to the survival factor. But how do you tell someone who has never sat on a horse, let alone experienced the thrill of a riding at a big black hedge, that some horses do not respect small fences and will add the equation of increasing speed, over any distance will exacerbate fatigue as just a potent a recipe for disaster??
But as the way things go – it is very difficult to explain this perspective to the blinkered and I don’t mean those with the sheepskin nose-bands. It was much the same with foxhunting. The hate and ignorance leveled at a community who understand both the country way and the viciousness of the fox, were never going to seem reasonable to the shrieking harridans who believe that the natural world should be one big fluffy Disney cartoon. Another British Institution bites the dust.

Which reminds me, oh yes, Margaret Thatcher died too. But instead of any equitable equine-sque respect, some people held street parties to dance upon her grave. Ho-hum.

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A brand new Royal

So in a moment of joyous maternal pride, the Duchess of Cambridge fluffed her lines when confronted with a proffered teddy bear. Or at least she has set the proverbial cat among the press tongues wagging, with supposition of a royal daughter.
This of course would be no mere royal daughter, for if indeed the Duchess gives birth first to a surviving girl, recent constitutional change degrees, that the child will rightly assume the throne, when her time comes. To whatever chagrin her erstwhile primogenitured brothers may say. Such is the modern time we live in.

However naming of the future queen is not much more fun, considering the conservatism (small c) demonstrated by the royals when choosing names for the offspring. We are looking at a pretty limited field.
The bookies choice must be Elizabeth, not just in honour of Grandma, but the two Es to date have proved pretty formidable characters, and every aspiring Monarch could benefit from such fortuitous a background, or is that backbone.
Victoria could prove a popular title, and the upsurge in the sound of Vicky’s, ringing out amongst the school playgrounds of England could run Mohammed a hard race for the top nomenclature. But somehow the Original Victorian age was so momentous it would be a hard act to follow, and maybe a tough soubriquet to live up to.

Mary is next in the list – but without the sidekick William, it seems too everyday to fire the imagination. And Dad William may find the joke (if he gets it) too perplexing. The earlier, headless, Scottish version, is alas, too tragic.
Then Queen Anne II is on the cards . . . but unless William sees his over coiffured Aunt as a superior role model, I doubt if her suggested relationship with his Mother, will trouble William Hill or a new wave of Queen Anne II inspired architecture.
Of course the Cambridge’s may go completely off piste and search amongst the married English Queens for inspiration . . . starting possibly with Richard the Lionheart’s fair Blanche or the seemingly never-ending list from the line of Henry’s (starting at the I’s) – Edith, going on through Eleanor (H II & III) Mary and Joanna (HIV) Catherine (HV) Margaret (HVI) an earlier Elizabeth (HVII) . . . still the favourite . . . and of course making a concerted bid with the headless outsiders, Henry VIII and his harem, made up of 3 Catherines, 2 Annes and a plain Jane.
It is too tedious to list all the Edward and George options, but nothing startling stands out.

Should they go for a little more global appreciation, the world boasts a feeble list with the Danish Margrethe and the Nederland Queen Beatrix (surely too close to the Fergie fiasco), as the only related and ruling offering.

But note, not a single Diana amongst them.
Tragic though her untimely death was, the fairytale idea of a queen with the name straight off the Bunty comic, was always rather surreal. But she would have made a beautiful Granny.

Brandstrong.

Hero or villain? One of the most enduring and popular tales is that of Robin Hood. The expert bowman banished to the Greenwood, who with his merry men made ‘robbing the rich to give to the poor’ an allegedly heroic pursuit. No matter whether the Sheriff of Nottingham governed with a set of rules endorsed by the great and the good of Medieval England, Hood’s altruism set him above the law. And so we see only righteousness and courage, and a shared affinity that he somehow cheekily cheated the system for a noble cause.
We don’t question Good Robin’s right, we simply believe that he was dealt a raw deal somehow, and we take his side in the tale.
So may I ask, when the generous end justifies whatever means, where will the Lance Armstrong legend sit in 500 years?
Will we automatically take sides with the modern day robber barons – the sponsors and authorities that have had their noses put out of joint by rule flaunting? Or will we look beyond the idea of what is right and wrong to acknowledge that an extraordinary, swashbuckling character used his given prowess in cycling, lets say a modern day equivalent of archery, and used if to such effect that he raised £350m to fight an evil greater than any fictional invention.
If Robin of Loxley’s vision was slightly less parochial and helped to fund a research programme into fighting the Black Death, would his story be any less romantic?

I am not sure how to take in all of the Armstrong furore. I understand his actions make him less whiter than white, but anyone who lives under the shadows on the forest floor, must have some dirt beneath their fingernails.
As a Dad and practicing good citizen, I instinctively know that drugs cannot be condoned as a pleasure or selfish pursuit – but that is not really the issue here. I am the first to down the Ibuprofen by the handful if I have had a self-induced skinful. So how can I make a moral judgment on a man that has given more than he has taken? (don’t tell me Robin didn’t take his cut)
Who is qualified to condemn what this man has done without fully experiencing and surviving the same extremes of illness, pain, desolation and extraordinary fortitude. Here was a talented cyclist but to all purposes a dead man, riddled with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and his brain, who not merely survived but drove himself beyond all known human endurance to win the world’s most grueling road race, not once but seven times.
And what did he do with the success and influence that came with it? – he built a cancer battling movement – Livestrong – that has and will help to save so many lives. http://www.livestrong.org/

The most telling stories I have heard during the past few days of Armstrong condemnation and debate, are not from the few peeved news-hounds, who tried to out him years ago, and lead their own questionable and dark path of bubble bursting: it has come from the legion of recovering cancer patients, who have stated they read his book and hold his story as an powerful inspiration that kept them going, to fight their own private battle, and to win.

Once diagnosed, how many victims of this cruel disease expect to recover just by hope and prayer? Just exactly when is a treatment, be it drugs or any other means, that may help the patient ‘cheat’ death, not welcomed? We may prefer to take the heroic words of battling and conquer to attach to these winners, so is survival a higher purpose than mere orthodoxy?
And wouldn’t each survivor wish that they could contribute to this battle of good versus evil as spectacularly as Armstrong has achieved?

So I am not sure where the Sheriff’s men hope to take Armstrong next. The story should follow that cast upon the scaffold, noose around his neck – the people spring to his defence and his outlaw-hero status is heralded. Is there anyone brave enough in this media-led feudalism, prepared to take that stance?

Lost its bottle?

Today I am weeping. The one company in this world that you could reliably hold aloft as the mother of sound brand thinking, has murdered its prodigal child.
Coca-Cola the erstwhile ‘real thing’, the strongest one trick pony exponent of brand identity management, has deemed its iconic glass bottle obsolete.
The very last 6.5oz glass Coke bottle, THE symbol of the 1950s, the American Dream and a relic of slimmer American waistlines, rolled off the bottling line in Winona, Minnesota, on Tuesday.
Now if ever a shape or profile defined the 20th century, this is it. Because the experience of drinking an ice-cold Coke from a bottle is an inimitable pleasure. No amount of aluminum, plastic or ice and lemon will ever compete.
So what exactly is this about?
The official line is the diving cost-effectiveness of returnable glass. And the rather alarming admission that 6.5 ounces is just too small for American appetites. But can we really believe that a business that pours 1.2 billion products a day down our throats, is really slaughtering the golden goose for merely budgetary reasons? It is akin to Rolls Royce deleting the Spirit of Ecstasy. The wheels still go round, but it isn’t a Rolls Royce.

Call me cynical – but is this another Coca-Cola ploy to tug on the heart-strings of a new susceptible generation? Afterall, I first became aware of the real manipulative power of brands during the first Cola Wars of the 1980s. When Pepsi were pushing ahead with their confident taste challenge, Coke inexplicably decided to tinker with their famous secret recipe – and launch a New Coke. Blow me and after umpteen hundreds of thousand howls of horror and anguish, Coke was relaunched 3 months later under the ‘Classic’ title, and until recently, (and rather self-consciously) carried the name like some honourable battle scar. The biggest U turn in FMCG history or a masterstroke of strategic brand management? Discuss.
So here we are again. Is this really a massive shooting of its own syrupy foot or a cute cue for the Facebook generation to bay for clemency and provoke a reprieve for brand sanity? Irritated as I will be, if this is indeed another fizzy-pop ploy, for the sake of all the brand principles that I hold true, I hope so.

Legacy hope

What a difference a fortnight can make. When I stuck up my last post, I was I admit, more the doubting Thomas than Coe disciple about the whole Olympic thing. Perhaps it was fear of looking ridiculously ill-equipped on the sporting front that fueled the apprehension – but as it proved it was merely the need to see a medal (of any colour) that washed away scepticism and saw millions of us embrace the idea of being British, and more importantly being British and winning. So 29 gold medals later I can proudly say that I was part of it all. In fact I have become like so may others, a proud participatory Olympian – 2 Golds and a Bronze for me, courtesy of taking part in the stands at the Dressage and the Boxing finals. So involved did we all become that Jay and I proudly waved our Union Jack in victory at Greenwich and I belted out ‘God save the Queen’ with the raucous boxing fans at the Excel. Jay played the part of patriot to the extreme, weeping to the point of dehydration as the Brits scooped the equine honours. Then again she sobbed at the performance of every horse throughout the afternoon. Except curiously when the Germans were on show, surely just a spirit of competitiveness thing.

The Dressage and the Boxing crowds gave a fine example of two sides of the nation coming together with a single goal in mind. Putting to one side the clear differences in social circumstances, it was in the queues for the lavatories that threw up one of the more light-hearted moments. Women, clearly resigned to enviable queues at such events, duly displayed that required patience at the female dominated Dressage. On saturday boxing night at the Excel however, women skipped joyfully past the shuffling beer swelled queue of men, laughing ‘no queuing for us’ with friendly-boot-on-the-other-foot joy.
We know a lot of people who left London for fear of chaos on the roads and the rest of the capitals transport system . But amid the brief fears of uncoordinated security prompted by the G4S cock-up, moving through London has been a doddle. The fearsome Olympic road lanes were invariably open to all traffic, and an added bonus was that many dopey drivers failed to read the ‘open’ signs and helped turn them into fast lanes for the more vigilant.
But it wasn’t until we actually ventured to our first event that we saw what the games were really offering. Travel to Greenwich was a joy on the water bus (why don’t we use this more often?) and returning leisurely in 35 minutes of effortless style, dropped me off at the London Eye pier at 5.45, meaning that I was still fresh for several good hours of daylight at the office – (if the 200 metres final hadn’t been on the TV.)

But reason for the smile on my face was not simply the ease of transport, or the fact that we were standing in third place in the medals table.  The experience at the venues was an extremely pleasant one and it was heartening to see that in last nights closing ceremony the 70,000 reasons for this happy experience were duly recognised.  The Games volunteers who brought enthusiasm, wit, knowledge and good humour to long days performing often menial tasks, wore their purple uniforms with pride and were rightly identified by Lord Coe as “the best of British”. I would go further, I found their cheery rapport and smiling helpfulness so refreshing, so seemingly out of place in modern day London, that it struck a sunny childhood chord about how people used to behave . . . and yet here they were still doing it in that gloriously indomitable British way.

This volunteer legion will stand out for me as the real legacy to keep alive. The selfless reminder that giving is a greater reward than expecting, and that there were at least a further 180,000 other good folk who put their names forward to behave in the same way. If only we could encourage the new Legacy advisor to use these proven people in schools, on the entire transport system and most importantly on the telephone (instead of the damned mechanised systems)- they could evoke a new era of national good manners, higher standards and sunny optimism. Thank you, all.

Where has London gone?

I caught a taxi at Victoria station at around 8.30 Monday evening. The lady cabbie was all smiles and relief as she told me that I was her first fare since she had clocked on at 6.00. “So much for making money during the Olympics, the tourist ain’t here and everyone else has buggered off.”
Personally I am rather enjoying the easy travelling through London – and I thank Boris and his media darkly scare-mongers for doing such a great job in keeping the streets so empty. So there is hardly any surprise that when the TV cameras pan the row upon row of empty seats at every venue. The over-riding embarrassment is that even if Lord Coe does get his act together and offers up those spares to an open market – there is no one around to go, anyway.
So our greatest show on earth is turning out to be something a little less grand than the organisers told us. One winner (and boy do we need one) is the BBC, who have got their interactive, live broadcast at every venue, act together. It is a trifle patchy – facts and statistics that Sky are so good at, are very thin on the ground, making switching on to an unfamiliar event half way through, such as the archery, rather a puzzle as to who is on top and what everyone else has to do to get there. This was highlighted by the thin coverage of the Judo at the weekend – just what where they ttrying to do to each other in order to score? And why were they not made to stop and tidy up their pjamas half way through?  Trying to follow which country was leading, following or trailing at the Eventing coverage at Greenwich was mentally as exhausting as doing the Cross Country phase. Actually that phase was ultimately rather tame – or rather too straightforward, hence our super talented technically adroit team, only picked up a Silver against the straightline thinking of the German team machine.
However more annoying was the hideous and clunky on-screen graphic of clunky horse and rider, flashing on in an irritatingly long-winded linear dissolve, every time the camera switched from rider to rider. It is bad enough that we are having to live with that hideous 2012 logo for the entire summer. Do we really have to have its bastard graphic love children animated and shoved down our TV throats?
However, next week I am going to the Dressage (with Mrs M) and on the Saturday, all the boxing finals, so I really should reserve my full Olympic review until the experience is complete.
And maybe its enough to say that I was growing increasingly embarrassed at Danny Boyle’s opening pantomime. But things picked up and grew to a rather emotional crescendo – when alas he rolled out Sir Paul McCartney and the brief light of British pride was snuffed. Hardly the future or a icon of British standards, is he Mr Boyle.

Every little helps for the axe?

In an agency review of its £110m ad account, Tesco has put everything under the spotlight. But the seismic reverberation that it may axe its 20-year-old ‘strapline’, Every little helps, is causing one of those jolly media debates that happily surface when we have nothing else to talk about.
The great and the good have got onto their hind legs, puffed their chests out and declared either heresay or enlightenment, depending on how self-important said cocky experts feels.
Common sense suggests that a line with an idea that has burned itself into the nations psyche, should clearly be treated with respect. But the fact that most people refer to it as a mere strapline, suggests that it is only familiarity and affection that deserves to be kept in place. The converse is more interesting.
I have always understood it (and this could well be apocryphal) that Every little helps, started life as a programme to engage both the staff and at the same time give its customers an inkling that Tesco were trying harder for them.
History (basically every media case study I can find and even Wiki) in fact suggests it was just a strapline, albeit a bloody good one. It famously accompanied a series of ads featuring Prunella Scales in the  1994 ‘Dotty’ campaign, comprising some 25 executions, that consolidated Tesco leadership under the ‘Every Little Helps’ philosophy. It allowed Tesco to communicate its active service, including higher quality, bigger range, greater value for money and their innovative Clubcard. In essence, Dotty gave Tesco and, importantly, its staff, the opportunity to shine.
Essence is probably not a bad word to use here. In the world of brand – essences, promises and organising thoughts have become the holy grail for the disciplined. Whilst Marketers may come and go, a deeply embedded and readily understood statement of service, belief and principle is the bedrock of the resolute business brand.
So if Every little helps, is now so imbedded in the working philosophy of Tesco, (and a quick glance at its own recruitment pages suggests this is indeed the case: “The philosophy of Every Little Helps is behind everything we do – it’s not just something we say, we really do mean it. Really.”) then a shift of emphasis in the ‘strapline’ doesn’t necessarily suggest that the ‘creatives’ have been let loose again in the sweet shop.
If Every little helps is to remain the spiritual backbone, then a new version to create a new customer dialogue could well be a good thing. Twenty years is a long time for customer messages to stay in place – and when you have spent hundreds of millions of pounds banging people over the head with it, at some point you just want to say STOP! I GET IT! – can we move on?
So if this self-important person can offer his not-so-humble advice to Tesco CEO Philip Clarke – keep the thought alive for the business but for us punch-drunk and disengaged punters, please put something fresh on the shelves.