With thanks to the team from LUBS for permission to share this video
I was thrilled to be asked to talk to students, alumni, staff and select friends last week at Leeds University Business School, as part of their Corporate Wisdom series, where together we sorted some of the business from the BS in the world of brands. I was even joined by one of our Unit4 clients who came in from Harrogate. Lots of smart people, lots of smart questions....and lots of contact afterwards from attendees who agreed that strategic brand management needs to be more central to the curricula of business schools.
I was particularly honoured as, unknown to me, I was the last in the Corporate Wisdom series for that year, and the last under the watchful eye of John March, Senior Teaching Fellow in Strategic Management, who retired last week. Thanks for having me, John and team.
I’ve been really impressed with Mizuno Golf of late. Let me set the scene.
Firstly, full disclosure. I’m a golfer. Not a good one, not a bad one either (10 handicap, for those that care).
Secondly, a bit of history. 25 odd years ago many of the pros played Mizuno irons. Then the big dollar brand endorsements started coming into golf, and Mizuno couldn’t compete to the same extent. They lost their way as the Ping, Callaway, Titleist, Nike and other better funded brands promised performance: straighter, further, higher, easier to hit. Golf became a power-driven arms race that no one wanted to lose.
Mizuno was known for “blade” irons. For those non-golfers reading this, blades are thin, small and hard to hit. Think of the difference between hitting a baseball bat and a tennis racket. A baseball bat is wonderful when struck out the middle but much harder to hit, whereas a tennis racket has a trampoline-like sweet spot which is much bigger. While the golfing world went ‘tennis racket’, Mizuno stuck to ‘baseball bat’ (or at least that was what they were known for). Those who were good enough to hit them (eg professionals) loved them because they’re consistent and you got better feel and control, but increasingly these pros were contracted to other brands.
Mizuno was drifting off the golf scene, but I’m pleased to say they are back and it’s impressive. Let’s look at the strategy.
Perhaps getting that they couldn’t go toe to toe on pure power, Mizuno has taken a different approach, based on a simple insight. They get golfing aspiration. Golfers don’t just want to admire the professionals, we want to play golf like them. We want to know what goes through their mind, we want to be reassured that they’re human as well. Those blade irons? We’d love to be good enough to hit them, and maybe, just maybe if we buy the right set, we’ll put in the practice that will make them worthwhile.
So here are three things that Mizuno are doing brilliantly that is setting them apart in golf and tapping into that golfing aspiration.
In a category dominated by technology, they celebrate craftsmanship. Their clubs are objects of beauty and desire, with a great story of steel forging in Japan, of Turbo that master craftsman and of the feel of hitting a ball that is routinely described as 'buttery'. See the video below....
Rather than celebrity endorsement, they go for celebrity intimacy. Nick Faldo, Luke Donald, Chris Wood, all talk in a very down to earth human way about playing with the clubs. You feel with them, next to them…and as a result much more emotionally connected to them. Nick Faldo – sorry, Sir Nick Faldo - is not everyone’s cup of tea, but listening to the almost child-like excitement with which he talks about when his clubs came back from Japan in 1990 is infectious.
And, in a category dominated by power, they focus on feel and control. They’re not the longest clubs, and they’re certainly not the easiest to hit. But when you do hit a great shot with a Mizuno blade you know it’s going to feel amazing and precise.
Nothing Feels Like A Mizuno sums it all up: a golf brand positioned around control, touch, feel and the players craft, rather than power. The story builds on their heritage, and sets them apart from Callaway, Ping, Titleist et al, and taps into a deep, emotionally-charged space of golfing aspiration that most golfers recognise. And it is brought to life with a compelling and beautiful set of content that keeps golfers dreaming of being good enough to actually play with their stunning looking clubs.
“And then I went to Rochdale”. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the lovely people at the Workers’ Educational Association on and off for over a year now, and I suspect every one of them has heard me use this phrase at some point.
In the first few weeks of working with them, I had tried to get under the skin of the brand. I wanted to know who they were, what made them tick. I wanted to know how they were different. I wanted to know where their soul lay. I could sense there was a tremendous sense of purpose but that it was hidden. I’d looked in vain at the website and the collateral and the impact report that listed the statistics of how many students have improved outcomes as a result of passing through the WEA. There was no pulse, I wasn’t feeling it.
“I need to go out into the field”, I said to James Ward, who is the director of marketing, membership and income at the WEA. He quickly lined me up with visits to a number of sites around the country – the WEA has hundreds of points of presence throughout England and Scotland – and I went out to Southampton, Ipswich, Manchester, Edinburgh…and then I went to Rochdale.
I don’t need to tell you any more. We made a film about it...
“You’ve had an emotion by-pass” I remember saying to the senior management team at the WEA when I came back and presented my findings to them last year. They agreed and we’ve gone about trying to fix that. This week the WEA relaunched itself, with its heart proudly on its sleeve and with the simple idea at the core of it all – that the WEA provides adult education that’s within reach. Within reach in terms of convenience as they are in 2300 communities across the country; and within reach in terms of the non-judgmental way it welcomes students and teaches them.
It’s been a real honour to have played a part in helping make it happen. You can read more about the journey the WEA is on here.