White off – the HS2 debate goes on

As the white snow miraculously disappears here in the Chilterns, local minds turn once more to the (other white) issue of the moment in the Tory heartlands: HS2. Is this the White Elephant that all the householders make out here in Wendover and the surrounding areas? This protest will now extend to further Tory seats in Cheshire, where similar action groups will spring up as the next phase of the line is announced today. But how should it move forward?

Investment needed

I think the improvement of our rail links and travel across the country is essential. Too many trains are cramped, overcrowded, run late and the infrastructure is simply not up to the demands of the 21st century. The train operating franchises have improved the levels of service yes, but without more investment the scope for improvement is limited.

Economic nonsense

On the economic debate, I believe we need to cautiously invest in growth programmes – providing we have cut our cloth in the remainder of our public services to afford it. But I don’t think the current HS2 plan is the answer. Why? Because if you take a logical and considered approach to the issues, a high speed rail link to the north and Scotland is not the answer. The UK is not a huge rural expanse like some of Europe. The economics just don’t add up and instead of taking business to the north, it could just as easily make it simpler to commute south, where the much of the work is anyway. HS2 is indeed a White Elephant.

Common sense

So let’s use some common sense and invest in an infrastructure programme that is required for the future. Don’t cancel it or mark it as a write off  – just get it right. As any experienced cabinet maker will tell you when you have a fine piece of timber on the work bench – measure three times, cut once. Similarly, a good programme manager will tell you to invest at least 10% in the resource needed to design and plan something like this. – otherwise you will have prohibitive rework costs – HS2 works the same.

Get it right

The politicians seem adamant to go ahead with this project, so use the opportunity to get it right. My plea to PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne is as follows:

– Make sure it is affordable
– Understand why you are doing this, what are the challenges and issues you are trying to overcome?
– Do a proper requirements capture (i.e. understands the needs of the consumer).
– Design something that then meets the needs of the consumer

Do it once, do it right

It is simple systems engineering. But the rhetoric about growth strategies and economic problems will not be overcome by a White Elephant. Let’s sort out the overcrowded trains; the lack of links between Heathrow and our other cities and our transport hubs and think about the existing infrastructure that is creaking at the seams and lacks the upgrades and infrastructure needed. A one hour improvement to Leeds to an out of city station that will take time to get to is not the answer. The fares will also be prohibitive. As a case in point: this week I booked a flight to Poland to visit a shared service centre we are working on – the flights costs £17 each way!

Come on. Let’s do something with our transport infrastructure, but do it once and do it right. Then we will all applaud this project wholeheartedly and not be seen to be Nimbys – because the business case really adds up.

Nigel Peters, MD at Alium Partners: www.aliumpartners.com

Brand Britain

At the recent MHA (*) roundtable event which gathered together SME manufacturers together from across the country the managing and finance directors of those companies discussed four key themes based on “how can Government really help manufacturers?”

The four key themes, each developed and chaired by an expert in that field, were bank and grant funding, taxation, skills and education and government strategy. A report has been produced and sent to Dr Vince Cable at the Department for Business but I have focused on one of recommendations below. The perceived need to develop the “Made in Britain” brand. It was believed that so few people understand that Britain remains a major manufacturer and this needs to be addressed.

The up and coming middle classes of China and India demand and pay a premium for something made in Britain because of the quality associated with the name, but “Made in Britain” is not a positive message in this country. The evidence for this is the dearth of talent which is seen entering many British based manufacturers from the education establishments. Manufacturing is not seen as the industry to be in, it is not “cool” and can be seen as place for those who may be considered to struggle in the professions. Without a concerted attempt to stop the British doing what we are really good at, “undervaluing ourselves” then this will continue.

We need to get to a situation where the brightest and best of our youngsters consider and choose manufacturing as a career and positive messages, from both media and government are vital to this. A further consideration to this was better engagement with schools, but in order to enable that work had to be completed first with the careers departments to “improve” the perceived face of manufacturing. (*) MHA is an association of progressive Chartered Accountants across the UK of which Bloomer Heaven are a member.

Brand personality and a bit about airlines

I Love the recent news story, and classic sun headline ‘Willie Wager’, about Richard Branson’s bet with British Airways. It reflects the personality of the two brands oh so well.

On one hand we have the traditional corporate figure of Willie Walsh, with his serious pinstripe suit to go with his serious predictions for the downfall of Virgin, cue evil laugh. And on the other we have the smiley Mr Branson in his laid back linen number, on his Caribbean Island, basically saying ‘bring it on Willie, let’s have some fun with this.’ Virgin v British Airways – The Big Bet The bet from the Caribbean, that BA pay £1 million to Virgin staff, if Virgin is still around in 5 years or vice a versa, comes following Mr Walsh’s claims that, if Virgin goes ahead with the Delta airlines joint venture, the Virgin name will be ditched.

Richard Branson’s put your money where your mouth is way of completely dismissing the predictions is in itself a great bit of marketing. And is the kind of response we have come to expect from the, less conventional, business magnate. Of course should Mr Walsh reply with the light heartedness, typical of the Virgin brand, it would immediately seem at odds with the stiff upper lip and bowler hat personality of BA. That isn’t to say that one is right and the other is wrong, just that they both have a very definite voice which we, as consumers, associate with each airline and which must be reflected in all communications.

Know your business personality

The individual personality of each corporation can be seen right from the visual branding through to all communications and staff behaviour. Visually British Airways is classic and refined and, I have to admit, when you look at a row of BA planes you do get a certain feeling of patriotism. The Virgin brand on the other hand is a lot more vibrant, loose and fun.

Fly on a BA plane and, in my opinion, you really don’t get much in the way of personality; it’s all very just so. With Virgin, however, you even get little jokes in the flight and safety briefing and the vibrancy is carried through to the way you are looked after on board and the way all Virgin crew communicate. Having said that it would seem wrong if BA were to start cracking jokes during their safety briefing, just as it would if Virgin were to suddenly take a far more serious approach. Don’t surprise us As consumers we like to know what to expect, we don’t generally like surprises. So what a business promises with its brand visuals and communications, we expect to receive. And when we don’t we fall out of love with them and go elsewhere.

A great brand begins on the inside It is, therefore, essential to define what your brand is, what it stands for, where it sits in the market and who it is targeted at before you start any outward marketing. A good and very simple exercise we ask clients to do is to answer the question ‘If you were a supermarket what supermarket would you be, and why?’ You can also take this further and align yourself to a magazine, newspaper, brand of car etc. It helps you to develop a clear picture of the personality you want to portray. Are you fun and vibrant like Virgin or Classic and dependable like British Airways? Once you have decided all this you must now make sure that you communicate all this to the outside world in all your branding. Make sure your staff fully understands the personality of your brand and how to reflect this in their behaviour and communication with all your clients. Review your brand and respond to the market And it doesn’t stop there. You must constantly review your brand. Ask yourself how are we being received? Have we changed as an organisation? Does my branding and communication still reflect the business as it is today? Has the market changed and are we reacting to this? British Airways is a good example of a brand that was falling behind the competition in terms of brand perception.

A year ago, according to YouGov’s BrandIndex, it was positioned only 21st in a chart of 25 aviation brands. A year later, thanks to the ‘To fly, to serve’ campaign and the campaigns that supported the 2012 sponsorship it is now rated as 2nd only to Virgin. I guess the ‘wishful thinking’ that Mr Branson assigns to Walsh’s recent claims will hit a nerve! The BA adverts were not a complete move away from the brand as we all know it, but rather than focussing on destinations and aircraft, as many airlines continue to do, they focused instead on customer service.

Bringing it back to the customer, something Virgin do very well, has meant a far better buy in from consumers. Not that I am suggesting for one minute that you run out and place a load of adverts, but just as British Airways did, you do need to protect the future success of your brand. And when a change is needed you need to recognise it and respond. Willie or Won’t he? So as Willie wriggles his way out of accepting the bet laid down in front of him, who is your money on? For me it’s Mr Branson all the way, but you probably guessed that already! Thanks for reading, Sarah

Who is checking your financial information ?

Information is a powerful tool and the information super-highway, aka world wide web, is having to face up to a number of challenges as its usage grows.

There are issues surrounding social media use and abuse in particular. But it’s not just a matter of social etiquette and personal privacy. How accurate is the information provided? And who is checking? There is no doubt that the internet is an amazing source of information about all sorts of topics and, as such, has transformed most people’s lives. Within a moment or two of wondering what the facts are about a subject, we can ‘google’ it and, in a few clicks, have the knowledge.

The problem is that if anyone can publish anything, how can we trust what we are reading? With a source like Wikipedia people with different perspectives may challenge and amend what is there, but what of the business world?

Certainly speaking personally the new problem that is emerging in my area of work – access to loan finance for small businesses unable to fully meet their requirements from other sources – is summed up in a couple of questions: 1. Who is keeping the web information up to date? 2. Is it reliable and fully informed?

There used to be a number of mainly public-sector-supported national and local websites to point potential applicants and their advisers in the right direction. Nearly all are no more. New sites are either ‘under construction’ or a ‘work in progress’, but regrettably at the moment they are not truly ‘fit for purpose’. They will need considerably more input.

The Google approach on its own can also prove misleading, because I can see that many of the sources or articles on the first page and onwards are either well out of date or are dominated by paid-for results, which leaves Wonga and other high cost lenders well in front of the game. In our own case, as we develop and change our terms and conditions according to the funding we have available, I have become aware of how hard it is to keep a track of every online listing there is which mentions our previous terms and conditions.

A classic example of this issue which I recently came across is a scheme that finished three years ago still being promoted on a ‘sources of finance’ site! In order to help, people most frequently think of setting up new information ‘hubs’ rather than adding to, or signposting to, existing sites. The problem here is that it not only takes time and money to make businesses aware of new sites, the different options have the potential to offer conflicting or different information.

All this makes it harder for small businesses to access the information – and money – they really need. It seems we are reaching a situation in which information is actually getting in the way, rather than supporting, the matching of available funds to needy businesses.

The time is certainly ripe for some fresh thinking. Now that would be a constructive challenge for the British Bankers Association, which just happens to have launched www.businessfinanceforyou.co.uk. If they could get everyone offering support for the small business sector to input to and update their site that would truly be a deserving cause that would support small businesses and the UK’s economy.

Filling the Gap, Turning the Tide?

A very unusual time for UK Manufacturing, without any doubt the Automotive Sector is, to coin a phrase ?making hay, while the sun shines? at the moment, it?s really encouraging to hear that the UK economy is making such a positive impression and leading the way at a time when our Continental counterparts are seem to be looking around for any type of guiding light.

But it?s not all about Automotive, true many first and second tier manufacturers in our Region are expanding back to pre-downturn levels of performance, if not in some cases, growing much larger thanks to the Rise and Rise of the Great British Auto Sector. Rical Multiforms a division of The Midlands based Rical Group and based in Cradley Heath, the heart of the Black Country is seeing a returning need for mid to high volume components not just in the Automotive sector but in the much more historically volatile sector of Building and Construction along with Electrical Sectors.

Rical Multiforms specialize in Multislide and Bihler component manufacture of pressings and wire forms in what has always been a very competitive market, with buyers constantly bench marking, moving to ?emerging? economies and looking for fast, immediate, cost effective bulk, sometimes spot buys in a Sector that has seen terrible peaks and troughs over the last ten years or so.

Multiforms is now filling the gap, as overseas customers along with strengthening UK OEM?s are looking to utilise the Multislide and Bihler method of manufacture which for its wide variety of applications offer a very competitive edge against the expensive tooling option of Progression and Transfer methods of production used by manufactures in the UK during the difficult times of the downturn and as a result of ?off shoring? they had to struggle to self-finance projects as away of enticing that, at the time very illusive Sale.

Now this is no triumphant announcement that the Building and Construction sectors are breaking all-time records, it is though perhaps that UK manufacturing companies like Rical Multiforms are again starting to see more of the market share of Supply as industry ?Globally? see?s advantage in manufacturing its Brackets, Clips and wire products with the Multislide and Bihler processes that the UK can offer?Manufacturer of metal pressings and wireforms

Put people first and the keywords will follow

On the road to better search rankings, the temptation to go after keywords promising volumes of search traffic is alluring.  But while that might seem to offer the quickest route to the prize of more customers online – time and time again these goals are unrealistic.  The numbers based search campaign planning methods pay no attention to the intent behind those keywords i.e. they lack the understanding of people who’d actually buy off you, which is crucial if you want you want a positive return from your marketing spend.

Put yourself in their shoes

The first step in improving your search performance is to get a better understanding of the people who want to find you from their search bar.  As marketing managers have always known, this calls for figuring our exactly which segment of people you are trying to reach.  Only with an understanding of who these people are can you then target your content to appeal to their needs. Only with the demographic data like age, sex, location, can you have a background to understanding their search intent.

To understand your client base’s thinking, you have to know what it’s like in their shoes. Demographic profiles are needed to look at who your audience’s role models are likely to be and what they consume. Whether these are girly magazines, the nine o’clock news or the creative review, your direct competitors are likely to be positioning their wares to that audience. This exposure whether it’s advertorial or an editorial feature influences how they think discuss and search for the products or services that you sell.

Misleading shortcuts

With knowledge of how and where your target customers are likely to talk about your brand, you not only have a much deeper an understanding of the types of phrases used by your core buyers, you will hopefully know what it is they value about your products and services that prefer your brand over the competition.  It is high time to dump the notion of a quick trip to Google Analytics API is in any way sufficient; as you will be competing with all the other traffic based on the same set of keywords. A race you cannot win.

It’s a fair bet to surmise that Google itself has been loathe to point out with it’s numerous service updates that focus on quick and easy content or keywords is in no way sustainable.

Where is my business best placed?

Over the long haul, the clever money is creating content that fits with what your customers are already in tune with and is in the right place.  Where you don’t have a first to market advantage, look at what your competitors are writing, the phrases they are using and ask yourself whether you could do better. Only with that in mind do you know the key phrases and topics you should be writing about.

The future of SEO and distribution sites

Google’s bid to become the only gateway to the web is hitting some serious snags from unethical SEO companies. These firms are trying to manipulate search rankings using a number of unethical practices including; the creation of “shadow” domains that funnel users to a site by using deceptive redirects Another illicit practice is to place “doorway” pages loaded with keywords on the client’s site somewhere.  

There are also newer schemes in place that duplicate content across a wide range of sites. Google is however fighting back firmly with its panda and penguin updates, which aim to improve search results and relevancy.

Having read a number of conflicting articles I have come to the conclusion that the SEO debate can be predicted using good old-fashioned non-tech common sense and simple economics. Each day 150,000 new URLs are added to the web. Google also has about 900,000 servers as I write this blog. Imagine the electricity bill on nearly a million servers. Now getting back to the math, as with any PLC you are looking to grow revenues but also manage costs, having thousands of servers searching through spam and dupplicate content is a waste of time and money, it also makes your product less valuable to the user.

Google want to make their search engine as relevant as possible by displaying content that is genuinely interesting and something the user wants to search for and the SEO firms want to position their clients at the top of Google searches because they are being financially compensated to do so. The two objectives are incompatible therefore the solution is a long-term commitment to build engaging content that is genuinely worth sharing.

The dark arts of SEO have a limited shelf life and there is a real danger that when Google is ready, those sites that have immersed themselves with numerous backlinks on spam press distribution sites could pay a heavy price. The vice president of PR Newswire in this video talks about the recent lowering of his own website following Google panda update which only affects 14% of searches, my belief is that these businesses are no longer sustainable not because they are not clever but because they don’t make sense.


These newswires in most instances are distributing paid content disguised as valuable content and then uploading it on pages of news sites, usually tucked away out of site. Some of these news sites are not even proper news sites but a collection of template sites styled as news sites but all owned by the same business, usually you’ve guessed it the same site that sold you the press distribution in the first place. Because some of these sites have meshed their way into more popular sites they may have some protection in the short term but in the long term proper news sites are not going to want to put such large volumes of duplicate content on their site if they are themselves to have a sustainable future. 

Duplicate content itself is probably another way Google will use to identify and remove the content from its searches.The second problem SEO firms face is they don’t actually know how google’s algorithm works. Google does not have secret meetings with tech people to tell them how their algorithm works and then keep it secret to ordinary people. Again using old-fashioned common sense. If you were a billion pound organization and your business was built around an algorithm, would you disclose 100% of how it works? Google on their own site give a Webmaster guide to optimizing your site for Google and for the most part its fairly simple. 

Google uses 200 different calculations as part of its overall search one of which is PageRank, which is determined by the number of links to your site from relevant sites.In my view Google must be aware of the free distribution sites out there and its only a matter of time before they start getting excluded from search results or worse still the people posting get removed from search results. The logical thinking here is that the most recent links from independent sites that produce unique content that is shared often will be seen as most influential. Therefore if you had a link from the economist website to your own say within here last 6 months that will be far more valuable than having hundreds from free sites that just upload duplicate content.

The future of getting your site more hits will rely on you creating good content often, getting that content on other popular sites but only if it is likely to get shared by your target audience.  If you think back to the recent Red Bull sponsored jump from the edge of space and how often that was shared it is clear to see how powerful good and original content can be. This publicity stunt was especially interesting from a marketing perspective as the platform became secondary to the content and was one of the most shared tweets and videos of 2012.

The moral of this blog is to not be baffled by tech speak and if you are using an SEO firm make sure you ask them how they intend to work on your site so you can distinguish between a genuine SEO expert and a SEO cowboy.