The Clearing’s skill for finding a unique position for a client – and holding off all rivals to maintain it – is eloquently expressed by its emblem of a stag: “A beautiful beast, made for fighting...”
The four co-founders of The Clearing reveal how they carve out clear, defendable territory for brands
Following stints at various large agencies – including Wolff Olins, The Partners and most recently Interbrand, where all their paths first crossed – Richard Buchanan, Jonathan Hubbard, Andy Howell and Pete Dewar founded The Clearing in 2010.
“We didn’t feel there were any agencies who worked in the way we wanted: a collegiate way of putting designers, writers, strategists and project people together to really solve problems,” explains Buchanan. “It was about this very linear process, where a consultant would go and crack a problem, lob a hand grenade of a brief over the wall to the designer and writer, and they’d try and figure out what to do with that.”
Representing strategy, design and writing between them, Buchanan, Hubbard, Howell and Dewar found a sweet spot: a flat agency structure that puts equal emphasis on all three disciplines, and have stuck to this principle.
‘Clear, defendable territory’ is the mantra for their seven-year-old agency, which combined with its name and logo conjures a powerful metaphor: a majestic stag, in a forest clearing, ready to repel all challengers.
We spent a day with the four co-founders to discover what all of this symbolism really means in practice, and how said territory can be claimed, and defended, effectively...
Why is the stag such an important symbol for The Clearing? What does it mean to you? Jonathan Hubbard:
‘Clear, defendable territory’ has been our mantra since we set the business up – partly to try and find these spaces for our customers, but also for ourselves.
There are two reasons behind it. One was when we looked at our competitors, so many of them were set up more like management consultants and serious businesses, and they didn’t take the element of brand and design as close to themselves as they should have done.
But we also wanted a symbol that actually summed what we did. Clear defendable territory is the mantra with which we look at every piece of work we do. The stag is a beautiful beast made for fighting, and that’s a nice metaphor. A brand should be a beautiful thing, which can defend its space. We wanted something of beauty to rally behind, which made us feel different.
What exactly is clear, defendable territory from a brand’s perspective? Richard Buchanan:
We’re interested in finding a clear space in a market. And when you talk about that clear space, think of somebody’s mind. Brands are basically shorthand for what we recall in our head. When you say Nike, or Apple, it triggers something in your brain. We’re trying to find that space in the market, inside your head, where that brand is associated with a set of values – a meaning that no one else can own.
In any given market, there are probably four positions. You’ve got the leader position, and then you’ve got a customer service brand which does what the leader originally did, packaged up in a more friendly, customer orientated way. Then as markets mature you get a no frills, budget proposition, and the fourth one is a challenger, which is very narrow in focus and just goes after a part of the market.
Is it easier to create that clear territory in one market position than another? RB:
They’re like different personality types. If you’re a leader, you can get away with a whiff of arrogance because you’ve got some
proprietorial technology, or a really tangible USP that you have invested in.
If you’re a customer champion, it becomes more emotive. You’re friendlier, and warmer as a brand. Whereas if you’re playing in that budget space, it’s no frills. It’s really direct.
There are certain behaviours and attributes that all of them have. Are any of them easier? Well, I guess brands in the budget space rarely come to a brand consultancy, so they’d probably do it themselves. But none of them are easier as such. They’re all interesting in different ways.
Can you give us a good example of how you found clear defendable territory for a client? Andy Howell:
One good example is Fitness First. Most gyms talk about how you look; how to get ready for the beach. Our insight was more around the inner confidence that fitness unlocks. It put us into a very different space – not how fitness makes you look, but how it makes you feel.
That gave us our clear, defendable territory. It needed to look like a fitness leader, and behave more like an apparel brand than a gym.
Pete Dewar: We built Fitness First’s tone of voice out of three values: it’s personal, progressive and provocative. Imagine the voice of an inspirational coach. That guy who’s in your corner. He’s really active, energetic, positive and supportive, can cheer you up when you need it, and understands the right buttons to push. That’s normally how we try and do it – we find that memorable shorthand.
Your Breast Cancer Now campaign [which won a Brand Impact Award in 2016] puts a fresh spin on charity fundraising – how did you find the clear territory there? JH:
Fitness First was a clear step from everyone else, but sometimes it’s more subtle. Breast cancer charities tend to be very ‘women power’, as it’s predominately women who are affected.
But actually, when we talked to them we found that men donate a lot of money to breast cancer charities, because they are often the ones left bereaved. We realised the brand had to include men, and that was a starting point for it to look a certain way. It had to feel more inclusive.
A lot of those ‘cause’ charities also feel top down: ‘We are going to solve this.’ Breast Cancer Now was about its supporter base. The people who spend hours and hours raising money for research. It was their charity. It didn’t belong to a central organisation. Those are the sort of things we look for: it may not necessarily be a huge leap, but we look at all the elements that can influence the way a brand feels, looks and sounds, and ultimately try to make sure that we’re not falling into the same traps as everyone else.
Below: Designed to appeal to male donors as well as the traditional female demographic, this Breast Cancer Now campaign picked up the Social Impact trophy at last year’s Brand Impact Awards.
Left: The Clearing found clear territory for Fitness First by focusing on how fitness makes you feel, rather than how you look.