It would be good to cover a bit of the history. Alastair, what’s the company background and why did Octopus get involved in Countrywide?
Alastair Countrywide Healthcare started over twenty years ago and was a lifestyle business by 2013. I was involved in the team of directors. Three of them wanted to retire and I didn’t, and we wanted to find a way of shifting to a more dynamic sales and marketing type business. To do that we needed some financial injection, and the people that we worked with in the end was Octopus, and Ed.
What was helpful was your ability to unpick the reasons for our success. We then realised that we actually do more than a normal distributor but took a lot of it for granted.
We were a distribution company. At that point we didn’t really have a brand as such – I’ve been trying to forget it! It’s not something we bought into at all, to be honest. Following the work we did with you, it’s different now, especially during the pandemic, people now recognise the Countrywide brand and what we stand for. But we never really had that before – would that be fair to say, Ed?
Edward Everyone’s got a brand, even if you don’t know it. Your brand might well be that you’re a lifestyle business, a bit dated and not a serious company. But from my point of view, there was so much that was right about Countrywide – what it was doing, and what it stood for.
If you want to know what Countrywide stands for, you just have to see how they reacted during this pandemic. They didn’t take advantage of people by hiking their prices. They didn’t just sell their stocks immediately to the highest bidder. They looked after their customers and they put them front and centre of their operations.
If you read the LinkedIn comments about Countrywide, their customers are massive advocates of them. That’s a very different ethos to a lot of distribution businesses, which are just about maximizing your margin as quick as you can. But that point of difference wasn’t there in the old brand at all. I mean, the brand that they had was dreadful, it was ‘Caring for the Carer’, which didn’t even make sense.
Alastair Yeah, I said I was trying to forget it!
Edward Countrywide was this great ethos and positive, customer–focused company, but with a brand that doesn’t mean anything at all. You helped bring that ethos and culture out in the brand, so that anybody would immediately know what Countrywide stood for and why they were different.
As Alastair said, coming into this pandemic, having the strong brand that Sparks developed, with a clear meaning about what the company stands for, and strong visuals, has put them in great stead. And that’s why they’ve been successful.
Often the brand is considered a slightly nebulous thing, where business owners think of it as a nice thing to have but feel there are more important priorities – “I’ve got to get my sales. I’ve got to get my pipeline full. I’ve got to convert.” And it’s all about the bottom line. What was the journey that you went on from being indifferent towards your brand, being told that your brand was rubbish – if a bit harsh – and then seeing the value of investing in it?
Alastair Well I wasn’t even sure we had a brand, to be honest. I suppose we did, but it was something that I think we created ourselves. It wasn’t something we were building on. One of the things that you did was to ask us why we’re different. Then you took our existing bio, anonymised it and mixed it with some of our competitors and asked “can you spot which one is yours?” And then we saw they were all the same! Everybody said that they’ve got fantastic stock, and good prices. Everybody says that they deliver on time, and that they’re nice people to deal with.
What was helpful was your ability to unpick the reasons for our success. We then realised that we actually do more than a normal distributor but took a lot of it for granted. And when we understood who we are more clearly, you helped us to express how we’re different – because the distribution business is not rocket science, is it? To be honest. We buy it in, we break it down, we send it out. It’s what do we do over and above those basics that makes us different. What you identified is that we often went the extra mile, things none of our competitors did, and we didn’t even realize we were doing it.
One of the things that you did was to ask us why we’re different. Then you took our existing bio, anonymised it and mixed it with some of our competitors and asked “can you spot which one is yours?” And then we saw they were all the same.
As Ed says, it takes something like a worldwide pandemic to shine a light on all the good stuff that we do. Take the staff – everybody stepped up. We had guys doing 60, 70 hours overtime. The warehouse guys believed in the business and believed that what we were doing was important – the brand helped them see what they were doing mattered. We proved that we were different to any distributor. And I look around now and there are very few that have got a proper brand. There are one or two, but none of our competitors have really bought into it the way that we have. We’ve taken brand on board and run with it. We’re advocates of it now.
Edward, from a private equity point of view – you’re putting your money into a business. The private equity world is usually about chucking cash in, creating value, improving performance, and then exiting with a profit. Is it usual for a firm like Octopus to want a portfolio company to think about positioning, about brand?
Edward We do put more time in than most, I would say, as an investor. That’s partly due to the stage that we’re coming into the business. We definitely come in at a fairly early stage – we’re not quite venture capital, but we’re not private equity. That’s the nature of the investments we make.
We’re usually coming in at some form of inflection point. A lot of the companies that are in that scale up phase, perhaps going from founder–led growth to a professional scale up, or maybe like Countrywide, moving from a lifestyle business to a professionalized, scaled up business.
It really frustrates me when companies want to put money into sales and advertising budgets but don’t have that first stepping–stone sorted, which is the brand – nothing distinctive can follow from it.
We’ve always put massive importance on brands. It’s probably one of the things that owners really underestimate, as we’ve talked about on numerous occasions. It really frustrates me when companies want to put money into sales and advertising budgets but don’t have that first stepping–stone sorted, which is the brand – nothing distinctive can follow from it. I try and tackle it at the outset, because all the other marketing actions you do from there should really be driven from that brand. And it should make it much easier.
That’s the other thing that I’ve always found. I think the terms you use are “concise and compelling”. If you get the brand right at the outset, from that point on everything becomes easier because you’re just building it off that brand. Whereas if you don’t have a clear brand, and we’ve seen it with recent companies we’ve looked at, you end up muddled; with one message over here, one message over there, and a complete lack of direction.
Looking back on the brand investment now, and the transition that Countrywide has gone through, could you attribute growth at the bottom line as a result of the investment in branding?
Alastair I don’t know. Obviously when the investment happened, there are various building blocks that were put in place. The brand is one of those blocks, along with other things like CRM systems. And you’re not going to have a successful business just because you’ve got a good brand. You’ve got to back it up with service and price and values and the ethos of the business as well. We’ve got to be nice people to deal with. We’ve got to understand our customers. So it’s not just one thing that makes a successful business. There are lots and lots of things – probably things that we don’t even realize we’re doing that are really important.
Edward That’s one of the problems with brands: putting a return on investment on branding is really difficult because it has so many touch points. And how would you even measure that ROI? It’s impossible, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the money that we invested in the brand with Sparks has repaid itself multiple times over.
This is part of a series of conversations with business leaders exploring legacy, clarity and transformation. To get more interviews like this sign up to our newsletter.