The rise of brandganda and why so much is no longer what we thought it was

This constant bombardment of brandaganda is a maelstrom of meaningless. The brands and slogans are no longer a shorthand for anything real – they are nebulous, meaning anything and nothing at the same time. Likewise, finding out who is behind the malpractice is also unclear.

I feel like I am trapped in one of those dreams where my predicament is getting steadily worse; more and more zombies are chasing me, causing me to fall off bigger and bigger pavements whilst I gradually lose the ability to scream out for help. Only I am not asleep. This is no night terror, this is just my day-to-day lived experience in post-referendum Britain.

How exactly did I get here? Commentators have already used other bedtime metaphors. For example, Angela McGowan, Chief Economist of Dankse Bank thought we slept-walked into all this. Nevertheless, even the staunchest Remainer didn’t predict the political chaos that has ensued after the 24th June. That’s because I think Brexit is part of a wider phenomenon, one I am terming brandaganda, which may explain why so much that we used to believe in and trust is rapidly disintegrating.

Brandaganda, as you may have already guessed, is a mash-up of brand and propaganda. Modern-day marketers define a brand as simply the set of associations consumers have about a product. Old-fashioned dictionaries define propaganda as ideas or statements spread which are false or exaggerated. Thus, brandaganda forms associations in people’s heads that are not related to anything valid. With branding there has to be some actual substance behind the brand. Imagine paying for a McDonald’s burger to be just told by the store assistant, ‘your lovin’ it’, before leaving the premises empty handed. But, with brandaganda any tangible reality is an unnecessary consideration. No need to invest in the actual product, service, place or policy as a way of building relationships and a sense of shared perception with your consumers, all your effort and resources can go straight into the campaigns, the slogans, the logos, the hashtags; using ambiguities that speak to hearts not minds.

Just as the practice of branding has spread from the private to the public sector, to charities and the voluntary sector under neoliberalism, so, the malpractice of brandaganda is recognisable in all aspects of life from politics to products and even places.

Brexit or #Brexit is text-book brandaganda, uniting both Vote Leave and campaigns into a quasi-structure that looked like a brand but, unlike real brands such as The Conservatives, NASA or Fairy Liquid, there was no corresponding organisation behind Brexit. Pre-referendum, Brexit was a loose and uncomfortable alliance of UKIP, some Tories, less labour and some influential people who either had a lot of money, power over the media, or both. Post-referendum we realised just how fragile the ties between these protagonists were when all their bonds evaporated under the pressure of actually winning.

Just as there was no corporate structure behind Brexit, there was also no product. What would Brexit do? It was not tied to any policies, even the ones made about immigration and the National Health Service were hastily retracted. “The Remain Campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally” said Leave funder Arron Banks. This was a triumph of opaqueness; Brexit could mean anything to anyone. Ambiguous slogans such as ‘take control’ could be interpreted as booting out foreigners to a racist, they could equate to two-fingers up at the establishment for people who felt let down, or simply represent a way of telling Germans to stop telling us what to do. Every single Brexit voter had their own perception of what they voted for. But, we will all have to wait many years to find out what the actual Brexit product is.

We are not safe from brandaganda when it comes to well-known commercial products either. German automobile producers (Volkswagen, Porsche, Opel, Audi and Mercedes), once the world’s bastion of reliable manufacturing, ‘vorsprung durch technik’ or truth in engineering, have had to recall over half a million cars for, err, downright lies in engineering. The brands’ promises of low emissions could not be supported by the actual performance of the diesel cars, which emit nitrogen oxide pollutants tens of times over what is allowed. Another example of brandaganda, where fakery and falsehoods, rather than the performance of the product, are used to manipulate perceptions. Just like Ribena’s brandaganda in New Zealand: Promoting lunch-box drinks to parents by saying blackcurrants have four time the vitamin C content of oranges. This may well be so – but their ready-made Ribena contained no vitamin C.

Sadly, we are exposed to brandaganda in all aspects of our lives. Even public space is a medium to transmit the ubiquitous, vacuous strapline; telling the homeless they are in, “the city that has it all”* (apart from enough housing of course), reminding citizens they live in a, “clean community”** even though the city is polluted because the land is contaminated.

This constant bombardment of brandaganda is a maelstrom of meaningless. The brands and slogans are no longer a shorthand for anything real – they are nebulous, meaning anything and nothing at the same time. Likewise, finding out who is behind the malpractice is also unclear. In the case of the political and place brandganda the brands are not coterminous with an organisation. Brexit became the cause without a rebel. Similarly, place names (Manchester, Macclesfield, Moston) belong to nobody – so exactly who has the right to promote certain associations over others? Even in the case of the manufacturers guilty of brandaganda the curation of perceptions and ‘reputation management’ has become more important than the product features (or telling the truth). No wonder I find myself in this nightmare. Not sure who to trust, what is real and when I am going to wake up.

* from a poster in Manchester, UK

** from a welcome sign in Garfield, USA

10 secrets of successful grant applications

During my career I have won bids with a collective value of over £10 million. My success rate is two out of three. Not bad eh! In this post I am going to share all my secrets with you.

1. Start small

When I started at Manchester Metropolitan University I worked in a team well known for their retail research, on a small bid aimed to investigate the training needs of independent retailers. Although the problem was really quite big, the actual project was tightly focused. Without realising it, this was a very important project that went on to define my research profile and identity. I became known as Mrs Small Shops.

2. Think big

Establishing the training needs of independent retailers in the UK is one thing. Actually designing interventions that will improve their business performance is quite another. The next couple of bids I wrote built upon the reputation I had in understanding of research problem and included a diverse range of partners who wanted to tackle the problem in a practical way. One of the outcomes of the Retail Enterprise Network project was the creation of new bite-size qualifications for retailers that could be studied in 10 hours that led to measurable improvements in key performance indicators, such as footfall, sales and profitability.

3. Instill confidence

Having lots of relevant partners is often a good way to instil confidence in the people that are assessing your grant application. If you have all the major players that can help answer a research problem, or a practical problem, or a combination of the two, who are willing to work on your project, then why would the funders reject your application? Another good way of instilling confidence is showing how the project supports the core aims of the organisation you work for. Sometimes grant calls don’t expect you to work with other people, however, having a few letters of support, in my view, never does any harm.

4. Humility

There’s a fine line between instilling confidence and sounding arrogant! If your research is trying to solve ‘real world’ problems, then the ‘real world’ should be part of defining the research objectives and interpreting the research findings. I would class all my research now as a form of engaged scholarship or ‘knowledge partnering’ (Eversole, 2014). Project partners enter into a process of co-inquiry. We agree up front what everyone wants to achieve from the project, and, as Principal Investigator, it is my job to make sure everyone gets what they expected.

5. Accept divides

Whilst I strongly believe all the partners in a project should benefit from participating, that doesn’t mean all the key people in your project can work in the same space. Often there is such big differences in people’s background/foreground, e.g. public sector vs private sector, it is naive (and irresponsible) to expect everyone to work as one happy family. In our latest project, for example, we have created user-groups, so that people from similar backgrounds (property, retailing, policy) can work together. 

6. Collaborate

If other people or other groups are doing similar or useful things related to what you are proposing in your bid then you must try and collaborate. If they don’t seem to want to work with you, then persevere. What are the barriers to working together? How could these be overcome? Is it possible for you to arrange a joint seminar, for example, to share findings at the end of your project. Is someone willing to be a key informant, keynote speaker or visiting researcher or advisor? Sometimes I have had to wait years for a key organisation or person to become a true partner in joint projects. But it is always worth the wait. After all, if they have a reputation in the area in which I am working, then that reputation will have been earned for a reason. Your funder will want to feel that they are spending money which will end in a contribution to knowledge, or practice, or policy. This rarely happens without partnership. To show that you are working with the key players and willing to collaborate will be crucial to your success.

7. Offer value

Funders want to know they are getting value for money. So pack what you can into your bid. This is where having the support of your organisation is very important. Are there opportunities to include activities in your bid that are part of your organisation’s mainstream business? For example, if you work in a university, can the findings of your research project be incorporated into the curriculum? Do you have partners in your project that can incorporate project findings into dissemination events that they run regularly anyway?

8. Think backwards

I learnt this secret fairly late in my bid writing career. It is much easier to craft a convincing bid if you have the end goal clearly in your mind at the beginning. About 10 years ago we realised that town centres should meet the needs of their catchment communities. Common sense. But it’s surprising how easy it is to lose sight of this and write over complicated bids that, collectively, take us no further forward towards an agreed goal.


Following on from my last point, if you cannot explain to someone on the bus or someone in the pub what you are doing and why, in general terms, then it is unlikely you will convince your funder either. Obviously, there will be parts of your bid that may be incredibly detailed and assume a high degree of technical knowledge. But there is always a section that allows you to write a short and simple summary of your project. This is very important. It might only be 150 words but be prepared to invest time and effort in getting this right.

10. Have fun

Bid writing is hard work. And it is even harder work when somebody actually gives you that money to deliver your project! If you don’t enjoy what you do, if you are not really passionate about your end goals, then my advice is to focus on doing something else. Projects can be hard work for your team and your partners too. So don’t be afraid to factor in some fun time. Going on visits, having drinks or meals out, chatting over coffee et cetera are all ways in which you can show your appreciation for everyone’s hard work – and give people a bit of ‘down-time’ as a much-needed contrast to all the high-energy doing and thinking in your project.


Here is a number of publications that have come from the research project funding I have won.

Parker, C., Ntounis, N., Quin, S., & Grime, I. (2014). High Street research agenda: identifying High Street research priorities. Journal of Place Management and Development, 7(2), 176-184

Coca‐Stefaniak J.A.,  Cathy Parker, Patricia Rees, (2010) “Localisation as a marketing strategy for small retailers”, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 38 Iss: 9, pp. 677 – 697
Coca-Stefaniak, J.A., Parker, C., Quin, S., Rinaldi, R., Byrom, J. (2009) Town centre management models: A European perspective, Cities,vol. 26 (2), P. 74-80

Parker, C., Gimenez, R.Y., Coca-Stefaniak, J.A., Byrom, J. (2007) Perceptions of the Andalusian independent retail sector, International Journal of Business and Globalisation, Vol. 1 (1), 125-142

Roper, S., Parker, C. (2006) Evolution of branding theory and its relevance to the independent retail sector, The Marketing Review, Vol. 6(1), pp. 55-71
Coca-Stefaniak, A., Hallsworth, A.G., Parker, C., Bainbridge, S., Yuste, R. (2005) Decline in the British small shop independent retail sector: exploring European parallels, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, Vol. 12(5), p. 357-371
J. Andres Coca‐Stefaniak, Cathy Parker, Amadeu Barbany, Xavier Garrell, Enric Segovia, (2005) “Gran Centre Granollers – “city, culture and commerce””, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 Iss: 9, pp.685 – 696

Parker, C. and Coca-Stefaniak, J. A. (2005) Looking back and looking forward. In J. A. Coca-Stefaniak and B. Oldfield, eds. The persefones project: a twinning experience. Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University

Cathy Parker, Tracey Anthony‐Winter, David Tabernacle, (2003) “Learning by stealth: introducing smaller retailers to the benefits of training and education in Barnet”, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 31 Iss: 9, pp.470 – 476

Ruth Anne Schmidt, Cathy Parker, (2003) “Diversity in independent retailing: barriers and benefits – the impact of gender”, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 31 Iss: 8, pp.428 – 439

Hallsworth, A., Parker, C., & Coca-Stefaniak, A. (2003). Small Retail and TCM Shemes: Theory and reality from UK y USA. I Encuentro Centros comerciales Abiertos.

John Byrom, Cathy Parker, John Harris, (2002) “Towards a healthy high street: identifying skills needs in small independent retailers”, Education + Training, Vol. 44 Iss: 8/9, pp.413 – 420

Richard Hudson‐Davies, Cathy Parker, John Byrom, (2002) “Towards a healthy high street: developing mentoring schemes for smaller retailers”, Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 34 Iss: 7, pp.248 – 255

John Byrom, John Harris, Cathy Parker, (2000) “Training the independent retailer: an audit of training needs, materials and systems”, Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 24 Iss: 7, pp.366 – 374
Parker, C., & Byrom, J. (Eds.). (2000). Towards a healthy high street: Training the independent retailer. Manchester Metropolitan University.


How does weather impact upon footfall?

Bad weather can impact on footfall, especially in traditional open retail centres like the High Street. During traditional peaks like Easter, bad weather can reduce footfall by around 5% according to Springboard who collect footfall data in retail centres across the UK. But good weather doesn’t impact as positively on retail footfall as consumers often find other things to do when the sun shines – like visiting the seaside, parks and other attractions.

 Retailers have to be very good at predicting the weather (and pay the Met Office to provide this insight) – as staffing levels and product ranges need to be sensitive to changes in both temperature and precipitation. Many maths graduates go on to careers with grocery retailers modelling the relationships between weather, consumer demand and the subsequent impact this then has to have on retail operations. Just how many barbecues do we need to put out on display next Saturday?

We are just about to start a big project that will analyse 9 years of hourly footfall data against 9 years of hourly weather data! For the first time the project consortium, led by researchers at MMU and Cardiff University, will be able to fully understand how weather changes  consumer behaviour and retail sales in specific locations  – not just in comparison shopping centres, but also in seaside and holiday or tourist destinations.
For more information on this project follow the link
And read this blog for more ‘soft launch stories’ around this research

Too posh for Aldi?

Last week I was invited onto BBC Radio Manchester to discuss an online row that had erupted in the Cheshire village of Poynton about the opening of a new Aldi store.

The online discussion on the Poynton Forum – was started by Poytonman62 posting

“I thought we were making real progress as a community with the opening of Waitrose in 2012. However with the opening of Aldi I feel as though we are taking a step back into the lower class.”

Aldi and Waitrose are at very different ends of the grocery retail market – but both have a similar market share (around 5%). And both are growing at the expense of The Big 4 (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons) because, love them or hate them, they have a clear offer. Aldi is cheap and Waitrose is posh.

In contrast, The Big 4 have created confusion around their brands – is Asda cheaper than Sainsbury’s? Are Tesco Finest dishes finer than Morrison’s Signature dishes? Consumers aren’t stupid – we know these items are often made by the same manufacturers and just packaged differently. Likewise we know some ‘deals’ do not always represent better value. For example, Sainsbury’s are dropping ‘buy two get one free’ offers because they are not saving people money – instead, these offers are just encouraging customers to buy more than they need.

Opinion as to whether Aldi is a good or a bad addition to the village of Poynton is clearly firmly divided with one online forum user (Anotherwhingerlikeu) saying “It has the feel of an indoor market area with a car boot sale in the middle”. But markets and boot sales are well known for bargains, and another user (Belvoir) pointed out that Aldi is great for low prices – and cited caviar face cream – normally costing over £100, being available in Aldi for only £6.99.

Towns and their collective offer of shops are there for everyone – and one man’s tat is another man’s treasure. Retailers compete by offering a bundle of products, prices and service that appeal to particular customer segments. There is a lot of talk about customer loyalty in retailing – but loyalty can mean being loyal to brands (and shopping at different outlets), being loyal to outlets (and buying own brands) or being loyal to the idea of saving money (and buying bargains wherever they appear).

When discounters like Aldi entered the UK market they were just expected to appeal to people who had less money to spend, but 20% of Aldi’s customers are AB or middle class. And this figure is rising. Liking a bargain – or not feeling you are being ripped off – is not just the prerogative of poorer shoppers.

The last few years have been characterised by low consumer confidence. People obviously feel they should tighten their belts when there is talk of unemployment, or bad times ahead – but do you really have to do without Serrano ham when it is 1/10th of the price you are used to paying for it? Aldi and other discounters allow consumers to have their cake (or even posh gateaux) and eat it, literally.

Many of the posts on the Poynton Forum are not just about Aldi. They are more general comments about parking and also the impact the opening of another supermarket will have on local shops.

At the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University we have just completed a nationwide project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, that investigated all the factors that influenced high street performance (High Street UK2020), in particular footfall – or how many people shop in an area. The convenience of a centre was the 5th most important factor out of the 201 that we found. In other words how convenient is a centre to reach and get around once you are there is a very important predictor of its performance.

The Aldi development is not as convenient and well connected to the rest of Poynton as some of the other supermarkets (Waitrose, Asda and Coop). The Aldi is over the 500m distance of the typical linked trip. That’s when you go to a centre for one purpose, like a top-up shop (milk, toilet paper etc) and then also visit other stores or services, like stopping for a coffee, popping to the bank or doing other shopping like buying cakes at the bakery or picking up a birthday card.

So Aldi is unlikely to strengthen the collective offer of the village. Putting it simply, people driving to Aldi and parking are unlikely to shop in rest of Poynton. In fact, the walk from Aldi to Waitrose, the strongest anchor at the end of Park Lane, is well over half a mile.

Of course when Aldi and Lidl entered the UK, market analysts thought that there would be no cross-shopping between the discounters and high end stores like Waitrose. But that’s not the case. Consumers are far more willing to buy from a variety of stores. Some of that is due to the amount of in-town competition and provision. After the government of the day cracked down on the development of out of town shopping – The Big 4 grocery stores moved into town and edge of town centres because it was the only space they were allowed to expand into.

All of a sudden customers had a realistic choice to driving to an out of town location and doing a weekly shop. And that’s often been good news for the smaller traditional stores that tend to be located on high streets like Poynton. Supermarkets bring footfall.

As a village Poynton is very fortunate – as according to Which they have both of the UK’s best supermarkets, Aldi and Waitrose. Whether you think Aldi is good news or bad news is a matter of personal opinion and, of course, where you shop is up to you. As an academic who has been studying town centre change for nearly 20 years I am pleased to see there is such a strong local grocery retail offer in Poynton. Which is accessible to both car drivers and pedestrians.

If you want to hear the full BBC Radio Manchester story click here.

If you want to see how the Daily Mail covered the story click here.

HS2020 research presented at Inside Government: Next Steps for Revitalising UK High Streets

A guest blog by Dr Costastas Theodoridis and Dr Amna Kahn, of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University

Town-centre and BID managers, policy-makers, practitioners and academics were gathered in London to discuss the revitalisation of the UK High Streets. In the all-day ‘Next Steps for Revitalising UK High Streets’ event delegates had the opportunity to find out about the recent developments in digital and traditional high-street management and development. The event was chaired by Dr Fiona Ellis-Chadwick from Loughborough University who also delivered a keynote speech focused on the digital high-street health-check index developed by her and her colleagues.

A lot of attention was paid to the digitisation of the high-streets and particularly to the benefits that retail organisations will see if they develop an active digital presence. Steve Woolley, from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, highlighted the impact that the management of the personal data has to the patronage of retailers and the threats that may occur if a retailer misuse the data collected by the consumers. The Institute of Place Management was represented in the event by its Director Simon Quin who reminded to the delegates the importance of location and the physical place, and presented the findings of the High Street UK 2020 project.

Simon discussed how the evolution of the retail environment is changing, looking at various relevant trends as identified by the part-funded ESRC HSUK2020 research project. As well as talking about the 25 priorities for town/city centre vitality and viability, Simon also presented research findings relating to footfall signatures that identify different kinds of centres and provided the views of the Institute of Place Management on the emerging issues. Simon Pitkeathley’s, CEO of the Camden Town Unlimited, presentation on the use of the technology to facilitate the transformation of High Streets addressed how the visual appearance, the visionary management of the High Streets, the development of diverse anchors and stores, and the amount and quality of recreational space in a High Street – areas identified within the 25 priorities for the High Streets in the HS2020 project – provided evidence from Camden Town on how the physical place can be promoted to the consumers through the use of digital tools.

The delegates had the opportunity to ask their questions to the speakers and their answers provided valuable insight on the understanding of the instrumental role of the digital technology to place management.lower_high_street_2_670_230_84_c1_c_c_0_0_1