Norfolk Network stories

The brand guru and the banjo: a journey to the South Pole

Jane Chittenden
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Simon Middleton is a man who knows about brands. He’s well known as a brand consultant, strategist and business author. And now he’s using that brand know-how for his Great British Banjo Company. He’s recently launched the handmade-in-Britain Shackleton Banjo project with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that’s one of the most successful worldwide.

So where’s the Shackleton connection? People are inspired by his exceptional leadership, Simon says. And he’s significant to entrepreneurs because of his adaptability. To him, if something appeared to be impossible, he’d find another way to get round it; he’d say: “Obstacles are just things to be overcome.” Shackleton’s approach was always: “How do we get round this?”

And that’s why the company’s T-shirts have the slogan: “What would Shackleton do?” It’s a phrase they use when they come across difficult questions and need to make a tough decision.

Sir Ernest Shackleton was a polar explorer, but not a very successful one. He’d faced a lot of obstacles. He’d tried to reach the South Pole, but had to turn back when he’s almost reached his goal. “Better a live donkey than a dead lion,” he said. He knew it was better to live to fight another day.

Then he was beaten to the polar prize by Amundsen and Scott. So he raised his game: instead of walking to the South Pole, he was going to traverse the whole of the Antarctic, taking a route that the South Atlantic whalers said was virtually impossible. And he found himself facing plenty more obstacles.

The expedition’s ship the Endurance became trapped in the polar ice. With just three lifeboats they found temporary safety on the uninhabited Elephant Island, but knew they had to find help or perish. So Shackleton took four of his team on a perilous voyage of a thousand miles to reach the South Atlantic whalers’ station for help. Against all the odds, he succeeded – and he brought every one of his team safely home. The most famous expedition that this Antarctic explorer ever undertook and the thing that made him a legend was by normal measures an abject failure.

Fast-forward to April 2013: Simon’s company had been selling imported banjos for three years. But it’s a tough way to make a living. They came up with a killer idea: “Let’s make our own British banjos. We’ll become the first British manufacturer of banjos in 60 years. And let’s make this the most interesting banjo brand in the world, with an inspiring British story attached to it, a name that will make all the difference.”

And here’s the Shackleton connection again. His meteorologist Leonard Hussey was a banjo player – not unusual in Edwardian England. Shackleton knew it was important for morale to have entertainment on the expedition, so he made sure he’d got a banjo player. Later, when the ship was sinking into the ice, everything that wasn’t essential to life had to be abandoned. He made one exception: “Hussey, we must have that banjo. It’s vital mental medicine.”

"I loved the story. I love that it’s British, it’s about Shackleton and you’re doing it.”

When his men spent four and a half months of anxious waiting on Elephant Island to be rescued they had nothing to entertain them but the banjo. Every Saturday evening they had a concert centred round the banjo. They composed silly songs such as Antarctic Architecture, making light of their ordeal. And they all survived.

This was the story that inspired the naming of the banjo.

When they decided to call it the Shackleton everything changed. They set out to raise £30,000 on Kickstarter; they actually raised £48.141. On top of that they raised about £0.25m in investment. Around 150 people signed up for a banjo and around half of them had never played a banjo before. So why did they want one? They all said: “I loved the story. I love that it’s British, it’s about Shackleton and you’re doing it.”

They learned very quickly to tell stories. And one of those stories is that their banjo will be taken on an expedition to the Antarctic to complete Shackleton’s unfinished business. They’ll sail in the Alexandra Shackleton, an exact replica of the boat used on the 1000-mile rescue voyage; it’s named in honour of Shackleton’s granddaughter. Simon’s very proud that Alexandra Shackleton has become involved in the company. “We’re being drawn into a polar world and that legitimises the brand.”

They knew from the beginning that a viable business had to make other products. So they now make a range of Shackleton beers: the Centenary, the Endurance and the Boss. They’ve launched a range of knitwear, Shackleton-style, and they’ve just moved to new premises, open to visitors, leaving their cramped city-centre workshop behind. The Great British Banjo Company is here to stay.

Simon Middleton, brand consultant, strategist and business author. And now he’s using that brand know-how for his Great British Banjo Company.