People fuss over their alleged “brand” and brand markings all the time. The typeface. The artwork. The colors. If I had a dime for every time I was asked by a colleague or a friend, “hey what do you think of this logo as a brand,” I wouldn’t have to work anymore.
The really sad thing is this – with the exception of about 150 companies on this entire planet – you don’t have a brand. I know that’s tough to hear, but it’s the truth. You don’t have a brand. So stop acting like you do. Even better, stop wasting time on it like you do, it’s getting in the way of actually building a company that might someday become a brand.
I have a simple premise – brands of yesterday were built on aesthetics and magnified by mass media. But brands today are built around the consistency of experience and action and are built one transaction at a time. All this focus on aesthetics is a distraction from what the real goal needs to be – building an audience, then building a brand for them to rally around through a consistent set of experiences.
In other words – it’s not about your logo… but your product; it’s not about your dot-com name… but your dot-come service… that matters most.
What is IT?
Coca-Cola is a brand. As a matter of fact, the brand of Coca-Cola is probably the most important asset the entire company has – to the tune of about 80 billion dollars (the assigned brand equity value in its public disclosures). Apple is a brand. Apple is the most important brand in the history of capitalism. Its brand is worth probably 100 billion dollars, making it the most valued, successful, brand in the history of branding.
Because of the fact that some companies, like Apple and Coca-Cola’s brand marks, signifiers, signs, etc., have a value separate from, and in addition to, the actual business activity of selling electronics and beverages., businesses believe that such a state is the ultimate goal of their business marketing efforts. People want to buy branded items. Coca-Cola vintage items have an entire secondary market. People use Coca-Cola’s signs (signifiers to be more accurate) as a statement of their personal identity and self-worth. People wear Apple t-shirts, put Apple’s logos on their cars, and look for Apple’s logo and marks when in shopping malls. As a matter of fact, Apple’s brand is so strong, they can put it on nearly anything and generate interest in the product.
I doubt very much what you call a “brand” does that. It’s ok – there are only about 150 or so of these brands in the entire world (global brands anyway). So don’t feel bad. It’s kind of like going on a diet and hoping the end state is you wind up like the next Kate Upton and supermodel status.
It’s possible, but not likely.
What you most likely have is what I would call an “identifiable commerce mark.” What I mean by that is to say that when people who do business with you, see your logo, colors, etc., they go “oh that’s so and so, I know so and so, and I do business with so and so.”
That’s not a bad thing – but that’s not a brand.
I doubt, for example, people are falling over themselves to get “Joe’s Heating and Air” on a T-shirt for them to wear out and about. I’m not saying they can’t (they can), but all that stuff that service businesses and other companies worry about thinking they have brands. They don’t – they have identifiable commerce marks. People who do business with them recognize them. That’s good – but that’s not a brand.
Really big companies, that you think have brands, don’t. Let’s take American Airlines for a moment. They just spent a katrillion bucks redesigning all their logos. I suspect because some ad agency said to them they needed to “update their brand for a new generation of fliers”. I’ll translate that idea for readers, it’s called “our agency has no real idea what to sell you, so how about we just redo all the crap that other agencies have done, and put a couple of million in our pockets and we’ll call it a day.”
A local company here, Caribou Coffee, just recently (within the last three years), paid a local agency a ton of money to redo their logos and style.
I have a simple question – does any of that add to the bottom line? I mean before were people saying, “You know, I want a cup of coffee, but that Caribou, their logo is such crap, I’m never going there. Ever. Screw Caribou and their crappy logo.”
Maybe. I guess not.
That’s why you don’t have a brand. Nobody is saying to themselves that I’m making my decision based on the signifiers. The value has to come first – then the logo means something.
Harley Davidson, Coke, Pepsi, Nike, Adidas (and it’s pronounced “AH-DEE-DAS” not “AD-DEE-DISS” which drives me crazy – the company is named after its founder, Adolph “Adi” Dassler), Clorox, Oreo Cookie, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Kleenex, these are real brands. People do discriminate in their choices up front based on the signifiers. That’s because these signifiers have tremendous implied value connoations irrevocably attached to them.
Take Philadelphia Cream Cheese, can you even NAME another brand of cream cheese?
What about Kleenex? Can you name another brand of tissue? (Puff’s most likely.) Kleenex’s brand is so problematic; they run advertising in trade media reminding advertising people to stop generically referring to paper tissue as Kleenex unless they are specifically branding it under Kleenex’s brand. That’s how powerful Kleenex’s brand is – it’s synonymous with the product of paper tissue. This is called a “generic trademark,” and there are pro’s and con’s to becoming a “Band-Aid” or “Kleenex” or “Xerox.”
The CEO of Sony is rumored to have remarked at the failure of Betamax tapes that, “When VHS,” the brand format that was owned by JVC, “became synonymous with VCR in the minds of the consumer, we knew Betamax would never have a chance.”
Rumored or not, it’s accurate. Betamax, despite being a better format, never took off against VHS.
I find it highly unlikely your “brand” is that. People seek it out, discriminate on its basis of brand identity, and love it so much they tattoo it to their bodies (like Harley Davidson).
A good indicator is answering this question, “Do you spend more than 400 million dollars a year purely on branding in media?” If the answer is no – then bingo, you don’t have a brand. Brands built on aesthetics are built on television – and it’s increasingly difficult to pull that off.
You might have at best a recognizable commerce mark. But chances are, you probably don’t even have that. The reason why is pretty simple. A flag (ostensibly the signifier mark of a country) represents a nation. But the flag doesn’t make the nation (despite what Eddie Izzard comically claims). The same applies to companies. Companies can have marks, designs, colors, logos, typefaces, etc., but those things don’t make the company a brand. What makes a brand is having an audience that recognizes these marks as being valuable communications to them. In other words, brands are built by consistent interactions that reinforce value propositions and audience identity.
How do you get to be “a brand”?
In olden days (like 60 years ago), the formula for becoming a brand was reasonably simple. Have some new product or service idea (Let’s face it, one was being created every moment a the height of the 40’s and 50’s), drop an amazing amount of media spend on it, and pow – brand.
It’s how television was built as an industry. It’s how every major brand, including Apple, was built. The power of aesthetics backed by major broadcast television.
I mean, if I say, “I’d love to be an Oscar Meyer Weiner,” most of you are going to end my phrase with, “that is what I truly want to be!”
Chances are – a good portion of you never even saw the original commercials.
Mass media worked wonders to create “cultural icons” that became part of society. The funny (or sad thing) is that the people behind many of these iconic images had no idea why they worked. I have had a chance to interview masters at this, like George Lois, Harvey Gabor, Amil Gargano, and others. These are the campaigns that are featured in Mad Men and spoken about in advertising halls as legendary campaigns. They are worthy of our admiration (as marketers). Unfortunately, because of the path dependency of history, we sometimes learn the wrong lesson.
These campaigns worked because of what culture was at the time. They didn’t manufacture brands – they resonated with existing audiences. That’s why they worked. While perhaps the creative geniuses behind them should have recognized that – the reality is – they didn’t. The lesson we learned as a consequence is “you can force a brand into people’s heads.”
The real lesson is – brands symbolize existing audiences and their concerns – they don’t create them.
A great example of this – Red Bull.
Red Bull ran ads forever (and they still run them) under the idea of “Red Bull Gives you Wings.” They stopped running as much media when they realized that the real audience that was forming around them was the “extreme seekers” who didn’t have someone to champion their passions. So they stop doing commercials, and instead, start hurling people out of spaceships.
So if you want to build “brand,” then your messaging, customer experience and symbology must be about your audience and not what you want it to be. You need to reinforce the outcome they desire most and associate that outcome with your symbols and experiences.
Stop focusing on logos, typography, etc., and focus instead on your audience. What keeps them up at night? What do they want most? What are they about?
Believe it or not – focusing on that, and less on “should we redesign the logo,” will put more money on the bottom line.
Brand building is a lot like a nuclear explosion – at first, very little seems to be happening. Once the molecules all get a “critical mass,” then kaboom! Explosion!
At first, focusing on building an audience will not be obviously building your “brand,” but soon, you’ll find people not just recognize your business, but people come to you first saying, “I sought you out.” Then you know you’ve built a brand.
Brands are a lot like reputations – they occur in the minds of others. You can only do things that people can observe. People draw their conclusions. If you focus on your audience and being visible within that audience demographic (psychographics), over time – your brand will flourish.
Consider someone like Patt Flynn, Brian Clark, Seth Godin, Zoella, or whomever your favorite “OMG! Look at this person!” person in social media, online business, or even on TV. They didn’t start with “hey, I need a logo!” Instead, they started with building audiences by tapping into existing undercurrents in culture. Then those people wound up with followings. Now they’re recognizable within those audiences. The bigger the audience, the more “brand like” they become.
We have yet to see an organic national “brand” emerge this way – but the closest is probably Taylor Swift. Swift’s popularity started with grassroots, then magnified by the record industry, now managed largely by Taylor Swift again. Her following is now so large – she has true brand power. I don’t think we’ve seen a company emerge as a brand this way – but Red Bull is pretty close to a good case study. Chipotle would be another case study perhaps of grassroots audiences leading to real brand power (right up until everyone started puking thanks to e.Coli poisoning).
Because of the fragmented nature of society, and the constant drumbeat of “on demand” everything, mass media aesthetics techniques are breaking down. Thus, even if you have hundreds of millions of dollars, it is increasingly difficult to introduce a new product via television. If you watch the commercials on TV now, they’re largely centered around three types of products: cars (reminding you to buy them), food (reminding you to buy it at restaurants), and drugs (for specific ailments common to Americans – anxiety, depression, and metabolic illnesses primarily).
How interactions build brand
So building a brand for most businesses is about interactions – not about aesthetics. So how do these interactions work?
The key variable here is how your communications address two things:
- The “coreness” of the outcome that you promise to provide
- The degree of “attuneness” you have to the triggers for your audience to buy.
What these two factors mean in terms of execution of your branding strategy is this – the degree to which your brand can be identified wtih the “core outcome” of your audience – the better. I see companies name their products or companies all kind fo strange things – thinking they’re P&G.
Now, if you are P&G, you can afford (and indeed have to) call your detergent TIDE. You can put hundreds of millions of dollars behind it, yearly, making Tide = laundry detergent.
For the rest of us – I suggest you pick something a bit more obvious. This is more difficult in a market like “laundry detergent,” which is highly generic (commoditized). But calling perhaps your detergent “Clean Clothes” would be better than calling it “Bubaru.”
This example may seem silly, but it’s the core idea. The degree to which your name is easily identified with the outcome wanted, the better. Thanks to the internet, people remember websites much better than phone numbers – so you can actually have a name that says something meaningful.
So, if your brand name speaks directly to the benefit – the better. In the end, brands are about equations in the mind. The formula goes “this name equals this outcome.”
How do you spell relief? R-O-L-A-I-D-S?
That’s an example of a strong brand equation – but that equation was built through literally billions of advertising dollars over three generations of people.
If you call yourself something generic, made up, or complicated – you hurt your brand equation. Yes, you can overcome it through advertising…. but I doubt sincerely you’re Pfizer (the company that now owns Rolaids after merging with Warner-Lambert back in 2000).
Make the customer associate who you are, and your experience, with the outcome. Every time. Every way. This means you can’t be everything to everyone. But you can be the most important outcome to some people.
This brings me to the second factor, “attuneness”. I’ve had the privilidge of talking to some of the greatest creative advertising minds in American history. They all had one trait in common.
These men really understood their audiences. LIke “Karnack the Great” level of insights. They knew what they thought about and wanted, before the customer even realized it.
In Mad Men, Donald Draper (based on a mix of several great creative minds of the 1960’s – George Lois, Amil Gargano, and Bill Bernbach), seemed to have an uncanny knack of figuring out a “hook” that would make the client, and the client’s customers, love the ads.
Most of Mad Men was absolute nonsense. That one aspect of Madison Avenue, however, was correctly portrayed by the show. Agencies live and die (still) by how well they can get attuned to their audiences.
How well your brand does is also governed by how attuned you are to your audience.
The bad news is – this game is still very hard. The good news is – unlike Draper – you don’t need fear to stimulate your creativity. You can use data – and there is ALOT of it. Thanks to so much activity being conducted online, every customer leaves a trail of breadcrumbs – like Hansel and Gretel.
Leveraging your data to understand how well your marketing is attuned to your customers (and building an audience) is key. This is hard for many companies because it means putting your own ego aside in the pursuit of fattening your wallet.
I had a client who really hated the fact that every time I’d post something that their CUSTOMERS liked, it was something unconnected to their business. Bottom line was this, while my client provided a needed service, it wasn’t something that people wanted to talk about much, let alone care much about.
The service was plumbing and heating repair.
But their audience was primarily women, who were college educated, had kids, and were married, living int he suburbs. What those women did care about was kids, pets, jobs, family, work live balance, and all the things we might expect educated young women building families and managing households to care about.
They didn’t give two flips about how to change your air filter in your furnace. They really did like stories about helping your children in school, finding rec sports to play, etc.
Every time I did “sponsored posts” that helped these women – their engagement soared. The client would get new followers. The client got more attention.
The owner of this business would complain, “but it’s not what we sell!”
Yeah – it’s not. Because most women don’t care about plumbing. Ultimately, I had to end my relationship with this company. Since then, they’ve gone on to produce what is undoubtedly some of the most awful, horrendously garish, and terrible advertising I’ve ever seen. So much so, when others in marketing have approached me, their first question is to wonder if I’ve lost my mind (believing I still manage this client’s marketing affairs).
They refused to be attuned to their audience.
Consider it like a house party.
When people are on your social media, or looking at your content, it’s like you’re hosting a house party. At a house party, do you walk around with a megaphone going “THIS IS MY HOUSE! THIS IS WHO I AM! THIS IS WHAT I DO!”
Not unless you’re a gigantic freaking asshole. (And I’m going to assume you’re not.)
But that is essentially what most brands do. They want to POUND into the skulls of their audience members – buy buy buy buy buy.
It just plain doesn’t work. You’re not attuned to what the audience needs. As a consequence, you cannot build the transactions and the consistency to make prospective clients go “this brand = this outcome.”
This is the missing link that content marketing never reveals. The whole purpose of the content is to sell stuff (an idea I took a serious trashing for when I wrote that piece for AdWeek). The way you build your brand, and sell more stuff, is to care about the things that your customers care about.
They know who’s house they’re at. They know who’s the party host. And they’ll remember it when it comes time to think about where to party. So chill, and enjoy the music.
I suggest you take a different tactic. You need to be attuned to how you market to your audience. That actually causes engagement, which over time, builds the brand.
I’ve Shown you the Path – Are you prepared to walk it?
For the vast majority of businesses out there – building a brand through customer interactions consistently is really the only way to cut through the noise of billions of dollars of ad spend.
That means you have to be exceptionally focused on the outcome that customers want to buy. All of your marketing, communications, interactions, have to be focused on that outcome.
Secondly, to build engagement and to build repeated interactions with you, you have to be attuned to what your audience wants and present them REAL value that builds trust and consistency over time. That may mean, for some of you, not to talk about what you do. Remember, you’re hosting a house party. Put away the megaphone.