The Seven Wonders of Branding

Tom Asacker Have you recently become brand saturated and blogged out? I sure have. In my desire to keep up with the evolving “body of knowledge,” I’ve been increasingly subjected to a bunch of babble about brands and branding. Everything from what a brand actually is to the critical importance of brand names and brand positioning. And it has been coming from everywhere: from authors and the media to academics and agencies. Here are my seven wonders of branding (as in, I wonder why these dated concepts still flourish in these postmodern times):

1. Positioning

Here’s how Ries and Trout defined positioning in their seminal book of the same name: “The basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.” And that may have worked well twenty-three years ago when product and service options were a fraction of what they are today and people were still influenced by propositions like: “We try harder.”

People today are better informed, well connected and extremely hard-nosed. We’ve been trained to be highly skeptical of any type of marketing claim. Which makes ours and era of action, not talk. We expect you to prove your pitch with new, exciting and relevant products, services and business models. We’re living in a marketplace driven by creativity and innovation. The concept of branding is a much more dynamic idea. Sticking to your knitting, and trying to persuade people with clever advertising and image-building campaigns, is a sure route to the retirement home.

2. A brand is a promise

This particular babbly makes plain that a brand is an identifiable entity that makes specific promises of value. If this is true, then customers of the brand should be able to articulate those promises. Right? Because that’s how they differentiate between – and ultimately choose – brands. Isn’t that so? Uh huh. So what’s the unique brand promise of Nike? Nike what? Pick one: watch, golf ball, soccer shoes, sweatshirt. How about BMW? The Z4, 645 Ci Convertible, Mini Cooper? The brand promise of the NFL is different than the NBA, MLB, and NHL in what way precisely?

Forgetaboutit! A brand is NOT a promise (Please don’t tell me that people are buying the Mini because of the promise of German engineering. Most people think it’s a British car.). A brand is a performance. It’s about arousing people’s emotional drives through a unique expression of those emotional drives – with the cool design of a Mini, the enriching experience of a Starbucks, the cultural immersion of a Nike, etc.

3. Be consistent and repeat…repeat…repeat

The rationale behind this bit of jabber? The customer’s mind needs to be repeatedly exposed to a message (I’ve read everything from at least five times to nine plus) for it to cut through the marketing clutter. Plus the fact that repetition helps build familiarity, which in turn helps build credibility.

It is true that mere exposure to something results in a more positive attitude toward that thing. But running the same ad – or mailing the same piece – month after month is simply shallow and unimaginative. Like many of the impersonal, scripted remarks of service personnel. “How was your stay?” “We appreciate your business. We know you have a choice.” “Would you like fries with that?” Sure, an emotionally provocative message may touch a chord with a customer…the first time. The tenth time, it touches a nerve. And that’s no way to build a relationship.

4. Top of mind awareness

This piece of brand wisdom is tied directly to the previous one and is closest to the dated, classical idea of branding. It goes like this: If we can burn our name and proposition into our audiences’ minds, then when the desire arises they’ll automatically think of – and choose – us! Brain autopilot. Click. Whirrr. I have news for you (perhaps). The age of branding as brainwashing is over. I can hear it now: ”Come on, Tom. For habitual buying, which occurs when involvement is low and difference between brands is small, top of mind awareness is key.” You know, you may be right. Or maybe, low price is key. Either way, I wouldn’t want to take my customer relationships for granted and hope that my product or service category remains low involvement and undifferentiated.

Comic Jackie Mason once cracked about Starbucks business concept: “If I said to you, I have a great idea for a whole new type of coffee shop. Instead of charging 60 cents for coffee, I’ll charge $2.50, $3.50, $4.50, and $5.50. Not only that, I’ll have no tables, no chairs, no water, no free refills, no waiters, no busboys, serve it in cardboard cups, and have the customer clean it up. Would you say to me, ‘That’s the greatest idea for a business I’ve ever heard! We can open these all over the world’? No, you’d put me right into a sanitarium.” In fast-evolving markets, new kinds of competitors with different business models spring up all the time. So be aware (beware). Your product category could be the subject of Jackie’s next joke.

5. Personal branding

It was management guru Tom Peters who started the personal branding noise with an essay that appeared in Fast Company in 1997 under the title “The Brand Called You.” Peters wrote “…think of yourself differently! You’re not an ‘employee’ of General Motors, you’re not a ‘staffer’ at General Mills, you’re not a ‘worker’ at General Electric or a ‘human resource’ at General Dynamics (ooops, it’s gone!) Forget the Generals! You don’t ‘belong to’ any company for life, and your chief affiliation isn’t to any particular ‘function’. You’re not defined by your job title and yo’re not confined by your job description. Starting today you are a brand.” With all due respect to Tom’s rant, he was right about one thing: In today’s rapidly changing world, jobs are NOT for life. But neither are companies, relationships or brands. In the article, Tom points to Arthur Anderson as a “model of the new rules of branding at the company and personal level.” Hey Tom! Ooops, they’re gone too!

Consultants and personal coaches have jumped all over this buzzword and have in essence rebranded Dale Carnegie – like success secrets as “Personal Branding.” With a little dedication (time and money), you too can become an Oprah, Madonna, Eminem or Donald Trump (although I’m not really sure why you’d want to be). Do yourself a favor. Dump this self-involved concept and get back to being a caring, passionate, curious, human being. You’ll enjoy life a hell of a lot more, and – as a bonus – you’ll probably make more money in the process.

Take a look at Peter Jackson, the short, portly director of the “Lord of the Rings” megahit movies. Does he look like a recent graduate of a dress for success seminar to you? Cripes! He comes across more like one of Tolkien’s Middle-earth characters. But he does have what success is all about: passion for the possible; sensitivity and caring for people; the willingness to try new things, to take risks, to learn and to grow; and a self-deprecating sense of humor…all of which I refer to as Sandbox Wisdom.

6. Brand inside

I understand this one. I simply don’t believe in it. The grounds for creating this brand adjective gibberish are that executives by and large ignore their internal audience (employees) when developing and executing branding campaigns (Hey CEO! It’s strategy, not a campaign). As a result, employees end up undermining the expectations set by the company.

So now we need a distinction to get executives to understand the importance of organizational alignment? Of getting everyone to live the brand? Or…do consultants need the distinction to position and sell their services? You know, I suppose one could also draw a distinction between the retail outlet outside and the retail outlet inside. That way, employees who work inside the store can be conditioned to rush past gum wrappers in the parking log on their way to their real jobs.

7. Brand logic (with a focus on USP, UVP or what ever you want to call it)

And last but not least on my notorious list, a return to rational, features and benefits marketing (Déjà vu all over again). A scientific sales mentality brimming with arguments, metrics, dollarization, etc. Irresistible logic. How can you NOT be persuaded to choose my brand? I’ve proven it to you the way that one proves a theorem. Are you stupid, or what?” This is direct marketing gone mad. You can find it on web sites, in brochures, sales letters and presentations, infomercials…you name it! You know when you come across it, because it always begins with a rhetorical question (we really shouldn’t call such questions rhetorical, because they don’t enhance the persuasive effect. Stupid or manipulative comes to mind); e.g. Do YOU want to lose your shirt in real estate? If not…blah, blah, blah.”

Look. Branding today can only work through ideas that customers WANT to connect with. People can neither be hypnotized with media images nor cajoled with flowery prose. You must truly understand their language, and be felt like a part of their inner world of hopes and dreams. The old world of branding was similar to an adolescent’s view of love. It was about gazing into each other’s eyes and being dazzled by the reflection. Today, great branding is about a mature love. It’s about standing side by side in a trusting relationship with both sets of eyes focused on the horizon of life’s amazing possibilities.

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