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9 Brand Builder’s Resolutions for 2011

23 Dec

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. Usually my resolutions usually end up as just more fuel for guilt. So this year, I thought I’d spread the guilt by setting some resolutions I think all brand builders would do well to follow. Yes, even me. ESPECIALLY me. Heck, if we keep half of them, we’ll still be better off. Even if we keep one of them, we’ll be better off. And most are pretty easy. So here goes:

  1. Stop complaining about “the economy.” It is what it is. Deal with it.
  2. Listen to at least 20 customers or clients. Notice I didn’t say “talk” to them. Nor did I say “do research.” I didn’t even say “pay attention to your Facebook wall,” though those are all good things. We all get shut up in our offices and it’s easy to hide behind our laptops and smart phones, assuming we’re getting the full picture. We’re not. Hard to believe that anything can be more important than digital communication, I know, but sometimes face-to-face — or even phone-to-phone — communication can be quite refreshing. Try it. Ask a few customers what they think about your company or product; what they expect; whether you fulfill their expectations; then shut up and listen. Couldn’t hurt, right? Well, maybe it could. But not as much as not listening.
  3. Look at your marketing communications and delete all BS. Get rid of all the gobbledygook — please! Your customers and clients will thank you (see Resolution nos. 1, 5 and 6). If you’re not sure what’s gobbledygook and what’s not, download David Meerman Scott’s wonderful little eBook, The Gobbledygook Manifesto. Then, after you’ve cleansed your communications of gobbledygook, get rid of all the stuff that you’ve been saying all these years but that just plain isn’t true. Go ahead, be honest. Are you really “cutting edge” or “best of breed”? REALLY? Note: If after deleting the gobbledygook and untruths there’s nothing left to say about your brand, you need more than a few resolutions. Shameless plug: If that’s the case, you’re welcome to give The Fiddler Group a holler.
  4. If you can’t delete the BS, turn it into truth. See resolution #3. You know all that stuff that just isn’t entirely true? Maybe your brand would be better off if it WERE be true. This is your year to make it so.
  5. Question your brand delivery daily. When you wake up (or — if you need to shower and have a cup of coffee first —  you can leave it for first thing in the office) do two things. First, recite your brand promise with conviction (“We WILL give every customer the best burger s/he’s ever eaten.”). Then ask, “How can I make that more true today than yesterday?” You have the rest of the day to make it happen.
  6. Answer your questions daily. Some time before the night-night hour, answer these questions 1) “Did I keep our brand’s promises today?” and 2) “Did we make more customers happy?” Imagine how deeply you will sleep if the answers are “yes.”
  7. Let your brand breathe a little. It’s not bad to be a little bit of a control freak when it comes to your brand. But even brands have to have a little fun sometimes. Dabble with marketing to a different customer. Have an online birthday party for your brand. Do a video that makes fun of your brand. Lighten up a little. What’s the worst that could happen? Not much. The best? A lot.
  8. Stop talking about social media as if it were on a different planet than everything else. OK, this may be a hard one, what with all the “gurus” and “evangelists” running around loose in the Twitto-blogo-Facebooko-sphere. But seriously, it’s all connected in your customers’ heads: traditional media, digital media, the stuff they hear in the supermarket, writing on the bathroom wall. This year, instead of focusing on your social media strategy, focus on a customer strategy. Better yet, go back to the principles of Integrated Marketing Communications and fold in a little push and a little pull, inbound and outbound. Talk with your customers; but don’t be afraid to talk TO them, either. They don’t ALWAYS want a dialogue.
  9. Clean up your office and clear off your desktop. If it’s anything like mine, it’s a damn mess.

There, that’s nine. I’m certain I’ll think of more as soon as I publish. But this is a start. You have others? It would be great to hear about them.

In Brand Building, the Tactic is Father to the Strategy

21 Dec

There’s a lot of talk and confusion about strategy and tactics. Most people like to think strategy is Really Important Stuff (e.g. divide and conquer), while tactics are, well, just details (e.g. pay some of the Taliban to leave the fold). In some senses, it’s true. You can miss the boat on some tactics and still win the war if your strategy holds up. But if your strategy sucks, it doesn’t matter how good your tactics are — you lose.

One of the classic examples of this are the Alka Seltzer campaigns of the 60s. The first two ads (read: tactics) below were made to fulfill one strategy; the last one was built to fulfill another. The first two are some of the more memorable ads of the era. They won a bunch of awards. The last one, not so much. The first two didn’t increase sales. The last one, featuring our friend Speedy, did. The strategy it represented — of hammering home an easily remembered mnemonic — was followed successfully by Alka Seltzer for many years. (Note: If you think I’m using this as an example because the old Alka Seltzer commercials are awesome, you’re right. But it’s still a good example.)

OK, so this was an example in which strategy drove tactics. But recently, in one of the now-too-frequent social media discussions I find myself engaged in, someone pointed out that social media isn’t such a big deal, because it’s merely what used to be called “word-of-mouth” — that is, it’s just new tactics for an old strategy. While it’s true social media simply takes word-of-mouth to a new level, you can’t deny that the new tactics enable a whole new set of brand building strategies. Once upon a time, word-of-mouth was something that happened over backyard fences and water coolers, virtually invisible to the brand marketer. Not much strategy was really possible. Now that it’s out in plain view, everyone’s clamoring to develop strategies that put social media tactics to effective use.

I don’t want to get hung up on social media. This same principle is true for online video, product placement, SEO, and lots of other tactics that make new strategies possible. That’s why the business of building brands is undergoing such huge change — because the available tactics are morphing so rapidly. For someone involved in developing brand strategies to assume tactics are for other people is to miss the fact that — while strategies are what make tactics useful — tactics are what make strategies possible. Before architecture can be possible, we have to learn how to turn mud into bricks and bricks into buildings. It starts with the most tactical activity: playing in the mud.

We Have Seen the Future and It Is Them: Brandvertising’s Three Starring Roles

17 Dec

Back to the FutureLast month, Fast Company published a brilliant article by Danielle Sacks about “The Future of Advertising.” I can’t imagine anyone in our industry not recognizing the chaos she describes. And if you’ve been in the business more than five years, for sure you found your blood running cold with the shock of recognition.

She describes a world  (ours)  in which the old models — of media, of agencies, of client relationships — have been smashed, to be replaced by, well, as of now, chaos. Of course, she talks to lots of people who have done lots of different things in the new environment, most of them leaving big agencies and starting renegade business of some sort, some of them successful. All agree things will never be the same, that the digital revolution will sweep away the old guard. Listen closely, the sound you hear is the clicking of Madame Defarge‘s knitting needles.

But while technology has forever altered the advertising business, just as it has altered the music, radio, newspaper, television and retail businesses (to name but a few), clients’ top level needs have not really changed. Clients still need to find ways to build brands and drive sales, just like they did in Mad Men days. Just because the answer to these needs is no longer “run some TV spots and see what happens” doesn’t mean they don’t need help from teams of smart people with special knowledge and skills.

Of course, technical skills, such as programming and multimedia development will be in demand. And while commercial TV as we know it is evolving, I doubt the thing we know as the TV spot is going away anytime soon; someone will have to make them. But here are a few communications professionals that should be in high demand in post revolutionary Brandland.

Branders Who Get It. Brands aren’t losing importance. In fact, if anything, in a world where price is increasingly transparent, brands take on increased importance, simply because brands simplify choice. They’re the x factor beyond price. But whereas brands used to be highly controlled and viewed through the peephole of traditional advertising and packaging, brands are now in a fishbowl. A brand essence statement and simple Brand ID Guide doesn’t cut it. The people who craft brands need to consider not only how they look, but how they sound, smell, taste, sing, laugh, converse, not to mention how to maintain some sort of internal consistency across every conceivable encounter with customers. Understanding your brand on the most fundamental level, so you can live it within the maelstrom of media and competition has become essential. Branders who understand this and can help organizations navigate the new landscape will be needed and I suspect will take over much of the strategic work ad agencies have traditionally handled, because it’s no really just a prelude to doing traditional advertising. Brand building is an ongoing activity that may or may not involve what we now call “advertising.”

Real Writers. Once upon a time, advertising was the province of great writers such as Hopkins, Caples and Ogilvy. With the coming of TV and better printing— art directors became the stars. In the new world of Brandvertising, with its insatiable appetite for content, writers are once again in demand. But this time, it’s not just to write advertising copy. Blogs, eBooks, videos, they all require writing. And who knows what else will pop up. It’s good news for all the journalism school graduates looking at a world of dying newspapers.

Connectivistas. We now have “Social Media Gurus” (or “Evangelists,” or whatever else you call them) on one side, traditional media types on the other. But in the end, they’re all responsible for the same thing: creating pipelines that connect brands with people, and vice versa. In the new world, as the distinctions blur, we need people who understand how to integrate them. I suppose you could call them Media Professionals, but Connectivistas, or something like that, is probably more accurate, because the responsibility could extend to areas beyond what we think of as “media.” A Connectivista should be able to develop a full-out connection strategy that includes digital media, social media, traditional media, SEO, PR,  point of purchase, events,… you name it. It’s an Integrated Marketing Communications professional squared.

I’m certain the list above is just the beginning. Brandvertising is, after all, a new world. But once you get over the culture shock, it sounds kinda interesting, no?

How to Discover a Brand: Part Three

15 Dec

So our walls are papered with facts, at least 100 of them.  It’s now early afternoon — time to start making something of all this. But first,…

What about brand personality?

All these facts don’t relate much to the personality of the brand. But it’s the brand’s personality that gives it life and often inspires the branding. When I first started doing Brand Discovery, it was all a search for very logical stuff. But when all was said and done, the brand fundamentals seemed dry. There was something missing. So I created what I like to call it the “right brain” side of the Discovery Session. Here’s how it works. We expose participants to groups of images, both photographic and illustrated.  These images depict various personality aspects (traditional, free-spirited, adventurous, etc.), though they are not labeled as such. Participants are asked as a group to quickly determine one or two images from each group that feel as if they could be consistent with some aspect of the brand’s personality. Then we go through the chosen images one or two more times to cull them further, until we have five or six that the team agrees on. Inevitably, a picture of the brand personality will begin to emerge. Later, when cleaning up the findings from the Discovery session, you’ll be able to take more time to interpret these images and create a fully realized personality. It’s like magic!

Now back to the facts.

Possible Unique Selling Points

The facts were fun; lunch was OK; the personality picture thing was interesting— time to get back to work. The next task is to determine “Possible Unique Selling Points” of the brand. Here’s how you do it:

Explain what a Unique Selling Point (USP) is: a quality or fact that our brand has that others in the category don’t and that is potentially compelling to customers. In order to qualify as a USP, an item has to pass two tests — it’s unique to you in your category (or you do it demonstrably better than anyone else) and it’s compelling to customers. Now dig in, going fact by fact, asking the question: “Could this possibly be a USP?” Every time a fact passes muster, have your assistant get it down on another sheet of easel paper marked “Poss USPs”. The idea here is not to be too exclusive. The Possible USPs are going to become the raw material from which you craft your final USPs. What you’ll find during this exercise is that the facts begin to organize themselves. Some are clearly unimportant. Some are clearly important. Some are meaningful in relation to others. Some things people thought would be important, don’t seem so anymore. Some begin to loom large.

The Grand Finale: Unique Selling Points and a Surprise

So now we’ve organized our 100+ facts into a couple pages of Possible Unique Selling Points. Obviously, it’s time to cut it down to the bone — three to five true USPs. The secret to doing this effectively is to be mercilessly honest. The tendency to say “our people are the best in the industry” is very strong. To listen to execs, every company is like Lake Woebegone, “where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average.” So when you hear a participant say the quality of their personnel is a Unique Selling Point, say “Prove it,” or — sometimes it needs to be said ” “bullshit.” Make clear this is a no BS zone. A USP is something you can deliver on 100% of the time.

Still, there will be USPs that the group believes in, but which they may feel unsure about proving or delivering 100%. For these you have another sheet of easel paper on which your assistant has marked off two columns, one labeled “Wishes” and one labeled “Granted.” When the group decides on a USP they can;t deliver n with absolute consistency, ask what they could do to make it happen. If they need a training program to make sure their people are the best in the business, that’s a “Wish.” Someone then has to agree to “Grant” the Wish, with a deadline to report back to the group.

Before long, you have your USPs and a set of “Wishes” and “Granteds” that are the beginning of a brand consistency action plan.  One more step: prioritize. By this time, everyone in the room will be involved. What is the most important USP?  The second most important? These are the questions that provoke debate. But when the dust clears, you have the rough foundation of a brand: three to five solid Unique Selling Points in priority order, each with clear support points and benefits; the beginning of a corporate plan to ensure the consistent validity if the USPs; and the birth of a brand personality.

What a day.

How to Discover a Brand: Part Two

9 Dec


Just the facts, ma'am.

When we last left our intrepid Brand Discovery session in Part One, it consisted of an off-site roomful of “appropriate” people. They’re all staring at you, wondering why they had to leave their cozy offices and turn off their smart phones. They’re nervous about a stranger in their midst with an easel full of paper and a bunch of colored Sharpies. Now what?

Tell them why they’re here.

Now’s the time to tell them they are here to create a more successful brand. Explain what a brand is (not a name or a logo, but the promise of a certain type of experience — what the name and logo stand for). Tell them some stories of great brands. Take your time. Let people relax. Let it sink in that there’s no pressure on individuals to think of game-saving ideas or show how brilliant they are. No one will have to fall backwards into someones arms or talk about how they were fat and unloved as children. All the process requires is for everyone to be clear-headed, honest and involved. Tell a few case study stories. Set some ground rules (cell phones off, etc.). Tell a couple jokes. Let them know that by the end of the day, they will all have real clarity around what their brand is, and that within a few weeks or months they’ll begin to see the results of that.  Then tell them exactly what the process is.

Step One: 100 Facts

You’re going to ask them to tell you facts — at least 100 of them. What’s a fact? A fact is “we sell hamburgers” or “our hamburgers are made of 80% lean ground round” or “our hamburgers are never frozen” or “Ray Kroc bought this company in 1961.” “Our hamburgers are juiciliscious” is not a fact; it’s an opinion (and marketing BS, to boot). Everyone knows a few facts and they tend to be non-controversial, so this “fact download” gets people working together in a non-competitive way. It also enables people to empty their minds of virtually everything they know about the brand. And — most importantly — it gives you and the group all the raw material you need to develop the brand fundamentals, because strong brands are built on facts — or “truths” — not marketing BS.

Why 100 facts? Because its a big number that forces people to settle in and let their minds go. In fact, by the time they reach 100 facts, the group will probably still be generating more. That’s fine; let them go until the exercise burns itself out. It should take two hours or more (with a couple short breaks).

Of course, you’re going to be writing all these facts down on your easel paper and then sticking them up on the walls. Actually, you would do well to have an assistant do all the writing and sticking-on-walls, so you can put your head toward facilitation (note: sometimes the 3M PostIt style paper doesn’t stick so well; bring some tape, just in case, and be careful not to pull paint off the walls; yes, I have done that). You are also going to be organizing these facts under the following headings (and in this order):

  1. Category. These are facts about what the business category is (you’d be surprised about how controversial this can be), who the competition is, what their brands stand for, what commodity the category provides to tis customers, and what benefits the category provides to its customers. These are important facts. Because if your ultimate goal is to differentiate your brand, you need to know what you’re differentiating from. The brand exists within the context of the competitive environment and customer expectations.
  2. History. These are facts about the history of the company/brand. Sometimes they prove to be important. Ofttimes not. Best to get them down.
  3. Company/Product. This will probably take the bulk of your paper. What does the company do and how does it do it? What about its products. If it’s a restaurant, what’s on the menu. Why. How is it prepared? If it’s a retail establishment, what does the store look like?  You get the idea, the more facts the better.
  4. Other. No matter how many facts you’ve generated, there are others on people’s minds. Get ’em down.

Step Two: Take a Deep Breath

Now the walls are papered with facts and people are wondering what’s next. They’re getting a little tired and maybe hungry, but their curiosity is piqued. “What are we gonna do with all this?” Time for lunch. While everyone’s digesting their food, you’ll find they are also digesting the facts, which is good, because we will be going back over them….

in my next post: How to Discover a Brand: Part Three.

How to Discover your Brand: Part One

7 Dec

Eureka!When I first learned brand development techniques, my mentor at the time cautioned me not to give up the secrets he was laying on me, lest competitors steal my mojo. But let’s face it, every firm and consultant with half a pulse has some sort of “exclusive” brand development process, many followed by a ™, as if their process alone could tease the brand from your benighted company. (Note: we are talking specifically about organizational brands here, not product brands, though many of the same things will apply.) Over the years we’ve refined our process to a point where we can tell a client confidently that it will work (IF they make a serious commitment to it), but I don’t know that our “exclusive” process is so different from everyone else’s. I suspect it’s not. And if experience — good and bad — has taught me one thing, it’s that the practitioner is as important to the result as the process.

That being the case, there seems to be no good reason to hide our brand development process from the masses. If you think you can do it yourself, go ahead and have at it. If you think you have a better way, we’d love to hear about it.

What is Brand Discovery?

Brand Discovery is a process by which you create clarity around what precisely makes (or will make) your brand different and compelling within your category. If you already have a strong and well-understood brand, you may have nothing to discover; you already know what your brand is all about. I’ve already written about when and why you might consider rebranding (or at least refreshing your brand), so I won’t go into it here. Let’s just say your brand isn’t working for you and neither you nor the people you work with — much less your customers — can articulate what it’s all about. Time for the first step in Brand Development: Brand Discovery.

The reason we call it “Discovery” and not “Creation” or “Brainstorm” (or “Brandstorm,” which I’m certain some shameless branding firm must have trademarked), is because the whole idea is to find the brand that’s already lurking somewhere inside the company. I think of it the way Michelangelo thought of sculpture: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” This is an important distinction for those who think branding is all smoke and mirrors. If the goal is to create a brand the organization can sustain and grow, the brand has to be built into its fabric. Put another way, the brand strategy must align with the business strategy, or neither will work to their fullest potential. Assuming the organization already has a business strategy, the goal of Brand Discovery is then to find out how to reach that alignment.

So Brand Discovery is about learning about what precisely makes — or could make — our brand special and compelling within our category. For that, we need to be clear about:

  • What exactly is our category?
  • What do customers expect from the category?
  • What are they getting from our competitors?
  • What makes us different and more desirable for some of them?

What’s more, the organization needs to reach consensus around the answers to all of these questions.

How do we start “Discovering”?

We start with a room, preferable off-site to impede distractions, comfortable, but not too luxurious. Then we gather the right people — the boss, of course, senior managers from across the organization, individuals who have important knowledge within the organization, or others will be involved with the Brand Development process as it plays out. What’s important is that everyone who is ultimately responsible for key functions within the organization is involved. I find it’s healthy to include curmudgeons, too. Because they can be troublesome later if not heard earlier. They also tend to be truth tellers, which is a good thing.

What’s the right number of people for a Brand Discovery session? We’ve done it with as few as one person (a start-up, of course) and as many as 30+. Ten to twelve seems a good number. But what’s most important is that the organization’s key people are involved. If they’re not there, they can’t be involved; if the crowd’s too big, their involvement will be limited. One session we did with eight people, which seemed to be a good number. But, against our recommendations, the CEO had only invited sales and marketing executives, under the mistaken impression that this was “a marketing thing.” The session went OK, but the results didn’t stick very well. Be forewarned.

OK, I’m over my blog limit for the day. Next post: Operating a Brand Discovery Session.

The role of research in brand development

30 Nov

It surprises me sometimes when clients (and prospective clients) balk at the idea — and the cost — of research within the brand development process. After all, who is the brand for? Whose perceptions define it? Customers, channel partners, employees, prospects — just about everyone BUT the CEO. Of course, it’s fruitless to ask customers what they want our brand to be;  they just don’t know or care. It’s up to the company to create the brand. But it makes perfect sense to find out what customer perceptions are and whether they can accept our vision. In fact, it’s foolish not to. There are also important roles for other constituencies. Here are a few ideas on what and how to research within a brand development process.

  1. Market Research. Your brand is what separates you from other competitors within your category. Doing some market research sheds light on the category and competitors. This doesn’t have to be primary research. Buying existing third party research about the category, visiting web sites, paying attention to competitors’ social media presences — all of this may be enough to get a good idea of the landscape. Put together an analysis and share it with the brand team after brand discovery.
  2. Validation Research. OK, you’ve been through brand discovery and you’ve developed your brand story and other fundamentals — time to see if they make any sense to your customers, before you spend any more time considering how you’ll communicate them. This is best done with qualitative research techniques because you can’t really predict what respondents will say and you’ll want responses in their own words. We’ve used both well-moderated focus groups and one-on-ones successfully. Phone focus groups have worked very well when we need respondents across a wide geography. What you can learn about is respondents’ attitudes about the category, how you fit within the competition and — by exposing them to elements of the brand fundamentals you’ve already developed — whether they can accept the brand you’ve envisioned and whether it may be compelling. Listening closely to customers in this way has the added advantage of hearing the words they use, which can supercharge your communications. And you don’t have to stop with customers. This type of research can be valuable with channel partners and internal groups, too.
  3. Creative Research. Before you make decisions on your branding elements, it can be valuable to test them with customers. We’ve found this is best done quantitatively in online surveys or one-on-one interviews, depending on the complexity of the materials. The point is not to ask what respondents like best, but which best communicates what you are trying to communicate, so you make make educated choices.

See, that wasn’t so difficult. Imagine the advantage your process gains by including customers and partners. Is it worth the time and expense? Is car insurance worth the cost?

How Keywords Build Brands and Brands Build Keywords

23 Nov

Brand specialists and SEO people don’t always mix well. The first group tends to be most interested in the forest; the other in the trees (sometimes even the lichen on the trees). But there are certain places where their interests connect. One is keywords.

Every SEO will ramble on about the importance of keywords to search. They are, of course, the very foundation of search. One of the first pieces of business for any SEO effort is to develop a set of keywords, which find their way into content, links, page titles, and maybe into keyword marketing. These keywords come from brainstorming and lots of research. (If you are interested, here are a couple decent articles about developing keyword lists:  one from Associated Content and one from Bruce Clay.)

Since you can’t build a brand without achieving some level of visibility, and it’s difficult to achieve visibility these days without appearing in the appropriate web search, shouldn’t your keywords relate to your brand, and vice versa?

Lately, we have begun developing a primary keyword list as part of Brand Development. What this does is establish potential search patterns that relate directly to our brand characteristics, as we want them to be. Theoretically, this should also mean the people who search and find the brand are the ones who should really be interested in it, i.e. the best prospects.

Of course, the list generated as part of the Brand Development process still has to be researched and amended. Ultimately, it will also evolve as keywords in use are analysed for effectiveness and improved. That’s when it’s a good idea to bring the updated keywords back to the Brand Story and ask the question: Is our brand aligned with what people are really thinking about us, as reflected in how they search?

If the answer is “no, not so much,” maybe it’s time to revisit your Brand Story. I’m not suggesting your brand should follow your key words slavishly, or vice versa. I’m just saying it makes sense, in world where decision making about your brand is driven to a large degree by search, for you to make your brand as accessible as possible to your customers’ searches. Likewise, if it appears your customers are searching for a brand with different attributes than yours, maybe you need to fix that.

It’s time to close the loop.

Truth Will Out: A Brand Is As A Brand Does

20 Nov

eBay illustration

"Your business is important to us."

Wonderfully funny post this morning by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post about his recent customer service encounter, “written entirely while on hold with eBay customer service.” You can probably guess the gist of the piece from the title alone: “The Last Auction Hero: Gene Takes On EBay.” To resolve a minor issue, Customer Gene waits on hold, listening repeatedly to the “Your business is important to us” message, to talk to a rep in India, who claims he’s “John” from San Jose, but certainly isn’t, who puts him back on hold, and on and on. If you’re anyone but an eBay employee or investor, you’ll for sure get a chuckle. If you do have links to eBay, not so much.

All of us have had this experience, if not with eBay than with some other company, probably more than once. It’s easy to rant against outsourcing. But honestly, outsourcing can be a sensible solution to a business problem. And there are some great outsourced call centers. The real problem exposed by Mr. Weingarten isn’t about outsourcing or Indian call centers, it’s the pattern of lies he uncovers: “It was in the middle of the 285th lie when you picked up and told me your name was John, which I am thinking, from your voice, is a 286th lie.”

If there’s one crime that will damage a brand faster than any other, it’s lying. (OK, you’re probably thinking that dumping a bazillion barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico was petty bad for the BP brand. True. But that could have been a mistake, albeit a disastrous one. Wasn’t it worse for their brand that they LIED about it for months?)

So here’s a piece of advice for anyone who cares about building their brand: unless your actually building the Pinocchio brand, don’t lie! Ever. Not in your marketing communications. Not on your web site. Not even in the recorded messages on your customer service line. If you DO find it necessary to save money by underfunding customer service, fine. Just don’t tell us it’s about “caring for (your) customer.” People recognize that for what it is and your brand will suffer.

In fact, here’s a worthwhile exercise for anyone who cares about their brand. Go through every piece of literature, every script, every recorded message, and mark everything that may even be remotely construed as a lie. Then either change the words to reflect the truth, or change the truth to reflect the words.

Brands and Commodities. Does anyone know the difference? Does anyone really care?

18 Nov

It started with a simple question from Marco the administrator: “Hi. Can you describe, in one sentence or less :-), the difference between a brand and a commodity?”

:-), indeed.

What has ensued in one of my LinkedIn groups is one of the most active and sometimes contentious discussions I’ve seen. It’s like the discussions you sometimes see at a party between two people sitting in the corner over who’s the best heavy metal band or how to make the best chicken salad or whatever. The discussion ranges far and wide, folks drop into the discussion and drop out, multiple cocktails are consumed, there’s no final answer. But when the evening’s over, and the host is picking up the empty glasses and beer bottles, the two who started the discussion are still going at it in the corner.

Personally, I think the answer to the initial question about commodities and brands is a simple one: Commodities are just stuff; brands are commodities that we believe are more than just stuff. End of discussion. Let’s move on to the next topic. (Note: Apologies for the semi-colon to Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Sorry, Mr. Vonnegut, I needed it to fulfill the one sentence rule.)

But everyone in the discussion group, from Bangor to Bangalore, is all in a dither over this question. “For tangible products: Every brand can be a commodity, every commodity may/may not be a brand…….” says Anuj Kumar.

“A commodity is a tangible item which have its own Brand Identity,” adds Chirag Kumar Gupta (The Brand Boy).

Laurence Bernstein retorts: “A commodity is a type of product or service that has and can have no intrinsic difference from other similar products. When a commodity is imbued with an extrinsic differentiator that changes its relative value, it becomes a brand.” Imbued with an extrinsic differentiator? Jeez!

And on and on. For a while the discussion veered onto a little sidetrack about branded potatoes, though Ines Grgurević asserts that “a potato with a story doesn’t make it a potato brand.” Ashok Lulla got a little out of line, provoking a warning from Marco to get it together or he’d be kicked off the island. But mostly, it has been collegial, with plenty of verbal backslapping, a very lively debate, 518 comments-worth as of this posting.

But while many of the comments have been interesting, and a few very smart, indeed, what really interests me is why all us brand nerds can’t just let it go. My answer to the question about commodities and brands: magic. Something happens between the computer and the Apple, between the cup of coffee and the Starbucks that just seems bigger than the sum of its parts. We erstwhile Brandinis, engaged in trying to make that magic happen, can’t help dissecting and deconstructing, trying to figure out what exactly makes the alchemy between company, product, customer, analysis and creativity tick. Because when the formula’s right, the magic works, and the rabbit you pull out of the hat can be golden.

So, keep up the fight, Anuj. Giddyup, Brand Boy. Laurence, Ashok, Ines and all the Brandinis worldwide, carry on. We’ll figure it out.