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Fun with Brand Tags

24 Jan
Volvo Brand Tags

Volvo: boring and boxy (but good)

Occasionally, when I’m tired of doing anything vaguely productive, I wander over to, where I inevitably waste more time than I intend to. You may have visited already . It’s been around a couple years and has been written up by lots of folks — Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, ClickZ, Seth Godin, among others. If not — and if you don’t mind losing yourself for a while — give it a whirl. It’s both a running compilation of the perceptions of various well-known brands and an engine for you to input your own instant perceptions of whatever brands the site throws your way:  sort of a brandophile’s Rorschach test. (Quick, how would you describe this brand in a word or phrase: Suzuki?) The site now has over a thousand brands tagged with over two million tags, which appear in cloud formation (like the one at left for Volvo), with the descriptions in size proportion to the frequency of their usage.

So here’s some interesting stuff I learned in a few minutes on Brand Tags about luxury automobile brands:

  1. “Asshole” seems to be about as important an element of the BMW brand as “Engineering,” “Performance,” “Overpriced” and “Snob,” though not as much as “Ultimate Driving Machine” or “Yuppie.”
  2. Mercedes evokes “Prestige,” Luxury,” “Overpriced,” “Expensive,” and “Nazis.” BMW seems to have a Nazi element, too, but not as strong as Mercedes; go figure.
  3. Cadillac combines elements of “Classic,” “Expensive,” “Luxury,” “Grandpa,” “Old People,” and “Pimp.” Draw your own conclusions.
  4. Audi? “German,” of course. “Luxury,” “Performance,” “Sleek.” And how about this — “Olympics?” Seems their  logo has made a real impression. (“Star” was significant for Mercedes, too.)

Restaurants are fun, too:

  1. Boston Market? “Chicken,” “Food,” “Meat,” “Turkey,” “Yuck.”
  2. Burger King ranges from the obvious — “Hamburgers,” “Fries,” “Junk Food,” “The King,” etc. — to the unsettling “Creepy King” — to the ancient — “Have It Your Way.”
  3. Here’s a fun and popular association with Dunkin Donuts: “Cops.”
  4. I guess it’s no surprise “Shit,” “Obesity,” “Disgusting,” and “Yummy” rate high for McDonald’s. But “Evil?” That’s harsh.

What does it all mean?

  1. For starters, it confirms what we know — that brands over time become extraordinarily rich stews of impressions and perceptions: positive, negative and lots of in between. Those stews ARE the brands. They grow in directions we simply can’t control. If you’re McDonald’s, “Disgusting” is apparently a side of your brand — albeit the dark side. If you’re Dunkin Donuts, you need to accept the popular perception that you’re the place cops hang out. If you’re Mercedes, “Nazis” is something you’d consider unwarranted and irrelevant 65 years after the fall of the Third Reich. But it’s no less real for that — perception in brands is reality. And that reality is constantly evolving as new perceptions enter the mix and old ones either evaporate or grow in intensity. In case we didn’t know it, managing brand perceptions is a 24/7 job, not simply a campaign or three.
  2. How we brand and communicate makes a difference. Can you believe how vital “Have it your way” still remains for Burger King? Or how important “Engineering” is for BMW, but not for any of its competition? Those are significant brand advantages that grew directly from the product, to the communications, to perceptions. Look at the brand tags for a brand like Boston Market, which has deep penetration and has been around for a while — there are almost no perceptions beyond the most basic (“Chicken,” “Meat,” etc.). Could it be because they’ve never planted any with their communications? Could this be one reason for their struggles?
  3. The brand experience itself communicates more strongly than anything we say. No amount of communication seems to be able to erase the memory of experiences. Communications can effect the perceptions of those experiences. But they can’t delete them.

Fun, huh? Of course, there is not explicit connection between brand tags and a brand’s success or lack thereof. But if you’re looking to spend a little quality time in Brandland, check it out.  And if you register, you’ll be able to play “Guess That Brand,” where you’re presented with a set of brand tags and have to figure out which brand they are for. I found it very humbling.

AIDA’s dead. Give it a rest.

19 Jan

AIDAAwareness. Interest, Desire. Action. When I took my first advertising course almost thirty years ago, our professor intoned those words as if they were gospel. “That is how,” he would say, “consumers move along the path to purchasing this item or that one.” And the whole industry was built around that never-proven, not-based-on-any-credible-research theory — all the stuff about reach and frequency and three-exposures-required-to-gain-awareness. It was how plans were developed, how fortunes made (and spent). AIDA.

For over 20 years now, since the advent of integrated marketing communications, the AIDA theory has been on the wane. Customers just aren’t that simple. The most current research by McKinsey about the Consumer Decision Journey should have put it to rest forever. And yet,… and yet students and clients still talk to me about AIDA as if it were the latest thing, as if all we have to do is make enough people aware of a brand to magically induce some portion of them to take interest, a smaller portion to develop desire, and a smaller portion yet to take action and buy: simply pour enough people into the top of the funnel (awareness) to see some flow out the bottom (action). Once upon a time, the P & Gs of the world placed product on every shelf and could buy enough reach and frequency for a product to make it look as if awareness led inexorably to action. Maybe it was even true in some small way. But not anymore. And even if it were, with people’s attention divided between so many media, so many content offerings, who can afford to buy huge awareness anymore?

The newer models, including McKinsey’s and inbound marketing models, take into account — correctly — the fact that interest now often precedes awareness. People start with a set of acceptable brands,  search for information, stumble upon things they weren’t hunting for, develop a modified set of acceptable brands, search some more, succumb to last minute changes of heart — in short, they act like people, not like lab rats. A brand’s mere presence somewhere on the journey, combined with the ability to establish some sort of connection, based on shared goals, values, or interest — as opposed to a simple bludgeoning of customers with a blunt message — can win the day. Let’s call it “affinity,” rather than “awareness,” that drives the brand decision journey.

Oddly enough, traditional media — notably television — can be effective in developing affinity, because of its great story-telling power, even though it lacks interactivity (for the time being), while most Internet advertising fails horribly in this regard. I urge you to check out two great pieces about this: a blog post by David Aaker and a video of a tremendous TED presentation by Chris Anderson. One of the key nuggets of knowledge that drives them both is the fact that the advertising value of an hour of an Internet user’s time is only about a dime. The reason is not only because the Internet’s infinite inventory of advertising makes it very cheap, but because we have not yet cracked the code on how to make it  effective, that is engage people and drive affinity. Most of us are still caught up in the AIDA model — impressions, eyeballs, clicks.

This is partially a measurement problem. Impressions, clicks and the like are very measurable; affinity and connection not so much. But we are also faced with a creativity problem. Knowing what we know about how individual customers make decisions, understanding that they are now in charge of what they see and when they see it, how do we use all the available new platforms to enable them to meet and engage with brands on their own terms? In a world where advertising is more like wildflowers and less like bullets, how do we spread our messages?

Social media has blossomed as a brandland strategy in response to this dilemma. But it’s only one answer. What seems clear while we grope to use digital and traditional media more effectively is that building brand communications around a full understanding of individuals’ complex motivations and habits, rather than forcing messages down any available throats, seems a better prescription for long-term brand health.

Brand redemption Ray Lewis style

15 Jan
Ray Lewis

The Ray Lewis brand, circa 2000

It’s the best wekend of the year for professional football (that’s American-style football, for all you non-American readers). So let’s talk about a football brand.

By his own admission, Baltimore Ravens sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis was a pretty bad guy, bad enough to be indicted in 2000 on charges of murder and aggravated assault. The charges were dropped in favor of lesser charges and a stiff fine. But the images and circumstances swirling around the incident — a night club, a limo, a few words, a brawl, Lewis’s rough entourage, his later admitted cover-up — along with his on-field reputation for particularly hard hitting in a violent sport, yielded him a personal brand that could only be envied by a thug. His brand came packaged in one of three wrappers: a Ravens uniform, an ankle length fur, or an orange jumpsuit. In Baltimore, he was cheered on the field, feared off it and scorned behind his back as “too ghetto for his own good.”

But Ray Lewis proved what BP, AIG and many other blemished corporate brands would do well to understand: brand redemption can be achieved; the price is honest, real, sustained change. Today, ten years after the ugly incident that defined it, the Ray Lewis brand is golden. Let’s let Wikipedia tell us why:

“Lewis started the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation which is a non-profit corporation whose mission is to provide personal and economic assistance to disadvantaged youth. The foundation has funded such events as adopting ten families in Baltimore City community for the holidays, an annual celebrity auction and bowling tournament, the Great Maryland Duck Derby, Thanksgiving food drives on North Avenue in Baltimore and Ray’s Summer Days. All proceeds have helped fund the Ray Lewis Foundation.

Ray Lewis

The Ray Lewis brand, circa 2010

Lewis has since been involved in pressing political, business, and philanthropic leaders for a stronger commitment to disability sports both here and in the developing world. Lewis was also honored with a JB award (named in honor of CBS broadcaster James Brown) during the 2006 off-season and received the “Act of Kindness” Award for his work in the community.”

But that’s not the whole story. Ray Lewis still leads his team onto the field and hits as hard as ever. But he also takes the time to mentor others in the NFL — not just his own teammates, but the same people he’s likely to hit on any given Sunday. He’s used his own personal redemption as a tool to help others redeem themselves. He doesn’t preach, he ministers. And he’s found his way back as a product endorser, too, even appearing on the cover of the Madden NFL video game.

Ray Lewis

The Ray Lewis brand promise

What would happen if BP honestly undertook an effort to become environmental leaders, rather than leaning on a PR campaign? What would happen if AIG led the drive for financial reform and corporate responsibility? What would happen if they did those things without fanfare or PR flacks? Wouldn’t long term benefits accrue? Couldn’t they be corporate Ray Lewises? They wouldn’t have to be any less competitive, just transparent and disciplined.

OK, time to get off the soapbox. The Ravens are about to play the Steelers. Gotta go catch me some Ray.



Is your name important? Ask Johnny Cash.

3 Jan

Heck, yes! I can’t believe how many times I’ve been asked this question by clients or prospects who don’t believe their names really matter, as if “good enough” is good enough. It’s as if they never heard Johnny Cash sing “A Boy Named Sue.” “IBM is a nothing name and look how big they are. And what’s so special about McDonald’s, anyway?” True that. but those were brands that grew up in much simpler times.  Would Apple be Apple if it were called Good Business Computers? Evaluating the value of a company’s brand is a tricky business. But the last estimate I saw for the value of the Apple brand on the Interbrand “Best Global Brands 2010”  list was a little north of $21B. How much of that $21B you think is attributable to the name? If it’s even one percent, that’s worth a few thoughts, no?

In the words of a colleague of mine, a not-so-good name doesn’t help you any, but a good one “puts the wind at your back.” In a world teeming with new companies, new products, new restaurants, new ideas, new every-fricking-thing, why WOULDN’T you want the face you present to the world to be as memorable, meaningful, interesting, and maybe even as provocative as it could be?

But don’t take my word for it. Check out this great post by Jason Cohen about how he stumbled onto the name of Smart Bear Software and what that did for the business. And if that doesn’t  convince you, read what David Placek of the naming company Lexicon recently wrote about the importance of corporate on his blog.

The important question about names isn’t “Does a good one matter?,” but “What IS a good name?,” or “How do I create a good name?,” or “How much is a good name worth?”

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.

Should “Hon” be Trademarked, Hon? Fuggedaboddit!

22 Dec

Cafe HonWhen you order from any self-respecting greasy spoon in Baltimore, you can expect the server (if she’s female) to call you “hon” (as in “You wan’ the crab’ melt, hon?”). It’s a word as essential to Baltimore as the Os, the Ravens or Fort McHenry. So when the owner of Café Hon, a popular neighborhood eatery that riffs on all things low-culture Baltimore (that’s pronounced “Bawlmer,” hon) decided to trademark the word “hon,” protest from proud Baltimoreans was inevitable (organized through a Facebook site called “Boycott Café Hon,” of course).

The question is: who’s right? Café Hon has created a nice business marketing Bawlmer chic, part of which is represented by the word “hon.” As a brand guy, I respect their right to protect the essential pieces of their brand identity. But honestly, should a New Yorker be allowed to trademark “fuggedaboddit?” The answer, of course: fuggedaboddit! Words in common usage shouldn’t be owned by individuals, any more than the sidewalks should be. Having been through trademark hassles, myself, I know how tough it is to trademark a name that rests on a common word. Maybe the USPTO just fell asleep on this one and didn’t realize EVERYONE in Bawlmer uses the word “hon” at some time. It’s only a 40 minute drive from DC. Maybe they should head up there and see for themselves.

Even if they don’t, it’s a mistake for the folks at Café Hon to assume they’ve done their brand a favor by locking up the word in a trademark. I like to say “Brands are owned by companies, but belong to customers.” In other words, if trademarking “hon” actually devalues the word — because the act of trademarking pisses off the very customers they’re trying to please — it’s a mistake. Whaddaya you think, hon?