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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.

You might need rebranding if…

17 Nov

The recent Gap rebranding debacle gave brand folks like me ample opportunity to gas on about (pick one):  a) how foolish Gap was; b) what a clever ruse they’d created; c) how social media saved the day; or d) how quickly Gap responded (or caved, if that’s your point of view). But while plenty of digital ink was spilled about all that, I saw very little commentary about what SHOULD have provoked The Gap — or any other company — to take the rebranding plunge. How do you know when it’s the right time for a company to take a hard look at its brand and stir it up?

As Gapgate showed us, rebranding is a big deal. And it can take many forms: a change in “behind-the-logo” fundamentals; logo and tag line changes; a name change; and anything else in between. Putting all the forms of branding aside for a moment, let’s look at how to know when it’s time to consider the disruptive step of rebranding.

So, with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy and his “You might be a redneck if…” schtick, you might need rebranding if…

#1: You’ve lost market position.

If you were number one ten years ago and number three now, or number three two years ago and number six now, you better start fixing something. Tinkering around the edges won’t get you back to the top spot. Consider your brand. And by “brand,” I don’t mean your logo. If you’re not connecting with customers, there may be something seriously off, not only in in your brand fundamentals, but in your business strategy, or maybe in how your brand reflects your business strategy. In The Gap’s case, if they were worried about their market position, a logo change alone was the wrong answer. Maybe a more thorough brand initiative may have been a good idea. But I’m not sure they had really lost much market share; the market has simply been in a slump and sales have been lackluster.

#2: Your organization has (or is about to) change its business strategy substantially.

Apple is a great example of how a business strategy (to make people’s lives more interesting through digital products) is reflected in a branding strategy (sleek, simple, witty, smart). If they were to change their business strategy (and God knows why they’d do that) to one based on delivering productivity solutions to Fortune 500 companies, they would obviously consider rebranding. Companies don’t usually change their business strategies on a whim, but may find that those strategies have evolved over time, because of mergers and acquisitions, changes in the category, or simply because of the passage of time. Those are the moments to consider brand brush-ups, even if the correct decision is to hold off. If The Gap is seriously changing its business strategy, it certainly isn’t apparent.

#3: Your brand has outlived its customers.

Cadillac is a good example of a brand that had to evolve its brand before its customer base went extinct. They added a good bit of power and speed and updated their vision of glamor. And it’s worked, even though they didn’t change their logo. Pepsi tinkers with its branding every few years, to keep up with a young market that continually replenishes itself with new faces. They evolve their brand to maintain it. I find that many companies consider rebranding at about their twentieth year of existence. I’m not exactly sure why, but it seems that’s about the time the original vision, leadership and customer base have turned over. The Gap was started in 1969, then — for a variety of reasons — changed considerably in the 80s to become the store we know today. Maybe it IS time for a brand evolution. But — like with Cadillac — maybe tossing out your heritage with your logo isn’t the best way to start.

#4: Your marketing just isn’t working anymore.

Okay, I’m not espousing brand overhaul as a solution to a flawed marketing program, but… If your marketing has lost its luster, AND you’ve dialed through a number of strategies, AND your execution is sound, AND others in your category have been driving sales, you think just maybe you have a marketing problem that marketing strategies and tactics alone can’t solve? If your marketing is struggling to leverage a weak brand, you’d better strengthen the brand. I suspect this was the thinking behind The Gap’s rebranding: “Our advertising is world class, but sales still suck. Let’s rebrand.” Maybe the idea wasn’t such a bad one, even though the execution may have been wanting.

One more note: all of the “ifs” above relate to building long term growth. Rebranding, brand development, or whatever else you want to call it, should be undertaken with financial goals in mind. If not, don’t bother.