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Brand Fanatics & the Symbolic Meaning of Brands Today

I remember the first time I became conscious of brands. It was summertime and I was a kid, maybe 13 years old. I was attending an expensive sleep-away camp, but was the camp nurse’s kid and had been granted a space for free.




At the time, I wasn’t aware of class distinctions. All I knew was that I wanted to be independent but that for some reason my mom had decided to come along. I vaguely resented her being there even as I was grateful for the privilege that having her there provided – like a cold can of soda from the infirmary fridge every now and then, or hanging around with her in the mornings while the other kids had to follow whatever drill they were supposed to be doing at the moment.




Anyway, like I said, until that day I didn’t know middle class from upper class. I had a house, I had food, and I had clothing. But the day I learned about brands was the day I became aware of the gap between those with status and those without it.




I was wearing a no-name T-shirt from a K-mart type store, and had never heard of a brand or a logo in my life. I was not at all focused on fashion. Instead I wanted to win every game of tetherball that I could (where you wrap the basketball around the pole), climb down ladders out of treehouses backwards, and go waterskiing. Wow, was it fun to make waves on the lake.




I was standing in my bunkhouse, watching another kid open up a “care” package from home. This wasn’t the Army; she wasn’t getting relief from fighting a war. This was a rich kid about to get richer.




When I saw what was inside that box I became aware of status for the first time. I also got hooked on branding, and have never let go. I wonder if much of our society, if not the world, has gotten hooked on brands in a similar way.




My fellow camper ripped open the box with her perfectly polished fingernails.  There, nestled in tissue paper among the body lotions, lip glosses, chocolate bars, and other goodies, was a sweatshirt that spelled out, in big letters, the word “Benetton.”




I stood there looking at the shirt. Now, she and I weren’t exactly friends. In fact she probably didn’t even know that I was in the room.




I looked at the shirt and I read aloud the name that was on it. “Benetton,” I said, putting the stress on the middle syllable, the way it looked to my eyes and sounded initially in my ears. “Ben-E-tton.”




The girl burst out laughing. Then she looked at me somewhat pityingly. She said, derisively, “It’s BEN-e-tton.” As if I were subhuman.




I was, for the first time, ashamed of how I looked. I had no – for lack of a better term – decoration. I felt almost – again, what’s the word I’m looking for here? – unprotected against others’ scorn. Suddenly I wasn’t good enough. And it was all because of my lack of a brand.




(Of course, I blamed it on the clothes – a typical reaction for a kid when the emotions are so much more complex. But hey, as they say, tell it to the judge.)




Though I didn’t realize it then, looking back I believe that that single interaction planted the roots of my profession with me. As soon as I learned that there was a field dedicated to such a thing, I decided I wanted to study it and master it. And I have come to see brands from two sides at once, both as a supporter to producers of them and as a consumer.




So – to bring us forward in time and into the realm of the more objective and academic – Harvard Business Review’s April 2010 edition has a fascinating mini-story on “extreme consumers” and the brand managers who ignore them (“Behold the Extreme Consumers…And Learn to Embrace Them.”) The point of the story is that brand managers (more on the term “managers” in a minute) typically ignore the people who are most fanatical about their brands: 82% haven’t thought about how to use their energy to promote the brand, and 65% are “wary.”




This finding, to me, is stunning in its counter-intuitiveness, but it makes sense when you realize that the people running brands are largely managers rather than leaders. Unlike a manager, who maintains tradition for a living, a leader’s job is to change the status quo when necessary. And the power of a brand today, given our extraordinarily fast-paced environment, is not that it is static, but rather that it is dynamic and frequently takes its cues from its customers.




Based on a 2,000 “extreme consumers” (how they were identified with this label is not explained) in China, Europe and Japan, the findings of the study resonate with my own experience.




(Side note: It is fascinating how cultures completely different from the U.S.’s evidence such similar phenomena to ours. Although maybe this is not so surprising; it could just be evidence of the globalization of American culture and business practices, and that brand thinking has gone so mainstream in other economies that it has overtaken culture.)




According to the survey, of these “extreme consumers”:



--100% of respondents identify with and gain meaning from a favorite brand


--98% have defended it from attack


--96% say their brand is “part of the family”


--94% would never consider buying a competitor brand


--79% promote the brand on their own


--53% regularly put other brands down




Anecdotally speaking:



--One respondent drinks only Coca-Cola and has done so for the past 20 years


--Another has filled their home with 99 pairs of Nike shoes


--A third eats only food that contains Arm & Hammer baking soda




Clearly what is going on here is more than just a brand satisfying a functional need for drink, shoes, food or what have you. Instead, I believe, the brand is serving to fill an emotional void or build up a psychological attribute that the customer feels they need. For example, wearing the right clothing brand offers, minimally, an escape from shame and maximally, a shortcut to status. The right food brands bring comfort and a sense of home. And on and on.




It is sad in a way that we have created these brands and use them to fulfill our psychological needs so superficially. Really we should work through our needs for belonging, status, family and so on by interacting with other human beings—not by paying a price premium in an impersonal setting. But that train has left the station, as one can’t simply transform either psychology or society by the wave of a hand. Also, as Freud aptly said, one’s issues and needs are often multi-determined – and brands also provide a shortcut to quality items in a marketplace where choosing can be risky.




For better or for worse, brands are here to stay. If you’re selling them, you need to understand the real reasons why they are powerful so that you can be effective. If you’re buying them, you need to understand the hold they have over you. But either way, nothing a brand does should be fully left to a manager. I believe it takes the insight of a real, empowered leader to truly make it worth the time and money spent to bring it to market and keep it there.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

5 Great Examples of Branding Today

BMW’s new ad campaign, themed “joy,” shows incredible insight into the nature of branding. The true brilliance of a great brand is to create a compelling, credible, unique concept that people commit to emotionally before, during, and after the point of purchase. This is what creates long-term value that can later be leveraged in specific marketing campaigns focused on functional benefits.



Several recent marketing articles talk about the new campaign, which steps away from the company’s previous emphasis on “performance.”








One of these articles raises the issue of whether the new campaign dilutes the traditional BMW brand image (briefly, “performance”). For my part I don’t see how it does so at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite: BMW has taken the functional benefit of the brand to a much higher level. That a BMW will perform is now given. It’s the joy that the performance gives the driver that is now the focus of the customer’s attention. Excellent, excellent, excellent.



Never forget that people—their passion, their emotion, their experiences—are at the heart of every brand. It is people who define the brand and people who consume it. Billboards are not the brand. Commercials are not the brand. Magazine ads are not the brand. And believe it or not, the product or service itself is not the brand either. Rather, it is that intangible image in the mind of the consumer that is the brand. And that image is formed, by the way, as much by comments on Facebook and message boards and spoofed videos on YouTube as it is by official corporate communication.



In any case, by focusing on people high on the experience of driving, they are on their way to revitalizing a brand that for me had become a bit dull and staid.



Now, on to some other brands that are doing a great job—and leveraging “people power” to do it.



I personally am a huge fan of Trader Joe’s. It’s one of my go-to brands, like Banana Republic: Most of the time, I find that their products are reliable, useful, and that I can buy them without thinking, knowing that they will do what they are supposed to do every time.



I think that it is not a coincidence that the people who work at Trader Joe’s seem very – what’s the word – could it be human? to me. As we all know, service representatives often act very dehumanized, and often that is because they are treated as objects rather than adult homo sapiens. TJ’s staff, unless they’re great liars, don’t seem like people you often see working at the grocery store as clerks or cashiers.  They seem to actually be happy, in fact. I often see them laughing. They enjoy their jobs, enjoy the customers, and even seem to enjoy wearing the shirts (unlike in Office Space where Jennifer Aniston resisted wearing “flare” in her job as a waitress at a restaurant chain.) TJ’s staff are always helpful, no matter what you ask. So when I heard the radio commercial promoting their new smoked trout – even though it is $3.29 a can, which is expensive, and even though I normally do not like any kind of fish in a can because I associate it with sardines, and even though I was a bit taken aback because I’d never heard them advertise anything on the radio – I hustled to the local store at my first opportunity to buy some. And you know what? It was great. Just like all their other stuff.



Same at Banana Republic. Knowledgeable, friendly staff, a great shopping experience, classy attitude and classy clothes that are fairly priced and always look good. I’m always happy when I shop there.



I remember once hearing Landor’s Allen Adamson say that the power of a brand is its ability to instill a “shortcut” to decision-making in the mind of the customer. You as the owner of a product or the provider of a service want to be that brand that the customer turns to when they simply want a reliable interaction that will give them a consistent result. It’s sort of like bookmarking a favorite site on your Internet browser—a brand is your go-to when you need to take care of something quickly.



In fact, based on my own experience, brands are even more powerful than they’ve been advertised to be. Not only will I pay more for brands I love than for generics, but I will absolutely ignore the generic completely – even if prices are slashed to a point where the product almost seems free – in favor of using a brand I trust.



Look, for example, at I avoid buying from unknown vendors on that site. I would rather buy only from them, even if the product costs a little more. Why? Because I know that my experience will be positive, consistent and reliable every time. Whenever I have had a problem and contacted Amazon, it has been taken care of right away without any hassle.



Last example, real quick because I don’t want to go on and on here: The Art of Shaving. Went there recently with my husband, just to look around. Completely inviting store environment, extremely knowledgeable salesman who actually looked like one would imagine the brand.



All 5 of these companies embody great principles of branding, some of them probably unknowingly. But they’re great nonetheless. Worth taking a minute to experience and learn from.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

“Toyota Comes Out Swinging”

I heard it on CNN this week and can’t get the phrase out of my head: “Toyota Comes Out Swinging,” they repeated, over and over again, echoing the carmaker’s claim that the so-called “runaway car problem” is not really a problem.

To repeat something I said in my first blog about the Toyota crisis: I have absolutely no idea how a brand so huge, so profitable, and so able to hire quality PR and brand talent can be conducting itself so cluelessly from a communications perspective.

Previously I speculated that the root of the problem lies within the corporate culture – based on a Wall Street Journal article that reported on employees’ dissatisfaction with the transparency of the company’s leadership.

Now I am thinking that there may also actually be a crisis management strategy at work here (no doubt one that Toyota leadership is comfortable with) that dictates a very aggressive “hit them back hard to avoid looking weak” type approach.

From a PR perspective this makes sense, in a way, because Toyota is trying to win back the massive amount of credibility it stands to lose in this scandal. It hasn’t lost that credibility yet – people, I think, are still wavering – so it is trying to show that people are just taking advantage of an opportunity to scam them, perhaps to make a quick buck.

Normally, I can see how aggressiveness in the face of attack could be a good approach. If marketing is war (read the book Brand Warfare; it’s good), you want to go to battle fully armed and looking strong, not weak and apologetic, because then the opposing army will see your weakness and destroy you. (Or from a marketing perspective, the consumer will see that you are silent or meek and assume guilt.)

The problem, however, is the perception that not only did Toyota scam the public by hiding the problem with its acceleration system, but also that the problem it was hiding or minimizing is life-threatening. If perception equals brand reality, the Toyota brand right now equals profit over people, a disregard for the human cost associated with selling lots of cars.

So now, the company’s external communication (PR + advertising) adds illness to injury: It offers a quick apology along with a “heritage” TV commercial, goes out quickly with different bright and sunny TV spots that seem to disavow the problem, and then launches a PR offensive against someone whose 911 call triggered an investigation.

Not only is this approach incompetent – because it actually damages the company’s reputation for quality and integrity – but it also destroys the brand, because it detracts from the fundamental attribute that is core to all brands: TRUST.

This is what happens when a company pursues PR, advertising and other efforts without considering the impact on its brand – the long-term effects of these communications, the fact that brand is defined by the consumer.

What the company needs to do now is rebuild the relationship it has very badly damaged. That means getting out in front of the cameras (yes, I’ll say it again), apologizing over and over, personally meeting with customers, holding town halls, you betcha. If somebody is exploiting the acceleration issue to make a buck they can deal with that issue fully, fairly, and legally. But they shouldn’t aim to assert any kind of moral superiority to a one-time scam artist when they seem to have scammed the public themselves, and on a much larger scale.

The other thing they ought to do is build a social media infrastructure that supports interaction between representatives of the company and the public that has been wounded, literally and/or figuratively. Without crossing the line into talking about confidential legal issues, they can open a window to the public and show a certain level of collaboration in developing a long-term trust repair solution that will work. Who knows, maybe it means opening up their plants to a lot of independent investigation for a while, both inside and outside the government. Or changing the name. Or taking some other less drastic measures in between. A lot of things can help move them forward. But continuing to pursue this same track of “deny, attack, and when in doubt stay silent” will definitely not.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Go With The Flow - Of The Social Media River

"People are messy, brands are clean.” Somewhere in the back of the traditional brand managers’ mind this phrase always lurks. They see their job as one of control, policing, enforcement: The brand should always appear the same, nobody should co-opt it, and “infringement” on the brand has to be “punished” in some way.

Traditional brand managers have a suspicious attitude toward people, and the damage they can do to the brand. Aside from the obvious problem of counterfeiters, insiders, associates, or interested outsiders can do all sorts of “damage” with their right to free speech. After all, look at the laundry list of “problems” they have to contend with:

  • Trusted employees who write tell-all books (so frequent one need not provide an example)
  • Employees who prefer the competitors’ product (e.g., Microsofties using the Apple iPhone
  • Interested parties who launch popular unofficial websites with the brand name in them, create videos about the brand, etc. (,

  • Reporters who investigate and report unflattering things (the CNBC biography of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, whose TV commercials portrayed him as amiable, revealed a father usually not there at family events, who presented a stern, don’t-mess-with-me demeanor.

From the perspective of a traditional manager, the things above are horrible. After all – a manager is the steward of the status quo. When people mess with the brand they are disturbing the status quo. It is the job of a manager to stop them. Simple.

But maybe we shouldn’t leave the job of brand stewardship to managers. Maybe what we should do is put brand leaders mostly in charge, and have brand managers enforce what they say. Because a leader understands that the brand has to evolve according to the energy and the strategic environment of the times. And sometimes you can actually do great things with the brand when people do things that seem to undermine it.

Take the brand Walmart.
Now look at this screenshot from the website

I heard about it from a friend, and everybody I talk to about it seems to have heard of it already. When I saw the photos and videos on this site, I thought they were hilarious…and everyone I speak to seems to think the same thing.

If you are Walmart leadership your first reaction might be to think that this site is a bad thing. That it hurts Walmart’s reputation. But I’ll tell you something – all the advertising in the world can’t get you this kind of publicity. It may actually be good for the brand. For in this case, it is social media that is defining the brand, and defining it in a way that is unique, compelling, and engaging for a mass audience: exactly who Walmart wants to attract.

We can apply what spiritual thinker and wellness educator Elizabeth Lesser once said to Oprah about finding personal peace - to the achievement of brand success:

"The soul is the river of energy which animates who we are. When you follow this river of energy, it's almost impossible to go wrong. This flow can lead you to your own greatness if you follow it with an open mind."

If I were Walmart I would absolutely go with the type of branding suggested by this site. I would embrace the weird, the wacky, and the wonderful. Because that is what the very essence of America is – we welcome all kinds of diversity, we don’t judge (although we like to laugh), and we like the spirit of independence. Who knows, maybe there is a partnership opportunity with American Idol and Coca-Cola here? (Ever seen an American Idol audition - like “Pants on the Ground?”

I’m not saying that brands should always allow themselves to be “hijacked.” But I do think they should be run by leaders, not managers, with an open mind. Brand leaders go with the energy of their target consumers. In Walmart’s case, that is the mass market. And it wouldn’t be the worst thing for them to be a bit more quirky, rather than fighting for an image of middle-American respectability that isn’t really them, that isn’t really unique, and that doesn’t capture anyone’s attention.

Good Presentation on Trade Show Metrics

Creative is good but metrics are critical - otherwise you can't tell if your brand is doing what it's supposed to. Experiential branding is becoming more important these days, so check out this presentation on trade show metrics from Myers Jones Partners.