Friday, July 19, 2013

5 Brand Killers & How To Fend Them Off

X-Men Photo via, "Top 10 Best Superhero Costumes In Film"

Brand equity means that I will pay more for Tide detergent than a no-name.  This could be because "I know Tide cleans better" or because "I know good mothers would not skimp." Either way, Tide commands more money.

If I am like most consumers, I develop these perceptions based mostly on fantasies rather than on what is real. I have not tested Tide against the other products available, nor do I want to. If I have a choice, I choose Tide because it leaves me feeling secure.

Why would that be? My own mother uses Tide and she also takes a lot of pride in laundry-doing: it is a show of love. Tide advertised on TV a lot when my kids were little and I watched the daytime soaps. It has amazing packaging. It seems to dominate the laundry aisle. 

Except that I don't need Tide, and frankly it costs more. So I buy the no-name, but feel guilty about it.

Clearly, fantasy is critical to brand value - to all marketing: "A business exists to create a customer," said Peter Drucker. Destroy the fantasy and destroy the brand.

Lots of people nowadays have the potential to do just that. Specifically:

1) Sheldons: The individual is data-driven, swayed by rational arguments. They take joy in obtaining maximum utility for minimum price. This is Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, my Dad bragging that he got a great deal at Micro Center.

2) Freethinkers: This is the rebel, the person who sees the crowd doing one thing and instinctively walks the other way. So many actors tend to play this type, from Bruce Willis (RED, Die Hard, Moonlighting), Claire Danes ("Carrie Mathison," Homeland), Kiefer Sutherland ("Jack Bauer," 24) and more.

3) Hackers: This person does not need a monstrous corporation to think for them, rather they would rather build it themselves from parts. My friend's husband has a man cave where he builds see-through plastic computers raw from parts. The site caters to these types, who love to figure out how to turn a plank of wood into a customized home office. Go to Home Depot on the weekend and catch all the people lingering over packets of seed, or better yet they save the seeds from the fruits and vegetables they eat, and plant them.

4) Crusaders: This person is socially conscious. They are sensitive to harmful practices on the part of manufacturers and service providers. It could be harm to the buyers (bad ingredients), the workers (abuse and exploitation), the environment (toxic emissions), what have you. But they don't stop at refusing to buy the brand. They actively engage others, bringing attention to bad behavior for the purpose of achieving reforms.

5) The Marginalized: This person is outside the marketplace for one of a many possible reasons. It could be poverty, or student debt, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and so on. It could be unemployment, illness, a prison term. Whatever it is, they perceive themselves as outside the social "norms" and so they will act in ways that a corporate marketer is unlikely to be able to predict.

Brands themselves, and their fantasies, are not inherently good or bad. As long as nobody's getting hurt, it's all about what the customer wants. At the same time, social trends and the rampant abuses of the marketing system can definitely bring brands down. Here are some thoughts on how to bring each potential brand-killing type above into the "system":

1) Sheldons: Logical individuals want point-by-point comparisons between your product and competitors. They can understand anything as long as it is presented in some sort of tabular format that is easily verified. You may think that you have to be the lowest-cost alternative but this is not necessarily true. If you can demonstrate objectively higher quality, or that you pay suppliers an extra fee to ensure fair trade (which is reflected in the price), they will understand this. The key is to provide as much data as possible, well-organized, easily accessible, upfront.

2) Freethinkers: The key with this person is to keep the brand small, alternative, and to exchange it on a person-to-person basis. Freethinkers do not trust the system. They like to buy from sellers who appear to be outside it in some way. Place product on Etsy, or a small shop on Amazon, or eBay. You can also offer them products to pre-test, and engage them that way in serving as an opinion leader. (Of course you should make their comments widely available, unedited.)

3) Hackers: The hacker is innately curious and so can be an excellent partner in co-creating brands that people want. I have found that Google for example offers products with enormous value, without exactly telling the ordinary person how to use them. The hacker can be invited to break apart a brand and put it back together in ways that customers will pay for. The key is to ensure that they are fairly compensated for their work.

4) Crusaders: The strategy for working with crusader types is to engage them at all levels of the brand, internally and externally, as watchdogs. They will do what they do anyway, so it makes sense to work together with them to hold the brand accountable to a set of doable ethics standards with regard to all aspects of operations. People will trust these observers more than they trust you, so it could wind up being a good investment in PR funds you would have spent anyway. There is also potential for partnership here between brands in the same industry, to demonstrate broader commitment and lower the costs for each participating partner.

5) The Marginalized: This last person is perhaps the most difficult to deal with because they are so many reasons for marginalization. It is a dangerous problem not only for individual brands but society at large when so many people simply cannot participate in the system. While the answers may vary due to the individual, there are a couple of strategies that make sense here. One is to simply reach out at the community service, as Panera Bread and Starbucks do. Another is to do targeted hiring. A third is to provide seed funding for entrepreneurs who would then pay back a portion to the larger organization.

* As always all opinions are my own.