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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.

How Much Trouble Can One Employee Cause?

Image source: CaptainComics

Please tell me you remember Alfred E. Neuman and Mad Magazine or I am truly, truly old.

Every time I look at this picture I have to smile and remember that classic line: "What, me worry?"

Back in the day, this being the late '70s, I would go to my grandparents' house in the Catskill Mountains. They had this candy shop, Joe Rota's a few blocks away. My mom would give me a couple of dollars and I would go to this fun place and get some atomic fireballs from the plastic jar, flip through a copy of Mad, and just laugh.

In any case watching the whole Snowden affair play out I have to ask myself how much time and money is being wasted, waiting and wondering about what this person could say, how to deal with it, what the timing ought to be, and so on.

Like so many of my internal communications colleagues over the years have said, if only the company would invest more time upfront in engaging people, in taking their pulse, they might have to spend less time down the road fixing up the screwups they delight in causing.

Look at how much airtime Snowden is getting. He's in Russia, he's not in Russia. They see his plane, where is his plane. He gave an interview here, he is flanked by security guards. Everywhere you go, there is Snowden having a grand old time, while the U.S. deals with the fallout. Think about it - we're the ones whose data got stolen, and we look like the bad guys!

To my mind all of this could have been avoided if only someone had paid closer attention to this guy and discerned what he was truly out for. Didn't he tell the South China Morning Post that he expressly joined Booz, then the NSA, so that he could gain access to data and then release it? If this is true (and who really knows what is true) this is not really a whistleblower but a premeditated act of theft. Whistleblowers join the organization in good faith, find out that something is wrong, and then tell. Either Snowden was very good at hiding his intentions, or nobody was paying attention.

Oddly organizations seem to have no trouble recognizing employees' potential to cause damage when it suits them. We saw this for example with the IRS and the "rogue employees" comment, the idea that they are "off the reservation." It turned out that there was quite a lot more going on, that in fact the use of employees was nothing more than a cheap way to deflect attention from cultural rot. But it worked for about two seconds. Which leads me to ask -- where is all this intelligence about employee engagement on the positive side?

Overall it has been my experience that organizations tend to be reactive in nature, paying attention to the worst crises first and ignoring or glossing over the need to prevent them, particularly where relationships are concerned. In this they are a lot like people in relationships, right? The partner who "seems to be doing fine" doesn't get much attention, while the one who is staying out all night or threatening divorce sure gets a heck of a lot. And similarly with kids.

It is a mistake to treat workers like they are invisible, but companies do it anyway. They spend a lot of time and energy on recruitment, but once there the employee is taken for granted. The value is extracted - it's "churn and burn" - "be grateful you have a job." Why bother to explain what you are doing or why - "they should look it up." Why tell them where to go when they have questions or concerns - "let's not stir up trouble." What is the value of helping them to manage workplace and family stresses that are getting in the way - "there's no time for that, they're adults." And why should we bother to mediate disputes as part of the ordinary course of life -- "we didn't do anything wrong, let them prove it."

It is so clear on paper that we screw up royally in terms of how we treat other people, isn't it? But that doesn't seem to make any difference in real life. Unfortunately it takes incidents that threaten our safety and our professional standing to make us wake up and pay attention.

Just like in real life, when the person in the nursing home says - "I wish I had spent more time at the baseball game with my kids, and less time worrying about the trophies I was chasing at work."

* As always, all opinions are my own.

True Religion Jeans, Brand Value, & Invisibility

Ultimately, what makes a brand valuable to the consumer is the ability to buy their way out of personal insecurity. Whereas you are not good enough on your own, by purchasing the product, you take on an identity, and this gives you confidence.

By purchasing the product, you take on an identity -- a human identity congealed within a product. The product itself is just a thing, but you project meaning onto it. Another way of saying this is that you have a "brand fetish," or a psychological fantasy, in which you ascribe to the product properties that it really does not have.

This applies whether you're buying steel parts, consulting services, or a pair of women's jeans, but it's pretty easy to apply the women's jeans example and so we'll go with that.

Consider the following:

1) Women's True Religion jeans at Bloomingdale's, 1 pair: Reg. $176, on sale for $132
"Low rise and micro flare leg opening. The streamlined silhouette flatters the leg, fitting nicely over pumps or wedge sandals. Cotton/spandex. Machine wash. Made in USA. Zip fly with button closure, five-pocket silhouette, low rise. Contrast stitching, copper logo hardware, faded. 7.5" rise, 34" inseam, 19" leg opening."

2) Women's Riders By Lee jeans at Kmart, 1 pair: $19.99
"Simple yet stylish, these women's colored riders jeans from Lee go with any casual look. These bottoms sit perfectly just below the waist, and a tapered leg helps define your shape. Throw on your favorite shirt and prepare to be comfortable and look great! Single button closure. Zip fly. Five-pocket design. Sit at the waist. Close fit. Straight leg. Fabric: Cotton blend. Care: Machine wash. Imported."

Even at the discounted price of $132, the True Religion jeans command more money for what is essentially the same product. This holds true even on eBay where women's TR jeans are selling in the $80-$250 range.

Why are TR jeans worth more than Lee Riders? You may say that the style of the Lee Riders jeans is a bit fuddy-duddy. OK then how about Route 66 tapered jeans? Which also sell for $19.99, also at Kmart.

True Religion's company profile page says that it's all about a superior product:

"True Religion...was founded in 2002...with the intention of redefining premium denim through an emphasis on fit, quality and style....A pioneer in the premium denim market, True Religion has become synonymous with modern and distinctive product designs that stand for exceptional fit and styling details."

However it is not uncommon for brands to associate themselves with celebrities and thus to enhance their "street credibility," as at online fashion retailer

Obviously, the customer is not paying an extra $112.01 (on a sale day!) for the fabric or for the fit. They are paying to feel like a celebrity.

However, if you were to see something bad that went on behind the scenes in creating those jeans, the fantasy would be ruined. 

Or if you were to work for the company that created those jeans, were mistreated, and told the whole world about it, the fantasy would be ruined.

Therefore it is in the company's best interest to have its own employees saying great things about the brand -- not only in terms of its quality but also how the workplace runs and how employees are treated.

(Note that True Religion is only a random example, and I am not implying anything about the company.)

So the job of a brand manager is to implant the fantasy in the consumer while maximizing worker engagement and output, and minimizing their discontent. All at the lowest price possible.

All of this is very oversimplified Marxian theory of how capitalism works. Essentially, you have to exploit the worker AND at the same time make them accept and even welcome their lot. Remember, the worker is also the consumer. And so they must idolize and crave the very products that their labor is being exploited to generate.

To understand how this is done in contemporary society, we can use the work of sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman wrote a phenomenal book called The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life which essentially laid out three principles of brand (quotes vi Wikipedia):

  • Image Control: "When an individual comes in contact with other people, that individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance and manner." 
  • Truth-Seeking: "At the same time, the person the individual is interacting with is trying to form and obtain information about the individual." 
  • Avoidance of Shame: "All participants in social interactions are engaged in certain practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others."

To conceptualize the above, Goffman looked at social behavior as if it took place in a theater. You can imagine the brand producer engaging in image control and avoidance of shame, while the audience engages in truth-seeking.

This is not the place to go into the broad historical background associated with branding, but we can look at what happened with the rise of the advertising industry in the 20th century. As the AMC series Mad Men captures well, there was a kind of "Golden Era" (although not so golden) of mass consumption when it was all about image, and very little about what was behind the curtain. We see it idealized as the 1950s-1960s, though I think this has fluctuated with times of greater and lesser consciousness of the plight of those on the margins - those whose labor was extracted with a maximum of exploitation, abuse, carelessness and so on.

What is happening right now -- no doubt due to the explosion of social media -- is a growing global decision to bring exploited labor out from behind the curtain and into the front of the stage. In my view these categories cut across both legal and illegal workers because both feed into the global economy in some way -- capital is spent because of them.

Think about all the marginalized people that capital entities extract value from, but do not compensate: warehouse workers, farm laborers, child labor of every kind, sex workers, drug dealers, gang members, forced organ donors, prison labor, embryo carriers (surrogate mothers), nannies, at-home parents, nursing home assistants, customer service operators, microtaskers, temporary assistants, and so on.

This is not to mention the everyday exploitation of people who work in ordinary office settings. They show up to work with minds rearing to go, producing knowledge and innovation for their employers, but more often than not go unrewarded at the level that their employers enjoy.

In recent years, academics, filmmakers and others have come to question what brands are doing to society.  Examples include Naomi Klein's 1999 book No Logo: Taking Aim At The Brand Bullies and the organization AdBusters. In his well-received documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011), Morgan Spurlock showed how large brands attempt, through product placement, a form of mind control - making us want more, more, more -- preferably without thinking. And there are many other examples, including academic studies of the sociology of branding itself.

In addition, the more extreme abuses of the branding system have caused outrage. One of these is charging exorbitant fees for products that are produced by poor people working for a pittance in miserable factory conditions. The recent collapse of a Bangladesh factory, the worst such incident in the garment industry's history, was a tipping point as people continue to follow the plight of the people who worked there. Brands understand that they must respond and are doing so with a variety of accords to prevent a future disaster. Consider that such an accord only became urgent after the collapse.

Under the microscope in an increasingly transparent world, brand makers themselves have come to realize that the jig is up. People are increasingly drawing a connection between the "invisibles" who produce and the corporate face of those who deliver. For brand producers to continue to be profitable and maintain the system, they will have to continually up their game in terms of compensating the worker fairly and eliminating the abuses that are built into the system. They will have to engage workers in perpetuating the system itself.

This could happen. What could also happen is that organizations realize that worker abuses are inefficient and cause too much bad PR, and simply eliminate people from the system as much as possible -- further widening the gap between rich and miserably poor.

My weathervane tells me that there is still time for brands to engage with employees and create value systems together. This could be profitable on a lot of levels and restore some economic balance to the system as well as the social stability that has been lost with the decline of the middle class.

If they do not, we we are headed toward a society in which brands as we know them today will become synonymous with systemic evil.

In the longer-term, I am hopeful that money as we know it today will be obsolete (see for example The Venus Project) and that capitalism becomes a different kind of competition. One in which we reward people who eliminate poverty, disease and antisocial behavior; one in which everyone has their basic needs met; one in which people enjoy relative freedom and non-interference in their daily lives.

In the meantime we have the now, which is far from the dream. But I do not think we can avert our eyes any longer from the people we don't want to see. Nor can brand producers pretend they do not exist...because when the invisible becomes visible, it affects the bottom line.

* As always all opinions are my own.