Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What is a brand?

A column on adage.com today discusses a widely known secret in our industry – we're in the brand-building business, yet no two professionals seem to share the same definition of a brand.

Some define a brand as a promise.  Some define it as an idea.  While others define a brand as mash-up of rational and emotional benefits.  There's likely an element of truthiness to each definition.

The article challenged me to set down in writing my beliefs about brands – a point-of-view formed over the years through different experiences and inputs.  So here goes...

Brands are based on an empathetic relationship with customers.

When I grew up at Ogilvy, Charlotte Beers used to preach that brands are defined by relationships.  That got me thinking, and over the years I tightened that definition to focus on the power of empathy.  I believe people choose brands the same way they choose their friends. Walk into a crowded party where you don't know a soul and notice who you end up chatting with – someone with whom you have something in common.

Empathy is how we bond with one another; it is also how brands bond with customers.  We gravitate toward brands that get us; that share our sense of humor; that share our values; that make us feel good about ourselves.  Define the basis of your brand's empathy toward its customers and you'll get to the essential truth of your brand.

More and more we are witnessing a third party in this relationship – our peers.  In a social media environment, brands are increasingly based on the relationship that exists between the product and the customer and the other customers who use the product.  This observation is why I coined the term wikibranding.  (My former boss at Saatchi, Kevin Roberts wrote a great book called Lovemarks; perhaps his sequel should be "Brands: A menage a trois.")

Brand equity is not a static metric – it is the combination of four essential dynamics:  differentiation, relevance, esteem and knowledge.

When I was President of Y&R Irvine I worked closely with a brand equity model called Brand Asset Valuator.  BAV, the world's largest database on brand equity, demonstrates across hundreds of categories, time after time, country after country, that brand equity is built by the sequence and relationship between a brand's levels of differentiation, relevance, esteem and knowledge (aka, DREK, a very unfortunate acronym).  Of these four dyanamics, relevance and differentiation are most important:  relvance = volume, while differentiation = margin.  Define a specific and tangible strategy for these dynamics and you will have a clear plan for building brand equity.

Experiences transform brand image into brand beliefs.

Customers judge brands on what they do, not just by what they say.  This has always been true, but is amplified ten-fold in a social media world.  When I see a compelling brand ad I will absorb it and remember it.  When I engage a brand in a unique experience – sampling, a cool app, helpful online experience, an event – I will tweet about it.

Great brands tell great stories.

Stories help us understand.  They convey meaning.  And in a fast moving world, meaning trumps information.  Too many brands get bogged down in lists of nouns and adjectives. Brands are verbs; like characters in a story, they do things.

The approach I've developed over time for creating persuasive brand narratives involves identifying your archetypal personality (the universal characters that form our collective unconscious), the hero's journey (the brand's true north, why it exists) and conflict (great literature hinges on a clearly defined antagonist; great brands define what they stand for by being equally clear about what they oppose).

Alas, if it was only that easy.  Greatness is in the execution.  And some brands simply out-execute other brands.  They convey an infectious sense of momentum through purposeful innovation.  And they embrace marketing's "new normal" and eschew tired distinctions between offline and online, traditional and nontraditional.

In the end, one may debate whether I'm right or wrong, but not where I stand on the issue; nor the fact that I've been fortunate to have worked for some smart people over my career.  Thank you all.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Can Cadillac lead again?

A while back I was interviewed for a piece on how Cadillac can regain its cool factor.  The new spots from BBH are visually stunning and a step in the right direction.  But the line "The Mark of Leadership" leaves me wondering how Cadillac intends to lead.  Leadership in performance?  Leadership in design? Leadership in technology?

If the answer is "yes" to all three, that is wishful thinking because it is not singleminded.  Cadillac's identity is so fuzzy that it requires nothing short of a laser-like focus on one theme.  In the piece I wrote I suggested technology, which by the way is a singleminded platform that can be used to support a range of messages, including safety, performance and even design.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Facebook or deodorant: What matters more?

I recently conducted a survey via social media to better understand our relationship with the personal technologies that increasingly define our daily lives.  After all, we’re glued to smart phones, addicted to Facebook, Twitter and texting, and seem to be caught in an endless hunt for wi-fi.

The survey explored a range of questions, such as how we personify our relationship with technology, how our life might change if we had to live without our favorite gadget for a year, as well as what we’d be willing to sacrifice in order to keep our favorite tech (Sleep? Deodorant? Proper nutrition?).

Boomers and Xers display the most angst over whether our addiction to technology is good or bad, in large part because we can recall a time when we weren’t tethered to work 24/7.  Among Gen Y respondents this issue is a nonstarter – like debating the merits of electricity. (Hasn’t the entire knowledge base of the human race always been two clicks away?)

We have a love/hate relationship with our personal technologies.  We love it because it’s like a personal assistant, helping to keep us in the know and be productive.

We hate it when it reveals things about us we’re not proud of – e.g., we’re socially needy, we’re workaholics, we can’t control an obvious addiction.
A few themes emerged.

Technology is our concierge:  We accomplish more things more easily.   Our smart phone is like a best friend – always there, always helping us. 
  • “Technology is like a brother to me.”
  • “A valued assistant.”
  • “Technology is like my third child.  It plays a hugely significant role in my life.”
  • “We’re tight, me and technology.  Close chums.”
  • “It’s like electricity.  Always there.”

Technology enslaves us:  We are tethered 24/7.  While respondents see this as helpful to our personal relationships, it comes at the price of always being “at work.” Gen Y respondents seem to fear that being off the grid equates with being socially irrelevant.
  • “Addicted and in constant pursuit of more.”
  • “Cell phones have become a socially acceptable drug with no cure.”
  • “It’s a devil and a saint.”
  • “If I don’t respond to a my friend’s text right away it’s taken as an insult.”
Hygiene matters less than connectivity:  Respondents would give up deodorant before giving up their favorite technology – perhaps a sign that our personal technologies have isolated us, so poor hygiene might not matter much.
  • “I’m locked away emailing most of the day so giving up deodorant wouldn’t be an issue.”
  • “I’m sure there are plenty of unwashed, staying up all night Facebooking and Dorito-eating folks descending into that abyss right now.”

We hunger for more meaningful connections:  Because of texting and Facebook, our personal connections are broad but not deep.  This became evident as respondents reflected on how their life would change if they gave up their favorite personal technologies for a year:
  • “My personal interactions would be narrower, but deeper.”
  • “Less texting, more face to face.”
  • “Less time ignoring caller ID and actually picking up the phone and realizing someone really did need to talk to me at that moment.”
  • “I’d probably have trouble handling the small daily stuff but might actually have more time to focus on big important issues and relationships.”
Clearly, there is no turning back.  Nor should we.  There are countless ways for consumer technology companies to make technology more of a friend and less of a frenemy.  Nintendo’s Wii has been successful because it brought back face-to-face interaction to gaming.  Apple’s success is due in large part to how its design and functionality makes technology simple, inviting and less intrusive.  Bing has picked up market share by addressing the issue of information overload, smartly positioning itself as a decision engine.  And Best Buy’s “twelp force” has brought a degree of humanity and personalization to the act of shopping for electronics online.