Brand, not bullshit
Branding isn’t a particularly useful word to describe what we do these days. It harks back to the cattle stations, where an indelible mark only told customers whose meat was whose—not what was under the skin. Unfortunately, too many business people still think of a commercial brand in the same way, as something you slap on at the end of the process: the label, the packaging, the logo.
Maybe that’s because so many of our grandparents were simple cattle farmers. But times have moved on and we are now forced to compete in a globalised commercial world they would barely recognise. Chinese factories can pump out pretty much the same snazzy features and packaging as any product you create, within weeks of it going on the market. And they are also increasingly capable of putting together a half-decent look and feel for the thing.
Fighting it out with them can drive innovation to create a leaner, more efficient supply chain, and this is important work to do. But you will eventually and inevitably lose the price war, partly because some of these guys have a habit of not paying for life’s little luxuries like research and development, living wages, human rights, pollution control and health and safety. So you have to ask yourself, aside from those new conscious consumers who really care about living wages, pollution control and health and safety, what are your customers going to pay you those extra dollars for?
Operational excellence and faultless customer service are a given, but it will probably not be enough. It is largely your brand that will make your product unique and inspire people to desire it over and above the cheap knock-offs.
Owner and managing director, DNA
In the mind of the customer, which is the only mind that fills up your order book, your brand is your product. It shapes how they perceive your product and makes them feel what they want to feel when they invest in the genuine article.
Nor can it just be a vibe or even the personality that your product or company projects out into the world. For way too long too many try-hard branding exercises have come across like the wacky guy at the party. They dance around screaming about how rad they are, but deep down everyone knows they have the heart and soul of a number-crunching pen-pusher. The electron microscope that is democratised social media will spot any cracks in a facade in a nanosecond.
“The greatest danger that New Zealand has got is too few heros,” says Grenville Main, owner and managing director of web, research and branding agency DNA . “Currently if people have a product they want to get off the ground, too many think it will work famously if they give it a touch of Kiwi ‘character’.”
To really fly, the brand has to be the same out in the world as it is at your offices, otherwise you come across like a toddler in a Tuxedo or an old biddy on a Ripstick. The UK’s award-winning surfwear company Finisterre is run by surfers, who nip over the road from their HQ to the waves whenever the conditions are good—and they make sure people know that.
Displayed integrity is vital because it creates the genuine experience that you are really selling, and what inspires people to hand over their cash. This is how people learn to trust their relationship with you, and feel that you won’t let them down. This is the Holy Grail, the brand loyalty that makes for consistent sales.
Main refers to this approach as ‘intimacy’. “Innovation without intimacy doesn’t really work that well; it’s hard to sell to people,” he explains. “Intimacy without innovation might increase your connection and value to people, but over time if the product or service offers nothing new it is going to get overtaken.”
• be firmly based on a real understanding of how your customers’ attitudes, changing views and needs affect the way they feel about your products and services.
• apply to everything your business does and is, not just your visual identity and marketing communications.
• be consistent and seamlessly aligned with your organisational structure, operations and culture.
It is judged by:
• how your customers experience it—not how you think they should.
• the ability of customers and staff to state clearly and simply why it is important and different.
• not having to discount prices in order to attract and keep customers.
• not being dependent on what your competitors are doing.
This thinking has been partly driven by the explosion of internet resources that give consumers much greater control over the messaging they receive. Today’s consumers want marketing not just to be targeted at them, but to be about them, as specifically as possible. They want to own brands that contribute to their personal story of who they think are and who they aspire to be. This can’t happen in isolation and you can’t fake it.
For example, my power company sent me a free tea towel with branding bumf all over it about how we are neighbours. But I see it more as a corporate energy behemoth that neither knows nor cares who I am as a person. I switched to another because the sustainable ethos that permeates its supply chain and brand are much more in line with the sort of person I want to be.
So is traditional marketing dead?
“No, it has been flipped,” says Main. “It’s not so much about drawing people to the product, but setting up what they will experience when they happen upon it themselves, or when it is recommended to them. These days there are only individuals—the challenge is how to engage with them en masse.”
Branding is also a way you can tap into this unprecedented level of cultural noise and focus it around a product to increase its desirability. Who would have thought a relatively inexpensive electric commuter car like the Prius could ever become the choice of Hollywood superstars? Toyota saw the building wave of concern on climate change, and made sure its product was in the right spot at the right time to surf it.
The difference a brand makes
Vibram Fivefingers are weird looking rubber-sock shoes originally designed to stop people slipping off yachts. Then, a guy called Barefoot Ted started wearing them to run very long distances, on the rare occasions where he bothered to wear any shoes at all. He contacted Vibram head office and somehow managed to get through to Vibram president and CEO Tony Post. A keen runner, Post loved the idea.
Then writer Christopher McDougall wrote about Ted and other ultra runners in his 2009 book, Born to Run, which became a best-seller and sparked a massive worldwide craze in barefoot running.
Since then Vibram has been careful to keep the shoes close to the mystique of the book, and the cast of characters like Ted who do amazing things in them. Every new owner is encouraged to feel that they have joined this fascinating adventure story.
There are half-price knock-off Fivefingers all over the web, and it’s difficult for Vibram to prove that its are twice as well made and longer lasting than the counterfeits. But the firm is striving to prove that its people love their product more, are committed to it and the community around it, and are innovating like crazy to increase the product range ahead of the competition.
• There is a crucial difference between features and brand. • Your top executives should live your brand .
• The right brand champions or celebrity endorsement can add momentum .
• You cannot control today’s mass instant media, but you can run with it.
Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am
With advancements in graphic designer software and website design, you can polish a turd to quite a high lustre these days.
It is relatively easy to set up a web page, Facebook page, Twitter account and more around an idea that makes it seem a great deal more solid and professional than it really is. The biggest problem is, you can even fool yourself, and spend so long empire building that it can take a wee while to realise you aren’t actually making any progress or selling anything.
Unscrupulous agencies and consultants may aid and abet these delusions. Even sensible ones may do if you order them to and ignore any misgivings they may try to point out.
So if you have a really snazzy brand, it’s a good idea to switch it off from time to time so you can see the thing in the raw and make sure it still makes sense.