Sunday, 15 July 2007

Branded for Life

There are many kinds of brands out there in the marketplace and the strategy behind them is not always the same.

Take Coca Cola. The sweet, black, fizzy soft drink is a well known product that needs no selling to the public. I was watching the customers at the chip stand of a stock-car racing rally this holidays. Under a faint blue haze of diesel smoke, and with their mouths full of soggy, vinegar soaked, ketchup drenched chips and fiery hot barbecued sausages, I doubt most could have tasted the difference between champagne and shampoo, let alone between Pepsi and Coke. But practically every customer had a clear preference, for Coke.

The brander’s job in these mass market brands, is to convince consumers to choose their product rather than the rival one. In the case of Coke, emotional attributes are used to convince the consumer. Rather than tell us “Coke tastes better”, a subjective proposition the modern consumer would consider patronising, we are assured that, “Coke is it!” Ergo: fun lovers drink Coke. It obviously works, although the physiques of those guzzlers at the stock car rally were rather less persuasive than the models in the Coke ads.

Nike does not praise the workmanship of their sports shoe, nor it's design and durability. Instead they proudly convey to me (or more importantly my neighbour) that they, as a company, promote going that extra mile in sports. They also make sure it is the brand of choice of some of the choicest sports figures of our day, and highly visibly so. Choosing their swoosh on my child's tennis socks almost feels like doing something positive for her.

Both these brand's strategies rely on creating an aura that envelopes their brand and promises to brush some of it off onto those who buy it.

The distinctive Playboy bunny rabbit logo, on the other hand, has the job of sanitising and putting a friendly and playful face onto a company and industry that would otherwise be perceived as sordid and grubby. While IBM relies almost entirely on the quality of their product to maintain their brand. Remember that old adage, “Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM!”

There are other forms of branding too. Think of how the names in the fashion industry rely on their brand to portray an image. There are a million and one messages that that can be flashed across the room at a party, by a lady's handbag. In this fashion-semaphore, the alphabet is formed, not by fabrics and colours and shapes but, because every brand has it own identity, by designers’ names and brands. Wearing a shirt by Vivian Westwood says something about you because it is by her, despite it looking like something the cat brought in; or even because of it.

Some brands are harder to define. It might surprise you to learn that Google was ranked as the world's top brand in the annual Brandz Top 100, with a brand value of over $66 billion. Ironically their branding has become so successful that it is in danger of actually winning them out of business. As their brand name enters the vocabulary, they face the risk that the word ‘googling’ will become a generic word for searching the web, and that could cost them their entire brand's worth.

Creating and maintaining a brand requires first and foremost a thorough awareness of what the brand is trying to do, is it a quality mark, promising a perfect cut and ideal proportions, or does it have a personality or an aura? Should it exude confidence and assurance, or should it whisper sweet nothings?

Happily, now that the DTC has dropped branding from the list of requirements of their sightholders, the era of failed brands, so damaging to my industry, is probably over. With the pressure now off companies to create brands they are not really passionate about, dare we hope that the industry will now focus its attention and develop those few truly valuable brands it still has in it?

Only time will tell.

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