Absence Makes the Brand Grow Stronger

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If your business or brand suddenly went missing, who would miss having you in their lives? Why would they miss you? Where would they go to get their needs met? And what would they NOT be able to get from others that they currently get from you?

The answers to those questions will go a long way toward helping you understand whether or not you have a differentiated position in the markets you serve and care about.

And you need to know. You need to know because understanding what makes you different and how that intersects with what customers highly value gives you the power to compete. You will know why you are valued and set apart from the pack. You will have the basis needed to compete, for attention, for loyalty and, of course, for money.

Your goal, in my view, should always be to have your customers cry like babies or have tantrums like toddlers if you were suddenly unavailable to them. You want to elicit a strong reaction. That’s what genuine brands do. Blands, in contrast, make customers shrug their shoulders (if that) and quickly move on. Most blands, if they went away, would simply go away unnoticed.

You are what your audience thinks and feels about you. If they think about you with little feeling, you’re a bland. If they think about you with strong feeling (good or bad), congratulations . . . you’re a brand. You stand out. You have meaning. You’re not just one of the pack.

So, the next time you’re thinking about the strength of your brand, ask whether or not you’d be missed. Ask whether or not your absence would make a difference or create a hole in your markets and in your customers’ hearts.

Asking these questions just might help you make the brand grow stronger.

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Relationship Between Design and Marketing

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I’m studying up on the automotive industry and recently came across a video interview with BMW Group’s former chief of Design. His name is Chris Bangle and I see that he’s quite a controversial figure in the automotive design world. You can view the interview for yourself if you’d like (even if you have no interest in automotive design, this one is a bit of an interesting watch).

He has some thought-provoking words on automotive design. The one that struck me most is his view of the relationship between Marketing and Design. Bangle’s gist (and this is my interpretation): you have to keep the two disciplines separate. Closer to his own words: If you want to keep the design unique and fresh, you isolate it.

He says: “The marketing guys, these guys you have to keep a little bit at bay because their first reaction is: ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no.’ You can’t create life under an atmosphere of no.”

I find fascinating this whole notion of a divide between Design and Marketing.

But, is a sharp divide between the two disciplines in the best interests of a brand?

As Brian Ling says over at his Design Sojourn blog, doesn’t Design and Marketing go hand in hand?

I say yes. The conversation needs to flow both ways. A brand lives and dies on its ability to consistently meet expectations. How can you achieve this, however, if one function is isolated from the other with little collaboration?

I value design freedom, but not if it strays away from meeting the needs of the user. That’s not to say Design is less user-focused and must be checked by Marketing… but Design and Marketing’s viewpoints may differ and those differences need to be addressed and reconciled. Each has a role in identifying unmet needs. Each has a role in interpreting how design options meet those needs and how those same options may be perceived by users.

Design and Marketing need to work together; they can’t and shouldn’t work apart. Do I believe Design should have some freedom to unearth possibilities and create life as Bangle says? Yes. But that same freedom comes with a responsibility to ensure the final art form serves the brand and its target audiences. This responsibility is best met with a closer cross-functional collaboration.

I just have to get some automotive designers and marketers together to discuss this one… and how hard could this be after all? I live in the automotive hub of Greater Detroit!

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Volkswagen’s Great/Good Campaign: Great, Good, or Less than Good?

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Great. For the price of good. That’s Volkswagen’s new theme line in support of its launch of the 2011 Jetta.

What do you think  of the Great/Good campaign theme? Great? Good? Less than good? That’s my question for this installment of this blog’s Brand Champ or Chump series, the first that I’ve run in quite a while.

I say VW’s got a winner here. Why? Well, I believe the vast majority of car buyers want the best car they can possibly afford. We’ve entered the age of new frugality, says Scott Burgess with The Detroit News. Car buyers are spending more carefully than ever before, even luxury buyers. Everyone wants to think they are making the smartest possible choice.

VW’s Great/Good theme line lends itself very well to this market environment. Plus, VW can pull it off because it counts quality German engineering and high technology as brand attributes.

For VW, putting value in the front seat to support its launch of the 2011 Jetta is a strategy, I believe, that will appeal to car shoppers.

See the execution for yourself.

You can learn more about the Great/Good campaign over at the Yahoo! Advertising Blog, which features an interview with Mike Sheldon, CEO of Deutsch LA.

If you think the Great/Good campaign theme is a winner (champ) or a loser (chump), sound off. I’d love to hear other takes on it.

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Branding Isn’t As Important As ‘Experts’ Say?

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I recently came across an article on VentureBeat.com with the same title as this post: Branding Isn’t As Important As ‘Experts’ Say. The only difference in the titles is the question mark that I’ve added to my own above. Clearly, I don’t agree with the big idea put forth in the article.

You can read this perspective on the importance of branding for yourself, but I’ll give you the short version. A guy founds a software business and names it Smart Bear without much regard, as he says, to marketing and business sensibility. The company experiences growth and success, even though a potential partner at one time claimed it wouldn’t unless the name changed to something less “silly.” The founder’s conclusion: some branding principles aren’t as vital as we may have been led to believe.

What’s wrong with this thinking?

As one person in the comments area correctly notes, the name of your business is not your brand. A name is a name, a brand signifier without doubt, but it’s not the brand. The brand is a different animal altogether and it’s not something you own or have much control over. You can work hard to create, nurture and influence brand perceptions, but you don’t own the brand.

I’ve been involved in a few naming projects and I’ve picked up one fundamental principle along the way: it’s not the meaning of the name that’s important; it’s the meaning infused into the name over time that counts.

The acronym BMW has come to mean the ultimate driving machine.

Volvo came to be known as safety.

Starbucks, a character in Moby Dick, came to be known as luxury coffee.

Smart Bear is an excellent name in my view because it’s simple, distinctive and highly memorable. Smart and bear are words that conjure up some positive associations, but even those don’t matter. The name was essentially meaningless to customers from day one. The name only began to take on meaning as Smart Bear launched and the Smart Bear team began infusing meaning into the brand by telling their story and building a history with prospects and customers. Smart Bear began to become truly known as smart software development tools.

The name was born first. The brand came later. Did the name help develop the brand? Absolutely. But it wasn’t the meaning of the name that helped because it had little to no meaning in the minds and hearts of the audiences that mattered. That meaning came later.

The name was created in the mind and heart of the founder. The brand emerged in the minds and hearts of employees, prospects and customers.

Smart Bear a silly name? I think not. The name is brilliant, as I said, for its sheer simplicity, sense of mystery and, perhaps most importantly, it’s memorability.

Who intrigues you more? The folks over at Smart Bear, or those at STDS? We tend to gravitate towards names and things that seem more comfortable or familiar.

Contrary to what some may think, branding is not advertising. Branding is not naming. Branding is about everything you do and say, and that includes informal sales by the way.

In sum, the headline is misleading because it’s not the importance of branding that’s in question, but naming. Who knows if STDS would have worked as well as Smart Bear. No matter. Because at the end of the day, the brand was built not in the creation of the name, but what that name came to represent over time in the minds of prospects and customers.

Have a thought on this? Share your thinking… the love, the nod of approval, the head shake of dissent, whatever!

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Too Hung Up on Differentiation?

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I was speaking with a colleague about branding and the concept of differentiation. His perspective was troubling to me. In sum, he said: “Differentiation is overrated. We’re too hung up on trying to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack. What’s important is matching up as well as possible what you do best with what customers want most. You can spend a lot of wasted energy trying to differentiate and claim a position, but this won’t necessarily drive growth. Just perform for your customers, damn it!”

Hmm… I don’t know. What do you think? Is differentiation overrated? Do we spend too much time and effort trying to distinguish ourselves and either lay claim to or reinforce a particular positioning?

Are we wasting our time trying to unearth what Brad Van Auken suggests is the sweet spot of our brand?

In a word, my answer is NO!

Differentiation is critical. You want to be somebody rather than just another business in the lumped-in-with-everybody category. Diligently doing what you do best to meet what people want most is honorable work, but the problem is that your competitors are engaged in the same exercise. Everybody is working hard to meet market expectations.

If you want to be noticed, if you want an edge in building demand for what you’re offering, then you need to differentiate. You need to communicate, in a unique and compelling way, why the market should consider and choose you over everybody else. Not attempting differentiation is essentially the same as resigning yourself to commodity status.

I believe every business can differentiate itself in some way that’s important to customers.

For example, you may find yourself in an industry where all businesses are innovators and are trying to own that position. BUT remember, it may not be how innovative you are, but how you deliver upon that promise of innovation that’s important to customers.

“Okay, so you’re a technology leader. That don’t impress me much. I want to work with the innovator who can help me get out to the market faster than my competitors.”

“Okay, so you have the most advanced technology available. That don’t impress me much. I want to work with the innovator who is the best at helping me apply the technology to make my products better.”

“Okay, so you are on the edge when it comes to new technologies. That don’t impress me much. I’m running a multi-billion dollar business here and don’t have time to fool around. want to work with the innovator who can deliver new and intelligent solutions that can be trusted to work.”

For me, this whole question prompts me to wonder if some of us underestimate the PERCEPTION of value. Remember, value isn’t just real dollar value, but also perceived value. You want customers to experience and perceive that they are getting more value from you than from your competitors. Building a perception of difference is important because, as we all know or should know, buying decisions (yes, even in the B2B space) are not built on cold rationality alone. Buyers base their decisions on a wide variety of variables, from performance attributes to the like-ability of people behind the brand choice. Don’t you want to clearly communicate a compelling reason for buyers to choose your brand over competitive alternatives?

The one thing I will readily acknowledge is that the magic of branding is not so magical anymore. Buyers are much more aware of how branding works and how it’s supposed to work on them, as Kevin Roberts has rightly pointed out. The result is that buyers are much more skeptical and discerning. This means, I believe, that if you are going to differentiate, your position must be believable and credible.

I want to hear from others on this question. Is differentiation overrated? Should the focus lie elsewhere? Or do you see it as I do… that differentiation is a critical building block when it comes to clearly communicating why buyers should choose one brand over competitive alternatives? And even if you embrace the notion of differentiation, what are some of the problems you see with differentiation strategies?

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Brand like Bond. James Bond.

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The credit for the title and the whole concept goes to Steve Kamb and his post over at Copyblogger about what we can learn from 007 about successful blogging (How to Blog Like Bond. James Bond.).

I loved his piece on better blogging and couldn’t help but draw parallels between some of his key points with the fundamental principles of brand building.

For example, like James Bond, an organization or individual as a brand needs to know exactly what they represent.

If you are serious about building brand equity, then you will spend the time upfront defining who you are, the core promise you offer to your world, the primary expectations those in your world should have of you, etc.

Of course, a big part of knowing who you are is following through and acting out in ways that are consistent with your true self. This means, as Kamb suggests, letting your unique personality show and speaking with an authentic voice, one that’s all your own.

James Bond seemingly has it all together. People know what they’re getting with 007. They know what to expect from him. And he doesn’t have to toot his own horn. He lets his actions do the talking for him.

The same is true in successfully building your brand. Today, consumers, buyers, influencers and others are unforgiving of “brands” that fail to present clear expectations or fail to meet them. Those “brands” quickly fall into the category of irrelevant also-rans or blands that will never meet their full potential.

Our mission as brand builders is to apply these same fundamentals: carefully defining who we are and the desired expectations and associations others should have of us, and injecting our brand with our own unique personality and voice.

How else should we brand like James Bond? What other parallels do you see between Kamb’s thoughts on better blogging via 007’s example and better branding. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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