I have been thinking about the topic of branding on and off since talking with Noah Brier a few months ago. Noah pointed out to me the dizzying concept that a company does not control its brand directly – the brand is whatever people think of the company. In other words, a company can claim whatever it wants to about itself, but the brand is whatever gets transmitted to people’s minds. Noah went on to illustrate this concept by creating BrandTags, a site where people are asked to enter the first word that comes to mind when seeing a corporate logo. While BMW might be happy that “luxury” and “quality” are common responses, they might be less happy that “asshole” is up there as well.

One of the challenges of today’s world is finding a way to get a coherent message out there. The world of mass media was simpler – a company could be reasonably assured that its brand message would be conveyed directly into potential customers’ perceptions. But in a world of user-generated context where the aggregate of people’s opinions is easily accessible, the company’s message is only one component in a sea of information about the company. For instance, when I’m thinking about buying a new book, I generally first go to Amazon, not to get the blurb from the book jacket, but to see what other customers thought of the book. The experience of other people with the book is far more meaningful to me than what the publisher might tell me.

Because a brand is only effective when it successfully transmits a message to people’s brains, it’s up to companies to find ways to more effectively get their message out. George Lakoff would call this framing – presenting the desired message in a form that makes it more likely to be accepted by the recipient. Ries and Trout would call it Positioning, making it clear what a product or company stands for. This is especially important as people have developed filtering mechanisms to ignore anything that smacks of blatant advertising.

This starts to get into tricky territory, though – at what point does framing become lying? There clearly has to be an authentic basis for claims made in the framing process, but leaving out information that a company deems irrelevant may undermine the credibility of other claims. I ponder this question often, as I have a knack for assembling sets of ideas to make sense for a given audience – an ability that would uncharitably be called spin doctoring, and could easily be seen as disregarding the concept of truth. At the same time, the foundation for much of my career success is this ability to consistently interpret and translate between different constituencies by finding the right analogies to emphasize what’s relevant to each side. It’s not necessarily the whole truth, but including every possibly relevant fact often makes things less clear. While constructing a clear and concise brand message, companies need to be aware of the misleading potential and provide some measure of transparency to customers to prevent accusations of dishonesty. But that’s another topic.

Building a brand these days is about creating a consistent experience that authentically reflects the experience of actual customers. The brand has to stand for something unique and compelling, and the company needs that message to be conveyed in every interaction between a customer and a company. Noah told me a story of how his previous agency convinced a client of the importance of this by calling their technical support line and asking the representative about the current marketing motto that was on billboards – the poor representative was just confused, but the marketing people got the message that branding is not contained only within marketing any more.

in the ideal case, the brand compels customers to become advocates, extolling the virtues of the brand to their friends and acquaintances. When a branding message is being trumpeted by both a company’s official PR mechanisms and its customers, the messages reinforce each other and create a synergistic effect that is far more powerful than either would be alone. For instance, when Ford ran its “Quality is Job 1” ad campaign, it was somewhat undermined by people who joked that Ford stood for “Fix Or Repair Daily”. In an interesting twist, several successful companies now skip traditional advertising entirely, instead making the experience of their customers be the advertising; notable examples include Starbucks, Whole Foods, etc. This is partially a reflection of the cynicism of the day – American consumers have been lied to for decades by advertisers, so any corporate message is automatically discounted. Meanwhile, enthusiastic supporters of a brand can be far more credible, attracting similar people to the brand; this may backfire, though, as in the association of “asshole” with BMW.

To create a compelling brand that recruits customers as advocates, the brand has to stand for something specific. Trying to be everything to everybody means creating a mediocre product that won’t offend anybody, but also won’t make anybody into an advocate. Authors from Seth Godin to Kathy Sierra emphasize the idea that anything that certain people love, other people will hate. And that’s okay, because it’s better to inspire strong emotions and get people talking than it is to be boring and mediocre. For instance, Apple’s brand of elite hipsterism may turn off as many potential customers as it attracts, but its advocates rave about Apple products, creating a cult-like atmosphere.

Branding is a fascinating topic to me as it’s at the intersection of several fields of interest. Branding is building bridges between a company and the minds of its potential customers, which depends on psychology and communication, product design, and customer experience. It overflows traditional company divisions and traditional spheres of influence. It is a gestalt construct, where every little interaction contributes to the whole, and one discordant element can destroy the whole construct. In other words, it’s exactly the sort of topic that appeals to a generalist like me, so expect to see a few more posts on this topic at some point.

P.S. I’m hosting a happy hour this Thursday (August 14th) at Bar 13 at 35 E. 13th St near Union Square. I’ll be there at 5:30 or so, and should be around for a couple hours. Stop on by if you’re interested.

4 thoughts on “Branding

  1. I love how Starbucks has this perception that they don’t advertise even though I can not get though a newspaper without seeing a full page ad from them. They may not do mass media campaigns, but they are always working on using what they can to get their message out. I would need to think about this more, but I wonder if the development and growth of Starbucks and Whole Paycheck are similar to what BMW did in the 80’s.

    See you Thursday.

  2. Interesting stuff Eric. I go back and forth on the everything has changed thing, though … I mean I get that people are far more exposed to other people’s opinions, but I don’t know how much that has changed the process of building a brand. To be honest, the more I think I know the answer, the more I find exceptions to every rule … Anyhow, good thought-provoking, read.

    And sorry I’m going to miss drinks. Going to be out in SF all week.

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