We must evolve our understanding of branding. Too long have companies and their agencies been treating values as if they are merely words to play around with. In this next decade, brands will be judged on their ability to be what they claim they are. But before I get into what that mean, let’s take a trip back to 1989.
There is a little known theory, that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was partly contributed by the increase of phone lines installed in private households. The sheer volume of connected homes made it impossible for the KGB and the Soviet news agency to monitor, contain and counter criticism. En effect allowing for it to spread freely between citizens across great distances.
It’s a convincing theory. And it could be used as an analogy to explain what has happened to the field of branding over the last 10 years. Cause when it comes down to it, isn’t branding just another word for propaganda?
As communication increasingly moves online, access to the public mind is not something exclusive to the big corporate networks anymore. It is as likely going to be accessible for individuals with large online followings or interest groups based on an affinity for specific companies, products, interests, values or individuals and yes that means even you.
This has already changed how we communicate with each other and is going to have some even more extreme consequences to most if not all brands.
But before we get into that, first let’s get synced on the terminology.
What is branding?
It’s probably as easy to answer this question as it would be to answer “what is art?” I will however assume the following definition when speaking of branding:
“Branding is the task of attaching a set of values to a company, product or service.”
Instead of only competing on product, price or technology. With branding, companies compete on value.
Using external brand consultants and brand managers, companies like Coca-Cola, IBM, Microsoft, Ford, Nike, Braun, Philips, Motorola and Disney has spent the last decade and billions improving and optimizing how to communicate and create the illusion of values around themselves and their products basically around this model but curiously only doing the upper 3 parts.
And it has been working…
If Nokia wanted to be young with the young, they would create a young universe communicating values that they had found resonated with a young demographic. They might even skin the phones in “branded” colors and edgy shapes. The underlying technology and interface, would still look basically the same across models though. (nGadget being an obvious exception albeit not a successful one).
If customers complained about a company having bad customer service it was not unlikely that this would be solved with an image campaign or a PR strategy explaining how good the customer service was. Disregarding any attempt to actually fix what customers complained about.
I am not making this up I worked with companies who would do exactly this. The same companies that would decide how many complaints they officially received a year by ignoring the rest. Such was the power of companies with state guaranteed monopoly in a time when few had access to the public mind.
But as the web is becoming one giant conversation between everyone rather than purely a channel for big brands communication, this is as mentioned all changing rapidly.
Hurt me, help me, crowd campaign me.
It used to be that if you had a bad experience with a company or a specific product you might tell your friends and family. These friends and family members might or might not be in the market for the same product as you. Criticism would exist in relative obscurity until it would eventually die out as your frustration couldn’t be channeled anywhere.
Now, because people are connected as much on an affinity level as by geography, a company’s customers can be connected around a product without the company ever being aware of it.
This leads to the emergence of what we could call crowd campaigning. Now the customers themselves can initiate campaigns that either hurt or help you.
Even large organizations are increasingly being brought to their knees in full public view by soccer moms who spend their time as well connected couch consumers. This Whirlpool story illustrates this rather well.
On a positive note this Christmas, a FaceBook group “RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE FOR CHRISTMAS NO.1” made the ’93 song “Killing in the name…” the number one song in the UK, surpassing X-Factors normal dominance on the top of the charts.
Competition is no longer just happening between brands, it’s also happening between brands and customers. Perhaps even with time between customers of competing brands.
In other words your potential competitors and marketing department can be every guy and girl armed with a Twitter or FaceBook account who is not afraid to use it.
If you ignore most buzzwords that exist around the hyped subject of social media. If you take into account that neither FaceBook nor Twitter is going to last forever. Then you should still realize that the kind of ecosystem that they represent will and that makes all the difference.
It’s been a long time coming but a change is gonna come.
The truth is that branding never worked in the first place. That is for the reasons it was claimed. Whether the branding strategy, the brand driver, the brand manager or the brand identity they didn’t really matter.
The reason why branding until recently was such a lucrative industry and seemed to work is because of the large marketing budgets that went along with it. Not because of the branding strategies that honestly most of the time weren’t particularly ingenious and made by someone who thought they understood how to communicate with people because they had a degree in communication.
For every successful strategy there where thousands that failed. Only those with large budgets would have some guarantee that they would succeed, but they would as I said pay dearly.
The problem is that no one really cares what brands have to say about their product or service. No one cares about what values they use to describe what they want to sell. Before, brands could get people to listen as they had exclusive access to the public mind. But today, if a customer wants to know about a specific product or service they connect with others who might already be a customer or who used to be.
Despite an attempt to get closer to the individual, branding is still to a large extent down to communicating value to nameless individuals. Or in other words it’s still about creating the perception of value.
Without the exclusive right to the public mind this is all changing.
And the walls come tumbling down
So there they are without any control of how customers perceive or talk about them. Mostly defending themselves from what seems like a perpetually angry mob in a reality where one pissed off customer, is enough to create perpetual trouble. Even the biggest players in the industry fear us.
No one cares about what they have to say. Any attempt to keep up appearances is futile. On top of that the BS sensor is set to max by most consumers. They can’t get away with what they used to.
Can you hear the crowd? Can you feel their rage? Can you see the walls trembling?
After the dust settles?
If you made it this far, let me end of this essay by providing you with some branding principles that I believe is going to be necessary for any brand who want to stay around the next 10 years.
1. It’s not what you say you are, but how you are.
Turn the Brand Pyramid upside down. And now that you are at it, remove the three sections that used to be at the top.
Good products communicate by being good products. If people are exited about it they will tell everyone else. If they don’t, focus all your time and effort on making products that they will rave about.
That is going to be the first very simple but crucial principle to accept. Bad products will not survive, you won’t have the marketing power or control of the public mind anymore. Just look at what happened to Vodafone 360 despite their clever and expensive branding strategy.
2. Expect to make mistakes and be honest about them.
You are bound to make mistakes. If you are honest about them, people will trust you and engage with your brand. What you will get back is honesty in return. Do you realize how much an honest customer is worth? They will choose your products or services for the right reason and you will know why. That is what long lasting friendships is all about. Trust, history and honesty.
3. Make everything matter
In every situation where people interact with any part of your company you’re de-facto exposing your brand values. Whether off-line or online this is what branding is all about. If you have a kick ass customer service then it will be reflected in how people perceive your brand and how they talk about you. Every piece of copy you write for customers. Every sign-up or payment process. Don’t just treat it as a necessary addendum to your company. It’s as much a part of your product as the product itself. Make everything matter you cannot not communicate.
As the web is transforming into a giant ecosystem of conversations, the single most important ability besides creating great products and services must be the ability to listen. There is no excuse and the benefits are huge.
I am not talking about being reactionary and only reacting to bad publicity (although that is certainly also something that needs to be done) I am talking about actively engaging in the conversations around your industry openly showing that you listen and that you have ideas. The better listener you become the better a lover you become and who don’t want to be a great lover?
If you don’t know how to listen then learn from one of the best Jeremiah Owyang
5. Interface is brand
Just ask Google. Don’t waste valuable time or money trying to wordsmith the experience you want people to have with your product. Instead provide them with the actual experience. The best call to action is the actual product or service not a description of it.
Will the real brand manager please stand up?
If you agree with the basic premises of this essay then it should be obvious that your branding is a way too important and integral part of your company’s success to be handled by someone who only have responsibility for communicating values and not effectuating them. It has become increasingly obvious to me that the only person who can be trusted the brand strategy is the CEO of the company.
The CEO is the only individual who effectively and with any integrity can and should make the necessary decisions about the things that matter. Which is to ensure a consistent quality and proper approach to values throughout the organization.
Companies who want to be around at the turn of the next decade better understand this and choose their leaders wisely. The leader of the next decade will make it his sole purpose to ensure that the values are not just communicated but executed. That what branding always was supposed to be about. For too long organizations have been complacent about practicing what they preach. Now that the walls have come down, they will have to owe their success, it’s only fair.
Am I making sense?