Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Federal agency blogging, ethics and branding

Social media is all the rage among federal communicators today - all of
us are talking about how to implement it. And one of the most mainstream
elements of social media in the federal government so far is blogging.
Here are some thoughts on blogging ethics and the connection to
government branding.

That the guardians of taxpayer money are speaking directly to citizens
is a good thing. But the rise of social media technology like blogs
brings with it a host of ethical questions and issues that have to be
dealt with. A key example is representation. Two common sense components
here--and there may be further legal/ethical requirements as well
(obviously this is not formal advice!)

1. When an agency executive writes a blog on the agency's official
blogsite, we the public assume that they are speaking on behalf of the
agency. Yet the blog medium is inherently a reflection of one's personal
thoughts. There needs to be a disclaimer on the site distinguishing
between the two.

2. This one is well known -- when an agency employee has their own blog
site, there needs to be a disclaimer stating that his/her views are
independent. In general anytime an agency employee publishes something
under their own name (not as a representative of he agency) they need to
clarify this.

3. In an anonymous web environment (like a message board where the
username is not a real name) it seems ethical to me to say, "I work for
x agency, and while I don't speak for them, here's a comment." However,
there may be agency concerns here about non-representative employees
commenting in public about agency matters - further clarification is
needed here. **And obviously nobody should ever reveal law enforcement
sensitive information, anonymous or not.**

4. In my view, while everyone has a right to express their opinions
freely, the fact of the matter is that the person is an embodiment of
the government for as long as they work there, and the site should not
contain anything that would embarrass or disgrace the agency.

Remember, EVERYTHING YOU DO AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY'S REPUTATION-IMAGE-BRAND
- and you as a US government employee have an obligation not to shame
it.

This is a general rule of thumb.

So for example anything that would tarnish or undermine the agency's
dignity (e.g. vacation party photos) should be kept off of the blog
especially if there is any indication made that the blogger works for
the government. And remember someone can google you and find out you are
a fed even if that's not on the blog. This is just common sense.

General disagreements over agency policy, I believe, should be handled
through internal channels or private correspondence with elected
officials rather than aired publicly. If the potential consequences of
the disagreement are severe and the above won't cut it, obviously you
should CONSULT AN AUTHORITY about what to do.

Now if you believe your agency is doing something wrong - e.g. fraud,
waste, abuse, gross mismanagement, etc. - you also obviously have the
right and the duty to report it through all proper channels and legal
advice is definitely warranted.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What prevents total brand alignment - in government or anywhere?

I just posted this in GovLoop.com - see what you think:

1. Lack of understanding about what branding is - misconception that it's just a logo or seal when in fact it's about rallying employees and the public around your clear, compelling MISSION or identity

2. Fighting within the agency about who is going to get the spotlight - the sense that if the agency overall has a brand, then my particular subgroup will not get recognized for its work

3. Related to #2, lack of understanding of brand architecture - that a brand can be organized to accommodate various sub-brands without compromising the overall identity. The tendency is to think in extremes - either there is one brand overlord at HQ who won't let anyone else have their own identity, or there is a completely decentralized system where any logo goes.

4. Chain of command thinking - failure to see that a brand is only as good as the people who support it. You can't tell employees what to do and how to feel. You can only educate, motivate, and inspire them to be passionate advocates for your agency and its brand. And that is accomplished by letting them have a say in things. It's not necessarily that they tell you what the strategic messages should be, but that they are free to discuss internally and provide feedback on their experiences with stakeholders and the brand - and that informs you about how the brand is shaped. This means the agency is sensitive to emotional intelligence type issues and preferably has an organizational development expert on staff who can help to nurture this environment.

5. Lack of coordination within the agency around developing and deploying the brand. Basically, the brand is everybody's business, not just public affairs', and not just the "soft departments" like public affairs, HR, training, etc. It must be a coordinated effort between the operational (frontline) offices, mission support, and especially the office of information technology.

6. Lack of objective thinking/metrics around the brand. By this I mean the tendency to think impressionistically or anecdotally about it rather than taking a fact/research-based approach. How do people perceive the agency and how should they perceive it? Do citizens know where to go to get what they need? Do we have any kind of numbers to support these conclusions? These are the kinds of things that senior leadership needs to see to support a brand initiative.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Do you have the level of the brand right?

Should your brand have an identity at a very high level or a very
specific one? This is a critical question (technically called a "brand
architecture" issue) but my sense is that it is often ignored in favor
of just "going to market" with whatever new product, promise, premise or
idea someone thinks should constitute a brand.

Big mistake. Big potential waste of money.

Need to decide who your audience is, what they want/need, and whether
they are best served by a high level brand (so you include your brand in
that one) or a very specific granular one (so you start a new one).

Be more strategic ahead of time and save yourself headaches down the
road.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Miscellaneous Tweetlike thoughts after attending an employee engagement conference

  • Military in the lead of branding/social media - what are they doing right?
  • Marketers need to become technologists and evangelists for technology (and vice versa) - because marketing/branding and technology increasingly go hand in hand
  • Related -- tech for tech sake still prevalent - leaves the user clueless - much more marketing + organizational development insight needed here
  • Generational differences - boomer, x, y - impact technology adoption -younger must teach older
  • Too much focus on macro adoption of technology - need focus on micro level to get to what works at broader level
  • Issue of when to adopt technology hasn't gone away - can't be first in, can't be too late either
  • Remember the user perspective - why should I learn this?
  • Training vastly underestimated in terms of importance
  • Training should go hand in hand with customization for user - make it work the way user needs it to
  • What is the strategic goal? We don't ask that enough (in any context)
  • Role of email in social media world - is it dying with everything else replacing it? (e.g. Tweets, wikis...)
  • Don't get addicted to any one technology - just use whatever works
  • Remember that tech is ever changing but users need some stability - need to find balance between the two
  • Stupidest thing to say to a user is something that makes them feel stupid - "its so easy" "anyone can do it"
  • Remember that minority of users create majority of content - just b/c a lot of content doesn't mean it's mainstream
  • Accountability function of electronic media - not compelling to everyone to say the least...don't use it as a selling feature to the user!!!

Templates, automation, and branding

Related to templates, which have obvious implications for branding, is
automation. Idea here is
- automate repetitive tasks through technology
- teach people to use the tools
- free them up to do more important work

Branding is something that should be done in the bckground not something
that should be discussed, debated, and reinvented and reinterpreted
endlessly until it loses its impact and weastes people's time. Templates
and automation help achieve that.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What I'm learning lately

Branding is king but its a subset of marketing. You are always trying to
sell something. Never forget that and try to build a Coca-Cola image for
its own glorious sake.

Also technical execution is critical. You can have great ideas and great
plans but the Powerpoint guru wins. Or in branding, the good template
that is comprehensive and usable.

Finally there is focus. You cannot do it all at once. Pick a few areas
to focus on and fight fires only 25% of the time.

(Of course all of this is subject to conflict, change, and debate.)

I'm going to start making more general observations here as its all
relevant to Total Branding in the end.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Branding when there is no brand

Be aware that you will sometimes need to brand when there is no brand. To create consistency when none exists. To develop guidelines when you know they will be retracted later on. Take the Total Branding approach and accept this reality as a given. Don't get upset - take it as an opportunity to expand your skills in strategic thinking and implementation. Remember that

1. The brand exists anyway - whether or not someone "decides" that it does
2. There is never such a thing as total brand alignment; and
3. Even partial alignment is better than none.

Now get out there and do your best.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Total Branding and Social Media - Can These Seemingly Opposing Paradigms Be Reconciled?

Usually people don't think of branding and social media as opposites. They just talk about how to deliver the brand through social media. But in point of fact, from a certain perspective, branding and social media represent two completely different paradigms:
  • Branding is about delivering a consistent message to create a consistent image
  • Social media is about saying whatever you want to say without regard to image

The way I see it is as follows:

  • The goal of branding should be the creation of a message that is consistent yet authentic.
  • That way, whatever social media results from the brand (whether it's Tweets, blog posts, comments, or whatever), it will sound like you.

Don't lose sight of the importance of linking branding and social media together. If your brand is phony your social media will destroy your image.

To avoid the phony brand syndrome, here is one practical thing you can do: Think from a Total Branding perspective--maximum alignment for maximum impact--no brand is ever fully aligned.

In the real world, this means: Discover what organizational elements are getting in the way of your delivery of a consistent brand message and try to eliminate them from public view. You won't be completely successful, but you can probably get rid of some of the offending communications clutter. And some is better than none.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Total branding and the financial crisis

Total Branding is about aligning an organization's functions with its culture and communication despite the fact that achieving total alignment is realistically impossible. In an absence of total alignment you basically do the best you can.

We see this approach in action with respect to the bailout. Both candidates are trying to align their operations with their culture and communication for maximum impact in an environment where:

1. There is cultural dissension within each side about how to fix the situation (e.g. the bailout bill is contested)

2. There appears to be inability or resistance within each side to communcating about how it happened, except to vaguely blame "Wall Street"

3. The public is divided about what it wants--bailout vs. no bailout

As a result, from a Total Branding perspective, here is how I look at the candidates' approaches to the issue:

1. Demonstrate functional competence - good job on both sides but undifferentiated: Say that they are serving the people (performing their overall function) by assuring the bailout effort is done properly (subfunction). Not coincidentally, no brand differentiation there--they are in effect in the same organization (government) and this is basic competence.

2. Demonstrate a uniquely valuable culture - partial success: Claim a distinctive approach based on their record and party/peer beliefs, behaviors, tradition. Some brand differentiation there - e.g. regulation vs. deregulation - but since the Republican candidates place themselves in "maverick" (e.g. independent) territory this is a bit inconsistent on one side (they can shift culture depending on the issue).

This is where it falls apart:

3. Lack of communication clarity, credibility, and consistency. I don't know what the candidates are saying within their respective organizations, but to the outside world something is not working.

Specifically, neither candidate is credibly and clearly articulating what happened to cause this crash and how their unique approach will fix it. We hear catchphrases like "Wall Street corruption and greed" but that is not enough.

What does the Total Branding approach recommend?

1. Tell the story in a unique way: Explain the crash - very basic - what happened, how did it happen, who is responsible. Don't over-focus on any one group such as Wall Street: be fair and evenhanded, even if it means blaming the public in part.

2. Envision and communicate a happy ending: Show people that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Stop calling it the equivalent of an "economic 9/11" or "Pearl Harbor."

3. Offer a unique and credible functional approach to arriving at the happy ending based on a unique culture of the potential administration. E.g., show how increased regulation will work or show how less but more effective regulation will work.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Random thoughts for today - total branding and communication

A few things I don't have time to write in depth about, but want to mention and hopefully will expand on in later posts:

1. An easy way to tell if your brand is aligned is to look at the quality of your meetings. If people are disengaged, unfocused, or focused on the wrong things (like side conversation/humor), 9 times out of 10 your brand is out of sync.

2. Teamwork is an overused word but it has a critical impact on brand alignment. If your organization is experiencing turf wars of any kind, particularly when it comes to policy people not communicating with brand people or brand people not collaborating with each other, your brand is not going to work. Remember, it's all about the OUTSIDE image...the purpose of internal communication is to feed into that.

3. Communicators need to train their clients NOT to ask for immediate communication plans. Any doofus can go onto Google or get a book and create a generic comm. plan (or consult the old comm. plan and rework it into a new one.) The job of a communicator is to CUSTOMIZE each plan individually for each situation. That means research, knowledge of the subject matter, coordination, meetings, etc. Doesn't have to take more than a week, but one day is just not reasonable.

4. Similarly to #3, communicators need to be at the table when their plan is presented to senior leadership. They created it, they understand the reasons behind it, and they need to be in a position to negotiate any changes with decision-makers directly.

5. Communicators are often tempted to "cave in" to difficult clients. This is understandable. We want the business and we won't get it if our working relationships are poor. At the same time, there is a need to hold the line and insist on some sort of integrity to a disciplined strategic communications approach. One way to handle this is to develop governance processes (e.g. guidelines, templates, councils, etc.) to stand in between the communicator and the client to keep them from getting out of control. Then the communicator has an overall structure to fall back on when the client's demands start getting unreasonable or when other communicators on the team start getting creative only for creative's sake.

6. The above is particularly important in the case of internal branding, where clients seem often to feel like since nobody outside will see their communications, they can be as "homemade" and sometimes outlandish as they want.

7. Going back to the last part of #5, creativity for creativity's sake is TERRIBLE IN EVERY WAY. It's bad for the brand (because it fragments the image), it's bad for the communications team (because it undermines their credibility), and it's bad for the organization (because it wastes time and money). Do everything you can to fight this cancerous form of communication.

8. Some people confuse an official seal with a brand. Never do that. A seal is not going to get you recognition outside the organization. A brand (encompassing a logo) will. You can have a seal, but your focus should be on the brand and accompanying logo.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bring the brand specialist in upfront

I hear it all the time and have been there too. The designer and the corporate marketing communications team (let's assume the typical setup - not integrated) are brought in at the last minute to "finish the job" on a project by "getting the word out". Nobody has consulted the marcom team to see if the project makes sense from a marketing perspective, is appealing to the customer, may have pitfalls, etc. And they think the designer is just there to slap a pretty picture on top, no need to coordinate with the strategic message or the overall brand. Lots of time and money wasted this way.

How to get over this if you are drawn into it?

1. Be honest - ask questions, raise specific concerns.
2. Stick to your core competency. Don't question the business model unless you have the technical knowledge to do so.
3. Partner with the designer if you're organizationally stovepiped. Get on the same page.
4. Do the best you can. Focus on simple, clear, credible messages about the project, even if it is not perfect.
5. Use and build a network of brand supporters to promote better brand alignment in the future.

Friday, September 26, 2008

25 Ways To Use Technology for Brand-Aligned Communication

This week I spoke at the ALI Strategic Internal Communication in Government conference about using technology to facilitate internal communication.

The starting point was that everything a communicator does, including the use of technology, should ultimately be in support of total brand alignment.

Then I progressed into a discussion of technology itself, and how to implement it effectively given a specific mission, culture, communication style, and desired brand.

Here is some actionable advice on this subject:
  1. Put your logo on every communication—external website, intranet, blog, etc.
  2. Work within the culture, not against it, to facilitate technology adoption.
  3. Keep your message consistent across channels/platforms.
  4. Purposely customize your external website to an internal audience.
  5. Use technology to facilitate human interaction, not replace it.
  6. Reassess user rights frequently to protect against information leaks.
  7. Accept criticism (e.g. via blog) but insist that employees put their name on it.
  8. Treat technology as a necessity not an option.
  9. Use technology strategically—filter information to the right people at the right time.
  10. Don’t over-write—short and simple is best online, where people scan and don’t read.
  11. Longer documents should be in deeper links that people can print if they need to.
  12. Use technology to inform your employees of an issue before the media does.
  13. Customize delivery of information according to employee usage habits—email, online, handheld device, etc.
  14. Start small and build on incremental success and word of mouth—start a revolution and it may backfire.
  15. Build in extensive support and training for new technologies.
  16. Keep print materials available—just use them sparingly.
  17. Use multiple and overlapping channels to communicate—not just one.
  18. Make the business case for incorporating new technologies—start with functional needs and move to cultural.
  19. Collaborate extensively to achieve buy-in around new technology initiatives.
  20. Keep technology simple—especially for the communicators who will use it.
  21. Evolve strategy and execution continuously—never rest on your laurels.
  22. Ask for feedback and act based on it.
  23. Obtain metrics where you can.
  24. Don’t use technology only for technology’s sake—make sure it has a communication purpose.
  25. Test your message before you send it—and check everything, to the smallest detail (including links!)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Leaders apologizing and branding

Financial Week has an article (January 28) about apologizing and members of the C-suite.

"Mattel’s Robert Eckert apologized for lead-tainted toys; JetBlue’s David Neeleman for letting passengers rot on the runway; and Apple’s Steve Jobs for uneven iPhone pricing."

Why are business leaders apologizing so much?

The article answers that "Branding 101 taught us all that a brand is more than a product name or a company logo and that loyalty can’t be bought with an ad. Brand loyalty is a gift from customers to companies that consistently earn their trust and demonstrate credibility over time. It can also be taken away at any time."

What this means is that consumers are ever-ready to withdraw their trust from brand leaders and take it elsewhere. It is upon brand leaders, therefore, to consistently demonstrate that they are worthy of brand trust.

The article tells leaders to be always mindful of whether their communication is good for the brand. Not only that, leaders should open up two-way modes of communication such as customer advisory councils and even a CEO blog.

The article concludes with advice to make sure that "every executive, manager and employee in the company understands what is important to customers and that every meeting ends with one question: “Will this decision help or hurt our brand?”

I think it is important for leaders to be ready to apologize when they do something that violates the brand. Apologizing restores the lost trust between the consumer and the company that could otherwise be expressed in hostile blog or YouTube posts. It is good business.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Employer branding and Generation Y (well, all generations)

The Caymanian Compass features an article about employer branding and Generation Y.

The article notes that a 2004 study by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Institute of the Future found six basic workplace values that this generation holds. These are:

1. More loyal to the same company than Gen Xers
2. "Craves a sense of purpose and meaning"
3. "Desire access to mentors"
4. "Want to work in a tech-savvy environment"
5. "Open social networks...are important to them"
6. "Work-life balance"

How does this translate into branding?

Deloitte uses the “Develop–Deploy–Connect” model:

1. Develop people by offering "real-life learning opportunities"
2. "Deploy key individuals by working with them to identify...deep rooted skills, interest, and knowledge, and then use that information to help find the best fit"
3. "Connect them by providing the tools and guidance they need to...build networks"

The article cautions that "your employer brand must reflect" this model, noting that branding "can't be done simply by communicating a set of ideals, particularly for the cynical Gen Y group that has been bombarded by advertising messages all their lives."

Rather, employer branding "comes from the actual practices that make up an organisation." These include:

1. "The products and services you offer"
2. "Workplace culture"
3. "Points of differentiation from competitors."

I'm not sure that I see how the "develop-deploy-connect" model has anything to do with branding, but I do agree that branding is more than just providing a series of messages. The brand has to live in the product/service offering, in the culture (through vision, mission, and values) and in positioning (points of differentiation). But here again, I'm not sure I see the difference between the product/service offering and points of differentiation--to me these are one and the same. So the brand lives in the culture (which can be the unique way that the organization develops, deploys, and connects) and the positioning. And this is true not just for Gen Y, but for all generations.

Which brings me to a book I just finished reading. It's called Brand From the Inside, by Libby Sartain and Mark Schumann. The book purports to tell you how to build an employer brand, through eight steps. But I thought this book was a lot of nonsense gibberish. I didn't get the message at all. The authors don't provide one single concrete example of employer branding that makes any sense to me, with the exception of FedEx's "Purple Promise" and the "Freedoms" that Southwest provides to its employees. Plus they repeat themselves over and over again.

Here are some examples of the vague advice this book gives:

1. "Your employer brand must define what your business needs from your employees." (p. 31)Well, duh! But why not just call it the overarching brand and have employees contribute to that?

2. "Your employer brand must define on-brand behavior." (p. 36) Again, duh! What do you think an employer brand should do, define off-brand behavior?

3. "Your employer brand must connect what happens outside to what happens inside." (p. 37) This advice is just silly. There is only one brand, and it connects everything.

After reading this book, I am starting to think that the concept of employer branding makes no sense. There is not one brand that faces the public and another brand that faces employees. There is a single brand, and everybody has to understand it, internalize it, and contribute to it. That means the culture reflects it, as well as the positioning. No special accommodations should be made because you're talking to an internal audience rather than an external one.

I also disagree with the authors' advice to make a so-called "business case" for employer branding because no models are yet available (that I know of) that can determine the value an employer brand adds to the business.

At the end of the day, as former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola Sergio Zyman might say (as in his book The End of Marketing As We Know It), you brand your business because it helps you to make more money from your customers. You tell your employee what the brand is all about--you show them what it's all about--because it will help you to drive sales. That is the bottom line. That is their motivation--to help the business succeed. All this other nebulous stuff about energizing the workforce with an emotional commitment is just pie in the sky. You can present benefits statements wrapped in a brand until you're blue in the face--but I think employees see right through it. Everything the company does should be about selling to the outside, not selling to the inside. Your employees are already sold on the brand (or else they should be), and that's why they work for you.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Switching agencies and branding

A new article in Adweek (January 14, 2008) reports that in a survey of chief marketing officers, “nearly half of marketers plan to fire at least one of their agencies and change direction,” according to the Chief Marketing Officer Council’s second annual forecast.

A total of 825 chief marketing officers were surveyed. They are turning “away from traditional advertising and public relations and toward ‘customer-facing’ and lead generation programs such as event marketing and e-mail.”

Nearly half of respondents, 45 percent, said they were going to change agencies in 2008. They plan to fire their Web design and development firms, direct marketing agencies, general ad agencies, and PR firms.

The article quotes Dave Murray, executive vice president of the CMO Council, who said that Web “is the top priority in terms of brand, customer engagement, insight.” And chief marketing officers are sick of “a lack of innovation,” “no value-added thinking,” and “poor creative.”

Not that they’re spending less money. Fully half of respondents say they will spend more on marketing, including “e-mail programs, CRM, marketing performance measurement dashboards and search engine marketing.”

It appears that the most marketing dollars are being allocated to “strategy and branding,” followed by events, trade shows, operations, direct marketing, sales support, online, and advertising.

So what does this survey show? Marketing officers want to get closer to the customer, and they believe that experiential marketing—direct contact—and the Web are the way to do that. They are less interested in advertising than they were before, certainly.

This is a seismic shift for branding. We are now witnessing the advent of the interactive brand age, and the death of one-way communication models like advertising. Marketers are paying heed to what customers are saying (whether directly or indirectly), which is that they want more in-touch modes of being connected with than just a 30-second commercial. It will be interesting to see where this trend takes us.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Branding and the upcoming U.S. presidential election

The News & Observer (January 8, 2008) recently published a negative article about branding in the political arena, “Choosy voters choose to go beyond branding.” It’s about the “fusion of ‘branding’ and politics that characterizes not only the way candidates and consultants pitch campaigns to the public, but also the way many of us now see public life.” The author calls this fusion “branditics.”

The author argues that “branditics” reduces the complexity of politics to simplistic messages, and says “Brands work better in grocery stores than in the White House.”

The writer understands branding well: It is indeed “the process of taking something on a shelf or in an office park and transforming it into an emotional experience that pulls us in, makes us believe, inspires us to buy. A strong brand captures, compresses and conveys an organization's values, the promise of its products and the guarantee of a consistent customer experience.”

However, he does not believe that potential presidents should be sold like “cans of Coke.” He does not believe that we should be content with oversimplified labels such as “security” for Giuliani, “competency” for Clinton, “faith” for Huckabee, or “hope” for Obama.

The problem, he says, is that branding closes off choices for the candidates whereas they need “room to maneuver,” to be flexible.

I have to disagree with this author. I think the candidates, particularly Obama, Clinton, and Giuliani, are doing a great job branding themselves for public consumption. In an election where it is sometimes hard to tell apart the candidates’ positions on complex issues, we need a shortcut that helps us define who we may be voting for. Branding doesn’t close off choices for the candidates, it merely encapsulates exactly who they are, what they value, what they promise to the American people, and how they will make that experience consistent.

Related to this is the question of “rebranding America”—which candidate will be the best at giving the U.S. the image makeover many feel it needs? Some feel that it is Obama, because of his race—“A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy”—they believe that America needs a nonwhite president to convey the message that we are not Anglo-elitists bent on dominating the world. I think that is certainly a possibility. A Clinton presidency would, to me, have a similar effect—in electing a female we would be sending a strong message about our beliefs in equality and diversity and those beliefs are far-reaching. Would electing Giuliani be good for the U.S. brand? Probably not—right now we need to project an image of world diplomacy, not stubbornness and being closed off to other nations and other views. How about McCain? I say, eh—I don’t get much of a brand image there, other than that he’s sort of a standard Republican, whatever that means. And in my view none of the other candidates really stand much of a chance right now…if they do at some later time then I’ll weigh in on their brand image.

Any way you look at it, branding is really critical right now in the U.S. elections. It’s an overall positive for the voter, who gets to make more meaningful choices, and it’s a way to hold candidates accountable to some philosophy or value system that they will have to stick with. It is further a way to help the American voter decide what kind of image they want to project in the world as a nation, and now is a critical time for that kind of decision to take place.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Country branding – an instructive article on Brand Kenya

Nairobi’s Business Daily (8 January 2008) carried an excellent opinion piece on what Kenya needs to do to build a country brand, especially in the face of the current instability. “Whereas we had reached a point where Kenya was seen as a case study in political tranquility and economic stability, we are now being showcased in the international media as a war-torn economic time bomb,” writes the author, the CEO of Interbrand Sampson East Africa. “One solution to counter this is to create a strong country brand.”

According to the writer, a country brand offers the following key benefits, and I strongly agree:

  1. Improves a nation’s image in general (obviously)
  2. Aligns citizen’s way of thinking about the country “and speeds up healing and reconciliation”… “builds up patriotism and pride.”
  3. Positions a nation “way above its peers”…offers a “competitive edge” as countries “compete…for tourism, inward investment and export sales.” (Maybe this is three separate benefits?) Specifically, it “gives weight to the ‘made in’ label because it will positively aid the sale of products in foreign markets.”

How do you develop a country brand? The writer notes that you need:

1. The involvement of “government, business, the arts, education and importantly the media.” (I wonder how a country can involve the media if the media’s role is to maintain impartiality and be above notions like branding. The media might report on branding, but how would they be a part of it?)

2. “To find out how your country is perceived both internally by citizens and externally by people abroad who you want to influence.” (“You should also consult with opinion leaders…and compare their views.”) This step cannot be underestimated. It is the critical marketing research piece that every brand requires in order to be successful.

The resulting “brand idea and positioning…positively and clearly differentiates the country from any other.”

This “enables the development of messaging to the various audiences previously identified.”

The writer goes on to state that “the most difficult part of country branding is on the ground roll out. You should work out a programme to make the strategy tangible through improvement projects.” (I’m not sure I understand that part. What kind of improvement projects? How does this relate to the brand?)

The author further writes that it is challenging to create a collaborative system to implement the brand strategy (across government, business, the media, etc.), “without making it look too governmental, because people will instinctively avoid working with it.” (My question is, why will people not want to work with the government on a brand strategy for the country? This does not make intuitive sense to me.)

The author states that although executing the strategy takes time, the important thing is to “be consistent, building an integrated picture and always backing it with quality.” This should be unaffected by what is going on politically. (I am not sure, again, how the strategy is executed unless by traditional means—advertising, marketing promotions, online awareness-building, etc.)

Overall I found this article very useful and highly instructive—for country branding or any other kind of branding, for that matter. The key equation is: collaboration + research = brand positioning and messaging.

Of course, there is always the question of brand vision—is there a way to circumvent the research process and come up with a vision for the brand that is derived from someone’s personal genius? I think so in theory, although it is risky for an entire country to do that.

Finally, there is the question of execution, which remains murky. How exactly do you implement a brand strategy for a country? Aside from advertising (or maybe the primary tactic is advertising)? I would like to read more in these kinds of articles about specific brand-building approaches, both for country branding and branding in general. I am reading another brand book now and it also suffers from the same murky approach to actual implementation…more on that in a future post.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Why U.S. federal government agencies don’t brand themselves

In an article titled “Treasury's £2.4m on ‘image’,” U.K.’s The Sun newspaper states that England’s “Treasury chiefs have blown £2.4million in a year on image makeovers. The cash was spent on logos, branding and marketing staff to promote the work of the department and its agencies.”

The article notes that the “biggest spender was the shambolic HM Revenue and Customs, notorious for losing the bank details of 25 million people. It lavished £390,000 on seven brand management staff plus £750,000 on a marketing team last year. Chancellor Alistair Darling blew another £130,000 on ‘branding manuals’ for his departments.”

The article goes on in this vein, eventually quoting Tory spokesman Philip Hammond, who said: “It beggars belief that departments that are supposed to be responsible for the public purse are lavishing millions on self-promotion.”

This kind of story, in a nutshell, could be a key reason why U.S. federal government agencies don’t brand themselves. They could be concerned that the public will view money spent on branding as wasteful frippery rather than serving the taxpayers’ interests.

The job of a brand is to create an emotional connection between an organization and its (external and internal) customers. In doing so, the brand improves the relationship between agencies and their public stakeholders and unifies employees to perform the mission. Branding, in short, makes organizations function better. It is the furthest thing possible from waste (unless, of course, it is done badly, incoherently, inconsistently, or inauthentically). Yet the media is ready to pounce on any dollar spent that is not purely operational—that does not go directly toward the mission.

I ask you, where would agencies be without other mission support areas, like information technology, human resources, finance? The answer: Nowhere, and everybody knows it. Agencies need mission support in order to function. The same is true of branding. Branding, and its sister function marketing, exists in order to make operations palatable to the public, to increase public consumption of products and services, and even to increase the likelihood that the public will pay attention to the informational messages that the agency is sending.

More than that, agencies have public affairs staffs whose job it is to disseminate key information to the public. Their jobs would be made immeasurably easier if their information were associated with a powerful brand, a brand that people paid attention to. How many U.S. federal agencies can you name, off the top of your head?

In short, U.S. public agencies need a brand. And it is up to agencies’ public affairs staff to make the case for branding both within and outside the agency as necessary. The problem is, branding is a “soft discipline,” so it is difficult to make a numbers-based business case—you can’t quantify exactly how much the relationship between the agency and the public will be improved, for example, or predict how much public consumption of agency products and services will go up after the brand has been instituted. I know that Interbrand and perhaps Young & Rubicam (through its Brand Asset Valuator) can quantify the value of a brand of a publicly held, commercial company, but no comparable measures exist for the value of a brand to a public agency.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much research in this area that I am aware of. It would be helpful if there were.

Until such best practice research arrives on the scene, perhaps in the form of a ground-breaking book on federal agency branding, we public affairs professionals working in government can wait for the winds of enlightenment to spring up and carry us to the promised land. But right now, with the lack of information/education available on the taxpayer benefits associated with branding, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Monday, January 7, 2008

McDonald's goes after Starbucks, Starbucks freaks out

Today’s Wall Street Journal (January 7, 2008) reports that McDonald’s is looking Starbucks square in the eye and going after its core customer.

“Starting this year, the company's nearly 14,000 U.S. locations will install coffee bars with ‘baristas’ serving cappuccinos, lattes, mochas and the Frappe, similar to Starbucks' ice-blended Frappuccino.”

Greedy McDonald’s forecasts $1 billion in annual sales from the program.

The move is a good sign and a bad sign for Starbucks. It’s a good sign in that it recognizes just how mainstream “upscale coffee” has become—it validates Starbucks’ position as a key purveyor of that type of drink.

It’s bad for Starbucks for the very same reason—it shows how commoditized the Starbucks experience is—the very thing that Starbucks chairman (now CEO) Howard Schultz warned about in his famous leaked memo of February 2007.

It is sort of shocking that things have gotten to this point. Starbucks was supposed to be the polar opposite of a commodity purveyor of food like McDonald’s. But guess what? They added food to the menu as well as drive-through windows to achieve growth, and they became, in the end, somewhat McDonald’s-like.

Starbucks is very worried about this encroachment from a potential competitor—so much so that the company just announced it is bringing back Howard Schultz to run the company as CEO. Schultz is going to lead “a major restructuring initiative” that includes a series of initiatives like closing poorly-performing stores, new products, new store designs, and better training for its baristas.

I can understand that Starbucks is concerned. But I will bet you, dollars to donuts, that McDonald’s will never encroach on the true Starbucks consumer. The brand’s “immune system” (to quote former Coca-Cola Chief Marketing Officer Sergio Zyman) won’t allow it. Sure, if you want a syrupy, cheap latte you will be able to get one at Mickey D’s. But the Golden Arches cannot imitate the ambience of Starbucks—which still exists, no matter what anybody says or how supposedly commoditized the chain has become.

At the very worst, says the Journal, “the new coffee program is a risky bet for McDonald’s.” Why? “It could slow down operations and alienate customers who come to McDonald's for cheap, simple fare rather than theatrics. Franchisees say that many of their customers don't know what a latte is.”

I, for one, am absolutely disgusted at the lengths McDonald’s will go to to take over the eating experience of every American. Is there nothing sacred anymore? Starbucks, for all its failings, is still that special “third place” and I would never go to McDonald’s to replicate it.

At the same time, I can understand McDonald’s motivations. Like any brand hungry for growth, it sees an expansion opportunity. However, the McD’s brand does not have "permission" to expand into the Starbucks space. If I were Starbucks, I would not be terribly worried about it. In fact, I might view it, if anything, as a way to expand my own market. And Schultz has said as much. As the Journal article notes:

“Mr. Schultz has said that new competition actually helps Starbucks by expanding the specialty-coffee category. ‘Those consumers over time are going to trade up,’ he told investors in November. ‘They're going to trade up because they are not going to be satisfied with the commoditized experience or the flavor.’ He has emphasized that Starbucks's baristas, who are instructed to memorize customers' drink orders and make genuine conversation with patrons, will continue to set the chain apart.”

At the same time, Starbucks needs to see this as a major warning signal. As I have said before, it is time to reinvent the brand—now. Starbucks should consider killing its own brand and resurrecting it as something even better—the ultimate, uncopyable “third space” that is suited for the way we live now. There is no growth left for Starbucks as it stands anymore—it has saturated the market. It is time to do something daring, different, and better—astounding and delighting the millions (billions?) of dedicated Starbucks fans out there who are rooting for the brand to survive and succeed.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Customer service, social media, and branding--why brand makers should never, never give up trying

In an article for Brandweek, blogger Shel Holtz talks about the proliferation of “social media” (online participatory sites), including social networking sites and blogs. He cites a study showing that “22% of U.S. consumers are using social networking sites, a 5% increase in just one year.” What’s more, “19% use blogs, a 13% spike. And use of these channels has doubled among people over 55.”

What this means, says Holtz, is that consumers are more often “experiencing your brand in places where you have no control. What’s more, they’re making purchase decisions based on those experiences.” It’s true: people are going online to learn about brands from bloggers, people who leave testimonials on e-commerce websites, friends, and family. Interestingly, they are NOT learning much about brands from company-sponsored websites. So the situation, for brands, is pretty dire: let’s not even talk about co-creation! We’re approaching a situation of customer-creation.

Holtz pairs this with the fact that bloggers tend to write about poor experiences with customer service/technical support, and consumers tend to read about those experiences online. “Every time someone reads a blog post about a tech support nightmare, he has a brand experience. Every time a prospective customer hears someone tell a customer-service horror story, she has a brand experience.”

For Holtz, this leads to the argument that “customer service and tech support are reporting to the wrong box on the organization chart. These functions are the front line of public relations.”

He couldn’t be more accurate. In an era where social media rules, frontline consumer-facing functions are absolutely critical to creating a positive brand experience.

Holtz offers three ways to ensure a positive customer service/tech support experience:

  • Invest in staffing and training for these company representatives (of course!)
  • Have customer service/tech support actively look for people having trouble on social networks (I’m not sure I buy into that one…it seems like a lot of trouble to go through and then you can’t even necessarily reach the complainer)
  • Make every company employee “a potential customer service or tech support rep.” What he means by this is that employees (as in #2 above) should be online looking for ways to be the face of the organization. (I’m not sure I buy into that one either…imagine a company with thousands and thousands of employees, all wasting their time looking online for people who are having bad brand experiences with the company.)

He makes a good overall point, though: that “When any employee can reach out to a customer and solve their problem, the buzz is even better and the brand grows even stronger.”

I think the key takeaway here is that companies are in a fundamental, seismic shift of massive proportions going on and they don’t even realize it. Consumers are slowly but surely taking away control of the brand from the brand maker and putting it into their own hands. And that is a problem because branding, as I have stated repeatedly, is a matter of the brand maker creating a vision, or position for the brand and then reinforcing that vision in every way possible. The implication of Holtz’s argument, which has also been echoed elsewhere in talk about “curator culture” and other archetypes for consumer empowerment, is that brand makers are losing the ability to create brands in the first place. And that is a scary thing.

What should brand makers do? Should they just yield all control of the brand to consumers? Or should they strive to create an even tighter brand experience, a net if you will that will reach over and drape consumers in its web of positive customer brand experiences? If you ask me, I believe that they should make the effort. This means, as Holtz suggests, investing in training frontline customer service and tech support staff, of course. But it also means more than that. It means creating a special cadre of employees whose entire job is to represent the company online. That means infiltrating social networks (honestly, authentically, as company representatives, but infiltrating nonetheless) and finding ways to generate positive buzz about the organization. It means responding to blog posts; countering negative testimonials; and generally doing everything humanly possible to create a sense of consistency around the brand.

In today’s climate, the job of building a brand is undoubtedly harder than it has ever been before. Marketers, however, have no right to throw up their hands in despair and say “I can’t do it.” Rather, they must redouble their efforts to create positive, consistent brand experiences, both online and offline, through advertising and marketing promotions and creating physical, tangible brand experiences that are memorable in the right way. It means hiring the right people at every level of the organization to create a consistent, positive brand culture that delivers on the values the organization ascribes to in every interaction with the public and with other employees. It means beefing up the website, because even if people don’t view it as the ultimate authority on the brand, it still carries a great deal of weight. It means, in short, making sure that wherever people encounter the brand, they are encountering the right set of experiences, tightly knit, heavily controlled, yet personally liberating, symbolic, and meaningful. That is true brand mastery and that is an art that will never, never go away.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Sneak preview: new John Wiley book on branding

In a week, I will be interviewed for a book on aligning the internal and the external brand. The book, which is as yet untitled, is being published by John Wiley. The author of the book is Dr. Claudia Fisher, founder, Lemontree Brand Strategy. With Claudia's permission, reprinted below is the text of the interview and my early written responses to the questions.

1. Aligning internal and external brand activities is supposedly common sense. However, if one observes brand reality out there, this does not appear to be so.

  • Do you think this is a topic of importance/ relevance/ interest? Yes, it is critical. If the internal and the external brand are not aligned the result is a fragmented brand and that is not sustainable in the marketplace.
  • Why do you think alignment is so challenging? Because organizational leaders often do not receive upward feedback, they do not understand that employees are every bit as much stakeholders as external customers. They don’t understand that employees read the newspaper and go to the company’s website the same way that external customers do. They take for granted that employees are loyal to the company (because they are getting paid) and don’t try to earn that loyalty. Also marketing communications is siloed from the other parts of the organization that need to work with it to communicate the brand internally—human resources and the training function.
  • What do you think are key sources for misalignment? Leaders who communicate upward or outward only instead of downward and internally. Also failure to create cross-functional communication teams around the brand. Also failure to pay attention to building a unified culture around the brand.

2. More and more brand experts believe in co-creation of brands.

  • How would you define co-creation? Who are the key parties involved? Co-creation is when the customer has a voice in defining the brand, usually through the Internet – giving a testimonial on an e-commerce site, or authoring a blog, or even just e-mailing friends and family. However, co-creation can also be when the employees of the organization have a voice in creating the brand together with the marketing/communications function and/or the agency.
  • Who should be the key parties involved? The CEO of the brand on the one side, the marketing/communications department and the advertising/marketing agency in the middle, the employees of the organization as another part, and the customer on the other side.
  • What is the impact on brand management? Ability to control? More and more, customers and employees are defining what the brand is and does, but the brand manager still retains a great deal of control over the brand’s image. The brand manager can create the desired image and also engineer conversations via experiential marketing and Internet polling with consumers that generate the desired image. For example, Panasonic parks a truck in various retailer’s parking lots that showcases its electronic products, and invites customers to experience the Panasonic brand. Those experiences create impressions and conversations.
  • What are the risks of not embracing co-creation as a reality? The risk is that you create a disconnect in the marketplace between your positioning, or how you want your brand to be perceived, and your image, or how your brand actually is perceived. That disconnect can destroy your brand. It is especially dangerous when companies do not realize that their employees are effectively co-creating the brand every day, and that the message employees send in their interactions with customers may be different than the official party line.
  • Does co-creation render the issue of internal/ external alignment meaningless? It makes it more complicated. We are not living in a command and control environment anymore. People today are more independent of authority than they have ever been. They, especially employees, need to be inspired to rally around the brand, to make it a cause and to look at it the same way that the official leadership does. At the same time, leaders need to get closer to employees and customers and find out where their affinities to the brand lie, and mirror that in brand communication. For example, the Wii videogame is very popular among seniors in the United States , even though the brand is marketed to young people. Seniors have co-opted it. The makers of Wii therefore need to address seniors in their official brand communication, even if they create a subbrand to do it.

3. In the past, branding was very communication-led.

  • Do you think this will change in the future? Why or why not? How? This will not change at all.. All branding is created continually through a form of communication and interaction with consumers, whether it is advertising or marketing promotions or word of mouth.
  • Where do you see the key opportunities for brands going forward? The brands that will succeed in the future will take one of two tracks. One possibility is to be very close to the customer by taking a scientific approach, polling and surveying statistically and continually to find out what the consumer wants and then to meet that. Another possibility is to be highly visionary, and create demand through some sort of unique insight into the world and where it is going. Or there can be some combination of the two. In the U.S., Oprah Winfrey is an example of a highly visionary brand, that takes a stand on a variety of issues important to her, but that incorporates constant feedback from television viewers and Internet readers.

4. Do you think the role of brands in general is changing? If so, how and why?

  • Do you think that brands today are more important or less important than in the past? Why? Both -- brands are more important and less important. They are more important because there is truly an endless proliferation of choices in the marketplace and they provide a shortcut to making a decision about what to buy. They are also more important than in the past because with the Internet and e-commerce, we are living in more of a consumer culture than ever before and membership with a brand provides status in that culture. They are less important also because there is such a proliferation of equivalent choices that the distinction can tend to become meaningless, a consumer may choose randomly or based on price alone.
  • Who do they/should they primarily appeal to? Brands should make their appeal to people who are willing participants in consumer culture, not to people who have rejected brands and branding, of which there seem to be a substantial number. It does not pay to go after everyone.
  • Who should “own”/ be responsible for the brand internally? The CEO or leader of the organization must own the brand, there is no other way to champion it. The marketing/communications department simply does not have as much impact as the organization’s leader—he or she sets the tone for everyone else in the organization.. At the same time, the leader must invest the employees themselves with ownership over the brand so that they carry it forward as if it were their own.
  • What is the role of “authenticity”? Is it a fad or more permanent? In my view authenticity is critical and permanent. People must believe that the story you are telling is true on some level. Look at the U.S. brand Harley-Davidson. That brand, which has to do with personal freedom, has traditionally been identified with men and their motorcycles but is now branching out to appeal to women. And the appeal stays true, despite the branching out, because the brand has that cachet of sticking to its guns and promoting freedom.

5. Do you think consumers are changing? If so, how?

I think the Internet fundamentally changed everything when it comes to being a consumer. For one thing, consumers are more price-sensitive than they have been in the past—they can look online for just about anything and get it from the cheapest vendor possible. From that perspective, the role of branding is diminished. However, at the same time, consumers recognize that they need to buy from trustworthy sources so that they don’t just send their money out into the vapor and never receive product. So from that point of view, the role of branding is dramatically increased. Another impact of the Internet, as has been stated repeatedly by others, is that consumers are talking back to brands—they are more willing to get out there and share experiences with product online. This makes them more skeptical and empowered about what brands are claiming to provide. At the same time, it also makes them more open to brands because they are always looking for the next new thing—giving innovative brands a chance to win their loyalty.

6. Do you think that the role of employees vis-à-vis brands is changing? If so, how?

It’s changing in a couple of ways. First, employees are learning from their external experiences with the Internet that they should talk back to brands, including the brands they work for. So their expectation is to have more of a say in the brand. This can hurt the ability of leadership to drive a certain brand culture throughout the organization, because employees see themselves as equally suited to say whether a particular course of action is appropriate. At the same time, employees are more brand-identified than ever before, and they WANT to be part of a great brand. So I think they are more willing to participate in creating a great brand, and are more able to see themselves as stewards of the brand in their interactions with customers.

7. Do you think that the way we do business is changing? Is there, for example, more focus on ethics or is this simply a reaction to the current political environment?

I think organizations are more conscious than ever of ethics, integrity, the environment, and so on. In the U.S., Bank of America is running ads demonstrating how its employees have contributed back to the communities in which they work, and saying in effect that you should bank with us because we are socially responsible. I don’t know whether that will have an impact on using the brand, but companies seem to think that it will.

8. How important do you think company values are versus the brand? How do the two concepts relate to each other? Is it practicable / necessary to have both concepts? Why or why not? Where does culture belong? Can culture be controlled by branding?

Company values are absolutely critical to branding. It is essential that companies have values, and that the values be the right ones. Generic or bland value statements have no meaning and can actually detract from the brand. Culture is critical to branding—you cannot have a sustainable brand unless you use the brand to drive the organization so that the norms, beliefs, customs, rules, and regulations, training, organizational structure, and all of that supports the business results that the brand is supposed to create. As Barlow and Stewart argue in Branding Customer Service, you must start with the experience that you want the customer to have and then work backward to create a culture that will enable those experiences.

9. How can a brand grow and still remain true to itself?

The goal of every brand should be to grow and serve everyone in the niche that it has identified, without losing the integrity of its message. It is very tempting for brands to try to be everything to everyone, and unfortunately success can lead them in that direction. But the most important thing is to say, this is my core customer and this is the experience I want to provide to that customer, and I will not stray from that. If the brand is itching to do more, it can create another brand to serve another group of customers. But it should not expand beyond the limits of what Sergo Zyman calls “brand immunity”—it should never do things that are contrary to its character in order to sell to more customers.

10. Which brands do you admire most and why? What can be learned from them?

What are the key success factors for brands today? Key challenges and obstacles?

The brands that I admire most are people-brands, generally, not organization-brands. Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton come to mind. They are both examples of stubborn determination, in the face of constant obstacles, to be successful in the way that they uniquely define success. And they never look back or second-guess themselves or try to leap out of the categories that they have defined for themselves. They are disciplined and persistent, and yet they are flexible enough to listen to their constituents and incorporate that feedback into their message. And that is what I think every brand ought to be. The key challenge for brands today is to stay in tune with what’s going on with customers, but at the same time not to get thrown off course or off-message.. That is a delicate balance to strike.

11. Are there any other issues/challenges/concerns that come to mind in this context?

I the biggest issue for brands is how much they are willing to gamble on their concept in a world where consumers are fickle and where a good idea can be copied instantly. At the end of the day this requires a certain disciplined irreverence. By that I mean that companies should do their homework, figure out exactly who they are targeting, down to a detailed psychographic of their customer, and then let their imaginations run free. This involves a certain amount of risk but it is a disciplined kind of risk, and companies should be willing both to invest liberally in new ideas and to pull the plug on those ideas if they are not working. They should also be prepared to change course frequently—offer new products, services, enhancements, etc. to keep the brand fresh. The important thing is to stay true to the spirit of the brand and the customer for that brand. If you know your brand and you know your customer better than anyone, and you stay focused on aligning the brand experience for the customer all the time, you have a recipe for sustainable brand success. And that is why the employees of the brand organization are critical. They are the ones who reach out to customers on the frontlines and they are the ones who must tell you when it is time to correct your course of action. If you don’t have a good pipeline from the frontline employees to leadership, then you don’t know when things are going wrong and it takes much longer to adjust as needed.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Word of mouth marketing and "cheeseheads"

First, an item from Brandweek’s December 31 edition: word-of-mouth marketing is “projected to hit $1.3 billion this year, up almost 33% from $981 million in 2006,” and “spending is expected to triple by 2011.” This is due to “the explosion of communications on the Internet” and “the acceptance of WOM as a separate discipline beyond ads and public relations.”

This makes sense to me. In an era where the consumer is taking increasing control over marketing, it pays to spend money to facilitate WOM. What the article doesn’t explain, though, is what all this money is being spent on if word of mouth is mostly done for free, by consumers leaving feedback on e-commerce sites, social networking sites, and blogs. True, there is a mention of a company that “leverages relationships with artists in underground New York scenes to build buzz.” But that’s just an isolated case. I would like to know more about how companies are paying to generate WOM.

Speaking of WOM, Wisconsin is generating some buzz as it is trying to come up with a new brand besides “cheeseheads,” which is what they’re known for—dairy and specifically cheese. They seem to be committed to the project, to recognize the obstacles (stereotypes are tough to change; the tourism department “has used numerous slogans in advertising campaigns”; and Wisconsin has “cold winters, high unionization, mid-continental location and relatively high taxes”), and to have done a good job understanding the importance of positioning—finding “that single point of difference”--although the article on this subject doesn't say what that is. They also hired local talent to work on the campaign, thus increasing the chance that the campaign will show deep insight into the brand. (The CEO of Madison, Wisconsin-based branding firm Lindsay, Stone & Briggs is the one who wrote about the cold winters, unionization, location, and taxes in a paper penned eight years ago.) Good going Wisconsin—good luck!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

In defense of brands

The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald yesterday ran an article, “Twelve steps to a brand-free life,” by an individual who a short time ago beat his obsession with consumer labels and shopping. The author had been an avid fan of brands like Adidas and Apple, “to the point that I could not contemplate buying products made by their rivals.” He relied on brands “to increase my confidence at meetings (BlackBerry) or my status at the bar (Ralph Lauren).” He used to “escape the office to shop.”

This person, on deciding to “destroy my previously branded life,” set up “a public bonfire in central London, fuelled by my possessions. Twenty years of designer shopping went up in smoke.” The author says that “I have struggled to live my life brand-free ever since.” However, this is difficult because brands and their messages are everywhere.

The author states that “The message behind every brand is we will feel better for consuming more” but “consumer culture has transformed our lives for the worse. We work more and we imprison ourselves in debt.” He even goes so far as to blame materialism for inhibiting efforts at “tackling climate change.”

The author says “the symbol of a sports shoe manufacturer should not embody freedom. Nor should the symbol of a bag manufacturer embody aspiration.”

What is a brand-avid consumer to think when reading this article? First, obviously, compulsive shopping is different from compulsive brand identification. Compulsive shopping is no doubt an unhealthy thing, but needing to identify with brands can be a positive one—brands fill a human need to identify with something larger in life than just oneself. When you use a particular brand you are making a statement about yourself and your beliefs. There is no reason to give up such a powerful message.

Second, consumer culture is great, not terrible. People exist and interact in the marketplace, where they find they have a choice about which things they buy—brands provide that choice. And people don’t just shop because they want to, they shop because they need to.

Third, what a dull world when people resort to shopping army surplus for clothes, as the author does, and live without TV and the like. Brands don’t just bring meaning to life, they give it excitement. It is fun to look for the next big brand and to purchase items from the brand maker. Why should life be boring?

Undoubtedly a lot of people will identify with the author of this story, who decided that brands were too overwhelming a presence in his life and to minimize that. But I think that people who miss out on brands are missing out on life. There is so much out there to enjoy and consume, and brands make that possible.

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