Thursday, March 11, 2010

Branding is About Turning a Fantasy into the Truth

When I was younger I used to think that branding was about creating the illusion that Product A is worth more than Product B. The profit in this model stems from the fact that A and B are actually worth the same amount – it is only the image that adds a price premium – and the cost of creating that image is far less than the premium to be realized.

 

I’m pretty sure that most brand consultants had the same idea, and so the pitch to the client was: Pay me X amount of money and I’ll help you make X to an exponentially greater degree.

 

Actually that model worked for a time – specifically a time before there was anything called social media. You built a brand through advertising, the ads created the image, the customer bought into the image, and voila – mucho, mucho dinero.

 

Times have changed.

 

It’s not that fantasy is any less appealing – to the contrary. Brands still have that lure of giving the customer a temporary respite from the frustrations, pains and depressing realities of everyday life. But in today’s society, it is really very difficult for a brand to sustain any kind of illusion. Here’s why:

 

  • The people who work for the company are not loyal employees for life – but rather frequently temporary workers with an eye toward moving on and perhaps starting a brand of their own. Those people talk, and they talk through social media channels – which are more credible than the official “voice of the brand.”

 

  • We now have “the perfect storm” taking place – a confluence between the rise of Generation X culture as my generation takes a firm hold on leadership roles, and the explosion in availability of social media tools that give ordinary people a direct microphone to the world. If a brand had difficulty controlling the message before, it definitely cannot do so now.

 

  • There are just too many breaches of trust in recent years – on a massive scale. It doesn’t seem necessary to produce the usual laundry list, but suffice it to say that we have seen a plethora of trusted people and organizations (and remember that you and your organization are always a brand, whether you say so or not) go down in flames when we all very much believed in them, or at least wanted to.

 

Despite all of this, brands have not gone away. In fact they are still going strong, despite all of the above (see my recent presentation posted at www.slideshare.net/srbizwriter or www.slideshare.net/dannielleblumenthal). Which tells me that the fundamental power of a brand does not lie in the fantasy it provides, although that might be the right starting place. Rather, the power of a brand lies in its ability to deliver a fantasy that is really the truth.

 

Now, that “truth” is not necessarily that the product is better. Rather, it is that something about that company, product or service is better than its competitors—and it is delivered consistently and over the long term.

 

Want a list of brands that actually do this? Start with Starbucks, my #1 favorite brand of all time. Honestly, the coffee is good. But so is Au Bon Pain, Panera (I actually love Panera coffee), Illy, and more. The truth is, Starbucks is not about the coffee any more than Amazon is about having a book-selling website. It’s about the unique atmosphere you will find in every single Starbucks store (with the exception of franchises in airports, I have found…another topic for another day.) The people seem happy to work there and they are nice; the d├ęcor is warm and inviting; there is room to sit, read, and even just look out the window; and it makes you feel good to go there. That is a fantasy that is also the truth—and it is worth it to me (and to a lot of other people, it seems) to pay a little more to be a part of it.

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