Sunday, November 13, 2005

The ad:tech Conference here

was a blast. It was my first time to speak and act as a panelist, and my three co-panelists -- Tom Ajello of, Lars Bastholm from AKQA, and Jeff Benjamin of CP+B -- and moderator Mike Donahue of the AAAA were cool and fun to speak with. And smart as hell, each of 'em.

I hope I get another chance.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Where would you place

the line of accountability among the advertiser, the publisher, and, say, your third-party rich-media vendors?

The first line of accountability rests upon the data and influence gained during the consumer dialogue. Some just post a privacy policy, some call it ‘data transparency,’ others call it responsible business. A few years ago most everyone began asking users to opt in. Later, with the failed credibility of corporate America and the ongoing media hunt for suspect data usage, it’s more than courteous. It’s obligatory.

Now we see that any time the user steps in or around something we create, it’s more probable that they’ll be irritated than turned on. Thus, everyone on the team must understand the end-objective and build an atmosphere that (with luck and talent) reliably spits out brilliance.

The second line of accountability is toward each link of the client-agency-publisher chain, with an eye on strong relationships along the continuum. This is critical, because when something breaks, no one will pass the buck and most will cooperate in the all-hands-on-deck scenario. Without real shared responsibility, there’s only one true loser: the brand.

Popular logic states that company personnel, at the end of the day, need only feel accountable to their employer. Winning logic states that company personnel should act in the interest of their employer, which makes vital the cooperation among the publisher and the agency and the ad hosts and the IT groups and, of course, the client.

When this happens, you’ll notice the first line of responsibility is somehow automatically fulfilled.

What can be done

to address the challenges that online marketers face yesterday?

Clients must learn to rely more heavily on both their internal teams and interactive agencies to remain vigilant while they tend to whatever it is they do best.

When an audience or medium shifts, they must be ready to hear their consultants out, move with conviction, and act swiftly.

Without genuine top-down buy-in from clients, improved creative will not have the oxygen to breathe and succeed.

+METAPHOR ALERT+ The work’ll suffocate.

What challenges does the

industry face for improved creative?

Once again, the answer comes down to user experience.

With the growth of those technologies which enable agencies to engage consumers more effectively, so is some other application learning to keep commercial messaging out. Remember, with every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction -- pop-up blocking being the most basic example.

Smart creative shops with foresight will think well outside the machine to earn a coveted “brain bookmark” with their audience members. The others -- what with having to involve (heaven forbid) traditional, direct response, and other kinds of agencies -- will be pulled kicking and screaming into the real-world user’s sphere, probably recognizing too late that this was where they should have been all along.

How will web creative

-- and I'm talking EVERYTHING -- change over the next 12 months?

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

Or, for the simple folk, only one "simplicity," please.

After a decade of adding functionality ad nauseum, Google and its stark sterility are the multi-billion-dollar gorilla. Oh sure, there’s plenty of technology under its Egyptian cotton homepage, but the site’s enormous success -- in contrast to its minimalist design -- proves less is more. Heavy on the “more.”

Certainly, Google is no more an ad unit than is The New York Times, but it’s time we stopped viewing online ad initiatives so separately from site environments; the user’s eyesight has had every reason to blur these two together. Ads and the sites they occupy have been sharing DNA for years now.

Even offline we see the iPod-itization of our surroundings. (No, not the 20 million iPods sold, which are ubiquitous.) It’s what art gallery curators worldwide have always known -- busily overwhelm your visitors and they’ll quickly exit.

The causes for clumsy interactive products are many, but to my mind, the culprit is two-pronged: first, user feedback just doesn’t make it back to the engineers and designers, so they work in a vacuum and lose touch with customer needs; and second, the immense competition for consumers leads companies to pile more and more toppings onto an already ten-pound pizza.

Online creative, as adroitly as it moves, will follow closer than any other medium. Over the next year, we’ll see the “keep it simple stupid” approach flourish big-time.

P.S. With such an evident surge toward cleanliness and simplicity, mobile devices and their users should benefit greatly (at least in the States, where we’re behind in infrastructure). After this movement is manifest, watch speech recognition software become the hot new sector. When users only have to press the “Send” button to get whatever they want, it can’t get much simpler.

Is the sea-change

in online creative gaining sufficient attention internally?

Absolutely. After the interactive agency world was forced to get over itself, those shops left standing had learned a valuable lesson: this space was never about technology, it was always about the user.

“Application intoxication” had long worn off; strategy, psychographics, trending, analytics, ROI, and long-term accountability -- basically, the factors that have always mattered to successful communicators and their audiences -- peeked back through the dot-bomb ashes.

Today, technology pretty much allows an agency to build anything but a “Save the World” button. (And we’re working on it.) Rich media, broadband access, and browser advancements have joined forces to level both the agency playing field and the creative work these firms generate. Almost every agency has its tech wizards; the late-90s paved the way for that. So technology, as critical as it is to everything we do, has become the cost of entry. Compare that to 2002. Indeed, the messaging wizards are now center-stage.

Translation: shops realize that hitting their ever-accelerating-moving targets will be mandatory -- and recognizing and reliably acting on emerging trends is growing into the agency breadwinner.

How has online creative

changed over the last couple years?

Beyond the continued expansion of broadband -- and the richer-media creative executions it allows -- I contend that the involvement of the audience itself in building, enhancing, and trafficking creative content represents the most seismic shift.

By and large, the marketing creative we build and launch isn’t truly user-manipulable (yet). However, it’s the growing expectation of the web consumer to not be spoken to, but rather cooperated with, which has changed our tone, our content, and our placement of creative.

TiVo, iTunes, podcasts, blogs, wiki’s, Flickr, Creative Commons, online prediction markets, local news media offering addresses for eyewitnesses with cell phones, mashups, anything on-demand, cool-hunting, software enabling users to change the websites they visit, tagging, mobile phone-affected outdoor advertising -- these and dozens of other examples are just a slice of what’s going on at the cross-streets of Choice and Power. And it won’t be long before the marketers who ignore their users will themselves be ignored en masse.

At this stage of web creative, the product must at least acknowledge the user’s power as authority. Very soon it’s going to have to live by it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Saab, I got me

dyspepsia. Just tell me your new tag isn't "Born from Jets" and I'll recover.

If this isn't in fact a low-grade trip, to the shop behind all this -- albeit an alma mater of mine -- I respectfully present this haiku:

"Born from Jets" is Lowe's.

Don't ever do that again.

The humanity.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Communicating, regardless

of who the sender is or how many receivers there are, is a four-layered phenomenon. That may not sound logical at first, but I contend that one message can have as many as four different meanings during the long, strange trip from the sender's brain to the receiver's brain. They are, in chronological order:
  • What the sender thinks he said
  • What the sender actually said
  • What the receiver actually heard
  • What the receiver thinks he heard
That makes the matter of commercial communications a seemingly impossible task -- the equivalent of hitting at least three moving targets with every bullet.

Notice the layers ascend in difficulty; naturally, it's easier to control your perception of what comes out of your mouth (a.k.a. speaking from the heart) than it is to control what your audience believes it hears (a.k.a. damned near impossible).

What we do for a living every day as marketers is, to harken back to school days, an incredibly expensive game of "telephone" -- except that all the kids in line passing the message are buried deep inside the recesses of our communication and perception functions. Indeed, branding is a sensory thing.

Which means building a brand requires more than making sense. It needs to be sense.

What substance mixes fastest with water? Water. You have to build your message out of the very essence of your and your audiences' gray matters, or you jeopardize your budget and potentially the brand itself.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, this blog entry isn't some hot-air ad for consumer research, though that discipline often provides a springboard for effective messaging. No, this is a plea for you to REALLY scrutinize your brand and your consumer -- and to be brutally honest with your assessment of both.

Remember, the sender represents two of the four steps in the communication process. Roughly translated: you're in control of your own house, and the receiver's is, at best, an educated guess. So, the first two quarters of your communications football game are a lock if you a) believe in what you're saying, and b) tightly control your message touchpoints. Achieve these and you'll go into the locker room at halftime with a strong lead.

I'm not saying it's easy, just that it's doable. (See anything from Apple recently if you don't believe it. Huge credit goes to the Apple product engineers/designers, to their ad shop TBWA/Chiat/Day, to Apple's p.r. agency Edelman, and to the folks at Apple who supervise and approve their work.)

Here's a less clinical view of my conjecture:

Last year, one of my buddies had a conversation with his wife, telling her that "Steve's going to become an S-Corp," meaning in shorthand that I was just about to turn my business, Brand Spanking New York, into a corporation.

Much to his surprise, his better half was visibly stunned, and a moment later, appalled. She stopped in her tracks and stood speechless outside their apartment on Broadway.

John asked, "What's the big deal? I'm seriously thinking about doing it too."

Alberta reached for a nearby wall on the verge of fainting, as John innocently told her that he might make his own design consultancy a real company as well.

"Honey, I don't think you're thinking practically," he pleaded. "It's smart. A lot of successful people start out like that. It's good for taxes. He'll be good at it."

Alberta nearly hyperventilated. "John," she exclaimed, "isn't that dangerous? Isn't it illegal? I can't BELIEVE what I'm hearing from you. I think I'm getting sick. Tell me you're joking. PLEASE."

John giggled out of embarrassment, genuinely dumbfounded at his wife's overreaction. Here were two people occupying seriously opposite ends of the communication spectrum.

Turns out, Alberta heard that I was about to become an "escort," not an "S-Corp" -- and for a moment seriously reconsidered not only her marriage but her sense of judgment. (Not to mention her opinion of me.)

Good for a hearty laugh, yes, but it corroborates my point. John thought what he said "S-Corp," and sure enough, he did say "S-Corp." But that's as far as THAT message went.

From there it became a different -- yet no less real -- message, if only for a moment. However, a moment of attention is a lot more than most marketers get from their audiences. This is the scary synapse between steps in the four-tier process. (And the basis of every Three's Company episode ever.)

The pre-school game of "telephone" had just passed along a new position on my morality to an audience which, just seconds later, found the speaker literally defending it.

So, to save your brand (and perhaps your marriage), know exactly what you're saying, who your audience is, what their predispositions are, and follow up with them to confirm they got it right.

Anything else and you might have a lot of 'splaining to do.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Do the actions of celebrity

spokesmen/women/models/criminals really affect the equity of the brands they hawk?

Watching celebs shill anything from insurance to back pain relief is a joke, and I’ve always felt, an insult on my intelligence.

The concept harkens back to the days of Reagan pimping Chesterfield cigarettes, and when I was a kid, Bill Cosby promoting Jello. What could be more American than mixing our heroes with capitalism? But this begs an important question: if a consumer actually believes Tiger Woods drives a Buick, do marketers really want to count this brain-dead prospect as a member of their hallowed target?

Thankfully, I believe the numbers are dwindling, and that fewer Americans are falling for this nonsense. (Though I admit that statement doesn't apply to youth marketing for cereals and toys, nor may it ever affect the creepy deification of logo-laden racecar drivers by NASCAR Nation. But I digress.)

In short, I think people today are savvier consumers than ever before, and so the chasm between celebrity testimonials and credibility is widening. With that in mind, Kate Moss's recent de facto testimonial for nose candy, and the p.r. firestorm it created, inflicted far less damage on her brand roster than it would have even a decade ago, as consumers are slowly waking up to the truth: celebrities have nothing in common with us, and their testimonials are a sham.

With no accountability exerted on the famous for their actions (see also: Barry Bonds, Hugh Grant, and the rapper of your choice), the brands that the rich-n-famous are paid to love are merely winning free press -- and reinforcing what we already knew: dirty laundry sells, and consequences are minor.

Now, do I encourage H&M to run to Winona Rider as a Moss replacement? No, but anything short of murder these days seems tantamount to being "cool" or at least "rebellious" in the eyes of consumers and their growing indifference to immorality, and worse, classlessness.

Good news, bad news, no news -- with the message-barrage consumers endure daily, these three are more alike than ever, practically neutering the decisions made (good or bad) by anyone on a brand payroll in the court of public opinion.

Is price-slashing killing

brand loyalty? Hardly. In fact, I could make the argument that cost-cuts ENHANCE brand loyalty. How? Simple.

Focusing on price begets brand agnosticism, and so, on one level it reverts the marketplace back to the Industrial Revolution. In those days, mass-produced goods introduced the world to product parity -- and therefore, the reliance on differentiation messaging (some new-fangled thing called “advertising”).

Now we’re left with a somewhat even playing field across the competitive landscape -- and instead of quality as the constant, it’s price. Just another denominator. This makes the “brand braggart” the last differentiator remaining. Those companies or products buoyed by the pride of their consumers will become increasingly rare, and according to human nature, more magnetic to the customers who matter most.

Thus, with rock-bottom prices minimizing the value of, say, world-class customer service, the last refuge of the marketer is the ability to focus on the old “80% of your revenue comes from your top 20% customers” maxim. In the popular vernacular, “Who’s your daddy?” Why, brand loyalty, of course.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Access. Certainly the secret

to a strong brand.

Perhaps. But then tell me why accessibility is too-often overlooked when it comes to the notion of building a robust "brain-mark" on target consumers.

We're led to believe that, on average, no one on earth is more than 100 feet from a Coke machine at any moment. The great chicken-and-egg question is: Is Coca-Cola popular just because the thirsty can quickly and easily get a bottle, or did Coke spend all that money to infuse themselves into popularity?


It's not a stretch to believe the children of the primitive Mandinka Tribe would choose Coke in the Pepsi Challenge. They've never heard of Pepsi, let alone consumed it. Indeed, to people all over the world, a white ribbon on a red field signifies "cola." Or "sweet" or "fun" or "America" or even "Christmas."

If familiarity generates comfort, the inverse is also true. Putting on my ugly mega-capitalist mask, I recognize immediately that this fact means big-time Lifetime Customer Value, long the holy grail for relationship marketers. To simplify, a customer can feel "at home" with something or someone only after dozens, even thousands, of interactions. (Of course, the product must perform over and over and over again, or putting it in everyone's hands would only expedite its demise.) Translation: $ to the nth degree per consumer brain.

The victory of the Open Source ideology over the proprietary is just another example. So is the global penetration of English, resulting in the first true international language. Everyone's invited to speak English, making it possible for a man in Perth and a man in Edmonton to do business with each other, prosper, and proliferate their own interests together -- as opposed to the French, who lord over the use of their precious tongue as if each word their last Euro. (It's still my next-favorite language, but I digress.)

I've worked nearly five years in the luxury auto sector, and between the accounts I worked on and those of our competitors', one less-than-tasteful phrase rang loudest: "Butts in seats. Butts in seats. Butts in seats."

My job as a marketer is to compel someone to actually put his posterior inside of one of these machines and try it out. +TANGENT: To do that, they have to visit a dealership, one of the few places of business that rank lower than the dentist's office on the comfortometer.+

It's not putting "marketing messages in eyes and ears," the saying is putting "butts in seats." I have to repeatedly beg someone to access the product before I can ask 'em to shell out an immense amount of money to acquire it. And even for makers of the best sedan in the world, without access, the product and the dealer cannot complete the experience cycle. That means no sales, no money, and no manner by which to expand the access net.

So next time you slide (a pocket's worth of) change into a soda machine, ask yourself if you did it -- honestly -- because you were thirsty for that brand specifically, if you were just plain thirsty, or because it was there. You might be surprised at the answer.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Where are you

from? Are you proud of being from that town/state/country? And what kind of brand does it bear?

This subject has intrigued me for years. When you're growing up, you have little to no idea how your home is perceived by outsiders because: a) you usually don't even know there's anything outside of your backyard, and b) your kindergarten class may as well be the entire planet.

Then late last year, I noticed that this topic piqued the interest of another brand strategist, Kristina Dryza, in an article on (highly recommended) about Lithuania, its global perception, and its plans to overcome certain reputational challenges.

I live in New York City, a geographical brand without equal. However, I'm from Columbus, Ohio, which for some reason has been plagued with an inaccurately negative (at least to me) brand equity, manifesting itself in questions like "so what's it like in the South?" and "don't they grow potatoes there?" Most encounters I have with people who are not familiar with the state usually progress quickly to the defense stage, wherein I inform them that Ohio's the sixth most populated state in the Union, invented the airplane, can claim the first American in orbit and the first human being to touch the moon as its native sons, has five cities of over a million citizens (only two other states can claim that), has the second-most US Presidents to its credit, and on and on.

After the discussion, I should like to think I've changed that person's perception of The Buckeye State. And even if I have, my brand campaign has about 250 million Americans to go.

Conversely, Connecticut and Michigan have sterling brands, and the dirty secret is that they've been the recipient of some kind of invisible, 200 year-long subliminal campaign that somehow ends up here. For instance, the state north of my native Ohio is soaked in NASCAR, gun-totin' militia, and bowhunting; the state north of my current home, save for a few uber-wealthy towns, is hardly the tartan plaid landscape the rest of the country believes it to be. Just ask someone from either. They'll be the first to nod their heads in agreement.

So how does this happen? Firstly, it's all in a name. Ohio sounds like Iowa and Utah and yes, Idaho -- each hardly battling California for top of the hip heap. Conversely, Connecticut and Michigan don't sound like anything else on the planet. Score one for the Constitution State and Wolverine State (and the American Indian tribes responsible for those names). They were differentiated right off the bat.

Next -- and I know I'll earn some detractors here, but stick with me -- Lake Erie's shores notwithstanding, Ohio is landlocked. Michigan and Connecticut have hundreds of miles of shoreline (freshwater and saltwater, respectively). Don't think that's important? Remind yourself where the vast majority of the United States population lives. It's extremely difficult to be "cool" or even accepted without water supporting your brand. Check out the migration patterns of humanity since the dawn of time. Ask your own psyche. You'll see.

Now I'm sure both you and I can think of dozens more reasons, but those are just the first two I continually find supported as I conduct my own Brand Lab whenever the discussion begins. Movie and TV portrayals, political dynamics, contributions to pop culture, etc... The list of why places are perceived the way they are goes on ad infinitum.

All I know is, there are cool places everywhere you travel, right alongside the shite. Same goes with people. But the brand perception of a place is an interesting look at how human brains buy brands and first develop them internally, then strengthen them collectively.

In fact, it is the core argument of branding itself. Cities, states, and countries can be viewed as multimillion-employee organizations, unconsciously building a brand along a strategy that's more like an invisible compass. We're not briefed per se on how to represent our suburbs or home states to the rest of the country and world, and so rarely recognize the importance of brand until its sown so far and wide that it takes decades to move the meter even a fraction.

Once I was on an overcrowded train from Paris to Madrid, sweating in a four-person berth with five elderly, shoeless Moroccans. Though they spared no conversation among themselves, I could no more understand them than I could a mute collie. I sat alone reading. After jostling uncomfortably for hours, one older man asked me in broken English (there's branding right there: he knew by my clothes that I had to be a Brit, Canadian, or American) where I was from.

I told him, "The U.S., sir. Ohio" -- the second part more out of habit than of trying to explain this to a man who assuredly had never heard of such a place. His response was something to the effect of a polite "Oooooh," which I took for a gratuitous nicety, but what came next absolutely blew me away.

He said, "Clee-lun Blowns?" and grinned like a child. This man -- who at roughly 1,000 years old looked as if he'd never seen a TV in his life, let alone would know what football much less the Cleveland Browns were -- asked me about my favorite NFL team. He made the association instantly: Ohio = Cleveland = Browns. He musta seen something somewhere and it stuck (probably wondered if Jim Brown owned the franchise or something).

One could object by asserting this event speaks more to the Browns' branding successes than The State of Ohio's, but I'd argue against that here. The old Moroccan didn't respond to a mention of orange helmets, Sam Rutigliano, or Lou "The Toe" Groza. He reacted to the word Ohio.

Maybe that's the moment my internal "hometown brand" argument was sparked. Not only was I exhasperated at his cultural knowledge and the quick, albeit miniscule, connection we'd just made, but that I was the one who misjudged HIM. I looked at this guy as an elderly man from a far-off place who couldn't possibly have any inkling about Ohio, and gratefully, I was wrong.

Just goes to show you that the "fractal geometry" of experiential association, particularly involving geography, is a phenomenon unexplained, a process hardly trackable, and a system uniquely human.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The world's biggest brand? Why,

God of course. Oh blasphemy.

A brand isn't only something you can buy with money. In fact, a brand cannot be purchased with money at all. Remember, a brand isn't a product on a shelf, but rather, the story the mind recounts when receiving stimuli about the product. It's merely a bookmark to a tale that grows organically.

Knowing this, what, then, would represent the largest brain-bookmark on the planet?

The one that millions upon millions of people worship daily, rule in the name of, fear, marry under, devote their lives to, kill for, receive comfort from, make sacrifices for, and pray to for assumption on their death beds.

Now you're getting the picture. (It's arguable that Family ranks above God, but I'd respond by asking you, "By what do most cultures swear oaths in a court of law?" — legal courts being the one theater sanctioned to decide between life and death.)

Certainly, there are as many ideas of "God" as there are brains. The great philosophers have made history, livings, and enemies debating its meaning. Tribes deep in the Amazon, who wouldn't know Marlboro from margarine, may be among its most loyal consumers. Even people who don't believe in God at least exhibit a strong opinion. And think, just one written perspective on this marque, The Bible, is the highest-selling book in history.

What a brand.

Now, this approach to branding may not be popular with many, but it should be heeded if you're in the industry — because share of wallet ain't what you're after if you're committed to building a dominant brand (or even a good one). It's mindshare you seek, because everything within the gray soup of the human brain competes for one of these hallowed, rare bookmarks. Like Charlie in Wonka, everyone wants a ticket to the Promised Land, but a mere sliver of a fraction actually get their hands on one. (And even when some do, they break the rules the moment they get inside.)

This is what we're up against for brainding. I know a lot of people treat some brands like they may actually be God (i.e., NASCAR fans), but I'm not appealing to Tide with Bleach when a loved one falls ill. Sounds stupid, huh. But if you really think about it, bookmarks for commodities a million light years outside of Maslow's Hierarchy — say, Miracle Whip — have a snowball's chance in Hellmann's of grabbing the ever-elusive brain bookmark.

Kinda puts things in perspective now don't it.

PROVOCATIVE TANGENT ALERT: A favorite of my many oddball branding conjectures is that one religion above all others has unwittingly shed light on, and benefited greatly from, the fundamentals of branding — because ultimately, those fundamentals are just those of the human brain anyway (remember, the word is "fundamental" after all).

Missionaries have spread its simple story and logo for generations, and with great success mind you. Its exposure frequency is high, and for the most part, its consistency is unrivaled.

Christianity — with one man (a father and a holy spirit), 10 commandments, 12 apostles, and a simple-for-anyone-to-copy logo, the cross — is one of the most amazing brand parallels I can conjure from the last two millennia.

Think about it: nothing difficult to remember; it promises huge benefits; it's all-inclusive; its mystery disallows it from being fully consumed; its claims are near-impossible to disprove; and most of all, its only cost (in the scheme of my four Brand Currencies) is Time. And heck, that's even at your own discretion.

Boil it down to the cross — a symbol any child can replicate perfectly, and which tells the entire story of arguably the most powerful social dynamic in history with two perpendicular lines.


Monday, August 22, 2005

Tags. They may be on

the periphery of the brandscape per se, but what the hell has gone on with advertisers and their responsibility compasses -- or is it just the widespread effect of our intolerably poor education system? If you find a way to screw up your tag -- the limbless mission statement that it is -- then you might consider a return to memorizing daytime TV schedules and standing in line at Kinko's begging the antiChrist for your first shot. [Er, FedEx Kinko's. My braind's still trying to wipe that merger off the disk.]

Seems the agency workforce has become the latest vertical to be assumed by the roving mass of uneducates, similar to how the government did decades back. In the same way, the standard of excellence has disappeared. And no one cares.

Allow me to whine, opine, and pine for the intelligence of yore. The Mazda Summer Sales Event spot I just witnessed includes in the dialogue of a hapless Toyota representative: "This Mazda 3 drives as good as they say." How could anyone client-side allow this through?

Of course, this joins the ranks of such Copernicus-level grammatical wonders as "Eatin' Good in the Neighborhood" and "Where You At?".

Is it any wonder American kids can't speak proper-like? Why should any child be expected to use the predicate nominate in an educated manner when the almight television can't?

[Yeah yeah yeah. I know. There's "Think Different", which purposely eschews grammar rules as a structural matter of course. Yeah, you and I get it. (And okay, I love it. But my Apple bias is sickening.) Anyway, that tag wasn't stupidity. It was point-clarity.]

SOAP-BLOX EXTRA: We all know Coke's "The Real Thing", right? Let's look at the only tags this brand has had in THIRTY-FIVE years:

- It's the Real Thing. (1970)
- I'd like to Buy the World a Coke. (1971)
- Coke adds life. (1976)
- Have a Coke and a Smile. (1979)
- Can't Beat the Real Thing. (1990)

Simple, understated brand advancement.



Sunday, August 21, 2005

So what makes

a brand great, anyway? These days, there seem to be as many answers as there are brands. And what does “great” mean? To answer these questions, let's review the subject at hand.

Since the advent of electronic mass communication in the United States -- and the increased dependence on advertising and other commercial communications -- the idea of “branding” has gained in importance, though few people can agree on when it actually started or just who is primarily responsible for it. Many believe that branding didn’t become a standalone discipline until the big British ad agencies began recruiting brand planners in the 1980s. Others claim branding has been an influential dynamic since cattle herders in the American West began steaming their ranches’ unique “logos” into the sides of their wayward four-legged products (the dawn of package design, perhaps).

What most people do agree on, though, is that a brand is the emotional universe that surrounds a product, regardless of what it may be. People, places, pizzas all call to mind some subliminal story behind them, built on interaction -- physical or non-physical -- over time. This emotional “symbol,” comprised of everything one knows and feels about a product, is the brand.

Using this definition, then, we see how important it is to launch a brand with utmost care, and then sustain its integrity wherever it may be experienced by a consuming mind. Remember, the “brand recorder” inside everyone’s head is always on. Every single impression affects, positively or negatively, a brand’s standing with each consumer. Therefore the product must be quality, or the brand has little chance of surviving. This truth will become self-evident, regardless of the money spent by any company or agency on any branding activity. Walk the walk or else. (See also: New Coke.)

Branding, then, is not merely designing logos, though visual identity is an important element in the branding equation. It is, rather, the relentless, focused attention paid to nurturing this experiential saga, and the tacit refusal to participate in any initiative which may denigrate or run contrary to the story that the managers of the brand -- otherwise known as the brand stewards -- are charged with maintaining.

Which brings me to the first point of what makes a great brand. Brand stewards, as I mentioned above, are professionals whose sole purpose is to serve, protect, and advance a brand. But against what is this progress measured? How do they know if one communications activity is potentially dangerous for a brand, and another is safe? How is each marketing endeavor not up for public debate at headquarters every time one is planned? Because the best brands are built on a solid brand strategy -- the framework within which every step taken by the brand is executed. That’s why.

Brand strategy is a relatively new science, made up of equal parts consumer research, sociology, media integration, and good old fashioned intuition. Those best at building strategies are the people/companies with the most information about their consumers, and with the brains who’ve seen lots of brands succeed and lots of them fail. Only after watching a few sure-fire bets crash and burn does one’s intuition begin to sharpen.

That said, a standard brand strategy consists of objectives based on the comprehension of four basic elements: the target audience, the competitive landscape, the product/service mix, and the unique advantage. For the experienced brand steward, this is rank oversimplification, but all good brand strategies bring to the table at least these four attributes. Together, they form the fundamental backdrop for the long-term roadmap for the brand, or the brand plan.

The brand plan (often built in two-to-three-year increments) is to brands what a media plan is to broadcast; namely, the outline of every single touchpoint a message-receiver will have with the brand over a period of time. Advertising campaigns, product launches, web sites, PR bursts, events, package re-designs -- everything in the brand’s impressionistic universe — must be accounted and planned for accordingly. This is the thoroughly detailed story brand stewards wish to sell the consumer, knowing full well that few, if any, consumers will be exposed to the entire story.

So if all these variables take so much work to get right, yet there are still no guarantees, what makes a great brand? In my opinion, all successful brands have the following in common:

Adherence. Stick to the brand plan. No ifs, ands, or buts. (NOTE: if you find out midway through a brand plan that one of the four basic elements has changed sufficiently to warrant a re-direction, of course, make the necessary changes. Marketplace shifts and new trends are ubiquitous, and reacting to them early is critical.) No one involved with the brand should drive it arbitrarily. Telling more than one story confuses consumers, which is tantamount to a false promise. And that could spell years of expensive re-building.

Responsiveness. You can’t please everyone all the time. With this in mind, deal with changes or problems quickly and honestly. Visine and Perrier were endangered species when it was discovered that their products had been tampered with. The people driving these brands (in these cases, mostly public relations) moved swiftly and responded proactively. They are both still category leaders today. You can’t predict disaster, but you can do your best to prepare, and then to move rapidly.

You’ve heard it’s a virtue. They were right. Great brands are not built overnight (contrary to popular dot-boom wisdom). You’re in it for the long haul. An ad campaign may bring a sales spike, but it’s only a blip in the life of a great brand. Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz, and Nike, to name just a few, understand this. If you perform research to prove increased brand equity month-to-month, you most certainly will lose your mind. (And probably your best brand steward personnel.) Stay calm, keep looking ahead, and remain confident in a coherent, cohesive strategy and plan.

Your great brand will thank you someday.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

I remember asking

one of my finance-major college buddies once if there were other economies besides the financial one. "Why were you guys divinely endowed with the responsibility of overseeing the only supply-demand machine out there?" Of course, what I knew then about business was granular compared to now (and what I know today ain't much either), but that was the beginning of something that would be nurtured by my feeble mind for years.

Back to the question posed lo those many years ago. My buddy Karl replied, "There are other economies you dimwit. It's just that the financial one is the easiest to work with, because first, humans invented it, and since then it's been constantly refined and applied to every aspect of our lives. Next, it's pretty much the only way globally agreed upon to determine the value of things that can't be touched or held, like work and experience and talent. From there you can quantify anything, tangible or not."

Okay, fair enou----

OH MAN. ADVERTISING BREAK. Just now saw the "Cross the Road" spot for Burger King for the first time. CPB's fantastic, but you've got to give the most credit to the client. Someone there has the guts to actually approve this work. Everyone oughta take this as the shining example of how client/shop relationships should work. Of course, advertising is one small element of "brainding," but we'll get to that more later.

"Ugh," I thought. Fast forward a decade and it hits me. Brands are as important to business and consumers as they are invisible. So why so much hoo-ha about brands?

A brand is, simply, a story the brain tells after exposure to a stimulus.

Why else is one of the three primary elements of branding "Constancy" (alongside Clarity and Consistency)? That's just another word for "remind." Operative syllable there: "mind". Branding is a science of the brain. No, we're not brain surgeons, but getting in touch with our inner neurologists wouldn't hurt.

As we know, the brain instantly reacts to stimuli with a story of all the good, bad, ugly, and indifferent chapters of that thing -- a logo or a smell or a mention or a TV spot or even another story -- and its relationship with said brain. And since we interact with these things constantly, the story is always being updated and re-told. The values we assign fluctuate not unlike the numbers on NASDAQ.

My argument is that brains and brands work with an economy built upon four currencies: Money, Information, Loyalty, and Time. (Yeah, I know that spells MILT, but I'm not smart enough to make that useful or funny.)

So, there it is, the basis of my book.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Currency of the Mind: Brains Buying Brands

It's my first post and my client is keeping me incredibly busy. Unfortunately, this prevents ne from winning any Pulitzers today.

Suffice it to say this server has unwittingly become the raw canvas for what will be my first book, "Currency of the Mind: Brains Buying Brands." I've had a complete manuscript outline for some time, but that and 25¢ won't buy you a quarter in this town.

This is my lazy attempt to get moving.

Your comments are encouraged.


Steve Susi
Brand Spanking New York, Inc.