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.