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 BrandChannel.com (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.