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It's Time to Move from Brandlore to Promising Brands
If branding began as a way to mark cattle and claim ownership, today it is a way to mark minds and claim "mindshare." When it works, it is quite powerful. The trouble is that many marketers aren't clear on what a brand actually is, which is why we are in a dangerous state of overbranding. In a recent advertisement for a leading smartphone, I counted no less than twelve features of the phone that were branded with clever names or graphic symbols. Including the brand name and identity for the phone itself, that means this one product embodied thirteen brands. During a stay at a popular hotel chain I was surprised to see that my bed, my shower, the room service option, and even the air in the room were all marketed with unique brand names. This penchant for elevating ordinary things—and often their subparts as well—with shamelessly clever brand identities threatens to dilute the value of all brands.
One reason I decided to write this book was to clarify the relationship between brand behavior (what brands do and why it matters) and brand identity (how the brand looks and feels). Though there are many brands that own beautiful logos and distinctive names—think of the mythological symbolism of the Starbucks logo or the clever repurposing of the word blackberry to name the famous Research In Motion (RIM) device, the BlackBerry—there are just as many successful brands that use logos that are little more than a word mark (Facebook) or that are identified by names that are blandly descriptive (General Electric). Believing that the aesthetics are the substance of a brand is as much a mistake as assuming that a penguin can fly simply because it has wings.
When he was twelve years old, my son Lucas was struck by an entrepreneurial impulse. He decided to launch his own photography studio and asked me if I would buy him a copy of Adobe Photoshop so he could create his brand. (This anecdote proves that the apple does not, in fact, fall far from the tree.) My first instinct was to grab my chest and rail about the price of Photoshop, then a $700 piece of software. But I decided instead to seize the opportunity to learn what he thought a brand was.
"Dad, you know what a brand is. That's what you do."
"You know. It's a cool logo and stuff."
Intrigued by my son's interest in my profession, and nauseated from having it reduced to "stuff," I asked him to tell me more about the business concept behind his brand. How was he going to service his clients? What kind of value would he provide? This conjured some eye rolling because in his mind it was painfully obvious. People would want to hire him because he'd post really great flyers around the neighborhood. He'd use his brand to make them look so good that customers would be inspired to call him, and when they learned that he charged only $25 for a photo, the price would win them over. All he needed was a great logo, he said. That's why he needed Photoshop.
"Why do you think people would be willing to pay you $25 for a photo?"
"Because it's cheaper than going to one of the professional studios," he said.
"But if I'm a potential customer, how do I know that the photo you take for me will be worth $25 or more? How can I trust that you know what you're doing?"
More eye rolling. "Because I'll have a good brand."
While I found Luc's circular logic amusing, I was set on using it as an opportunity to educate him about how business actually works and how brands stand for value. (I did not provide him with the requested seed money, by the way. I decided this was also a good opportunity to teach him a lesson on venture capital.) But in that conversation, my smart kid raised illuminating questions. For instance, he asked why I spent so much money to buy the first model of the iPhone when I knew it had inferior battery life, poor reception in our home, and no compatibility with my office e-mail system? Wasn't that proof that I was just buying a brand instead of value? Why did I sometimes select a bottle of wine that I had never tasted before simply because I liked the name or the design of the bottle's label? Wasn't that proof that names and logos mattered? Luc reasoned that I made an awful lot of decisions based solely on how much I liked a brand's aesthetics, or not. He surmised that a lot of consumer behavior is irrational and unpredictable, driven mostly by reaction to creative presentation, not substance.
If Luc had observed Congress's lengthy debate over what to rename the legislation formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or the social media frenzy that ensued after retailer Gap changed its logo, he would have valid proof points for his observations.
When Representative George Miller (D-California) suggested in a 2007 interview that NCLB might be "the most negative brand in America," he caught my attention. Though it's not unusual for lawmakers to point fingers at brands, there wasn't a household name sitting in the congressional hot seat. It was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), legislation that had enacted standards-based education reform in 2001.
As chairman of the House Education Committee and one of his party's leaders, Miller had a dilemma on his hands. Every Democratic colleague making a run for the White House had pilloried NCLB in stump speeches, decrying it as a clear indictment of President George W. Bush. In truth, NCLB had been championed for years by advocates on the left, most notably Democratic stalwart Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. As the rhetoric increased, Miller found himself in the awkward position of defending the act on the one hand, while maintaining solidarity with his party on the other. What was a Democratic leader to do? Rebrand, of course.
Representative Miller suggested that NCLB suffered from a classic case of brand contamination. He argued that the act had become an extension of the George W. Bush brand, and as the president's approval ratings slid, NCLB became less popular by association. He believed the situation might improve if it was given a new name—one freed from association with an unpopular administration. The idea stuck. By 2009, when President Barack Obama's new education secretary, Arne Duncan, tackled the issue on his own, he dusted off Miller's strategy. "Let's rebrand it," he said in an interview for the New York Times. "Give it a new name."
Within days the Beltway was buzzing with suggested names, including more than a fair share of sophomoric puns on the acronym. Three of my favorites included REDO (Resourcing Educational and Development Outcomes), AACAAA (All American Children Are Above Average), and NEW TEST (Not Even We Think Educational Standards Teach).
If national opinion polls were any indication, however, Americans didn't seem to think rebranding was the answer. A 2009 Gallup Poll found that nearly half of Americans believed the legislation had made no difference in public education. More than half of those familiar with the act said it made education worse, and one-quarter of Republicans agreed with them. Even Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund—an organization whose tagline, "leave no child behind," had inspired NCLB—publicly stated that the act "dismantle[d] all of the gains we have made for children." Though the experts and the public seemed to believe there was more to the challenge than rebranding, in 2010 No Child Left Behind was renamed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
MIND THE GAP
On October 4, 2010, a lot of Gap customers questioned the logic behind the change the iconic retailer made to its logo. Though it was somewhat unceremoniously introduced that day, it didn't take long for customers to light up social media with vitriol. "Your new logo makes your brand look cheap," one customer wrote on the company's Facebook page. Another customer contributing to the growing Twitter frenzy tagged it an "atrocity." By day's end, the rancor had attracted the attention of major news media, and an army of branding experts and identity designers tripped over themselves to explain why the new Gap identity was a "crap logo."
Gap certainly didn't see it that way. Spokesperson Louise Callagy described the new mark as a shift from "classic, American design to modern, sexy, cool." Designed by Trey Laird of Laird+Partners in New York, the new identity abandoned nearly every aspect of the blue square signature that the brand had used for more than twenty years. The crisp, thin Americana typeface gave way to the generic utility of the Helvetica font. And the large blue box morphed into a faint exponent set to the right of the word mark. Most critics assumed that the offset square was a reference to the old logo and meant to imply that the brand was "thinking outside the box." Instead, the Gap faithful viewed the change as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While Gap's managers believed they were simplifying the look and feel, the public thought it was signaling a change in the value it might provide. "New Gap logo looks as if it were done in Microsoft Word," said a viral Twitter post. Was Gap going to start cutting corners?
Seven days later, Gap retired the new design and framed the debacle as a lesson in online culture. To remedy the situation, it announced that it would let its fans decide what its mark should look like. It invited customers to submit their own logo design ideas on the crowdsourcing site 99designs. While more than 1,000 amateur and professional designers accepted the challenge, submitting over 4,600 entries, the move launched new controversy. The branding community objected to Gap's decision to resort to crowdsourcing to solve a strategic problem. Most experts thought it marginalized the link between strategy and design, and many consumers seemed to think that leaving the identity to the masses was a sacrilegious way to care for a beloved brand. Some just thought the move was as cheap as the first logo attempt. In a widely circulated blog post, veteran designer Mike Monteiro defended the design trade by delivering an analog to Gap. "Never in my experience has any of your employees offered me a free pair of pants because the ones I was wearing looked bad. I wouldn't expect them to. Their job is to sell me clothes. My job is to sell design."
The contest came and went, and Gap awarded prizes to a few, but as of this writing the legacy logo lives on. Despite the intense public outcry about the changes in its brand identity, industry analysts estimate that Gap lifted its holiday store sales that year by approximately 5 percent. (This led some to theorize that the whole controversy was a publicity stunt.) But the Gap logo experiment raises two interesting questions: Why did ordinary consumers care so much about the proposed logo change? And: Should future brands pick their logos through a beauty contest?
Questions that arise from the No Child Left Behind and Gap cases are difficult to answer today because we have all been conditioned to think about brands in a way we wouldn't have just fifty years ago. The concept of "brand" is now a strange and puzzling part of our cultural vernacular, and it's a far cry from its origin.
THE SIMPLICITY PRINCIPLE
Brands exist because we hate uncertainty. In our purchasing and consumption decisions, we rely on cues to predict what we should expect from products, services, and organizations. The cues often come from symbols like names and logos. Branding relies on the simplicity principle, which posits that we are inclined to choose the simplest hypothesis that is consistent with the data presented to us. Sometimes, the only data we have are meaningful symbols like a name or a logo. But here's an important reality check: Too many brands are heavy on symbolism and light on predictable outcomes. When they don't deliver on a promise, we have new data to factor into our hypothesis: our experience with the brand. Real brands simplify our understanding of what we should expect in the brand experience, and they focus their attention on delivering against that expectation again and again.
Your brain performs millions of functions every second. It is a remarkable computer—more powerful than any thinking machine we've yet designed. Part of your brain's power comes from its extraordinary efficiency. Your brain is designed to conserve energy through pattern recognition. Did you ever notice how little conscious thought is required for you to stop your car when you approach a stop sign? A stop sign is a cue that triggers a pattern of behavior. There was at least one time in your life when you invested a lot of mental energy to understand how stop signs, the rules of the road, and the motor function needed to drive a car related to one another. But after a while, your brain memorized the relationship of the required behavior (depth perception, muscular contractions, etc.) to the value associated with such behavior (you won't crash) and the cue that signaled this pattern to begin (a red, octagonal sign bearing the word Stop). The cue enables a shortcut. When you see it, you don't have to consciously think; you know what to expect and what to do. Because of this, you conserve mental energy that you can redirect to other activities such as changing the radio dial or conversing with a passenger. That's the same mental machinery that enables brands to work.
This link between a cue and an expected outcome is so ingrained in your mind that you are likely to associate red signs with a need to stop, even in nondriving contexts. You have been conditioned to behave in a specific way every time you are presented with that cue. That's why so many cancel and stop buttons are red. You expect that a red signal is a cue to stop, and you are so conditioned to behave this way that you would probably bring your car to a stop even if you encountered a red octagonal shape stamped with the word Go. It takes a lot of mental muscle to constantly study your environment for exceptions. Unless primed to do so, your brain doesn't anticipate the unexpected. It's simpler and more efficient to rely on cues to predict future outcomes. And that is precisely the reason we have populated our world with brands: to simplify understanding in order to influence behavior.
Brands provide symbolic cues that influence your expectations and behavior because they are linked to relevant benefits that you value. That link between cues, expectations, and experience is critical because we all favor brands that consistently meet or exceed our expectations, and we punish the ones that don't. It's that simple.
Framed in this context, my son was mostly right when he used my purchase of the first iPhone as evidence that I bought a brand instead of a product. I knew that first iPhone was functionally inferior to competitive devices. But, I had been purchasing first generations of Apple products since 1987, and for the most part Apple exceeded my expectations. I had many rational and purely emotional reasons to expect that the iPhone would satisfy me (and it did), but if the iPhone had been released by an unknown brand, I probably wouldn't have made the same decision. My behavioral choice was guided by the pattern of my experience with the Apple brand, not its logo.
Unfortunately, we live in an age when it is too easy for us to mistake brands for the critical cues of brand identity, and that makes us prone to discount the value of an exceptional branded experience. It doesn't help that we liberally use the word brand in everyday speech. A brand can be a traditional packaged good like Tide or Crest, but it can also be a person like Tiger Woods or Martha Stewart. It can be a story-based franchise like Harry Potter or Star Wars, or it can be a virtual service that isn't tied to a monetary transaction, like Facebook.
To make matters worse, we have fetishized brands by crediting too much of their success to the design of their brand identity. My son's request for Photoshop is telling. A lot of people believe they can create a great brand if they have the right creative tools. You might be tempted to believe that launching a great brand is as easy as buying Photoshop or holding a contest on 99designs. That's partially because the digital world we live in makes it easier and less costly to create a logo or design a beautiful piece of communication then ever before. We are saturated with creative expression, and that's why there are a lot of great names and stunning logos that stand for nothing. For the simplicity principle to work, a brand's identity has to link to real, value-producing behavior. That's when identity becomes a true cue to a cause-and-effect relationship. On its own, identity is to brand as sex is to parenting. You can spawn a great name or logo, but that doesn't guarantee you'll raise a great brand.
That's not to say that brand identity is irrelevant. Luc was again quite right when he observed that I select some wine by my reaction to the label. Unfortunately, his observation ignores an important modifier of the simplicity principle: context. In the same way that I might decide to run a stop sign if I were rushing someone to the emergency room, the context of my brand experience moderates my brand behavior. When I consume wine, I like variety. It's boring to drink wine from the same producer again and again. While I'm generally prone to brand loyalty, it doesn't serve me very well in this context. The trouble is that there are so many wines to choose from that I will often rely on the value signaled by the label. While it is certainly an imperfect cue, in the context of the relatively low-risk purchase behavior of buying a bottle of wine to try something new it's a cue that reliably moderates my expectations. I've certainly had great wines with terrible labels, and I've drunk plenty of bad wine packaged with a clever name and a beautiful logo. The purpose of this book is to convince you that the latter case isn't a sustainable strategy, and that you'll create long-term business value when you align the expectation cued by the label with the experience that's in the bottle.
Excerpted from BRAND REAL by LAURENCE VINCENT Copyright © 2012 by Laurence Vincent . Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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