Monthly Archives: January 2010

2 Disruption as a branding discipline.

The word for the day is Disruption, with a capital D.

In our society there’s a stigma against all things deemed disruptive. When you’re in elementary school you learn to not be disruptive in class. Sit still in church and don’t disrupt the service. By the 6th grade it’s “don’t cause a scene or call attention to yourself. Don’t be different. Be the same.”

Write like everyone else. Dress like everyone else. Behave like everyone else and you’ll get along just fine.

That’s the message we got, and it’s the message our kids are getting. Loud and clear.

Maybe that’s why so many business owners and executives flee from the idea of disruption like a fox from a forest fire.

Jean Marie Dru, Chairman of the advertising conglomerate TBWA, has written two outstanding books about Disruption, but it’s still a hard sell. To most executives distruption is bad. Convention is good. And the results of this mentality are everywhere.

As Tom Peters says, “we live in a sea of similarity.” Social convention and human nature lead us into a trap of conformity where all websites have the same basic layout. All sedans look the same. All airlines feel the same. All travel ads sound the same.

And it works to some degree, because there’s comfort in conformity. (Vanilla still outsells all other flavors of ice cream.) But in the long run, conformity is the kiss of death for a brand.

Great brands do things that are disruptive. Rather than shying away from the word, the executives embrace the idea of disruption and they make it a part of their everyday operation. They consider it productive change.

But even when they succeed with disruptive products, disruptive technology and disruptive marketing campaigns, it’s tough to sustain.

When Chrysler first launched the Plymouth Voyager the Minivan was a groundbreaking idea that threw the auto industry into total disruption. It was a whole new category, and everyone scrambled to copy the market leader. Within five years, minivans were — you guessed it — all the same.

There used to be a Television network that was radically disruptive. MTV launched hundreds of music careers and shaped an entire generation, and now where is it? Lost in a sea of mediocre sameness.

When they first burst onto the scene in the 80’s, the idea of a micro brewery was very disruptive. Now, in Oregon, there’s one in every neighborhood and they’re all the same. Good, but the same.

Successfully disruptive ideas don’t last because its human nature to copy what works. This process of imitation homogenizes the disruptive idea to the point where it’s no longer different. No longer disruptive.

So if you want to sustain a competitive advantage, you have to keep coming up with disruptive ideas. Not just incremental improvement on what’s always worked, but honest-to-goodness newness all the time.

Avatar is a disruptive movie that will surely spawn numerous knock-offs.

The name “Fuzzy Yellow Balls” is brilliantly disruptive in the on-line tennis market.

The American Family Life Assurance Company was utterly forgettable until they changed their name to AFLAC and launched a campaign featuring a quacking duck. In the insurance business, that’s disruptive!

According to an interview in the Harvard Business Review, AFLAC’s CEO Daniel Amos risked a million dollars on that silly duck campaign. Amos could have gone with an idea that tested incrementally better than the average insurance commercial, but he didn’t. He took a chance and went with the duck. He chose disruption over convention, and everyone said he was nuts.

But it turned out to be radically successful.

The first day the duck aired AFLAC had more visits to their website than they had in the entire previous year. Name recognition improved 67% the first year. And most importantly, sales jumped 29%. After three years, sales had doubled.

AFLAC’s success was based on disruption in advertising and naming. But for many companies, there’s also an opportunity to stand out with disruptive strategy. In fact, Dru contends that breakthrough executions are not enough, and that the strategic stage demands imagination.

Here’s an example… When Apple introduced the iPod, the strategy wasn’t just about the superior product design. It was about disrupting the conventions of the music business. It was about introducing the Apple brand to a whole new category of non-users and establishing Apple as the preferred platform for all your personal electronic needs. The release of the iPhone was the perfect extension of that strategy. And now, the Apple Tablet.

That’s good, disruptive strategy. And the beauty of it is, no other company is in the position to copy Apple’s strategy.

Of course Apple also has brilliant advertising, but you can get away with mediocre execution if your strategy is disruptive enough. And vice-versa… if your execution is disruptive, you can get by with a me-too strategy.

But if you want to hit a real home run like Apple has, start with a brilliantly disruptive strategy and build on it with disruptive product and disruptive marketing execution.

It’s kind of ironic… In business, no one wants to cause a disruption, and yet they’re clamoring for good ideas. And good ideas ARE disruptive. They disrupt the way the synapses in the brain work. They break down our stereotypes and disrupt the business-as-usual mentality. That’s why we remember them.

Richard Branson said, “Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there.”

Steinbeck once said, “It is the nature of man, as he grows old, to protect himself against change, particularly change for the better.”

Ask yourself this: What are you protecting yourself from? What are the conventions of your industry? Why are are you maintaining the stats quo? What are the habits that are holding you back? Are you copying what’s good, or doing what’s new?

What are you doing to be disruptive? Class dismissed.

4 Back to Basics — A working definition of Brands and Branding.

Welcome to the new-and-improved Brand Insight Blog. I’m moving forward this week by going back… back to fundamentals and to the most frequently asked questions of all:

  1. What exactly IS branding, anyway?
  2. And why should the average business owner care?

No doubt, the semantics of marketing and branding can be very confusing. Every firm, consultant, author and marketing professor has a slightly different spin on the subject of branding, and it’s easy to fall into that classic, insider’s trap…

So I’m attempting to aggregate the best of them, and boil it all down to something you can actually use in your day-to-day business.

First, let’s distinguish between “brand” as a corporate mark or logo, and “brand” as an overriding business concept.

When business executives talk about “the Nike Brand” or “the Pepsi Brand” with a capital B, they’re not referring to the new logo. They’re referring to something more wholistic. More conceptual. And far bigger than just design.

This, from Wikipedia: “A brand is a symbolic construct created within the minds of people and consists of all the information and expectations associated with a product or service.”

“Symbolic Construct” seems a bit academic to me. How about “gut feeling.”

Or this simplified definition, from the book, BrandSimple: “A brand is what your product or service stands for in people’s minds. Brands live in your head… Mental associations that get stirred up when you think of a particular car or camera or watch or pair of jeans.”

Scott Bedbury, of Nike and Starbucks fame, concurs: “Brands become living, psychological concepts we hold in our minds for years.”

In Brand Warfare, David F. D’Alessandro, CEO of John Hancock said, “A brand is whatever the consumer thinks of when he hears your company’s name. Branding is everything…”

And everything is branding…

The words you choose. The way you behave. The conversations you have. The card you hand out. The promises you make. The people you hire. The values you hold dear. The values you could care less about. The vendors you choose. The money you make, or don’t make. And, of course, the experience people have with the product or service you provide.

Like it or not. it all matters. Because it’s the culmination of all those little things that makes “the brand.”

Which leads to another worthwhile distinction: The difference between the noun “brand,” and the verb “branding.”

“Some companies equate branding with marketing,” says Jasper Kunde, author of Corporate Religion. “Design a sparkling new logo, run an exciting new campaign, and voila, you’re back on course. They are wrong. Branding is bigger. Much bigger.”

If a brand is a set of mental associations about a company, then BrandING is the process of helping people formulate those associations. If advertising is “getting your name out there,” Branding is attaching something to your name.

It’s a never-ending effort to conduct business in a way that will result in a better “brand”. It goes way beyond advertising or marketing communications. Because what you SAY does not carry as much weight as what you DO.

Branding is really about doing the right thing.

In The Best Of Branding, James Gregory said: “A corporate brand is the product of millions of experiences, with vendors, employees, customers, media, etc.”

If you’re doing right by all those people, your “branding” efforts will pay off in spades. On the other hand, if your company has no heart — and stands for nothing more than making money — then your branding efforts will flounder in a sea of unkept promises and unbelievable marketing hype.

Starbucks stands for something.

Howard Shultz said, “we built the Starbucks brand first with our people, because we believe the best way to meet and exceed the expectations of customers was to hire and train great people. Their passion and commitment made our retail partners the best ambassadors of the brand.”

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation that suggest the only people involved in branding are the graphic designers and the ad agency dudes. At Entrepreneur.com they say “ The foundation of your brand is your logo.”

Nonsense. The logo is a reflection of your brand. The foundation of your brand is your operation. And at Starbucks, the operation revolved around two things… the people and the product.

Another prominent website missed it completely when they defined branding as “The marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.”

Branding is not, exclusively, a marketing practice. It’s also a customer service practice. A management practice. An HR practice. An R&D practice. Even a manufacturing practice.

The Saturn Brand was never about the cars. It was about the state-of-the-art manufacturing plant right here in the USA, the no-haggle sales process and the dealer business model. In other words, it was about the whole operation, which really was a fresh new approach to the automotive industry.

Unfortunately, the brand behind the brand was GM.

Tom Peters says, “Branding is ultimately about nothing more and nothing less than heart. It’s about passion… what you care about. It’s about what’s inside you, your team, your division, your company.

The trick is figuring that out. Defining your passion. Naming your values. Being true to yourself. And then aligning your operation accordingly. So everything you do comes from the heart.

That’s why every business owner and executive should care about branding.

2 Branding in a skeptical world — Two Trends For 2012

Magazine editors and TV journalists love year-end lists. And when it’s the end of a decade, there’s even more interest in rehashing the top 10 things in every category from celebrity scandals to the most trusted brands.

I prefer to look forward, and I suspect many of you are with me on that. So here are two — not ten — branding trends that will help you, right now.

• The crisis of confidence and the consumer’s ultra-sensitive, internal BS meter.

The last two years have not been good for consumer confidence. The banking collapse. Bernie Madoff. AIG bonuses. The automotive bailout. Tiger’s “transgressions.” No wonder people are more jaded than ever.

Consumers are singing a collective tune, and the refrain goes like this: “don’t bullshit me!” (It’s country western.) They’re more savvy than you think. They’re armed with information, and if they catch you trying to pull a fast one, they’ll blast their song to the entire world.

Negative word-of-mouth has never spread so fast, or so far.

Customer reviews on sites such as Yelp, Angies’ List, Amazon, and Citysearch have become so popular, the press is calling this the “reputation economy.”

The big brands are spending millions to monitor and manage the online dialog, but control is squarely in the hands of the consumer. They now have the power to preempt a major branding effort with a few bad reviews, blog posts or YouTube videos. (Remember Micheal Phelps?)

Entire industries have been buried in bad will. Take, for instance, the mortgage business…

If you’re trying to manage a brand in that turbulent mess, your single most important task right now is rebuilding credibility and regaining the confidence of your constituents.

And it’s not going to happen overnight.

Here’s the good news: When it suddenly crashed, that big wave you were riding wiped out more than half of your competitors. Darwinian capitalism at its best. The bad news is, all those failures tarnished your image too. As a survivor, you have to dig yourself out of a hole filled with bad press, misperceptions and tainted experiences.

It can be done if you focus on making the entire experience better than it ever was. During the boom, no one cared about service. It was just a race to see who could close the most deals. So the bar is very, very low.

Hurdle it by being honest with yourself and with your prospects.

Slow down. You’re in a service business, so focus on building a better process that will deliver an experience that far surpasses their expectations.

Do that, and you’ll have an authentic story to tell. Do that, and you can get past the skepticism and come out of this better than ever.

• The experience is everything.

Branding isn’t just about products and marketing messages. It’s about the real life experiences people have around the product. Directly and indirectly.

So the easiest way to generate authentic, positive word-of-mouth is to provide an experience that far exceeds that of your competitors.

Think of everyone who went to the movies in the last week or two. How hard would it be for Regal Cinemas to make the experience dramatically better for us during the busiest time of year?

Not hard at all.

Imagine if we didn’t have to wait in a long line, out in the freezing cold. Of if we did have to wait, imagine if someone was serving little cups of hot chocolate. That would warm us up to the Regal Brand.

Imagine if we didn’t have to wait in yet another serpentine line for the same old Skittles. Or what if they offered a Christmas special on popcorn and soda that didn’t cost as much as the movie.

Talk about a better experience. Talk about Tweetable differentiation… “No lines at the Regal Cinemas on 5th.”

We would drive out of their way for that. We would tell our friends and post positive reviews. And most of all, we’d remember that experience the next time. Given a choice — same movie, two different theaters — we’d opt for the theater that triggers some little reminder of a positive experience.

That’s great branding.

Here’s another example: Over the holidays I heard a couple raving about their experience with a Lexus dealer. They actually argue over who “gets” to take the car in for repairs. No kidding.

For that particular couple, the experience in the service department of the local dealer means more than more than the driving experience. More than all the luxury features. And way more than any commercial message the company could air.

It’s ironic when you think about what Lexus stands for: Dependable Luxury. Their cars seldom need work, so you wouldn’t think the company would put much emphasis on the repair experience. But they have.

Maybe they saw the market research that pegged “service after the sale” as the biggest problem for other luxury brands. Or maybe they just figured there was so much room for improvement, they couldn’t go wrong.

In any case, by completely reinventing the repair experience, Lexus turned a potential problem area into a branding opportunity. And according to the 2009 J.D. Powers study, it’s working. Lexus, once again, received the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any automotive brand.

So this year, find ways to improve the experience people have with your brand. Even if they’re not your customers.

And don’t just focus on your best product or service. Look at the weakest part of your operation, and see if you can turn it into a positive customer touch point, like Lexus did.

Go beyond your core competencies and see if there’s something you can do to make things easier, better, faster for your customers.

Lexus is in the business of building cars, not automotive repair shops. But they recognized the connection, and the opportunity. They built repair shops that are as good as the cars they make.

In branding terms, they aligned the repair experience with the Lexus brand.

How well does your service and your operation line up with your brand? This is the year to find out.