There’s a lot of information out there about how to build a great brand. And by ‘a lot,’ I mean, as my mother would say, a shisselful.
There’s stuff about emotional branding, social branding, visual branding and ethnic branding… brand naming, brand marketing, brand positioning, brand strategy, brand tracking and brand management.
I’m sure I’m missing a few. But suffice to say that if you’re into this kinda thing, you pretty much know what you’re getting for your next birthday. And Kwanzaa. And Arbor Day.
And the thing about all this information is: it’s generally one-directional, as in ‘Here’s how to do it the right way.’
But I think there’s a lot to learn by looking at the wrong way to do branding.
It’s also more fun. In the brand world, we call it schadenfreude.
So how and why do brands go bad? Since Branding Mag limits word counts to under a million, I’ve tried to cull the list to 6.
Let’s start off with a doozy — something a whole bunch of defunct or on-their-way-out brands are guilty of.
1. Staff up with complacent, uninspired or just plain incompetent brand management.
If you’ve worked, well, anywhere, you know what I mean.
I want to say that there are those on the brand side who treat their positions as if they work for the Post Office, but that would be an insult to hard-working postal employees everywhere.
These brand leaders show up for work every day with the express intent of doing nothing. So they sit in meetings with steepled hands and when the subject of brand comes up they either mutter some tripe about integrity or defer to one of a team of agencies and consultants they’ve brought in to help them crack the nut on ‘big issues.’
Now that you have a frame of reference, let me give voice to what we’re all thinking: These people suck.
Their job — their ONLY job — is to do right by the brand. And it’s a great gig! But, like any gig, you need to work at it. You need to actively seek opportunities to promote the brand, to raise its profile, ensure that it’s being represented properly in every media channel and, perhaps most importantly, prevent it from becoming a stagnant also-ran.
That effort starts inside an organization, with the realization that brand and culture are synonymous; that the way a brand is ‘positioned’ to consumers needs to be an authentic reflection of the corporate culture.
And that needs to extend out into the marketplace via every touchpoint, from R&D and production to marketing, sales, calls centers, etc.
When brand managers forget all or some of that and begin to phone in their responsibilities as ambassadors, evangelists and innovators, the brand might as well be set adrift.
I don’t really have enough of an inside track to say who let down which brands specifically, but Circuit City, SAAB and Borders are just a few companies that seem to have lacked or be lacking strong, deliberate, innovative brand leadership.
But that’s just the beginning. To ensure you’re doing branding incorrectly…
2. Don’t put yourself out; just do what they’re doing.
At least a couple of those brands also failed to distinguish themselves in any meaningful way.
Let’s take Borders. Were they a victim of Amazon? Sure. But Powell’s was in a very similar position.
Two moves made the difference: First, they carved out a unique niche, offering new and used books on the same shelf. Heresy in early ’80s, but a precursor of things to come. Second, instead of simply expanding their bricks & mortar operations because they could, Powell’s went online in 1994, and within two years its entire inventory was listed on the web.
So they obviously didn’t just follow; they led. Of course, imitation in and of itself isn’t a bad thing (so long as you can avoid getting sued over it).
But when it becomes a pattern; when it’s blatantly obvious that the only original thought in a product or service — thought that leads to innovations that improve the customer experience — is consistently coming from the other guy, that’s where customers will go. Even if it means paying a little more. (For example, see RIM’s BlackBerry vs. apple’s iPhone. ‘Nuff said.)
Of course, a sure-fire method of shooting your brand in the foot is to start off on the wrong one…
3. Throw away the playbook. Hell, don’t even bother with a game plan.
I’m not actually talking about guidelines here, but let me address them briefly…
Guidelines get a bad rap. They’re looked upon as restrictive — suffocating, even. Detractors say they squelch new thinking and smother creativity in its crib. Nonsense. Good designers know that guidelines are just that. Like the foul lines on a baseball field, they’re simply meant to establish some boundaries that provide structure, so the game doesn’t get out of control.
But what informs the creation of guidelines — what actually guides brands — is brand strategy.
Not marketing strategy.
Not sales strategy.
Not customer strategy.
I’m talking about a concrete, well thought-out plan for what a brand is and aspires to be. It identifies audiences, defines the attributes that make the brand unique and articulates an ambitious set of goals for where it wants to be. It should be vetted by others within the organization, but it needs to challenge everyone in the company to be more than just “the market leader.”
That’s why Apple talks about enabling creativity.
And Starbucks tries to facilitate connections between people.
And Nintendo wants to inspire discovery.
If it’s big and aspirational enough, a strategy’ll serve as a point of reference for every interaction, message and experience to follow.
If it’s not, your brand’s likely to end up a hairball that not even the best and brightest can untangle. Yahoo!, anyone?
But let’s say that’s not the case; let’s assume your strategy is rock solid and you disseminate it far and wide.
It’s not enough.
There’s still ample opportunity for things to go south. You can, for instance…
4. Adamantly resist change.
This is a great undo-er specifically because it’s so easy to do. Just define what the brand is and what it stands for and then…leave it.
Well, don’t just leave it. Steadfastly refuse to make any alterations to it whatsoever.
When advances in technology come along, ignore them.
When competitive forces upend the market, stick your head in the sand.
And when potentially great partnership offers come along, don’t pick up the phone.
All you’ll be missing is the opportunity to expand your brand and, possibly, make it more successful than people ever dreamed.
The poster child for turning away from this sage advice is Virgin.
The company’s a juggernaut and, amazingly, has been for more than 40 years.
In that time, it’s grown to more than 50,000 people in 34 countries and global revenues of about $21 billion dollars.
How? Well, in part by living its brand values out loud — louder than just about any one else you can think of — and letting it grow and change, adapting to different environments.
The company’s successful businesses range from mobile telephony to travel to financial services to music to whatever the hell Sir Richard will cook up in that genius head of his next.
Nobody knows what it is; but they know this: it’ll deliver value for money, quality, innovation, fun, and convey a smirky sense of competitive challenge.
And, by the way, its employees will be empowered to continually deliver an unbeatable customer experience.
We know all this because those are the hallmarks of every Virgin brand. They flex and an adjust to every new business, each one of which operates more or less independent of the mother ship, but they all share the same brand ideas, values, interest and goals.
So you really need to look at Virgin as a cautionary tale: This is what can happen when you let a clearly defined brand grow and adapt to a changing world.
But there’s still a lot of opportunity to mess things up, for instance…
5. Just get the brand out there; the rest will take care of itself.
If by ‘the rest’ you mean a complete erosion of all the brand stands for, then yes, this’ll work fine.
Let people from across the company — and even partners and media folks — broadcast your brand to their hearts’ content, interpreting the strategy and the style guide as they see fit.
So what if the colors are a little off.
Or the customer service sucks.
Or the user interface is counterintuitive.
Or the graphic looks like clip art.
Or the messages aren’t aligned with the brand strategy.
After all, any publicity is good publicity, right?
Of course not.
Look, I get that these are usually well-intentioned mistakes — people across the organization want the brand to be noticed. They need a logo for an event program, or something approximating the right colors for some T-shirts. The brand integrity isn’t even on their radar.
But the fact is that consumers notice these slips ups on either a conscious or sub-conscious level, and adjust their opinions downward.
Worse, in today’s environment, each one of these inconsistencies is captured, broadcast far and wide and linger out there for all eternity.
So the damage caused by sloppy branding is real. Because an organization that doesn’t care about its brand sends an implicit message that it doesn’t care about its customers.
It’s not a massive brand heart attack, but rather a slow, painful demise. Like death by a thousand cuts, with each misstep slicing into what was once the brand’s perceived equity.
Which leads us to the last and arguably best way to make sure your brand goes nowhere fast…
6. Screw trust; it’s overrated.
A brand is a lot of things, but perhaps above all else it’s a trust mark; a promise to deliver a certain level of quality, value, performance, customer service… And when those promises are broken, when that trust is compromised, it can be difficult if not impossible to regain.
The financial services industry has given us a bunch of examples, and it could be said that the Occupy movement was in part a coordinated, extremely vocal reaction to people’s faith in brands being raked over the coals.
That may seem a little dramatic, but the effect of a brand toying with the trust of its customers can’t be overstated.
So it’s critical for everyone across the organization to know and understand what the brand is all about and be actively engaged in furthering its mission and messages.
In fact, a friend of mine, Tim McCleary, says it goes beyond that, and calls involvement the key to creating an unbreakable connection of trust. To paraphrase what he would have said and what he teaches at his company, The Involvement Practice:
- People within an organization need to have a deep understanding of the brand, what it’s trying to accomplish and how their specific role helps foster and achieve the brand strategy. It’s about developing an appreciation that goes beyond dollars & cents, which is not how most companies are wired.
- Leaders have to find ways to get their people to ‘be’ the brand internally and externally. Tim calls this brand activation, and it has to do with creating relevant experiences through which the brand becomes personally relevant. These could be community events, customer workshops or even training exercises that happen out in the real world.
- Look for ways to partner with customers rather than merely sell to them. It’s about brand co-creation and blurring the line between customer and company. What can your customers teach you? What do they need and how can you help them get it?
When you’re able to answer questions like that that; when everyone in the organization is genuinely involved with the brand on a personal level; when people from the cubicles to the executive conference room becomes a brand evangelist, you have reason to believe that consumers will trust what the brand says because the whole brand — that is, the people who represent it — actually believe.
At which point it’ll be damn hard for the brand to go wrong.
Though I’m sure some industrious folks out there will try their best…