Archive for January, 2009

What’s up with all these sound-alike branding firms?

Someone I know and respect recently joined a branding firm, so I went to their site to check them out.   What did I find there?

I found the same things that I find at nearly all other branding firms.  I was particularly fascinated by the way they all seems to be using the same language.  The following 4 examples were culled from the home pages of 4 different branding firms. Can you guess which phrase goes with which branding firm?  Can you do it without using Google?
1. “Creating brands that transform business.”
2. “Create value”
3. “Building strong brands that drive revenue and create financial value”
4. “Creating and managing brand value”
Every one of these firms goes on and on about the need for brands to stand apart  in the market, to have an ownable point of differentiation.
In fact one of the firms features a new whitepaper they have written about “Differentiation in a Downturn”

Here are some of their key points:

  • To prevent your differentiation from disappearing overnight, keep in touch with your customers and understand their needs and concerns
  • Brand attributes and assets that may be cost of entry in good times become more important as customers look for reassurance from companies they can trust.
  • Cut away neutral brand assets and attributes that have no measurable on your brand’s bottom line.
  • If your brand is in a rut, take the long-term view; but if you follow tips 1-3 you might be able to stop your brand’s decline before it’s too late.

To all of these firms I say, “Eat your spinach!”  If you really believe in differentiation, then why don’t you practice it?  

Oh, and the answers are:

1. Landor

2. Lippincott

3. TippingSprung

4. Interbrand

Everyone wants to be an expert on branding

There is a wonderful book by a man who is The Expert about everything.  Yes, I do mean John Hodgman.  His newest book is titled, “More information than you need to know”  He also has a pseudo-blog, filled with more information and expertise.

I am often reminded of Hodgman when I hear that some person or another is an expert on branding.  If you Google “brand expert” you will get 57,100 listings.  

So many experts, so little time!

I have always wanted to become an expert on branding.  Is there a course, like a PhD program, where you can get a diploma in branding?  If so, where do I sign up?  

Can I simply state that I am an expert on branding?  Maybe I can back it up with some credentials, such as saying that the BBC, the AP, USA Today, Adweek and Brandweek all acknowledge me as an expert on branding.  Maybe I can say that I worked at this advertising agency or that branding firm.  I can claim to have worked on this brand or that brand.  Maybe I just need to have a self-published book with a title like “My Cow Can Eat Your Cow”?

With so much expertise on branding, it’s a wonder that any branding actually gets done.

Bank of Missed Opportunity?

It seems like Bank of America is in the right place at the wrong time.  

For nearly two years they have embraced a brand positioning about opportunity.  

At the same time we read online about their request for a multibillion dollar bailout.  The US government now owns about 6% of the bank.  And there are untold billions more at risk due to the acquisition of Merrill Lynch.  So whose opportunity are we talking about?

From the Bank of America website:

Our Brand Positioning
Bank of America’s brand positioning, “Bank of Opportunity,” is emblematic of what Bank of America has always strived for throughout our history ― to create opportunities for the people we serve. 

It is a brilliant idea that is just completely out of step with consumers today.  

So what is a company to do when their brand positioning has boxed them into a corner?  Do they compound the problem by trying to “reposition” the brand?

This is an example of how the inflexibility of brand positioning can amplify the problems of a company instead of reducing risk.  Unless Bank of America can change the discourse, they run the risk of being out-of-step with their customers.

The reality is that people have memories.  We all understand that the current financial crunch is beyond the control of any bank, even one as large as Bank of America.  What we need is a really good narrative line about what role Bank of America will realistically play in our lives, in our communities, in our country.  The narrative needs to adapt to the reality.  

It also raises a very delicate question.  When companies are receiving billions of government aid, should they be spending any of it on advertising?

What Sam Spade has to say about branding

In my home we are on a years long project to work our way through the high points of movies since the advent of the Talkies.  Getting anyone here to watch a black & white movie is challenge enough, so I’ve given up hope of showing the older silent greats.

Recently we watched The Maltese Falcon.  If you haven’t seen it, you must.

Here’s the key thing to watch for in the movie — the metaphor.  

Why?  Because at the heart of every great brand is a strong metaphor.The metaphor takes on layer after layer of meaning over time.  By using the metaphor in different contexts, it can have great power.

So back to the film noir classic, The Maltese Falcon.  Our anti-hero is Sam Spade, archetype of the hard-drinking, womanizing, private-eye.  The action begins when Spade’s partner is bumped off.  As Sam Spade sets off to find the person who killed his business partner, the black bird takes on layer upon layer of meaning.  What is that beautiful black bird?  It is the endless quest for the Holy Grail.  It is the greed that twists humanity.  It is a metaphor, symbolic language.  

It is a great example of how a metaphor can have great power over people.  And not just the characters in the movie.  Think about all of the people who have been emotionally hooked by this movie.  How Sam Spade and that beautiful bird have entered our sphere of personal stories.

So what does Spade have to say about branding?

It is, in the words of Sam Spade, “The stuff dreams are made of.”

Metaphors and the American consumer

There is a very fascinating study that gives us a window in the minds of consumers during the current economic latke.  It was done by the extremely smart people at Olson Zaltman Associates.  The name of the study is “The US Economy and Its Impact on Americans”.  You can download it from their website.

This study is also a very good introduction to the ways metaphor shape thought.  It is through metaphors that we can shed light on new ideas.  It is through metaphors that we can make sense of the bits and pieces of information in our lives.  Olson Zaltman use a proprietary and patented methodology, ZMET.  It stands for Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique…I think.  

For my fellow writers and English majors, I acknowledge that I have taken some freedoms with the word metaphor.  I am including analogies and similes under the same umbrella.

Where did all the consumer research go? Part 2

In my last post I wrote about my concern that the marketing cutbacks will eliminate much needed consumer research.  Since writing that I’ve heard from friends at two different research companies.  Both report “restructuring” at their companies.  

Seeing those cuts so early in 2009 signals to me that the situation is even worse than I had expected.  

It also signals that there are opportunities for companies who are continuing to understand their customers may gain a disproportionate competitive advantage.

Why disproportionate?  Well, when everyone is doing similar consumer research, they are generally discovering similar things. So nobody has a substantial advantage.  But when only some companies are doing the research and some are not, the playing field is no longer level.

Interesting times we are living through…

Where did all the consumer research go?

Where have all the insights gone?

The numbers and the anecdotes all point to 2009 as the most difficult year in marketing in 80 years. It seems as if marketing is under siege at company after company.   Budgets are being cut, marketing staff is being cut.  It is an easy target because the cuts can go right to the bottom line.  Market research is one of the areas under the scalpel.  Or chainsaw.  Choose your own favorite metaphor.

The risks of not doing customer research appear to be small.  We can all pretty much guess that price has become hugely important, that luxury is going below the radar, that “thrift” has become vogue again and not just for finding really cool stuff in thrift shops.

And maybe some cutbacks in market research aren’t such a bad thing.

I had a boss, Valentine Appel, who used to say that all market research was a waste of money.  Either it tells you what you already knew, so why do it?  Or else the research tells you something different from what you know and it can’t possibly be true, so you throw out the results and retest until you get the right answer.  Either way, market research is a waste of money.

This from a man who is in the Market Research Hall of Fame!  And, yes, there is such a thing.

Maybe it is useful to think of market research as an insurance policy.  It is a small price to pay to know that your business strategy is being supported by your branding strategy.  It is a small price to pay when you need every piece of communications to be more effective than ever before.

What is your opinion?


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