In my twenty-some years in marketing I’ve considered one thing more than any other; brand. What is it?
The simple answer? It is a logo or company name that you see daily, sometimes even hourly.
And that, my friends, is the wrong answer.
It is true that a well-designed logo will instigate immediate emotion. Navy blue is power. Grey is wisdom and competence. Times New Roman is obedient. Arial implies modern thinking. Straight lines are racy. Rounded lines are more personal. It all means something. A good logo can help set up the emotion that you want attached to your brand.
But a logo is not a brand.
A company name is not a brand.
Those items are simple visual symbols of a brand. Think of a logo as a thumbnail icon on your desktop. Upon seeing it, you know what the program does. You know whether or not you like that program. You know if it’s useful to you. It’s instantly recognizable because this icon stares at you every day. It reminds you of your experience (and that of others) with that product.
But you didn’t base your feelings on the icon. Yes, you recalled the program based on the icon, but you based your feelings about that image around the utility that it opens.
A brand is much more than a name or a logo. It is the emotion that a customer feels when thinking about your product.
A good brand isn’t one that has the benefit of the most clever bus station billboards, the most psychologically beneficial colour choices, the greatest frequency of radio commercials. A good brand is the one that enjoys a positive reaction because it is supported by an emotion; an emotion that ultimately comes from a good product.
Mercedes Benz has never won an award because of a really cool, easy to recall name. They’ve never been the recipient of prizes because of their revolutionary logo; a steering wheel. And yet it has become an epic symbol of quality.
If next week a group of bright entrepreneurs launched a new retail store that sold pneumatic heel exfoliators, they would – in most cases – come up with a snazzy name. They would hire a graphic artist who delivers a brilliant logo. They would hire an ad agency that pastes that brilliant company name above brilliant copy, on every wall of every podiatry clinic in the city. They would send out creative, edgy postcards to members of walking clubs. They would join and continually post on the website “peoplewhoneedheelexfoliation.com”.
Life will be wonderful.
They have created a brand.
No, they haven’t. They have created a symbol of a brand. If that store doesn’t engage in good customer service, and their heel exfoliators don’t work, customers will forever associate those brilliantly thought-out attributes with poor quality and lousy service.
The good news? They have now created a brand. A really, really bad one.
As it relates to retail, there is a very clear lesson to be learned. If you are selling products from a company that is well-branded, you have the invaluable benefit of your customer base already having an emotion attached to that product. But if you rely solely on that product’s name, the expensive advertising, a cool slogan, and some hip colours… you’re in deep trouble.
Your suppliers have spent millions. Sometimes billions in establishing a “brand”. They have invested in and entrusted to you with something that holds remarkable value.
If your desktop icon (even though it’s a widely recognized icon) opens a program that doesn’t work, that crashes your computer, that freezes continually… are you going to continue using it because you see it daily or even hourly?
Facing this, some companies would hire a creative phenom to change the logo.
And that, my friends, is the wrong answer.
When I was attending university, I took a marketing class in which the professor was convinced that brand recognition was the only requirement of a successful business. Sure, you needed capital to get started, and you would need a good sense of the product that you were selling, and sales skills and some knowledge of your market were a bonus. But he truly believed that the only thing a company needed to do to ensure their long-term success was to make their name synonymous with their product. He pointed out examples like Kleenex, Aspirin, Band-Aid and Jeep. He made sure that we all walked out of that course with the belief that our businesses would succeed so long as our brand names were part of the public lexicon. Make your product known and you will stay in business forever.
It’s well known that Kodak has had a lot of problems in the last ten years, and the majority of those troubles are being blamed on the growth in the digital camera market. And yet for a brief period of time in 2005, Kodak was actually ranked first in the U.S. in digital cameras sales. But here we are, seven years later, with a different company in the first place slot and Kodak struggling frantically to keep afloat.
But this is Kodak! They invented the Brownie camera, which was the first camera available to amateur photographers at the start of the last century. They were the first company to produce and sell color 35mm film. Would we be able to go the movies or even watch DVDs if Kodak hadn’t been there in the early 1900s to help develop the film stock that was originally used to shoot motion pictures? Who amongst us has not had a “Kodak moment”? And here’s a little piece of irony for you: the man credited with inventing the digital camera, Steve Sasson, worked as an engineer for Kodak at the time that he developed the equipment. Kodak engineers also invented the megapixel sensor, which is a key component to making your digital pictures look so great. That’s right – the company that is currently being brought down because of increased competition in the digital photography market can actually lay claim to being part of the invention of the digital photography market.
So how does this happen to a company that has dominated the landscape for over 100 years and can lay claim to being one of the most recognizable brands in the world? It’s actually quite simple. It’s because they were dominant and had brand-recognition. Sure, they tried to expand a little and open their doors to different products and ideas. But in the mid-1990s, Kodak executives were sceptical that this whole “digital” thing would even become a thing. They were confident in their brand, and while they were willing to branch out a little into new areas they firmly believed that staying the course of their original marketing and production paths was what would keep them at the top of the heap. When others within the organization tried to say differently, they were shut down in favour of management’s plans. To say that management failed to take into account the speed with which the consumer market changes is an understatement.
Now, of course, the management at Eastman Kodak is singing a different song. And with new people and new voices being heard within the organization, there is hope that Kodak will be able to reorganize while under bankruptcy protection and come out even stronger on the other side. But this path is going to be long and painful, and what makes it worse is that it could have been avoided if the company had spent more time ensuring that their brand stayed at the top of the market rather than just assuming that it would because they were a Brand.
If I could take this information and go back ten and a few years to my university professor, I would tell him the following:
- The key to brand recognition is making sure that your brand continues to be seen by the consumer. People have short memories. If your brand disappears from the market, consumers won’t stop buying that product in protest. They’ll move on.
- Price can trump brand, but only in those cases where the brand doesn’t have legitimate strength and clear competitive advantage. If you’re going to rely on product quality as your value proposition, then you need to be sure the quality of your product allows for it.
- All the brand recognition and all the excellent product development in the world will not help your company if management fails to plan ahead and think about the future. Listen to the market, listen to your employees, and remember that what goes up must come down and nowhere does that analogy ring more true than in a capitalist marketplace.