Archive for August, 2006

The iPod changes the game in brand identity

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

The dramatic success of the Apple iPod is a major business story, but the iPod’s innovations in brand identity are a major brand story as well. The iPod represents a game-changing shift in how brand identity is developed and managed. It shows how brand identity can become more effective when it’s less about the company and more about the customer. For brand builders this may seem counter-intuitive, but the iPod demonstrates it can work with great effect.

The iPod’s brand identity innovation

The iPod has moved beyond traditional brand identity approaches in two critical areas. First, it shifts brand identity from a company context to the context of the customer. This is a big change that greatly expands the scope of “brand identity” itself. It allows for many new layers of brand innovation. Second, placing brand identity in a customer context opens many new avenues for creating customers, and for advancing customers beyond the reach of competitors. The iPod itself is testament to how this can be done.

I’ll discuss the iPod’s brand identity innovation below, but first I’ll review some of the problems with traditional approaches to brand identity.

Problems with the traditional brand identity approach

In a traditional brand identity approach, the brand team develops a brand identity that’s company-centric. The identity stems from a unique company “essence” that differentiates the brand from competitors and supports marketing goals. Unfortunately, this approach comes with a major problem out of the box: it treats brand identity as a proprietary “package” that’s separate from the customer. Because it’s company property, it’s not meant to be shared. The customer is simply invited (or persuaded) to embrace it, and to become, in effect, a (passive) brand follower.

The traditional approach makes no attempt to add value to the customer’s own identity through the brand. By its nature, it tends to reduce brand identity to a perception play. Because companies desperately want customers to embrace their brands, the marketplace becomes flooded with competing brand campaigns broadcasting “me, me, me” brand identity calls, much like preening birds in the jungle, vying for mates. For customers, this typically results in too little signal, too much noise.

The generic weakness of the conventional approach is that it produces a brand identity in the context of the company, whereas the market exists in the context of the customer. That’s a disconnect. Brands use advertising to bridge this gap, but advertising is imperfect and expensive, and increasingly locks the brand into a perception-play spend.

An alternative to the standard approach

There is a brand identity alternative. Why not: 1) add value with your brand identity; 2) share it with the customer; and 3) frame it in the context of the customer, rather than the company? This can provide you with a more direct path to creating customers in the first place, and then keeping them for the long haul.

And that’s where the iPod points a new way.

Identity is all about the customer—not the company

Customers care about brand identity when it helps them grow their own identity. In truth, they want their identity, not yours. In other words, effective brand identity is about them, and not exclusively about you. The genius of the iPod brand is that it elevates customers to a new identity, without trying to impose its own. This is an act of liberation, not an act of conversion. It changes the game of brand identity from being company-centric, where dozens of brands compete head-to-head, to being customer-centric, where a brand teams with the customer to create a shared identity platform.

Buy an iPod, be a DJ

The iPod nurtures a customer identity from below, rather than projecting a brand identity from above. Through this organic process, the iPod becomes a customer identity enabler. It raises the customer from being a lowly “buyer of music” and a lowly “buyer of an mp3 player” to a superior identity: that of being a DJ — with the creative power of 10,000 songs.

Why buy an mp3 player from Creative or Dell when one can be a DJ via Apple? Being is superior to buying.

As an identity enabler, the iPod delivers demonstrable coolness. The iPod includes iTunes, and with iTunes every iPod customer can create customized playlists for every mood and occasion. Yes, playlists are a creative act. The iPod elevates the customer from a passive listener in his/her room to a mobile music creator and performer (the DJ), ready to share one’s taste, sets, mix and rhythms.

Brand identity is customer identity

The iPod does more than give customers power over their music. The iPod offers them their own musical identity. And thus, buying an iPod is an investment in one’s own identity. This is real, not symbolic. iPod customers are unlocking a part of themselves that’s been repressed and constrained. Apple understands this, which is why the integration between the iPod, iTunes and the iTunes Music Store is so strong. It is “seamless,” as is the identity it enables.

In fact, the iPod presages a coming convergence of brand identity and brand experience, where identity is forged as part of the brand experience process. This also means that brand identity/customer identity becomes deeply interactive.

Identity that makes a market

The goal of any brand identity effort is to create an identity that makes a market. For this to happen, that identity must be a customer identity. Instead of trying to “sell” a brand identity to the customer, or hook the customer on an illusion, the iPod simply frees a powerful identity driver within the customer. Note how Apple highlights the customer in iPod campaigns. The Apple logo and the iPod don’t dominate the stage. We see persons totally at one with their music. And they’re not mere “listeners.” They’re manifestations of a new brand identity that exists as a customer identity: dancers, DJ’s, performers, creators.

Hosting the new brand/customer identity

Creative and Dell used traditional, company-context identity strategies against the iPod and failed to gain market traction. In effect, their “company first” brand identities had to compete against customer identities fueled by the iPod. It was “no contest” because the iPod had already changed the game. The iPod strategically repositioned digital music identity from the product to the customer. Using its “umbilical cord” of iTunes and the iTunes Music Store, Apple now hosts this new identity—a very enviable position, indeed.

Photo: iLounge, Flickr

Media brands face their Darwin moment

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

These can be dire times for major media brands, as Gary Hayes explains in his post, “Heritage brands washed away by Web 2.0 tsunami.” Media brands stand at the end of an era, faced with an abyss they cannot cross in their present state.

Gary, a former BBC producer, reflects on the termination of the iconic BBC TV series, “Top of the Pops,” after 42 years as a mainstay of dictating music taste in the UK.

The broadcast model that supported the show was no longer viable in the Internet age. Gary writes:

A weekly batch of eight songs selected by a couple of ‘programmers’ prior to a Monday morning production meeting was never going to survive in a world of twenty 24/7 digital music channels, peer-to-peer sharing and the likes of iTunes/iPod.

The brand hobbled by the body

What’s happening in the UK is, of course, happening elsewhere. Traditional media brands were often built through market power and distribution channels. They could command attention because their sheer presence forced all other voices to the edge. Theirs was a reign of massive bulk and attenuated agility. Alas, when digital technology changed the means of content distribution, such brands were potentially in trouble. Throw in changes to the nature of content itself, and all traditional brand bets are off.

That’s pretty much where many media brands find themselves today. They will sleep with the coelacanths unless they radically reinvent themselves for new realities.

Their problem is that you cannot re-brand a dinosaur. The brand flows from new DNA, not the bones of reeling behemoths.

From Gary’s post:

I even fear for MTV and those other 24/7 music loop channels who will be very soon relegated to ambient background or occasional party channels as the audience simply shifts to on-demand, shared playlists and only really trusts a global ‘collective recommendation’ system. An individual simply has their own personalized Top of the Pops, which incidentally changes moment to moment. No, the editorial winners in the future are not teams sat inside boards rooms, those existing ‘heritage’ aggregators of content (magazines, broadcasters, film studios, newspapers) they will simply be a ‘wisdom of the crowds’ range of trusted filters. An avid music fan in Wisconsin becomes as important as the programmers at MTV or BBC — music will be found by searching for groups of trusted like-minded ‘browsers’.

And here’s how Gary summarizes the media brand outlook:

. . . the distribution channel is now irrelevant for most media consumers; they can get their content in many ways, so now the important thing is trusted sources of links to content. YouTube and GoogleVideo will of course do the same to TV programming over the next few years that MP3 (etc.) did to the music industry and TV music programming. The only TV programmes that will survive will not be the ones who simply plop their content a day earlier on iTunes but ones that differentiate themselves from the masses — those who build brand across multiple platforms and more importantly create a Web 2.0 blanket around it.

Don’t tread on me (I’m your new brand)

The evolutionary hope for existing media companies is to build new brands on the shoulders of new market entrants before existing media infrastructures wither and die. This is feasible. Brands have the power to grant new life, but brand building cannot be done by acquisitions alone. Media companies will need copious amounts of customer DNA. Their immediate challenge is to avoid crushing it underfoot once they manage to find it.

Bottom photo: Jon Sullivan

Apple enables widgets as brand pipelines

Friday, August 11th, 2006

Apple this week announced upcoming software that will greatly facilitate the creation and use of widgets on the Apple platform. In what is especially good news for brand builders, the new software will
enable widgets to act as persistent, online brand pipelines from companies to their customers. This can amount to powerful new avenues for brand innovation.

Widgets enhanced with “Web Clip”

Widgets are small, interactive apps in the form of attractive buttons on your desktop. They feed you specialized information or perform timely tasks. I’ve written about their brand potential here and here. Apple deploys widgets in a spiffy desktop display called the Dashboard (see above). In the early 2007 “Leopard” upgrade of Apple’s OS X operating system, users will be able to create their own widgets using nifty drag and drop templates, but the real news (for brand builders) will be a user ability to create widgets from what Apple calls “Web Clip.”

To create a Web-Clip widget, a user simply selects a portion of a web page he or she wants as a desktop widget, then drags that “clip” to their Dashboard. The widget is now activated with live information from the site.

The widget-enabled brand pipeline

If you’re a brand builder, you will see this as a way to pipeline vital information to your customers. Think of how you can set up a “widget ready” area on your site that visitors can “Web Clip” and pull to their desktop as a widget. Maybe you will offer more than one.

Of course, the widget is not a billboard. It’s active and it’s intelligent, and it has to fill a customer need. Perhaps a direct one (if you’re selling ski’s, provide a widget with ski reports), or an indirect one (if you’re selling ski’s, provide a widget with jokes, games and tall tales for fun around the fireplace.) Context and content are up to you. Brands that are close to their customers will have a definite widget edge.

Widgets will test your brand imagination

Your widget will be a test of your most fertile and far-flung brand imagination—as it should be. It will clearly differentiate you from dull-witted competitors. Widgets, in fact, may be more effective than ads. If your ads are the voice of your brand, why not elevate your ads to widgets? Let them live on desktops. If your brand can walk the walk, let your widget talk the talk—directly to customers.

Expect Microsoft to have something similar in its forthcoming Windows Vista release also in early 2007.

Apple demo of new Dashboard software coming in Leopard.

Photo: Apple Computer

Brands move from TV to connect with customers

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Michael Urlocker notes that Australian brewer Foster’s is redirecting its US ad spend from TV broadcast to interactive media. While the amount is relatively small ($5 million), Michael sees this as symbolic of an ongoing disruption of traditional broadcast media by new interactive models. He cites a number of sources who reach similar conclusions.

There’s a brand story here, too. I see Foster’s move as part of a disruption that extends far beyond the TV broadcast model. It extends to brands themselves, which for the last 50 years have been heavily predicated on TV advertising modalities. Brands have tremendous capacity to “create customers”—in Peter Drucker’s original sense—but not when they’re hobbled by the top-down, one-way broadcast model.

Brands are not part of the pitch

Today’s commercial TV networks often reduce television to a pitch-box, and that’s bad news for brands. Brands are not part of the pitch. They’re a handshake, a hug, or in extreme moments of good fortune, a kiss.

Plus, a pitch-box makes a terrible brand platform. It goes nowhere. No wonder people are tuning out. The real deal is found in products that work, in companies that listen, and in brands big enough for two.

Thankfully, the brand model is not tethered to the broadcast model.

Interactive media and “disruptor brands”

Foster’s is certainly not alone in its new media direction. The move from TV to interactive media coincides with a reinvention of brands as tools for innovation and value creation. We will soon see “disruptor brands” that will accelerate this process, leaving only the laggards (and losers) bound to TV.

Photo: Chris Moffett, WikiMedia

How fast can Asian brands rise?

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Jack Yan makes some very insightful observations about the progress of brand thinking on the Asian mainland, and how it’s affected by social, cultural, political, economic, and national factors. He focuses on Malaysia, but discusses how quickly developing Asian economies may be expected to adopt the long view of brands, where customer context is king. It’s a big leap from being the “factory to the world” to being “brand leader to the world.”

The technology wildcard in brands

What isn’t clear (yet) is the extent that new online technologies may actually accelerate the rise of Asian brands, as least to get them into the average brand ballpark. Theoretically, tech innovation might compress what historically took several generations into one, through the web, broadband, growing WiFi, and online innovations such as YouTube, MySpace, etc. Progress will be fastest where political freedoms and open communications thrive. Perhaps smaller Asian nations with democratic traditions can carve out brand leadership roles.

Politics can compromise brands

Progress won’t be even. As Jack notes in another post, China’s recent actions to censor the blogosphere are not only bad internally, they will also impede China’s progress toward developing customer-centric brands for the world economic stage. Unwittingly, they may be creating a “brand gap” that other nations may step in to fill.


Brands and commodities: two rules

Friday, August 4th, 2006

Just thought I’d break this out from a longer post on brands and commodities. It should be airtight, but I sense leaks. As always, comments appreciated.

Brands and commodities: two rules

  1. Brand: The shortest distance between customer and company.
  2. Commodity: The shortest distance between customer and price.


  1. When the brand is strong, customer and company are one
  2. When commodity is strong, company and customer are done.


If you’re in it for the money, your customers will be in it for the price.

Update: Changed “Moral” to “Coda”

(And yes, deepest apologies to Wm.Blake, RIP.)

“Brand space” and the creation of new markets

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

Part of the fun in building brands is that while one half of your mind plumbs the nuanced depths of brand context, the other half peers three years out to leverage that context into new business opportunities. Welcome to “brand space,” where it’s microscope to one eye, telescope to the other.

Brand space is the realm of new business

As a brand builder, “brand space” is one of your most useful concepts. It encompasses all the territories where your brand intends a presence. Consider it your brand turf. Much of your brand space is forward focused. It contains the brand elements that will rise to the surface and nurture your business when your company launches new products and services. In fact, you will always be priming some part of your brand space for emerging markets.

There is a cardinal rule of brand space: use it, or lose it.

Let’s look more closely at brand space, and then examine an example of brand space that’s unfolding in real time.

Brand space defined

I define brand space as “an emergent customer context in which the brand takes a leadership role.” Your brand space is the potential value domain of your brand: where your brand plans to go. It’s your brand’s extended realm, or some aspect of its “manifest destiny.” Your brand space is typically far larger than the served space of your current, “operational” brand. It projects the customer and the brand forward, toward the next (higher) brand platform that’s on your brand roadmap. (And you do have one of these, right?)

A brand that’s well crafted will command a set of strategically related brand spaces that foreshadow where the customer is headed. Ideally, the brand moves the customer forward into those brand spaces essential for customer growth, and for the growth of the business. This is one reason why brand teams are also product development teams. Brand spaces assume a strong product/brand integration.

It’s important that the brand space is a “value context.” By that I mean it intends to deliver a new form of brand value for the customers to be created. Areas where you deploy brand spaces may have no current customers (virgin markets) or may have existing customers served by ho-hum brands. Your brand space needs to offer a new protocol of pleasure, protocol of performance, or protocol of whatever that will redefine customers out of the bog-like context that’s currently holding them back.

And, as shown above, the ascendant architecture of your brand platforms will dictate where your brand spaces will become fertile fields. Brand spaces are the bow waves of brand platforms.

Brand space and competitive advantage

If you want to beat competitors to the punch, it pays to use your brand space to enter nascent markets at the earliest opportunity. While your competitors are building out their feature lists, you can be delivering the pre-product experiences that align customers to your brand months before actual product introduction. This is not about hype or “making promises.” It’s about knowing what freedoms your customers crave, what freedoms your offerings will deliver, and giving customers a measured taste up front.

Brand space example: WiFi-enabled handsets

Tom Evslin has a fascinating post on dramatic changes coming to the mobile phone market. In a few years mobile phones will be WiFi enabled, meaning they can connect to the Internet wherever there’s a WiFi signal. That means, of course, that those WiFi phone calls will then be VoIP, and possibly, or probably, free. As you can imagine, and as Tom details, this threatens a major disruption of the telco carriers who now control things via their cell networks. One of the ripple effects is our brand space example. To quote Tom:

WiFi support in mobile phones will shift the balance of power from the big wireless operators to the cellphone hardware and software makers. Phones will be purchased independently of calling plans just as computers are purchased independent of Internet connectivity arrangements. Coupons for access may be included with phones instead of phones being included with calling plans. Why? Because voice calling will be too cheap to meter and hardware will still cost something. [my emphasis]

This amounts to a HUGE market shift. If you’re a maker of electronic devices and software whose products have personal communication potential, this change signals the potential opening of lucrative markets previously held captive by the major carriers. Perhaps there’s a future for you in the handset business, if you can leverage existing brand strengths in portable electronic devices, WiFi, design, and computer/Internet interoperability. If you’ve been on your toes, your brand space beneath this potential market will be jumping. It will already include a rich mobile communication context that can fit hand-in-glove with a WiFi-enabled handset. Your brand space is your running start, a latent brand context ready to be activated. If/when you launch that phone, customers will be standing by. The new market will appear to be naturally yours from the get-go.

I, of course, am no one to foment rumors.

Photo: laughlin, Flickr