Archive for November, 2006

Yahoo’s “spread too thin” problem is really a brand vision problem

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

The highly publicized Yahoo peanut butter memo has identified some key problems in Yahoo’s structure and strategy, mostly related to “spreading the company too thin.” Many companies can relate to these issues. The memo makes some good points. Here’s a small taste:

I’ve heard our strategy described as spreading peanut butter across the myriad opportunities that continue to evolve in the online world. The result: a thin layer of investment spread across everything we do and thus we focus on nothing in particular.

Sounds like a brand vision problem to me

In reading the memo, my first reaction was: These issues all point to a problem with brand vision. There’s lots of Yahoo pieces in play, but no clear picture of where they’re taking Yahoo—and Yahoo customers.

“Brand” is mentioned one time in the memo, and the way it’s mentioned is somewhat revealing:

We have awesome assets. Nearly every media and communications company is painfully jealous of our position. We have the largest audience, they are highly engaged and our brand is synonymous with the Internet.

I would argue that if Yahoo’s brand is “synonymous with the Internet,” Yahoo has a brand problem. Yahoo really needs its brand to be synonymous with customer dreams and aspirations, and for that it needs a clear (and coherent) brand vision.

Brand vision defined

Let’s start by defining “brand vision.” Brand vision is the ability to see your company’s future through your customers’ eyes. (No customers, no future.) It’s a shared vision that comes from being customer-connected at a level that’s at once visceral, and spiritual. (These guys get it, as do many others.) When you’re in this zone as a company, your brand pumps customer blood, and you think, feel and act like a super customer. It’s a creative high, 24/7. And it’s the brand’s job to help articulate this vision, across all relevant customer dimensions.

Rarely, if ever, is a successful brand vision a private dream hatched in a vacuum, and unilaterally projected from the top. Those approaches tend to stay in a vacuum. And they can drop you into an undifferentiated brand tableau that might look something like this.)

Brand vision takes leadership

Brand vision takes leadership, because customers are usually wrapped (and bound) in the present. They can have a hard time discerning their future until you map it for them, with pathways, platforms and value they can use. That’s why I call brand vision a “capability.” It shows in what you do, not in what you put in a PowerPoint, or in a media campaign.

A brand vision is simple and direct

Keep in mind that the best brand visions are simple and direct. They’re pathways, platforms and value. There’s no room for corporate ego, and no need for gaudy spectacle or Utopian fantasies. The brand vision of the United States was a Bill of Rights, democracy and a promise of 160 acres to pioneer homesteaders. The pomp and circumstance of regal brand trappings were stuffed in a bag and shipped back to England.

Brand vision is a mutual vision

That said, the goal of your brand vision is not to steer customers toward the future you want. It’s a mutual vision. You are helping customers articulate a future that will advance the both of you. Think of it as binocular vision, with the attendant deep perspective. Your brand vision engages customers in ways that help you gain new market insights and directions.

Customers become co-creators of your brand

Given a vision that adds richness to their lives, customers will amplify, elaborate and extend your brand in ways you can’t imagine. They become co-creators of your brand because they can expand your field of vision and your depth of field. That can give you significant market advantage. But if you treat customer “eyeballs” only as a window on their wallets, the results are far more problematic.

Brand properties are not automatically a “place”

One reason why Yahoo might find itself “spread too thin” is that it’s been less concerned with brand performance and more concerned with staking out large swaths of turf, as large portals do. In this approach, you buy a lot of properties to become a large landlord, exerting some control over those who reside in your (expanding) domain. But these properties do not automatically make a “place.” Only customers can make it a place—when they share a brand vision.

Acquisitions and brand vision

This week Amit Chowdhry gives us a detailed rundown of the 44 acquisitions Yahoo has made since 1997. It’s an interesting list. Each acquisition was a logical move to gain a strategic property. What’s not clear (as evidenced by the peanut butter memo) is the over-arching brand vision that integrates them to carry Yahoo and its customers forward.

Bottom line, the Yahoo brand vision is still a work in progress. Lucky for Yahoo that Microsoft and Google are very much in the same boat.

Image: Lego blocks
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Zune: emergent brand or Trojan Horse?

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006


Just because a brand is offered in consumer markets doesn’t necessarily make it a “consumer” brand. It all depends on the maker’s intent. The brand may carry an agenda at cross purposes to consumer interests.

If the ultimate intent is to move customers backward, what’s presented as a “brand” may not be a brand at all. It may be more of a Trojan Horse, with only a thin shell of brand trappings.

These issues of brand and brand agenda rise to the surface with Microsoft’s new Zune digital player. How they eventually work out can have long-term brand implications for Microsoft.

What is Zune’s brand agenda?

That’s a question I kept asking myself as I read initial reviews of Microsoft’s just-released Zune. I had already checked out the Zune site, and played with a Zune in a local store. In general, the reviews have a hard time getting excited about Zune, mostly because Zune doesn’t do that much for customers. In my view, Zune also offers much less brand value than expected. So much so, in fact, that it raises questions about its real intent in the marketplace. Zune is supposed to be an iPod killer, but first reports seem to agree that the Zune brand is a pretty weak customer platform.

Does the Zune brand depreciate customers?

The Zune brand raises this question because of Zune’s heavy DRM impositions and a download pricing scheme that’s complex, confusing and seemingly disadvantageous to customers. In both respects, Zune is a stunning step backward from the iPod. Grant McCracken covers a host of issues where Zune defies conventional marketing and usability logic. Daniel Eran has a more market-focused assessment. Toward the end of its long and detailed product review, Engadget concludes:

Microsoft really wanted to convince everybody that this time they’d changed, this time they were starting from the ground up, working for the consumer, working for the artist. Well, no one’s buying that story anymore.

So, what’s going on here? Has Microsoft designed the Zune brand to be a net negative for customers?

Microsoft’s challenge: raise the brand bar

I think reviewers are dismayed by what they don’t see in Zune, based on what they had expected Microsoft to deliver. (You can count me in this group.) The iPod set high product and brand standards, and created a billion-dollar digital player ecosystem and market. One would expect Microsoft to raise the brand bar, to try to trump the iPod in several key parameters. Above all, this is where Microsoft could unveil brand platforms and programs chock full of customer value, putting to rest the notion that Apple has an exclusive grip on top-tier digital brands.

Zune vs. iPod: battle of the brands

Indeed, Zune was expected to launch a brand battle royal. So we ask: Where is the Zune identity that frames a new customer identity? Where is the Zune brand strategy to create more potent customers, to deepen loyalty out of the box, to make music acquisition, sharing and playback easier, to redefine the context of mobile music so that the Zune experience becomes flat-out compelling? In other words, where is Microsoft’s brand strategy to do to Apple what Apple did to all the clunky MP3 brands way back in 2001?

Zune wimps out on brand value

Frankly, it’s hard to see any Zune brand strategy, or any noteworthy Zune brand proposition. It looks like Microsoft just wimped out on brand value, as if brand value didn’t really fit within the Redmond modus operandi. The world awaited a Zune brand splash. Instead, it got a Zune brand splat. Maybe Microsoft is simply brand averse, afraid of brands because brands empower customers. In certain respects, Zune throws the Microsoft brand into a backward-facing customer containment mode that no rational customer would willingly choose.

Is Zune’s real customer the big music labels?

Absent any forthcoming Zune brand initiatives, Zune does have the appearance of a Trojan horse, a brand in name only, not designed for customers at all. Rather than build momentum through customers, Zune seems intended to appeal to the major music labels, granting them enhanced control over online music distribution and a free hand to manipulate download pricing. These are two things the music studios crave as a means of regaining market power lost when they chose not embrace digital technology advances.

Sweetening the deal—at the top

In “sweetening the deal” for the labels in this fashion, including Microsoft payments to the labels for each Zune sold, Microsoft might hope to persuade the labels to eventually sign exclusive agreements making their music available only on Zune. This would help restore the labels to their former power and glory—at customer expense. And it could cut Apple, iTunes and the iPod out of the music business, right at the source.

In so doing, however, Zune would be rolling back the customer freedoms and the music revolution created by the iPod. That wouldn’t please customers—to put it mildly. Maybe this is why Zune takes such a low brand profile, skulking along in brown.

An “anti-brand” portent?

In a larger perspective, Zune’s hardball, “anti-brand” approach doesn’t portend well for Microsoft. Given its many Windows Live initiatives, the company needs customer allegiance more than ever. Value-rich brand programs are the best way to create it. Apple showed how to do this with the iPod. If Microsoft abandons a proven brand pathway with Zune, one wonders what strange forms of “brand” Microsoft will bring to market when it competes with Apple in the much larger home media center market, and with Google in the equally huge market for online apps.

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Brand value dries up in the Microsoft ecosystem

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

If you’re a Microsoft business partner in consumer markets, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to build your own brand, and brand value platform, within the Microsoft Windows ecosystem.

Microsoft controls the life-giving fluids in these parts, and it looks like they’ll be keeping most of them for themselves.

As Microsoft integrates products, partner brands wither

To compete with Apple for the emerging home media center market, Microsoft needs tightly integrated products that can deliver a consistent Microsoft brand experience—and leverage Microsoft’s market power. Xbox was the first major step in this direction, followed by Microsoft’s massive online makeover. Now there is Zune, Microsoft’s belated iPod challenger, launched yesterday.

It’s important to remember that brands are vertically integrated value. The more Microsoft integrates (its own) hardware into its offerings, as it must do to compete with Apple, the fewer brand options remain for hardware members of its ecosystem. They are being “integrated out.”

Mapping out the brand space

Xbox and Zune are aimed at the home media center brand space. Their mission is to condition customers to a Microsoft brand presence that promises a seamless integration of digitized music, video, movies and games. For the time being, it doesn’t matter how much money these products lose. In Microsoft’s view, they are tiny tumblers being set in place to deliver a lifetime of lock-in. When the curtain rises, it will be a Microsoft show.

Left high and dry

More than a few observers have noted that the new Zune effectively scraps Microsoft’s PlaysForSure digital player initiative, leaving its business partners for those devices (such as iRiver and Creative) high and dry. They are now competing with Microsoft.

Creating customers is the only brand option

If you’re a PC maker like Dell, Sony, Gateway or H-P, your only option to preserve your brand is to find new ways to create customers beyond the reach of Microsoft’s brand experience. If you don’t innovate along new customer dimensions, you are pretty much condemned to be an agent of Microsoft’s brand—and a future somewhere in that picture above.

Some possibilities

In consumer markets, H-P is leveraging its imaging expertise to integrate more imaging and printing capabilities into its PC lines, thereby redefining its brand experience away from a straight Windows PC experience. That’s one reason why its “You and H-P” ad campaign (with the amazing picture frames) felt so refreshing.

Dell and others don’t have this option, and need more radical brand measures.

Photo: yaaaay – Flickr
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Welcome to the mix

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Automobile brands are like fresh fruit to customers. They’re gloriously peeled, chopped, blended, juiced and grilled.

What emerges is the brand anew, resurrected, ethnographically evolved, stronger than ever.

Brands are timeless . . . on customer time.

Photo: tandemracer — Flickr
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In brands, you ride what you create

Sunday, November 12th, 2006


Great quote from NBA coach Jerry Sloan, whose vastly improved Utah Jazz team is off to a fast start:

“You can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a jackass. You got to have some thoroughbreds.”

In brands, you ride what you create. Create your customers as thoroughbreds and you charge ahead. Aim for anything less, and you bring up the rear.

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It’s your big-picture brand that counts

Friday, November 10th, 2006

Should Ocean Spray be content as a brand of cranberry products? Or should it aim for a larger stage, and a deeper customer context, where the meaning of Ocean Spray might transcend cranberries themselves?

Framing the big picture

This is the “big-picture” brand question that all companies continually face. There are times when the meaning of what they do (and can do) exceeds their products proper. They then look for ways to re-frame their brand to a bigger picture, one that recognizes the value they deliver, and that also opens new market opportunities.

Brands command a wider value horizon

What’s clear is that brands command a wider value horizon than products themselves. Because brands are a second skin, they can fit themselves to human imagination, desire and diversity. They manifest a protean power to connect with customers across many more dimensions than products themselves.

What are you a “brand of?”

Every brand decides what it wants to be “a brand of.” There are small-picture and big-picture options. The thumbnail view makes the brand a mere mark on the product. The landscape view sees through customer eyes, to that distant ridge line, and beyond.

Do you want to be a brand of shoes, or a brand of what shoes can do? A brand of computers, or a brand of personal expression? A brand of automobile, or a brand of driving?

Brand context is customer context

Your strongest “brand of” context almost always your big-picture brand. It’s a customer context, not a product context. It’s not based on what you say about yourself, or how you position yourself on a piece of paper. It’s based on what you deliver to customers, and how your brand deliverables enable customers to join with you.

Beyond the chew

A brand of bubble gum that’s just a mute mark on the package confines its “brand of” context to the chunk of gum itself. That’s weak. If you add a comic strip inside the wrapper you suddenly have a brand of entertainment. Add a baseball card and you have a brand of sports, or a brand of collecting, or a brand of socializing with other baseball fans. Invest some special quality in the gum and you have a different “something,” perhaps in a context stronger than all the rest.

These contexts are all possible because the brand has become an expression of the customer, not just a trade name for gum.

Brand context is hard core reality

Elevating your brand to a big-picture context is never easy. It’s a rendezvous with hard core reality. Promises are cheap; you have to deliver on the big picture you paint. The proof is in what your customers do with the brand, not in the narrow world of the brand itself.

A brand of cigarettes may style itself as a brand of rugged individualism. Based on what it delivers, it may be closer to a brand of emphysema. That’s the reality. Brands created as stylized sales stimulants open themselves to this predicament: if they’re more accountable to the sale than they are to the customer, they skew toward the make-believe, and hollow promises. They will have a price to pay later.

Developing the big-picture brand

A big-picture brand assessment considers these questions:

  1. How can our brand become a customer platform?
  2. What big-picture value can the brand deliver?
  3. Where can the brand lead the customer?
  4. What freedoms can the brand deliver?
  5. How can this new context grow the customer, and the business?

What’s key to this process is that your brand delivers a more satisfying reality to customers, rather than the mere appearance of one.

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Brands bring life into focus

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006


Great brands bring life into focus. And sharply, too. But, as any brand builder will tell you, this is no easy task. Success in this endeavor depends in part on how well brands elevate the art of language, so that new contexts of richness can prevail. Unfortunately, this process is increasingly difficult because certain forces act to debase language so it actually means less.

When meaning is drained from language via spin or hype, customers lose, brands lose, and companies lose. There is simply less context to go around. There’s less to stand on, less to share, and less for great leaps forward.

Preserving the richness of language

The BBC’s John Humphrys has some interesting observations on preserving the richness of language. From an excerpt in the Telegraph:

Word by word, we are at risk of dragging our language down to the lowest common denominator and we do so at the cost of its most precious qualities: subtlety and precision. If we’re happy to let our common public language be used in this way, communication will be reduced to a narrow range of basic meanings.

That, of course, would be rather convenient for the snake-oil salesmen, unscrupulous estate agents and (dare I say it?) even some politicians who might prefer not to be pinned down to anything too precise. But why should the rest of us settle for the lowest common denominator of communication?

Brands are the poetry of products

Let’s not forget that brands are the poetry of products. As the self-appointed poet-masters in this ‘hood, brand-builders have an investment in vibrant structures of meaning. They stand to gain mightily from advancing subtlety and precision in all they do. It’s up to them to show the way.

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Creating the customer for Google web apps

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

Google’s acquisition of wiki developer JotSpot represents another step forward for Google in creating customers for its online web applications. Google is mounting a classic low-end disruption attack against Microsoft’s dominant office suite in areas where mobility and collaboration are critical, and where rich levels of formatting, fonts, etc. are less important. JotSpot’s wiki capabilities join Google search, Gmail, Google Desktop, Google Notebook and Google’s new online Docs & Spreadsheets applications as part of a web-based suite that Google is assembling.

Is Google targeting higher education?

For Google’s web app initiative to succeed, it’s incumbent that Google create key customer groups who can become lead users for its online offering. Such groups might include collaboration-driven social and civic organizations, political groups, associations, clubs, NGO’s and non-profits . . . and so on.

However, one group might stand above the rest: the students, faculty and administrators of higher education. One can imagine a scenario where a Google server cluster at a university enables students to do research, take notes, write papers, create presentations and spreadsheets, and collaborate on class projects using (free) Google web apps and extensions. All the student would need is a standards-based browser such as Firefox or Camino.

This, of course, has major implications for education. It could expedite learning in the digital age, with standardized tools that are both simple and powerful. It means that a university’s students might be interacting and collaborating from anywhere in the world. There might even be a new form of university—as an ivy-covered wiki.

Will Google become the Nike of academics?

So maybe that’s Google’s plan: to use these web apps to provide the course work, writing and note-taking infrastructure for education, saving big bucks all around and providing new flexibility (and freedoms) for students, teachers, and administrators. If adopted on a wide scale, this might enable Google to become the Nike of academics. Not as a sponsor, of course, but as a universal presence configured to each institution’s needs. You might go to Harvard or Yale, and spend most of your time in Google.

If that’s the case, then Google already knows this customer fairly well.

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