Archive for October, 2007

What brands do

Sunday, October 28th, 2007


In my perpetual quest to distill the mission and modes of brand building, I’m updating this earlier post. It’s a manifesto (sort-of) for value-based brands.

You’ll notice some major differences between this approach and those of traditional brand practice.

What brands do

Brands create customers. They lead them to new levels of awareness, new shapes of self, new realms of achievement, new forms of being and doing. This is important because your customers are your greatest competitive weapon. How your brands create and grow customers determines the long-term success of your business.

Brands are company potential X customer potential

Brands multiply the potential of your company by the potential of your customers. They are company potential X customer potential: the brand exponential. Brands can raise your customer relationship from a simple two-way street to vibrant avenues of innovation. These can open new markets and leave competitors far behind.

Brands are value-based

Brands are value-based: they deliver value customers can use, in an infinite variety of forms. Brands are much more than traditional signs, symbols, spectacle, messages, gestures and concocted “brand personalities.” Often, these only alienate a business from its customer potential.

Brands are enablers

Your brand is more enabler than meme. It enables customers to go where they want to go, and to do more, and be more, through you. This is a creative nexus that can plumb all human dimensions. A good balance is 80% means, 20% meme. We are now in the third phase of brand evolution: from mark, to media, to means.

Brands free customers to grow

Your brand frees customers to grow, and to take you with them, using the programs and platforms you provide. Your brand strategy is your growth strategy.

Brands break down barriers for customers. They cut across boundaries, leap walls, undercut silos, disrupt hierarchies. The best brands liberate customers to flourish on more creative and more productive levels. Customers can feel the difference—in a heartbeat.

Brand building is a form of innovation

Brands are avenues of value innovation in a creative engagement between companies and their customers. Brand building itself is a form of innovation. Brand builders are customer-side innovators, working closely with innovators on the product side, and with customers themselves. Brand builders innovate in the context of customers, and deep, deep, deep in the context of culture.

Brands aimed at “consumers” head downhill

Brands predicated on passive “consumers” have nowhere to go but down—to the lowest common denominator. They impose a strategic cap on themselves because they position consumers as commodities. They’re a commodity proposition, not a brand proposition. They are no match for brands predicated on customers: proactive partners and co-creators of brand value.

Brands are action-focused

Brands induce action. They are not a glossy coat, a dreamy myth, or a doctrine of belief that locks customers in place. Brands are a system for getting things done.

Brands have a sense of urgency. They flourish in the here and now. They perform, and they’re measured by what they do.

The brand mission

The brand mission can be refined to a simple, three-part directive: Grow the customer, grow the brand, grow the business. That’s what brand builders do. Their job is to grow your customers beyond the reach of competitors.

Why brand builders matter

Brand builders can see a company’s future through its customers’ eyes. There is no greater gift, or source of advantage.

Coda

The best way to make your products fly off the shelf is to give wings to your customers. Your brand is their ticket to fly.

Photo: hawaii — Flickr
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Some brands go medieval on their customers

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Here we are in the year 2011, yet when we analyze current brand practice it appears that some brands behave as if we’re still in the Middle Ages, way back in the year 1011. In effect, they go medieval on their customers, treating them as a passive flock whose fate is to be told what to believe—and then to believe it heart and soul.

Medieval messaging

The medieval model of brands assumes a static, stratified society with brands on top and customers below. It puts the company on a throne, or in a pulpit, high above customers, dispensing brand doctrine to (hoped for) awestruck believers. It’s very much a one-way show of medieval messaging. And these days, it’s also a risky one.

Times have changed

It’s risky because times have indeed changed. The year 2011 is not the year 1011. When it comes to brands, the medieval approach now stands out as a potential brand weakness, for three reasons: 1) the medieval style places artificial barriers between companies and their customers; 2 it positions customers as a passive audience, who can’t add value back to the brand; and 3) it relies on closed brand doctrine, minimizing brand innovation and shared discovery.

A containment agenda

The medieval style of brands follows a containment agenda. It wants to freeze time, and to freeze customers in place—in 2011!—when customers have more to offer brands than ever before. In the medieval model, a brand that might become a joint (customer) venture with a live edge is reduced to a steady stream of preachments from on high, into a confined, compressed 2-D space without perspective or horizons—with no place for customers to grow.

Elements of the medieval model

The medieval model for brands typically sustains itself by using indoctrination techniques to instill desired beliefs and emotions in customers. It does this instead of innovating to create new brand value. Its brands are designed as messages, rather than as avenues of innovation.

The medieval model includes:

1. A belief system (doctrine) based on glorifying the company and the brand
2. A top-down process of inculcation (”messaging”)
3. A static universe untouched by innovation and change
4. Use of music, images, symbols, signs and icons to foster and fortify belief
5. Rituals and rites of passage
6. Myths and stories to make the brand appear real–and magical
7. A passive and dependent role for the customer, as a credulous believer

Medieval style brands invite disruption

As the world transitions to a digital age, leaving much of traditional mass media behind, brands that embrace the medieval style become increasingly vulnerable to brand innovation from competitors, and to brand disruption from below, where customers chart a new course for themselves. By confining customers and holding them back, the medieval model works against itself. It helps make its customers ripe for the taking.

What shape will that customer liberation take? It will be participative, decentralized, proactive and bottom-up, just like the advent of printing, the growth of cities and private enterprise and popular movements helped sweep Europe out of the Middle Ages into a much more vigorous and productive era.

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Timeless brands make time for their customers

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

As brand builders, we do everything we can to create “timeless” brands. In the heat of this effort, though, it’s easy to forget that the first step to becoming a timeless brand is to make time for customers. To begin this process, a brand must recognize that its customers are not external “targets” to be aimed at. Customers are part of the brand essence, just as much as the company and its products.

Factor your customers into your brand

You make time for your customers when you include their interests in key decisions you make affecting company policies, innovation, product performance, quality and trust. The time you spend factoring your customers into your brand is time well spent. Your unique brand emerges when your customers are part of you—and vice versa. In this bond, there’s no room for competitors.

A case in point: modern watches

When it comes to making time for your customers, modern watches (some pun intended) are a case in point. I’ve come across an excellent example that I’ll detail below.

Brands function on customer time

Consider the above wristwatch. With four dials, it’s a work of engineering and watchmaking art. This particular model doesn’t need batteries, nor does it need to be wound. It’s solar powered, and can run for months once it’s been charged by light. It’s a precise chronograph, yet can also operate 300 ft. below the surface of the ocean. Similar models feature perpetual calendars, alarms, and multiple time zones. As power-packed timekeeping machines such watches work all sorts of miracles—once you figure out how to set them properly.

The set-up is the rub

Alas, the set-up is the rub. Brands function on customer time. A brand of powerful watches that doesn’t embrace customers as part of its brand essence is effectively taking its product off its customers’ wrists. From a brand perspective, the greatest feature of any watch is the customer who wears it. That person sells the brand ten times over by showing everyone what a great piece of gear it is.

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Soon, your brand may want to “AIR it”

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

The new Adobe AIR platform (Beta) promises to be a boon for brands. If AIR delivers on its potential, brands may soon burst forth with new drama—and relevance—in new digital dimensions.

You can think of Adobe AIR as a feature-rich way to connect your brand with customers via computers and digital devices. AIR has been developed to combine the immediacy of the Web with the power and graphics of desktop applications. Potentially, it’s a “best of both worlds” platform that brand builders can use to extend their brands into new contexts, and to create many new levels of customer experience and interaction.

(AIR is Adobe’s new brand name for its updated rich Internet platform previously code-named Apollo. I’ve written about Apollo and brands here and here.)

Realizing the dream of “rich” brand applications

Adobe AIR represents another step toward realizing the brand-builder’s dream of “rich” personal brand applications that can act as a “second skin” to customers. AIR may enable your brand to act as a digital sidekick, personalized to the customer, always on, timely, deep, trustworthy, engaging, interactive and portable.

Potentially, AIR’s multimedia and functional capabilities open up vibrant new avenues of brand/customer interaction.

A new world for brands

From my perspective, it’s not an exaggeration to say that AIR opens a new world for brands. If your brand has primarily existed as a name or a symbol, AIR can make it come alive in new (digital) customer context. In effect, AIR lets you transform your brand into a customer-focused application to do something fundamentally useful, or something astonishingly cool. This can be anything that connects you and your customers around a shared passion. It’s a way to bundle the customer to the protean meme that’s you. You may not think of your business or brand as a meme, but AIR may well change the game in this direction.

Proof of concept applications

You can check out the first blush of AIR applications at the Adobe AIR showcase gallery. Many of these are in the “proof of concept” stage, but observe how Anthropologie uses AIR in an online retail setting. There are some nifty features here, but they only scratch the surface of AIR’s creative brand potential.

For instance, your brand might use AIR to create a free soft phone for customers. Let them call each other during a prime-time event, such as the Super Bowl or March Madness. Add whatever features you want to the phone to make their interactions with each other, and with you, more compelling.

Another potential brand application using AIR

I can imagine visiting an art exhibit with AIR on a digital device, and downloading an exhibit guide on entering via Wi-Fi. Now the guide is on my device, along with a map of the museum. It provides me with audio, music and visual analyses of the art on display, plus layers of background detail. If I want, I can add notes as I meander through the artwork. I can shift back and forth between artists, and even compare works on the screen. Or I might select the different works I want to see and have the guide plot a course for me through the halls. One part of the guide is a retail shop, so as I’m traipsing around I can order prints, which will be waiting for me at the museum shop at the end of my tour. Later, I’ll transfer the guide to my laptop, where it will be a detailed memento of my visit, possibly with a live link to the museum for news on upcoming exhibits and events.

The museum may provide this guide in support of its own brand, or it may be co-sponsored by a brand that shares common ground with exhibit visitors. With AIR, what starts with an event may become a long-term connection.

Widgets

AIR is tailor made for widgets, and AIR widgets may eventually rule the widget and gadget class. They can include so much more of the customer than other current widget/gadget approaches.

Our brand needs a lift: let’s AIR it

AIR is scheduled for formal release later this year. The AIR platform holds such promise for digital brand connections that brand teams may soon be discussing which new brand applications deserve the rich features of an AIR treatment. “Let’s AIR it” may become a brand mantra in 2008 and beyond.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons
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How the iPod redefines newspaper brands

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Jeff Jarvis has the story over at BuzzMachine.

The “iPod moment”

As Jeff sees it, an historic “iPod moment” occurs in the media biz when customers routinely use the iPod to access a particular form of media, instead of using the traditional branded format. Unless traditional brands can leap ahead of the customer and welcome them to new digital domains—and the freedoms they provide—the old brands don’t have a chance.

Music labels were the first domino to fall.

“Reading the news”—redefined

From Jeff’s perspective, an iPod moment is now taking shape as the new iPod iTouch, with its glorious screen, emerges as a default reader for all things news, via the iTouch’s Wi-Fi connection. This will deliver immediate, unlimited news, will save a zillion trees in the process, and will push traditional newspaper brands, with all their brand heritage, authenticity and tradition, further toward the pulp pile.

It’s a case of what can happen to legacy brands when what they deliver is now done (better) by someone else.

Changing the game by changing the customer

The iPod (and the Web in general) have redefined newspaper brands by advancing news reading citizens beyond the reach of traditional newspapers themselves. They put more news value in the hands of customers, 24/7, in ways that customers can use. The old brands are still there, but they matter less, because they have less customer in them.

Simply stated, new digital technologies like the iPod have changed the game by changing the customer.

Questions for newspapers to answer

Jeff lists the critical questions that newspapers must answer:

How do we use this wonderful device to give people the news and links whenever, wherever, and however they want it? How do we do that with incredible efficiency? How do we make it local and relevant? How do we take advantage of the two-way relationship we now have, enabling people with these gadgets to share what they know? And – here’s what everyone really means when they talk about iPod moments – how do we make money doing it?

Re-creating the news customer

In other words, newspapers have to re-create their customers. This is a brand strategy task, driven by the dynamics of growing customer capabilities instead of perpetuating the legacy constraints of paper and ink. For newspapers, trying to contain customers, or to hold them back from the Web’s promise, is the wrong brand agenda. It’s a losing battle from the get-go.

The brand challenge for news organizations

For news organizations, the key brand challenge is to differentiate their customers from ignorance, not from each other. Do that, and your customers will follow.

One way to proceed is for newspapers to identify and model the well-informed and well-connected citizen that tomorrow’s world will need. That new model is the basis for the future newspaper brand platform, one that can advance customers—and their communities—irrespective of media formats.

Beyond “commodity” news

While some aspects of the Web may have made “news” a commodity, the proliferation of available information has made insight and intelligence, and context and meaning, all the more valuable. News organizations may want to build their fresh brands around that.

Photo: mlcastle — Flickr

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Can the Crocs brand step out beyond footwear?

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

When a business launches with an iconic product, it may discover, sometime down the road, that the product is on the verge of icon wear-out. Business growth slows. It’s in these situations that the brand must come to the rescue. That’s because the brand (when properly conceived) includes the customer in the icon. This is a critical step, because customers are infinitely protean, proactive and (self) sustainable. They never wear out.

When your iconic product falters, it’s time to tap into your iconic customer—the one created by your brand.

The Crocs brand in transition

We can see elements of this brand transition taking shape in Crocs, the highly successful, breakout brand of colorful foam clogs. Crocs has the daunting challenge of building (and sustaining) the Crocs brand beyond its original comfy beachwear cachet. As pointed out by the Wall Street Journal, Crocs is rapidly diversifying, and none too soon. The brand is under particular pressure from short sellers who are betting that Crocs is a fad—and not a sustainable brand.

Short sellers vs. the brand

Short sellers currently hold about 20% of CROX shares. According to the Journal, holders of short positions believe that Crocs is a one-trick pony, a fashion craze that will soon crash as customers lose interest and move on. In the short seller view, Crocs are Krispy Kreme for the feet.

In essence, short sellers believe that a company’s share price has overshot its brand. They profit when a stock price falls. A typical short-seller assessment is here. (Investors with short positions can lose their shirts when a stock price rises, so short seller assessments have a vested interest in being negative.)

And Crocs imitators everywhere

The Crocs brand challenge is even more difficult because there are scads of Crocs clog imitators in the market, selling at one-third the price—around $10 in the SF Bay Area. They may lack the segment-leading Crocs design and engineering, but their ubiquity testifies to a market for inexpensive foam-clog “fun shoes.” (Crocs has aggressively protected its brand in court.)

Where does a brand go for its second act?

So, what does a company do when 20% of its shares are visibly being bet against the brand, and low-price icon-imitators are everywhere? Where does a brand go for its second act?

It usually has two choices:

  1. Reach back into its marketing bag of tricks to keep its head above water.
  2. Reach out to customers to change the game, and get back on dry land—in a space it can own.

Call in the Ansoff Matrix

A first marketing step is usually to fill the whiteboards with some version of the Ansoff Matrix, so a company can systematically probe opportunities in Market Penetration, Market Development, Product Development and Diversification.

Crocs seems to be doing just that.

As the WSJ article notes, Crocs is diversifying into apparel, with Crocs branded shirts, pants and jackets. (The immediate brand connection is apparently that croslite, the plastic resin from which Crocs footwear is made, will somehow be incorporated into the apparel. From the Crocs site it’s not yet clear how this will be done, or how it will add new value.)

Crocs is also doing sponsorships (Pro Beach Volleyball), folk/rock campus tours, segment licensing deals (Disney, NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL), moving ahead with customized shoe add-ons via an acquisition, and developing new footwear lines, including mammoth, a fleecy Crocs made for cold climes. There is also CroxRx for pediatric purposes, Crocs work shoes (potential markets for nurses, waiters and other service personnel), a substantial kid’s line, and new leather and canvas shoes (with croslite soles).

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