Archive for February, 2008

Google Sites: a potential brand builder tool

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Google has released Google Sites, a lightweight, collaborative web-based application that may be a useful tool for brand builders. If it meets a company’s security requirements, I can see it being useful for internal brand building, collaborating on new brand approaches and just making the brand team more accessible to the rest of the company.

Google Sites supports rich content such as videos, presentations, photo slide shows, and calendars.


Brand secrets of Trader Joe’s

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Business Week reports on what makes Trader Joe’s so attractive to customers. It includes a number of examples comparing the shopping experience at Trader Joe’s vs. shopping at conventional supermarkets. Well worth reading.

Brand first, store second

As I see it, the key to Trader Joe’s success is that it’s a brand first, and a store second. The brand imparts a unique customer logic (or customer predicate) to the store, and customers interact with—and evolve—this logic, giving the store a very intimate feel, even without the usual jam-packed aisles. It’s a brand approach in which Trader Joe’s presents itself as a buying agent for customers rather than as a grocery chain trying to unload stuff from its shelves.

Private labels are the stars of the show

Trader Joe’s carries about 2000 products, and about 80% of these are Trader Joe’s own brands. At most grocery stores, such private labels maintain a secondary presence. They exist as a means to under-price selected “name” brands in certain categories. At Trader Joe’s, however, the store brands are the stars of the show. They evoke the brand logic; they forge customer connections; and they produce a much more integrated shopping experience than the brand cacophony of conventional grocery stores.

Trader Joe’s scales its brands to customers

What’s also unique is that Trader Joe’s scales its own brands to customers. There’s no marketing megaphone hyping products from on high. That helps make the brands eminently social, and sociable. They are brands in the context of the customer, not brands in the context of a far-off producer, or a third-party media campaign. At Trader Joe’s, store, products and customers move largely as one.

I wrote about Trader Joe’s previously, here and here.


The Sharper Image bankruptcy: how failing to create customers can undermine a brand

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

There’s a sober brand lesson behind the recent announcement that The Sharper Image has filed for bankruptcy protection. If your brand has no idea of the customer that it needs to create, every new product you introduce can actually undermine your brand, leaving you vulnerable to death by a thousand brand cuts, all of them self-inflicted.

Brand cuts—and why they sting

The act of creating customers builds a strong customer context for the brand. Without this context, new products can appear as random events, cluttering the brand and masking brand value. Each new (random) product cuts into the brand, unintentionally to be sure, but a cut nonetheless. Instead of deepening customer relationships, the new products create more distance between a company and its customers. In time, the brand is shredded from within. Customers lose interest, wondering why the company lost interest in them.

No coherent brand strategy

The Sharper Image is an example of what happens to a company without a coherent brand strategy. “Coherent” in this sense means that the brand has to include the customer. And more to the point, the brand must have a definite customer in mind that it desires to create, a proactive customer type that will drive the business forward and add value back to the brand.

A seller’s brand

Unfortunately, The Sharper Image brand never really included its customers. As a brand, it was all about The Sharper Image. It was a prototypical seller’s brand, rich in merchandising and marketing, but one that could never conceive of its customers as anything other than passive “targets.” It never managed to create a customer context and a customer culture, two critical elements that fall into place during the customer creation process.

A brand of novelty, not innovation

Although The Sharper Image liked to posture itself as a brand of innovation, it was really a brand of novelty. It was a novelty store featuring electronic and digital gadgets. It promised and delivered novelty, although in later years, with items such as Trump Steaks, the novelty itself seemed rather forced.

Compared to Abercrombie & Fitch

It’s productive to compare The Sharper Image brand with that of Abercrombie & Fitch. The Abercrombie & Fitch brand knows how to create a customer. For many customers, the brand is liberating; it enables breakout behaviors. The brand points customers in a certain direction. It opens doors they could not open by themselves.

What new customer freedoms does The Sharper Image brand enable? What doors does it open? In what key direction does it point its customers? What new holistic truths does it reveal, or evoke? How does it promise to change it’s customers? These are key questions the brand never answered, or didn’t answer well.

The health angle bottomed out

For a while, The Sharper Image appeared as a brand of healthy living thanks to its many air purifier products featuring ionization technologies. But the company’s health claims for these products were debunked by Consumer Reports, and later became the subject of a major class-action lawsuit, which the company lost settled. It never seemed to recover after these blows.

The dangers of excluding customers from the brand

Some might consider The Sharper Image as simply a “1980’s company” that had outlived its usefulness, ultimately done in by real innovations on computers, the Internet, cell phones, instant messaging, etc. No doubt there’s some truth to that. Yet, had the company actively created its customers during its heyday, it would have had some valuable help in its time of need—and perhaps even before then. By excluding customers from its brand, it ultimately excluded them from its future.

Photo: Henthorn — Flickr

The fate of brands after peak oil

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

For strategic purposes, strong brands plan out the customers they’ll be creating three and five years ahead. These days, brands are thinking about those customers in a radically different context: after peak oil.

Most brands were birthed in an age of cheap oil

It’s easy to forget that most current brands were birthed in an age of cheap oil. In fact, many brands are predicated on cheap oil. These would include brands of motor vehicles, airlines, travel, hotels, destinations, and fast food, not to mention credit cards and insurance. They also include a whole slew of less obvious retail brands built around car-based shopping—especially in the far-flung suburbs, the American cheap oil nirvana.

The brand ride on cheap oil is over

There’s mounting evidence that we’re now reaching the point of “peak oil,” after which easily recoverable oil is on the decline. Some say we have passed it. With oil currently around $100 a barrel, and the US price of gasoline over $3 a gallon, the brand ride on cheap oil looks to be over. Even if oil prices stabilize, they won’t return to the balmy days of the 426 Hemi and midnight runs to the IHOP.

For brands, this probably means, among other things:

  1. Cars become more of a “cost”—and a different lifestyle lever
  2. Micro trumps mega
  3. “Excess” is decay
  4. Brands should take a hard look at their energy assumptions

A brand vacuum waiting to be filled

So, what should brands do? They can’t ignore high energy prices, or look the other way as customers wince at the cost of a fill-up at the pump. Customer wallets are hurting, and many customer lifestyles will soon be riding on fumes. Their world is shrinking—somewhat—and they need new brand contexts to bring it together.

Yes, peak oil doesn’t have to mean “peak brands.” Peak oil is a brand opportunity. It’s a brand vacuum waiting to be filled. To provide customers with new forms of meaningful living, a brand might develop new contexts of energy and lifestyle as part of its competitive strategy, with the brand as a new customer ally going forward.

Every brand needs an energy strategy

Brands that ignore the rising cost of oil do so at their own risk. In other words, every brand now needs an energy strategy. At a minimum, every brand will eventually become a brand of energy conservation and energy efficiency, in some unique context, with appropriate brand programs. Brands that lead decisively in this new context will fare better than those who stubbornly cling to yesterday’s assumptions.

Brands as energy producers

There’s much more to it than that, however. After peak oil the nature of brands will change. Brands will have to create customers who can prosper in a universe of less oil. Better yet, brands will need to become energy producers.

Yes, that’s correct. Brands will need to become energy producers.

Observe the electric meter to the left. Imagine that meter attached to your customer. The dials and wheels spin to indicate energy usage. The mission of your brand will be to add energy into the customer so that the meter moves in the opposite direction, meaning that the customer gains energy from the brand. This will be a creative, cultural energy that offsets the rising price of oil and oil-based products.

Brand energy is customer energy

So, how does a company produce such brand energy? It’s a creative process that taps into multiple customer needs across multiple dimensions. Brand energy is customer energy. Use your imagination to find the context that’s best for your business, and your customers.

Some potential avenues:

  1. Your brand 1) creates customers, and 2) creates the customer energy to help customers lead uniquely rich, fulfilling lives. Your brand makes up the shortfall in fuel with an abundance of carefully-crafted cultural steps.
  2. Redefine energy. It’s not what a customer “burns,” but what a customer creates.
  3. A brand’s energy strategy is not “doing more with less.” It is a different kind of “more.”
  4. A rising cost of oil need not impede a rising level of living. The brand maps out new riches, and helps the customer change gears.
  5. Make oil (largely) irrelevant.
  6. Create high performance customers who achieve more for themselves via the creative auspices of the brand. Change your customer metaphor from “consumer” to “creator.”
  7. Through your brand, enable customers to “forge independence,” not just “save energy.”

Post-carbon brands for post-carbon cities

Professor Gregory Clark has outlined a quality of life scenario in the post-peak oil era. Today’s energy rich societies won’t necessarily be any poorer. They’ll just have to rearrange their priorities so they can be wealthy and prosperous while using far less energy.

Along the same lines, Denmark has taken the lead in developing post-carbon cities, workplaces and environments. Post-carbon brands are sure to follow.

Denmark does seem to be a happy place.

Photo: CoreBurn — Flickr

Google: the brand behind the logo

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Behind every logo is a brand trying to reach out to customers. Since a designer’s job is to help a company unfold its potential, one hires the best designer one can afford when developing the identity and logo. A good designer can raise a logo from “packaging” to long-term brand performance.

Wired’s How Google got its colorful logo describes the iterative steps taken by Google’s founders and their designer to work out the current Google logotype. The step-by-step details are fascinating. Through design, the brand behind the logo emerges front and center.

A brand identity with a customer context

Sergey Brin and Larry Page knew what they wanted in the Google identity, but weren’t sure how to express it. The different design iterations helped birth a Google brand identity with a strong customer context. For starters, the logo/brand respects customers, by not getting in the way of doing a search. Second, the generous white space on the search page sets off the logo, and invites customers in. That big white space is customer space. Third, the vivid colors announce that this is a space for human expression—where Google and searchers team up.

Room to grow the brand

Of course, the Google logo itself doesn’t make Google search any better. You need sharp engineers for that. What it does do, however, is provide room to grow the brand. The design helps make the Google brand friendly, relaxing, inviting, unpretentious, fun and productive, so that Google connotes discovery and opportunity, never “work.” Long-term, this can set an engaging tone that makes adding more Google apps and services to one’s life easy, or maybe even automatic.

And then there are Google Doodles.

Logo: Google

How to define the brand mission

Friday, February 8th, 2008

One of the first steps in building a brand is often one of the hardest: defining the brand mission. This is a strategic brand step that, frankly, can make or break a brand. It involves much more than deciding “who we are” and “what we stand for,” and it certainly demands much more than lofty phrases about brand identity, brand promise and keeping customers happy.

A brand mission is also a far cry from a papered-up “mission statement.” Gaze for a moment at those stalwart fellows in the picture above. Are they reading a mission statement? No, they are on a mission. That’s where your brand belongs.

Most brand missions don’t go far enough

Most brands have a defined “mission.” The problem is that most brand missions don’t go far enough. In broad brush strokes, we can identify three main areas where brand missions often fall short:

  1. They don’t provide strategic direction to the business
  2. They’re not primary tools to create customers, and customer value
  3. They’re framed as corporate communications rather than action steps to drive the company (and its customers) forward

We’ll discuss these elements in the following sections, after we first define the purpose of the brand mission itself.

The purpose of the brand mission: create the customers that will drive the business forward

In general terms, a company’s brand mission is to create the customers that will drive the business forward. Yes, the brand mission is all about creating customers. Defining the brand mission in this context means that the brand team has to set up shop at the core of business. Creating the brand mission involves pulling together a company’s vision, strategic direction, intended product development, and marketing and operations priorities. From these, we then map out the platform strategies for creating brand value and creating customers.

How to approach the brand mission

Defining the brand mission is never an exercise in wordsmithing, although that’s often as far as it gets for many brands. In our approach, here are three new ways to think about the brand mission.

  1. In the brand mission process, you dial into yourself so that you and your customers can dial out to a bigger and better universe—and then go there.
  2. Brands are company potential X customer potential. That X right there in the middle is the brand mission. (And that’s why brand builders are essential.)
  3. The brand mission is a Harley, not a hymnal.

The brand mission pushes the limits of the company

A brand mission should push the limits of the company, because the goal of the brand mission is to take the company (and its customers) into new market spaces where competitors can’t follow. That calls for a strong sense of market direction, opportunity development, value innovation, and customer collaboration.

Effectively, the brand mission combines: company mission + customer mission + business mission. It does so using all the weapons in a company’s strategic, creative, expressive and innovative arsenal.

The brand mission sets the company’s future in motion

Defining the brand mission sets the company’s future in motion. It is casting the die: alea iacta est. In many ways, it’s the defining act of corporate vision, and courage.

Brands need a mission, not a “mission statement”

Companies may be tempted to bypass the brand mission and instead settle for a nice-sounding “mission statement” that’s formally approved then stuck in a drawer. Such brand mission statements can be dangerous, for two reasons. First, they can lull a company into believing that it’s brand mission is solid, when actually it’s vulnerable. Second, making the brand mission a “statement” can reduce the brand to a “paper brand” of words, rather than an active brand of deeds. A paper brand can regress to superficial styling, symbols, slogans and puffed up “personality” attributes. These can give a brand the strategic clout of window dressing, and place it at a competitive disadvantage.

Short and sweet, vital and visceral

The brand mission should be short and sweet, vital and visceral. It’s a way to focus energy, action and innovation within a company, and between a company and its customers.

  1. A brand mission doesn’t describe; it activates.
  2. It is direct, never delegated.
  3. It leads by example.
  4. It works as a force from within, not doctrine from above.

Employees and customers should see evidence of the brand mission everywhere. And they should feel it. It’s the shared pulse that carries everyone forward.

A framework for action

What the brand mission delivers to customers is more important than what it says in gold-lettered parchment on the wall. Your brand is what you deliver, not what you promise. The brand mission is a framework for action; it is not meant to be framed.

Generally, the less said, the better.



Brand touchpoints from Boeing engineers

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Boeing is offering airlines new brand touchpoints in its advanced Boeing 787 Dreamliner passenger planes—in the form of new seating layouts. For a “premium economy class” on the airplane Boeing has designed a new three–two–three arrangement (see above) intended to be “more efficient at making people more comfortable.” Boeing also offers a more traditional two–four–two configuration.

Space to relax: a critical brand touchpoint

Customer research by Boeing led to the new three–two–three layout. Says Boeing:

In economy, if you get an empty seat next to you, it feels like you’ve won the lottery. With a triple, for every empty seat two passengers benefit, whereas with doubles and quads it only makes one passenger more comfortable.

So far, reaction from airlines has been “mixed.”

Flightglobal has the story, and more details.

Brand dividends from subtle changes

Airlines that are brands of flying comfort and convenience may find that these simple geometry changes can pay significant brand dividends. The subtle differences between them might transform a brand experience from a cramped ordeal to a restful flight.

I always wonder how many innovations from Boeing and other aircraft makers never make it into the cabins of passenger planes, since it’s the airlines who make the final call. More than a few, I’d guess.

Illustration: Boeing, via Flightglobal

Brand vs. store brand

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Today on a container of Cetaphil I read these words: “The makers of CETAPHIL do not manufacture store brands.”

I had never seen this type of statement on product packaging before. It’s information that may be good to know.