Archive for February, 2009

Brand platform innovation at Whole Foods

Friday, February 27th, 2009


It’s worth remembering that real brand innovation happens at the structural level, not at the campaign level. For example, it’s a case of brand innovation when Whole Foods makes low-interest loans to local producers to help them bring new sustainable goods to market. This is a smart (and strategic) brand move, for three reasons.

  1. It helps build the Whole Foods brand platform.
  2. It helps Whole Foods innovate with streams of new products.
  3. It raises the brand bar in ways that mainstream grocery chains can’t match.

The loan program thus conveys a strategic advantage to Whole Foods. That’s a pretty nifty brand move that competitors like Safeway (or even Trader Joe’s) may find hard to duplicate.

Let’s see how all this works together.



The operating brand principle: the closer you look, the better we look

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

The only way to develop a brand is to formulate the brand as a core operating principle of the business. We set aside the brand as a glossy “communication” —or any other kind of fluff— and dial it down to a short and sweet operating brand principle. We then build it out from there.

We situate the brand in the gears and guts of the business

To make this happen we first strip away the outer brand layers. We want to situate the brand in the gears and guts of the business, not in some fabricated haze of “meaning.” So out goes any made-up “brand personality,” any brand campaign bells and whistles, and any brand postures and brand gestures. And we set aside the identity manual and all the existing programs and proclamations. The brand that’s left should be keyed to the very flesh and bone of the business.

The brand as an operating principle of the business

What we’re looking for is a root form of brand vision and commitment that will function as the operating principle of the business. As such, we want it to accomplish three goals:

  1. Guide employee attitudes and behavior
  2. Guide corporate behavior, internal and external
  3. Create a context of visionary innovation that invites productive interactions and relationships with customers, shareholders, the public and other stakeholders

A brand principle of accountability, quality and trust

We can think of this operating brand principle as an ur principle that establishes three critical frameworks for the brand, and the business:

  1. A framework for accountability
  2. A framework for quality
  3. A framework for trust

As you can see, our “back to basics” approach taps into the values that anchor great companies, and great brands. We are transforming the brand from a business communication to a business predicate. The latter will have far greater impact on customers, and on markets.



Is that oriental, soft oriental, or floral oriental?

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009


Brand builders have to know their scents, and there’s a trillion of ’em.

Can you identify this perfume?

Top notes blend mandarin, bergamot and vanillin with subtle green notes. Middle notes are a blend of jasmine, orange blossom, sandalwood and exotic spices such as coriander and marigold. The base is a warm amber mingled with oakmoss, incense and musk.

Well, neither could I. It’s Obsession by Calvin Klein.

A new Fragrance Directory, and Fragrance Wheel

There is now an online Fragrance Directory, with thousands of individual perfumes, and a very helpful Fragrance Wheel (in Flash) to help you navigate the fragrance notes from floral to oriental to woody to fresh.

All thanks to the Fragrance Foundation.

Sharpen your sense of scent and you can take home a FiFi.

Hat tip: ResearchBuzz.
Photo: narumi_k — Flickr


Pepsi: an identity less iconic?

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Several decades ago, Steve Jobs recruited Pepsi’s John Sculley to Apple by telling him that at Apple he could change the world, while at Pepsi all he could do was sell sugar water.

New Pepsi Logo

Fast forward 25 years. Apple under Jobs has been changing the world left and right, having just reinvented the music and mobile phone industries.

Meanwhile, over at Pepsi, the decades of sugar water may have finally taken their toll. The company has invested heavily in a controversial new Pepsi logo (left), that may not add to Pepsi’s iconic stature. In fact, the new logo may serve to undermine Pepsi’s strategic identity.

An identity less iconic?

As stated by Pepsi, the goal of the new design was a “quantum leap” that would transform the soft drink category, and define Pepsi as a “cultural leader.”

So far, the new design has generated its share of skeptics. Some thought it borrowed a bit too freely from the Obama campaign logo. Others saw it as a mashup of Pac Man and a Smiley. On a more fundamental level, there’s concern that the new logo may actually diminish the Pepsi brand, creating a Pepsi identity that is decidedly less iconic.

Consider Tony Spaeth’s measured comments in Ad Age:

It’s tilting the whole brand presentation from a classic expression of uniqueness and quality into something that is much more humorous, almost flippant. It worries me that it is less durable, less permanent and classic. It comes across as more of a campaign idea than an enduring brand expression.

I think Tony is on to something quite profound when he notes that the new logo “comes across as more of a campaign idea than an enduring brand expression.” I would add that the new logo may represent a retreat from identity for Pepsi–with long-term brand consequences.



Customers drive brand growth, not features

Saturday, February 21st, 2009


Kontra in counternotions describes how the big mobile handset makers opened the door for the iPhone by neglecting the customer context of mobile communications–which is powered more by software than hardware. Apple uses this context to create an integrated, customer-focused platform for the iPhone, from iTunes through the App Store. This brand platform (for that’s what is is) raises customers to an entirely new level, and forms a daunting barrier to competitors.

The established vendors had locked themselves in a fixed world of  “device thinking,” where the name of their game was “features.” They are now playing catch-up to Apple.

Features are not the brand team’s best friend

I would add that it’s the precisely the job of brand team to find ways to develop the potential customer context of a business–as far from “features” as possible. This means building out integrated customer/brand platforms in every customer dimension. In this endeavor, classic product “features” are not the brand team’s best friend. While Nokia, Samsung, et. al. are notable brands of handsets, they’re not much more than that. As such, their feature-rich brands are context constrained. They’re not the stuff of brand platforms.

In contrast, the iPhone, as an integrated platform, behaves like an extension of you. Its software makes you feel like its potential (and yours) is open-ended. That’s how a brand platform operates.



Honey laundering: a threat to honey brands

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009


Yes, “honey laundering.” A fascinating (and rather disturbing) report in the Seattle Post Intelligencer describes how large quantities of honey imported into the US are criminally “laundered” through third-party countries to evade import regulations, duties and fees. Laundering also hides those responsible for shipping substandard honey to the US. Some imported shipments have been diluted with sugar water or corn syrup. Others have been contaminated with pesticides or antibiotics.

An issue of brand trust

The quality and provenance of imported honey is important because 40% of the honey consumed in the US  comes from overseas. On the brand front, honey laundering has created a major issue of brand trust for the US brands that use imported honey to fill our supermarket shelves. How can those brands protect their customers from potentially adulterated, tainted, untraceable honey . . . or worse?

The risk to the public is very real, according to one  US inspector.



Inside the Apple brand

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

At Apple’s most recent earnings call COO Tim Cook began his portion with a short riff on Apple’s vision and character, to reassure analysts that Apple was in no imminent danger of collapse with Steve Jobs away on medical leave.

We are on the face of the earth to make great products

Some of what Cook said was quite profound. He said this about Apple:

We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and that’s not changing.

Not many companies see themselves–and their challenge–in such an elemental context. What’s amazing is that this is an entirely credible statement coming from Apple. They have the game-changing products and services to back it up.

Could Michael Dell say the same thing about his company, with a straight face? How about Steve Ballmer? Would anyone believe them?

Are there people in Redmond placed on the face of the earth to create the Zune? That could be scary.

The brand as destiny

What Apple taps into here is the brand as destiny. It’s the brand as primordial power, a prime mover of creation, culture and context, and never, ever, an add-on.  It’s akin to Dylan Thomas’s, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

Great companies know the feeling. The brand is an operating principle that pervades all aspects of the business. It’s a force, and poetry, and something like kaizen.

Tim Cook’s statement at the earnings call

Here’s more of what Tim Cook said when he first spoke during the earnings call. There’s perhaps a wee bit of (excusable) puffery, but the values and the focus seem dead on.

There is extraordinary breadth and depth and tenure among the Apple executive team, and they lead 35,000 employees that I would call wicked smart – and that’s in all areas of the company from engineering to marketing to operations and sales and all the rest. And the values of our company are extremely well entrenched. We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and that’s not changing.

We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.

We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot.

And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well. And I would just reiterate a point Peter made in his opening comments that I strongly believe that Apple is doing the best work in its history.

Full transcript of the call.


Some brands are “all hat, no cattle”

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009


There’s a saying in Texas that someone who pretends to be more than they are is “all hat and no cattle.”  Take away the 10-gallon hat and those folks are revealed as all bluster and BS. There’s really not much there.

Sadly, the same can be said of quite a few brands.

If your brand isn’t the truth, make up a myth

The best brand strategy is not just to tell the truth; it’s to be the truth. Being the truth means that you have a core connection with customers that can accelerate both of you forward, beyond the shallow half-truths that condemn too many companies and their customers to perpetual mediocrity.

Alas, there’s a school of brand thinking that (still) goes by the rule: if your brand isn’t the truth, just make up a myth. This school fashions brands out of tall tales. Not surprisingly, the resulting brands always seem like free-floating 10-gallon hats. Their context is all hat. In their world, cattle don’t count.

Profile of an “all hat, no cattle” brand

When you encounter an “all hat, no cattle” brand, this is what you’ll usually find:

  1. Stories–tall tales everywhere.
  2. Myths and make-believe.
  3. Illusions–and maybe a mirage.
  4. Endless spin (matter into atmospherics).
  5. A whole lot of symbol–and very little substance.

Why the “all hat” brand strategy can’t be sustained

For brand builders, it’s often tempting to build their brands as showpiece 10-gallon hats. This is an easier task than building out the truth of a company, and connecting that truth to customers. It’s especially tempting to hire ad agencies (who are most definitely in the hat business) to gin up some sombrero-sized illusions.

The problem with this approach is that customers are not fools. As they wise up, your 10-gallon stories wear out. Eventually you wind up talking into your own hat–and by then it’s the end of the trail.

Photo credit: Jan Bakker — Flickr