Archive for June, 2011

Notes on “totalitarian” brands

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

[This is an updated version of a July 11, 2008 post called Totalitarian Brands.]

An article that every brand builder should read is Steven Heller’s  Branding Youth in the Totalitarian State in Design Observer. The article is based on Heller’s 2008 book: Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State. (The book is now in paperback.)

The article raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relationships between propaganda and brands, and on the sometimes “totalitarian” nature of brands themselves. As I see it, the key questions are as follows:

  1. What is the “totalitarian” brand model?
  2. Are brands a form of propaganda? Do they follow its rules’?
  3. Do brands need “true believers?” How do true believers add value to the brand?
  4. What are the strategy downsides of brands conceived and executed as propaganda, or as “totalitarian?” What other brand models could disrupt them?

I’ve also discussed some of these elements in the various posts referenced  below.

Definition of “totalitarian” brand

For this discussion I define a “totalitarian” brand as follows: “A totalitarian brand is a brand that totally subsumes the customer into the brand, erasing the individual and the individual’s capacity for proactive, independent action.” In other words, in a totalitarian brand approach the brand wants to impose its will upon the customer. The customer becomes a tool, and a creature of the brand. The brand intends to “own” the customer—body, mind and soul. ((And wallet.) This is a model of domination instead of (for example) partnership.

The customer as “true believer”

I would also suggest that a totalitarian brand approach is one that wants customers to be “true believers.” The brand seeks mindless followers—perhaps because mindful followers might see through it. I would define “true believer” as a one-dimensional person fanatically devoted to a cause, an organization or to another person. A true believer is a follower with a capital “F.” In the eyes of the true believer, the leader can do no wrong. And thus, true believers add no value to the brand. They don’t interact with it to make it better. They don’t help it to adapt. In fact, they typically magnify its shortcomings. A brand with true believers typically doesn’t innovate, or innovates narrowly, and may be its own worst enemy. True believers are not strategic.

True believers and “yes” men

It seems to me that a brand of true believers may be just as ineffective as a company of “yes” men. By saying “Yeah!” (or “Yes!) to everything it won’t be productive strategically. There’s no creative interaction. No questions. No feedback. No alternate views. It may be that true believers are in fact the products of yes men, who are simply cloning themselves at a lower level. In contrast, a strong brand is strong because it’s in constant creative ferment, continuously questioning and testing itself to remain a step ahead of the world. Yes men and true believers only slow it down.

Two brand models: containment vs. liberation

As part of this discussion we can assess two different models of brands:  a persuasion or propaganda model, and a contrasting liberation model. A persuasion or propaganda model would try to shape customer thoughts and feelings so as to capture, contain and control customers, to keep them in place so they continue to be “loyal” to the brand and purchase the product at desired price points.

In contrast, a liberation model of brands aims to free customers to be more proactive for themselves, on the premise that greater sales will flow from a more proactive and productive customer culture, where customers are active players in product development rather than a passive audience. This model assumes that a company can gain market advantage via product and service innovations that create a more proactive culture, where customers leave behind old paradigms. It’s a method that uses customer initiative to disrupt competitors. Apple shows that it can be done, and quite profitably, too.



Strategy for an “immersive” brand

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Before a brand can create any kind of “immersive” experience, it must first immerse itself in its customers. The truly immersive brand will leave its shoes on the beach and dive in. It will swim with customers, feeling their pleasure and pain, hopes and fears. Thus immersed, it can venture forth in the very context of customers themselves.

Begin by answering five brand strategy questions

A brand can begin its customer immersion by answering five basic brand strategy questions:

  1. What is holding our customers back?
  2. Where do they want to go—and how can we help them get there?
  3. How can our brand advance customers beyond the reach of competitors?
  4. How can we create customers that add value back to the brand?
  5. How can our customers become our strongest competitive weapon?

Brands immerse customers in exclusive opportunities

The brand goal, of course, is to immerse customers in exclusive opportunities of self-creation that no other brand can match. We’re not trying to drown them. We’re trying to save them—strategically—as only our brand can. That’s one reason why we develop brands as customer-focused applications.


Photo credit: Owl Cottage – Flickr

When shoes are an accessory to the sock

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

While waiting to enter La Musée d’Orsay in Paris I noticed some interesting shoes on a young woman in the next line over. The shoes were shaped like . . .  piano keys! But wait! Those were socks, not shoes. The shoes were cut so low that they served as platforms for socks, giving the wearer great latitude in style combinations. In a role reversal, the shoe was an accessory to the sock. With one pair of low-cut shoes like these you could style-out with 10 pairs of eye-popping socks, giving the effect of 10 pairs of shoes. Plus socks offer so many more design possibilities. And they’re cheaper. And with statement socks like these you could do a nifty counter-point with a scarf: theme, color, etc.

“Footwear” redefined

In a nutshell, making the shoe an accessory to the sock redefines “footwear.” The “foot” now includes the whole foot. By providing less shoe, you create a larger product canvas, and a bigger market.

Brand lesson: create opportunities for customers

If I can derive a brand lesson from this shoe-as-accessory-to-the-sock example it would be this: develop your brand to create opportunities for your customers. Instead of offering a range of static choices, give them dynamic platforms so they can create and re-create themselves anew. By opening new dimensions for them, you can open new markets for yourself.


France and the culture of retail

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

One reason I enjoy France is that I can experience a rich retail culture there that’s usually absent in the States. In France retail is considered a contribution to culture. It’s expected to contribute: grandly, cleverly, efficiently, imaginatively and stylishly, all at a human scale inventive in detail, texture and color.

I shot the above photo by simply pressing my iPhone 4 against the outside window of Ladurée in the 6th arrondissement in Paris. You can imagine what it’s like once inside. The famous les macarons are far from commodities, and so are the people who buy them.




Brand challenge: how to re-imagine J.C. Penny

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Ron Johnson, the Senior VP of Apple’s esteemed retail operations, is leaving Apple to be CEO of J.C. Penny. Johnson came to Apple from Target, so he’s no stranger to the world of traditional retail. Since J.C. Penny is already in the midst of a long rebound from its darker days a decade ago, Johnson can fine tune what’s in progress or he might think big and consider J.C. Penny a platform to reinvent the department store itself.  (He was certainly in the reinvention business at Apple, and at Target before then.)

Reinventing the department store—and its customers

If Johnson chooses the latter course he faces an enormous brand challenge: how to reinvent J.C. Penny in a new context of value, and to do so in a way that reinvents department store customers as well–all without grossly upsetting proven price points.

To quote Johnson from the J.C. Penny news release:

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to help J. C. Penney re-imagine what I believe to be the single greatest opportunity in American retailing today, the Department Store.”

That’s the perspective it will take. Department stores can be much more than “departments” of inventory. I was in Galleries Lafayette in Paris recently and I was amazed at how energized it made me feel. It was a department store where the departments were not in-store boundaries but deeper human adventures. Each department stood for something inside the customer. Let’s see J.C. Penny do some of that.

The department store as a customer-focused application

From his decade at Apple and its apps Johnson might consider the J.C. Penny brand to be a customer-focused application itself, one that creates a new class of value, and new customers to match. That’s a key method of integrating the product, innovation and customers along a central brand axis.


Update: Steve Jobs and Ron Johnson on developing the Apple retail experience.

Photo credit:  Azt3r1x — Wikimedia Commons

How deal sites can erode local brands

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Rocky Agrawal provides an insightful analysis in TechCrunch on how deal sites such as Groupon and Google Offers can undermine local businesses and erode local brands. He describes such deal sites as a form of advertising that uses “amazing deals” and deep discounts to attract customers. Unfortunately, they can inculcate a “shop-on-price” discount mentality that’s no friend to local brands trying to deliver quality and a special experience at a fair price. When price becomes your calling card, your brand has nowhere to go.

Well worth reading.