Archive for the 'Brand Culture' Category

This young woman is a brand of America

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Jessica Beinecke is a brand of America. She’s 24 and from Ohio and she speaks fluent Mandarin, and her captivating “OMG Meiyu” English slang education videos have become an online hit in China. Jessica’s wide eyes and buoyant delivery open a portal to American culture, to the America that’s down-to-earth, self-directed, can-do, engaging, funny, inventive and equal. Slang expressions have a way of bringing that out.

Brands deliver new forms of culture

I call Jessica “a brand of America” because in their own small way her 70+ videos do what every brand should do. They deliver new forms of culture that free people from the constraints of the old. Yes, brands are more culture than commerce. (That’s why they don’t grow on spreadsheets.) The brand is transformative charm, wit, wisdom, insight, inspiration, innovation, sheer creativity and often sheer gumption that blasts the senses with new ways of being and doing.

A brand of possibilities

What comes across in Jennifer’s videos is much more than a clued-in urban vocabulary for Chinese students of English. It’s an engaging context of culture that offers new ways to see the world. It’s a  brand of expression, and as such, a brand of possibilities.

Across all cultures

Cultures can be ruts, too, and videos like these can work across all cultures to liven things up. US students need to open their eyes to other cultures, and the simple style of Jessica’s work may inspire others overseas to target the US with similar videos. Certainly couldn’t hurt.


Behind The Sartorialist brand (in a world where a teen fashion blogger gets the pub)

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

The Talks has an interesting interview with Scott Schuman, creator of the immensely popular street fashion blog The Sartorialist. The interview covers the business of fashion blogs, and how a street fashion blog like The Sartorialist can succeed amid entrenched fashion magazines. Schuman makes a case for focus and integrity, and controlling the entire site experience using his own photography.

Fashion brands are fragile; fashion brands must be agile

Alas, fashion brands are fragile. Therefore, fashion brands must be agile. A fascinating part of the interview concerns Tavi Gevinson, a teenage fashion blogger (Style Rookie) whose meteoric rise and huge following gets her invited to Fashion Week “with the fashion world at her feet.” Can a teen like her steal the fashion blogging mantle from Schuman? Schuman thinks not. He sees her as just a kid “who can talk about art and stuff only in an abstract way.” In fact, he sees detects a bit of print magazine “conspiracy” behind her amazing success, as if to push serious fashion blogs to the sidelines.

Be sure to read the 60+ comments to the interview. Some readers think Scott’s remarks are right on; others are highly critical. There is a bit of brand flak, too.

For more on Tavi Gevinson’s zero-to-hero success see here and here. At 15 she’s now also editor-in-chief of teen lifestyle site Rookie.

Fashion is the difference of different

I can see why Scott Schuman might be a bit peeved at the sudden fashion media success of teen Tavi G. He has put in years of work to build the leading brand of fashion blogs. As that brand he is the show. Fashion blog = The Sartorialist. For a brand in Scott’s position, anyone who threatens to steal the show threatens you, even if they’re a teenybopper in a different part of the market. The problem is that the “show” is also about culture and context, and it’s often dynamic and changing. Fashion is the difference of different. It’s bringing a different context more than just bringing a different “look.” Cultural innovation pulls the thread. (Go watch Coco Before Chanel to see what I mean.) Truth is, in many respects—and at this point—Tavi can be a bigger difference than The Sartorialist because she’s a better story. She’s a human story in contrast to the largely aesthetic story of a cool street fashion shoot. If The Sartorialist were a brand of street culture—and not just street fashion—our brand story here may well be quite different.


How a company’s board of directors can damage the company’s brand

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Can a company’s board of directors damage the company’s brand, even if the board has no stipulated brand responsibilities? I think the answer is “yes” if the board fails to execute wisely in two critical areas. First, if the board hires a CEO unable to articulate a brand vision that advances the company beyond competitors. If  the brand vision fails everyone fails: customers, employees, partners, shareholders. Second, the board can damage the brand if the board’s own actions become so controversial and/or questionable as to taint brand credibility and trust.

Types of brand damage that can occur

As I see it, the types of brand damage that can be caused by a poorly performing board of directors can include:

  1. Loss of customer confidence if board decisions make the brand appear weak, unfocused, or without clear direction. The brand assumes an element of risk.
  2. Loss of employee confidence if board decisions appear reactive and non-strategic, or if the board-appointed CEO can’t articulate a coherent brand vision of what the compan stands for, where it’s headed, and especially “Why?”
  3. Loss of investor confidence if a pattern of board decisions points to lack of unity at the top, internal politics over strategy, and/or a designated CEO who seems ill-equipped to meet expected challenges. As investors sell shares the brand loses asset value, and may approach break-up value (sold for parts).
  4. Board missteps may lead to difficulty recruiting top CEO candidates because no executive wants to work for a company with an unsteady board. Consequently, the brand may be starved of executive leadership.
  5. Board missteps may lead to loss of confidence by channel partners if the company’s brand pales in comparison to brands of competitors. Competitors are quick to seize on any apparent band weakness.

The HP board and the HP brand

Available evidence suggests that the board of directors of HP would seem to meet the two brand-negative conditions noted in the opening paragraph. The Hp board has appointed CEO’s who turned out to be a bad fit for HP, and the board’s own missteps have compounded HP’s problems. HP’s recent CEO’s have been at the flashpoint of turmoil and controversy, and so has the HP board itself, most notably in its internal spying and pretexting scandal of 2006. This week the board named Meg Whitman as HP’s seventh CEO since 1999. Ms. Whitman replaces Leo Apotheker, whose fit with HP was questioned 11 months ago when he replaced Mark Hurd. Hurd had lost the confidence of the board after a highly publicized battle over sexual harassment allegations and expense report irregularities. The board’s actions in terminating and suing Hurd also drew criticism.

Brands are designed to be seamless vessels of seamless value, but at HP seamless transitions appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

A board described as “nearly dysfunctional”

From the New York Times, on the day prior to the Meg Whitman announcement:

The mystery isn’t why Hewlett-Packard is likely to part ways with its chief executive, Léo Apotheker, after just a year in the job. It’s why he was hired in the first place.

The answer, say many involved in the process, lies squarely with the troubled Hewlett-Packard board. “It has got to be the worst board in the history of business,” Tom Perkins, a former H.P. director and a Silicon Valley legend, told me.

Interviews with several current and former directors and people close to them involved in the search that resulted in the hiring of Mr. Apotheker reveal a board that, while composed of many accomplished individuals, as a group was rife with animosities, suspicion, distrust, personal ambitions and jockeying for power that rendered it nearly dysfunctional.

A board that didn’t interview the CEO that it named

As noted in the previous link, the HP board unanimously voted to appoint Apotheker as  CEO  in September, 2010, but only the four board members on the search committee had interviewed him. The remaining eight board members had no interest in meeting him for a face-to-face interview. This is disturbing from a brand perspective. One might ask: What was the board thinking? This was a candidate for the highest position at HP, a man who would define and execute  HP’s vision, values and strategy going forward. Certainly he was a man critical to the success of the HP brand. How can you not look him in the eye, size him up, plumb his vision and values, measure him against the challenges confronting HP, and determine first hand if he is fit to be a successor to the esteemed William Hewlett and David Packard?

“Jarring strategy shifts” and a stock price plunge

Eleven months after the HP board unanimously agreed on Apotheker’s appointment, the CEO was sent packing. Apparently, Apotheker had no clue of his impending termination. The HP stock price had plunged a stunning 47% during his short tenure, during which he had proposed “jarring strategy shifts.” These included:

  1. Proposing to sell or spin off HP’s core PC  business—which accounted for a third of HP’s revenue—without any plan in place at the time of announcement. This raised numerous strategy questions, sent investors reeling, and sent the stock price downward.
  2. First touting HP’s entry into fast-growing tablet market using WebOS software (from Mark Hurd’s $1.2 billion Palm acquisition), and then several months later abruptly cancelling it, and proposing to exit the WebOS line of business.
  3. Announcing the acquisition of software company Autonomy for $10.3 billion, without clearly defining how the acquisition would contribute to HP’s market growth and revenue. In addition, the price paid for Autonomy was questioned as being too high.

Saving HP from a brand of confusion

HP is a brand of . . . what? Brands provide clarity of company purpose. When brands are mismanaged the result can be a brand of confusion, where the company may struggle to fit a category, but falls short of a brand that can command a context. HP is an established brand and certainly not “broken,” but Apotheker’s recent announcements raised more questions than answers—and brands are answers. Apotheker’s legacy to incoming CEO Whitman is a gnawing sense of confusion regarding HP’s new direction. What’s the new context of HP? Is HP pulling out of consumer markets? How does Autonomy take HP to the next level? And how do proposed radical changes translate to the bottom line?  What’s the vision, and the plan? As her first order of business Whitman needs to erase any potential brand confusion from the minds of employees, customers and investors.




The brand as polymath (connecting the dots)

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Steve Crandall has written a fine piece on the role of the polymath in business, with reference to the stellar achievements of Steve Jobs at Apple.

Polymaths can connect the dots

As Steve Crandall notes, polymaths (literally those with “much learning”) have the rare ability to connect the dots, to see what’s latent and to bring it to life.

When you have a bit of understanding of divergent areas there is a fascinating crosstalk – you begin to see the world differently in an intellectual synesthesia.  As Jobs might say you “think different”.  Dots begin to connect and new questions arise that might not come to anyone without your mix of backgrounds.  Pushing further may give answers and puts you in a position to intelligently communicate with real experts in other fields perhaps trading some of your own expertise as part of the bargain.

Connecting dots in a novel way is a form of discovery and invention.  It can be a generator of serendipity and let you see farther than those with a narrower vision. It is an enormously efficient mechanism for understanding and using information.

The brand (and brand team) as polymath

A company of polymaths would be a great place to work, but it’s always seemed to me that the brand and the brand team should be Polymath Central, the cultural core, by inclination and by learning. Brands help customers interoperate with the universe, and to succeed in brands you have to hold that universe in your hand (or maybe juggle several). You have to sense what’s latent within what’s emergent. Beyond that you have to know the product, the market, the customer and 360 degrees of the cultural context, so you can grasp what’s possible to raise customers, the brand and the business to the next level, and beyond.

Salesmen sell what’s on the shelf, but the brand team knows the higher truth: To make your products fly off the shelves, give wings to your customers. The dots brands connect often go outside the box.

Take the Brand Builder Test

A polymath could easily answer the Brand Builder Test: “Explain why Capuchin, Capulet and cappuccino are heaven on the lips.” Yes, the deeper the brand the more dots we connect, and the richer realms of living we attain.


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.



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.




The brand goes in before the brand goes on

Friday, March 11th, 2011

In developing brand platforms and brand applications it always helps to have a concise brand strategy directive at hand, to keep things aligned. One that I favor is this:

The brand goes in before the brand goes on.

This directive is easy to remember and anchors the brand in company values, principles and operations, where its true strength lies. It defines the brand as a method of value creation, consistent with the brand mission, and not as an after-the-fact add-on. What counts is what the company puts into the brand and the desired brand relationship.

Why this brand directive works for me

Here are a few more reasons why I like this particular directive:

  1. It’s strategic. It reminds us that the brand result depends on what we do upstream in product development. In other words, “brand in, brand out.” A development and production process governed by brand values will create products rich in those values. We’re talking about the brand value chain, and the brand value of kaizen.
  2. It recognizes that brand strategy is innovation strategy. If we expect our brands to change the customer’s world, then we better be developing world-changing products.
  3. It considers the brand to be a single application. Brands are much more than symbols and slogans. They’re customer-focused applications of company vision and values.  We develop brands to advance customers beyond the reach of competitors. What we design  into the brand now can have long-term rewards as the application takes root.
  4. It creates brand authenticity. When your brand goes in before the brand goes on, your brand is authentically you.
  5. It reminds us that brands are not campaigns. Brands are the stuff that companies are made of. Campaigns come and go. The customer take-away from your brand is what you put into it.

Brands can be methods to create value, or campaigns to sell perceptions. Which brand would you buy?


Photo credit:  Bill Gracey — Flickr

Brand lessons from the BP oil disaster

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010


It’s not too early to discern some strategic brand lessons from BP’s horrific oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP is a global oil giant with a highly visible (and controversial) brand identity: a major oil company that’s positioned itself as “beyond petroleum.” Yet today the BP brand is smothered in oil as far as the eye can see, a symbol (and agent) of massive pollution.

Why the BP disaster is a big deal for brands

The BP oil disaster is a big deal for brands because it marks a catastrophic failure of a top-tier brand. As such, it stands to have far-reaching consequences that will play out in time across all brands. At this early stage, three immediate “big deal” factors stand out to my mind:

  1. BP has become the antithesis of its proclaimed identity. It has gored its own icon. How could that happen to a billion-dollar brand?
  2. We may be witnessing the greatest sudden loss of brand trust by a company in the history of business. This is much more than a brand doing a poor job of crisis management. It appears that the BP brand took its eye off the ball and allowed the crisis to happen, a transgression no brand—or business— can afford.
  3. Events suggest that BP’s reliance on “positioning,” “messaging” and “mindshare” (an advertising approach to brands) helped decouple the brand from operational realities. The resulting BP brand was “positioned in the mind” of a campaign audience but had diminished presence in BP’s drilling operations, where it was desperately needed before and after the blowout. Current cost of this disconnect: $2 billion (and growing).

What are the long term brand consequences?

As I see it, the BP oil disaster will contribute to a reassessment of the conventional “mindshare” approach to brands that treats brands as media artifacts in a persuasion package to shape perceptions. This superficial “branding” approach can blind the brand to operational issues desperately in need of brand direction. There’s growing evidence that this is exactly what happened in BP’s case. The brand outcome is the full story. It can’t be bottled in a mindshare campaign.

Due to the enormity of BP’s brand failure I’d expect to see a new emphasis on brands  as a method of delivering operating value, rather than symbolic campaigns. In this structured brand value approach, brand principles and priorities directly drive business decisions, with a brand’s full emotional force. This is a working brand of company culture, rather than campaigns.

What went wrong with the BP brand?

What went wrong with the BP brand? The framing question, as I see it, is this: Did BP fail its brand? Or did the brand fail BP? At present, I’d say the answer is “Both.”

We also want answers to related questions: Were there critical flaws in the BP brand approach? In the brand model? In the brand strategy? In brand program execution? Was the problem weak brand leadership? Or was the brand simply marginalized, relegated to media campaigns and decoupled from essential company operations (e.g., brand practice in the oilfield) where it might have made a difference?

If the BP brand was indeed “beyond petroleum,” what precise vision and values guided BP’s oil production business, and its dedicated employees? BP’s 80-page  Code of Conduct, “Our commitment to integrity,” makes no mention of the BP brand. How is that possible?

Not surprisingly, other oil companies are distancing themselves from BP’s oilfield practices.

A note about this post

I’m writing this as events unfold, so my assessments are preliminary. I’m also aware that BP is not the only company with responsibilities in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. My focus here is on brands as a form of strategic and operational leadership, and that means a focus on BP.

With a failing brand, BP’s troubles just keep gushing

When a brand fails, everything fails, and BP’s travails certainty point to systematic brand failure. We have BP’s CEO being raked over the coals in the US Congress. BP is currently facing possible criminal charges, accusations of cover-ups, fines of up to $258 million per day, and accusations of blocking reporters from covering the story. There are also serious allegations that BP had been cutting corners on safety.

BP’s brand failings have jeopardized the credibility of the oil industry itself, and will certainly lead to greater—and more costly—industry regulation.

What’s especially troubling is that these are the kinds of breakdowns in quality that brand programs are designed to prevent. A more effective BP brand program might have saved the $20 billion that BP must now set aside in escrow to pay for environmental and community damages.

The BP brand could have been a hero and shining star in this tragic episode.  Currently, it bleeds copious amounts of trust with every passing day.

Basic brand lessons

What follows are some basic brand lessons from the BP oil disaster as I see them at the present time. 7

1. “Positioning” the brand where the core business isn’t (in BP’s case, “beyond petroleum”) puts the brand at risk.

The BP oil catastrophe may herald the end of artificial “brand positioning” as an element of brand strategy. Under its striking Helios logo BP claimed a high-profile positioning as a “green” renewable energy leader “beyond petroleum.” As such, the BP brand was aiming for a make-believe category in people’s minds, since BP’s business was petroleum for the foreseeable future. Instead of being an enlightened brand of  innovative and responsible oil production, where 99% of its business resided, BP apparently let its “beyond petroleum” positioning blind it to a disturbing pattern of  risky design practices and short-cuts over a decade of operations.

In the real world, it’s the vision and values at the operations level that position the brand—and the business—to succeed.