Archive for the 'Brand Fundamentals' Category

Out for delivery

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

It’s a mistake to think that brands are made of “intangibles.” A company’s brand is built on deliverables, and the brand is effectively “out for delivery” every second of the day. If that delivery process breaks down, in one way or another, the brand takes a hit.

Read Kottke on a brand breakdown involving Harry Potter, Amazon and UPS. The story begins with details of what didn’t happen. It will end on how the brand(s) restore their customer connections.

Weak brands promise; great brands deliver

An extraordinary event, such as the Harry Potter release, can put an enormous strain on brand connections. The resilience in those connections, built and reinforced by streams of deliverables over time, can mean that a brand bends, but does not break.

Update:  Jason Kottke received his book the following Monday (delivered by USPS rather than UPS), and received a refund from Amazon. See here.


Honda: the newest name in executive jets

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Great brands often seem to have a manifest destiny to work their magic at higher and higher levels.

The HondaJet, targeted for executive travel, is now in development and certification testing. It’s scheduled to begin production in 2010. Initial orders have been brisk.

The over-the-wing engines are a Honda innovation, and took years to develop. Their story is a brand story, from within.

Why trust a jet from Honda?

Why? Because based on brand experience it will be superbly engineered, safe, reliable, quiet, smooth, comfortable, agile, fuel efficient, great value, and replete with thoughtful touches.

The Honda brand has earned immeasurable trust for doing things right.

A great brand is a method

Honda demonstrates that a great brand isn’t built on flash or splash or noisy campaigns. A great brand is a finely-tuned and relentless method of discovering and delivering value—wherever customers roam.

Photo: HondaJet
Hat tip: Reveries

The U-Haul brand could use a U-turn

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

How can U-Haul turn its brand around? This venerable company seems unaware that its ubiquitous brand is now bouncing toward the edge of a cliff, primed for a free-fall, with no brand programs to reverse its course. The brand just got a kick in the wrong direction from news articles linking management practices to horrific customer accidents.

Grim details that a brand doesn’t need

Last week The Los Angeles Times published a multi-part investigative series on accidents involving U-Haul customers and their rented trucks and trailers. The series focuses on U-Haul safety defects and deficiencies, and was picked up by other news outlets around the country. It documents grim details from court cases filed by injured U-Haul customers against the company.

From the Times:

U-Haul, the nation’s largest provider of rental trailers, says it is “highly conservative” about safety. But a yearlong Times investigation, which included more than 200 interviews and a review of thousands of pages of court records, police reports, consumer complaints and other documents, found that company practices have heightened the risk of towing accidents.

[…] During a yearlong investigation, Times journalists surveyed more than 200 U-Haul trucks and trailers in California and other states and found that more than half were overdue for a company-mandated “safety certification,” a check of brakes, tires and other parts typically required every 30 days.

Some safety checks were more than a year overdue.

Signs of a classic brand breakdown

The Times articles detail a case of classic brand breakdown. The signs are everywhere, writ large in customer dissatisfaction, chronic equipment troubles, problems not fixed, danger signals ignored, and a U-Haul attitude that makes customer service a low priority in practice. The brand seems notorious for bad service. (More on this below.) There’s just no evidence of proactive brand programs at U-Haul which might have mitigated on-road accidents and their high customer cost. These didn’t have to be flashy programs, or expensive ones, just focused measures to join with customers to make the rental experience safe and enjoyable.

In place of that “joining,” U-Haul’s customer interactions seemed to pivot on perfunctory warning placards and safety brochures (the latter not always distributed) and the legal language of its rental contract. These provide a very different brand relationship.

What the Times says about U-Haul and trailer safety

From the Times article:

The safest way to tow is with a vehicle that weighs much more than the trailer. A leading trailer expert and U-Haul consultant has likened this principle to “motherhood and apple pie.”

Yet U-Haul allows customers to pull trailers as heavy as or heavier than their own vehicles.

It often allows trailers to stay on the road for months without a thorough safety inspection, in violation of its own policies.

Bad brakes have been a recurring problem with its large trailers. The one Sternberg rented lacked working brakes.

Its small and midsize trailers have no brakes at all, a policy that conflicts with the laws of at least 14 states.

It relaxed a key safety rule as it pushed to increase rentals of one type of trailer, used to haul vehicles, and then failed to enforce even the weakened standard. Customers were killed or maimed in ensuing crashes that might have been avoided.

Similar concerns regarding U-Haul’s safety and maintenance practices have been raised in Canada, where U-Haul vehicles fared poorly in government inspections and independent safety checks.



“Cocaine” is busted

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Brands are walking on thin ice when the experience they promise is mostly make believe. But some brands go beyond thin ice and try to walk on water, promising pure fiction to keep themselves afloat.

That’s the case with Cocaine, an “energy drink” brand I wrote about previously. Now the fiction has failed, and Cocaine has been deep-sixed from the market, under a tsunami of federal and state opposition.

Here’s the sordid tale. Below, a snippet:

“Cocaine” drink pulled from shelves nationwide

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut: An energy drink called Cocaine has been from pulled from stores nationwide amid concerns about its name, the company that produces it said Monday.

Clegg Ivey, a partner in Redux Beverages LLC of Las Vegas, said the company plans to sell the drink under a new name for now.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter last month that said Redux was illegally marketing the drink as a street drug alternative and a dietary supplement. May 4 was the deadline for the company to respond.

The FDA cited as evidence the drink’s labeling and Web site, which included the statements “Speed in a Can,” “Liquid Cocaine” and “Cocaine — Instant Rush.” The company says Cocaine contains no drugs and is marketed as an energy drink. It has been sold since last August in at least a dozen states.

One joke making the rounds is that the beverage might be renamed “Crack,” to salvage what’s left of the brand equity.

The problem with a shock brand like Cocaine is that you can’t execute on brand unless you want to face federal drug charges. The more you play with the shock value, cutting and re-cutting the metaphor, the more you string out your users (er, customers) with less and less.

It’s rarely the name that makes the brand

Truth is, it’s rarely the name itself that makes the brand. It’s usually the other way around: brand strategy, the brand experience and brand value delivered are what build the brand, and make the name memorable.

The brand name as creative platform

Too bad those pushing Cocaine didn’t envision their brand as a creative platform beyond the can. Had they done so, they might have selected a name that was low on shock, perhaps even stunningly bland and generic, but with oodles of creative potential. Name-wise, they might have come up with something far more scalable in a customer context, a name like, say, “vitamin water.”

Photo: Cocaine

Google reveals its disruptive brand strategy

Monday, April 30th, 2007

While brand builders usually craft brands to be as highly visible and as “hot” as possible, disruptive brands often call for a different strategy. Truth is, disruptive brands can be at their best when they’re kept to a low profile, and served very, very cold. Like the underwater mass of an iceberg they attract little notice as they glide into position. Then, when the time is right, they discretely split the seams of the reigning Titanic as it cruises past. One second they hide beneath the surface, and the next second they own the ocean. Bright lights and fanfares would only alert their intended prey.

Can Google disrupt the Microsoft brand?

Thanks to the always insightful David Berlind, we can see a potential brand disruption taking shape in the sea-change confrontation between Google and Microsoft for computing platform dominance. From a brand-builder perspective, this is largely a brand context battle about which brand will define the future context of computing. It’s the emerging Google brand context vs. the prevailing Microsoft Windows brand context. What appears on the surface is far less important than what’s going on down below.

Over several posts David outlines how Google is stealthily creating the infrastructure and applications for a powerful (hosted) brand platform that stands to cause Microsoft serious damage. In the best disruptive tradition, the Google brand is readying itself for this conflict calmly and quietly, barely causing a ripple.

For some background on disruptive brands see this previous post.

What is brand context?

Brand context is an amazing property of brands. It’s the world of opportunity that a brand presents to the customer, the real deal of possibilities that the brand conveys and incarnates, across all human dimensions. For the customer, it can be “the new you, in a better place” that only a brand can deliver. The brand context has the potential to extend the customer’s horizons, and provide a means of reaching them. It’s the opposite of artificial worlds fabricated by hype, spin and mind games. (These are properties of propaganda, not brands.)

Of course, a brand context can also be decidedly negative and restrictive. That invites disruption by a brand context that offers more freedom to customers.

The iPod offers a wondrously rich brand context of music compared to the restrictive context of CD’s. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Microsoft and the PC makers offered a superior brand context in the business world compared to the old way of working with pencil and paper. Now, it’s Google’s turn to offer a more liberating brand context of computing than that provided by a mature Windows Office.

The challenger: Google Apps

The heart of Google’s challenge is a new domain-oriented platform (and potential brand context) called Google Apps, which consists of Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Gmail, Gtalk, Google Calendar, a forthcoming presentation app, and a basic intranet structure to manage them for domain users. Google Apps is aimed not at individual web surfers but at groups such as organizations, small businesses, enterprises and schools that share a domain. As David explains, Google Apps has many features the average Googler will never see. Its strength is a hosted set of core office applications plus workgroup and application connectivity in a single, extensible package. Currently it’s free for families; other groups can get a free trial through May.

Google goes after the disruptive 10%

As David notes, Google’s objective with Google Apps is to gain market share by offering the key 10 percent of Microsoft Office features that customers use most, at a fraction of what they pay for Office. This 10 percent equates to 95 to 100 percent of the features found in Google Apps. Gee, this might just ring a bell.

The promise of Google Apps

Google Apps holds the promise of being far cheaper and easier to administer than Microsoft Windows, while being largely compatible with it. If it’s reliable, costs far less, delivers equal or better productivity, doesn’t force hardware upgrades (a la Vista), causes fewer headaches, and comes with painless updates, it may indeed usher in a computing sea change for customers.

For Google Apps, brand context is critical

The strategic task for Google Apps is to become much more than low-end disruption. It needs to represent a liberating context of computing, where organizations and individuals can wield more power over their digital platforms and tools, and thus gain more control of their destiny. When we’re talking about these kinds of holistic changes in the customer world, we’re talking about the power of brands, above and below the surface.



Growing brands from the customer up

Monday, April 16th, 2007

Everywhere around us, the expanding digital universe is rapidly transforming the world of brands, with new digital tools pushing aside yesterday’s symbols, slogans and “timeless” icons. In place of conventional top-down “branding” campaigns we’re seeing breakthrough brand innovation from below, with small companies, not big corporations, reinventing brands and re-defining brand building itself. They’re growing brands as organic, 1:1 collaborations in context, and in value, across multiple customer fronts.

Digital brand leverage: the shape of brands to come

It appears likely that the future of brands will be driven by digital brand leverage—in the form of direct links between value creators (or content creators) and customers, bypassing intermediate brand structures, and middlemen. What makes this possible are two recent developments: 1) digital technologies that facilitate close interaction between companies and their customers; and 2) collaborative brand practices that unify companies and customers through a shared vision and mission.



Building personal brand applications

Friday, April 6th, 2007


As I discussed in a previous post, companies are increasingly turning to digital brand platforms, programs and applications to augment brand interactions and brand experience, and to deliver new forms of customer value. In this post I want to focus on a new type of digital brand application which I call (in my best generic English) personal brand applications.

[UPDATE] See new post: Building your brand — there’s an app for that

Also see:

What are personal brand applications?

Personal brand applications are software applications that deliver unique brand value to customers in ways that are personal, portable and persistent. Their intent is to form a brand partnership with the customer, with a depth of interaction far beyond conventional channels of brand communication. They become the customer’s virtual sidekick, mentor, confidant and guide. They watch the customer’s back, they go where the customer goes, and they are “always on.”

As a complement to other brand programs, personal brand applications are a new way for brands to connect with customers 24/7. They are 1:1, direct and immediate. They have the potential to forge deep brand connections that can transcend the influence of advertising, packaging, “branding” and similar old-school brand modalities.



Brands: kaizen for customers

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Brands and kaizen aren’t normally tied together in discussions of business practice, but they should be. The two are inextricably linked. Brands are the extension of kaizen into the realm of customers.

Continuous improvement

Kaizen is the Japanese manufacturing practice of “continuous improvement” or “change for the better.” It’s a disciplined, systematic approach that analyzes every step of the manufacturing process in order to improve quality, cut costs and reduce waste. (Kai = “change;” zen = “good.”)

Kaizen first grabbed the headlines back in the 1980’s because it explained, at least in part, why Japanese car makers were consistently turning out higher-quality vehicles than the iconic auto giants in Detroit. Toyota was the champion of kaizen, and its top-tier ranking today testifies to the worth of the practice.

Kaizen has now become a mainstream concept. It can even be applied to online businesses, where focused, incremental improvements to a sales or operational website can yield dramatic near-term benefits in customer experience, as economist Hal Varian recently noted. (If that NYT link is unavailable, a related summary is here.)