Archive for the 'Brand Mission' Category

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.



A brand is not a lure (and customers aren’t fish)

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Brands that lack strategy often position themselves as lures to catch customers, as if customers were fish in the sea and brands were a higher form of trolling, the perfect shiny bait with fetching face and hooks aplenty. Alas, a brand is not a lure. And customers aren’t fish.

Customers aren’t fish; brands aren’t lures

Brands fall into a strategic trap when they cast themselves as lures. Brands that try to catch customers like fish can’t create them as brand partners, and creating customers is what confers strategic advantage. Through your brand you create the customers that will drive the business forward. By developing your brand as a customer-focused application (here and here), the customers you create can help you create new markets. They return value back to the brand. By freeing customers from the hooks of mediocrity, the hooks of convention, and the hooks of competitors, your brand can turn them into the proactive partners you need so that you flourish together.

And brand touchpoints aren’t hooks

Please note that just as brands aren’t lures, brand touchpoints aren’t hooks. Brand touchpoints are discrete brand/customer interactions that deliver (or co-create) value. We carefully craft them in strategies to advance  customers beyond the reach of competitors—by delivering uniquely meaningful experience that competitors can’t match. The best touchpoints are transformative: they upgrade the identity of customers to new levels, so there’s no turning back to lesser modes of existence. Bottom line: the goal of touchpoints is to move customers forward, not to catch them with hooks. (See: How to define brand engagement.)

The mission of a brand is to teach customers to fish

The fishing metaphor is an apt one for brands, however—if we use the right context. The famous Chinese proverb gives us a clue:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Ergo, we use the brand to teach customers to fish. “Fish” metaphorically, of course. The brand mission is to free customers from constraints, and to advance customers farther and faster than they can advance themselves. We develop brands to enable customers to be more self-actualized, more proactive, more productive, more creative and to be more engaged with life. The more a brand enables its customers, the more the customers enable the brand.

Teaching customers to fish changes the game

When we teach customers to fish we are changing the brand game from all those mediocre brands who position customers as fish, and who design their brands as lures. Instead of the brand being a (one-way) hook, it becomes a cultural enabler. In effect, we are changing the brand game by changing the customer. Customers can repay us many times over with new ideas, experiences  and initiatives that we can fold back into the brand.


Image credit: Wikipedia

The simple secret of Apple’s brand strategy

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

How does the Apple brand create so much value? In the last decade Apple has introduced an unparalleled stream of breakthrough products, re-defined how people engage the world with digital devices, delighted millions of new customers, built profitable new platforms and ecosystems, disrupted lethargic industries and created rich new markets. With 200 million credit card accounts in iTunes and a market cap north of $300 billion, the Apple brand must be doing something right.

The simple secret of Apple’s brand strategy

As I see it there’s a simple secret behind Apple’s astonishing success in the last ten years. It’s an Apple brand that’s operational, where core brand principles shape the Apple culture and drive the business. Apple is a classic example of the brand goes in before the brand goes on. At Apple, the brand is a systematic and integrated method to create value. It’s a method, not a message. While Apple’s cutting-edge aesthetics, exemplary taste and showstopper keynotes often draw the media spotlight, it’s Apple’s operating brand at work in Cupertino that makes Apple’s strategic success possible.

Two principles focus Apple’s operational brand strategy

From press accounts and public documents we can discern two brand principles that shape and focus Apple’s operational brand strategy. There may be more, to be sure, but these two stand out to me. They steer the Apple brand toward market-leading products and superior customer experiences.

I’ve gleaned these brand principles from comments by Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. They caught my attention because they make profound statements about the Apple brand mission and brand approach.

First, Tim Cook on the Apple brand mission:

We believe that we’re on the face of the earth to make great products . . .  in markets where we can make a significant contribution.

Second, Steve Jobs on the Apple brand approach:

We put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and ask: ‘What do we want? . . . “

Let’s now explore the brand implications of these principles.

Tim Cook on the Apple brand mission

We believe that we’re on the face of the earth to make great products . . .  in markets where we can make a significant contribution.

I’ve adapted this principle from Tim Cook’s remarks in a 2009 conference call on Apple earnings. (It is two phrases made into one principle.) From a brand strategy perspective, Cook does three things in this principle.

A singular, elemental mission

First, with “We’re on the face of the earth to make great products Cook makes great products the singular mission of Apple and its employees, with pursuit of greatness an elemental (face-of-the-earth) calling. This positions the Apple brand to reshape the world. In fact, it demands it. And it’s a context that’s unkind to excuses.

Setting a high standard for the brand

Second, with the mission of “great products” Cooks sets a high standard for the brand. Apple is not in the business of producing “market offerings.” It makes “great products.” There’s a difference. For some implications, see The Apple doctrine.

Is “great products” mere rhetoric? Ask these folks. Or check this chart.

Apple’s brand goal: make a significant contribution to culture

Third, Cook shapes the Apple mission when he states Apple’s goal is “to make a significant contribution.” A contribution? Interesting choice of words! Does Dell demand that its products make “a contribution”? Acer? Asus? HP? The implied Apple brand goal is to make a contribution to culture. Thus, Apple’s brand mission is cultural:  judge us by our contribution to the fabric of human endeavor. (This sets another high standard, and a decisive one in high technology.) Given how Apple has advanced design, music, telephony, computing and publishing, and may help usher in advances in learning via the iPad, the company’s brand intent to contribute to culture would seem to have made a difference. For additional reference, there’s also this picture.

Apple’s cultural context

Within Apple’s cultural context the Apple brand enables customers to engage the world in more meaningful ways. This is a cultural achievement based on what the brand does rather than on what the brand is.

Steve Jobs on the Apple brand approach

“We put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and ask: ‘What do we want? . . . ’”

I have abstracted this principle from a famous 2007 Steve Jobs  Q&A (audio file) in which Jobs was asked why Apple did not slap stickers on its products like other PC makers. His comments end with the quote above, which I have slightly abridged.

This is a profound brand approach. The maker places himself or herself in the shoes of the user, and asks, “What would satisfy me?” The brand identifies with the user, empathizes with the user, looks ahead for the user (brand vision) and wants what’s best for the user within the realm of the product or service. A brand that lacks these abilities won’t get far. It will “target” customers with netbooks instead of changing their lives with touchscreen tablets and a new ecosystem of engagement.

A brand puts itself in its customers’ shoes so customers can run faster and farther, leaving competitors behind.

It’s a strategic act when a brand puts itself in its customers’ shoes. A brand puts itself in its customers’ shoes so customers can run faster and farther, leaving competitors behind. While this is simple in concept it’s difficult in practice. You need deep vision, sharp, unrelenting focus and the talent to make it all work. To it’s credit, Apple does.

In Apple’s case the result is a brand strategy that positions both Apple and its customers to win—with a “secret” that’s in plain sight.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

Use a “customer SWOT” approach to deliver greater brand value

Monday, February 21st, 2011

We’re all familiar with SWOT techniques for strategy planning, but we can also use a customer-focused SWOT approach to help us deliver greater value in our brand deliverables. I call this approach the “customer SWOT” approach. It’s SWOT with a switch, so to speak, but nonetheless quite valuable. We simply put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and apply SWOT criteria to what the brand delivers. By using SWOT criteria in this manner we can develop our brand to make our customers more strategic, so they have no need for the dead-end products of our competitors. (Think about that for a moment, please.)

The “customer SWOT” approach

What we need to do is position SWOT from the customer’s perspective. The brand, after all, is a customer benefit, and a customer tool. We judge the intended brand contribution using basic SWOT criteria from the customer’s point of view. In essence, the customer does a SWOT analysis of the brand deliverable based on how it meets his or her needs.  He or she evaluates the brand deliverable in terms of how it helps them with:

  1. Strengths
  2. Weaknesses
  3. Opportunities
  4. Threats

Since the brand is a 360° enabler, the brand deliverable must score well across these four criteria.

SWOT criteria that serve the customer

Using SWOT criteria, we can therefore design and build our brand to address the following issues critical to customer success:

  1. What customer strengths does the brand provide or enable to make the customer more empowered going forward?
  2. What customer weaknesses will the brand eliminate or diminish in terms of the customer’s concept of self, capabilities, or world view?
  3. What new opportunities will the brand create for the customer, to help the customer do more and be more, compared to: 1) living a life of rank commodities, and 2) accepting current market conventions (and brands) designed to hold the customer in place?
  4. What customer threats does the brand mitigate or remove from the customer’s life, now and forever, so the customer can advance freely in the new, enabling context of the brand?

The “customer SWOT” approach and brand disruption

The “customer SWOT” approach can be quite helpful if you’re developing a brand strategy to disrupt a major market player. Often, the incumbent’s brand strategy toward customers is one of “capture, contain and control,”  where the brand is used to extract value from customers rather than to create value with them. With the “customer SWOT” approach a disruptive brand can create deliverables that cut through existing brand myths and make-believe designed to hold customers back. In effect, you change the game by changing the customer.  The newly-empowered customer casts off the old brand like a discarded shell.


Building a restaurant brand—from the kitchen out

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant in California’s Napa Valley has been acclaimed as one of the finest restaurants in the United States, and in the world. It has achieved this rare distinction not by “branding” campaigns but by the extraordinary dishes that the restaurant serves to its guests. The brand is built from the kitchen out.

Thanks to a recent behind-the-scenes report in the San Francisco Chronicle, we can glimpse how the vision and values in the French Laundry kitchen translate into a world-class restaurant brand.

The brand as a method of achieving excellence

Some of my takeaways from the article:

  1. The French Laundry “brand” is a method of achieving excellence
  2. The brand tolerates no compromises in the pursuit of quality
  3. The brand is a culinary collaboration, a total team effort
  4. The brand is a shared discipline
  5. The brand doesn’t coast. It continually pushes the edge of creativity and innovation.

The French Laundry website has more information on the restaurant’s mission and values, and its menus.


Why the brand should curate the business

Friday, July 2nd, 2010


In brand circles a popular topic these days is “How to curate a brand.” To my mind, however, most of these discussions really have the issue backwards. As I see it, it’s the brand that should be curating the business. In other words,  the best way to “curate” a brand is to manage the business through the brand. This is the only sure way to preserve, protect and grow brand value. We let the brand do the curating—not the other way around. Trying to curate the brand as an (external) layer separate from the business core can be a daunting task, even in the best of times.

If our goal is a brand-driven business, let’s give the brand the wheel.

The brand curates the business

When the brand curates the business the brand rolls up its sleeves and pitches in to help lead decision-making on tactical and strategic levels. The brand and the business are one, fully integrated at the operations level to deliver a premium, sustainable experience. To use a colorful example, that’s how authentic housemade sodas in a Jewish deli (above) can be so delicious. All parts of the business are on the same brand page, crafting it together.

Brand principles drive operations

When the brand curates the business it’s brand principles that drive operations, enabling the company to fully develop the qualities and capabilities that make it special. In this regard, the brand is more method than media, guided by the brand mission and executed by the brand team. Brand values become business values—the optimal platform for long-term success.

Curating the business from S to XL

A brand can curate a business of any size, from small to extra large. In successful small businesses the brand and the business almost always function as one. There’s no reason for large companies to be any different. Apple and Zappos show how it’s done.

Photo credit: Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen

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.