March 12, 2014

Branding For Dummies

Among the topics that marketing and advertising people can bore you to death with, perhaps the most annoying is "brands."

On one side we have brand maniacs (often, agency creative directors) who think that all advertising has to do is get "the brand" right and everything else will fall into place. On the other end of the spectrum we have brand deniers (lately, online advertising zealots) who think brands are "dead." Both sides invariably overstate their case.

Let's start with first principles.

At the most basic level, what a brand helps us do is identify things. Just like we give ourselves names, we give products brands so we can distinguish them from each other.

At the next level, brands help us build value into our product. If all products were generic, why invest in making ours better? Anyone who lived in a communist state can tell you all about that.

At the third level a brand helps us differentiate our product and build consumer preference. There is a reason why people prefer Coke to Pepsi, and it has very little to do with what's in the can. In fact, if we took every Coke can in the world and filled it with Pepsi, and took every Pepsi can in the world and filled it with Coke, I doubt there would be very much change in the relative success of the brands.

At the highest level is brand love - the theory is that people love certain brands. This is where the brand ideologues runs into big trouble.

While we all have a handful of brands we're attached to, for the most part our attachments are paper thin. We have preferences and habits, but we have very little love.

We participate in hundreds of product categories and there are probably somewhere between five and ten brands that we actually feel strongly about.

We will gladly change airlines if it will save us a few bucks. We will happily move to a new bank if it's more convenient. We will change cell phone carriers and cable companies in a heartbeat for a better rate.

The Apples and Nikes of this world -- brands that people truly feel stubbornly loyal to  -- are very few and very far between. And even these brands will find that under certain circumstances a strong product will trump their brand.

A good policy is to ignore the irresponsible yakking of both agency brand babblers and digital data dweebs. The brand maniacs and the brand deniers are both wrong.

Brand power is real, but it is highly contingent.


LeShann said...

I seem to remember from data that like for any other brand, loyalty for Apple was not much higher than any other brand once put in perspective with their market share (and that extra loyalty needs to consider the "ecosystem lock" that Apple products create). Same goes with Nike actually.

Brands are great "trust" drivers (it allows a product to be at least considered and judged worthy of comparison), but brand <> loyalty is more likely a correlation, not a causal relationship.

As you point out, brand "love" is much more "in the moment" and ephemeral, and can easily be lost, which is not a great definition for "loyalty".

Wiemer said...

Agree with LeShan. People might feel they are loyal or 'in love' with Apple or Nike, but the actual *buying behaviour' data shows otherwise. Clearly, what people think is different from what they actually do. The law of Double Jeopardy and/ or Duplication or Purchase have for decades shown how big (and so-called powerful or strong) brands differ from their smaller rivals - and that brand perceptions or attitudes can be explained from those laws as well. I love this quote from the man who thought most of this up:

Of the thousand and one variables which might affect buyer behaviour, it
is found that nine hundred and ninety-nine usually do not matter.

Many aspects of buyer behaviour can be predicted simply from the penetration and the average purchase frequency of the item, and even these two variables are interrelated.

(Andrew Ehrenberg)

BTW: Ehrenberg (or myself) are brand deniers. They are important for the (first) principles AdContrarian mentions. Although I would think it's primarily the first principle.

Alexander Christian said...

Sometimes I hear people say that if you understand the "soul" of the Brand, that's all that you have to do, convey the soul to the people and they will relate. I think that's pretty naive and idealistic.

Glad to see that there are people inbetween the two ends of the spectrum too. :)

Martin Headon said...

Relevant fact cribbed from Martin Weigel: 72% of pepsi drinkers also buy coca-cola.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

Another excellent blog. I was about to go dig up the same stat.

I prefer Coke. I also buy Pepsi. I am the 72%.

KL said...

Interesting that you use Coke/Pepsi as the example. I deliberately change brands in a lot of categories regularly for the novelty of it, but not with soft drinks. I've taken the Pepsi challenge in a grocery or mall just to piss off the researchers and score some free Coke.

Dave said...

With you until level 3. Pepsi tastes like sweetened battery acid. Granted, you might not like Coke any better, but by conflating the two, you end up negating the point you made in level 2, no?

Miguel said...

Sir, you're extremely on-point. Also, your statements follow already law-like patterns evidenced by decades of work developed by ASC Ehrenberg, G Goodhart and lately, Byron Sharp and the nice fellas of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science.
As Mr. Wiemer pointed out, Double Jeopardy and Duplicacion of Purchase clearly explain what some half-wits would confuse with the awfully void concept of Lovebrands.
Brands work as markers of what to buy in a split second decision based on previous experiences or what we consider familiar/interesting enough to try since almost all categories are commoditized mostly because of lacking of salient product features. As Prof. Sharp stated in his book, How Brands Grow, the rational decision is taken on whether or not one should buy a category product, rather than choosing which brand should we buy.

David Beers said...

I imagine that you could say this about most things in the world: ignore the fringe fanatics.

Charlotte said...

Not to mention how the term 'brand' has been in itself redefined (or misused). I hear political and sports talking heads talk about a senator or football player maintaining their 'brand'.
So is a brand reputation? A logo? A pair of shoes that will never, ever fit my foot?

jlevine said...

I don't really get the point of this article, other than to say that people at the extremes of any position are almost always wrong.

Although I'd hardly label myself an extremist, I tend to lean towards the brand power side of the pendulum, largely because I think we're confronted on a daily basis with seismic proportions of anti-brand rhetoric and spending by marketers: The rush to big data, the rush to buying Likes, the rush to native advertising, the rush to shopper marketing.

This is not to suggest that those things aren't valid in the context of a marketing strategy, but the eagerness to abandon all thinking beyond real-time results is scary and counterproductive for most brands.

Anyway, it's not clear to me what you are suggesting instead. How would you define the middle way?

Jon P said...

Once again, your comments are true and entertainingly stated—within the context of household-name consumer products. And in that realm, moving the needle on brand perception is like maneuvering an aircraft carrier while half the crew is in mutiny. If a company doesn't start off with a great brand position, like Apple or Nike, and support it like crazy with product innovation, they're most likely doomed to lukewarm customer loyalty.

In smaller niches, though, branding and brand positioning has the potential to be much more disruptive, simply because the majority of brands are so weak to begin with. I used to work on large consumer accounts, but honestly, brand building is much more rewarding for small or medium B2B clients than it ever was in the incremental world of CPG.

Jon P said...

A brand exists only in your head. It's how you feel about a company and their products. What they do and say, including how they design their products or deliver their services, has the potential to influence how you feel. In that regard, it is possible for a football player or a politician to have a brand—it just sounds pretentious when said out loud.

Jon P said...

Bob, please don't disrupt my face with a shovel for using that word.