Brand symbols becoming a dinosaur of another age

In the world of business-to-business marketing communications, the use of symbols to connote brand attributes is a lost art. Pick up any 10 trade magazines and you’ll see what I mean. You can even pick up 50 if you want, but you still won’t find more than a handful of symbols that help make a branding statement.
The “missing bite” from Apple Computer’s apple logo helps convey the idea that you can expect something unconventional and different from them. Merrill Lynch’s bull says strength to an investor audience that could probably use some added strength on any given day. And John Deere’s elegant bounding deer fits nicely with their long-established “Runs like a Deere” slogan.

One of the most offbeat uses of symbology in business-to-business advertising is Owens-Corning’s adaptation of the Pink Panther character. In addition to the obvious color connection to its pink product (Owens Corning was the first company to trademark a color), the panther has given the company a fun, friendly image association for almost 25 years now. And, of course, this makes it a lot easier for retailers to sell Owens Corning insulation products to builders and homeowners.

In energy trade publications, you’ll find the attractive, but straightforward, Shell Oil pecten. Not only does this symbol link the huge company to its humble gift shop origins, but it also helps impart an environmentally friendly image in an industry where environmentalists are constantly on the attack. Shell has upgraded its pecten at least nine times since it was first introduced in 1904, each time making it more contemporary.

In his classic branding book, Strategic Brand Management: Building, Measuring, and Managing Brand Equity, Kevin Lane Keller warns against a recent trend to make brand symbols more abstract in this quest to be more contemporary. He tells the story of how Prudential Insurance had gone through 15 versions of its rock of Gibraltar symbol, finally ending up in 1983 with a stylized version that simply consisted of black and white slanting lines. Many customers couldn’t see the rock anymore, so the company quickly came up with a 16th version that was modern, but more clearly recognizable.

In the transportation field, I always think toughness and durability when I see the bulldog symbol on the front of a Mack Truck. Apparently, this is a case of an endearing symbol being suggested by customers because British soldiers in World War I told company representatives the blunt-nosed trucks reminded them of bulldogs as they dodged bullets and trudged through the mud in France on their way to the front with supplies.

(By the way, if you go to www.mackswimsuit.com you can vote for your favorite bulldog bathing beauty in the Bulldog Swimsuit Edition.)

Distinctive marks and symbols like these stand out in a vast, gray corporate brandscape. They are sources of pride for employees, and they help shape a company’s personality to the outside world. I just can’t figure out why more marketers haven’t picked up on this.

The only industry that insists on icons is insurance. It’s inundated, in fact.

Transamerica features its prominent pyramid-shaped tower. Liberty Mutual claims the Statue of Liberty. Allstate has good hands. Mutual of Omaha displays an Indian head. Snoopy is flying overhead on the Met Life blimp. Wausau is leaving on the next train (station), and AFLAC has gone quackers for ducks.

Sadly, the most famous insurance industry symbol now belongs to a finance company. I’m talking about the red umbrella that for many years was closely associated with Travelers Insurance Co. It seems that during that company’s brief stay with Citigroup, the red umbrella was abducted, and didn’t go along when the insurance business was spun off again in 2002. How very strange–wouldn’t it have been fun to be a fly on the wall during those conversations?

In his book, Keller talks about brand symbols as powerful ways to attract attention and enhance brand personalities by making customers like them. He mentions such prominent brand characters and symbols as the Keebler Elves, Ronald McDonald, the Jolly Green Giant and several you might not think of: Sprint’s clever use of a pin dropping to promote sound transmission quality and Memorex’s shattering glass to symbolize audio reproduction.

Maybe b-to-b practitioners should take a lesson from our consumer advertising brethren. Consider what Maytag has done with the lonely repairman character these last four decades: The company has become synonymous with dependability, that’s what.

And look how Michelin has evolved “Bibendum,” the tire-shaped boy first created in 1898. Michelin has modernized and upgraded its cuddly spokesman to transform its brand image from auto racing to friendliness and family safety, and has recovered nicely from its financial difficulties of the early ’90s.
Qantas Airways Ltd. has used kangaroos and koala bears for 50 years to symbolize the exotic attractions that might motivate people to travel halfway around the world.

Pillsbury has its Poppin’ Fresh doughboy. Starkist has Charlie Tuna. Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes has Tony the Tiger. Marlboro has its famous cowboy. For 40 years, Hathaway shirts had its eye-patched man.

Not only do symbols help customers remember a company’s products and services, but more importantly, they help us associate positive attributes that draw us closer and make it easier for us to buy those products and services. If used properly, symbols can focus our brand expectations and shape corporate images.

In this downsized, reorganized world where everyone is wearing more hats and handling more responsibility, it’s smart for marketers to do everything we can to make it easy for customers to remember a few simple reasons why they should like us and buy from us.

Brand symbols are one effective way to do this. If you’re not using them, maybe it’s time you got the picture.

Negative brand images deserve the positive image treatment

The scenario: You’re attending a major trade show, riding in an elevator with several people you don’t know, when one of them starts talking about your company, Yurco.

First guy: I ran into Bill Johnson with Yurco this afternoon.

Second guy: Yurco? Bill Johnson is with Yurco? When did that happen?

First guy: He just joined them several months ago. I’m not sure how long it’s going to last, though.

Second guy: How come?

First guy: Well, Yurco is always low-balling contracts. Then they stick it to you with special fees and add-ons. That’s really not Bill’s style.

Second guy: You got that right. I’ve also heard their quality’s not the best.

First guy: Yeah, it’s too bad a classy guy like Bill would get caught up in all that.

As a new product manager for Yurco, your first inclination is to set these guys straight, but unfortunately the problem runs much deeper than that. In this case, Bill Johnson’s brand image is a lot better than the company he now represents.

Your perception is that Yurco pursues an aggressive pricing strategy. Theirs is low-balling.

Your perception is fit-for-purpose product quality. Theirs is shoddy workmanship.

Your perception is that Bill Johnson is proud to work for Yurco. Theirs is that Bill has fallen on hard times.

Brand images create customer expectations and, as we see in this example, expectations are not always positive. Yurco may have a catalog full of useful products, a customer service department second to none and a content-rich Web site with lots of e-business features that make it easy for customers to do business with the company.

Unfortunately, these customers are stuck on a brand image that gives them entirely different expectations. They expect your company to play fast and loose with contract proposals. They expect marginal product quality. They also expect that Bill Johnson won’t stay long with Yurco.

Yurco can launch the most creative and expensive brand-image advertising program in the history of business, and it won’t have much effect in this situation unless the company addresses its pricing and product quality issues. Yurco can boast of the innovative features of its latest products. Executives can talk about services and solutions and problem-solving until they’re blue in the face. None of these appeals will be properly received until they face the harsh reality of the existing negative image.

Many marketing managers live in denial when it comes to brand images. They’ve recited their 25-word “what we do” features and benefits pitch so many times, they believe it must be true. It never occurs to them that customers are totally unable or unwilling to recite a similar pitch when playing back a description of the company.

This is the reason I dislike mission or vision statements so much: The vast majority are totally unrealistic. Not only is it impossible for companies to actually be all the things they claim to be, but more importantly, customers will never give you credit for anything remotely close to that.

And when was the last time you saw a mission statement that addressed a weakness or negative issue? This obviously goes against the code of United Mission Statement Writers International.

In the case of Yurco, customer concerns about deceptive pricing policies and subpar product quality must be placed at the top of their to-do list before the company can move on to more esoteric branding goals.

Several years ago, I was working with a large oil field equipment company that had hired a leading research firm to do a customer satisfaction survey. We were sitting in the spacious, wood-paneled main conference room with all its elegant furnishings and satellite conferencing equipment, listening to the head of the research firm go through the survey findings when he got to a customer concern about how hard the company was to deal with.

“Arrogant” was a word that kept coming up. “Bureaucratic” was another one. “Inaccessible top management” was a third descriptor. Even though customers acknowledged that the company’s products were the highest quality in the industry and its reputation for innovative technology was unsurpassed, the company was losing market share. Several multimillion-dollar orders had recently been lost to competitors.

And here was a respected oil-industry researcher, a man to whom this company had paid many tens of thousands of dollars, telling them about a serious problem and they were dismissing it as insignificant. Their general reaction was, “We’ve heard this before. This is the typical thing people say about market leaders.”

Maybe it’s what they say about ex-market leaders. If you’re aware of negative image issues and your branding program fails to put those concerns at the top of the list of things to worry about, you can expect the situation to only get worse.

When crafting your next brand personality statement, maybe you should consider a “personality makeover” statement instead. It could be the first step to a totally new Yurco.

AFLAC gets the Bang! treatment

Despite all attempts to standardize, commoditize and gener-icize the creative process, idea generation is still largely an art form that defies definition and regimentation. You can buy the best software and the highest-powered computers, but that doesn’t mean big ideas will necessarily follow. You can put legions of bright, shiny faces on the case, but you still might end up with mush–or worse, outrageous concepts that fail to solve the business problem.

Many clients are offended when they throw their one big idea out on the table and everyone reacts with indifference. What they fail to grasp is that ideas are a dime a dozen. Creative teams go through hundreds, sometimes thousands of ideas to get one that might be a barn-burner. And even then you’re not sure.

In their book Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval, the authors describe the agonizing process they went through for an obscure Columbus, Ga.-based insurance company named the American Family Life Assurance Co. (AFLAC).

The agency, Kaplan Thaler Group Ltd. based in New York, was given six weeks to come up with four concepts to test in a shoot-out against the incumbent agency. The client’s only request was that he wanted people to remember the name of the company. When pressed for guidance, AFLAC Chairman Dan Amos said in exasperation, “I don’t care if you have to show a naked man tap-dancing on the roof as long as you get people to know the name of this company.”

That’s a pretty wide-open slate for any agency, and obviously Kaplan Thaler didn’t want to let him down. But still, the existing mindset for insurance advertising was to show teary, tug-at-the-heart vignettes with people talking about how much they loved each other. It was hard to see any solution outside this traditional box.

Six weeks flew by. Even though the small agency was putting virtually all its talent on this important opportunity, nothing distinctive was happening. In the final week before the presentation, one of the creatives, Eric David, went out for a quick lunch. As he walked down the sidewalk, muttering the client’s name out loud, he suddenly realized how much like a duck he sounded.

He raced back to the agency and into the small office of his creative partner, Tom Amico. Without any explanation or setup, he simply did his AFLAC duck call. Tom’s eyes got wide as he wheeled around to his computer and within five minutes, the famous “Park Bench” TV spot was written.

Even then it wasn’t a slam-dunk, because most of the agency’s managers were horrified at the possibly of offending the client with this silly, totally unconventional approach. “You’ve got to be kidding,” said Robin Koval, “You’re actually going to show this to Dan? Remember, this guy sells cancer insurance!”

Ultimately, they decided that a funny spokes-duck with attitude might be just the ticket, but they still weren’t sure enough to bump one of their other four approaches. So they made a deal with Amos to let them submit five ads, provided the agency paid for testing of the additional spot.

The rest, of course, is advertising history. The duck spot scored a whopping 28% recall, more than double the usual for an insurance ad. The first ad aired Dec. 31, 1999, and within six days, AFLAC had more hits on its Web site than in the entire previous year. AFLAC’s annual sales, which historically had been rising 12% to 15%, went up 28% in 2000, and another 29% in 2001.

That’s bang for the duck … er, buck.

George Lois, who’s known for producing a few big bang ideas of his own, tells the story in one of his books (What’s the Big Idea? How to Win With Outrageous Ideas (That Sell)) about Music Television (MTV). In 1982, MTV was a small (less than $100,000) business-to-business account that involved marketing its 24-hour music video channel to cable operators, who wanted no part of it. “Many cable operators believed that kids who went for rock ’n’ roll were heavily into drugs,” Lois recalled. “Record publishers were convinced MTV would kill their business if allowed to prosper, and refused to allow their titles to be transformed into music videos.”

Lois dredged up one of his classic ad slogans, “I want my Maypo” and gave it a new twist, convincing a few rock stars (Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Pat Benatar) to look into the camera and say, “I want my MTV.” Then he produced a low-budget TV spot and selected several key markets in which to run it. The voice-over call to action was, “If you don’t get MTV where you live, call your cable operator and say, ‘I want my MTV.’”

Lois didn’t even provide a local phone number. Kids who wanted to call had to look up the number themselves. But the results were so overwhelming, within several days cable operators would contact Warner Amex (cable TV station) and beg them to stop running the MTV spots.

Six months after that first commercial ran, MTV was on the cover of Time magazine and journalists were talking about it being the biggest cultural phenomenon since the advent of television. Pretty strong for a little cable channel nobody wanted.

There are two parts to putting big ideas to work in any advertising program. First, you have to hire creative people who are willing to push beyond the obvious low-hanging fruit. Most of them will tell you the old 1% inspiration-99% perspiration formula really is true, but the corollary is that perspiration takes extra time, and in the ad biz, time is money. So you have to spend more to get more.

The second part of getting a big idea in your ad program is that someone has to be able to present the big idea successfully and, equally important, the client has to have the guts to approve it. That’s why I hate presenting to committees, because someone in the room is going to make a comment that starts the herd moving toward the safe, secure solution. It takes a bold, self-assured manager to stand up and head this momentum back in the other direction.

But if you’re lucky, the unconventional approach will be given a chance to prove itself. And that’s when we discover once again what a powerful tool advertising is when used properly.

The brand battlefield resides in customers’ minds

One sure way to start an argument with a business-to-business sales manager is to insinuate that brands are more important than products, but in several important ways, they are.

Of course, I was alive and coherent through the whole dot-com craze, so you don’t have to point out the fallacy of trying to build a brand with nothing to back it up. But let’s assume you have a really great, new product in a marketplace full of established, branded alternatives–is your new product guaranteed success? Will customers beat a path to buy your better mousetrap?

Not a chance. Most customers will first buy the products they trust to do the jobs at hand. They don’t have time to test every new invention, and they certainly don’t want to stake their reputations on something unproven. As Geoffrey Moore (a managing director with San Mateo, Calif.-based TCG Advisors and author of Crossing the Chasm, among other titles) and Regis McKenna (the Mountain View, Calif.-based “marketing guru of Silicon Valley,” adviser and author) have famously taught us, there are a few early adopters out there who love to try new gadgets, but most people are not willing to cross this chasm until they know for sure something works.

On the other hand, if you have established a brand that causes people to expect that your new products will perform as advertised, the early adoption process can be greatly accelerated.

Take General Electric Co., for example. The GE brand is on everything from light bulbs to jet engines, locomotives and sophisticated medical equipment. My dental plan is even provided by GE. How can one brand successfully cover so many disparate products and services?

According to Judy Hu, general manager of advertising and brand for Fairfield, Conn.-based GE,it’s all about trust. “The General Electric culture is unique,” Hu says, “because our values and processes are consistently the same in every area of the company. Everything we do is aimed at building trust with our customers.”

Part of this trust-building is enhanced by GE’s policy of growing managers from within and moving them freely from one division to another. The rigorous disciplines of Six Sigma (a process GE employs to develop and deliver “near-perfect” products) also play a part, but it’s interesting to note that GE even works hard to help salespeople understand the importance of the brand.

“They’re our last interface with the customer,” Hu says, “so we don’t want a disconnect at that point.” To facilitate this, GE offers a two-hour “Understanding the brand” seminar to enable salespeople to see how the GE brand affects the selling process.

But what if you have a great product, but don’t have a well-established brand? When Cessna Aircraft Co. decided to enter the lucrative business jets market in the late ’60s, it had been building jet-powered airplanes for the U.S. Air Force for some time. “We had the ability to deliver a quality business-jet product,” says Phil Michel, vice president of marketing, “but our image was all wrong for that market.”

The Wichita, Kan.-based aircraft company was known as a maker of small single- and twin-engine planes for flight training and personal uses–low-tech, nothing very exciting. And certainly nothing to compare with the sex appeal of Lear, Lockheed, Falcon, Hawker and the others.

So Cessna decided to create a new image around the name Citation. Within two decades, Citation was No. 1 in business jets, and Cessna was still No. 1 in propeller-powered planes.

So I guess you can have your cake and eat it, too. But what this tells me is that people’s attitudes and expectations about your products and services are just as important–maybe more important than the products and services themselves. If your customers think you’re better, you are.

But they do have to think about you in the first place. For many years Inland-Eastex (now part of MeadWestvaco Corp. in Stamford, Conn.) marketed a quality printing paper anonymously under the generic name TexCover II. The paper had many fine attributes: easy folding, fast-drying, flawless stamping, trimming and die-cutting. Most notably, it was forgiving of on-press variation.

Then they branded it with the name “Tango” and the tagline “Always performing.” In four years, Tango sales went from $40 million to $80 million per year. It rose from fifth place in its category to second. The program generated incremental sales of $126 million for a $2 million marketing communications investment–that’s a 6,000% return on investment. The product didn’t change. The competition didn’t change. Only the customer’s attitudes and expectations changed.

Yes, it’s important to have quality products with lots of features and benefits. But don’t expect that to drive sales. What drives sales is expectations. When customers expect more, they buy more. When they expect less, they buy less or not at all.

As Al Ries and Jack Trout first told us more than 30 years ago, the battlefield is in the customer’s mind. And that’s where brands reside.

If you’re not fighting your battles on the right battlefield, then you’re not doing your job as a business-to-business marketer. I just can’t say it any more clearly than that.

Building strong agency-client relations starts at the beginning

In my 30-plus years working with and for ad agencies, I’ve seen way too many clients jump ship prematurely, often for reasons that defy logic. Professionals do seem to have worked harder in years past to build and nurture these relationships than they do today. That’s a shame, because like marriages between two people, if both parties put forth a little more effort to get what they want and help their partner do likewise, much of unproductive firing and hiring could be avoided.

The first and probably most important step in building strong agency-client relations is to select the right partner in the first place. Surprisingly, this is where the process is most dysfunctional. We’ve turned a process of identifying needs and finding sources to fill those needs into a beauty contest. It’s called spec creative and I’m sorry to report it consumes an obscenely large portion of total agency time and talent, with essentially no usable return on that investment.

As the saying goes, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling back.” So agencies, even those that are doing well, throw themselves headfirst into every pitch they can finagle an invitation to. Even though this creative avalanche makes for exciting reviews, it doesn’t tell you what you need to know about which one will best serve your needs. And after the selection is made, the spec creative work is rarely used.

So don’t do it. Instead, ask to see how your agency candidates solve problems. You hear a lot of talk these days about the importance of strategy, but usually it’s nothing but talk. If an agency is proud of its strategic thinking, its principals should be able to present at least three detailed examples of how they applied that thinking for specific clients.

To me, the most interesting part (and the one that often is skipped entirely) is defining the problem itself. The agency really must understand the prospect’s market situation. Then I like to hear about all the solutions that were proposed, even those that weren’t approved. Seeing how they found their way through uncharted waters will help demonstrate more than anything else how they will tackle and solve your problems.

But strategic and creative skills aren’t the only consideration in selecting a good agency partner–at least they shouldn’t be. You’ve probably heard it said that the reasons clients fire agencies seldom have anything to do with why they were hired in the first place.

Agencies generally are hired because they are creative and possess magic powder. They’re fired because of misunderstandings over billing, because they’re not responsive or for lack of interpersonal chemistry. And a dozen other reasons that have nothing to do with creativity.

So you must include these issues in your selection process. Ask to meet the key people who will work on the account–insist they be part of the presentation. Don’t be misled by senior agency management karma. Within six months, those people will have no idea what’s going on with your account.

Ask to see samples of billing and other agency paperwork. This sounds mundane, but you can avoid many unpleasant confrontations later and also find out if special billing requests can be accommodated without extra cost by taking the time to understand the agency’s standard procedures.

Another area where light bulbs often flash is when you ask how information is captured within the agency and how it is disseminated. Ask to see how jobs are initiated, and try to understand their system of checks and balances. And be sure to get a specific written agreement regarding assignment of copyrights (to you).

I also find it helpful to ask for approximate production timelines for various types of jobs. This doesn’t mean they can’t do it faster. It just says, all things considered, this is how much time they’d like to have to do their best work. That might come in handy later if it turns out you’re constantly pressuring them to do things faster, or conversely, they’re taking a lot more time than they said would be needed.

Money is always a good subject to address. Many clients have the attitude that it’s not their responsibility to ensure that the agency makes a profit on their account. But you can’t expect to get good work if you’re not willing to allocate adequate budgets. The trick–and this is huge–is knowing how much is enough. Maybe if we were more willing to share what we pay for various projects this wouldn’t be so difficult, but clients are generally reluctant to reveal even total budgets, much less specific amounts for line-item tasks.

Believe me, in my role as Marketing News columnist, I’ve asked many times. The answers usually invoke the client’s constitutional right to confidentiality.

If you wonder why people get so upset over money in advertising, it’s because they have no frame of reference. They can drive by a new housing addition and have a pretty good idea how much the homes in that subdivision sell for, but you can lay three capabilities brochures on a table and they can’t come within 25% of the actual costs. Try walking through a large trade show convention center and guessing how much each exhibitor ponied up for the privilege of being there. Even I can’t do that

Agency performance generally comes down to three issues: time, money and direction. Agencies can’t apply their creative talents without adequate portions of each. But if you do a good job finding an agency partner with the right talents and the right organizational disciplines, you should be able to forge a long-lasting relationship that will pay maximum dividends for you and your company

Assuming, that is, if you’re willing to work at it.