Branding is not design

If you’re old enough to remember the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the news anchor played by Ted Knight was handsome and impeccably attired with a booming, authoritative voice.  He also happened to be dumb as a rock.  If you went by exterior appearances, Ted Baxter was someone you could really put your trust in, until you saw him in action that is.

To base your impression of Ted Baxter on his carefully staged reading of the news would be wrong.  His actual personality was something else entirely.  In his case, the “book” was significantly different from the “cover.”

That’s why branding people shouldn’t put too much emphasis on design.  Yes, design is part of it, but only a part.  The key word to me is “expectation.”  When you see or hear about a brand, what do you expect?

In many ways, brands are like personalities, and it’s instructive to use real people as examples of the way we react to brands.  If you barely know someone, you probably don’t have much of an expectation about how they will behave.  The more you’re exposed to them, however, whether it’s in person or through the media, the more you develop highly focused expectations about what you should expect from them.

When people fail to live up to our expectations, like Tiger Woods, for example, we react with surprise, shock or disappointment.  If it’s only a small deviation from our standard expectation, we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.  If the deviation is significant, or if we witness a steady series of inconsistent behaviors, our expectations change.

That’s what brands do.  If we have a positive impression of a brand, we expect something good when we interact with that brand.  Likewise, if our expectations are negative, we expect to be abused, gouged or annoyed.  It has little to do with design.

For my money, branding is more about words and actions.  You tell people what they should expect and then you proceed to deliver on that promise.  In molding and shaping this desired expectation, messaging is a lot more important than graphic design.

And as long as we’re talking about molding and shaping expectations, let me put in an appeal to keep your aspirations simple and focused.  You cannot be the Mission Statement.  Most strong brands are clearly identified with a single attribute.

Rolex is quality.  Wal-Mart is everyday low prices.  FedEx is reliability.  Apple is innovative design. Volvo is safety.  The list goes on and on.

Marketers that try to do too much with their brand expectation run the risk of making it too complicated for customers to grasp and retain.  The Holy Grail of branding, to me, is when one customer turns to a colleague and says, “I like XYZ because ______” and the “because” is the brand expectation you have been striving to establish.

I will readily concede that expectations can be impacted by design.  You walk into Tiffany’s or Neiman Marcus expecting high quality because of the way the store is designed and the merchandise displayed.

But in my B2B world, customers rarely find themselves in a retail environment, and even if they do, their expectations are most likely already shaped by other considerations.  Construction equipment buyers, for example, know that Caterpillar products are rugged and reliable before they set foot in a dealer’s showroom.

It’s far more important in branding to get the messaging right.  If you do that properly, design will almost take care of itself.

(And for all the graphic design people who might be reading this, you guys are the best!)

Dealing with negative brand images

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.

Understanding the problem

All the recent controversy over healthcare reform has me a bit mystified. Without taking sides or wishing to step on any political toes, I think the problem is that we’ve never actually defined the problem. With healthcare, that is.

I’m conducting a series of brainstorming sessions for a multinational oil and gas logistics company, the purpose of which is to equip and empower employees to step forward with ideas to improve the company’s operating efficiency. We spend a lot of time in the seminar defining the problems they wish to talk about.

The problems we examine in these day-long seminars are real-life situations attendees see in their everyday jobs. They think they know what the problems are without having to actually state them. But when I force them to stand at an easel and write the problem in simple, straight-forward language, they spit and sputter. And disagreements emerge quickly.

You can see the same thing with healthcare reform. It almost looks like someone decided the problem was insurance – either the cost is too high or not enough people have it. And I’m sure there’s some truth to both of those points. But when you look at insurance company financial reports, it doesn’t seem their profits are out of line. I’ve yet to read an article comparing U.S. insurance costs with those in other countries. Are we paying too much? If so, why is that?

You could just as easily make the argument that the healthcare problem is our antiquated record-keeping system. I love the GE Medical Systems TV spot where a doctor is sitting in an exam room with a patient and asks if the patient has ever been tested for something. When the patient struggles to remember, the camera pulls back to reveal an amphitheater full of other medical professionals who begin to call out the patients complete record.

This scenario certainly rings true in my case. I can’t remember what medical treatments I had last year, much less five or ten years ago. So it’s very likely that money has been wasted unsuccessfully treating me for the same thing or ignoring something that probably does need attention. If my current doctor had access to the whole record, I’m sure things would be better.

And don’t get me started about malpractice suits. How much extra cost is built into our healthcare system to cover legal fees, insurance and unnecessary, play-it-safe prescriptions and testing recommended by doctors who are just trying to cover their backsides?

I think if someone had forced our congressional representatives to write out the healthcare problem before they started developing a solution, the results would have been substantially different. Certainly it wouldn’t be necessary for our president to crisscross the nation, “selling” the results of that legislation to a very unhappy and skeptical American public.

If you’re clear about the problem, the right solution is easy to embrace. That’s what I tell my brainstorming seminar students anyway.

Five resolutions for 2010

As we near the end of 2009 and The Decade From Hell, it seems appropriate to summon up all our resolve and wish something better for the coming year. Much better. Here are my top five resolutions for 2010.

1. Do something bold

Many people consider themselves fortunate to have survived 2009 with a job and regular income, even if raises and bonuses were out of the question. Okay, it’s hard to argue with that. But if 2009 was the Year Of Hanging On, then 2010 should be the Year Of Doing Something Bold. Your management showed faith in you by keeping you on the team. Now it’s time to reward that faith by doing something spectacular.

Playing it safe is no longer good enough. Anybody can pull in the horns and hunker down. It takes no special skills or talent to do that. If you want to show them they made the right decision, you need to add one very bold and unexpected initiative to your 2010 agenda.

I’m tired of hearing people talk as if “new initiatives” are verboten. That mindset has got pink slip written all over it. If you continue to hunker down and lay low, don’t be surprised if someone up the ladder comes to the conclusion that you’re expendable, too.

2. Consider what your customers need to know.

Too many people in advertising have gotten carried away with the need to entertain. I’m sorry, but that’s not what we’re in business to do. One of the serendipitous results of the auto industry crash is that automobile advertising is now much better. They quit trying to entertain, and started giving us reasons why we should consider buying their car. I think that’s a change for the better (and may the best car win!).

In business-to-business advertising, we need to think about the questions our customers are struggling with and create ad programs to address those issues. Too many b-to-b ads use borrowed interest or tired clichés to make half-hearted attempts at cleverness. It just falls flat.

3. Give prospects a reason to contact you.

In my b-to-b world, I’m constantly amazed that ads fail to include any call to action, much less a good one. Direct marketing people wouldn’t dream of doing that. They start with “The Offer” and build a promotion around that. Retail marketers know quickly when the cash register rings and when it doesn’t. They don’t waste money on advertising appeals that fail to stimulate a response.

So why are B2B marketers so content to run one-way ads that deliver pompous messages without any regard for stimulating responses? My experience says it’s because the people in charge of creating the ad are so deeply immersed in product technology and features, they think customers are, too. All they think they have to do is describe the technical features and the prospect can take it from there. That’s what we used to call a “killer assumption.” Now we just call it sad.

4. Be more accountable

If you give customers a reason to contact you, you can count the number of contacts. You can even follow up with them and add quality measures to the base contact numbers. One reason managers have such a hard time with advertising is we fail to show them what happens when they decide to do it.

So let’s all agree in 2010 to pick a few metrics worth tracking and feed that data back to our top-line managers. You might be surprised to see their reluctance melt away to approving future ad budgets.

5. Focus your brand image.

Everyone is a branding expert these days, and managers are pretty sick of hearing about branding. So we have a dilemma – do you ignore the branding issues or just avoid talking about them too much?

As a branding consultant, I’ve been told more than once lately to not mention the word branding around certain managers. That’s a sad commentary on our business, because branding is just as important today as it ever has been in the past. If you have a focused brand, that is. An unfocused brand doesn’t pull its weight, even if you’ve invested serious dollars promoting it.

The question I ask people to consider is, “When people see or hear your name, what do they EXPECT?” Awareness is not enough. You need to associate your brand with something specific that leads to a focused expectation, a reason for customers to pick you.

If you have that, everything else is easier. And 2010 may turn out to be even better for you than other companies that are still struggling with the branding issue.

It’s time we quit whining about downturns and recessions, and started thinking about ways to kick the roof off in 2010. That would be a positive use of our creative energies, don’t you think?

Don’t be afraid to experiment

When Claude Hopkins wrote his classic book, Scientific Advertising, in 1923, he was of the opinion that advertising was no longer a gamble. Because he had studied the cause and effect relationships of variables like copy, headlines, illustrations and typefaces, he felt the risk of advertising had been reduced so that it was “one of the safest of business ventures.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we felt that way today? Most businessmen these days are scared to death of advertising: it costs a lot of money and they’re not sure what they get in return.

Certainly there are infinitely more variables to worry about now than when Claude Hopkins plied his trade. Still, the primary point of his book is lost on today’s practitioner: learn from every effort so your next one is better.

Claude Hopkins was an incessant tinkerer, an advertising scientist of the first order. He wasn’t afraid to treat words, visual elements and even delivery vehicles as a chemist would treat variables in a lab. He played with them until he was convinced he knew the best combination for maximum results.

That’s exactly what we advertising and marketing communications professionals should be doing today. Several years ago, I wrote a column for Marketing News entitled, “Accountability is the name of the game.” It’s truer now than the day I wrote it.

Advertisers are demanding accountability. They want to know what they get for their money, and why they should be expected to budget large sums for future advertising programs. It’s up to us to tell them and, in general, we’re doing a lousy job.

It’s not entirely our fault, however. The advertiser has to help the agency in its quest for knowledge.

A few years ago, I had a client who was having a difficult time achieving breakeven for a product that should have been selling like pancakes. We couldn’t put our finger on the problem. Perhaps it was price point. We initially priced it at $15.00, but had reduced it below $10.00 without much improvement.

We wondered if the product, a disposable bacteria test kit, should be packaged individually, several to a package, or in bulk with all like components bagged together in an economy pack.

We had tried several introductory offers, like discounts, limited time offers, even one promising a free gift with every trial purchase. Nothing worked too well. The client’s top management was getting ready to pull the plug and we knew it. Patience was wearing thin, and we had to come up with the winning combination or all was lost.

We recommended a direct mail program to a data base of several thousand interested prospects that had been compiled from previous promotional efforts. We would vary the offer, even the way the product was packaged, in each “cell” and determine which one pulled best. Then we would use the winning combination to follow up with the other prospects to see if we could produce a steady, upward sales trend.

Unfortunately, the product manager wasn’t as concerned with finding the winning combination as we were. Despite the fact that our direct mail test would be very inexpensive (personalized letters and 2-color product flyers with business reply mail response cards), he had become infatuated with Swiss Army Knives, and wanted to offer one to all of his prospects.

We groaned, and proceeded to carry out the product’s death sentence. Six months later, the product manager was working in a fast food restaurant in Montana and we were minus one very promising account.

It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Direct response people know about experimentation. I’ve always admired and respected their discipline. Many years ago, I agreed to lead a workshop on creativity at the Direct Marketing Association’s annual conference thinking that direct marketers wouldn’t be all that interested in the subject. Imagine my surprise at the standing room only crowd. They soaked it up.

I came away from that experience convinced that direct marketers are looking at “creative” as the final ingredient in their recipe for success. They already know how to maximize the other variables.

But what about other media? Is it possible to experiment with trade publication advertising, for example?

Absolutely! And since trade publication advertising generally involves large chunks of an advertiser’s budget, it’s precisely the area in which you should concentrate first.

I spoke with John Emery and Gordon Hughes, past presidents of the American Business Press, in gathering information for this essay. Both pointed to the day when magazine publishing will collide with the information superhighway, creating all sorts of advertising experimentation possibilities. That day has now arrived.

For many years, publishers have been willing to work with large advertisers to run separate, “split run” ads in different geographic or demographic editions of their books. Computerization makes this much easier now, and for much finer circulation splits. Why emphasize “processing speed” to financial managers when “reducing costs” is what they’re interested in? Tell that to the engineers or plant managers.

What if you’re considering the appeal of several possible calls to action? Use split runs to test the pulling power of a product sample versus a packet of case histories versus a specialty item with your logo on it. One suggestion Emery made was to test various ad appeals with a sampling of a publication’s total audience by producing color laser prints of your ad with the three different appeals, then mailing them along with a cover letter asking readers to help you decide.

Tinker. Why be happy with one approach when you can test several? This is the chance you’ve been waiting for to test that stupid idea your boss keeps bringing up against your brilliant one.

And if the stupid one wins, look at it this way: at least the boss will be highly motivated to expand the program next year.