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Real Branding Hurts

In marketing, it’s the brander who hurts instead of the brandee.

There are hundreds of definitions for branding. There are even dozens of good ones. For the moment, let’s think about this one:

Branding is the process of making one company’s products distinct from similar products offered by competitive companies.

Sure, it’s overly simplistic but let’s go with it for now.

Just as there are hundreds of definitions for branding, there are hundreds of ways to make one product distinct from another. We can invent distinctive, new features and functions, create distinctive, new ways to benefit customers, find distinctive, new ways to communicate about features and benefits (even if those features and benefits are not especially distinctive and new). And we can imbue our products with distinctive, intangible qualities that some people will find enticing.

Note that I said some people. But not all people. The process of making a product distinctive requires us to define exactly who we’re going to try to entice and exactly who we’re going to risk ignoring, or maybe even turning off.

And that’s why branding – real branding – hurts.

“But, I don’t want to turn my back on potential customers”

Having the guts to walk away from something is just as important as having the fortitude to embrace something. That’s hard to do because “I don’t want to turn my back on potential customers.”

But, think about it this way; what if you could be reasonably sure that the “customers” you’re walking away from would never really be your customers anyway? What if you could know that they’re so in thrall to your competitors that spending one more dollar on them would be foolish? And what if you could focus all your attention on the people who are most likely to find your offer appealing?*

Same Sxx Wedding

Would Eastern Bank’s new “Join Us For Good” ad campaign succeed in rural parts of my home state of Alabama? Maybe not. But it doesn’t have to.

Bank of America is a 900-pound silverback of a brand. Bank of America can afford to be all things to all people. Or it can afford to try.

Eastern Bank, based here in Boston, MA, cannot, so they’ve made the conscious decision to be “the socially responsible, activist bank” (these are my words, based on their marketing materials, not theirs, so don’t come after me, Eastern folks, I’m a big fan) and to aim their offering squarely at people who will find that proposition enticing.

Despite not having the heft of a B of A, with 100 branch offices and almost $11 billion in assets, Eastern is not some hip, little boutique institution. So, to my way of thinking, it took a fair amount of fortitude to commit to a strategy and a message that’s absolutely guaranteed to hack some people off. You can follow a link at the end of this article and read how well Eastern is doing with this strategy. I wouldn’t have used them as an example if their results weren’t pretty remarkable.

Cannibals need love too

1980 GM E-Body Coupes

From the top, a 1980 Buick Riviera, Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado. I think. Distinctive, huh?

If you’re a company with a portfolio of multiple brands, sometimes real branding means letting one of your brands take share from another. Big, multi-brand corporations can afford to take the attitude “If anybody is going to steal our business, it’s going to be us.”

Procter & Gamble and Campbell’s Soup are great at this and they’re thriving. Back when you couldn’t distinguish a Cadillac from a Buick from an Oldsmobile at twenty paces, General Motors was lousy at portfolio management, but they’ve gotten a whole lot better in recent years.

But, even for marketers who are good at it, going full-on Darwinian on your own brands is painful. For a CMO, it requires a clear vision, an iron will and the ability to turn a deaf ear to the indignation of the brand managers who are getting cannibalized by their colleagues down the hall.

John Mellencamp, marketing strategist

When you do it right, branding hurts.

Sometimes it means walking away from what seem like potential sales.

Sometimes it means allowing one of your brands to encroach on another, and may the best brand win.

But if the real goal of branding is to make what you’re selling distinct from similar offerings from competitors (and, let’s all be really honest, there are a lot of similar offerings available in almost every product category) then the hard choices have to be made by people who are comfortable with discomfort.

Next time you’re facing one of those hard choices, hum a few bars of Hurts So Good. Maybe that will make it easier.

But it probably won’t.

Linkography

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Ban these words and phrases for at least the next five years.

Yesterday (Friday, March 14, 2014, that’s Pi Day)  I posted a list of annoyingly abused words and phrases on Facebook and, holy cow, people I haven’t seen in fifteen years started weighing in with their own ideas about overused and irritating verbiage. By the end of the day we had assembled a definitive list of terms that must be banned and banished, if not forever, then at least for a while.

To wit:

Amazing (For the luvvagod, please, please find a new adjective. And why does everybody have to sound like a fourteen-year-old girl when they use it? “Uh-MEEEZ-ing.”)

Authentic (Do you mean crude, unprocessed, unedited, uncurated, unimproved, just simply spewed forth in raw form from some fundamental source? I’ll pass. Thanks.)

Artisanal (I saw a plastic package labeled Artisanal Lettuce in a grocery store a few days ago. It’s a plant. It grows out of the dirt. Unless scientists are “crafting” the genome of this stuff in some wonderfully, special way, there’s nothing Artisanal about it. I can’t imagine we need any further proof that this term is now absolutely dead).

Passion (This was a cool and transgressive word between 2009 and 2012. Especially in the business world. I’ll admit to getting some mileage out of it myself. Now, every schmuck’s got a “passion” about something. I just saw a commercial for Lindor proclaiming their chefs’ “passion” for chocolate. It’s made in a big factory, folks. Ditch this word immediately.)

Spot On (I know, that’s two words, so I’m doubly weary of it)

Decimate (unless you actually mean “to kill one out of ten”, and you can’t decimate objects, you can only decimate groups of people, sheesh!)

Bandwidth

Literally (When you mean figuratively or metaphorically. That quinoa was not so good that you literally swallowed your tongue. You’d die.)

Innovate and its demon-cursed sister-word Innovation (Again, I’ve milked this one myself. But it’s time to give it the double-tap behind the ear. And it’s a shame, because it’s a real good and useful word that’s just been abused into meaninglessness.)

Wait for it…

Brilliant

World Class

Thought Leader (And, by the way, you don’t get to call yourself a thought leader. Somebody has to confer that title on you. But it’s still stupid. Don’t use it.).

Game-Changer

At the end of the day…

That said…

Pivot (Just say “start over”. Please.)

Awesome (Even nine-year-old-boys don’t say this any more because it’s just that passé.)

So that’s our list, created by a couple of dozen “creative professionals” of various stripes. Oh! Wait! I have to add a term.

Creative (This is worthy of a post all its own. It may be one of the most abused terms in the business world. For now, use it very cautiously. Be thoughtful about what you label “creative”.).

Does anybody have anything to add? “Input” is welcome. There’s a term I love. “Input”. A more honest label would be “interference”.