Curmudgeonly Comments

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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Holy Jurassic Park! It’s a Living, Breathing Print Ad. And it’s A Good One.

I just encountered something a lot of people believe is extinct. And, I have to admit, I’d begun to think they might be right. After all, you can only hear “Conventional advertising is dead!” and “Print advertising is thoroughly, dead. Stake-through-the-heart dead. Zombie-shot-in-the-head dead. Armadillo roadkill dead. Extinct. Fossilized” so many times before you despair and reluctantly begin believing it.

Especially when you see the evidence, or lack thereof, in newspapers and magazines. Ad pages are dwindling and the work that fills them is, for the most part, execrable. Or, even worse, just invisible.

But in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal – yes, an actual, physical, printed-on-macerated-dead-trees newspaper – I came upon this big, striking ad for Shinola watches.

shinola-apple

I was slightly familiar with the Shinola story, about how Tom Kartsotis, previously of Fossil Group, adopted the brand name of a famous shoe polish (commonly found in the antiquated putdown “You’re so dumb, you don’t know sh*t from Shinola) and is now applying it to watches, leather goods and bicycles, all assembled in a hip factory in Detroit.

The brand’s products are meticulously conceived and marketed to appeal to folks who dwell in the 11206 Zip Code or aspire to. In other words, they’re the kind of small batch, artisanally-crafted, defiantly retro, slightly twee and precious merchandise that affluent hipsters snatch up by the fistful to help define their own, unique, individual style (no judgement here, I think the watch looks bitchin’).

So, given those brand characteristics, it makes sense they’d choose a small batch, artisanally-crafted, defiantly retro medium to promote their new watch, The Runwell (even the name is retro, precious and, clearly, handcrafted).

But, this is not just a print ad. It’s a really good print ad.

The strategy is clear: this is not for just anybody and, by wearing it, you’re declaring that you, yourself, are not just anybody. The copy is persuasive, devoid of hyperbole and written in complete, correctly punctuated sentences that are packed with attitude.

And the ad is beautifully designed (I have a beef with the all-uppercase body copy, but I’ll let it go).

The Runwell costs between $600 and $1,000, right in the price range of the entry-level Apple Watch. So, the fact that the ad ran directly opposite an article announcing the new Apple Watch made it all the more juicy. This is evidence that the media agency and the creative agency actually got together and planned for this to happen.

Everything about this effort is small-batch, artisanally crafted and precious. In other words, this ad was made the way effective communications have always been made, by smart people with a profound understanding of their product and their audience applying their considerable talents to the task of selling something.

Credit for this good work goes to Partners & Spade, in New York. I recently made some disparaging comments about this agency’s work for Whole Foods Markets, because I find it to be everything the Shinola ads are not, specious, sappy, packed with inflated “Here’s Why We’re Great” claims and all summed up with a chest-pounding tagline, “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store”, that I can’t believe ever got past the company’s attorneys.

A lot of my antipathy toward this work, though, is probably more personal than professional. I worked in advertising in Texas for a number of years and, during that time, every single agency in the state beat their knuckles bloody on Whole Foods’ doors, trying to get so much as a polite audience with the Austin-based grocer. But Whole Foods spurned us all, stating haughtily that they had no need of our hucksterish ways.

Now, all these years later, to see them award their business to a New York-based agency, then crank out this beautifully-shot organic pabulum, rankles my Lone-Star-Loyal sensibilities.

So, while I’ll probably be buying my kale and quinoa at Stop & Shop, if I find myself with $600 to $1,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I could easily be convinced to throw down for a Runwell, if for no other reason than to reward good, old-fashioned creative work. After all, I’m strictly a mechanical watch man. If you don’t have to wind it, I won’t wear it. I don’t believe this means I’m a wannabe hipster. I think it just means I’m sixty years old.

Here’s something sort of infuriating.

When did “sort of” become something people say all the time? I heard a neuroscientist on NPR yesterday and he must’ve said “sort of” a couple of dozen times during a 30-minute segment. He actually said “…so the old brain sort of says ‘eat those cupcakes right now because fat and sugar are scarce’ and then the new brain sort of says ‘well, I’ll only have one…”.

And those weren’t even the most egregious examples.

I hear this over and over. I’ve even heard colleagues tell prospective clients about how “we use a proprietary research technique to sort of figure out why people make decisions” and then “sort of turn those insights into ideas.”

We don’t sort of do that. We really do that. I’d think clients might feel a tad diffident about paying us to sort of deliver some results.

We’ve always had “ya know” as default conversational padding. But I think that’s just an innocent, if irritating, verbal tic. “Sort of”, and it’s almost-as-insidious brother “kind of”, seem deliberately weaselly. It’s as though people are reluctant to make a definitive statement they can be pinned down about. Is this right? Are people just more prone to waffling than they used to be?

Why?

Please, somebody help me understand where this came from. Why do obviously very smart people who know exactly what they’re talking about feel the need to dilute their pronouncements this way?

Really, I’d sort of love to know.