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Acme Multimedia vs. Brand X

May 31, 1999
by Pat McClellan

Swoosh! That distinctive swoosh logo on the side of a high-tech athletic shoe means it's made by Nike... and as any well-trained consumer knows, that means it's the best. Right?

"You've got mail" That's AOL... the world's most popular way to access the internet community. You can't see the words without hearing that voice and inflection, can you?

And when traveling in a foreign country, a bit ill at ease, hungry or thirsty, there's something indescribable about seeing McDonald's golden arches.

Why? Why do these graphic symbols, tag lines and company names have such deep meaning (positive or negative) in our psyche? The answer is perhaps the most heavily researched bit of consumer knowledge in business: branding.

To understand what branding is, it's important to understand what it is not. Branding is not advertising. Branding is not logo design or tag-line wordsmithing. Branding is not corporate graphic standards. These are all related to what a company thinks and feels and believes about itself. With that understood, let's talk about what branding is, and how you can use brand management concepts to make your company or your personal career more successful than it has ever been.

A brand is the way that a company or product or person is perceived by the many audiences who are exposed to it. Note the critical distinction: a brand is what people think, feel and believe about a company — not what the company thinks, feels and believes about itself.

Some familiar company brands include Cisco, McDonald's, Microsoft, and Nike. These are brands that have little to do with specific products, but rather with an overall impression of what the company means. Nike's brand, for example, doesn't mean athletic shoes. It means facing and overcoming the challenges of nature, the modern world, and personal limitations to prove that you can "Just Do It." At least, that's what it means to me. I know I'm being manipulated, sure. But when I go to buy athletic shoes, I've bought Nike for the last 10 years.

It's easy to think of product brands — brand identities which are strictly associated with the actual product: Coke, Playstation, G3, or even "Star Wars". Company and product brands are pretty easy to spot, but have you ever thought of individual people as having brands? All I'm talking about is a person who — when you hear the name or see the face — instantly brings to mind particular emotions or beliefs. How about Michael Jordan? Martha Stewart? Lee Iacoca? Bill Gates?

All of these people have been carefully and professionally "brand managed", and the payoff is obvious. People gladly pay millions of dollars to have Michael Jordan walk onto a soundstage and hold up a product. I'll point out that the average actor would make only around $1,000 for the same day's work. But we all can understand the value that Michael's "brand" brings to the product. Most people conscioiusly or unconscioiusly attribute many of the positive traits you associate with Michael Jordan to the products he chooses to endorse. Why? And what are the limits? Can you think of a product for which Michael's star power would have little impact on what the public thinks of it?

When I suggested earlier that the Michael Jordan brand has been professionally managed, I'm being quite literal. Michael's brand started with the fact that he is perhaps the most impressive basketball player in memory. But I can think of any number of world class athletes who have failed to live up to their potential as brands: Nancy Kerrigan, Scotty Pippen, Magic Johnson, Mike Tyson, and even Shaq. In each case, they failed because of poor brand management.

I've spent paragraphs here doing some serious name-dropping (brand names, that is), and right about now you might be wondering what the heck this has to do with you. Well the fact is, you have a brand. Going back to our definition, your brand is what your potential consumers think, feel and believe about you. Like it or not, you have a brand. And an unmananged brand is, at best, weak... and at worst, detrimental and persistent. Chances are, you've been doing some brand management without even knowing about it. But if we can isolate the critical elements of brand management, imagine the potential for improvement!

Managing the Brand

Few of us live in a vacuum, so I'm going to assume that we're not starting from scratch and try to launch your brand. Rather, we'll start with the market research. You need to find out what people think, feel, and believe about you (or your company). There will be many separate market segments: your regular clients, occasional clients, potential clients, peers, vendors, subcontractors, etc. The first step in our research is segmenting the market into identifiable groups which we have some means of polling.

Now comes the tricky part of figuring out what each of these groups think, feels and believes about you. I don't have the answers here, but I'll suggest some possibilities:

There's no perfect solution that will guarantee honesty or statistically valid data (unless you have the resources to do professional market research), but be aware that the better your intelligence gathering, the better you'll be at managing your brand. When you've gathered the data and assembled your most objective estimate of your current perception, write it down. That's your record of "where they are now". You'll probably need a separate list for each of the different segments, unless you've managed to establish a perfectly consistent image across all segments.

The second task is to develop your brand goals. Realistically, what do you want these identified market segments to think, feel, and believe about you? In this process, think of your most respected peers. What do you think, feel, and believe about them? What characteristics do you want to emulate? Which of these perceptions do you want others to think about you? With that established, think about that which is unique to you. What differentiates you from your peers? Are you "the developer who has the same basic skill set as all the rest, but can handle difficult clients"? Whatever they may be, write your brand objectives down. This is your document of where you want your consumers to be.

Now, place the first list ("where they are now") on the left side of your desk. Place the list of "where you want them to be" on the right side of your desk. You now need to plot your course of action needed to move the consumers from left to right. If you've made good lists, you'll find that the action items are pretty obvious.

An example: let's say that your target consumer currently thinks that your skills are pretty much average with others, but your prices are higher. And let's say that you want them to think that you do charge a bit more than competitors, but that's justified because you have superior skills. One action item could be to make the consumer aware that your skills are superior.

Note that the action item is not tactical... it's strategic. We're not saying HOW you make them aware. We're not jumping to creative execution yet. We're simply stating the general task needed. Only after you've carefully plotted your action items can we think about the creative execution.

Brand Communications

It's important to realize that you "communicate" your brand message with every exposure that the consumer has to your brand. That means you're communicating every time they see you, the way you act, the things you say, exposure to your work, telephone calls and correspondence, even hearing the things others say about you. All of these things contribute positively or negatively to your brand perception. So how do we "manage" that?

If you're always sending out a brand message, you better have a clear understanding of exactly what that message is. We'll call this your brand statement. This is a statement which sums up your end state objectives that we previously developed. Let's look at an example like McDonald's (and I'm guessing that their brand statement looks something like this).

McDonald's is a place where I can get consistent, hot, fast food in a customer service environment that makes me feel safe. No surprises.

Notice that the brand statement doesn't mention good food. It doesn't matter, because most people don't come to McDonald's for superior food. They come there because they know exactly what to expect. And every McDonald's employee focuses on delivering on the implied promise of that brand statement. More than that, every piece of McDonald's communications — every billboard, every commercial, even the paper tray covers must convey a message that supports that brand statement. The brand statement must reign supreme as the guide for operating the business and directing all communications.

Let's look back at the questions I asked about Michael Jordan. Is there a product which would not benefit from his endorsement? Conversely, is there any product endorsement which would weaken the Michael Jordan brand? Sure. How about Depends adult diapers? That could be a disaster to both brands because the association of the two brands doesn't resonate with what you already believe about them.

Michael Jordan's brand is successful because his agent has carefully selected which products Michael will or will not be associated with. The Jordan brand is particularly interesting because of the synergy that they have been able to create through diligent consistency of message: not only is Gatorade consistent with the Jordan image, but it also works with Michael's other association, Nike. So, when you see Michael shooting basketball, sweating and drinking Gatorade, you probably assume he's wearing Nike shoes. Nike benefits from Gatorade commercials. that's brand management!

So before you start scribbling down the copy for your new brochure, and before you go to that next sales pitch, and before you post your next rant on Direct-L, you better make sure that you know what your brand message is. And once you know that brand statement, make sure that you are diligently consistent in communicating that in everything you do. That doesn't mean you "say" it. I'm just suggesting that you conduct yourself in such a way that supports your brand statement. Always. Always.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of consistency of brand message. I think you can all think of at least one situation where a thoughtless comment or seemingly harmless action did permanent damage to a person or company's reputation (brand). How about Pee Wee Herman? Here's a perfect example of where the brand image of a childlike clown was diametrically opposed to the message we received when he was arrested (in an adult theatre). The damage was not caused by the facts of the case, but by the dissonance with our previous brand perception. In contrast, remember when moviestar-bad boy Charlie Sheen was implicated in the Heidi Fleiss Hollywood prostitution case? Most people said "so what." His involvement was not in conflict with his "brand" — in fact, it may have helped.

I hope you'll find this brand management strategy useful in your business. The examples of how and why is works are all around you. Don't get ahead of yourself... take the time to develop your brand statement the right way. Once you've developed your brand, live by it. It's a matter of integrity and it's the key to brand success.

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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