Building a brand is not much more complicated than making an omelet. For a brand, you take a thing or service people want, and you become its obsessive perfecter. Yet somehow, people continue to scramble their brands and come up with you-know-what on their faces.
Take Saturn. When would you expect a simple, inexpensive, economical American car to sell well? Perhaps during a recession? Bingo. And yet this recessionary economy is actually bringing down Saturn and leading to the brand's death. Instead of rising to the challenge like Walmart, Saturn's GM masters have failed just when conditions should favor their product.
How is this possible? How does a brand die at the very moment it should thrive? It's like having an omelet on a plate with very hungry people expecting breakfast... and instead of feeding the hungry people, you let the omelet slide off the plate onto the back of a dog who runs out the kitchen door and gets incinerated by a plummeting North Korean booster rocket. According to the NY Times, a poor fellow named Lundquist, "whose grandfather began selling Buicks in 1939," understands branding better than GM. Mr. Lundquist said that GM killed the essence of Saturn — initially pitched as 'a different kind of car company,' with no-haggle pricing and 'homecoming' celebrations for buyers — by letting it become just another GM brand. "The reason I went with Saturn was that Saturn was everything GM was not,” he said. “Saturn was refreshing, Saturn was straightforward, and it was different. Today there is not a product that Saturn sells that’s not sold at another GM franchise. There is no reason for GM to keep Saturn anymore. It’s not different.”
Ah yes. Different. That's what a brand must be. Different then... different now... and different forever in the minds of the people you want on your side. If your brand isn't different – in every respect from concept to experience – then you're just standing there in front of hungry people holding out an empty plate.
Have we become cranky and negative? Must be time to celebrate the brand champions of our era (that is, April '09). What are "expressive brands"? Brands that 1) dramatically state who they are and what they stand for and 2) brands that deliver on the promises they make.
Here are five favorites:
1 Bandera State Bank – Opening: 2009 Capitalization: $7 million Tiny new Texas bank ready to show the big institutions the enduring value of, get this, taking deposits and making loans.
Even in these tough times, the E-trade baby sustains the swagger of the American day trader by ridiculing his golfing partner as "Shankapotomus."
3 Walmart – Check out this chart! Gee. Let's make fun of mean ol' Walmart. "Save money. Live better." ...and thrive in an economic maelstrom by giving beleaguered people what they need.
4 Dr. Jerry Rosenfeld, DDS Here's a guy who promises dental patients the absence of pain and terror. "We cater to cowards." He wins on sloganeering. But does he deliver? (Can't answer – too much blood)
5 Dakota College at Bottineau They pulled it off! Changed from "Minot State University – Bottineau" to this terrific new name. Congratulations to the faculty, admin, kids, community and lawmakers for shaking off the bureaucratic packaging and seeing the romantic power of "Dakota" "College" and "Bottineau."
Yes, some universities are renowned for their football prowess and wild parties. But the main proposition of higher education is the promise of a valuable learning experience – the offer of the knowledge and skills to pursue a successful, happy life. If an institution's ability to provide this experience is justifiably mocked, then its basic reason for being is compromised.
...and its brand is tarnished, affecting all activities from recruiting faculty to attracting students.
That's why the University of Colorado has every right – nay, obligation – to contest the reinstatement of Ward Churchill, who was kicked out for unprofessional conduct and then reinstated by a Colorado jury.
From denverpost.com comes word that the university will vigorously fight Churchill's reinstatement: CU's reputation for academic integrity is the foundation for all we do and having him return to the classroom would be an ongoing threat to that reputation," a spokesman said. "We expect higher standards from our faculty and our students." He said the verdict doesn't change the fact that 20 of Churchill's academic peers found him guilty of academic misconduct.
If a man urinated in the spring water sold by a bottling company, he would be fired for jeopardizing the company's brand reputation – and hence business viability. If a professor spoke, acted, wrote and taught with wanton disregard for professional standards, then protecting the institution's brand means dismissing the prof.
Spring belongs to everyone. It’s the Coca-Cola of seasons. Everyone sees value in spring – “You know, I really love spring!” people suddenly say – as if having an original insight. The chattering birds flap around thinking they own spring. The grass puffs up in eye-frying green as if nothing else matters.
No one can resist being cheered by the warming sun – and thinking of the sun as a personal blessing. Everyone smiles and thinks, “Man, those rays feel good on ME.”
Spring has its own brand attributes – rapid change, playful colors, unbidden swagger. Spring is no time for brooding. It's the season for applauding.
Spring arouses us to action. It's the season for jump-starting old cars… and for dark deeds. Spring is when armies mobilize and gun-nuts rampage. In spring, the sap rises… and cruel plans kick into action along with benign ones.
The danger is being fooled by spring. Consider the lyrics of Thomas Morley, 1594. April is in my mistress’ face, And July in her eyes hath place. Within her bosom is September. But in her heart a cold December.
Perhaps Morely was wary of spring, which glittered misleadingly in his mistress' face. Those chattering birds think they own spring, not us.
In the movies, criminals talk about making that “one big score” and then retiring – which you know is just prelude to taking one big chance – and then getting a bellyful of hot lead. That’s the movies. Things are different in real life. Consider Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs. Blankfein is calling for an overhaul of Wall Street compensation practices. According to the AP, Blankfein said that “much of the past year has been deeply humbling for my industry” – ("much," not all). He acknowledged that it could take years to rebuild investor confidence lost partly by industry practices that appear "self-serving and greedy in hindsight." (Yes, “in hindsight.”)
So now Blankfein favors more restrictions on pay, more incentives to be prudent and to defer reward until many years out. And here’s the beautiful thing about this plan: Blankfein already took home $43 million in 2008.
The way I see it, Goldman Sachs, yearning to regain investor confidence lost through practices that seem greedy in hindsight, is headed by this movie-thug-like guy who, sucking in cigarette smoke, vows to make one last big score before shutting it all down.
Except this is real life... and Blankfein pulls it off.
Gym-rat, translator of dull words into electrifying ideas. Proven brand strategy consultant to organizations of all sizes. Current teacher of grad-class in brand strategy at University of Hartford and Public Affairs at New York University. Former speechwriter and visiting assistant adjunct night-school professor of history.
This blog-site is meant for fun and free expression. We look at the world through the lens of brand communications. We share smiles at the expense of brands and their champions – especially ourselves.