Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Reality of Branding: Smoke and mirrors just makes it harder to see the brand.

Who’s fed up with reading about the death of Branding? Entrepreneur magazine recently carried the cover story, “Branding Backlash.” Darwin magazine’s July cover also assured us that, “Branding still has a future.”

What really gets me is that most of the obituaries for branding are being pronounced by those associated with technology/internet-oriented businesses. As their advertising demonstrated, many knew little if anything about branding in the first place. A lot of money was wasted entertaining their prospects rather than creating relevant selling propositions for potential customers. Now, they want to pronounce branding a bad idea -- as if branding is something you have a choice to do or not do.

What they don’t seem to understand is that branding is something your prospects do to your product or service, much more than what marketers do. Prospects do it every time they decide to purchase from you or not, based on how relevant your offering is to what they feel their needs are.

This isn’t to say that marketing communications can’t influence the sale. However, marketing communications is only one influence to the prospect’s purchase experience. To exaggerate the influence of marketing communications misleads everyone and worse, it suggests that any marketing communications is effective. The dot.bombs will certainly tell you that’s not true.

The reality is that every time one of your unhappy customers talks about their unpleasant experience with your product, you are being branded. Your worst salesperson is branding you as you read this. One very bad experience in your restaurant will probably brand it forever with that patron. Your most discontented employee is having a field day branding your product or service. And, consider how your toughest competitor is branding you with your customers when they call on them.

Branding is something your prospects do to your product or service, much more than what marketers do.

Unfortunately, branding has recently come to represent some type of “con” – an exaggeration of what a product or service can do. Over thirty years ago advertising legend David Ogilvy warned marketers, “The consumer is not an idiot, she is your wife.” This served as a wake-up call at the time, but a lot of marketing communications practitioners have lost their way since then. What we have now is more than a failure to communicate; we have a very jaded buying public, be they consumers or businesses.

What is to be done with this cynical buying public who brands our products and services so harshly? Most importantly, we need to start making “relevance” the priority in communications. Relevance means, “fitting the purpose, appropriate, pertinent.” We can influence how our customers brand our products/services by rethinking the relevance of what we sell to those who buy it. To do this, we need a better connect with our prospects and their real needs.

When we do create relevance, we may be able to plant the seed of branding, thus actually influencing how prospects brand our products and services. Then, every time one of your satisfied customers mentions your product, they may use a brand descriptor you provided, if that descriptor is relevant to their actual brand experience.

Branding is far from dead. In its purest form, it has been around for centuries and will be around for as long as products are considered for purchase. The question marketers must answer is how relevant is what they sell to the real needs of their prospects?

[This article first appeared in the September 24, 2001, issue of GSA Business. Photo used under the Creative Commons License courtesy of Flickr.]

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