Slow Brand

taking a slow approach to brands

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Brand conversations on Social Networks – a response to Douglas Rushkoff

31 January, 2011 (16:56) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

Earlier today Read Write Web posted a discussion of a talk Douglas Rushkoff gave at the Pivot conference. In this discussion of Rushkoff’s talk the following claims were made:

Rushkoff thinks branding is irrelevant in the age of the social network. He compares social networks to the original bazaars and marketplaces of the past. The bazaar was the center of commerce, gossip, political debate and more. He says that people weren’t interested in “branding” then – they were interested in exchanging factual (or supposedly factual) information.

I wrote a lengthy comment in reply to the post:

I will write a longer reply on my blog (which is in part all about Branding – see http://slowbrand.com) but I think Rushkoff is completely wrong.

Brands matter now more than ever before – in no small part because more companies and products are competing for attention & sales than at any time ever before in history. No longer are (most) consumers in the global marketplace limited to just a small handful of choices and options – across almost all categories (other than some which are geographic services and in most cases protected by some form of legalized monopoly or oligarchy – i.e. Internet access in the US, phone service, power etc)

It is also well worth remembering that most “brands” compete with each other even across what is often thought about as “different” categories – i.e. the movies you choose to spend money seeing compete with the games you choose to play, the types of food you buy especially meals out and all the other discretionary ways you have to spend your money and your time.

In this environment strong brands have a great deal of value – they cut through a lot of clutter, they offer clean and simple and (hopefully) authoritative ways for a discussion about a product or service to occur.

Rushkoff is also wrong in that the “Keebler Elves” are NOT the brand. They are an advertising campaign – the BRAND is Keebler (or even more specifically Keebler’s products). Pepperidge Farms has a great ad that illustrates this which is currently running on many food related cable channels – in the ad they highlight the ingredients that go into a number of their different products and then promote each of those product brands (Milano cookies for example) all under the larger rubric of the brand of Pepperidge Farms.

Without brands (and Rushkoff is his own brand) it is very hard to have a conversation about a product.

Consider the dilemma most current laptop makers and most car companies face at the moment – they have “brands” which are so cluttered and overburdened it is nearly impossible for one ThinkPad user to talk about their laptop in a way that would allow another person to buy the same product. Can you explain to me the differences between the Letter & Number combo brands for most european car companies? (BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi in particular are egregious here). Even if you want to if can be hard to recall which letter & number combo describes the car(s) which are appropriate for a particular person in a particular stage of life & family.

In contrast strong modern brands carve out a very clearly defined message and identity. .Apple is a master of this (though they failed slightly with the iPhone 3 vs iPhone 3g) but generally Apple restricts their product lineup and defines each product (including their OS versions) with a clear brand identity and name. Mini Cooper in the car world is also quite focused even as they have been expanding their car lineup. Ford has been doing a better job than many in defining and creating new brands for their modernized lineup of cars (though they do face an uphill battle with some of their brands that have legacy implications such as Focus)

In short (okay in some length) I think that Brands are more valuable now than almost ever before – a clear, well defined brand is in many ways the price of entry to being able to be the topic of conversation between people – if you do not have a brand people can refer to when talking about your product or service then mostly those conversations won’t happen – and if they do happen you (as in the company) will almost never be able to listen or react or contribute.

Smart companies whether large or brand new know this and use clear and unique brands to form a starting point around which social engagement can occur and along with that actual sales.

This is in large part what I started this blog years ago to discuss and highlight – that Brands are if anything more important in the 21st century than at any time in the past. In a global, hyper competitive marketplace where almost every company competes with nearly every other company, Brands are a key element to business (and personal) success. A slow, smart Brand is one that builds value over time, one that allows for conversations around the product(s) or services and which offers a clear and compelling vision and identity.

Whether that brand is a personal brand or the brand of one of the largest companies in the world it is vital and valuable.

Personally I face this every day as I try to offer a clear vision and identity around what I do and what I offer to clients, partners and in the case of startups I found investors (and of course to customers). But this is not easy and it is very challenging – without a clear identity, without a strong brand, it is very difficult for others to refer to me, to talk about me, to think of me when they have a business need or meet someone who might use my services.

So I would argue that Rushkoff has it completely wrong – Brands and branding is more vital now in the era of social networks than every before – without a brand conversations about your goods and services cannot happen.

The Death of Brands

3 March, 2009 (03:59) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

Salon.com's The Brand Graveyard

In yesterday’s email to Salon.com subscribers a new blog, The Brand Graveyard was announced. It will be a blog about dead brands, about companies (or perhaps individual brands from companies) which have “died”. To start they have posts on Circuit City, Mervyn’s, Fortunoff, and a guest post from a journalist formerly at The Rocky Mountain News. Each post is a short summary of the end of a historic (at least so far) company, starting with a brief lesson on the history of the brand then looking quickly at what appears to have been the cause of the demise. 

In a related trend TechCrunch in 2008 started tagging posts with what they call the Deadpool when they wrote about a company or a brand owned by a larger company which was, in their opinion, no longer a viable and active brand. At times they have written posts taking a brand “out” of the Deadpool usually when a new investor has purchased the brand and restarted the activity which had been placed on hold. These posts, though often depressing, are also some of the most interesting reading as like The Brand Graveyard they often follow a similar pattern of a quick summary of the history of a brand then an update about what went wrong and why they are now placing that brand into the Deadpool.

I have been tracking this trend of trumpeting the Death of invididual brands and a related trend among some of claiming a broader death of Brands generally. John Winsor has a recent blog post on The Death of Brands It’s not about the Cow in which borrowing a metaphor from Seth Godin he asks if Brands are Cows then perhaps it is time to think of Farms not just Purple Cows. It is an interesting question, but I think the conclusion it reaches misses a more fundemental issue.

Namely that Brands today, or more specifically probably brand managers and management more broadly, have underinvested in building, sustaining and maintaining their brands while simultanously abusing their brands and the concept of Brand more broadly

Why do I claim this? 

Look at the advertising present today on TV (both Network and Premium, national as well as local). Then look at the ad pages in many mass (1M circulation or higher) magazines. Finally look at the ads present in the dwindling number of newspapers. Also the brand focused advertising (mostly display) across the web. 

I see a trend of fewer and fewer Brands investing in all of these forms of advertising – from fewer national TV ads (or Radio) to fewer ad pages in many national magazines to fewer national campaigns (or local for that matter) in newspapers. Related forms of advertising such as Billboards are also, though this is entirely based on anecdotal observation, increasingly event focused (marketing to attendees at a convention in a given town for example) or purchased with only minimal thought.

However I am basing this solely on my own observations and second hand reading of others – I would love to find a source for specifics on TV, Radio, Magazine, Newspaper, Online and Outdoor brand advertising purchases month over month and year over year. If such as source also tracked Brand/Product placements inside of media (TV shows, Online content) even better. 

Some  proposed solutions for Brands

Brands should simplify. Across the board Brands of all types have an unfortunate trend towards creeping complexity and overloading. Brand extensions and additional products under the same branding are one aspect of this. Another is a proliferation of additional elements and definitions in the brand presentation (see any marketing content by Microsoft of the past couple of decades)

Brands should differentiate. A Brand should stand for something different from competitors. Brands should not strive to be all things for all people, rather inherent in defining the Brand should be how it is different – including what other alternatives it is different from (other products – including from the same company, alternative ways to spend similar money or time etc) All people who are involved with the Brand should be able to clearly and consisely define what is unique and different about the Brand – they should be able to from this definition help decide if the Brand is right for a given person. And the correct answer here is NOT that there is a way to answer in the affirmative for all people.

Brands should invest in clear messaging. Today there are more, not less, ways for a Brand to get a message out about the Brand. Smart Brands, Slow Brands, are Brands who take these opportunities not to invest only for short term, immediate results but look for results multiple sales cycles outward. This framing, around the sales cycle for a given Brand could help define the right ways for a given Brand to invest. 

What other suggestions can you offer for Brands today to avoid being placed in the DeadPool?

Slowly building your (personal) brand part 1

23 May, 2008 (00:09) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

a smaller dinner party at my SF apartment

I am a serious food lover, have been for many years. I am lucky to have grown up in a household where we ate dinner together as a family every night and where my first memory of dining out was when I was 3 and learned to use chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant. And while I imposed Chucky Cheese on my family on many a birthday as a child (my family has a tradition where the person celebrating his or her birthday picks where we ate dinner as a family typically dining out) my parents also exposed me and my sister to a very wide range of cuisines and flavors as we grew up.

Before we moved to Chicago I remember teaching the parents and teachers at my 2nd grade school how to make Guacamole from scratch. I was a bit precocious but as I recall it also tasted quite good the way I made it (which I had learned from my mom).

In college I threw serious dinner parties every few weeks, typically where I cooked all the main dishes, friends baked dessert, and everyone helped clean or prep. Each week I would cook a different cuisine using a mix of recipes from cookbooks and the Internet (this was pre-web, so drawn from USENET or occasionally Gopher). But at almost every meal I would also improvise, adjusting a recipe to taste or often making up an entirely new dish from the flavors of a given cuisine and ingredients I bought. I had learned to cook from a combination of observing my Mom and my Dad as they cooked (and they both cooked as I grew up) and from a few “Home Economics” courses I took in the 7th grade.

Since college I have continued to be a very serious cook and dine out a great deal. In Chicago I was a highly active poster to Chowhound (in the days before CNET purchased them and upgraded the site’s software) and then on a website friends of mine set up after being frustrated by the forum software of Chowhound, LTHForum (the name stands for a Chinese restaurant we love in Chinatown, Little Three Happiness called that because there is a second and much inferior Three Happiness restaurant right across the street). The group of us and the forum grew quickly and we not only posted about food we also gathered together on a regular basis for meals and events all through out Chicagoland.

In Chicago and especially since I moved to San Francisco I have also become quite adept at the art of organizing large group dinners. Typically I pick the restaurant and very often arrange for all of the food, often ordering everything and arranging for a family style or at least a prix fix meal to maximize everyone’s enjoyment.

Why do I mention all these details about my past and present life?

Because, and this is where it gets tricky, even with all of that which I have claimed (assuming you have read this far) you still do not have any particular reason to trust me, my suggestions, my cooking or my reviews.

Yes, I claim to be good, even an expert but that claim, by itself, no matter how often I repeat it is just words, just an unverified assertion.

In contrast for the most part anyone who has eaten at one of my dinner parties begs me for invitations to future events. People who have taken my suggestions for dinner locations and/or been to a meal I have organized, generally let me help them again in the future. To a lesser degree people who have been following me on Twitter for a long time have noticed that amongst my random rants and discussions I also twitter about food a great deal. Mini-reviews, observations about places I find, and occasionally small rants and even some raves.

With every event I organize this list of people grows, people who both trust my recommendations and in many cases refer people to me for advice and assistance.

In the next post in this serious more discussion on how to best build (or rebuild) your personal brand, especially as you also shift your job functions.

Diet Coke, “Live Positively” and subtle branding problems

19 May, 2008 (18:59) | branding, food | By: Shannon Clark

Coke, Coca Cola, and diet Coke are some of the most recognizable and most valuable brands in the world.

Entire web communities invest time analyzing the subtle changes in the packaging of soda across the planet.

But even great Brands, brands which have for decades defined how to build, manage, extend, and maintain a great brand make mistakes.

Take this can of diet Coke I photographed this weekend.

Diet Coke sweating

Notice how it has the phrase “Live Positively” along the side of the can? This same phrase can also be found on the current versions of other sizes and shapes of diet Coke found here in the US at present.

I wondered, what happens when you do a Google search on the phrase “Live Positively”?

Turns out you find a mix of self help sites and for the most part, sites for people who are living with HIV. This phrase has been used for a long time now by HIV support groups here in the US and indeed around the planet.

For diet Coke it was, I think, intended as part of their packaging and branding around support for women’s health and in particular a focus on healthy hearts which is the current main focus for diet Coke’s advertising on TV.

So I went to the diet Coke home page. I thought I might find some more information on this phrase at the official site, however I was wrong. Couldn’t find it. The home page is mostly tracking codes for various scripts and a primary and almost entirely flash driven graphical site. You can view the current diet Coke TV ads, can download a few images of posters, and can get some information about the myCokeRewards program which currently includes an offer for a red designer dress which diet Coke has had made as part of their support for healthy heart awareness in women.

Reading over the site I noticed that the entire marketing and branding present in the site had a built-in assumption that anyone interested in diet Coke was a woman. So apparently a male, such as myself, was not at all the target audience for any of diet Coke’s brand messaging.

More to the point, though historically Coca Cola has built some great examples of Slow Brands, brands driven by an iconic imagery, consistent and patient messaging, and living up to and exceeding brand promises and expectations for decades upon decades, with the rise of the internet at least the diet Coke arm of Coca Cola does not appear to be getting how to invest in a brand in a digital world.

Getting back to that phrase. Though it is present on the diet Coke cans, I have not been able to find any official diet Coke presence than explains it or makes reference to the phrase. One article from the Beverage Institute mentioned a “Live Positively team” but I can’t find any other reference to the team and diet Coke on the web.

A number of bloggers have noticed the phrase on their cans and bottles of diet Coke but even these discussions are in the search engine results interleaved with other sites which were focused on HIV/AIDS but happened to also mention diet Coke on a given page.

Today any Brand should take the time to search on the other uses of messages which will be a part of your Brand messaging offline and online and see how your messaging ties into the existing uses of a given phrase. While it perhaps is not diet Coke’s intent, perhaps Coca Cola should have made some donations to and given support to some HIV/AIDS support groups around the globe perhaps as part of an overall campaign to help people, likely emphasizing women if indeed diet Coke is intended to be branded mostly for women consumers. In that case the overlapping meanings of the phrase would have echoed the Brand messaging.

As a consumer while some parts of the soda industry have remained iconic and slow, the packaging and marketing of the core products has often seemed to no longer be consistent or slow. Seemingly every time I am in supermarket today (at least here in the US) the packaging and marketing for both Coca Cola’s family of brands and Pepsi’s family of brands seems to have changed, on a nearly weekly basis.

In fact I noted that I could tell that the little corner store near my house had bought the soda they were selling a long time ago because the packaging on it contained contests which had ended months prior.

I am highlighting diet Coke here because it is an example of an iconic Brand, a great Slow Brand of the past, which I think is not entirely succeeding in the new, online driven world.

What other examples of historically great, Slow Brands, can you think of which have stumbled online?

A formula for Brands

19 May, 2008 (17:57) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

Arthur Einstien Vice President of Marketing at Loyalty Builders

My post about What is a Brand Anyway prompted my friend Arthur Einstein to write an email to me where he took issue with the simple, and I agree it is too simple, definition that a brand is a promise.

The formula which Arthur offers in place of that simple definition is:

Your Brand = awareness + expectations + engagement + experience

Awareness is simply the knowledge that you’re there.
Expectations pretty obvious. It’s the promise you speak of.
Engagement is the quality of the interaction that turns a consumer into a customer
Experience is the customers perception of how his/her expectations have been fulfilled

(and continue to be fulfilled over time)

Arthur Einstein is the Vice President of Marketing at Loyalty Builders. He has over 30 years of experience in the marketing and advertising industry, including as an agency president.

He ended by noting that:

What’s important about this view of branding is that each of these quantities can be measured and each of them can be managed.

I agree with Arthur that his definition captures a more nuanced approach to the entirety of what a Brand is and that certainly the ability to measure is important. Though I also worry that measuring too much (and especially measuring the wrong things) can be counterproductive. What’s more, it can lead you to focus on what is easiest to measure versus what will have the largest impact over time.

And rapid measurement can lead to rapid adjustments, which is counter to my view of how a Slow Brand should approach building and enhancing their Brand.

Instead I would suggest balancing immediate measurement and reactions to those measurements with setting long term goals and then giving your planned methods time to prove themselves. Especially in todays media rich world, I argue, it takes more persistence and especially consistency to associate your brand with your messages around the brand.

What would you offer as a definition of a brand?

What is a Brand anyway?

17 May, 2008 (01:07) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

Food dot com Shimla India

My personal and favorite definition is “A Brand is a promise”.

At the most basic level a good or service which is “branded” has an implicit promise that it is, in fact, from the owner of that brand and they (whether a company or an individual) stand behind their product. In most cases a branded good or service is also promised to be consistent, if you get the same product again it will again meet what has been promised.

This does not, however, always mean that every time you buy that product it is the same – some brands might promise uniqueness or constant variety, while also maintaining other promises – quality, taste, service, fair prices.

An error made often by companies is having a brand for which no clear promise can be ascribed. Frequently the promise is summed up in the tag phrases that accompany the Brand marketing and advertising – many companies today change these messages rapidly often using many different phrases and promises.

This is not to say that a Brand has only one promise, many brands offer a range of related promises but most great brands, Slow Brands, usually have a clear and dominant promise associated with their brand. Historically, for example, Volvo = “Safe”. Perhaps with the additional promise of “safe and a bit boring”.

And yes, this meant that Volvo’s did not tend to attract young, single males as buyers. But for Volvo’s primary audience of families (and more typically usually mothers) “safe and a bit boring” was quite compelling.

Recently a new site, Brand Tags has launched which asks people to tag with a single word or phrase a variety of brands.

Take a look at how Apple has been tagged.

Now compare that to how Dell has been tagged.

Which company would you rather be?

What is a Slow Brand?

16 May, 2008 (02:32) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

A Slow Brand is a brand which has been invested in over time, a brand that has made promises and kept those promises many, many times.

A Slow Brand is a confident brand sure of what it stands for as well as what is not in keeping with the brand.

Brands are a promise. Whether a personal Brand, a corporate Brand, or the Brand of an entire country, great brands stand for things, have consistency and are backed up and built up through the accumulation of messages.

Most Brands today are not Slow Brands. Companies and individuals rarely, today, invest the time it takes to have a Slow Brand. Instead many Brands change their messages and the promise of the Brand rapidly. Making different promises to different audiences in many cases and all too often using very short term measures to signal when to shift messages yet again, changing messages and promises with growing frequency.

This blog will focus on Slow Brands, what they are, on examples of Slow Brands, and on both the specific messages of individual brands and on the techniques they use online and offline to build, maintain, and enhance the value and import of their brand.

Where does the phrase originate?

The phrase “Slow Brand” is an homage to the Slow Food Movement which since 1989 has celebrated local, heritage foods and the art of eating and living a slow, thoughtful life. The transformation of regions around the world and the preservation of cultural heritages embodied in regional foods has been and is an incredible achievement. As a serious foodie, and long time fan of the Slow Food Movement, my awareness of Brands have been shaped by Slow Food. Both in my own cooking and when I dine out I now look for brands not (typically) from large international corporations, but the brands of local, slow food producers.

This blog will illustrate the concept of Slow Brand often by looking at some of these local, slow food inspired companies and individuals.

Disclosure – the business of Nearness Function, the ad network focused on Brand Advertising which Shannon Clark is a co-founder of, is helping brands invest in building their brand via the long term support and sponsorship of rich experiences and passionate communities.