Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Branding: Beyond the Product


Introduction

          A brand is a multi-faceted marketing element that positions a product positively in the minds of consumers. Brands are effectively the company’s foot soldiers out to win consumers in the marketing battlefield that is staged in the consciousness of consumers as Reis and Trout (1986) succinctly pointed out. The same authors earlier showed the value of branding to position a product in the markets (Reis & Trout 1981). Since the release of these books, nothing much has changed other than a more global landscape where the same branding strategies apply but with more immediate results thanks to the internet.

          A brand is often perceived to be a name, a symbol or logo to identify a product and its maker. But more than this, a brand has a humanizing element that transforms marketing into perception-building (Haig, 2005) where values, culture, and emotions figure prominently in the choice of a product. It would be a grave error for marketers to view brands as merely a textual and visual identification of a product. A brand is a totality that includes what the product means to consumers, what it exudes and whether such perceptions create the need to acquire the product. It requires creativity artistry and marketing savvy to put all these together in a brand (Hornor 2011).

Advertising and Branding
       
          It can be said that advertising has made life easier for marketers to brand a product. From purely delivering news bulletins about a product, advertising has assumed a critical role in shaping consumer lifestyle and purchasing behavior by building up their perceptions about the brand (Klein 2000). This perception is what sells, not the product. Airey (2010, p. 8) confirms this when he echoed the importance of branding as creating the mental and emotional link between a product and the consumer so that “people often choose products based on their perceived value rather their actual value.” It is the perception that is open to being manipulated with the power of creative media in reaching out to pitch for the product and translate perceptions into sales dollars. Creative media often succeeds in encapsulating what marketers want to generate in the perceptions of target markets. In many cases products fail not because of a poor creative presentation, but a serious misunderstanding or wrong estimation of the market values and expectations.

Logos and Branding


          Logos create the signature image for a brand that sticks in the mind of consumers. When people mention McDonald’s, the immediate mental image is that of yellow arches forming the letter “M” When people talk about Cupertino’s Apple products, the first thing that comes to mind is the apple fruit with the bite mark, and so on. Logos put a distinctive face and humanizes a brand (Klein 2000). The key is often simplicity as Adamson and Sorrel (2006) espoused. Simplicity takes out the clutter so that the symbolic significance of the message can create lasting and compelling perceptions - the main defining attribute that can endear a brand name in the minds of consumers. But logos are just the start in the branding process that covers just about every aspect of shaping consumer perception of the product. Branding can even allow marketers to advertise the brand even before the physical item is manufactured. And this leads us to say that branding is not necessarily the same as the product it brands.

The brand is not the product

          Depending on the book or article one reads, branding is variously defined but one thread common is that it is marketing strategy that effectively dresses up a product so that it contains visual, emotional, cultural and symbolic content (Bautista 2006; Tuominen 1999). Even the visual aspects of a brand creating a trademark identity leads to a brand personality that humanizes the product with competent design evoking an emotional link with customer perceptions. Visual elements such as color, logo, typography, taglines, and images are triggers for such perceptions. Reis and Reis (2002) even made the choice of color among its immutable branding laws when they declared the “Law of Color” where a brand should use colors that are the opposite of its main competitor.



          Another way to look at the difference is the persistence of the brand in the minds of consumers. The figure above shows four logos of coffee shop brands and one of them simply stands out – the familiar green logo from Starbucks. It probably didn’t matter that the logo had “Star Wars” in it, but the immediate recognition is there due to the strong persistence of the logo has on the mind.

How brand presentations affect the audience opinions
          Brands have been known to make misimpressions due to wrong choices in typography, placement or choice of words in the brand name. However, it is not uncommon that some brands could deliberately manipulate customer perception through suggestive imagery. 

For instance, the “Megaflicks” video rental store has been criticized for using a font type that created a “Megafucks” reading when seen from afar. If the owners of the store were concentrating on sex videos, their store branding can be considered a success. It is doubtful if a change in type font can correct this considering that the letters “L” and “I” in the word “Flick” can easily form a “U” to read the dirty 4-letter word from a distance. Perhaps having a space between the letters would do a better job. 


Another is the “Kids Exchange” store for children apparel. Simply putting a space between the words or having separate colors for the word “Kids” and “Exchange” could resolve this double entendre reading which can stand for “Kid Sex Change.” What were the owners thinking? And shouldn’t the graphics designer be fired? 






 Another graphics design blooper was this April 2005 issue of Parents Magazine. Or was it the Penis Magazine? Graphics design can be as dynamic as the designer wants but there should be some checking to ensure it does not obscure a brand name or put it in the wrong light.

          One thing is clear - a brand is not the product (Haig 2003; Reis & Reis 2001; Klein 2000). Brands can last a lifetime; products do not. The iconic Colgate brand of toothpaste has lasted for decades, while the toothpaste itself can only last a few days depending on size and consumption. This is the simplest way to difference the two. It is this independence that allows branding designs to have the creative license to go beyond what the product or service delivers. Al and Laura Reis (2002) put it as one of the laws of branding when they said that difference between brands is not in the products behind them, but in the perceptions of the consumer. For instance, Rolex and Seiko watches are perfectly competent timepieces. But it is evident that branding has allowed one to exude prestige while the other could not, leading to a yawning price gap. Will a $150 Rolex watch succeed? It probably would sell like hotcakes considering the mystic associated with a Rolex brand on your wrist. After a while, a cheap Rolex effectively destroys this mystic along with the expensive ones. Why would a moneyed celebrity or royalty buy a Rolex when a mere office clerk can wear one?

Apple and IBM

            Both of these computer brands have had their storied successes, with IBM lording over the corporate markets for the most part of the 20th century until today, while Apple taking the consumer markets by the turn of the 21st. But where IBM failed in the consumer markets, having given up its PC and home printers to Lenovo, Apple became the darling with its range of iPods, iPhones, Macs and iPads.





            There had been several factors that caused IBM to give up its failed consumer business and focus on what it does best – cater to corporate markets where it has been enjoying a commanding market lead.   To a large extent, the strategy proved right and IBM today remains one of the largest companies in the world and the 5th most admired (CNN Money 2012a) with a profit of $15.9 Billion when it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011.  A simple look at its brand positioning immediately creates the impression IBM was not meant to be catering to the more fickle, varied and generally youthful end of the computer market spectrum.  Its monolithic corporate logo, which had its design roots in 1972 and has remained one of the most easily recognizable logos for its simplicity and straightforward visual representation of assured solidity and leadership, already speaks volumes about a formal and statically stable design using cool blue and bold commercial type font that exudes the blandness and coldness of what a corporation stands for.  In short, the logo positions the brand as incompatible with the vibrancy and dynamism of the youth market which Apple has dominated. Apple now ranks first as the most admired and successful company on the planet (CNN Money 2012b) with revenues of $108 billion for the current fiscal year, about seven times IBM’s revenues. Its logo of a bitten apple profile has had several variations in the last decade but one thing stands out – the brand engendered a lasting emotional link with consumers that led to a passionate customer loyalty where customers couldn’t get enough of their products despite their relative premium pricing compared with competing products from Samsung.  For starters, the apple fruit itself has a strong association with friendliness.  School children are wont to gift the fruit to their teachers.  There is also that oft-spoken adage like “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “A is for apple.”  Never mind that the apple is one of the most popular fruits in the country.   In addition, presenting the apple as having been bitten suggests ownership, fondness or usefulness that imbues the brand with intimacy to its markets.  In short, the logo latched on the image of friendliness and popularity (Biricik 2006).  The logo and the company name have nothing to do with computers which the IBM brand has strong association with.  Instead, the Apple branding was more focused on appealing to the youthful and social lifestyles of its target market and in so doing, succeeded in creating an iconic or cultic dimension to the brand.  No other computer company made use of a branding strategy that has nothing to do with computers.

Nike and Fila
          
          Innovation and sustained purposive advertising capitalizing on a winning product feature are often the keys that can bring a brand to prominence and success. Nike sporting shoes was one that was perceived as a high performance brand associated with top-performing and winning athletes with features that were the result of listening to the needs of athletes starting with runners and then to team sports.  The image Nike nurtured in the minds of its target markets is one of sustained innovation starting with the Marathon line in 1965 and its “Air” technology introduced in 1988 for basketball shoes.  Its market successes were paid for dearly by established sportswear brands that failed to innovate and were often left copying Nike features.  One of them was the Italian global brand Fila that started back in 1911.

            Consider Nike’s Swoosh logo that suggests simple movement while evoking a positive checkmark that is universally understood to mean agreeableness and correctness.   No logo could be simpler and yet evocative.  When someone mentions Nike, the swoosh logo is instantly conjured in the mind and its implied movement reinforces the image of innovativeness fostered by a barrage of media advertisements. This is more than can be said about the logo of Fila which, like that of IBM, simply stylized the company name that represent a self-aware stability but creating little emotional link with the market other than being easily recognizable for its long history. But what distinguished Nike from the rest has been its strong media advertising barrage that simply saturated the market. 
            
            Fila was a big name in footwear and active sportswear in the mid-90s with basketball shoes endorsed by sport celebrities like Grand Hill of the Detroit Pistons and shirts endorsed by tennis star Bjorn Borg that stood out from the mundane plain white shirts used in tennis tournaments (Baltimore Sun 2003).  Fila may have pioneered and shown the way in celebrity endorsements, but Nike took this to the max so much so that the brand is not only associated with famous celebrities like Michael Jordan, but has been personified almost entirely by these celebrities.  Its line of sub-brand Jordan shoes is just a culmination of this brand personification.  Anyone seeing a winning athlete who wears a pair of Nike shoes speaks volume about the authentic quality perception of the Nike brand (Coucha, 2011).  But it wasn’t until the “Just do it” campaign that Nike achieved phenomenal success globally.  The simplicity of the message did not require translation, confirming what Airey (2010) considered an essential quality in creating brand identity.  More importantly, it evoked a non-conformist rebellious attitude that was welcomed worldwide.  Most of the images in print, broadcast and online that Nike presented to the public where quite evocative in their simplicity and straightforward presentation, using dramatic light and shadows in depicting the celebrities in its imagery and the intimate poignant close-ups in its TV commercials and testimonies.  

          Between 1987 and 1989, Nike revenues reached $1.7 trillion (Bautista 2006).  Suddenly, Nike was not just a brand, but became a symbol of what societies everywhere pined for – individualism and irreverence, and then evolving into a symbol of good versus evil where Nike represented an explicit good in associating sporting victories with its shoes. None of its competitors, especially Fila, had such grandiose branding aspirations.  this symbolic dimensions of Nike serves to confirm what Tuominen (1999) said when he defined branding as being more than indicative of legal ownership to a product but offers a powerful symbolic representation that can imply status, create image or lifestyle so that owning a product having the brand represents value in itself.

Creating brands that last

            Brands that last hinge on what is called brand equity which is simply a built-up fondness of the brand over decades of satisfactory performance in the marketplace.  Brand equity can transcend mere brand awareness to make it iconic. Many of these brands have been successfully associated with a common daily word so much so that the brands can actually substitute for the word.  You have Kleenex for the word “tissue”, Colgate for “toothpaste”, Xerox for “photocopy”, and FedEx for “overnight delivery.”  And when mentioning the word “soft drink”, the first thing that readily comes to mind is Coca-Cola, so much so that even if Pepsi were to overtake Coke in sales, it would still remain top of the mind. There was also a time when taking a picture was synonymous to Kodak, or home video with Sony’s “Betamax.”  But these were more exceptional products with brand equities that had withstood the test of time and have become part of pop culture. Nevertheless, as Al and Laura Reis (2002) pointed out, no brand lives forever, and in some cases “euthanasia” can be the best solution for retiring a brand into memory.  But that is another paper altogether.
            Branding is not just a single event but is a long term multi-stage process that gestates over years of successful market existence (Aaker 2010).  It starts with creating a brand identity that is unique enough to stand out amidst other similar products. This is where commercial graphics designers bring their skills in blending creative arts with an insightful understanding of marketing forces to kick off a brand identity (Caas 2010) through a purposive design on the brand name, logo, and packaging.  This is the point where the creative muscle can produce a highly evocative or emotive brand presence that thoughtfully harness the elements of typography, imagery, shapes and colors, not to represent what the product is, but to engender an emotional link with the consumers while creating an indelible image in their minds, driving the cognitive and affective perception that can lead them to purchase the product.  Branding goes beyond the functional features to create a totality that is more than what the product s, building and nurturing an emotional connection between the brands and customer perceptions (Jones n.d.).

Branding Mistakes

            While branding can sustain a product in its markets over years or decades, its past successes do not necessarily guarantee success in the future. Recent catastrophic failures of once mighty and iconic consumer brands have dramatized the fatal vulnerability of products to market and competitive forces despite being backed by extensive advertising dollars and excellent packaging designs.  We have seen the demise of K-mart and Woolworth in the US, Adkins and the jewelry chain Ratner’s in the UK, and historic car brands like the MG Rover and Oldsmobile. Then you have the well-known New Coke disaster for Coca-Cola that amplified how a well-planned and funded branding strategy could lead to such a failure (Haig 2005). Here are a few more lessons learned from some branding mistakes:
Lesson 1:        It’s all about the satisfying the market.
            A successful brand is one that can satisfy market needs or cater to their perceived value for the money they give up.  Take the case of McDonald’s Arch Deluxe.  The product attempted to fill a market gap for hamburgers that appealed to mature or elder customers, compared with the youthful appeal of their current crop of products.   It bombed because the new hamburger had no market, as the company at this point has lost touch with its markets (Haig, 2005). The Arch Deluxe was concocted in the company’s Old Brook headquarters which ran against the start of its earlier success like the Egg McMuffin, Big Mac or Filet o’Fish that were all concocted right in the kitchens of their outlets and tested out with their customers. No such thing was done with the new Arch Deluxe.
Lesson 2:        Know the target market
            In a world where there are just few and trifling functional difference between, say, one cellphone from another in the same price category, it raises the argument that perfectly competent products can fail due to bad branding.  Haig (2005) pointed out that while this creates opportunity for a more rewarding marketing experience, it also heightens risk of failure if the branding fails to create the right image in the consumer’s mind.  This is due to the variables that go with branding strategies which need to take several factors into consideration.  For instance, the culture of the market can impact on the acceptability of the brand.  In the age of global trading, there is a risk that cultural differences could be overlooked. A thorough research on the market could have saved many companies from undue embarrassments or failures. Kellogg’s foray into the Indian breakfast food market with its breakfast cereal products was a classic example of a failure to create a product fit with market culture.  Just because the brand was a success in the Western cultures was no guarantee it will succeed elsewhere.  The brand failed in the Indian market for not considering the fact that in India, the day starts with a bowl of hot vegetables (Haig 2003). Another was Pepsi’s penetration in the Taiwanese market in the early 80s with a rather awkward and comical vernacular translation of its slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life.”   It was translated in Chinese literally as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.”  Earlier, when the Scandinavian company Electrolux ventured into the US markets with their vacuum cleaners, the product was advertised as “Nothing sucks like Electrolux” and when GM introduced their Chevy Nova in Latin America, a simple research into the Hispanic language could have pointed out that “No va” meant “it won’t go.”  Needless to say, the product did not generate sales until it was renamed “Caribe” (Roy 1998).
Lesson 3:        Do not confuse the market
            After more than a hundred years as a successful mid-tier car brand, GM’s Oldsmobile succumbed to the allure of rebranding which targeted a youthful market, effectively confusing the market with a brand name that has long been associated with successful middle age folks but was now pitched to the young (Haig 2003).  What’s in name?  The youthful crowd shied away from the brand, not only because the product itself had been unreliable, but because the name itself which contained the word “old” was not perceived as cool and no rising executive in his late 20s or 30s would want to be caught dead driving an “olds.”  Ironically, this occurred at the time when America was experiencing a boom in the aging population – a growing market that the Oldsmobile could have best thrived in.
Lesson 4:        Do not over-extend the brand
            Reis and Reis (2002) enshrined it in one of their immutable laws which stated that brand power has an inverse relation to its scope or spread over products.  While having a common brand across multiple products reduces advertising spend (Sappington & Wernerfelt 1985), slapping a known brand to a product with no relation to it dooms the new product right from the start.  When a motorcycle company that has an iconic brand like Harley Davidson puts the same brand on a line of perfumes, or a gun brand like Smith and Wesson slapping the same brand on a line of mountain bikes, the new products are doomed to fail even before going to market (Haig 2003).  Al Reis (1986) observed that having strong market perceptions about a product could make it impossible to extend the perception to different class of products.  The list of brand extension failures could fill a book.  Pond’s was another. The association of the brand as a night face cream was simply too strong that coming out with Pond’s toothpaste was a spectacular failure.   It was no different from Colgate attempting to market a line of packaged foods under the same brand. While nearly everyone brushes their teeth with a Colgate, nobody wanted to eat a Colgate.

Conclusion
            Time has a way of determining which brands succeed and which do not.  Most brands we cherish have been in the market for  years, if not decades.  Hindsight analysis make sense of how they survived all this time, and it is precisely the “how” that must be answered by branding initiatives, more than just what elements should go into it. Countless branding and graphics design articles and books already tell you what those elements are in branding a product.  But one thing is clear; the brand is independent of the product and can have a life of its own. The question that graphics designers must answer is “How can my design create a lasting impression in the minds of customers?”  Once a designer successfully answers the “how” of good branding design, half the challenge is met. The other half is how marketers will use advertising channels to communicate the branding message to its markets.  
            The mistakes in branding are also well documented (Haig 2003, Klein 2000; Roy 1998) and more often than not, learning from these mistakes is a challenge as even savvy marketers tend to repeat the same mistakes under different circumstances and situations.  Heller (2008) finds learning through failure an iterative process where the pursuit of success often results in missing the mark repeatedly and where rising and doing it again brings the designer closer to perfection.  Lastly, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that branding is a marriage of creative design and marketing.  If you do not have both qualities, the next best thing is to get someone who has the skill that you do not have and work together. Take one out, and you have a surefire formula for branding failure.

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References

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