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Branding As We Knew It

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

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Jun 15, 2007 2:24:00 AM

describe the imageJohn Sumser's post on branding today makes a great point:
What makes Company X the employer of choice for Unix professionals is unlikely to be the dynamic that attracts candidates in accounting. A brand, as it is commonly understood is a good place to start. But, the focus on being a generic "employer of choice" is an inadequate vision for effective long term labor supply management.
A few days ago I came across the Microsoft video below (HT: Tales from the Digital Divide) which reminded me of why the term "branding" makes me feel like a steer about to be nailed with a red-hot iron.

Perfume and Diesel Fuel
To understand what's wrong with the conventional approach to branding, it's fun to look at old advertising posters and see what has and hasn't changed. A 30s cosmetic ad literally asks, "Who wants to look YOUNG?" Yesterday in the paper I saw an ad for something that I think was a skincare product, though it looked more like an industrial abrasive. Next to the jar was a grinning, Santa Claus-like face of Doctor Andrew Weil, saying, "When Matcha tea is prepared mindfully, it promotes an extraordinary sense of balance and well-being." I remembered it because the phrasing and presentation were so strikingly calculated to evoke a certain tone and sensitivity--think of how different it feels if you replace "mindfully" with "carefully" or "properly." This is about emotional manipulation, plain and simple.

The question branding today needs to face up to is whether it's selling a product or an idea of a product. As I mentioned in a previous post, my father worked in the fragrance industry, so I've been an observer of these things for a long time. When I was a kid, I remember my father being thoroughly amused when one of his fishing buddies asked him for some samples of a new men's cologne his company had just launched calledStetson Preferred Stock. This was the late 80s or so, and the venerable Stetson brand had become a little too red-state, so they came up with something a bit more urban in its sensitivity. The fishing buddy asking for the cologne, however, was a cowboy boot-wearing bulldozer operator, so my dad had to ask why he wanted that particular fragrance.

"Because something about it really covers the smell of diesel oil," he said matter-of-factly. Imagine that: perfume that makes you smell good.

The irony of course is that Microsoft, for its part, has some of the consistently worst branding out there. Seven years and a billion-ish dollars went into Windows Vista, and the slogan they come up with is "The Wow Starts Now?" I'd love to have seen the ideas they rejected. Then there's this. Of course, companies usually look like their leaders. In fact, Apple's branding has beaten Microsoft's silly for as long as anyone can remember, which happens to be the history of both companies.

And yet, what did it get them? A great brand does not equal a great strategy.