Friday, October 1, 2010

Why You Should Care About Branding, Part 1

With several posts now under my belt, it's time to address the question: why another blog?  And for that matter, why this one?

In 2008, I was at a crossroads.  I'd been working in publishing since 2004, the year I'd arrived in New York to start a career in that field.  I loved books and words and the literary world, but the long arm of technology had begun to corrode the production of the written word, especially when it came to job prospects.  I felt stuck: I'd always gravitated toward design, but the job I was stuck in during that time offered very few opportunities in that area.  I wanted to feel that sting—the elusive prick of whatever is between inspiration and practicality.  I wanted a career that would be both sensible and creative.  It might be said that I've always wanted a perfect union between the imagination of form and utility of function.

What ended up happening is that I attended a conference on collecting marketing data.  The keynote speaker gave a talk on the importance of branding, and quite simply, I was hooked.  The only thing I really remember about it was an example he gave about Apple computers.  It seems that in the 1990s, Apple was failing (hard to believe given the current climate).  One of the major things that turned Apple around was their now iconic television commercial.

The message is: if you buy our computer, you are a visionary.  You are different and special and like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Bob Dylan, because you don't buy normal computers, you buy Apple: the computer for geniuses and eccentrics.

The most revolutionary thing about this ad is that they never show their product.  Not once during the ad is a computer shown, not even for a second.  The commercial is completely affiliation-driven.  If you buy our computer, you can group yourself in with the leaders of our modern age.  Powerful stuff.

The best part is that it worked.  Apple's stock recovered and it began its meteoric rise to tech domination.  Granted, a lot of other factors contributed to this beyond a commercial: the packaging design (sleek, uniform and very modern), the user-friendly element, the cutting edge technology, the mythology surrounding Steve Jobs (perhaps a bit of a visionary and eccentric himself).  However, what all those elements have in common is that they all fit under the banner of the mission statement illustrated in that commercial: Think Different.

Apple regrouped and made every action they took abide by their brand.  Apple is for people who are creative, inspiring, a bit revolutionary.  Apple is for people who think differently.  Apple is now a top tier brand, world-renowned, and has achieved cult status in the upper pantheon of tech.  Thinking differently leads to big dividends.

This classic example got me all fired up.  If branding could do that for Apple, what could that mean for other brands, products—people, even. What could it do for worthwhile causes?

My inner geek started to fire. Could it be that some of the world's problems might be solved by better communication about what we do and why it matters? Because that is what branding is: communication of identity and purpose.

Better branding means that we get what we need faster.  Better design means that we realize something will fill our need faster.  We make better choices when the purpose and function of a product or service is communicated effectively.  Better design, communication, and branding equals better form, and better form means better function.

And that's what this blog aims to explore—how form and function interplay to create branding that works or doesn't.


  1. I'm curious what you think about the brand management of Coke Zero; I saw an article (sorry, no link) discussing the previously-unmanaged act of successfully selling "diet" soft drinks to males 18-34.

    I know I'm much more cynical and skeptical of branding issues (not to mention phenominally less educated!) so I'm curiuos what your reaction is to the success of Coke Zero as a marketing/branding effort.

  2. Hey Chris,

    I saw a good blog post on that here: Coke Zero: Manly Diet Soda.

    I think the branding campaign was quite successful. With a strong, clean design, and a very gender-skewed marketing campaign, they managed to make diet soda appeal to men by making it seem like anything but a diet soda.

    Is that ethically corrupt? Well, no. The premise is in the title and concept: Coke Zero is a beverage with zero calories. They just don't call it diet, because "only women diet". Lots of brands give themselves a new face in order to appeal to a different demographic. Your cynical side may find that sketchy; I find it interesting.

    There's a lot of backlash out there about how brands dupe consumers by misrepresenting themselves, but I think that we put far too much onus on the brands and not enough on ourselves. It's our job to be informed, be present, and analyze information as we take it in. Playing up the features most likely to appeal to your target audience isn't cheating--it's good marketing.

  3. I'm not snarking on Coke Zero, or casting aspersions on the ethics of marketing. I guess I'm just quietly fascinated by the success of CokeZero's gender strategy.

    If you reverse the gender roles and employ the same strategy (avoid masculine terms, make it pink-colored!) you see dozens of terrible marketing failures. So why does making a chocolate bar wrapper pink, calling it the "Flirt" or the "Giggle" fail terribly at selling to women, but making the diet-cola wrapper jet-black, and taking the word 'diet' off the label succeed in selling to men?

    What is the difference between Coke Zero's strategy and, say, painting toolboxes with a pink floral pattern and calling it a 'fix-it caddy'? (other than 'one suceeds, the other fails') I'm not trying to be snarky here; obviously, there's something fundamentally different between the two examples, but I don't have the education/perspective/understanding to puzzle it out.

  4. Well, for one thing, there's a hidden hegemony at work: in advertising, being a man is cool and powerful; being a woman is weak and non-aspirational.

    Now, that is a very vast overstatement, but think about it this way: all the branding markers you just gave (pink, floral, flirt, giggle) all sound infantile and not to be taken seriously. However, when you add signifiers that are not based on femininity but still unique to women, you get a far better result.

    Think about razors, for example. When Gillette wanted to sell poly-blade razors to women, they focused on a woman's unique shape and the natural curve of her legs. Was it still female? Yes. Was it feminine? No. The packaging was in blue (it still is), not pink. They called the razor Venus, and the tagline is "Release the Goddess in You". Pretty empowering stuff for a hygiene product, not the category known as the bastion of women's lib.

    I think the same thing goes for Coke Zero, in a sense. While they did overmasculine-ize it a bit, it's still fairly restrained. The design is clean and appealing, and they refrained from not only the diet wording, but also didn't try to make it into an energy drink or give it any other bells and whistles. The result is that it appeals to men who are interested in staying fit and don't want all the extra calories of classic Coke, but also don't want to be pigeonholed in the diet sector either. Nice job Coke!

    My point is that the best branding finds a sweet spot: it plays up the best elements of gender, age, income level, and relevance, but doesn't adhere to any extremes.