Branding Everything

In late 2012 researchers published a study in the journal Nature that asserted breast cancer was not a single disease, but rather an umbrella for ten genetically distinct diseases. This finding was significant because it revealed the need for nuances in treatment. One genetic type of the disease will respond to a protocol in a very different way than another. By understanding the fundamental differences, scientists have a richer understanding of how to treat each variant, to save more lives, and to reduce the trial-and-error approach that leads many women and men to suffer agonizing paths to wellness.

Marketers would do well to learn from this breakthrough in the science lab. In the same way “breast cancer” is not homogenous, “brand” is a blanket term that encapsulates increasingly diverse subtypes. Yet, managers and consultants generally approach brand development and management uniformly. Survey the landscape of branding and marketing agencies and you will find some differences in the semantic language used to express essentially the same framework for brand strategy: a positioning or promise statement, followed by an articulation of values (or pillars that define differentiating behaviors) and some collection of descriptive attributes that are variously referred to as “personality,” “voice,” and/or “DNA.”

There is nothing wrong with this universal framework. In fact, we use a variant of it in much of our practice at Brand Studio. However, it neglects important contextual considerations. With it alone, little thought is given to the type of brand that is being created or re-engineered. For example, a corporate brand is “genetically” distinct from a product brand. A corporate brand benefits from a “purpose” and a set of “values,” but when these constructs are applied to a product brand it is often too abstract to have relevant meaning for the team who will have to manage it.

Similarly, product and service brands have slightly different strands of branding chromosomes. Many product brands rely on functional attributes that play an important role in differentiating the brand from categorical competitors. While functional attributes might also play a role in defining a service brand, service brands tend to gain greater leverage from emotional or self-expressive attributes. These are over-simplified generalizations, but repeatedly observed patterns that should influence the thinking and creative approach a team will use in managing the brand.

I have written much in the past about the six common types of brand promise. These are reductive themes that our team has observed again and again in the marketplace. I am sometimes asked if the themes are templates for creating a promise. The answer is no. However, identifying the type of brand promise that’s needed can be an important first step toward developing the strategy and creative approach. It’s a bit like genotyping in the evolving world of clinical health. You determine the brand’s genetic makeup and then tailor a therapy that will best serve it. In this case, the therapy is both a selection of framework and a point of reference for creative development.

You determine the brand’s genetic makeup and then tailor a therapy that will best serve it.

Let me illustrate with an example. “Approach” and “lifestyle” are two distinct types of brand promise that we often address in the studio. On the surface, they appear to be similar. They have an overlapping emphasis on values and beliefs. However, the way that we develop solutions for approach brands and the way that we do the same for lifestyle brands is quite different. On an approach brand like Whole Foods, our attention focuses on the way that the brand creates value for its audiences. It isn’t so much the outcome as it is the inputs. Whole Foods sources from local growers, has a bias toward organic food, and invests in its employees. These inputs matter to shoppers so much that they are willing to pay a premium for products that they could buy elsewhere at a lower price. In effect, shoppers are paying a premium for the “approach.” The approach aligns with their own values, provides them with confidence, and may fulfill their self-esteem goals of shopping and living responsibly.

On a brand like this, the creative output needs to encapsulate the values and behaviors that go into delivering the benefit. Shoppers need to sense this story of the brand through their interaction with branded touch points. Many approach brands try to explain it explicitly—to reason through education. We’ve found that only works after the initial sensory cue. In the Whole Foods case, one of the greatest cues is the name itself. Whole Foods is considering the whole picture and our whole life.

This is different from a lifestyle brand. With a lifestyle brand the emphasis shifts from inputs to outcomes—often outcomes that we may never possibly realize, but we keep aspiring to them. We can’t all be slim, gorgeous and sexy, but we can shop at Abercrombie & Fitch. Functionally, A&F’s clothing isn’t all that different from competitive brands, but the values and behavior of the brand all serve a perceptual outcome. Shoppers are unlikely to care about how A&F created the sex appeal that is sensed. They just want to feel it.

With lifestyle brands, our process focuses more on the brand-self connection and the aspiration that fuels it. Every consumer has a life movie in their head. A lifestyle brand makes that movie more real. It activates an internal consumer biopic?

I offered only two examples, but there are many more. For example, a retail brand requires a much different therapeutic approach than a consumer packaged good, even though the two often occupy the same consumer environment. A destination brand (like a city) operates on quite a different axis than a celebrity brand (like Martha Stewart). Political brands (like the Republican Party) live on a brand platform that looks quite different from a cause brand (like Tom’s). A full survey of the various contexts is beyond the scope of this post. Hopefully the point remains: there is no singular idea of brand, yet brand is an umbrella that groups together many distinct ideas.

When physicists gather at a pub after hours, they wax poetic about the Theory of Everything (ToE)—a singular theoretical framework that fully explains and links together all aspects of the universe. It’s the brass ring that fuels constant experimentation and discovery. While romantic and alluring, we’ve actually come quite a long way as a civilization from our understanding of distinctly different (and often conflicting) theoretical frameworks of physics. There may be a ToE for branding, but at present we need to do a better job of identifying and using frameworks that are effective for different and specific types of brand contexts rather than use the same framework on everything.

3 comments on “Branding Everything

  1. John Scheer on

    I am so thrilled to have stumbled across this piece! Thanks so much for sharing Larry, extremely eloquent. Will be a huge piece of reference for me. I believe I have a new #BrainCrush


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