Does Your Brand have Style?

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Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2013

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Style is never about the surface. It's about the core.

Style is that elusive set of attributes that everyone can see, feel and touch but that no one can really define. It’s one of those things that everyone has, whether they are aware of it or not, and whether it is hip or square, hot or cold, timeless or timely.

Brands are no exception. Brands that are equated with style tend to be product brands. The most obvious ones are those that invest heavily in design: Apple, Nike, Burberry, Braun, Ferrari, IKEA. All these brands pay close attention to detail, carefully aligning their design decisions with their brand core. For them, the style with which they are brought to life comes to signify their perceived quality and value, so that the mere sight of one of their products evokes a much larger set of attributes and associations that go well beyond the look and feel of the product itself. That’s why in every show on TV, the de facto laptop used by prop departments, whether it’s a cop show or a sitcom, is always a Mac. Never an HP (yikes!) or a Lenovo (yuck!). Those would either signify that the characters using them are hopelessly style-challenged, or the prop department has been asleep for the last twenty years.

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The style of products plays a significant semiotic role in both merchandising and advertising. Let’s take a category as mundane as laundry detergent. Here, the style is bold, brash, in-your-face. Every label in the category has muscular typography (usually set on a 45° angle, and always in italic), vividly contrasting color schemes, and short, punch-you-in-the-nose names like Fab and Tide. The semiotics are all about toughness, muscularity, and the power to kick the crap out of the dirt in your clothes. You could call the style of laundry brands macho, authoritative, merciless.

Some categories can’t seem to figure style out, or are not aware that they need to. Look at automobiles. The ‘stylish’ ones are easy to identify: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin. In the classic department, I would also throw in the famous Citroen DS. Now there was a car with style. But for the most part, in the rather broad ‘middle’ range of autos, (i.e., the ones that most of us own), it’s getting harder and harder to tell different brands apart. They tend to share a lot of stylistic attributes and thus are more and more indistinguishable. Not great from a branding perspective.

Do service brands have a style? Of course they do, but here style is not about look and feel; it’s behavioral. Business guru Tom Peters defines style as “character made visible”. We associate the term ‘character’ with behavior. When we say, ‘she’s quite a character’, we mean that she behaves in a way that sets her apart from other people. That, of course, is what we like to see in a brand as well: it needs to stand apart to be effective.

Service brands are no different. The style of Nordstrom, for instance, is empathetic, accessible, almost selfless. Anyone who’s shopped there will tell you that their customer service is over the top. Same goes for hospitality brands like Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton. Their treatment of customers is legendary. Their customers would probably say they are exquisite, attentive and meticulous.

Behavioral style works both ways. On the negative side of the ledger, United Airlines, was made famous for all the wrong reasons by their careless treatment of Canadian musician Dave Carroll’s $3,500 Taylor guitar, which was destroyed by baggage handlers on a flight to Chicago in 2008. Nine months of negotiation with the airline were fruitless: United refused to take responsibility or to compensate Carroll for the damage. Out of frustration, Carroll wrote a song about it (“United Breaks Guitars”) and it became a youtube sensation, embarrassing the airline. Their style? Indifferent, abusive, dismissive. And, after finally paying Carroll? Grudging.

Can a brand change its style? Yes, but since style is really just a sign of the principles of form and behaviour that underlie it, changing a brand’s style cannot be genuinely undertaken without looking hard at the organizational culture, the personalities in all levels of management, hiring, training and compensation policies, business strategy and organizational structure. Because style is never just about the surface. It’s about the core. wn