Kick Branding in the Pants

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Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2014

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8 MINUTE READ

We often hear brand practitioners raise the uncomfortable point that branding needs rebranding. That the practice has become commoditized and formulaic. And that customers don't care about brands anywhere near as much as marketers do.

The irony that brand practice has fallen victim to the commoditization it was meant to correct is no surprise. It was bound to happen. It's what happens in every category of commerce. Eventually, 99% of the category ends up the same. I mean, when you've got former brand managers running around selling 3 minute videos on how to write a brand strategy, you know you're in a used car lot.

What used to be a gourmet meal at a high end restaurant has become the consulting equivalent of a McDonald's Happy Meal: a little slab of grey, featureless meat between the strategic bun and the tactical bun, topped with a dollop of no-name ketchup. You might as well be eating prison food.

As with most categories of commerce, there's no question that brand practice is ripe for disruption. The mental models and frameworks that once defined effective branding were based on the assumption that the conditions of late capitalism would not significantly change. They were built on what was already there; they were not built for the future. They were designed for a mature industrial economy, not the emerging networked economy. They were designed for products, not for people.

We're not in the land of Trout and Ries anymore, folks. We are in a networked economy characterized by constant technological disruption, channel proliferation and fragmentation, overpopulated categories and far fewer opportunities for differentiation. Far more empowered and influential customers are forcing a shift from customer acquisition to customer retention and from messaging to experience. They don't want to listen to brands; they want brands to listen to them. They want brands to back up their promises with action.

Jaded attitudes towards advertising and marketing have resulted in lack of trust and the sharing of brand control with customers across social channels. In these conditions, traditional market research is at a loss. Customers no longer want to be lab rats in front of a two-way mirror; they want a hand in making your brand. In this model, your customer is far more important than your competitor.

In today's branding, customer experience is the lumber and customer relationships are the platform. Post-industrial branding is still about occupying a unique territory on the competitive landscape, but you reach it through an intimate understanding of your customer's unmet and unarticulated needs and by crafting a differentiated experience to match them.

So what should the new rules of post-industrial branding look like? My two cents:

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RE-HUMANIZE: The practice of branding has for too long been focused on products, not on people. Putting people at the centre of a brand means starting with human realities, not marketing fantasies or competitive look-alikes. Put real people at the centre of the branding process for authentic insights that lead to unique opportunities for brand experiences that can be almost impossible for competitors to replicate.

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UN-POSITION: In a sea of sameness, brands are still getting lost in the minutiae of indistinguishable features and continuing to claim implausible emotional benefits stemming form these. In a market where customers have far greater influence and endless products are 'good enough', smart brands are more concerned with how they fit into people's lives and culture than where they fit in the competitive landscape.

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RE-RESEARCH: Market research methods have grown tired and predictable. the effectiveness of the standard focus group is almost zero and increasingly anachronistic in a world of 24/7, real-time feedback. Surveys are great for making executives feel good but are devoid of insight. As Roger Martin has said, data is no substitute for people. Today, insights require the deeper listening and interpretative skills of anthropology and ethnography, which are necessary tools for getting at the unarticulated and unmet needs that traditional market research misses.

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EX-CATEGORIZE: Why compete against the other million brands in your category? What nano-niche of positioning space is there left? Don't compete with them. Compete with the whole category by creating a new one.

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RE-WRITE: The language of brand strategy has become completely commoditized. Brand attributes are selected from the same list of overused, generic terms that everyone in the business has access to. Imagine every book in the library was written with the same 100-word vocabulary, and that describes most of what passes for brand strategy today. Finding the right language to articulate a brand strategy should be just as hard as writing poetry. It's not supposed to be easy.

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ANTI-REPLICATE: You still have to be different. You still have to resist the temptation to 'do the same thing only better'. ('Better' is where you go when you can't think of anything better.) If you want to achieve meaningful differentiation, start with a real human need and work from there. Don't be a solution looking for a problem that's already been solved by a hundred others - and may not even be a problem that customers think need solving. wn

will novosedlik