Archive for the ‘Brands and Branding’ Category

Gourmet may survive the death of its original medium, the magazine. Polaroid, on the other hand, is inseparable from the form that gave it life.

When Condé Nast announced the closing of Gourmet magazine with its November issue, reverberations were felt throughout the publishing world as well as the world of those committed to the pleasures of the palate. But the suffering may last longer in the former.

Gourmet Cover

Upscale and ubiquitous, Gourmet was published as a magazine from 1941 through November 2009.

Recently debuted, as reported by the New York Times, are several projects under the Gourmet banner. A new cookbook, “Gourmet Today,” is already on tour with former editor in chief Ruth Reichl. And “Gourmet’s Adventures With Ruth,” a public TV show (underwritten by American Airlines) began airing in October, featuring, again, Reichl.

What’s interesting is that since 1941, the Gourmet brand has been synonymous with the magazine. But it turns out while print media was essential life support for the brand for decades, it may have been only a temporary vehicle. The soul of the Gourmet brand may transcend its bodily form.

This is not a refutation of Marshall McLuhan’s statement, “the medium is the message.” He conveyed the idea that a medium’s content is “a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” People focus on the content but miss the long term impact that the medium itself, and how we interact with it, has on our lives.

Rather, we know that highly effective communications sometimes depend equally on the medium and the content; where the content could not generate the same impact if conveyed via other media. In these rare and delicious cases we cannot distinguish the media from the content, nor rank order their importance to the message. We often relate to brands this way, confusing the delivery mechanism with the true meaning that the product or service has in our lives.

But if Gourmet devotees can still get a fix from follow-on expressions of the brand, if another medium finds a way to channel the brand essence in regular (and profitable) doses, the brand will live on. And why shouldn’t it? Why should print be the only medium capable of educating, teasing and stimulating a group of people with an inordinately strong interest in fine food and drink?

Polaroid is another story, having already failed to adapt its brand to a new medium. Digital photography was everything the Polaroid brand stood opposite. The penultimate analog film, amateurs and professionals alike were enthralled with its randomness and lack of precision. That was magic. Which is what great brands are built on. Polaroid digital cameras? Flying pigs.

Polaroid Land Camera

The Polaroid Land Camera, an icon of the '70's and '80's.

Polaroid Picture

With its funky colors that developed before your eyes, and its large bottom border, suitable for writing captions on, the polaroid picture became an emotional touchstone for an entire generation of photographers.

If ever a brand were tied to a medium, this was it. Maybe what Polaroid needed was a different economic model that made room for the monumental market dislocation caused by the emergence of digital. Two years after Polaroid ceased operations, we are about to find out. To the relief and joy of tens of thousands of loyal former customers, Polaroid film (including some “brand new and astonishing” instant films, black and white as well as color) goes on sale again in 2010. (Reported by AOL’s DailyFinance.)

Comments are welcome. Can you think of any other brands like Polaroid that are inseparable from their media? Or brands we have improperly confused with the media that convey them?


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There are many forms of branding, but the most powerful is generally considered to be visual. People respond to visual cues more rapidly and more intensely than to verbal cues. A terrific example arrived in my mailbox this week: the current issue of National Geographic magazine.

The power and majesty of a redwood enhances the visual branding of Nat Geo, even as it obscures its logotype.

The power and majesty of a redwood enhances the visual branding of Nat Geo, even as it obscures its logotype.

Though I cannot even read the full title, I knew immediately what it was from the yellow border, an iconic piece of visual branding that’s been around longer than most household brands. In fact it debuted in 1910.

This appears to be the first issue of National Geographic to use the yellow border. Date: February 1910. A complete library of covers can be found at: http://shortlink.info/?7d761204

This appears to be the first issue of National Geographic to use the yellow border. Date: February 1910. A complete library of covers can be found at: http://shortlink.info/?7d761204

If you work with brands on a daily basis, you know how touchy it can be even to place objects close to a logotype, something many Brand Identity Standards Manuals expressly prohibit, let alone alter or obscure one. Yet some brands, like National Geographic, carry themselves with so much confidence that they can obliterate their logo and still shout their presence at a deafening level. In this case, the powerful and majestic image of a redwood tree serves only to enhance the power of the magazine’s brand.

The Snicker’s campaign does the same thing, replacing the letters from its logotype with short slogans that support the identity of this popular candy bar with messages compatible with the brand’s essence of satisfying hunger.

Snicker's Outdoor Ad


Snicker's Print Ad

Brand advocates, consumers who love particular products or companies, relish such tactics, which speak to them as peers, not marketing targets. The Snicker’s campaign is an insider’s campaign: if you get it, you belong. And on an emotional level, who doesn’t want to belong?

Got any other examples? Let me know.

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In an eye opening lawsuit filed Tuesday by online entrepreneur Kevin Alderman against Linden Lab, operators of the virtual reality website Second Life, Alderman claims the defendant is allowing other virtual marketers to knock off his firm’s virtual products and infringe upon his intellectual property rights.

As reported by Media Post (see http://bit.ly/z8Y1E), Alderman’s suit says his “virtual erotic SexGen products have been counterfeited, cloned, and ripped off countless times by a multitude of Second Life residents.”

Alderman has reason to be upset. He’s apparently made more than $1 million selling his products on the site. If the court decides that Second Life has failed in its duty to protect his intellectual property, he stands to earn substantial damages, not to mention additional profits by virtue (no pun intended) of maintaining the integrity of his brand online.

There are so many thought provoking aspects of this case, legal, cultural, technological and otherwise. But the one I find most fascinating is this: a brand is a brand is a brand, even if it’s embodied in an imaginary product sold on a site that runs on fantasy.

Alderman’s products — constructed of only the highest quality electrons I suppose — are popular among the denizens of Second Life. That means they deliver real benefits (emotional, self-expressive and functional) in a reliable and consistent manner. Sounds like a brand to me.

Am I missing something? If you have a different point of view, I would love to hear it!

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I read about P&G’s introduction of Tide Basic with surprise and disappointment. To me it’s a tactical move that will increase short term profit, even as it erodes brand equity.

P&G identified a large enough group of cost conscious consumers who prefer to pay a little less for detergent that comes without bells and whistles. According to the Wall Street Journal, “It lacks some of the cleaning capabilities of the iconic brand — and costs about 20% less.”

Yellow trade dress does not change the fact that the logo says Tide.

Yellow trade dress does not change the fact that the logo says Tide.

You don’t need an MBA to know that if you put the venerable Tide logo on this kind of “new” product, enough customers will buy it to justify the investment in a product launch. After all, Tide is one of the most recognized and valued detergent brands; if consumers can get that endorsement AND pay less, everyone wins, right?

It’s pretty much the same argument that put Mercedes into the $30,000 car. But it’s also brand treason. A brand is a promise that forms the basis for consumer relationships. Trading down in quality or performance requires a premium brand to do the one thing any strong brand must avoid: break the promise. Unless you get your jollies killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Is Mercedes a more profitable company today than it would have been absent its C Class? Probably. But what does the Mercedes brand stand for after this and other related moves. At the core of its brand identity lies the phrase “automotive luxury”. Now one has to add “and less” to get an accurate description. In the long term, the piper will be paid. The premium earned by the Mercedes logo, in some form of market adjustment, must inexorably yield. It’s the law.

I’m pretty sure that the road Tide has just taken leads to the same destination. I know they used a yellow package to try to explain the difference. Doesn’t matter. After decades of standing for more (new and improved; the latest in whiteners and brighteners; innovations in concentrates and fragrances; functional packaging, etc., etc. etc.), Tide now also offers less.

Consumers must recalibrate their understanding of the brand universe once more, as another premium brand trades down.

Perhaps you feel P&G is on the right track with this, and that I need a more flexible concept of brands. If you do,  let me know.

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Three disparate articles from the business section of the Miami Herald caught my attention today. Not for their actual content, but for the statement they make, collectively, about the state of brands, and the meaning of branding today.

Chicago’s iconic Sears Tower, the tallest building in the U.S., has been renamed by a tenant as the Willis Tower. What? Can you rename Mount Rushmore? Sears Roebuck and Co. hasn’t actually had a connection to the tower since 1992. But that’s not really the point.

Sears lost touch with its market long ago. Now a forced sibling of K-Mart, a company built on great merchandising strategies has for some time demonstrated an inability to execute merchandising strategy. Yet its brand name is still so worthy of the tower it no longer graces. No matter how poorly the business itself performs.

Harley Davidson is cutting 1,000 more employees. The Harley brand is also the stuff of legend. It’s come back from the brink before on the strength of its product, and on the basis of hordes of devotees it has learned to enable through a number of well-documented marketing activities. We expect that, like Sears, the Harley brand will be with us forever.

What would happen if some lunatic took over and put his own name on that brand?  Same great bikes, only now they’re called “Johnsons” instead of Harleys. So how come you can rename a landmark tower and live to tell about it?

The River House Restaurant was always a very special place for me; it’s now out of business. (Story picked up from the Sun Sentinel.) Located in a historic property on Ft. Lauderdale’s New River, terrific food and service, great atmosphere. I guess I thought it would just always be there. When favored local businesses go away, sadly, it seems they take with them brands that matter to me and probably a few thousand others. No populist revival movement expected. But to those who care, it’s a shame. And whatever occupies a certain historic space on the New River in the future, we’ll always think of it as the place the River House used to be.

But that’s the thing about brands. They really are independent of the organizations behind them. Organizations give birth to brands, but lose control at an early stage as they take on their own meaning for people who make them a part of daily life. The organization goes away, the brand remains. A living spirit that, under the right circumstances, may be lucky enough to receive another incarnation.

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I am a big fan of Publix supermarket’s store name private label brand. Ever since I first saw it some five years ago, I saw elegance in its simplicity; I appreciated its ease of application across product categories; I loved the way its designers were able to vary its color schemes, avoiding the monotony to which some private label designs hew in the name of consistency; and perhaps best of all, I found the humorous illustrations a welcome and human touch that drew my attention to package after package.

Having presided over the design of many private label products over the years (examples at www.goldforest.com), and as someone who’s written and lectured widely on the subject of private label branding, I give Publix an A+ for its body of work.

Fabric Softener (left) and Laundry Detergent (right)

Fabric Softener (left) and Laundry Detergent (right)

All of which brings me to the subject of my mother. Yes, the same one who starred in my first television commercial 16 years ago, charging from home to the rescue at the last minute when my lead actress failed to show at the shoot. The result, predictably, was oohs and ahhs for HER every time I showed MY spot to friends and family. Mom, now 78, has been a loyal purchaser of Publix brand Free&Clear Ultra Laundry Detergent for a while. When guests at her home noted recently that her towels were notably lacking in absorbency, she discovered that for two months she’d been “washing” her clothes with Free&Clear Ultra Fabric Softener!

Over dinner last week, she told me that the bottles of the detergent and softener were so deceptively similar, she’d purchased the wrong one. Upon my examination of the packages, I can see that she is very, very right. Clearly the designer of this packaging system intended to communicate the compatibility of these products as a one-two laundry solution. The colors of the container, cap and label graphics are identitical, as is the sub-brand logotype “Free & Clear.” The illustrations are different, but neither clearly references either the detergent or softener function. The same argument applies to the slight differences in container shapes and sizes, as well as the variations in cap design: they are not category specific. In fact the only design element that clearly and undeniably tells the shopper which product is which is the descriptor line, printed in light grey, at 1/3 the type size of the logo lettering and just beneath it.

Detergent Cap

Detergent Cap

Softener Cap

Softener Cap

This error is a sort of “line extension nightmare,” and an occupational danger of the private label designer. A private label brand is in essence one long series of line extensions. In the case of a supermarket, it can stretch across 30 categories or more, and some categories may be dozens of product variations deep!

Publix offers multiple scents of Ultra Laundry Detergent / Fabric Softener combinations in addition to Free & Clear. Shown here is the Fresh Scent variation, using a pink motif. Other than the pearlescent colored cap on the softener, the same issues exist in differentiating by function.

FreshScent Softener and Detergent. Note the difference in caps.

FreshScent Softener and Detergent. Note the difference in caps.

The problem is that detergent and softener are two different categories, and in this case, there is simply not a strong enough visual differentiation between them to prevent the habitual shopper from grabbing the wrong one. Is that too strong a conclusion to draw on the basis of one untoward incident? In the case of my mother, who I know to be a lifelong savvy shopper, I think most definitely not. Publix, notice served!

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Noah Brier, author of a very interesting and diverse blog, has created a very cool visualization tool at brandtags.net. If you’re into branding, you’ll be into this. Users can view a sort of “word cloud” containing dozens or hundreds of words submitted one at a time by other users in response to views of randomly displayed logos. The larger words in the cloud are those that were used more commonly.

Thus I type in “Crayola”, a brand we are currently working with, and see that the major concepts associated with the brand logo are:

  • Childhood
  • Colors
  • Fun
  • Happy
  • Kids
  • Crayons
  • Smile

All of these words fit nicely with the brand profile contained in the company’s background material to us. (Mysteriously, “Banana” is also ranked highly. Go figure.)

Goldforest has always said that a brand is not born upon product introduction, but rather when a shared experience and vision, including descriptive terms, begins to emerge. Clearly this Web site reflects the shared vision of thousands of visitors.

While brand managers like the folks at Crayola cannot be sure if brandtags visitors represent a meaningful cross section of  target customers, they can use a site like this to learn quickly the words and concepts people associate with their brand; just as importantly, they can also take note of words that aren’t listed.

This is not a substitute for formal research, but if your budget’s limited (and whose isn’t these days), it’s a great place to start!

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