Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


Chief Stereotyping Officer

A manufactured stereotype.

A manufactured stereotype.

Though I didn’t hold this title at my last job, I was effectively the Chief Stereotyping Officer. My job was to create stereotypes about our company and about our competitors. Like all stereotypes, the ones I created served mainly to simplify reality. Reality is complex. I wanted to simplify beliefs, values, and choices. And I wanted to tilt the scales in our favor.

My real title, of course, was Chief Marketing Officer. I created brands. And brands are nothing more than manufactured stereotypes.

The word “stereotype” has acquired negative connotations over the years. We admonish people not to stereotype. But the propensity to stereotype is innate. I call it a factory-installed bias.

In truth, we all stereotype. And we do it for very good reasons. Primarily, we stereotype to simplify the world around us. If one Volvo is safe, we may be justified in assuming that all Volvos are safe. If we had to test every Volvo to determine if it were safe or not, we might never reach a decision.

To stereotype simply means that we examine one item in a category – or one individual in a group – and reach conclusions about it. We then project those conclusions on to all members of the group.

We do this instinctively. It’s merely a simplifying assumption. And in many cases, we’re right. Most Volvos probably are safe. And that’s the purpose of branding – to convince you that all products from a particular company have common characteristics.

While the propensity to stereotype is innate, what we stereotype is based on culture and experience. Stereotypes become pernicious when they’re about people. When we stereotype gender, it becomes sexism. When we stereotype race or ethnicity, it becomes racism or ethnic prejudice. When we stereotype religions, it can lead to apocalyptic religious wars.

Stereotypes can also change over time. When I was a kid, products that were labeled “Made In Japan” were assumed to be poor quality. Now the opposite is true. Similarly, when I was young, people talked about “women drivers” as if they all behaved the same way. I don’t hear that kind of talk today so perhaps this is a stereotype that has disappeared.

Of course, most branding campaigns are not about people but about products or services. We marketers are simply taking advantage of an innate human behavior. People want to generalize about their experiences. We’d like to help you do that. We simply want to steer those generalizations in a particular direction.

People sometimes suggest that stereotyping is the sign of a lazy mind. Actually, it’s the sign a human mind. We should recognize that it’s part of who we are. At the same time, we should recognize that stereotyping people is degrading, erroneous, and just plain wrong.

Branding works because it aims directly at human nature. It’s a form of stereotyping that benefits both consumers and vendors. For consumers, it simplifies choices. For vendors, it creates strong reputations. So, let’s use stereotyping for what it’s good for and not for what it’s bad for. And, if you need a Chief Stereotyping Officer, I’m your man.


Brand Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Ironic or goofy?

Ironic or goofy?

The students in my branding class just reminded of one of the basic axioms of branding: It doesn’t matter what you think. It only matters what your target market thinks.

To demonstrate the impact of brands, I posted six picture of myself in shirts with different logos. I minimized other variables – using the same pose, the same background, the same facial expression, etc. All the shirts, save one, were “polo” style. The idea was to isolate the logos and their respective brands. I then asked the students what they thought of each version of me. Was one was more friendly than others? Was one more stuck up? Was one richer? Another poorer?”

As an afterthought, I tossed in a picture of me wearing a (non-polo) shirt with a dachshund logo (pictured). I bought the shirt on a whim because we have a dachshund (pictured here) and I like the breed. I thought my friends (my target market) would enjoy the (inside) joke.

Well, my students let me know that what they beheld was a lot different than what I beheld. I thought the shirt was cool in an ironic kind of way. They thought it was gaudy and generally inappropriate. (I guess I’m too old to be ironic). One student wrote, “I perceived that one to be more “stuck up” and rich. … plaid button-down shirts are often worn by wealthy Hamptons residents, it screams yacht club, country club to me.” Another student, wrote, “The shirt is crazy bright with pink and purple so he will stand out in a crowd. I barely notice the logo because the shirt screams I am here.” Yet another wrote, “As for the plaid… I’m biased against plaid.  I think it looks goofy.”

So, I thought I looked cool but others saw me as stuck-up, rich, self-centered, and goofy. Yikes!

All of which brings me to Miley Cyrus and her recent re-branding at the Video Music Awards (VMA) ceremony. I’ve read a lot of hand-wringing articles about Miley’s twerking. Unfortunately, none of those articles were written by members of Miley’s target audience. In terms of branding, it doesn’t matter much what the parents of Miley’s fans think. In fact, horrifying the parents may be the simplest way to win the hearts and minds of the kids. Miley’s saying, in effect, “We’re in this together. They don’t understand.” That’s a message that always resonates with teens. It’s one of the reasons I liked the Rolling Stones as a kid. My parents thought the Dave Clark Five were just fine but that the Stones “went too far”. Message to me: cue the Stones.

What’s the message here? First, identify your target market. Second, understand exactly what your target market thinks, what they believe, and what they value. Third, ignore anyone who is not in the target market. It doesn’t matter what they think. Fourth, that includes you. You are not the target market. Forget yourself. Brand is in the eye of the beholder.

Branding — So Easy It’s Hard

A one-word brand: Credibility

A one-word brand: Credibility

Yesterday, I wrote that our personal brands mainly consist of what others say about us when we’re not around. I also suggested that the sum of what others say about us is usually 25 words or less.

So branding should be easy, right? How hard can it be? I can usually dash off 25 words in less than a minute. So why is branding so hard to get right?

Let’s not forget what George Bernard Shaw wrote in a long letter to a friend. At the end of the letter, Shaw noted, “Forgive me for writing such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short letter.”

The simple (and often unobserved) truth is that writing short is a lot harder than writing long. You need to agonize over what stays in and what doesn’t. The shorter the message, the harder the task.

Writing a message that differentiates you in 25 words or less takes a lot of discipline. I could talk about myself for hours (which is a perfect way to spoil a date). But writing 50 words ensures that you’ll fail. If the message doesn’t fit, it doesn’t stick. None of it.

One way to think about this is to identify the minimum message necessary to get in the door. I worked for B2B software companies. We could say a lot about our product’s features and functions. But what did it take to get in the door to see a decision maker? Ultimately, we decided that it was one word: simplicity. We offered simple solutions. Our competitors offered complex solutions. That was often enough to get us in the door. Once we were in, we could tell the rest of the story.

Similarly, what’s the minimum message necessary to get a prospective car buyer through the showroom door? In Volvo’s case, it’s a single word: safety. There’s a lot you can say about a Volvo but Volvo employees wait until you’re in the showroom to say it. I know exactly why I would go (or not go) to a Volvo showroom. It’s because I’m interested (or not) in a safe car. I self-select.

On the other hand, I’m not sure why I would go to, say, a Lincoln showroom. Lincoln just isn’t a clearly defined brand in my mind. Perhaps they’ve said too much.

Similarly, Bill Clinton often says too much. In 1992, his goal was to get votes (similar to getting in the door). But he talked so much he continually muddled his message. Finally, James Carville taught him that, “It’s the economy, stupid”. Carville also said, “If you say three things, you’ve said nothing.” With Carville providing the discipline, Clinton clarified his brand and won the election.

The essence of branding is knowing what to leave out. We’re always tempted to say too much. That muddies the water. To keep the water clear, say less and say it consistently. I’ve said enough.

Branding: Search, Experience, and Credence

She can influence experience goods.

She can influence experience goods.

As you think about branding, it’s useful to think about your goods (products or services) in one of three categories: search goods, experience goods, or credence goods.

Search goods are products whose “fitness” you can judge simply by looking at them. You can look at (and perhaps feel) an apple to tell whether it’s ripe and fit for purchase. With search goods, you can assess both the price and the value before you purchase it. Is it sturdy enough? Ripe enough? The right size? The right color? The right price?

Search goods typically are products rather than services and they’re more likely to attract price competition and substitution. If you can evaluate products simply by looking at them, you can fairly easily decide if you want to substitute one for another.

If you’re the price leader in a search good category, you’ll probably want to brand around your pricing. If you’re not the price leader, you’ll want to brand around other attributes, including secondary attributes. You may want to brand around the channel (“convenient, easy-to-find”) or the source (“a manufacturer you can trust”), longevity (“since 1916”) or geography (“Made in Boulder by Boulderians”). Packaging is also an important element in branding a search good. You want the packaging to stand out during the search.

Experience goods need to be experienced to understand how well they fit your needs. A bottle of wine is a good example – you can’t tell how good it is just by looking at it. You can identify the price but not the value. With an experience good — much more than a search good — you may assume that the price indicates the value.

You can only ascertain the value by consuming (experiencing) the product which, of course, happens well after the purchase decision. For this reason, experience goods typically have less price competition and elasticity. Indeed, a low price may be a subtle signal that there is something wrong with the product or service.

Branding an experience good often depends on reputation and word-of-mouth. People who have already consumed the product can provide useful testimony to those who are considering the purchase. This only works, of course, if the previous consumers are credible. Longevity may also play a role as potential consumers may assume that a well-established, long-lived brand offers more value than an upstart.

With credence goods, you can’t judge the value even after consuming the product or service. What’s the real value of your college degree? How successful was your hip surgery? Was it worth the price? Would it have been more successful if performed by another surgeon?

There’s no basis for comparison with credence goods. In some ways, they’re faith-based products. You need to trust your supplier. As The Economist points out, the more credulous you are, the more likely you are to be overtreated or overcharged.

In branding a credence good, previous consumers can be important but only up to a point. They can’t accurately judge value either. Let’s say a patient had the same surgery you’re considering and says he had good results with Dr. X. But how would he know if he might have had better results with Dr. Y? There’s a limit to the witness’s credibility.

For this reason, marketers of credence goods often add third-party ratings agencies (or government institutes) into their branding mix. If a neutral board of evaluators gives Dr. X a grade of 95% and Dr. Y a grade of only 94%, that’s a powerful brand differentiator for Dr. X. Note that this is true even if the differences (95% versus 94%) are small or if the rating scale doesn’t really measure what the consumer thinks it does. Most consumers rarely investigate the inner workings of third-party evaluations. A wise consumer evaluates the evaluator.

(I adapted this from Kevin Lane Keller’s excellent textbook, Strategic Brand Management).

Branding Versus Marketing

Consistent, Differentiable, Fits the Space Available

Consistent, Differentiable, Fits the Space Available

I teach a course on branding so I’m often asked to define the difference between branding and marketing. I usually have a fairly long-winded answer and I’ve noticed that the person who asked the question often leaves the conversation with a puzzled look.

Since I’m about to teach the course again, I thought I would do a web search to find a pithier answer. I wanted a simple mantra to cut through the clutter. Unfortunately, the search only added to the confusion.

Many of the sources I consulted confused marketing with selling. I’ve always thought that there were at least two parts to marketing:

  • Understanding market dynamics, identifying underserved segments within markets, and developing products or services that people or companies in those segments will want to buy.
  • Once you have the product/service offering, effectively communicating its benefits (of the “whole product” not just what’s in the box) to the target market to make it an appealing purchase.

I’ve always thought of marketing as a “pull” operation while sales is a “push” process. With effective marketing, you create products that people want and pull them in. Here’s how Theodore Levitt put it in his classic article, “Marketing Myopia”:

Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, marketing on the needs of the buyer. Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert the product into cash, marketing with the idea of satisfying the needs of the customer by means of the product and the whole cluster of things associated with creating, delivering, and, finally, consuming it.

All too often, the sources I found on the web (for instance, here and here and here) focused on the “second half” of marketing. They effectively define marketing as an adjunct to sales, perhaps even a support service to sales. In my humble opinion, that’s far too narrow a definition of marketing.

So, if marketing is about identifying customer needs and satisfying them, what is branding about? It’s the process of planting a consistent, compelling, and differentiable image in the customer’s mind. You want to occupy a position in the customer’s brain. The customer’s brain is probably pretty full already so she’s not going to give you much room for your position. You need to keep it simple and consistent.

This definition is essentially the customer-based brand equity (CBBE) model pioneered by Kevin Lane Keller at Dartmouth. In short, CBBE suggests that it doesn’t matter what the brand owner thinks, it only matters what the customer thinks. The value of the brand lies in the customer’s mind. The process of branding is putting appealing, differentiable images into the customer’s mind that will fit the (small) space available.

Is there a simple, pithy way to summarize all this? Here’s the best I can do. Marketing is the process of developing products that people actually want to buy and communicating the whole product benefits. Branding is the process of putting an idea in someone else’s head. Marketing is what you do. Branding is what you are.

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