What’s in a (brand) name?

Shakespeare had us right to question: What’s in a name? Would a rose, by any other name, really smell as sweet? What makes something inherently ‘rose’ other than the sum of all its parts (colour, fragrance, arrangement of petal cluster etc.)?

In a (sort of ) similar vein, I constantly find myself asking, what is in a brand? Today, this was triggered by the thought-provoking musings of marketer Alan Mitchell in this week’s Marketing magazine. Mitchell takes the case of Apple to pose interesting challenges to our concept of the power of the brand. At what stage do we make the error of seeing as powerful brand management, what is really just excellent product creation and good business sense?

I recently had to pull together my own thoughts on brands and branding into a two-minute video show-reel, and I began this by visually listing all the brands that I feel make me ‘me’. Or ‘brand Lucie’ if you will (ick).

But then Mitchell has gotten me thinking – for how many of the brands I listed did I really feel an attachment to the brand, either in name or identity? And what is the acid test to prove it?

As part of my recent Brand Management course at LCF, this question formed a whole unit of our learning, such are the complexities of possible responses. We had particularly vociferous debates over certain retail chains (e.g. Zara) regarding whether they have enough brand equity to call themselves anything other than a retail outlet. What does it mean to be inherently ‘Zara’?

A number of my friends shop regularly at Zara (perhaps unsurprising given the stores statistics on loyalty and repeat-visits: most high street chains in a similar price and style bracket show an average 3 repeat visits a year, Zara boasts 17). Yet when pressed on the Zara brand, all they could really offer in terms of brand equity (by definition, making it unique amongst its competitors) was that Zara was ‘Spanish’. And the reason for that is largely down to shopping trips on the Costa del Sol, 3 years before the chain hit the UK high street and at half the price. Not because Zara makes a concerted effort to instil its clothes with flamenco-inspired lines or to greet loyal customers with a free glass of Sangria.

So for proof of brand equity, we turned to the success of brand stretch and brand extension. If a company can successfully turn its hand to developing a wider range of its existing product type or – even more impressively – entering an industry completely alien to its starting point and take a loyal customer-base with it, then surely that is the ultimate sign of a brand that has made it.

One of my most admired brands in terms of development is O2: once a mere mobile network, now a global entertainment brand. Product alone cannot answer for this. Granted the purchase of the Millennium Dome gave them a huge asset with which to cultivate this new position in the entertainment industry, but it wasn’t excellent rates and service on my phone calls that has made me go to them first to get the news on the next Britney tour dates. O2 developed my brand loyalty as a phone customer, cultivated that, and took it with them when they entered a new arena (literally).

Jack Wills, as I have written about before, is doing much the same thing – taking their legion of JW followers into the realms of basement gigs for unsigned bands, and parties on the slopes of Val D’Isere. And flock they will in droves – not because they particularly love the bands playing, the very nature of unsigned means they cannot know half of them – but because they trust in Jack to show them a good time. Jack takes on a persona, a personality, and his friends gladly go along for the ride.

But to return to Mitchell’s example, I think he has a fair point. In my show-reel, I had included the ubiquitous Apple logo, but I now realise for the wrong reasons. Apple makes very cool products – phones, mp3 players, laptops and, now, portable reading tablets. But I take Mitchell’s point that it is the coolness of the product, not the coolness of the brand that makes me swoon walking around the Apple store, and actually contemplate spending $600 on a thin square screen that can’t offer me much more than my laptop, Blackberry and vast library of books don’t already.

I must end with his final point though, as it is a poignant business warning to all of us marketers out there, myself very much included. He uses the term ‘Brandiosity’ (one of those horribly contrived amalgam words, derived from Brand + grandiosity) to describe the inflated egos of brand people, whose warped cause and effect logic deems clever brand management to be the be-all and end-all of a product’s success. And, ultimately, sales.

I’ll admit it is all too tempting, after all those long blue-sky, sitting-on-a-pink-cube, creative brainstorming sessions, to greet inflated profits with glee, and wildly attribute the success stories solely to our own great work. But let us not forget that before every successful brand, must come an even more impressive product, and if creative branding oversight endangers the continued development of the latter, then Steve Jobs is out of a, well, job.


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