I’m fascinated by branding. Not the marking-cows-so-the-don’t-get-rustled kind. The kind of branding that’s about identity and messaging and clear authenticity. How clear? If No One Hates You, No One is Paying Attention. That statement is the title of a great piece by Alf Rehn (@alfrehn), and gets at the heart of branding. Alf reminds us that trying to be all things to all people doesn’t work, despite the legions of businesses that attempt it. It makes sense to know and declare who you are as a business and what you stand for. But the ugly, unmentioned downside is that in doing so you are also declaring who you aren’t and who you stand against.
So truly strong branding is only telling people “Our products are for you. You will like them. You will like what being associated with them says about you. You should buy them.” But it’s also taking that stand to say “Our products are not for you. You won’t like them. You won’t like what being associated with them says about you. You shouldn’t buy them.”
As an example Alf mentions the Cadillac “Poolside” ad. I hadn’t seen it, but it apparently launched in the spring to much criticism. Take a look:
Critics said it missed the mark, because it was obnoxious, reinforced negative stereotypes about Americans, and didn’t appeal to most buyers. Which was the point. They took a bold stand in defining who their target customers were and who they weren’t. It also got people talking and passionately arguing about Cadillac and what the ad represented. And it presented their electric cars a cool status symbol for people who would typically abhor electric cars as being for “tree hugging ecomentalists”.
Ford took advantage of the Cadillac’s self-induced negative press to parody it with an ad targeting a completely different group of buyers. Think young urban activist vs middle aged Wall Streeter. It’s a brilliant parody, nailing scene after scene and positioning buying the Ford as almost an act of protest against everything the Cadillac buyer stands for. It’s a pretty good jab, but not quite as much of a statement simply because the Ford has a bigger target market and the ad doesn’t have the same level of potential for starting internet flame wars. See it here:
Not as bold as it seems
These ads actually highlight how low the bar for a definitive brand is set. That the ads appear buzzworthy is incredibly telling. This isn’t edgy – it’s actually very safe because it’s just acknowledging and reinforcing their long established brand images. The people who liked it were already on board and those who got irritated never going to be customers anyway. All the marketers have done is acknowledge and play off of what was already there.
Middle-age folks with some bucks treating themselves with a luxury car because “they’ve earned it”? Not quite a shocker. Twenty-somethings buying a small economy car? Well, few among that market could afford the luxury brand even if they did want it. Safe. Safe. Amusing. But safe.
Why are we so concerned with clearly defining our brands? Why are we so worried we might offend a potential customer when those who might be put off by the brand were never going to buy from us anyway? Why do we so rarely define both our target market and our anti-market? Our brand and our anti-brand? (A fun question for my HR friends: What’s the brand and anti-brand for your HR department? If you can’t answer that you might want to start asking around because it exists whether you’ve defined it or not.)
You know how difficult it is to shake the reputation you establish in the first few weeks on a job? Branding is the same. The brand image can boost or haunt you for years to come. So one of the biggest challenges is changing a brand by creating a new and different identity. The risk is that you’ll offend and lose the existing demographic while not convincing anyone of the new brand. Some retailers, such as JcPenney have been giving a master class in how not to change your brand for the past couple of years.
We started off with cars, so let’s continue there. Jaguar has been one of the most interesting rebrands to watch. They had a huge sporting heritage in the 1960s and then slowly morphed into an old man’s brand for people who liked luxury cars that tended to leak oil and break down on the way to the country club. Unfair? Tough. That’s the unfortunate power of branding. Your brand is not what you want it to be, it’s the identity and image stuck in the customer’s mind. And that can be tough to overcome.
A couple of years back they attempted to change their image with ads like this:
That’s a pretty swift kick to the crotch of the traditional buyers. Then, more recently they switched to the Good To Be Bad campaign with ads like this:
Are they good cars? Don’t know. But the branding has taken a bold, fun, tongue-in-cheek stance with a middle finger (or two fingers upraised) to the stodgy past. These are not cars for everyone. More importantly, judging by the styling and dragster-meets-F1 car sound, they are not cars for Jaguar’s traditional customer.
But they are cars for who they want their new customer to be. They have a very clear idea of who that is and isn’t.