Branding theories under scrutiny in “Absolute Value”

To call advertising as the ‘art of relative persuasion‘ is sure to get the major advertising practitioners to put you on their black list.

I just completed the book Absolute Value, and found it to be a larger thesis than the title implied. In some ways it’s a systematic take-down of several sacred cows of marketing, branding, the role of persuasion and much more. But what’s impressive is how the authors (Ithamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen) do it in a calm, intellectual fashion, trying to assure readers they are not really picking a fight.

Book - absolutevalueThey observe how we customers have a hard time assessing the quality of products, so we typically use ‘quality proxies’ such as a brand name, prior satisfaction, country of origin, image of the store at which the purchase could be made etc. Oddly enough, we change these proxies over time. Think about this: There was a time when ‘made in China’ meant superior quality, but not anymore. There was a time our prior experience with a brand determined its replacement. Today? (I recently ditched another carrier for T-Mobile because prior experience wasn’t exactly great.)

Absolute Value gives you a three-part theoretical framework of how to promote brands –the P-O-M Influence Mix. I find it interesting how the authors steer clear of calling it the Marketing Mix. It stands for Prior Preferences (P), Other People (O), and Marketers (M).

Does this mean the death of branding? No! But it does reveal serious cracks in what is typically considered brand management –tied to Positioning theory, Segmentation etc. Today we are nearer to having perfect (or ‘absolute’) information about a brand we are considering because of the abundance of reviews, and websites dedicated to testing, comparing, or even disparaging brands. Bloggers and journalists prod and pry a brand’s claims to see if it is living up to it or the market hype, exposing the slightest flaw, or lesser-discussed breakthrough feature. Social media is a big part of this, obviously.and marketers should understand that their primary role is shifting from persuasion to (and this should not come as a shock!) communication!

In this scenario –this has to be troubling to ‘positionistas’ and those running loyalty programs—customers can evaluate a brand for what it is, rather than how it compares with other “choice-sets” they are allowed to see.

Sidenote: There’s a great story about Jonney Shih, who created a brand following with hardly any brand advertising. I was in the market for a laptop a few weeks back, so having sworn by a Toshiba for many years, guess what brand I bought?

Apple’s glass shrine beats all billboards

Grand Central Terminal and the Apple store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan have one thing in common. They suck people in!

Grand Central terminalThe former is 95 years old, and the latter is just two! One has utilitarian value the other cult value. Whereas more than 25,000 people pass through Grand Central each day, thousands of people come to the Apple store on 5th Avenue to go nowhere fast. They caress the iPods and gaze at other cool people.

Like the station, the 32-foot glass cube that sits on top of the store is open 365 days of the year. When I visited it seemed that people were treating this like a piazza, or park. Some were engrossed over their Macbooks, some having conversations and others seemed transfixed around the huge ‘genius bar’ waiting for their turn to be delighted.

Apple store - 5th Avenue, ManhattanIt struck me that like the station, there could very well be a ticket counter, and the people would pay to get in. Not that this is even necessary. Apple devotees are actually paying to be there –with their attention. Today. In a time when people are largely ignoring brands and blocking out branded messages, getting people to walk in (opt-in?) to an environment that’s eighty percent logo is pure genius.

A few blocks away, there’s a Best Buy right next to a Circuit City. I didn’t see young people sitting outside their sidewalk with open laptops, or taking pictures of the Best Buy logo. Apple has cracked the code of branding and billboarding by not simply slapping a logo onto a large (expensive) flat surface, but by building a shrine that pretends to be sign that pretends to be a store.

Should web brands reflect the mother ship?

Lots of discussion around the new AZCentral web site. It’s a discussion around whether the new site reflects the newspaper brand. It doesn’t, and I wondered if that was accident or intentional heresy. Take a look at AZCentral. If you’re in Arizona, you probably remember the cluttered site that bore no resemblance to the newspaper it was an extension of — The Arizona Republic.

We all worry about two things when it comes to online presence: Usability and Branding. Often we get all fired up over the latter, and pay lip service to the former.

The rhetorical question I often ask is, does an online product need to reflect the branding of the mothership? And often the answer is, “Yes of course!” But if we probe a bit deeper, we may find that the audience for the online product may be looking for a different experience than the audience of the physical product. Even if some part of the audience patronizes both. Do users walk away from an online experience because it is different from the physical entity? Will a McDonald‘s user walk away from the site because there is no giant golden arch on the landing page? The McDonald’ site is quite plain in comparison to the physical store. Mcdonald’s USA on the other hand is a lot more interactive than its mothership.

If we design web sites based on who our users are, and how they visit us, maybe our online brand deserves its own identity. Ikea is one huge confusing place that encourages people to get lost, and find plants and window drapes when they only came in to buy a ice bucket. But the Ikea site is organized by the way people search, not the way store customers go to get lost. There are just seven tabs for seven rooms, and one more for three others. It’s that simple. The store is supposed to slow down customers. The site is supposed to speed things up. Usability took home the trophy, for a good reason.

The Wisdom of the Wikipedians

Corporate communication and brand management in a Web 2.0 world is not a skill set that has been taught in schools.

The audience for your well thought out brand communication will form their own takeaways, no matter how stringently you manage your communication guide.

I am not trying to be provocative. It’s a reality I run into regularly when I conduct surveys for customer loyalty projects, or do brand audits before a campaign.

So, to address this topic (shameless self promo warning here) I wrote an article on this in my tech/marketing column for the latest issue of CW Magazine. It’s titled “The wisdom of the Wikipedians.” But it’s not just about Wikipedia.

If you’re not an IABC member, you won’t be able to read the article online, so here’s a PDF.