Velvet Elvis and the Death of Brand
Brand is dead…. or so a marketing expert recently proclaimed http://bit.ly/Oneffb. Ok I paraphrase with liberty, but promoting/developing brand, he inferred, was redundant even unnecessary if a company consistently develops and delivers a quality product. While I agree this is true for cult brands like Doc Martens or Birkenstocks I certainly disagree in general. I disagree on at least three counts.
1. Acckkk V. Ohhhhh
This view would have us believe that only a price vs. need calculations counts (something behavioral economics has pretty much debunked). What nonsense! Every consumer purchase is inevitably,indelibly influenced – even determined – by the values of the transactional parties.
This is more obviously true for those with money, but even the poorest invoke the non-rational (i.e., value based) economic considerations. Color, form, degree of pleasure, prestige, who you trust who you don’t, all count. The only difference is one of taste. You like Monet and I like Velvet Elvis.
2. Same but Different
If brand is truly dead, then what differentiates products of similar quality? Just price? Hardly.
One of the biggest problems with brand analysis is that we allow leading brands to provide the rules of branding thought– think Apple specifically. Apple is at once the best and worst brand example because it so wonderfully embodies what I call the fantastic four or psychological aspects of brand – form, function, fame and fantasy – which together create and sustain powerful brand image. Outrageous success is a poor example simply because it is (almost) never replicable. More to the point, other brands don’t need all the fantastic four in such depth to be quite successful.
Consider the practical difference between a GM and Ford or Citi and Bank of America? Functionally and form-wise there some, but not much difference. One might claim that price is the sole arbitrator, but we know that trust, loyalty, reputation, perceptions etc. all influence decision making, if not the brand is dead thesis would have us all saving for BMW (or an Apple).
Of course price is a factor but more than anything it determines which category of brand one can select from (Levis versus No name) within which brand has a great influence on the choice between one product or another of basically similar quality (note this equation works equally well for both commoditized products/services such as banking or online books as it does for lower quality products e.g., I am not buying that because I don’t know the brand).
3.0 “I’mmmmmmm Aliiiiiiiiive”
Then there are buyers like me who eschew some brands because we don’t want to pay the brand price premium…… is there, after all much time telling or design difference between a great Citizen’s Eco Drive and a Cartier to cause me to pay thousands more? Is there enough performance/design difference between Sony or LG electronics to justify a 15% + price difference?
No there is not, but brand perception cause many to prefer Sony over LG (made in Japan vs. made in Korea) and LG over Samsung (because LG doesn’t sound like was made in Korea… terrible and telling huh!?). What about machinery? German is better right? But how many German products are just well-designed but poorly made in China machines – witness my falling apart German “made” espresso machine. It’s not just manufactured products either.
What is the difference between Arabica coffee beans from Colombia and those from Ethiopia? Not much really… except the former is from the gracious, well-groomed hand of the entirely sanitized Juan Valdez (have you ever worked on a coffee plantation???), while the other is from a destitute “war-stricken” place populated by starving children (not so true anymore….), which ironically is the cradle of coffee drinking.
Tuning into Sustainability Values
So what has all this got to do with CSR and sustainability? Well, lots, because the transition to a sustainable economy is being led by the transmission of deeply-held personal values to the market place.
Often as not, these signals are obscured in economic decisions even as they are ever present and ubiquitous. They are not aspirational in the superficial sales sense employed by many so called brand gurus. Rather, they are about life-fulfilling, aspirational values…. higher values if you will.
Far more than buying new cologne because it’s marketing images makes you “feel” sexy, sustainability values are about how we want to live our lives but due to the complexity of life we have a hard time communicating our needs to the market. This makes sustainability market signals hard to hear and understand and it not, of course just about “quality” either — although quality remains central to some products — it is about seeing a bit of ourselves and how we want to live in each product we decide to buy.
Now that is powerful. And the company that can capture the “sustainability” value premium, well let’s just say the world is their oyster.