If I asked you to make a list of the new, groundbreaking brands about to send shockwaves around the web, I doubt that ‘bing’ will be among the top ten. Which is a shame for Microsoft with their $2bn investment so far. But it raises one of the fundamental brand issues – differentiation.
Search has become a web-commodity. In the early days of the web, about the year 5 bg (before Google), we had a host of small fishes swimming around and everyone had their favourites. Each had an idiosyncrasy that its supporters felt comfortable with. As search became more sophisticated these rough edges were smoothed off and we found ourselves with a slick commodity offering with some just-noticable-differences from the few big fish left in the pool.
As the top end of search homogenized – the bottom end spawned many weird and wonderful mutations, often fueled by the social internet boom.
So where does Microsoft choose to play? In that undifferentiated upper sector. It has been there before of course with Windows Live Search – forerunner of Bing.
Bing is a nice product with some nice features, but there is really no big story there – no awesome big unbeatable offer – no differentiation. With Google spewing out new concepts with scary regularity, Microsoft has to come up with something pretty earth-shattering to compete for a share of voice – and earth-shattering innovation has not been Microsoft’s strong suite of late.
At least there is a tiny flake of flair in the brand naming: for years Microsoft have come up with the most confusing taxonomy across the range of brands and products, but occasionally they surprise us with a concept and a brand that seems to have come from a different mechanism – X-box was perhaps the last such. Otherwise the whole branding structure looks like the product of inward looking group-think.
The irony is perhaps that now Microsoft is seen as the underdog as a challenger (?) to Google. How do you like them apples? Sorry, no pun intended.
What kind of a year will 2010 be for brands? Well, 2009 was quite up and down and we seemed to be rocked by events both economical and commercial, so I guess one watchword for 2010 must be to take as much control for the destinies of our brands as we can. So here are my personal thoughts on 10 Brand New Year resolutions – you will have your own I’m sure, so please feel free to share.
Put brand leadership centre stage – put your brand firmly at the heart of your organisations and operations. Add the brand as an item on all meeting agendas – even your board meeting.
Be sustainable – take a look at the Green Brands 2009 report that I mentioned in my last post. Sustainability will become less of a differentiator and more of a critical success factor.
Don’t let operational issues become brand problems – we’ve seen some disasters in the recent past; BA, Eurostar, McClaren etc. But things will go wrong in life – that we let them become a communications disaster should not follow. Get your ‘spill drill’ in place ready, so you won’t have to go and hide in the ‘No-Comment Hotel’.
Ditch your mission statement – if you still have one. The world is changing, your corporate and brand values are too. Your vision should be shared… values come out of the organisation and are the product of the beliefs your people share, not something imposed from above.
Do a values audit – talk to your people, ask them what they think are the values of your brand – then do the same with customers… it’s amazing, but if you ask people things, sometimes they will just tell you! Then compare them to your own views.
Watch your competitors – not just from an aggressive (or defensive) standpoint, but look what they are doing right – what they do better than you – admit when they do something very well and learn.
Evaluate your brand – try to put a price on it. There are sophisticated models for brand valuation, if you are big enough you probably use them already – but even if you control a relatively modest brand, take a stab at what it’s worth to you. Perhaps estimate how much you have invested in your brand in advertising, marcomms and brand communications over the years? Or, if a competitor wanted to licence your brand how much would you charge?
Talk to people – social media, love it or hate it, is a powerful force. People will be talking about you and your brand like never before. Get involved in those communications – stimulate and initiate discussions, but above all… listen.
Be ‘arsed’ – it’s the details that make such a difference and say so much about your brand and your attitude to it and to your customers.
Take a day off – when I do training or coaching sessions (usually off-site if I can) one thing clients always find most of value is just getting out of the business for a day and taking the ‘helicopter view’ of their business. So, why not have a ‘brand day’ once a month?
For somebody who works most of the time on digital brands, it is still easy to overlook how pervasive is the influence of the internet culture.
Yesterday I had a meeting with client who is starting on a new business venture and he informed me he has started working on brand names: so what was his starting point? The domain name – he began by pumping possible names into a domain name search page.
Now, while the URL is a vital part of the brand identity, especially for a business based upon the web, it is not the only determinant. I would strongly recommend developing the right name first – bearing in mind all the communications criteria – brand values, cultural sensitivities, language limitations and competitive positioning etc. across all media – then look at domain name implications. Remember the domain name does not HAVE to be the same as the brand name – in fact, for many key brands, their websites have URLs that reflect and compliment the brand name.
There has been quite a furore about certain online- retailers using differential prices in favour of new customers over loyal ones. In its simplest terms if you have the cookie to show you have bought from the site before, you get a different set of prices from a those presented to a new visitor.
The financial logic is quite straightforward and akin to new customer bonuses and loss leaders. Indeed, there have been various scenarios developed questioning the comparative values of brand-loyal customers who may spend small amounts compared to a disloyal customer who spends the occasional large sum. The arguments go back and forth, but there is also a psychological dimension that asks: ‘Why should I give my loyalty to a brand that values my loyalty less than the business of a new customer?’ Ultimately, any brand loyalty is devalued – but for the brand operator who has already made the decision that the ‘loyal’ customer is just a mug who buys for convenience and out of inertia, brand loyalty is obviously a low value commodity. They have already made that strategic decision, but it is naive to thing the customer will not arrive at similar conclusions.
The important factor here the cost of customer acquisition. It is a truism that it requires considerably less resource to get additional and on-going sales from a current customer than to acquire a new one. There should be a financial imperative to looking after loyal customers as well as a value driven one. Of course it makes sense to offer bonuses and inducements to new customers, but it makes little sense to penalise existing ones. We have seen the results in the financial sector of advantageous new products not available to existing customers. The outcome is a cynical churning of customers moving from one brand to another as soon as a more advantageous offer appears.
At least some of these other strategies are to a greater measure overt. What dismay’s me about the online etailers’ approach is its underhand nature – customers like me feel we are being taken for a ride. It is also sobering to note that some of those embroiled in this mess include names from the UK’s top brands list published just a few weeks ago. All of a sudden their perceived and hard-won brand values have been lost.
Well, I’m off to Tesco now – at least their points indicate that they value my on-going custom – oh, that’s after I have deleted some cookies.
Study: Brands Need Flexibility Adweek 09 Feb 2009. “Sixty-three percent claimed traditional brand-positioning approaches don’t work as well as they did in the past. Why? Rapidly shifting media habits and the advent of new technologies require brands “to tell a bigger story,” said Verse Group managing partner Randall Ringer. “The brand-positioning model was designed for a world of 30-second commercials. It doesn’t work in the world of new media. It’s like a square wheel.”
Okay, for this US survey for Forrester, all respondents’ companies had revenues of $250 million or more, and we could argue that this is something smaller brands have know for some time. Ask any agency or consultancy dealing with medium to large clients below this revenue slice and pressure to demonstrate improved ROI has been at the top of the agenda for quite some time. Flexibility of approach has been in the blood of any brand communications organisation servicing this market – if it hasn’t been they have probably already disappeared.
I would caution against the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, however. Even though most of my work is in digital media, I don’t believe it is a case of, ‘New media good – traditional media bad’; there are tasks which manifestly traditional media can achieve better than digital media. ‘Flexibility’ means just that… and having an open mind to strategic planning. And don’t assume traditional media is static: media owners also have the capability to be flexible, so keep a close eye on their responses to tumbling revenues. This is maybe where some of the most exciting opportunities may present themselves.
In a fascinating article in Revolution, Sept 2008, Justin Billingsley, Orange’s UK brand director told Adam Woods that digital was going to ‘steal considerable budget from above-the-line marketing’ – no surprises there. However what was interesting was his comment that it was going to be used to more ‘cool stuff’ (by which I understand he means exciting, innovative digital activities) but with a more relaxed view to ROI.
It’s a phenomenon I have also observed: a client who had perhaps a £4m TV budget, decides to take, say, 10% out to spend on digital can be more prepared to take a few more risks. The same psychology that underlies the Orange approach of ring-fencing a proportion of the budget for more experimental activities seems increasingly common. Of course the results will be measured, and will inform future strategies, but provided the actions are on-message for the brand they will allow more adventurous conceptual thinking… and a bit more fun in these depressing times.
The latest action that the press tells us will lead to confusion, despair, plague and pestilence is the proposed liberalisation of domain names – See the clip from the BBC story. The theory seems to be that we will be able to have any domain we want, so long as we have the money. The first pass at this seems to be that it will be bad for brands as it will lead to customer confusion. Asusual, this assumes that brand owners and promoters are fools: of course the opposite is true. The Holy Grails for any brand owner are clarity and differentiation and of course they will do all in their power to achieve these objectives. To assume they will throw up their hands in resignation and allow customers to be confused is ridiculous. Even now, I am sure that shrewd brand marketers are pouring over the opportunities presented to use this new freedom to enhance clarity, memorability, recall and differentiation.
I have often looked at how internet marketing and digital media affect branding and brand strategies. But one obvious effect I overlooked is the development of new brand names where digital media is of critical importance. Anyone who is even a little SEO savvy knows if you can get search terms into urls you are ahead of the game. So now we see brands developing that are scarily descriptive of what the brand does. Online only brands have long used this approach, from lastminute.com onwards, but now we are seeing brands that exist in the normal retail and commercial worlds being named literally – doing ‘just what it says on the tin’.
I would love to know people’s favourite literal brand names.