A few weeks ago, Rey Ybarra of The New Media Radio Hour conducted an interview with me about The Ad-Free Brand. If you want to check it out, you can listen to it here.
In other news, Susan Cain, who I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in my post about introverts, had a nice “behind the scenes” piece about the prep she did before her TED talk in the New York Times Sunday Book Review yesterday. Very interesting. Check it out here.
That is all.
If you’ve spent any time in the technology industry, you’ve probably come across some seriously bad brand names. And what has always particularly bothered me is that many tech companies can’t just stop with one bad brand name—they attempt to create new brands for every single product, service, or sub-brand in addition to their corporate brand.
Take this to it’s extreme and you end up with something like:
Biotron™ Selectronix™ with SignalBoost™ technology
or whatever. I’m sure you’ve seen worse.
I say stop the madness.
The reason this doesn’t work is because getting people to understand the meaning behind one brand takes time, effort, and money. Every brand name that you add dilutes the time, effort, and money you can spend educating people about any one brand.
This is why technology companies end up with lots of sucky, worthless brand names that no one knows, understands, or values. Fortunately, I have a simple tip that can help you focus your branding energy and get you better results:
Call a duck a duck.
Here is what I mean: when it comes to creating brand names, focus your energy on one or two key brands, then choose simple descriptive names rather than creating a new brand every time you create a product or service. In other words:
STOP NAMING EVERYTHING.
(You can check out what I’ve previously written on the subject here and here.)
When I was at Red Hat, this meant keeping naming mind-numbingly simple. In most cases “Red Hat” was the brand. Almost every other brand name was a simple descriptive name (an example: our flagship product, “Red Hat Enterprise Linux” was… you guessed it, a version of Linux made for enterprise customers).
Whenever someone would tell me how boring this naming strategy was, that they wanted a name that was more “fun” or “exciting,” I would tell them we already had one—Red Hat—and, by ensuring we didn’t name every single product we created, we would make that one brand even more fun and exciting (and more valuable in the process).
The thing that inspired me to write this post today was a conversation I had with my sister a few weeks ago. She was telling me how my nephew Benjamin (who is 3 1/2) names his stuffed animals.
He has a tiger. Its name is “Tigey.”
He has a giraffe. Its name is—you guessed it—”Giraffey.”
She tells me he also has “Pandy,” “Lioney,” and several other similarly-named animals.
I knew that boy was a genius.
By naming things exactly what they are, he makes it incredibly simple for us to know which animal he is talking about. We will never confuse “Giraffey” with “Tigey” when he is telling us stories about their adventures.
If a 3 1/2 year old understands the value of keeping a naming strategy simple, why is it so hard for thousands of trained marketing experts in the technology world?
If his mom lets him, I might start bringing Benjamin in on consulting projects around naming.
I’ll just have to make sure they are scheduled to start after his afternoon nap.
A new book comes out tomorrow entitled Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by MIT professor of economics Daron Acemoglu and Harvard professor of government James A. Robinson.
In the New York Times Magazine yesterday, Adam Davidson wrote a great piece about it. I pre-ordered the book and look forward to reading, but in the meantime, the New York Times article hints at some key conclusions the authors reach. From the article:
“…the wealth of a country is most closely correlated with the degree to which the average person shares in the overall growth of its economy… when a nation’s institutions prevent the poor from profiting from their work, no amount of disease eradication, good economic advice or foreign aid seems to help… If national institutions give even their poorest and least educated citizens some shot at improving their own lives — through property rights, a reliable judicial system or access to markets — those citizens will do what it takes to make themselves and their country richer.”
A relatively simple concept: Nations that give citizens opportunities to improve their lives—to create value for themselves—give them the incentive to create value—both for themselves and for the nation collectively.
According to the summary on the authors’ website, the book highlights examples of the theory in action around the world and throughout history, “from the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, the United States, and Africa.”
So how might this theory apply to the study of how organizations can build passionate and sustainable brand communities? If we think of brands as nations, what might make them fail or see great success?
Michael Porter wrote a now-famous piece in HBR last year entitled Creating Shared Value that to me articulates the business equivalent of the principle. Here is how Wikipedia describes Porter’s concept of creating shared value:
“The central premise behind creating shared value is that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are mutually dependent. Recognizing and capitalizing on these connections between societal and economic progress has the power to unleash the next wave of global growth and to redefine capitalism.”
I think there is a strong connection here, and I would frame it as simply as this:
Brands (and nations) that exist only to extract value from their communities are, in the long run, less competitive and less sustainable than brands (and nations) that exist to create and share value with their communities.
Think about the brands you interact with on a daily basis:
– Which of them are clear value extractors (i.e. they unabashedly exist in order to extract as much money as they can)?
– Which of them are extractors in “shared-value clothing” (i.e. they hide their true selves behind a veneer of shared value)?
– Which of them truly create and share value with the communities that care about them?
If you are like me, some specific organizations immediately come to mind when you see the three categories above. Humor me for a second as I remix the quotes I shared from the New York Times article earlier, but putting them in a brand context:
“…the strength of an organization’s brand community is most closely correlated with the degree to which the average community member shares in the overall success of the organization and community… when an organization prevents the average community member from profiting from its work, no amount of PR, advertising, or charitable giving seems to help… If organizations give even their average community members some shot at becoming more successful — through providing innovative products, experiences, and connections to new people or opportunities — those community members will do what it takes to make themselves, the organization, and the overall brand community richer.”
I suspect that organizations interested in building passionate brand communities have a lot to learn from Why Nations Fail.
And I’ll let you know what I personally learn once I’ve had a chance to read it.
Earlier this week, the New York Times published a disturbing piece entitled Gaming the College Rankings, exposing how Claremont McKenna, an elite college in California, had misrepresented data in order to climb up in the US News & World Report college rankings. By gaming the system, it rose to become the ninth-highest rated liberal arts college in the United States.
The most disturbing part of the article? Apparently Claremont McKenna College is not alone. Over the past few years, many leading institutions have admitted, been caught, or are suspected of gaming the rankings, including Baylor, Villanova, the University of Illinois, Iona, and even the United States Naval Academy.
Pretty depressing stuff.
So what motivates great academic institutions to risk their reputations to rise in a ranking from a magazine that only remains barely relevant? This quote from the article hits the nail on the head:
“The reliance on [the rankings] is out of hand,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the associate vice president who oversees admissions at DePaul University in Chicago. “It’s a nebulous thing, comparing the value of a college education at one institution to another, so parents and students and counselors focus on things that give them the illusion of precision.”
The illusion of precision.
These top universities and colleges are risking their hard-earned reputations for an illusion.
Picking the right place to go to college is an excruciatingly difficult decision. I remember looking at these rankings when I was choosing a college too. Why? Those of us who did it were looking for any information we could find to help us ensure we were making a smart choice. These rankings gave us a quantifiable data point that we could use to validate our decision.
The problem is that the data we should be analyzing when making this decision is much harder to see and quantify. The dark matter of institutional brands resists easy measurement and the results of analysis are vastly different for each individual.
For example, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is #29 in the most recent US News & World Report rankings. But I grew up in Winston-Salem, where #25 Wake Forest University is located. Should I have applied there instead? Would I be more successful today if I had received a degree from Wake Forest?
Or what if I had made the decision to go to the University of Georgia (#62), where I was also accepted? Would I be living in a van down by the river because I gave up the opportunity to learn at a school ranked 37 spots higher?
The illusion of precision provided by the rankings may give someone peace of mind as they make their big decision. But at what cost?
The right college is different for every person. Some of us are better suited for big schools. Or small schools. Or nerdy schools. Or party schools. Or cheap schools. Or football schools. And how much does the college itself even matter? If your goal is to be a rich Wall Street banker, Harvard (#1) may have a program that will get you there. But if you want to be a marine biologist, Harvard may not be able to hold a candle to UNC-Wilmington (#11, regional universities in the South), and you’ll probably pay off your student loans faster.
Are the rankings actually harmful? I never thought they were—most people are smart enough to recognize that a degree from a high-ranking college is no guarantee of life success (and a degree from a low-ranking one is no indicator of future failure). The rankings were just one mostly-meaningless data point that gave your parents bragging rights when talking about your education with their friends.
But reading this article made me change my mind. If a great institution risks its reputation for the sake of rising a few spots in a mostly-meaningless ranking, what does this say about its culture? And is US News & World Report (along with others who do similar rankings) at all culpable for forcing colleges to worship a false god in the hope of building fast, cheap, and superficial brand value?
I’m certainly going to look at these rankings in a different light from now on… how about you?
One of my favorite branding rules is a very simple one that I’ve written and talked about a lot over the years:
What does that mean?
If your brand actually represents something very simple and clear, yet you:
a) overcomplicate or confuse a simple story or
b) describe yourself as something that you are not
you are not calling a duck a duck. Read more about how this applies to both brand naming and brand positioning here.
It’s a pretty simple rule. But every day you run into a “duck” brand that is trying to pass itself off as a canary or an ostrich or a flamingo when it is actually… say it with me… a duck.
Fortunately you find great examples of simple, smart, and descriptive branding in the most unlikely places. I happened to visit one of those places over the holiday break—a town of less than 1000 people on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas.
George Town is a wonderful and unassuming town with sweet and interesting people. It’s a bit far off the normal tourist grid too—there are only two big resorts within driving distance, and the people who stay at them don’t seem to leave the property much, so George Town is mostly pretty quiet.
But what those who don’t visit the town miss is how the locals seem to have mastered the art of branding simplicity.
For example, my favorite place we visited on the trip was a little bar across the harbor on Stocking Island serving conch burgers and cold beer, in no particular hurry, to faithful customers who come back year after year from all around the world.
The Chat ‘N’ Chill.
Now that is calling a duck a duck. I can tell you from spending the better part of two days there that chatting and chilling describes about 95% of the appeal.
In fact, if you have an inability to chill, you probably would hate this spot. If you place a food order, you can expect to wait at least an hour before you get it. This is not fast food.
But what’s the rush? After all, you’ll have the best time here if you keep things simple:
Step 1) Chat
Step 2) Chill
At the risk of brand nerding out a bit too much about what is a really amazing and magical place, I just have to complement the folks who run the Chat ‘N’ Chill. They’ve built an extremely passionate and loyal community by developing a simple brand promise and name, and then delivering on it exactly as you’d dream they would. What more could you ask for?
A second example of simple branding done well is the historic old resort we stayed in called the Peace & Plenty (for all their branding genius, the folks in George Town do seem to have an aversion to writing out the word “and”). The picture to the left is the morning view from our room at the Peace & Plenty.
It was a pretty nice place to spend some quiet time. The Peace & Plenty has been getting the “peace” part right for more than fifty years, with the help of a staff of long-time employees like Lermon “Doc” Rolle who have kept the experience unique and intimate amidst the clutter of cookie-cutter tropical mega resorts you’ll find elsewhere in the Bahamas.
But “plenty” is also an apt descriptor. The Peace & Plenty is the only resort located right in the main part of George Town, easy walking distance from pretty much everything you might want to visit, including the ferry to Stocking Island. You can walk around the pond to Eddie’s Edgewater (a restaurant that is across the road from the edge of the water, as you might expect) for some great ribs on Friday night, you can go across the street to Minn’s Watersports to rent a boat for bonefishing, you are a few steps away from the town library, city hall, and a grocery store.
It’s a perfect spot: Peace, amidst plenty.
In the introduction to The Ad-Free Brand, I point out that some of the best and most clearly positioned brands are built by people with little or no branding experience at all, and I share these examples here as inspiration: anyone, anywhere can build a great brand!
I’m sure you have your own examples of simple, elegant branding, naming, or positioning, and if so, feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Last week, my friend Trey Morrison sent me this picture of The Ad-Free Brand sunning on a patio overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Panama.
Trey and his business partner Coley have recently launched a community-based brand of their own. They call it The Resilient Family, a community bringing together people and families looking to escape the rat race of consumption we got suckered into here in the United States and live a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle—whether in the US or elsewhere in the world.
Trey and Coley are both part or full-time expats, and are eager to share and discuss what they’ve learned in making the transition from a consumption-based lifestyle. Learn more about them and their work here.
Thanks for sending the picture, Trey!
I’m really digging getting these images of The Ad-Free Brand from cool and interesting places around the world.
So if you find yourself reading The Ad-Free Brand somewhere other than Raleigh, NC, send me a picture! For some more information on what I’m looking for, go here.
And with that, Dark Matter Matters is going take a vacation for the rest of the year. See you again in 2012!
UPDATE 12/15/2011: HP has asked Moving Brands to take down the case study and rework it. From their website: “We have removed the HP case study per the request of HP, in order to clarify the distinction between the aspects of the work that were setting a creative vision for the brand but were not implemented in the market, and the aspects which reflect the actual in-market applications of the Identity and Design System. The ‘Progress mark’ logo is not the go-forward direction for HP.” (Guess this answers a few of the questions I raised below:)
UPDATE 12/16/2011: Moving Brands has apparently been asked to take the videos down by HP as well, so the embedded videos below no longer work. Sorry, folks. What a shame to see such good work get wiped off the map.
There’s some craziness going on in the branding world today. As reported on UnderConsideration, TechCrunch, and Design Week, a new brand identity for HP, one of the largest and most powerful brands there is, has just been unveiled to the world.
But from what I can tell, HP didn’t do the unveiling.
Instead, the new brand identity was showcased as a case study on the website of Moving Brands, the lead agency hired by HP to work on the creative vision for the HP brand, a project that began in 2008. Not only is the final work product fantastic, but the process the team went through to design the identity was also incredibly smart and current.
Here’s a short video from the Moving Brands website that showcases the new identity:
To me, this is a really wonderful example of thoughtful identity work done right. The UnderConsideration article in particular does a nice job of breaking down the process they used. Or watch this video from the case study that shows how the process worked from the inside:
If you’ve been following tech news, you may have seen that HP, which has been a wee bit shaky in the leadership department over the past few years, in September hired former eBay CEO Meg Whitman to take over the top leadership spot after the very short tenure of Leo Apotheker.
One can only speculate if, with the changing of the guard, this project was cancelled or moved to the back burner (TechCrunch calls it “The Radical HP Rebranding That Never Was”), but an agency revealing a company’s new identity to the world on its behalf is something I’ve never witnessed before.
An agency gone rogue or a carefully scripted unofficial test of the new identity? Hmm…
One way or another, I must say that after suffering through the last couple of years of major brand identity launch flubs like The Gap and Tropicana, whether on purpose or not, this identity rollout (as weird as it may sound) feels perfect to me.
Because it is so different than the old skool agency “Big Reveal” of a new identity (“Look what’s behind this curtain! It’s a shiny new logo!”).
I hate the Big Reveal.
First off, the Big Reveal smacks of agency arrogance. Our agency geniuses have gone behind closed doors, deeply breathed in the raw sewage of your current brand… and what has emerged? Why these beautiful, fresh, sweet-smelling brand flowers (and we threw in a spiffy new font for you too… just because we could!).
Second, the Big Reveal always implies a product that is already finished when people first get to see it. Even the patron saint of brand identity Paul Rand was famous for presenting his designs as “take it or leave it.” IBM took it, as did UPS. Steve Jobs did too, after getting put in his place by Rand.
This way of revealing brand identity may have worked in the past, but it faces some very real challenges today in a world driven by social media. The new Gap logo was revealed to the Gap brand community the old way and then quickly rejected through the power of the combined community voice on blogs and social media networks. It never stood a chance.
We will see this kind of community-driven brand influence more and more over the coming years as the communities that surround brands gain more and more power over their direction, and the companies that own them can control less and less.
Which is why I like how this new HP logo came out, whether the company meant for it to happen this way or not. Rather than inflicting a new logo on us that we’ve never seen before as a done deal, we were presented—informally—not just a logo, but the entire story of how the identity got to this point, transparently, openly, and, most importantly, before the decision had been made.
I love when brands are built collaboratively with the people who care most about the brand, both inside and outside the company. By being revealed informally while still a work in progress, this new HP identity feels to me like the beginning of an open conversation with the HP brand community.
Who knows whether HP will stifle that conversation, ignore it, or become an active participant. Only time will tell.
But I have to hand it to the folks at Moving Brands who led the process. This is either a clever way to get some feedback for their client and start a dialog before a bigger commitment is made or it is a ballsy attempt to win over the HP brand community with high-quality work and then enlist the community’s help to force HP not to abandon the project.
Either way, I love it. It’s great design work and a pitch-perfect roll out strategy for the times.
Let’s see what happens next.
HP? Your move.
Once you’ve identified the key communities you think it is important to engage with, the next step is to identify the people you’d like to represent your brand within these communities. For simplicity, I like to refer to these folks as brand ambassadors.
How to find brand ambassadors
Start by identifying the people inside your organization who have the best relationships with each community. These people are the best candidates to become your brand ambassadors. The ideal brand ambassador is already an actual community member, actively participating in conversations and projects with other community members.
While an employee of your organization, this person shares common values, interests, and experiences with other community members. It is less important what position they hold within your organization and more important how they are viewed by the community itself.
After you’ve identified possible brand ambassadors, reach out to them to see if they are willing and interested in expanding their personal roles in the community to include being representatives of your brand as well. Some might already be playing this role, others might be playing this role and not realizing it.
Don’t force or pressure people. The ideal candidate will be excited to be considered and will be passionate about the opportunity, so if your best candidate doesn’t seem interested, try to find someone else who is.
Creating brand ambassadors from scratch
If you don’t have anyone in your organization who is already a member of the community, you’ll need to have someone join. Choose someone who understands your organization’s story and positioning well but also already shares interests, values, and experiences with the community in question.
Have this person attend meetings, join mailing lists, participate on forums, and otherwise begin to contribute to the community first as an individual. It will take a little longer to get started, but it will be worth it if your brand ambassador has a deep contextual understanding of the community before they dive right in officially representing your organization.
Brand ambassadors as faces of the brand
You should ensure that your brand ambassadors deeply understand your brand positioning so they can live it (not just speak to it) in their activities within these external communities. If you are developing many brand ambassadors at once, consider hosting a brand ambassador bootcamp where new ambassadors can practice telling the brand story and get aligned on the overall positioning of the organization. Also use this as an opportunity to emphasize the key role of these ambassadors in developing the brand experience and keeping relationships with the community healthy and productive.
You may have some communities where there is a whole team of ambassadors, not just one. For example, at Red Hat, a large team of developers represented Red Hat (and themselves) in the Fedora community. Invest as many ambassadors as you need in order to provide the best possible support for and adequately communicate with the community.
As you recruit brand ambassadors, you extend the internal core of the brand. Although it is wonderful to see your core group getting bigger, extending your reach is also an important time to ensure consistency. Be very careful to take the time to educate all brand ambassadors well so the entire brand orchestra stays in key.
Brand ambassador philosophy
Wikipedia defines an ambassador as “the highest ranking diplomat who represents a nation and is usually accredited to a foreign sovereign or government, or to an international organization.” Usually an ambassador lives and operates within the country or organization where he is assigned.
Your brand ambassadors should channel the same philosophy. While they are members of your organization, they should “live” within the communities they are assigned to as much as possible while representing your organization within that community.
Great brand ambassadors are loyal to the organization and to the community at the same time. They develop relationships of respect, honesty, and trust within the community, which allows them to clearly and openly communicate the priorities, desires, and needs of both sides.
Brand ambassadors are not just mouthpieces for the organization, but should also maintain their own personality, interests, and opinions in the community—often distinct from those of the organization. In places where they are representing their own opinions and ideas, they should provide the proper disclaimers. With a little practice, this is not nearly as difficult as it might sound. The key is maintaining an authentic personal voice while being open, transparent, and human in their communications.
Don’t think someone in your organization has the right makeup to be a good ambassador based on what you see here, even if he or she has good relationships within the community? Don’t make him or her an ambassador. The brand ambassador is a representative of your brand to the outside world, and the job carries a lot of responsibility and requires a high emotional intelligence and diplomatic sensibility to do well.
So take the time to find, train, and support brand ambassadors within your organization. With some attention and focus, you may soon find that your network of ambassadors becomes one of your organization’s most valuable assets.
If so, you can find more tips about how to extend your brand effectively in my book, The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:).
Only $9.99 for the Kindle, but available in each of these formats:
Book | Kindle | Nook | EPUB/PDF
A few weeks ago, I was approached by Edward Burghard, who runs a project called Strengthening Brand America. According to his website, the purpose of the project is as follows:
“…to dramatically improve the level of place brand mastery in the U.S. by catalyzing a discussion between private sector experts and economic development professionals on the reapplication of proven product and corporate branding principles.”
Edward had read The Ad-Free Brand and was interested in having a discussion about how some of the principles from the book might apply to place branding (meaning branding a city, state, country or other community as opposed to a product or organization) at a country level.
While we’ve done some economic development work here at New Kind, this was one of the rare times I’d actually spent time thinking about how the principles of branding might apply to building the brand of the United States.
It was a fun conversation, and one I’d like to continue. If you find the subject interesting, please go check out the interview on the Strengthening Brand America website.
Every organization has people who act or work in ways that are detrimental to the brand. Often, if these people get results (meaning they make financial targets or otherwise achieve the goals that have been set for them), they are praised and rewarded.
These off-brand people are a deadly disease. Anyone who is rewarded for working in ways that are harmful to the brand experience will damage your ability to deliver on your brand positioning.
For The Ad-Free Brand, my friend Greg DeKoenigsberg let me do a sidebar about what he calls the Law of Institutional Idiocy. It does a great job showing how the disease of off-brand behavior spreads, but it also applies at a broader organizational level beyond the brand as well. Here it is:
In the beginning, your organization has a tree full of healthy employees.
And then, an idiot sneaks into the company.
That idiot chases away people who don’t like to deal with idiots and uses his or her influence to bring aboard more idiots.
If you’re not very wise and very careful, that idiot gets promoted because people tire of fighting with idiots, who also tend to be loud, ambitious, and politically savvy. And then he or she builds a whole team of idiots. Other idiots start popping up elsewhere in the organization.
That is how you end up with an organization full of idiots.
Letting off-brand people continue to operate unchecked is a quick path to a brand with a multiple personality disorder. It is not only confusing to your brand community, but also can cause lots of internal disagreement and conflict and generally just isn’t they way ad-free brands like to operate.
How do you deal with those who don’t live the brand? Some organizations have a no-tolerance rule and seek to quickly eliminate those who do not live the brand. Some instead just focus on the positive, rewarding those who live the brand while passing over those who do not, even if they are getting results.
No matter which way you go, do not leave anti-brand behavior unchecked. It could make all of your other efforts a waste of time.