On Twitter yesterday, my friend Chris Blizzard mentioned to someone that I often say “brands are like sponges.” When I saw this, I realized that a) I haven’t said this in a while and b) I should say it more often because it is a freakin’ awesome way to think about brands. So I’m saying it again right now. Right here.
It’s actually not my line. I got it from the Scott Bedbury book A New Brand World (one of the top ten books behind Dark Matter Matters). Near the beginning of the book, Scott, who is one of the masterminds behind the good ol’ days of the Nike brand in the 80s and the Starbucks brand in the 90s, provides one of my favorite definitions of what a brand is:
A brand is the sum of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the off strategy. It is defined by your best product as well as your worst product. It is defined by award-winning advertising as well as by the god-awful ads that somehow slipped through the cracks, got approved, and, not surprisingly, sank into oblivion. It is defined by the accomplishments of your best employee– the shining star in the company who can do no wrong– as well as by the mishaps of the worst hire that you ever made. It is also defined by your receptionist and the music your customers are subjected to when they are placed on hold. For every grand and finely worded public statement by the CEO, the brand is also defined by derisory consumer comments overheard in the hallway or in a chat room on the Internet. Brands are sponges for content, for images, for fleeting feelings. They become psychological concepts held in the minds of the public, where they may stay forever. As such, you can’t entirely control a brand. At best you can only guide and influence it.
Those last two lines have stuck in my mind since I first read them. First, the idea that a brand is a sponge, soaking up everything, both good and bad. And second, that you cannot control a brand, you can only guide and influence it.
At Red Hat, I often get questions about how we name stuff. It is usually not just idle curiosity, mind you, in most cases someone has a new program or product and would like to call it something like Supersexyshinyfoo. Our team has to play the bad guy role and explain that we don’t usually create new brands like that at Red Hat.
The response is typically something like “Let me get this straight… You guys think long, boring names like Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, and JBoss Enterprise Application Platform are better than Supersexyshinyfoo?”
My answer? We already have a Supersexyshiny… it’s the Red Hat brand.
We’ve spent years building the Red Hat brand into something that people associate with (according to our surveys) value, trust, openness, choice, collaboration, and a bunch of other neat things. Studies have shown that Red Hat brand karma is pretty positive. And the logo looks great on a t-shirt. Our brand is one of our most valuable assets.
This is why most Red Hat products have very descriptive (some would say boring…) names. The equation probably looks something like this:
(Supersexyshiny + Foo) = (Red Hat + descriptive name)
This brand strategy is often referred to as a “branded house” strategy. Take one strong brand, plow all of your brand meaning into it, while differentiating each product with descriptors instead of brand names.
These days, many automobile manufacturers do things this way. Remember when Acura used to have the Acura Integra and the Acura Legend? Honda simplified the branding strategy by moving to RL, TL, TSX, etc. as descriptors for their cars, pointing all of the brand energy back at the Acura brand. Many other auto manufacturers follow similar principles.