Brand, brand on the wall

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If it is true that, to one degree or another, brand users define themselves through the brands they use, why is it that so many brands insist on portraying their customers as bumbling idiots, rude individuals or societal misfits?

Examples abound. There is the commercial for DirecTV in which the installer, after he is done with his work, receives a pat on the butt from his new client, a pro athlete. "I'll see myself out," the installer says with embarrassment. There is the commercial for consumer-electronics and appliance retailer Best Buy that shows a guy in his bathroom playing with the commode? The announcer explains, "At Best Buy, you can play with the appliances." There is the Chevrolet Malibu ad in which a male car buyer is invited to test drive the car. Upon first sitting in the car, he states: "I'll take it." At the urging of the salesperson, he agrees to drive and, after driving only a few inches, says again, "I'll take it."

Is this how these companies see their customers? More importantly, is this how their customers see themselves? Will this enhance the self-image of DirecTV subscribers or Best Buy shoppers? I think not.

I had a discussion many years ago with an ad agency executive to whom I had pointed out that one of his commercials, for United Airlines, was portraying a customer so overwhelmed with his hectic life that he was incapable of even pressing the elevator button. I asked him why he was portraying his own customer so negatively. His answer: "I don't see it that way!" How did he see it?

True, there are days when even the smartest individuals blunder. But do we need a brand of airline, of automobile or of any product or service to make fun of the fact? I am not saying those companies do not respect their customers. It's more likely those in charge of communications think the consumer's portrayal is only humorous, and that it communicates the product's key features.

Yet they fail to place themselves in their customer's shoes, and do not try to understand the potential negative impact their ads can have on their brand's "mirror effect." The advertiser who portrays his customer in a non-flattering way diminishes his brand's ability to comfort the self-esteem of those who use it.

A brand can foster a relationship with its consumers based on comfort and trust. But, as with any relationship, the bond is strengthened when it goes both ways. The consumers willing to trust a brand will trust it even more if the brand, in turn, shows it trusts and respects them.

A brand strategy should include a paragraph titled "What brand usage reflects," or simply "Brand mirror." It may contain words such as these: "As a result of their association with the brand, users see themselves as self-sufficient, and others view them as rugged and independent." In short, the brand mirror describes "what's in it for the consumer." It is akin to the "end benefit" of branding.

Show a customer that they should like the brand not only because it is trustworthy but because the brand likes them, too, and thinks of them as the fairest of them all.

Mr. Chevron is a partner in JRC&A Consulting, LaGrange, Ill. (JRCandA.com), which specializes in branding strategy and new product development.

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