FORUM: BRANDS STILL RULE SUPREME: AUTHOR TOUTS IMPORTANCE OF A DISTINCT PERSONALITY, PROMOTION

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The following is an excerpt from "The Circle of Innovation," the new book by business author Tom Peters.

Not long ago, just about everyone had given up brands for dead. It was . . . The Age of Narrowcasting, or . . . One-to-One-Marketing. Every consumer would become a market-segment-of-one, catered to with customized services and products, sold to with customized advertising.

Fine. To a point.

I'm a fan of mass customization; for example, catalogs from big catalogers tailored to my needs as discerned from past purchasing behavior. But when Williams-Sonoma sends me a tailored offering, I'm still mostly buying Chuck Williams' taste and the overall Williams-Sonoma brand. I trust him/it.

In fact, with gajillions of catalogs assaulting my rural Vermont mailbox, the Williams-Sonoma brand-as Gillian Law and Nick Grant say-is more important than ever. Standing out from the (growing, stampeding, rambunctious) herd . . . that's the message of this book, right?

Of course, the product/service must be distinct . . . WOWish/LUSTworthy, as I keep saying. But, in an increasingly crowded market, product/service distinction alone is (increasingly) not enough. If you build it (a G-R-E-A-T it), they will not necessarily come. A/the answer: branding.

BRANDING IS THE THING

The market is hopelessly crowded. As a result: Branding is more-not less-important than ever . . . if you want to stand out . . . even a little bit . . . in that insanely crowded/ever more crowded marketplace.

And it can be done! Today! In the most crowded markets!

Nike. Virgin Group. Body Shop. Saturn. (In three short years, Saturn became the second most valuable nameplate in the insanely competitive, $600 billion strong U.S. automotive marketplace.)

CNN. MTV. AOL. MCI. Charles Schwab. Apple. (Sure, Apple's staggering . . . now. But the friendly Apple logo gouged a huge hole in IBM's seemingly impregnable fortress.) Blockbuster. Snapple. (Snapple, too, is having big problems . . . but it damn well wedged its way onto the shelves . . . in spite of the "impossible" task of bumping Pepsi and Coca-Cola.) Intel. ("Intel inside" has paid off in spades for a super high-tech doodad that no one sees-i.e., it's "inside" someone else's box.) Starbucks.

Rubbermaid. (Yes . . . Rubbermaid's been around for a while. Hardly new. On the other hand, in the last 15 years it has worked like hell at branding-the-bejesus-out-of-the-mundane. And has it ever worked! Most admired corporation in the U.S. in 1994! Most admired corporation in the U.S. in 1995! Brand recognition scores that rank right up there with Coca-Cola and Walt Disney. With 97 cents plastic and rubber thingeys!) . . .

THERE'S ROOM FOR MORE

No room for new brands? Exactly wrong! It's the age of message glut . . . and never has there been more room for/need for new brands/aggressive branding. Lobbing it out there . . . even if it's terrific and perfectly homed in on a particular consumer . . . ain't going to get you very far. (Sorry.)

Brand! Brand!! Brand!!! That's the message . . . for the late '90s and beyond.

I believe in being special. (No surprise!) And I believe that special is often inversely correlated with size. That is, the ability to stand out is more readily achievable by the clever mom-and-pop than by the giant.

And . . . I increasingly believe . . . this goes for branding as well.

Too many (most) people equate branding with Marlboro or Walt Disney. To be sure, Marlboro, Disney, Nike, Saturn, et al., have done one hell of a job with branding. But not so many years ago, Martha Stewart was just piddling along as a caterer in a high-net-worth Connecticut town.

Then she began to brand herself. (Did she ever!) So, too, Dennis Rodman, he of the Chicago Bulls and Technicolor hair.

Branding means nothing more (and nothing less!) than creating a distinct personality . . . and telling the world about it . . . by hook or by crook.

CREATING AN IMAGE

A textile start-up I'm working with has only a handful of employees . . . and modest sales at this stage. But we are hell-bent and intent upon branding in our underbranded niche . . . nationally at first, globally eventually. That means spending like half-drunken sailors on, say, marketing materials. Spending "wildly" (though with precision) on advertising. Making sure that every bit of our message focuses on the designer/a consistent theme/a distinct look. Every piece of ancillary material is aimed at enhancing our image. No, we haven't pulled it off yet. But many in the industry would say that we have traveled an amazingly long distance in a very short time.

I believe it can be done! I believe it's the lost opportunity not to try! Hey, to some extent, I'm a brand myself! And I've done it, by and large, by myself . . . by aping the successes of the Oprahs, the Dennis Rodmans, the Martha Stewarts, the Anita Roddicks, the Richard Bransons and other instinctive I-Am-My-Brand types.

Tommy Hilfiger has done it . . . from scratch. One of his secrets is "an almost magical touch for promotion." Another is his attention to detail. Look at most any Hilfiger garment and you'll find that one button hole is ringed with bright green embroidery.

Anita Roddick of the Body Shop understands. So do Tiger Woods . . . and his dad. And . . . heaven knows . . . Howard Stern. And . . . in his own odd, nerdy way . . . B-i-l-l G-a-t-e-s.

Branding? Possible! From the start!! If that's your mind-set. (Just ask Tommy and Tiger and Billy G.)

Richard Branson is a shameless promoter! Make that . . . A Very Purposeful . . . promoter. He is (seen) everywhere! He lives life on the wild side! He takes on goliaths (British Airways) with glee! He's the billionaire underdog! He's the globe-circling, life-jeopardizing balloonist! He's . . . Branson! He's a brand builder. Branson talks brand. Branson lives brand. Brand=Branson=Virgin.

THE REVOLUTION IS NIGH

Revolution is coming . . . to the huge electrical-utilities industry. And nobody is farther in front of the curve than relatively unknown UtiliCorp of Kansas City, Mo., and its chiefs . . . Richard Green and Bill Burgess.

Burgess and Green are on a holy mission. And, so far, they seem to be pulling it off. That is . . . they are branding electricity. Burgess and Green think it can be done. The question is only one: Who will do it? They are determined that it will be them/UtiliCorp/UtiliCorp's brand signature . . . EnergyOne.

I wouldn't bet against them.

Branding . . . is No. 1 . . . according to Burgess . . . and Green . . . and me.

Bill Dahlberg. Utility executive. Marketing meeting. (Hmmm!) Atlanta. 1/97. He's dressed in his signature . . . black Batman cape. (Yes . . . I said utility executive . . . not the dark knight.) He's ranting . . . and raving . . . about branding . . . long before utility deregulation comes to pass. But when it does, you and I are gonna remember . . . the Southern Co.

A SENSORY EXPERIENCE

In their exciting and original book, "Marketing Aesthetics," Bernd Schmitt and Alex Simonson got at the heart of effective branding . . . that is, creating a . . . memorable sensory experience.

"We coined the phrase `marketing aesthetics,' " they wrote, "to refer to the marketing of sensory experiences in corporate or brand output that contribute to the organization's or brand's identity. Today's environments are multimedia, multichannel, multisensory and digital. Communications, transportation and products and services are becoming global. Worldwide, more people than ever are living in cities, and consumer lifestyles and preferences-especially among young people-are intense, short-lived and ever-changing . . .

"In this world of heavy communications flow through interactive and sensory-laden multimedia, product attributes and benefits, brand names and brand associations are no longer sufficient to catch attention, to draw consumers. Businesses that engage consumers are those that afford them a memorable sensory experience that ties in with the positioning of the company, product or service."

IT'S THE EXPERIENCE

The operative word: experience. It's the Starbucks Experience . . . the Nike Experience . . . the Caterpillar Experience . . . the Levi's Experience . . . the Absolut Experience. And that experience, Schmitt and Simonson argue, can be managed (very) specifically.

It begins with the word(s) . . . marketing aesthetics. That is: "managing aesthetic experiences" . . . "aesthetics strategy" . . . "marketing of sensory experiences . . . that contribute to the organization's or brand's identity" . . . "mapping strategic vision to sensory stimuli." Taking these ideas per se (very) seriously is the whole point.

The book itself devotes entire chapters to . . . look . . . feel . . . taste . . . touch . . . sound . . . smell . . . texture . . . color . . . typeface (on logos, letterheads, etc.). And . . . it adds up to . . . ? E-X-P-E-R-I-E-N-C-E!

There's a lot more to it than this brief summary (i.e., read the damn book!).

My objective here is to titillate and . . . strongly suggest . . . that this is (very) important/strategic stuff. And that it's wildly underattended to. And: It applies to the independent contractor, the seven-person training department, the 22-table restaurant . . . as well as to our friends at Caterpillar or Starbucks or Nike or Levi Strauss

. . . or Absolut.

"The Circle of Innovation" is published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Reprinted with permission.

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