When to Let Your Brand Off Its Leash

It's Not Always the Best Thing to Do

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Millie Olson Millie Olson
It backfired on Chevy Tahoe ("We paved the prairies. We deforested the hills ... we sold ourselves for oil ..."). Hillary asked people to pick her campaign song and got back suggestions like "Cold as Ice."

You've got to trust your brand to turn it loose among consumers. Some come through relatively unscathed, like Doritos, L'Oreal, Converse. But more often than not there are those who will go straight for a brand's vulnerabilities. And old-timers such as Chevy aren't the only targets. Those brands that are young and still undefined are at risk as well. It's a dogfight out there. (Yeah, I'm a dog person, but I'll stop now.)

We took the risk with Kashi recently. Kashi is exactly what it claims to be, a small band of individuals who are passionate about spreading its uniquely joyous brand of healthy eating. So we set it loose.

We knew that Kashi's Jeff Grogg, who developed their granola bar, got particularly incensed to hear people say healthy food tastes like cardboard. So we put him on the Web and on TV to say that if the country decided his bar tasted like cardboard, he would eat the box it came in. Voting was to run three weeks on the Web with a live running tally. No one knew how it would turn out. People had three choices, including "I liked the bar but I want to see Jeff eat the box anyway."

That last one kept us awake at night. For one thing, we had to shoot all possible outcomes in advance to post the results as soon as the votes were in. Any way you looked at it, our client was going to eat a cardboard box. One evening our producer turned on her video camera and, in her best Julia Child manner, recorded herself parboiling the box, pureeing it in a blender with bananas and berries and downing it for the team. She survived, and so did Jeff, gamely eating his straight off the grill.

All of which ultimately turned out to be unnecessary, because the people voted that it tasted good, period. And the inevitable YouTube experiments, while odd, did not dispel that notion (see excerpts at amazonadv.com).

So it turned out ok, but it made me think. Before we send a brand out among consumers, we have to be pretty tough on ourselves. Does the brand really come from the DNA of the company? Is it based on something deeply true, can we trust it in the worst as well as the best situations? Or is it a product of wishful thinking, based on what consumers tell us they'd like rather than what it really is?

Don't get me wrong, we're hungry for consumer learning of all kinds. But when we spend too much time worshipping at the shrine of the consumer, we risk ending up with a brand that isn't true to itself and can't stand up to bullies. And that's something no one can afford to have these days. Be sure your brand can be trusted, if you're going to let it out to play.
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