If a logo steals the spotlight, how can the brand still shine?

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Too many practitioners of the art of marketing have forgotten-or didn't know to begin with-what a brand is or, for that matter, what it isn't.

A brand is not a line extension. A brand is not an ad campaign. A brand is not even the product itself. A brand is all of these things and a lot more, but mostly it's the confidence and satisfaction and pride it engenders from consumers who buy and use it.

What brings this basic premise to mind is the recent failure of Pets.com, whose doggy sock puppet icon and ad campaign were the most recognizable of any of the dot.com startups.

Still, that wasn't enough. "The infamous sock puppet hasn't been that successful for the company in driving sales," a research executive told our family newspaper. That's because (1) the sock puppet didn't make it very clear what Pets.com did and (2) people didn't need what it did anyway.

A marketing consultant said the "brand still has value...The business design failed, not the brand."

But what Pets.com never succeeded in doing was to link the sock puppet with the pet supply Web site. The Pets.com ad campaign built lots of equity for the puppet (it's sold at FAO Schwarz without any reference to the Web site), but none whatsoever for the service being rendered. The sock puppet was not the brand, contrary to popular opinion.

That's the trouble with a lot of advertising today. It's almost as if the agency comes up with the idea, then finds a product. William Shatner and Priceline.com come to mind, and I expect to read the same blather about awareness and equity that he was responsible for creating. True, true, as they say in the Budweiser ad, but all that awareness and equity was for Mr. Shatner and little rubbed off on Priceline.

The other side of the problem is that brand names and logos are being smeared everywhere, diluting their impact and becoming downright irritating. Tom Shales, TV critic for Electronic Media, contends that "television is beset by logo-rrhea. Logos, logos everywhere-with the goal being to paste the screen with as much superfluous junk and distracting gingerbread as possible."

The CEO of a television brand identity company, Ed Sullivan of Pittard & Sullivan, agreed with Mr. Shales. "Over the years, logos and brands have developed a tendency to sprawl. The condition has been aggravated by the quick changes in management, where the `newcomers' often feel compelled to make changes in identity and applications to more or less `leave their mark,"' he wrote to EM.

Changes in management, of course, breed inconsistency, and that's the biggest threat to branding. The car companies are especially good at trying to change their image to attract younger buyers, thereby alienating their loyal older customers. The most pathetic recent example of this phenomenon is Oldsmobile, which was the No. 3 car brand in the 1980s, according to Automotive News.

But the good people at General Motors decided to turn Oldsmobile into an import fighter, which means attracting younger buyers. So GM gave the division flashy new models such as Aurora and Alero that come with bucket seats and shifters on the floor. The trouble is, as one dealer told AN, customers still think of Oldsmobile as an older person's car.

A big part of the problem is that GM is putting most of its promotional firepower behind the new models and is doing little to change buyers' minds about the brand Oldsmobile (which may be impossible). But for better or worse Oldsmobile remains the brand that younger people don't want to be associated with and older people feel alienated from.

It's very difficult to stay the course when times get tough, but that's when brands need to be protected the most. Let's hope that if 2001 proves to be a rough year some great old brands won't be ruined beyond repair.

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