Real branding requires risk

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Here's a news flash: branding, the device intended to set products apart just doesn't seem to be, well, setting them apart anymore. With billions of dollars being spent on thousands of brands, brand development has never been more difficult. To be sure, a goodly number of marketing executives succeed at their chosen profession, but a staggering number of others just aren't up to the challenge. To understand at least one reason their branding isn't working, return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear-to the Wild West where branding began.

As the West was settled, ranchers in the same neighborhood used common grazing lands. To solve the riddle of who owned what, the cattlemen devised symbols called brands to identify their ranches. Animal-rights activists being scarce then, they took branding irons and put these symbols on the cattle. Cows from several ranches could then graze together but be easily separated at roundup time. The brands became shorthand for what a ranch stood for, good or bad.

valley of confusion

The classic branding system works just fine if four ranches and 1,000 head of cattle share a valley. But put 800 brands on 1000 head of cattle and you've created a valley of confusion. No one is better at doing this than the auto industry. Which is like being the best dunce in the class.

In 1974, according to Automotive News, there were about 130 automotive nameplates; today there are 260. In 1997, you could count 33 SUV nameplates; this will rise to 100 before you can say Ariana Huffington. That is confusion, and fighting it requires strong measures.

Car buyers have more choices than a glutton at the buffet table. Meanwhile, too many marketers beaver away, "branding" everything in sight and "partnering" with everything from Turkey World magazine to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Brands should help people make choices, not further confuse them. When every last thing available for purchase is portrayed as a "brand," the word loses its meaning. GM finally figured this out and junked its brand-management system.

Like branding cattle, a company must burn a lasting mark into its product. But too many marketers refuse to use the hot iron necessary to leave a permanent mark. What's happened to our creativity and daring?

Branding requires differentiation-making a product stand out in a lookalike herd. But the trouble with real differentiation is that it makes your product more attractive to some folks, less attractive to others, and of no interest whatsoever to the rest. This willing forfeiture of a sizeable part of the market causes some marketers to break out in hives and to seek shelter hiding out in the herd.

The Acura brand is a case in point. How a car that good can be so invisible is a continuing mystery. Acura seeks some acreage in sports sedan land, and its cars have gone from good to great with the addition of the new TSX and TL. But Acura advertising, characterized by every conceivable sports-sedan cliche, has become no more than costly white noise. What stops them from making a real statement in their advertising? Who are they afraid of offending?

Those who lack vision or the ability to innovate won't ever be different or better. Worse, they never intend to be different or better. "Me too" is a fine strategy if you're standing in the free-beer line, but in the real world, only the decision to become a commodity justifies being a copycat.

In the car business, there seems to be no shortage of companies who unashamedly say, "We want to be just like Honda." Honda is a worthy target. But the world already has a Honda. Even if you replicated Honda, or Toyota or BMW, how can you think you'll reap the rewards Honda has earned without paying your dues?

same is never better

Being different is by no means always better, of course, but being the same is never better. Mitsubishi, for example, makes perfectly acceptable cars, but its branding could only be considered a success if the goal is invisibility.

Different is almost always better if you make the right decision and present it effectively. Consider Subaru's move more than a decade ago to use all-wheel drive in all its vehicles. They took a real risk, and God knows an expensive one, and it's paid off handsomely. Contrast this with companies that want the rewards of being different without the risk of actually being different. Who are they fooling with their "me too" approach? Mainly themselves. Certainly not the customer.

Enduring brands are built on differences that mean something to their customers. In time, the best products acquire a patina of authenticity that the herd can't emulate. Building great brands takes vision, teamwork, product, execution, consistency and time. But most of all, building a brand with a genuine, desirable difference takes courage. Sadly, courage is in short supply in our world.


Charlie Hughes (l.) is the founder of consultantcy Brand Rules and former president-CEO of Mazda North American Operations. William Jeanes is a former editor of Car and Driver and was publisher of both Car and Driver and Road & Track.

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