Brand Brief: Monsters in Smart Cars; Saints on Harleys

Are we really the brand we drive?

A few minutes ago, ed while I was driving home from my son’s daycare Halloween parade (and yes, order he wore his bat costume again) I got cut off on the road by an aggressive jerk. Weaving in and out of traffic, healing speeding, talking on a cell phone, throwing a smoking cigarette out the window – you know the kind. But now that I’ve described him, what kind of car do you picture him driving?

Photo from the Flickr stream of cornillious.
Chances are, this isn't what you're picturing (Photo from the Flickr stream of cornillious).

It was a Smart Car

That’s right, this jerk wasn’t driving an over-sized SUV, an expensive look-at-me luxury roadster, a rusted muscle car, or his mom’s minivan – any of which might have popped into your mind when I said “a jerk cut me off”. Well shame on you for being so narrow minded!

This jerk was creating dangerous road situations in a a cute little, enviro-friendly, fuel-sipping, tree-embracing Smart Car! And when I saw it, a little part of my brain popped. It seemed like an oxymoron, like a Ferrari doing the speed limit, or a Harley with a muffler.

But why should that surprise anyone?

Think about your preconceptions of Smart Car drivers for a moment.  Now think about how those perceptions of the people are shaped by the car’s design, the current global warming “zeitgeist”, the smart growth movement, and of course by the Smart brand with its perfect name and focused line of extensions.

The thing that went “pop” in my mind was betrayal: this jerk was knocking down my positive stereotypes of Smart Car drivers, and I resented that.

Now think about your brand

Ask your self a few questions:

  • What preconceptions and stereotypes are built in to your product when people buy it?
  • Are these expectations positive or negative for your brand image and values?
  • Are the people “driving” your brand living up to the positive expectations?
  • If they’re not, is your brand strong enough to make the odd jerk look like the exception rather than the rule?

In this case, my mental image of Smart Cars survived the encounter, and this jerk even made my affection for Smart a bit stronger since part of my indignation was on behalf of the brand – as in “how dare you do that to something I treasure!”

Smart branders know their tribes and cultivate them with carefully tuned messages. The tag line from freecountry.harley-davidson.comsays it all: "Screw it. Let's ride."
Smart branders know their tribes and cultivate them with carefully tuned messages. The tag line from says it all: "Screw it. Let's ride."

Is “Personal Branding” an oxymoron?

Evidence for and against the term

“Personal branding” isn’t new, pills but it seems to be a term that’s spiking upwards right now, viagra buy pushed by an enthusiastic tribe of “personal brand experts” who are starting to throw their weight around – particularly in Social Media. They dominate every Twitter search on “branding” for example. But for me, malady as a brand guy, a #brandchat conversation last week and blog posts by Mitch Joel and Rob Frankel set me to wondering: Is a “personal brand” even possible?

Batboy 2
My son "branded" himself as Batman for a Halloween party over the weekend. But was it "personal"?

The case for “personal branding” (i.e. it’s not an oxymoron)

  • Brands are important: I’ve built my career around the idea that the concept of a “brand” is a powerful tool to build relationships between people,  products, companies, services, government programs, charities, and various combinations of all of the above. So when I hear someone – anyone – reinforcing the importance of brand-oriented thinking, part of me yells out an involuntary “Amen, preach it brother!”
  • Persons can have brands: individuals can and do become incredibly powerful brands – and many of them consciously cultivate these brands in much the same way a smart company manages their brand portfolio. No one can ignore the phenomenal impact of the Obama, Oprah, or even the Glenn Beck  brand – although impact may be the only thing those particular brands have in common.
  • Tom Peters: I was inspired by a ground-breaking article in Fast Company from 1997 called “The Brand Called You” in which Peters says:

It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.

  • The rise of Social Media: this development more than any other is what is driving the growth of the “personal branding” industry. Just look at the Personal Branding Rock Star Apparent Dan Schwabel’s Web site, blog, or Twitter stream: your Social Media “footprint” is mostly what he’s talking about. And indeed, now that our thoughts, deeds, and misdeeds can be broadcast to the world with the click of a button, we all need to be aware of how our online actions affect our perception by employers, business colleagues, and potential customers.
  • My own work: I myself have done almost a dozen seminars on branding for individuals at universities, professional organizations, and networking groups.  My first such presentation was at a “Company of Friends” meeting in  2001 (selected slides below), in which I encouraged attendees to look at their careers, areas of expertise, and public communications through the lens of branding. I even wore a T-Shirt with “I AM BRAND” on it and encouraged them to repeat that phrase in their heads.

So let me be clear: I’m not against “Persons” “Branding”

To sum up, before I get to the negative stuff: the intersection of “Branding” + “Individuals” is a powerful connection that I strongly believe in and promote.

Clear? Got that? Cool. Let’s move on.

The case against “personal branding” (i.e. it is an oxymoron)

  • Personal branding often confuses “identity” with “brand”. These are different things. Identity is the part of your brand that you control – that is, your name, what you say about yourself, how you look, etc.; but your brand is much bigger, and includes a lot of stuff that you don’t control – most importantly what other people say about you.
  • Branding is not about you. It doesn’t matter what you are trying to promote, your brand is only as good as what it does for human beings – that is, how useful your brand is to human beings as a way of finding, understanding, and referring others to something they value.
  • No one can “own” their own brand. Here’s my definition of brand for the record – one which I’ve honed and refined over 15 years of building practical brand strategy for companies big and small. Note as you read that “brand” can not be created ex nihilo (from nothing), nor can it be owned by the same people who own the “product”:
  • A brand is the whole set of ideas, words, images, and expectations that humans* associate with a product**.
    (* “humans” means multiple customers / influencers / observers.)
    (**”product” can mean a corporation, commodity, service, concept, or individual)
  • Or, a shorter definition: “a brand is a promise.” And a really strong brand is a promise kept consistently, and reinforced publicly, over time. This is where the “personal” part starts to break down: it implies private, non-public, just between me, myself, and I. Say “personal promise” to yourself. Sounds wrong doesn’t it? That’s because a promise is only meaningful if it is made to someone.
  • At its worst, the personal branding movement misses the point. Far too often, even most of the time from what I’ve seen,  “personal branding” is a fancy word for “narcissism”. It’s a cover for the selfishness, greediness, and egomania that are temptations for all of us – and should never, never be celebrated or recommended.  That is, bad personal branding is about introspection or “self-help” – or making your life better, not about making the lives of your fellow humans better.

So can “personal branding” be redeemed?

Personally, I’m going to avoid the term as much as I can. It’s just too distracting for my corporate clients if I get too deeply tangled up in the narcissistic side of the field.

But there are people out there on the Light Side of the Force. And on that note, I’m going to leave the last word to Mitch Joel from Six Pixels of Separation:

The Key To Your Personal Brand

“If there’s one lesson/opportunity when it comes to developing your personal brand, it is to make everything  about the people you are connecting to and not about yourself.” (underline added by me)

– Mitch Joel

So what do you think?

  • Am I being fair to “personal branding”?
  • Should we use the term “personal branding”at all?
  • Is there a better term for the branding of individuals?
  • Am I using too many “quotation marks”?
  • How to name a chicken sandwich: thoughts for branders (1)

    Part one of a series on product naming.

    So, medications after months of waiting, cialis 40mg  the baby is finally here. No, ed I don’t mean my actual baby – my wife and I are still waiting for the arrival of our third little bundle at the end of November. I’m talking about the new chicken sandwich Brandvelope named for KFC in Canada – which appeared in stores on Friday. Beg to Differ often gets asked what goes into such a process, so as a public service, here are a few insights for brand managers from the Kentucky Fried trenches.

    Big Fresh

    The Colonel calls

    When Priszm (the company that manages the KFC brand in Canada for Yum! Brands) called Brandvelope this summer to ask for help naming the new sandwich, they already had a great product in development. The concept of the new sandwich had been pretty much nailed down after several cycles of focus group testing, refinement, and more testing.

    We learned that they were launching this new product to be a “hero” – or “flagship” of their line of sandwiches. And we learned that focus group subjects loved the sandwich, but they didn’t love any of the names that had been tested.

    Our job: find the right name for the new sandwich.

    The sandwich concept:

    1. The chicken: fresh, skinless chicken breast fillets breaded in-store with the Colonel’s 11 herbs & spices, then fried on-demand for customers.
    2. The extras: fresh lettuce, a sesame seed bun, and peppercorn mayo.
    3. The packaging: the product is the only KFC sandwich served in a box, giving it a premium, high-value appeal.

    The concept sounded like a winner to us (as a matter of fact, the early concept photos had our mouths watering). But what do you call such a thing?

    There are two basic ways to approach naming.

    The wrong way: creative first; strategy last.

    This is the most common approach to naming. Sit in a room and brainstorm until you come up with the most creative, crazy, or compelling name you can think of, then run with it. This approach can be loads of fun, and usually leads to names that work great for the brainstormers, but not for customers.

    The right way: strategy first; then get creative

    This is our approach: take some time to understand the context that the new product will be launched into, the “brandscape” around it, and most importantly, what the name is supposed to do. Then and only then do you move to the creative part.

    A great name is never just a name; it’s a tool to help people find, understand, and remember products, services, and yes, chicken sandwiches.

    What we needed to know before we started:

    1. Intentions and strategic goals: what was the impetus behind the launch on the part of the people managing the brand?
    2. Customer expecations: what did we know about the hang-ups and desires of the target audience?
    3. The Brandscape: what competing products would the new product be compared to and how could we highlight the differences?
    4. Brand architecture – how  would the new name complement and contrast the rest of the existing portfolio of products?
    5. The unknowns: what additional information did we need, or at least, what were the areas where we’d have to make educated guesses?

    The process from there:

    So how did we get from these questions to the final name “Big Fresh Chicken Sandwich”?

    Good question. We’ll get into more details in a series of blog posts over the next few days. But in the meantime, here are a few “take-aways” to think about.

    Thoughts for branders:

    • Does your company treat product (or corporate) naming as a creative process first, or do you start with customer-facing strategy?
    • Can you answer all five of the areas we needed to adress for KFC above?
    • Are you treating your products as individual entities or  as part of a bigger system that helps customers make decisions?
    • Are you listening to people outside of your board room when you make such decisions? People who are willing to challenge you and your assumptions?

    The Chicken Sandwich Series

    1. How to name a chicken sandwich: thoughts for branders (this post)

    Lethal generosity in my neighbourhood: Taste of Wellington West 2009

    This Saturday, drug I had the privilege of photographing some of my favourite people from my favourite place in the world doing what they love to do. The event was the third annual Taste of Wellington West festival – when the food shops and restaurants of my neighbourhood in Ottawa give away free samples of thier food to benefit a local food bank. What could be better?

    Sushi kids

    From a marketing perspective, of course, the idea of giving away free food is a guaranteed hit and a very smart stratgey. But what’s better, I see this as a practical example of a term Shel Israel introduced me to a couple weeks ago – first on Twitter, and later when he visited Ottawa to promote his book Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods.

    “Lethal Generosity”

    Here’s Israel’s own definition of this term from his Web site:

    Shel Isreal: Lethal Generosity is the business strategy of doing as much good for your customer as possible, thereby screwing your competitor who has to either follow your lead or ignore programs that serve them.

    Don’t you love that idea? Now, “lethal” and “screw your competitor” are hard-edged, cut-throat words. But they get your attention don’t they? In reality this is a “bad cop” way of describing a very “good cop” phenomenon. Because actually lethal generosity only works when you do it the way we do it in Wellington West: generosity comes first; lethality follows.

    So here’s how I’d (humbly) alter Israel’s definition to put the emphasis on the strategic sequence of events:

    Denvan: Lethal Generosity is 1) doing something warm, human, and generous that endears you deeply to your community, which 2) also has the pleasant side effect of giving you an incredible competitive advantage, 3) forcing others to either follow your lead or look really stupid.

    Taste of Wellington West

    Heavy construction didn't keep the huge crowds away in 2008 (shown here) or 2009.
    Heavy construction didn't keep the huge crowds away in 2008 (shown here) or 2009.

    A couple years ago, I helped out with the establishment of the Wellington West Business Improvement Area (BIA) – partially as a response to other local areas who had been running their own BIAs for years – particularly Westboro, Somerset Chinatown, and Preston Street.

    Even though we had a blossoming arts community, many dozens of restaurants, our own outdoor farmer’s market, and the biggest cluster of owner-operated gourmet food shops this side of Montreal, other neighbourhoods were getting all the attention because they were organized, and were investing in building their brands.

    What’s more, we were facing three years of heavy disruption from a massive and dirty construction project that would replace century-old sewer and water lines and make a wasteland of our street, and chase away customers.

    So how do you compete with all that? Well, you build on your strengths. In our case, the incredibly warm and quirky characters who ran the shops and restaurants of our neighbourhood – who could always be counted on to give their time, money, and products to worthy local causes. But now they had a new weapon: a way to organize, mobilize, and capitalize on their native generosity to help them through a tough time.

    The trick: to be more generous: 

    The more you give, the more lethal you are. Absynthe gave away full sized gourmet Buffalo Burgers - resulting in longer lines.
    The more you give, the more lethal you are. Absinthe gave away full sized gourmet Buffalo Burgers - resulting in longer lines.

    Generosity, in the form of Taste of Wellington West, has helped us to bring thousands of new customers into our area at a time when most would rather stay away. And it allows locals a risk-free way of trying new places and meeting the humans behind those shops. I particularly love the picture of the kids trying the sushi. It really captures the spirit of the day: passionate merchants sharing their passions with people. 

    But even more interesting, the merchants themselves have started to compete with each other to see who can out-generous whom. One high-end restaurant created waves by offering meal-sized Buffalo burgers, while another that had opted not to participate, had to reluctantly start giving stuff away. One of the employees told me: “everybody’s asking where the free stuff is. It’s just easier this way.”

    Slideshow of some people pictures from the day:

    More pictures here (Picasa Web album of 130+ photos)

    What I love about these pictures:

    1) The warmth: I’d call these people the salt of the earth, but “spice of the city” is closer to home. Don’t those smiles just make you want to move to my neighbourhood?
    2) The energy: these are always hard-working people, but for one day they double their workload to make magic in the process.
    3) The variety: from the high end restaurant to the tiny family groceteria, everyone brought something different (and yummy) to the table.
    4) The food: my biggest regret is being on the wrong side of the camera again this year! I get hungry all over again looking at these.