BBC World Service, 22nd September 2009
Lots of people get very excited about this thing called “branding”. Flatfooted thinkers use the concept as though they thereby are granted great insights into the mysteries of business.
It’s easy to see why. After the serious business of thinking deep financial thoughts, you can do sexy things with branding : psychoanalyse brands, for example, or run focus groups about them.
You can even do that weird sort of reverse branding exercise that recruitment people used to specialise in. “If you were a car” they would ask, intently, “what sort of car would you be?” Abject nonsense.
Now I am not trying to undermine the value of brands themselves. Big brands are both powerful and very valuable to the companies that own them.
Branding (or sign-making) is an ancient game : witness the bushes signifying a mediaeval pub, or the barber’s pole (that means more than just a close shave in some parts of the world).
Inseparable: What makes me annoyed is when everybody gets the idea that brands can be dreamed up, advertised and made to happen, just like that. “What values do we want to attach to our new brand?” people ask at brainstorming sessions, before they pass some sort of brief to an advertising agency who’ll whip up some clever ideas.
Brands shouldn’t be bolt on attributes, like that. Brands should be virtues accruing to products and services over long experience of them by customers and consumers.
Real brands have lives of their own, and flourish because of it, not because somebody is spending millions face lifting them. The best brands are an implicit part of the experience of product, and are probably inseparable from it.
So the question for businesses to ask is not “How to we build a brand” but how do we make things that people really want to buy and value and pay more for?
How do we make our products real experiences for our users, so the brand and the things are intertwined ?
These thoughts are driven by this week’s programme from San Diego, California. I dropped in to a workaday industrial estate to listen to Gary Ridge, chief executive officer of a company called WD-40. You probably know the product in its distinctive blue and yellow cans, and you probably know how it starts off as a lubricant and then generates all kinds of other uses, most of which give the users the wonderful feeling that it’s their cleverness to spray on the WD-40, rather than the product’s versatility.
Acquisitions: That’s what I mean by branding: the product is so satisfying that people are constantly trying to think up new uses for it.
One women told the company she stops squirrels from climbing up the pole on which her bird feeder is placed by squirting it with WD-40.
The brand has a story attached. The death was announced earlier this year of John Barry, the man who took over the Rocket Chemical Company in 1969, when the main market for what became WD-40 was stopping space rockets corroding. He saw the potential of this water dispersant as an all-purpose lubricant, changed the name of the company to reflect the 39 unsuccessful attempts they had to find the magic formula that finally worked with mixture number 40, and built the brand.
What’s nice about WD-40 today is that the company under Gary Ridge still understands and respects that splendid tradition. Yes WD-40 is a wonder international brand, and understands itself. When Gary Ridge looks for acquisitions, they have to meet a difficult criterion … they have to over impress the user.
And that’s what I call branding.