The answer, from Kenneth Roberts, was, well, disturbing.
Q. Aside from basic advertising and marketing, what does building a brand entail?
A. What it’s all about is reaching your customer through touch points, or all the points where people interact with a product. You know about Mercedes because you’ve seen the ads. Or you’ve visited the showroom. Or your best friend has one and told you about it. Or maybe you’ve test-driven one. Or maybe you’ve owned one or two or three. There are whole different levels of knowledge. Then there is a range of different experiences – the buying or leasing experience, the ownership experience and the "trying to find a hard-to-find part" experience. All of those shape your perception of Mercedes as a brand.
Q. Who’s doing a really good job of branding these days?
A. Have you flown on Virgin? They do a spectacular job. They’ve constructed an experience for their customers that’s very different from the other airlines. They’ve identified the touch points. The safety video, for example, is a cartoon. When they give you the instructions to take your shoes off going down the slides, everyone in the video looks at this guy wearing cowboy boots. It’s a little hipper, a little funnier than others.
Starbucks is about selling a cup of coffee, but they’re doing a lot more than that. They recognize that. Apple, through the design and online buying experience, also has done a very good job of addressing a whole series of interactions.
By this reckoning, the brand is created out of experiences that occur everywhere the consumer interacts with touch points. The marketer’s job is to figure out and design every touch point so that it creates new and more compelling experiences.
Hang on. I do not doubt that finely crafted every aspect of the brand is a good and strategic thing to do. I don’t doubt that thinking through every opportunity for interaction is a good and strategic thing to do.
In the name of Philip Kotler, Sydney Levy and all that’s holy in the world of marketing, have we forgotten our fundamentals? Brands are first and foremost a bundle of meanings. Were it not for these meanings, it would be impossible to talk about brand images, brand personalities, or brand positions. When we craft brand experiences, we are doing so to communicate brand meanings.
If branding were really about experiences, we should find all brands driven down a single rodeo chute and confined together in a single pen, with precious little space to show their difference. All brands, to move the metaphor a little, would aspire to be perky, solicitous, charming and chatty. The best they could hope for would be, my metametaphor, high school’s consolation prize: great personality!
In a world dominated by a preoccupation by touchpoints and experience, all brands would be, in Huelsenbeck’s phrase, like cats in the half light of the cathedral, which is to say, virtually indistinguishable.
Let’s take the example that Roberts addresses: Mercedes. No amount of touch point management is going to fix this particular branding problem. As Roberts notes and everyone knows, Mercedes has (or had) a quality problem.
Meaning managers know how devastating this is. The problem is not just that Mercedes is supposed to be a quality car. The problem is that quality plays are very particularly role in the Mercedes portfolio of meanings.
In our culture, there are two reasons that status meanings are treated with some discomfort even by the segments who prize them the most.
1) Most men see status meanings as dangerous to the claims to “guyness.” Call this the “Little Lord Fauntleroy” problem. Any male who displays too much concern for status compromises his claim to gender meanings he prizes. The “quality” meaning allows guys to say that they buy the Mercedes because “frankly, I think it’s the best made car on the market.” The moment Mercedes loses its quality meaning, it’s status meaning becomes an embarrassment.
2) Most people wish to embrace and display their status meanings, but there are certain moments (high school reunions, dinner with inlaws, company pic-nics) when they wish to be seen as “just folks.” Everyone wants versatile personhood, and the trouble with status, in our culture, is that it forces a trade off: it gives you a social identity with impact but it forces an estrangement with other identities and solidarities. When the quality message is intact and conspicuous, the consumer may resort to “I buy it for the quality” positioning. The moment quality is compromised, the trade off is enforced.
The Mercedes brand is a collection of meanings that must be constantly renewed, burnished, balanced, and when necessary rotated. No amount of touch point management is going to get the job done.
As everyone knows, this is a perilous time in marketing. (A friend of mine was recently recalling somewhat wistfully the time not so long ago when you could reach 85% of Americans in a single week by means of the big three TV networks.) Now that the marketing rule books and the marketing tool kit have changed, this is the time for us to change only what we must. And remember what we know.
Holstein, William J. 2005. Sometimes the Sizzle Can Drown Out the Pitch. New York Times. July 31, 2005. here.
Levy, Sidney J, and Dennis W. Rook. 1999. Brands, consumers, symbols, & research: Sidney J. Levy on marketing. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.
Kotler, Philip, and Sidney J. Levy. 1969. Broadening the Concept of Marketing. Journal of Marketing: 10-15.
Kotler, Philip and Kevin Lane Keller. 2005. Principles of Marketing. 12th edition. New York: Prentice Hall.