Brand meaning management: new opportunities

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Economics is everywhere at work in the marketplace but normally we can’t see it. It doesn’t feature in Hollywood movies or popular novels. It makes no cameo appearances on the sit coms, no courtesy calls on the talk shows. The Nobel Prize recipients are mentioned briefly and with scant regard. (It’s clear that the newspapers care so little about this story they have now standardized the reporting formula. “When did I get the news? Well, actually it was my daughter/wife/manservant/cat who took the call. At the time, I was out standing in my garden/garage/helo pad.” Editor, choose one.) Economics is part of the infrastructure of the consumer society, everywhere at work, no where in sight. Economics doesn’t usually “show through.”

But that’s changing. I give you the label on Honest Tea:

It doesn’t take an econ Ph.D. to brew tea—but Barry has one and sometimes it actually helps. Here’s how. Sugar, like most goods, has a declining marginal utility. One teaspoon takes away tea’s bitterness. Another adds a nice sweetness. That’s where we stop. More sugar add calories but not much more taste. By the time you’ve got teaspoons per serving, it’s liquid candy. Green dragon Tea is organic and just a tad sweet. Honestly yours, Seth and Barry.

Here economics is helping to make the USP and to build a brand! Oh baby.

This is a real measure of how far we’ve come in the world of marketing. I want you to imagine this pitch at the Coca-Cola Company. “Yeah, and I want the label to talk about marginal utility!” This brand is proud of its difference, its difficulty, of the fact that it departs, in packaging and formula, from the cola standard. The USP (unique selling proposition) here is a USD(ifference).

Brand difference of this kind has always worked well in the CSD (carbonated soft drink) category. Many of the most successful brands have come up by “pushing off” against the mainstream player, Coca-Cola. Thus did Pepsi, Gatorade and Snapple find a place on the shelf. Given the brand typography of the CDS category, difference sells.

There are of course lots of different differences to choose from for branding purposes, and Barry and Seth chose carefully. There is a little New Age spirituality, tea vs. coffee gentleness, wisdom sourced from other cultures (Asian and aboriginal), a “savor the moment” pitch (tea as an experience vs. coffee as a stimulant), naturalness sourced from an organic positioning, a little authenticity (in the naming and packaging), a whiff of Seattle in the packaging, all of this done in a design approach that is has a certain gentrified aplomb and grace. It is, in sum, a well balanced brand portfolio, and it gives Honest Tea depth, breadth and mobility.

But the piece of meaning management that really caught my attention was the diminishment of sugar and the dialing up of taste. Many drinks in America are “liquid candy” and all liquid candy tastes the same. By dialing down the sugar content, Barry and Seth opened up some interesting taste experiences at just the moment that Americans are, thanks to Alice Waters, among others, spending more time with smaller portions that have been very carefully managed to maximize the intensity and variety of tastes in play. This allows Seth and Barry to evoke a new set of meanings, and then to build these back into the brand. Hey presto, there is now a more real and sensual connection between brand and consumptions, and, more to the marketing point, a powerful set of meanings for the brand.

One Honest Tea (and sorry I can’t remember which one) puts you in mind of the Denver airport. By dumping the sugar, Barry and Seth have made the taste much larger, airier, as if, somehow, filled with light. It provoked a kind of synesthesia (a perceptual confusion in which the sensations from one sense are perceived as those of another, e.g., seeing sounds or hearing colors). Taste buds now operate like eyes and ears. Hey, presto. The consumer is happier and the brand is richer. I believe this is what they mean by win, win.

All the best consumer experiences, with food, clothing, automobiles, domestic architecture and interior design, movie making, graphic design, all of these are getting richer and more nuanced. (Virginia Postrel’s book The Substance of Style shows how and why.) This is good for the consumer, but it is also, as I say, good for the marketer. It means we have new, and more powerful sources of meaning emerging from the moment of consumption, and we may use these to confirm, revise, renew, rework the meanings of the brand as communicated by our opening moments of contact (advertising, direct mail, etc.). The question is whether we have the research methods and conceptual models for this new and promising aspect of the meaning management process and I think the answer is “no.”

Marketer, heal thyself.

3 thoughts on “Brand meaning management: new opportunities

  1. Pamela

    Honest Tea… honestly, a wonderful post. It’s refreshing to hear a brilliant voice advocating the creation of brand images that can truly harness brand meaning. But I think the question we have to ask is not just whether we have the research methods and conceptual models for the meaning management process, but whether or not marketers 1: have the smarts to identify meaning in the first place, 2: possess the insight needed to navigate through consumer input and 3: can muster the guts to communicate that meaning in a well, meaningful way. And, then I like to think that on magical occasions, the answer is honestly, yes.

  2. Sean

    I really liked the brand’s Moroccan Mint tea (in bags), but now it seems like they’re only interested in selling the bottled stuff, and I’m not really a fan of cold tea. Bummer.

  3. Trudy

    Community Green is the best tasting bottled green tea on the market, plus the added benefit of “tea as an experience”. Thanks for highlighting a great brand/company and reminding me about marginal utility in the process!

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