Building stronger brands

Mit_logo_uncompressedI just finished attending the first annual C3 (Convergence Culture  Consortium) retreat at MIT.  It was revelational.  C3 is the accomplishment of Henry Jenkins, and C3 faculty and students.  I can’t think of any place in the academic world where people think about the interface between culture and commerce with such clarity, power and absense of cant.  It was really, really interesting. 

I hope to share things from the retreat over the next few weeks, but there was one issue that struck me.  We noted that technologies have made possible the participation of consumers in the construction of the brand.  Technologies aside, many consumers have make it clear that the only brands that they will really care about are the ones they help cocreate. 

But as I was noting a couple of days ago on the post about Chevy Tahoe, cocreation is not for the faint hearted.  When the marketing team invites the consumer "into the tent" weird and nervous making things are bound to happen.  The question is whether and when we will come to see the brand as something big enough and resilient enough to withstand the "rough air" created by new cocreation strategies.

We were talking this through during the retreat and I suddenly remembered that something like this issue has vexed the marketing community before.  When I was doing research for Chrysler in the 1980s, Detroit was buzzing with a recent change of heart.  Sometime in the 1970s, new marketing research techniques had made it possible to test design possibilities, and these techniques had been ceased upon to eliminate anything that eliminated anyone.  The result was several years of bland boxes that no one much cared about. 

Finally, someone took their courage in both hands and said, "look, we cannot eliminate what some hate without eliminate what some love.   Delight and provocation are connected.  Besides, something like half of the people who say they hate a design will eventually come to love it.  So really, we’re talking about an alienation factor not of half, but more like 20%"  And with this Detroit return, somewhat tepidly, to designs that were more genuinely provocative, and we might argue that the advances made by Chryster in the last view years is a lineal descendant of this philosophical repositioning. 

Brands are where design was.  Let’s not cause offense.  Let’s hew to the middle.  Let’s make ourselves agreeable.  Let’s talk out anything that is odd, counterintuitive, or inaccessible.  Let’s make nice.  Let’s play nice. 

I think we can argue that this was never a very promising approach.  The idea is not to eliminate risk but to manage it.  But now that we are letting the consumer into the process of brand creation, and now that this will surely result in things that are odd or unsavory (as in the Tahoe case), we really have to rethink whether the brand can continue to think of itself in traditional terms.  Ok, it is now 11:58 on Friday night.  If I want to post this Friday, I have just seconds to wrap this up.  My conclusion, brands now live in a world in which there is more to fear from being conservative than from being dynamic. 

I feel to thinking

12 thoughts on “Building stronger brands

  1. Pingback: AttentionMax

  2. Max Kalehoff

    Brilliant commentary. And I’ve talked to some of the guys at Daimler Chrysler recently, and the principles you outline are just as relevant to them today. One executive there recently told me that in the world of online consumer discussion, their best and most popular cars also tend to concurrently be the most loved and hated. Of course, the brand managers, designers or engineers don’t always want to hear that.


  3. Graham Hill


    The challenge that most automotive companies face is one of facing up to reality. Reality is that the automotive brand exists in the minds of their diverse, fragmented groups of customers (and non-customers), not in their minds of their marketers.

    Don’t believe me, take a quick test for yourself: Look at half a dozen recent automotive ads and at the people portrayed in the ads. Most of the ads will feature young people, couples or familes. But in the real world, most people buying new cars are significantly older than the people shown in the ads (as in one to two decades older!). Indeed, 50% of all vehicles bought this year in most OECD countries will be bought by people over 50 years old. That’s a fact.

    The automotive industry largely focusses its marketing on people who won’t be buying their cars, whilst almost entirely ignoring the people who will be.

    The next steps are to recognise that there are distinct groups of customers who view automotive brands (generally models rather than companies) in different ways and to adapt one-size-fits-all marketing to each of the groups. Inviting customers into the hallowed inner-sanctum of automotive marketing so that marketers can learn first hand about their real needs, wants & expectations is part of automotive marketers “waking up and smelling the coffee”.

    Graham Hill
    Independent Marketing Consultant

  4. David Altschul


    I think perhaps that the problem, as usual, is with the metaphor of branding itself. After all, a brand is something you burn into the side of a cow in order to establish ownership. The metaphor carries no sense of depth or meaning. What we are really all talking about is stories – what story is playing in the mind of the customer at the time that he or she is engaged with the company, the product or the service (the “brand” if you must). Story is the way we communicate meaning, and at the end of the day the only really important question for the customer is, what does this brand mean to me and why should I care?

    It is interesting in that context to look at the role marketing plays in the story. If you take a tradition approach to marketing you might assume that the brand is the author of the story. But in most cases in which marketers try to control the stories they seem shallow and inauthentic. My partner, Jim Hardison, recently observed that brands that have real emotional relationships with their customers act more like protagonists than authors. That is to say, the brand has a real objective in the world (over and above making money), it has real conflicts that make it difficult to realize the objective, and therefore its audience (customers and all other stakeholders and interested observers) can get authentically engaged in the story.

    Thanks for starting a really interesting discussion.

  5. Laurent Flores - crmmetrix

    Grant – really good,great though!

    I am indeed very much in line with you, as I think that COURAGE for change is needed for marketers, and to your point and conclusion, I relate 100% to your last sentence:

    “My conclusion, brands now live in a world in which there is more to fear from being conservative than from being dynamic. ”

    I will add that the ones that do not, will be gone tomorrow…sooner rather than later…



  6. Candy Minx

    “Lets make nice. Lets play nice. (my conclusion) Brands now live in a world in which there is more to fear from being conservative than from being dynamic.”

    Sounds like the Democratic party .

  7. Pingback: John Winsor

  8. Pingback: Concurring Opinions

  9. steve

    The key drivers in the change in auto design strategy are technological: It’s now possible to make shorter production runs of particular designs at acceptable cost. That means that each design no longer has to appeal to a broad market in order to break even or better.

    In fact, now that it is possible to have shorter runs, strategies that intensely satisfy a relatively small group will “overshadow” blander designs that mildly appeal to many groups. A constellation of such love/hate designs now economically dominates a smaller number of like/not-like models.

    Graham’s point about the mismatch between the ages of the advertisement-actors and real-life buyers is correct but may not be relevant. Older people often prefer to identify with younger people; they’re not ready for the boneyard just yet. I’ve heard, for example, that home medical alarm advertising (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” stuff) may be counterproductive because the core customer doesn’t want to buy a product that’s for old people. A branding story for cars that made older seem cooler (and youth seem out of it) might work, although I don’t see how to execute that particular meaning-manufacture. I guess that’s what creative people are for.

  10. Grant

    Max, thanks for the confirming data, very useful. Best, Grant

    Graham, great marketing analysis, Thanks, Grant

    David, I am all for opening up our understanding of the brand so that we have a place of meaning, my concern is that a story is just one meaning vehicle, and there are lots of other. Good thing too. When we just have 15 seconds to work with meaning as narrative is pretty hard to accomplish. But that’s just me. I’m a big admirer of your work and I’m grateful you dropped by. Best, Grant

    Laurent, thanks! Grant

    Candy, very! Best, Grant

    Steve, great, plenitude technologies come even to Detroit. Thanks very much. Grant

  11. Graham Hill


    I fully support your point that older customers may not want to be reminded of how old they are.

    The point I was trying to make was that the auto industry largely ignores the needs, wants and requirements of different groups of customers in favour of a one-size-fits-all, we-will-tell-you-what-the-brand-is approach.

    That is the basic mis-match.

    I have just taken a short break out of a marketing workshop with the European representatives of a major Japanese automotive brand to write this. The mis-match is alive and well.


  12. Charles Frith

    Besides, something like half of the people who say they hate a design will eventually come to love it.

    I am very much amused by that statement. Surely it could be repeated as half the population that think a design sucks are wrong? In any case it’s true. Most people need time with progressive to be appreciative of the design motive. It’s a broad truth that most people are incapable of articulating the role of design in their lives beyond the seats in the family automobile have adjustable head rests in the car. Luckily that doesn’t stop designers from trying to improve our lot.

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