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Back in the days of tape decks, Memorex ran a series of advertisements featuring Ella Fitzgerald that asked consumers to judge whether the music they heard was live or Memorex? It was a successful campaign that lasted more than a decade. Today, consumers might instead be asked, “is it real, or is it branded?”
The US consumer has been conditioned to focus far too much on the cachet of brands. Now, make no mistake, I make a living from creating and managing brands. There’s a part of me that celebrates the power we’ve ascribed to leading brands, but with any power there’s also danger. If I had $1 for every time a client or a potential client asked me if a good brand campaign could compensate for weaknesses in the client’s product, service, or corporate culture … well, let’s just say I’d have a bigger savings account balance.
The truth is that this mode of thinking isn’t sustainable. I believe that Occupy Wall Street and The Tea Party are just two sides of the same coin. Consumers are angry. They feel they’ve been duped one time too many. They’re furious at their government (i.e., the lowest Congressional approval ratings in history) and they’re suspicious of promises (i.e., the odd back and forth of this year’s Republican primary).
Now, more than ever, brands must focus on the substance of their offering. Know what you promise. Don’t promise too much for the sake of winning attention. Promise only what you can deliver. Better yet, under-promise, and over-deliver. There’s nothing new in this formula. Your father very well may have given you the same counsel. But few brands are practicing this approach. The ones that do will be the ones the market rewards. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. It requires management to forego lucrative opportunities that might put the promise in doubt. It requires investment in parts of the business most managers find boring (i.e. human resources, infrastructure, distribution systems, etc.). And, it requires a strong focus on customer satisfaction. The customer is not always right, but when they’re consistently unsatisfied they won’t be customers anymore.
When you manage your brand correctly, your customer should see no difference between real and branded.