We were fortunate enough to sit down for an Q&A with Laurence Vincent, author of Brand Real: How Smart Companies Live Their Brand Promise and Inspire Fierce Customer Loyalty. Vincent has helped Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Microsoft, the NFL, Sony Playstation, The Four Seasons, and many more improve their branding, and currently heads The Brand Studio at United Talent Agency.
What do you think the biggest misconception about branding is?
Without a doubt, the biggest misconception is that brands succeed because of “branding.” In other words, a lot of people think that a strong brand is strong because it has a great logo, name, advertising campaign or package design. While those certainly add value, they aren’t the reason a strong brand is successful. I often use the cattle brand as an analogy. If I brand a cow with a really clever branding iron, it doesn’t change the quality of the beef.
I get the idea of being ‘concrete’ in a client’s mind (i.e. NIKE = shoes). But Nike has the advantage of being a globally recognized brand, and thinking of their brand creates a certain emotion. How can I (small business guy) tie to a concrete idea and still avoid being commoditized? In other words, If I said “NEWCO = shoes”, people would (likely) say, “Yeah, big deal. There are lots of shoe companies out there.”
Being concrete doesn’t mean being a commodity. Concreteness is a minimum requirement. It’s how you get memorized by your consumer because the most fundamental part of a consumer’s memorization process is categorizing. If Nike didn’t plant the idea that it made shoes, it might never have become the globally recognized brand that it is today. In Brand Real, I share the case of Helio. Helio did not want to be categorized as a phone or as a service. The result: they don’t exist today. Consumers didn’t know what the brand was. It’s important to note that Helio had some very intriguing creative elements and an eye-catching campaign. But people were left scratching their heads about what the brand was and why it mattered. Abstract thinking can be very powerful, and it often leads to insights that differentiate your brand, but abstraction only works if it’s anchored to a concrete root.
I’ve got to imagine that some brand categories (like “culture”) have more value in a consumer’s mind than “product” or “service”. Have you found that to be true?
Not necessarily. It depends on context. According to a recent Harris Poll, Craftsman tools have been the #1 brand in their category for more than 7 years. From the data I’ve reviewed, the Craftsman consumer values the product first. It’s linked to quality, durability and performance. In Brand Real, I talk about the brand stack — how we prioritize brand categories. A Craftsman consumer might value the culture that produces the product and provides customer service, but I’d reason the product dimension is where the real value lies.
Who are some of the hottest (newer) companies right now that are doing branding right?
The company that’s really piqued my interest is The Dollar Shave Club. It hit the scene with a really fun introductory video that went viral. It’s a simple concept: a monthly subscription service to provide high-quality but reasonably priced razor blades. But I think there’s an interesting brand in the making. The founders have nailed the service operations and ensured that every branded touch point delivers an experience that is consistent with the brand’s promise and tone of voice.
You wrote your first book on brands, Legendary Brands, 10 years before the publication of Brand Real. What changes did you notice in the publishing industry in that span of time?
The biggest change is the role of social media. When Legendary Brands came out, the only social media available was cocktail parties and book signings. Today, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are vital tools for authors. It’s exciting because I feel like I’m a lot more connected with readers. They reach out and start conversations and I learn very quickly what parts of the book are resonating. I also have learned about areas that can be further explored.
What are some books (business or otherwise) that you’ve enjoyed recently?
My reading list can appear a bit random. Like many in my industry, I really enjoyed Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine. It debunks a lot of conventional wisdom and validates what many of us have thought for a long time but couldn’t say with certainty about the creative process. I also really enjoyed This Will Make You Smarter, by John Brockman. It features essays from some of the world’s best thinkers who are all answering the question: what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?
Any other books in the pipeline?
I haven’t started my next project yet, but I’m really interested in writing a piece about brands at the beginning. I think it would be interesting to follow a few start-ups or very young brands for a couple of years and identify the challenges and success stories they seem to share. Largely because of social media, I’m fascinated by the stories of small business owners and entrepreneurs. There are some great brands in these fields. Some are destined to get big, some not. I think there’s good lessons to be learned by how they manage their businesses.
Laurence Vincent can be found online at http://laurencevincent.com
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