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THOMPSON: The art, science and voodoo of building a brand

June 22, 2020 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Business and marketing people love to talk about branding.

There are literally thousands of books published every year on the topic. Executives in companies - large and small - eat, drink and breathe it...and in varying degree practice the art, science and voodoo that is branding.

When I was in my 20s, I worked for General Electric in Washington, DC. Back then, three or four years at companies with strong branding reputations - like GE and Procter & Gamble - meant you could double your salary with another company...solely based on your branding experience. Sometimes though with branding...like anything in life...you can’t discount dumb luck. More on that later.

Branding - taken to its lowest common denominator - is what we have in mind about any given product, service, company or individual...a gut-level feel. The truth is we all practice branding. We make an impression - good or bad - on everyone we meet.

Think about it...don’t like Bob? Probably a bad job of branding on his part. We know detergents and cars can be poorly branded....but just as easily Bob can be a lousy marketer of Bob.

Sometimes bad branding can ruin a name or image forever. How many boy babies do you know named Adolf? You’re not going to see that toothbrush moustache ever come back in style either.

Often it’s simply guilt by association. Fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina dethroned Katrina from the top 100 names for girls...a spot it held for more than 30 years. The point...brands stick...good and bad.

Building a good brand isn’t easy. It takes consistent messaging over time...and focus...you can’t be everything to everyone. People have to have a clear picture of your brand. The most successful brands worldwide do this well...think MicroSoft and Coca-Cola...Apple and Google.

But even the great ones can make horrible mistakes in global markets. Coke, for example, put up thousands of billboards and posters in Taiwan, only to learn the Taiwanese characters for Coca-Cola phonetically meant either “A Female Horse Stuffed with Wax” or “Bite the Wax Tadpole.” Take your pick...but I’m guessing Coke didn’t like either image.

Others make mistakes...but simply refuse to admit them. Standard Oil of New Jersey...which later became Exxon...marketed Esso gasoline in Japan in 1962. Trouble is...spoken phonetically Esso means “stalled car”...hardly a desirable name for fuel. Even so, the Esso brand - unchanged - was used until 1999 in Japan.

You might suppose big companies could afford a good translator...but branding blunders from poor translations abound. Ford scored a Daily Double in 1972 in two languages when it introduced its Pinto car in Brazil...where the name meant “tiny male genitals,” and in Belgium its tagline “Every car has a high-quality body” translated into “Every car has a high-quality corpse”.

Sometimes you just get lucky in building a brand. At GE, I was looking for an eye-catching event to demonstrate the impact strength of LEXAN polycarbonate. Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movie and sequels “Magnum Force” and “The Enforcer” were popular in the early and mid-1970s...so I found a police chief who actually used a Smith & Wesson Model 29 - .44 Magnum in Virginia.

We set up a two-inch-thick piece of LEXAN and with a throng of media on hand...the police chief was to fire three rounds directly into it from 15 feet away. Literally, moments before the demonstration the police chief - who was running for re-election - suggested, “Why don’t I let my Sergeant shoot at me standing behind the LEXAN?”

I knew - having actually tested it several times - that even a .44 Magnum couldn’t penetrate the clear panel...and agreed to let him do it. Luckily, there wasn’t a single company lawyer present.

So, with television crews and photographers in place, the uniformed police chief calmly stood behind the LEXAN...his arms folded across his chest as the Sergeant fired three rounds in quick succession.

The police chief never blinked...and the .44 Magnum bullets were suspended in the polycarbonate. The brand was forever set in the minds of millions who saw it on news segments that night...LEXAN is indestructible...“Dirty Harry” tough.

LEXAN had record sales the next year...it was the product of choice in everything from aircraft windshields to bank teller security walls. It was branded the go-to indestructible product. And the police chief...yeah, he was re-elected in a landslide.

Sometimes even the best advertising minds don’t always bridge cultural gaps. When Pampers entered the Japanese market...it ran the same ads and commercials as in the United States...which showed a cartoon version of a stork telling confused viewers the advantages of Pampers. Trouble is...the folklore of storks delivering babies was never part of Japanese culture.

Humour can help build a brand...but it can be dicey, too...who determines what’s funny? I once lived in a lovely beach community in Florida...Bonita Springs...known for great salt water fishing. Every day I drove past a small fishing tackle shop with its huge signage, “Master Bait and Tackle”...which some thought funny...and others found offensive.

Even worse, when I lived in Delaware working for the Du Pont Company, I regularly drove past a smaller company...proudly displaying its name on its building...“Analtech”. Really, did no one sitting around the conference table ever say, “You know what...do we maybe need to revisit this name thing?”

And while I get the humour in the name of a restaurant in Tahlequah, OH...“Sam and Ella’s Chicken Palace”...I’ll never forget how unfunny getting Salmonella food poisoning was!

But, if you’re fascinated with branding and want to learn more...not to worry...there was yet another book on the subject published today.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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