Dot-com voodoo

The weird science of branding will help you Jiffy Pop your start-up.

EVEN THOUGH I'M more of a baseball fan, I don't only watch the Super Bowl for the ads; I like the game, particularly an item of substance like this year's edition—a more promising match-up than usual, since neither team (St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans) was a dynasty waiting to crush the opposition.

Since the game proved worth watching, it made the ads a little less irresistible. I watched the herded cats and the poetry-reciting urbanites, the Clydesdale foal, and the guys who sat in front of the camera and told us they didn't have any ideas for an ad, and after the game I turned to my companion and said, "Now, who were those guys again?"

By "those guys" I didn't mean the Rams. I meant all the dot-coms who paid buckets of money to be stuffed between the cracks of the game. Most of the commercials were witty, or eye-catching, or clever. However, they were still as interchangeable as potato chips. I realize companies spend millions of dollars on those things, but they're just going to have to try harder not to blend into one long Entertainment.

How does a dot-com get to be a Name like a Coke or a Starbucks or a Saturn, especially on the usual dot-com timescale, where start-ups are considered stalled if they take longer to complete than a bag of microwave popcorn? Are companies doomed if they didn't move fast enough to get a noun for a domain name? And what can you do when even a Super Bowl ad leaves you lost in the crowd?

Enter the voodoo science of the brand, which Jiffy-Pops corporate image in a way that companies used to spend years actually doing something to accomplish. Having trouble explaining what your start-up does at family reunions or why you're special in the glutted marketplace? A few weeks or months of self-examination and foop! a brand is born. If it works properly, a brand instills in employees a sense of purpose and identity, and in the customer, a set of impressions that reflexively pop into your subconscious when you think of Product X.

Branding isn't new; companies like the big guys named above have "managed their brand" for years. It's a combination of psychology and goalsetting, of marketing and training every single person on your staff to know which end's up. A brand can be developed from the ground up after great expenditures of time and care, as when GM gathered management and labor leaders and engineers and figured out how to make Saturn seem like something more than just another internal-combustion-engine delivery device.

On the other hand, it can be like Amazon's recent re-jigger. You may have noticed that the book folk have tweaked their logo (see page 28)—or, rather, the little yellow splotch under the words, changing it from a highlighter-like dash to what allegedly is a smile but to one of my friends looks not unlike a penis, an image he's convinced has something to do with the Viagra-like nature of Amazon stock prices.

According to an internal memo, "The new company logo has been designed to better reflect our company's brand and relationship with our customers. It depicts the ultimate expression of customer satisfaction—A Smile. It also connects the A and the Z in—supporting our breadth of selection. . . . During the launch phase, the logo will be animated to re-enforce the smile. Don't be surprised if on very rare occasions the logo comes to life and gives you a smooch or lets out a big laugh." (Note to Amazon: I won't be, though I don't usually associate the Amazon experience with the experience of walking by a construction site. Yo, baby!)

For better or worse, the goal in branding is to keep the folks inside the business focused ceaselessly on what the business is all about whilst keeping the customer blissfully unaware of anything more incisive than, "Hey, this company thinks and acts just like me." Once people know you exist, once they like your product, once they love your product, branding completes the mind-meld. You are defenseless in the face of the Coke (dependably refreshing) logo or the Nike (achievement in sportsmanship) swoosh or the Starbucks (relaxing, sophisticated beverage experience) mermaid.

BUT WAIT! FLUSH OUT that phrase hiding in the parentheses! I don't feel that way about 'bucks. I think of Starbucks as the imperialist bean-Godzilla exploiting native farmers and squashing local shops, a place I only visit in the wee hours when I'm jonesing. Does this mean Starbucks' brand goes down in flames when it runs up against me?

You wish. Branding is as inescapable as fate. You may think you're resisting, but really you've just wiggled into another niche, in which you will just as effectively be reached by other branded entities. For a company, knowing one's own brand means never having to say they're sorry when people like me don't like them; I'm someone else's target.

A really good brand not only works its way under customers' skin but, in crisis mode, serves as protective armor for the company. Alaska Air is about to have a very ugly time of it; however, because they have over the years branded themselves as utter wonks about not only service but maintenance, they're likely to ride the storm out. ValuJet, on the other hand, worked so hard equating themselves with savings that when the inevitable occurred, the public's deep-seated equation of cost with higher quality backfired on them.

All is not lost for those who didn't manage to get a domain name out of the dictionary, according to local branding mavens Joseph LePla and Lynn Parker: Finding a unique brand niche in a crowded market is harder, but often it leads to creative, smarter solutions. (And for those married to the noun concept, I have one URL for you: Cool site. Great noun. Wish I could spell it.) Broad goals like quality and innovation aren't brands; not only are they very, very slippery surfaces, there isn't a company in the world that wouldn't lay claim to the same territory, at least when the customers are within earshot.

Even a brand identity is usually better off if it isn't wrested from the clutches of some other company: "If [a company already] owns a brand principle, there are low-hanging fruit elsewhere." Like your mom (wise, loving authority figure) said, just be yourself; just because everyone else is jumping off the Super Bowl doesn't mean you should too. Volvo is successful at being Volvo; if you want to sell sturdy sedans to suburbanites, you'll have to find a different angle to work.

Who's doing a good job? You'll know them by the way a name or a glimpse of logo evokes a comfy blip of recognition in your conscious mind and a larger set of associations just below it. Of the Super Bowl set, the Budweiser ad (down-home values, tradition) was a winner, not least because the public has several decades of associating big, pretty horses with cheap, prevalent beer. The sock puppet (single-minded, thinks like a pet) works too—and that was it. All those millions may have psyched up the owners of the various dot-coms, and they might have made a fleeting impression on the relatively tiny niche they were actually trying to reach, but branding is still much more complicated—or as easy as a scribbly yellow smile.

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