Sunday, January 24, 2010

Money Isn't Everything In Branding

It really isn't. If it were, then you could launch any product and, given unlimited money, buy tons of TV ad time and you'd have a successful product on your hands. But that theory just doesn't make sense. In my household, when the television commercials come on, one of two things happen:

1. Everyone either tunes them out and goes back to pecking on their laptops, or

2. We start going MST3K on them, ridiculing them and interjecting our own snide and cynical comments into the inane little stories and dialogue.

Just about everyone I know is pretty good at ignoring commercials. My generation has evolved with a small part of the brain that knows how to ignore media when it's not relevant to us. There are a few that stand out amongst the dross, but most are just clutter and don't get stuck in my head. That means just buying TV ads and running them doesn't work anymore, which comes as no surprise.

Case in point: Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola came out around the same time (around 1885), but were created by different companies. In 1972, the Coca-Cola company decided they would release a Dr. Pepper-esque clone, called Mr. Pibb, to try and take some of the market share away from Dr. Pepper. I don't have exact figures, but I rarely see Mr. Pibb in convenience stores and it's not very prominent in most grocery stores.

If money were the only thing that mattered, you'd think that a company like Coca-Cola, which has an annual advertising budget that could probably acquire an entire country, would be able to pose a significant threat to the Dr. Pepper brand. But we don't see Mr. Pibb many places other than in restaurants and diners on soda machines that the Coca-Cola company has dominated with its own line of beverages. Sure, it's still around, but Dr. Pepper clearly continues winning the battles in the marketplace.

When someone wants a Dr. Pepper, they immediately think of the name "Dr. Pepper". It's next to impossible for Coca-Cola to dislodge that name from people's minds to replace it with their own. It helps to get there first.

A more relevant, techno-geek example: take the new Bing search engine. Without question, at the time I'm writing this, Google is the largest and most frequently used search engine on the web. Its name has become synonymous with search. When people need to search on the web, they think "Google" and that's what they use. It's lodged in their brains.

Microsoft introduced Bing in mid-2009, a move clearly aimed to take some market share away from Google and Yahoo! In their ad campaigns, they show people who have used Google extensively for search babbling incoherent clanging like schizophrenic patients. They go on to suggest that "search overload" is something we should all be terrified of, and to avoid a similar fate, we should switch to using Bing.

This message seems a little odd to me, since there isn't any truth in it that resonates. It reminds me of the episode of the television show "Arrested Development" where the character Gob Bleuth opens a banana stand right next to his brother's banana stand to compete with them, and their slogan is "A frozen banana that won't make you sick and kill you". It's mudslinging without any truth to the message, and it's easy for the mind to ignore what it can easily discredit.

Moreover, Microsoft has pushed hard to brand Bing as a "decision engine" instead of a mere "search engine". I suppose this is their means of differentiating Bing from Google, but that's like trying to sell a "pop machine" to compete with a "soda machine". When you go to the Bing homepage, it seems just like Google, with a few small differences. It hardly seems like enough to convince people that they should switch over to using Bing instead of Google.

That's not to say Bing will wither and die completely. People are using it, but they're probably never going to be handling the majority of web searches. If that's Microsoft's goal, then they're out of their minds. Google is the Dr. Pepper and they're Mr. Pibb.

An important corollary of that is the fact that Google is currently working to develop its own Chrome operating system, which will be open source and available as an alternative to Windows. Spokespeople for Google have stated that they have no intention of trying to use Chrome to replace Windows as the most common OS.

Positioning tactics are everywhere. The other day I saw a bar of chocolate that said "Chocolate for wine lovers." People drinking wine can easily buy a Hershey's bar, but the company is trying to sneak their own chocolate into the mind of wine drinkers. Does chocolate even go with wine? Who knows? Maybe they'll put the idea in people's heads by putting it out there. (Problem is, I don't remember the name of the brand of chocolate. Fail.)

There's a very good book on the subject of positioning, called (aptly enough) Positioning, that covers this topic very well. It was written over thirty years ago, but the book is a very good overview of modern marketing, full of examples, and is very well written. If you're accustomed to reading long and dense computer books, you can probably finish the book in a few hours. If you're planning to start your own Internet company and don't know anything about branding, I'd say reading the book is well worth your time and money.

The important takeaway here is that money is definitely not everything. If you're a small business owner or just planning to start your own niche e-commerce site, that's great news, because it means there's a good chance you can achieve success without spending a whole lot of money on advertising. If you're selling a new product in a new market space, you'll probably have an easy time getting customers, provided you're selling something that people want to buy and your site seems trustworthy in appearance.

If you're entering an existing market with established competition, you'll have a much easier time if you position yourself relative to your competitors. I did it when I wrote my book on Django. I wanted to write an introductory book that covered the framework, but of course, there are plenty of "Introduction to Django" titles. Choosing to go the e-commerce route was my way of finding an untapped niche and distinguishing my book from others.

In following the "Modern Musician" example in the book, imagine that you want to sell musical instruments and other accessories online. I would first look at who the big players are. In terms of online merchants catering to musicians, Guitar Center and Musician's Friend are two big ones that show up on Google. They're also probably first in line in the mind of our prospects (customers) when they feel the urge to go buy guitar strings, capos, etc.

Now, Guitar Center and the other big players seem to make a strong effort to cater to everyone, no matter what they might need. For Modern Musician, that's probably not a good strategy. Let's start much smaller. These days, with RockBand on Macs and lots of other PC software recording programs, lots of musicians are doing home recording. Perhaps it would make sense to try and brand Modern Musician as an online merchant that supplies instruments to those musicians who have studios in their basements and garages. The slogan could be "The go-to place for DIY home studio recording."

By itself, of course, that's not a very great idea, the slogan's bad, and I'm sure it's being done by someone at the moment. But the hope is that you can find a hole in the minds of your customers, and that your brand can fill it. Give people a reason to think of your name when they are thinking about playing, writing, or recording music. Help them feel your store is helping them self-actualize their aspirations and dreams of being a musician. Remind them of the thrill of performing live or connecting with a raving fan of their music.

Naturally, whatever you promise, just make sure you can follow through on it and that it resonates with the truth. Otherwise, it's no better than the Bing commercials and, unlike Microsoft, you probably can't afford to fail.

Of course, if you happen to have a massive advertising budget and want to spend it on television commercials and billboards, by all means, do that. But I think that no matter how much money you have, creative strategy and careful planning are the most important assets in the marketing department. If you don't have those, there's a good chance that when your commercial airs on TV, me and everyone else will be ignoring it.

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