The relevance of being different

BRANDS and, if one may add, branding, are creating a buzz not only in the market place but in media as well. A far cry from the days when people had difficulty in pronouncing the word, leave alone understanding the concept.
Today, there are seminars on branding, columns in the business press on the subject, and television programmes airing the views of experts, not to forget three credit courses on branding in every management institute in the country. A variety of definitions of branding are doing the rounds — from the exotic to the functional.

So where lies the importance of a brand?

According to Fortune Magazine (in 1977), "In the twenty-first century, branding will ultimately be the only differentiator between companies. Brand equity is now a key asset." This prediction has considerable merit and highlights "equity," which is really what everyone who is concerned with brand management is attempting to maximise all the time. While on the subject, it would be valuable to understand what makes brands successful.

The relevance of being different

Today, brands live in a world of extreme and unprincipled competition. Every category is crowded. Every channel and newspaper is cluttered. The brands that are successful are relevant and therefore, different. Relevant to consumers and different from the competition. The question is how does one differentiate? Sadly, it appears easier to put it up in lofty (and similar sounding) mission statements than to actually practise it.

Think about it. How different is your brand? If you try and answer the question honestly you will find that unless you are one of the fortunate few, it is well nigh impossible to be different from the welter of competing brands in your category.

Think different

Apple, the original Silicon Valley company, is a wonderful example of a company that "think(s) different." The tagline was not a mere advertising slogan but a guiding philosophy. And that is certainly worth remembering.

Brands must have a raison d'etre. And the essence of the brand has to permeate every thought, strategy and action concerning the brand. Apple's guiding principle of "thinking different" results in products that are different — whether it is coloured monitors or iPods. Starbucks makes a difference to the average American's life. And the difference comes from the philosophy. Charles Schultz, the founder, wanted his retail chain to fill a gap in consumer's lives. He realised that the average American had two important places in his life — his home and his place of work. He was confident that his retail outlets could be "the third place" in the average American's life. The rest, as they say, is history. So, the inference is simple for aspiring brand managers and owners. Start right. Get the brand's essence right. And you will see and make a difference, to the one person who really matters — the consumer.

Be different

There are several elements to any brand — name, packaging, identity, shape, touch and feel of it, the colours associated with the brand, its positioning and so on. At the risk of sounding obvious, one must still say that crucial to brand success is a strong product/service. A very significant element of the brand, though, is clearly the name.

Does the name stand out? Clearly an Apple in computers or an Orange in mobile services will stand out. And yet it is important to bear one fact in mind. If the name cues the category (Airtel, for example) that's fine, but if it doesn't, there must be a communication on what the name stands for. There is a cost to this. And yet one would like to believe that it is an investment that we are talking about.

The packaging can be another point of difference. Sadly, packaging does not get the attention it deserves. Advertising can be glamorous, creative and fun. So it gets senior management attention and involvement. Packaging in real life is often enough relegated to junior management. This is probably why packaging revolutions like the sachet, which brands like Velvette (initially) and Chik (later) exploited are relatively few and far between. The packaging of brands such as Absolut Vodka or Harpic comes to mind. Speaking of Absolut, one must mention its advertising appeal, but that would merit an entire column and not a mere passing mention. Related perhaps is the product form. Toblerone, for example. I should be the last person to speak about chocolates (people my age are better off ignoring the entire category) and yet Toblerone's shape makes it different enough to capture my interest and even be a temptation.

Look! It's different

Symbols engage intelligence, imagination, emotion, in a way that no other learning does. The logos of a few brands clearly beat the clutter, because they are different, in styling, look, feel and colour. While no two people seem to agree on their favourite colour, most people are in agreement with the need to give their brands a distinctive identity. Brands like Pizza Hut, Citibank, Shell, Chase and IBM come to mind. Whether it is "Big Blue's" Venetian blinds or Citibank's distinctive colours or Coke's vibrant red, they have one thing in common: they are distinctly different.

Brands try to own colours. Coke tries to own the colour red, Pepsi the colour blue. As the wag said, "Just whisper the word blue and the Coke guy will see red... . And if you whisper the word red, the Pepsi guy will go blue in the face. The Nike swoosh is so distinctive that you don't even need the brand name.

The question, therefore, is how distinctive is your brand's identity?

Think Small

Brands are built by advertising. And what better example can one think of than Volkswagen, the original small car? A German car in post-war America! A midget in a land of giants! Crucial to brand success is advertising that stands out. Not for nothing was the Volkswagen ad voted as the best ad of the last century.

Not far behind is the campaign for Avis, the car rental company that "tried harder because it was No. 2." Very often brands suffer because their positioning is fuzzy, resulting in hazy advertising that leaves consumers cold. Lazy strategies will not deliver. Focus on differences. Be the coolest one if you must, but for God's sake, be something.

So what is your difference? Can you create one if you don't have it naturally? But very often the fault lies not in our brand but in ourselves. We are too easily satisfied with the status quo. We don't rock the boat. We accept mediocrity. We breed more of the same. The future is in creating successful brands. Quickly. And while we have many successful examples behind us they are nothing compared to what lies ahead of us.

The time to be different is now.

Ramanujam Sridhar
(The author is CEO of brand-comm.)

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