Author:Ken Pasternak

Great Branding Starts with a Promise

Recently in Fast Company Design, I read an article that claims “great branding is invisible,” and goes on to make the point that the little details, like the satisfying thunk of a closing BMW door, or the stitching in a Gucci purse, create and reinforce our relationships with great brands.

The article also makes the point that a catchy tagline or attention-getting logo is relatively unimportant in establishing that brand relationship in the first place.

I agree with these observations, but there’s something missing. Thoughtful details – the “invisibles” that create great brand experiences – are only meaningful if they come from a unique and meaningful central promise. What do you aim to provide that nobody else can? Why does it matter? If you don’t have an answer to these core questions, all those details have no center of gravity. They become tactics that can be easily copied and commoditized.

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How Branding Is Helping GM Survive Recall Disaster

The news about GM this year has been grim. We’re not even through 2014, and so far GM has had more than 60 recalls. The total cost will likely top $1 billion and involve more than 26 million vehicles.

And yet, GM just paid its shareholders a quarterly dividend in September. Despite everything, GM’s stock valuation is holding relatively steady.

How can a company that has been in the news all year for extremely negative reasons, continue to be valued on the stock market? Partly it’s a matter of brand management.

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Managing Brand Complexity: Staying Ahead of the Curve

Managing Brand Complexity: Staying Ahead of the CurveLarge companies—like GE, Google, Samsung and others—know this law of branding firsthand: As you grow in size, you will grow in complexity. Acquisitions, organic growth, market segmentation and product and service extensions all add complexity to brand portfolios. How should large successful brands such as these manage brand complexity?

Growing companies realize they need to support the strength and cohesiveness of their corporate identities, while also accommodating the needs of their individual brands and sub-brands. We call this “brand balance.” This balance gets harder to control as you grow; there is a very real complexity curve that gets steeper with a company’s size. To remain successful as you grow, it is important to learn how to stay ahead of this complexity curve.

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Brand Diversification: When Is it a Good Idea?

Brand Diversification: When Is it a Good Idea?In April I posted a SlideShare presentation (below) about tech startups and key brand considerations as they grow. In it I described Facebook’s decision to retain the WhatsApp and Instagram brands as part of a brand diversification strategy. Retaining acquired brands (rather than renaming and assimilating them into the parent brand) can be useful if they appeal to audiences, or deliver services that are not aligned with your core brand. While Facebook has 1.2 billion users, both Instagram and WhatsApp have hundreds of millions of loyal users. Since many of these users prefer these acquired apps over Facebook, it may make sense to keep those brands separate.

I also remarked that Facebook could continue to grow by following this type of diversification strategy, although it risks cannibalizing some of the popularity of its flagship brand. Now Facebook has publicly committed to this diversification strategy, which has been dubbed by some as “unbundling.”

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High-Risk Naming: Can Google Trademark “Glass”?

High-Risk Naming: Can Google Trademark “Glass”?Google, which we’ve held up as an example of both good and bad when it comes to branding, recently applied for a trademark for the word “Glass.” Not Google Glass, just Glass. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is not going to give in so quickly. Everyday terms, such as glass, are usually not ownable by any one company, especially when they are descriptive of the product or service itself.

Trademarking Generic Terms
Generic terms are typically difficult to trademark, and for good reason. They are undifferentiating and cause confusion in the marketplace. The reason Apple was able to trademark an everyday word was that a word for a fruit does not in any way describe computing hardware. Glass, however, describes the appearance, apparent composition and function of the Google product. (Although, as this Mashable article attests, the product is not actually made of glass)

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4 Questions to Ask When Developing a Brand Architecture Strategy

4 Questions to Ask About Your Brand Architecture as Your Organization GrowsLet’s imagine you are Facebook. When you first started, you had a clear idea. You created messaging, a user experience and an identity platform to guide it as it grew. You made the hard decisions to whittle your brand’s message down into one clear, coherent thought.

But now, you’re acquiring additional brands at a very high cost, adding complexity to your brand. Now you’ve got Instagram and WhatsApp. You say you are committed to preserving their independence. We say it’s time to revisit those hard decisions, to keep your brand architecture intact and your brand strong.

We see organizations—especially those in the technology and digital fields—take a “ready, fire, aim” approach to acquiring brands and working them into their brand architecture. As a result, any of the following situations may occur, creating a complex and unwieldy environment:

  1. You’ve brought in a little monster that’s unlike the rest of the monsters in your zoo, but you love it anyway.
  2. You decided to preserve the equity of an acquired brand because you don’t want to “mess it up.”
  3. You are developing a new brand in response to a short-term market need or competitive threat.

So how does a growing company develop a brand architecture strategy?

Developing a Brand Architecture

There are four questions you can ask of your company that will guide your brand alignment through this transition:

  1. “How many promises do we want to make to our audiences?”
  2. “How elastic is our current brand in making these promises to these audiences?”
  3. “How many brands do we eventually want to have, and need to support?”
  4. “How does the introduction, or cancellation of a brand, affect the rest of our portfolio?”

These questions must not be thought of in a vacuum; rather, they should be thought of as a connected part of the organization. While some organizations are disciplined about this, others could stand to use some help. Even the most disciplined companies have to revisit this over time.

IBM, for example, is a technology giant and appears to be a master-branded company, but if you look at IBM over time, they have struggled with supporting the master brand in exchange for some autonomy at the sub-brand level. IBM acquired a number of sub-brands over time, such as Lotus, Rational Software and Tivoli. Progressively each company began using more and more of IBM’s resources until the organization made a decision to rein these brands in. Lesson learned: when they acquired PwC Consulting, it rather quickly became IBM Global Business Services.

On the other hand, GE has done a remarkable job of maintaining the GE brand. It’s very simple; it covers everything from light bulbs and toasters to aircraft engines and nuclear reactor services. How did they manage that? GE focused its brand promise on excellent management and ceaseless innovation. Anytime you see that GE brand, that’s what it means. That’s a pretty powerful model. If I were Facebook, I would take note.

Learn more about our brand architecture services.

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What Is Brand Architecture?

What Is Brand Architecture?One of the corporate branding disciplines that we receive the highest number of inquiries about is brand architecture. We find that for many clients however, it’s hard to grasp what brand architecture really means. Some organizations think of it as market segmentation, others think of it in terms of rationalizing portfolios or acquisition strategy. These are all important concerns, but we think about it at a higher level. Brand architecture explains the degree of relationship that should exist between the corporate brand and its various product and service brands. Should they go with a monolithic Master Brand strategy, corral multiple brands into a “house of brands,” or some combination of the two? What is the strategic rationale for an approach? Without clarity on these issues, your brand promise can become unclear, which creates confusion and can even reflect a lack of confidence.

What is Brand Architecture?

Let’s First Understand The Root of Brand Complexity

Anything that is ever created, whether it’s an app, a product or a service, wants a brand. And why not? Every creator wants to draw attention to his or her creation. By this philosophy, however, one company could easily have numerous brands. Companies often revert to micro-market segmentation as a surrogate for brand architecture. Google, for instance, has set an unusual precedent. The tech giant has many independently moving parts (read: brands) within its organization, but the sum total of those parts doesn’t necessarily create a comprehensive sense of what is “Google.” This is the most common problem we see with brand architecture.

The 3 Questions That Lead to a Strong Brand Architecture

What you call your product and how you identify it is only a tiny percent of the brand experience. Brand meaning and value is based on the promise each product fulfills and how it delivers that promise. Creating a strong and sustainable brand architecture requires answering these three questions:

  1. Do your various different offerings add up to fulfill a promise?
  2. What does each offer say about you as a provider?
  3. How does each one of those offerings help you build your audience, or deliver on your promise?

In our experience, when a new brand is created, there’s not much consideration for the greater whole until it’s too late. A number of tech companies have spent years and millions of dollars cleaning up their brand messes. For example, we saw Sony lose its position as a premium brand partly because its many sub-brands fragmented product teams and distracted consumers from Sony’s core promise. We look at Amazon’s recent purchase of WholeFoods and wonder how strongly Amazon will want to associate their technology and commerce brand with a brick and mortar grocer. Any obvious association is likely to change perceptions of both brands.

Relatively few companies make the hard decisions that we think are necessary to grow their brands responsibly. By doing so, companies can avoid wasted investments and confusion among their audiences.

Contact us to learn more about creating successful brand architectures.

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Winners in 2013

Managing Director Ken Pasternak

When we look back at the client relationships we’ve enjoyed over this last year, there’s one word that sums up our experience: Inspiration.

Our clients have shown both resilience and initiative in a time of uncertainty and recovery. In coming to us for help, they’ve shown they are committed to a renewed identity, a stronger position, or a clearer message to communicate to their audiences. We have been thrilled to assist these groups through this process.

There are several examples from this past year of clients doing extraordinary work to further their missions, and build their brands in the process. Our higher education clients, such as Georgetown and Caltech, set examples everyday of their innovation and thought leadership. UC San Francisco and Highmark, our clients in the healthcare field, are working to improve the quality of care and increase patient satisfaction. And in the technology sector, VMware is technology that makes any service ubiquitous, efficient and within reach.

It is easy for an organization to tolerate fuzzy thinking, let costs rise and lose sight of their mission. We’re proud of the committed work our clients do remain at the vanguard of higher education, healthcare and technology, and we see many good things ahead for them. We are inspired as we go into 2014.

Highlights from our clients’ 2013:

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Who Owns the Letter X?

Logo_XIt’s no longer “X” marks the spot on a treasure map. The use of “X” first increased as it became a go-to variable in beginning algebra. Then it evolved to become a secret ingredient of success, someone’s “X factor”. Now “X” seems to mark every spot, having found its way into the identities of a slew of companies, products and even universities in an attempt to create the perception that they are on the cutting edge. But what does it mean anymore, and can anyone rightfully own it?

There are several ways in which “X” has been used:

  •  Xerox was one of the first and logical users of “X”.
  • For EXXON, one “X” was not enough.
  • The X Games drew a new breed of sports enthusiasts to ESPN.
  • Microsoft wisely left its brand off the naming of XBox, the company’s successful entry into the gaming and entertainment market. But now it needs wordier names, such as XBox One and XBox Entertainment Studios, to explain why XBox still matters.
  • Comcast launched its Xfinity service to divert attention from its troubled brand though a new, hyperbolic and space-aged entertainment sub brand. In the end, it just confused a lot of people.
  • Ted, a set of global conferences, used TedX presumably to indicate an extension or auxiliary to the original, exclusive event.
  • Space transport company SpaceX seems to say it is headed to places unknown, perhaps in the same vein as the algebraic “solve for X” mode. It is instructive to think of the context of the X PRIZE, and www.x.com, Elon Musk’s first startup.
  • Universities are now joining the fray, each with its own purpose. Stanford’s StartX is an investment fund for student entrepreneurs. HarvardX is “a bold experiment to push the boundaries of learning through reimagined teaching, unprecedented research and cutting-edge technology,” or a response to the quandary of online learning.

With so many uses, all saying different, but ostensibly trendy things, is “X” going to go the way of “e”? Does it still add the desired magic to any identity? Can any one company or project really own it anymore? Or, is it really just a weak substitute for a creative expression of unique value?

If you’re thinking about using a trendy letter in your name, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  • Are you using the letter to say something meaningful, or just to get attention? Attention getters typically have shorter shelf lives.
  • Does the use of a trendy letter create sustainable differentiation, or do you risk blending in over time as others adopt the same idea? This tactic has a very low barrier to adoption.
  • How long will it be before the trend is over and the market has moved past your naming convention?

Some companies have managed to take true ownership of trendy letter. Apple has done quite well (and protected itself very aggressively) with “i”. VMware has made a strong case for its ownership of lowercase “v”. The bottom line: be sure that what you’re doing is relevant, ownable and works with your overall brand strategy.

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Branding Isn’t Skin Deep—It’s Your Connective Tissue

BrandingIn some organizations, branding is thought of as window dressing: It’s seen as superficial and peripheral to the organization’s purpose. In our experience, the opposite is true. We think of branding as an organization’s connective tissue.

When everything you say and do as an organization is driven by a unifying, meaningful and differentiated concept, it can create powerful results. But those who think of brand as simply promotional or attention getting miss the big payoff that strengthening their connective tissue can have.

3 Questions to Strengthen Branding Coherence

Brand is often confused with advertising. But branding is not only a marketing discipline, it’s a management discipline. (As our CEO Philip Durbrow has written, identity is the CEO’s tool.)

Whether they realize it or not, organizations are constantly communicating about themselves through their products and services, new hires, advertising and press releases. Everything you say and do as an organization can and should reinforce a coherent message about you—if you’re thinking about brand as your connective tissue. To achieve this level of branding coherence, ask about any message, behavior, and communication:

  • Is there a purpose for the way it’s identified?
  • Is there a purpose for its role in the organization?
  • Is there clarity about its contribution to the whole versus a separate business plan or identity?

The Dangers of Putting Brand on the Periphery

We’re working with a higher ed client at the moment who is responsible for some of the most cutting-edge research on (and off) the planet. Although they constantly do things that have never before been done, they don’t always get (or take) credit for their innovations, so these breakthroughs don’t add much to public understanding of who they are. They’re not as appreciated as they need to be in the face of increased competition for resources and talent. The lack of understanding about who they are results in lost opportunities. They need to strengthen their connective tissue so that everything about them communicates a clear, compelling, and meaningful story.

When you don’t pay attention to your connective tissue, you can run into a number of problems. Change is scarier. Progress is harder. The basis for making decisions is less secure. Most importantly, there’s a lot of wasted effort. The yield on what you say and do is much lower than the yield would be if there were some central concept for everyone to draw from.

But approach branding as a management discipline—as the connectivity in your organization—and you’ll tap into a strategic advantage you’ve always had, but just haven’t leveraged yet.

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