September 20, 2008

Brands Shifting

Run for your lives. It's going to blow!

Watching the upheavals in world markets, particularly in the banking sector, it's hard not to arrive at the conclusion that much of the hysteria comes down to a deep mistrust in many of the individual brands standing on the fault-lines.

The queues of people at the cashier desks, removing their money to somewhere safer, certainly don't seem to buy the assurances of those at the top that everything is going to be alright. The mood in the streets suggests that no-one really believes what they're being told and that the once-dormant evasions and half-truths of the past have erupted, with confidence hurtling downhill faster than those in the financial institutions can run.

When you consider the vast amounts of money that have been spent in winning our affections, it's shocking to see how quickly things come tumbling down, and how many of the banks stand isolated and vulnerable.

Where is the bedrock? Much of what has been built is foundering on the sands of self-interest. None of the banks is emerging as a bastion of integrity and good sense.

For those whose savings or business fortunes are tied up a financial house, there's no comfort to be found in the shadow of a teetering giant that might collapse following the next eruption.

Am I being over-dramatic? Again, think of the ads with which we've been inundated over the past years and ask yourself how many of them were concerned with building trust. How many of us truly believe that our lending institutions have our best interests at heart? Even the better of them seem to enter into shadowy arrangements that strike us as having more to do with speculation than investment.

Almost certainly, once the tremors have subsided, we'll hear how we've all over-reached ourselves and words like 'prudence', 'frugality' and 'caution' will be bandied about by the financiers. But there was little caution shown by those same leaders and politicians when the markets were at their height.

In the aftermath, the real challenge to the financial brands is not to lecture us on our spending habits but to build instead on solid rock and earn the trust of a deeply suspicious public.

September 09, 2008

When The Brand Is Quicker Than The Eye

Roll up, roll up, snake-oil for sale!

A study conducted as far back as 1963 seems to confirm the popular view that much of the business of branding is about sleight of hand.

Each day, the good people at Delancey Place send on what they describe as 'eclectic little excerpts' from various books and articles on almost any subject under the sun.

A recent excerpt, which was taken from Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives, cites how expectations seem to colour our taste:

"In 1963, three researchers secretly added a bit of red food color to a white wine to give it the blush of a rose. Then they asked a group of experts to rate its sweetness in comparison with the untinted wine. The experts perceived the fake rose as sweeter than the white, according to their expectation.

Another group of researchers gave a group of oenology students two wine samples. Both samples contained the same white wine, but to one was added a tasteless grape anthocyanin dye that made it appear to be red wine. The students also perceived differences between the red and white corresponding to their expectations.

And in a 2008 study a group of volunteers asked to rate five wines rated a bottle labeled $90 higher than another bottle labeled $10, even though the sneaky researchers had filled both bottles with the same wine...

Proof, if proof were needed, that branding is just one more gimmick in the bag of the snake-oil salesman.

But, like any instrument, branding can be used to very different ends: Misdirection in the case of the fake label but help and guidance in many others.

Once, at a conference, I chatted with someone who played a role in the recruitment and training of staff for Spar convenience stores here in Ireland. Now, I've never been a fan of the Spar signage. Even as a child I found it ugly and crude. However, my colleague told me about the care that Spar take in choosing people to work in their shops; how they recruit young people, who are cheerful and friendly, live locally and are at school or college. He insisted that these criteria meant that a Spar shop assistant offered a particular brand of helpfulness.

Until that time, I had passed by our local Spar shop with my nose in the air, determined not to darken the door of a monument to bad taste. However, shortly after I met this brand champion, I found myself entering the local Spar to make a small purchase. To my surprise, I discovered the youngster behind the counter to be as friendly and obliging as I'd been told. For the first time, I was able to look beyond the crude exterior and see what was behind it. I've since become a regular visitor to Spar.

Misdirection on the one hand, help and guidance on the other.

In the right hands, the brand plays its role in making the business of selection much easier for the customer. When handled clumsily or dishonestly, it can deceive and mislead.

The real power of branding is apparent when it's used well: for both buyer and seller life is simpler, as the brand skilfully directs customers to where they can get what they want, when they want it and at a price they're happy to pay.

I guess it's time for me to get up onto my soapbox...

Roll up, roll up, brand-direction for sale!