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The Ever Elusive Iconic Brand

The recent Michael Jackson unpleasantness has led your humble host of The BeanCast Marketing Podcast to some interesting thinking. To be more specific, I've been contemplating our drive in advertising, and in media as a whole, to create icons.

Repeatedly during the past week leading up to the memorial extravaganza-concert-circus, the press was amazed at the level of attention the recently deceased Jackson received. You would hear again and again how, "This is the biggest memorial ever for a celebrity." And pundits wondered, "Will we ever see the like again?"

It's that last question that particularly gives me pause. Because the question is essentially, "Will we ever again see the rise of such an iconic figure?" It makes me realize that the same can be asked of brand icons. Because while brands will always rise to popularity, for them to be enduring icons takes a special blend of factors that are being increasingly hampered by a disposable economy.

The Demand for Disposability

A very basic fact of capitalism is the need for growth. Stagnation can often be the same as death in the world of business. But at certain points in this growth you reach plateaus, whether because of saturation of the market and/or increased competition. So to overcome these natural flattening periods, products and services are reconfigured to shorten the lifespan, or intentionally made obsolete by the introduction of newer products.

Now, as we all should know since this is basic economics, this creates a disposal economy, which artificially erases that line we reach when we have everything we need or want, creating the perception that we now need better. Seems like a practical approach to growth, right? Except that in order to create this constant need, you have to devalue the product. It can burn bright and short. But burning long just gets in the way.

Disposable Products Break Lasting Attachments

It's my belief that this drive to the disposable eventually infects the brands themselves. With increased competition and everyone playing this same game of making products less meaningful and more replaceable, we soften attachments. And in this softening of attachments to products, comes an inevitable softening of attachments to the brands.

Buyers become both more discriminating and more willing to part with you for the sake of the next cool thing. Which places increasing burdens on a company to consistently outdo itself to keep the customer in the fold. And I think it's pretty clear that in practice this is impossible to maintain forever.

Even if you don't play the disposable game and build a lasting product or load in value service, the disposable mindset is still there. Consumers have been conditioned to abandon the old in favor of the new and brands are easily tossed aside.

Creating the Indispensable Brand

So what does a brand need to do in order to stay relevant and present with a customer? I wish I had the catch-all answer. Obviously all the cylinders of the engine need to be firing. The product needs to be strong, the brand needs to be intriguing and you need to be aggressively enhancing your offering at all times. But I think it's also clear that brand attachment can no longer just be about a great product and a captivating identity. It needs to also extend to the entire relationship experience. And no, I'm not about to invoke the "social media" buzz phrase here. Because while brand efforts can benefit from customer interactions, what I'm suggesting goes far beyond the listening and responding model of good sales.

It's solid advertising practice to use a structured approach to the brand. We know what the unique selling proposition (USP) is and we've clearly defined the brand essence so that all messaging can directly point back to this key understanding. But this structured approach doesn't adequately account for the role of customer service and customer experience. What do we do with customer impressions of our brand that are counter to our image? How do we leverage the uncontrollable factors of customer generated excitement?

In the past (and probably even today) we invented new ideas, like Alex Wipperfurth's "brand hijack." We've also explored ad nauseum the arena of user-generated content (UGC). But I think approaches like these unnecessarily complicate and confused the issue more than help. Customers have always tried to "own" brands, this much is true. But they make poor brand managers. Most have no interest in sustaining their own user-generated excitement. So the need isn't necessarily to embrace some new paradigm where the customer owns the brand or creates the ad, as much as find ways for the brand to feed this ongoing, emotional excitement.

A great example of how this can work comes from my ever-trusty Apple. The user-generated excitement surrounding this brand has been around for years. Fan clubs, discussion boards, user-groups, listservs, podcasts -- there have been, and continue to be, thousands of these expressions of loyalty to this brand. But it wasn't until Steve Jobs returned and initiated an almost Disneyesque approach to walling off the magic and projecting a strictly managed and dictated brand image that all the hype reached a fever pitch. Why? Because as much as customers think they own this brand and want a say in the products, that's not what drew them to the brand in the first place. What drew them was this idea that they were somehow being counter-cultural in their choice. They were part of an exclusive club that always seemed to anticipate their needs. And what they really needed a leader for their club, not a mirror of their expectations.

Apple understood (and hopefully understands still) that the fuel behind the devotion was a desire to be wowed and surprised by insanely great stuff. So instead of creating a reflection of the people who use the product, they set out to create a brand that re-captured and enhanced the mystique, design excellence and simplicity that has always excited its base. It's a brand that fuels imagination rather than dictates it, and allows people to easily paint their own experience onto it.

It All Has To Work Together

There's a huge lesson to be learned here. We talk a good game about needing to get in touch with our customers, listen to their needs and respond quickly, but the more important thing over the long term is how we craft our brand to inspire our customers. Because while social media strategies will help you in the short term to create loyalty and understand the customer's experience with you, it's the branding work that will give all these diverse customers with their many varied experiences a common rallying point. It creates the opportunity to feel part of something bigger.

This is why social media darling, Zappos, is seeking help with their brand now. As much as they are a poster child as a social success story, they have no identity beyond anecdotal customer service stories. While that's great for cementing the loyalty of the customers they help and a great tale to tell, it relies too much on the continuation of customer excitement, without giving them a rallying point beyond a logo and a website. The excitement is unsustainable in this fashion and competition threatens to make them a brand easily disposed of at the next opportunity for even more excitement

Yet clearly branding alone is not enough. Everyone can recognize the United Airlines brand, but customer experience is so poor and social outreach so anemic, that everyone now assumes they will break guitars. And going back to the disposable model, without customer service that embodies the brand, people are all too willing to leave you at the first opportunity.

Being iconic is clearly tougher than ever. But not impossible. It takes a commitment to creating an entirety of experience where everything from the product to the in-bound call center to management ethics to ads you produce all work together to create an entirety of experience for the customer. A tall order to be sure, but one well worth striving for if it keeps you consistently relevant and beloved in the eyes of your customers.

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