One of my pet peeves is the elevation of corporate mascots and celebrity spokesmodels from sales promotion tactics to brand strategy. Only now I'm thinking that in certain circumstances, they really are one in the same.
Consider Geico and Priceline. Both businesses offer pretty generic, unsexy products (insurer and travel agency, respectively) that compete primarily, if not solely, on price. Good luck trying to attach emotional or other intangible attributes to such brands, right? Best is usually synonymous with lowest cost in any commodity business.
But nevertheless, both of these businesses have both broken out of their respective packs; each has reported more converts and higher sales numbers than their competition. And both of them have goofy marketing programs: Priceline uses William Shatner, in an entertaining, self-mocking sort of way, and the English-accented Geico lizard is, well, hard to ignore.
So is there a connection? Have these companies built great brands? Like I said earlier...almost.
I'd argue that low-involvement, low-cost brands are defined far more by habit than choice. The trick is for the business to get people hooked...literally engaged in some regular use that takes care of the variables of involvement -- through subscription, browser bookmarks, automatic fulfillment and auto-pay billing -- and then keep them from having to think about things ever again.
Marketing's role is to get attention. It doesn't make the sale, but it gets your business on the list. It's an added bonus if that attention includes some information that might make the listing somehow relevant to the decision-maker, but it's not vital (nor common, or set in stone). The strategy works more like a thunderclap, or a flashing police car along the side of the road. Celebrities and mascots break through the clutter, pure and simple. Attaching anything else to them, like brand attributes (or anything lasting) is a reach.
The first, and all subsequent purchase decisions, are reliant upon the actual functioning of the business. So that's where the real branding resides.
Geico and Priceline can't afford to lose customers. Just like the measures for cell phone providers and the recently discarded comp store sales for retailers, the real payback for using live and CGI mascots requires that consumers establish usage habits. They've got to stick around.
So every aspect of company performance -- what's offered, when, how, and for how much -- has to be focused on making sure customers aren't just happy with the brand, but don't consciously think about it one way or another. Strong commodity brands have customer bases that are locked-up in routine. If asked, they'd describe the brand via those behaviors, and not the image or marketing related to the mascots that first captured their attention.
Interestingly, it's a strategy that calls for acutely conscious awareness on the front end...and utterly unconscious routine on the back end.
Celebrity spokesmodels and corporate mascots are far less important for what they mean, but rather how effective they are at capturing our attention. What gets done to support the consistent usage habits that follow them are what define the branding.
So sales promotions and brand strategy can be one in the same. Almost.