Have you noticed that most conversations about branding inevitably include references to Harley-Davidson and Apple? Sprinkle in mentions of Coke, Facebook, and Zappos, and you get the context of every agency pitch for more spending on brand engagement, loyalty, or whatever else these examples might suggest.

I suggest you ban these references from your next conversation. Forget about them altogether.

Marketing's dim science lets itself get distracted and misled by the stand-outs and exceptions. It's no surprise, since we're in the standing-out business (and think of ourselves as quite exceptional, thank you very much), but we tend to read a lot of meaning into uniquely complex accomplishments that can't be copied because of their unique complexity:

  • See what Apple does? When you mimic it, you're just copying the detritus of its imagery, or producing lame mockups of its design (which is what its competitors have done, both in computers and smartphones).
  • Want Harley's rabid customer loyalty? Start a company in the midwest a long time ago, cater to an exclusive niche customer, and still watch your income drop by more than four-fifths last quarter (i.e. great name but no new customers).
  • Do you want to be a household name like Coke? Spend umpteen billions on every medium known to man for about 100 years.
  • Facebook look like an opportunity? Find investors who will let you give stuff away for free, perhaps forever. Good luck with that.

Yet these are the very examples that we see featured in new business presentations and industry conclaves. They're visual, often fun, and speak to our desires to deliver emotions and other intangible values; brand identity is what makes what we make different from what others make. This is the guiding principle so amply (and repeatedly) illustrated by the exceptions...the stand-outs that "do it right," and which we should try to duplicate.

Only we can't, for two primary reasons:

  1. Your brand can't duplicate all of the operational and contextual realities that make those brands real. You can't even know them all; what you see instead is the marketing "layer" that often trails the actions and events that accomplish the differentiating. Brand communications is a fascinating shadow play on a cave wall; the brands you are told to copy by spending marketing dollars to manipulate what people think are succeeding because they spend operational dollars impacting how people behave. Asking marketers to explain this operational reality is like asking an adolescent why an airplane can fly, and being told  "because the pilot is really, really good."
  2. Even if you could know and copy the operational and contextual realities of exceptional brands, you'd fail because they’re already onto changing them. In fact, their successes should be an indication of what you shouldn't try to implement, because it was already done. Think how many brands opened retail showcase stores without any purpose, or the rapid spread of cookie-cutter promotions on Facebook. Exceptional brands do exceptional things that defy the experts' case histories and recommendations. Yet you're peddled the rehash of yesterday's news, and told that some truisms warrant your efforts at accomplishing something similar. 

And we wonder why so many marketing campaigns fail to live up to our expectations?

Scientists know that you have to take outlier data out of any experiment for risk of skewing or simply confusing the results. We see the impact of allowing political discourse to be run by extreme, absolute positions. A soprano's highest note is considered a peak and not the home of her range. You get the idea.

So why still do we try to understand brands by studying the anomalies?

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/httpwwwmouthshutcomusermariner2html/3219486733/

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/11/forget-about-harley-and-apple.html

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