What is a brand? Some people will tell you that a brand is what people think about a company and its products, or how people feel about it. Some people will tell you that it’s a ‘story’ that people pick up through cues both ambient and explicit as they interact with this ephemeral thing called a brand. Some people think it’s just the logo or design, the branding.
None of them are entirely wrong. But the sad truth is that a brand, for the past 40 years or so, has been about what the marketers of the company and its products want people to think or feel or associate with them, whether this is authentic to the product or service, or not. They have created a careful mythology in which The Brand trumps the product, trumps the service, even trumps the customer. In which the cartoon below sounds a familiar refrain.
There are reasons why this notion developed – some good, some bad. Concepts of ‘brand positioning’ became very important in the middle of the last century when we were all mucking about in the ‘swamp of sameness’ that parity products created. Mature mass market capitalism called for some other way to sell products than actual product differentiation or customer benefit, because often, the products were the same, with the same benefits. It was less about whether our detergent gets your whites whiter, than whether you believe that this is truer of our detergent than others. Also, company and product names were familiar to us – we all grew up around Tide and Coca-Cola and Chevrolet. We didn’t need to be told about their products anymore, we just needed a reminder, a quick nudge.
Meanwhile, the creative revolution was coming up at about the same time that agency commissions were going down, which was actually good news for the industry – it meant really expensive, beautiful, celebrity-laden, location-shot TV spots, that simply deserved to be only in prime time television – and that meant you could still make a living in this business.
I can literally go on at length about why we created the Brand Bubble. But like other bubbles, where the value of the underlying assets is wildly overestimated, and under-capitalized, the Brand Bubble is bursting before our eyes.
The constant discussion and debate about the following factors are where you can see the fissures forming in the Brand Bubble:
- media fragmentation, of not having a captive audience making appointments to watch our ads
- social media, of actually hearing what customers have to say
- digital marketing, of not having complete control of a contained, static message in a system where measurement has been long established
- co-creation or user-generated content, of having to share the brand with customers
- mobile, of not being able to serve up epic production values
- big data, of not knowing where the data is, how to get it out, and what it means if you could find it and use it
- ROI, of having to be accountable to something other than your own work (think: setting KPIs after the creative is locked, or establishing successful media metrics based on ratings points/impressions)
The fear that underlines these new threats/challenges is present in every digital master class I teach or attend, in every debate about whether there is such a thing as a ‘digital planner’ or if digital is just a channel tactic, in every deck we write for a client in lieu of work we produce.
I submit that there are no longer 4Ps. There’s only one, and that’s Product. Your product (or service) is inextricable from where you sell it, how you sell it, and for how much. But it’s more than that – today I can probably get your product from multiple places, for multiple prices, with or without a coupon or Groupon or discount code or customer loyalty program. Maybe I can even get a similar product directly from one of your competitors, without the middle man. Some of these companies’ customer service, marketing and product accessories/features are all rolled up into one product experience. Their marketing can make it easier for a customer to own a product, not just easier for a company to sell a product.
In some regards, it’s a return to this:
Sunkist knew you’d heard of oranges. It wanted you to add a new behavior – to drink oranges. They’d send you a juicer if you sent them $.05, or you could get one with Sunkist oranges at the grocer. That juicer made it easier to buy more oranges, and to put them to good use.
So a ‘brand’ – if such a thing exists – is now not about what people think about you, or feel about you. A Brand is that inflection point between your product or service and my experience of it, and the brand’s ‘positioning’ emanates from how I talk about that inflection point with others.
Today I was reminded of how true this has become. Virgin Atlantic, the airline founded by that Master of Brands, Sir Richard Branson, has been my preferred international carrier for several years. When I was flying a lot to Europe and Asia for work, I had the luxury of company reimbursed business class, and Virgin’s Upper Class experience was difficult to rival. It was luxurious without being stuffy, fun in spite of being paid for mainly by business travelers. And the service, from being picked up and dropped off by Virgin car service drivers, to the personal service you received when you arrived at Heathrow, to the truly excellent airport lounges, to the in-flight massages, was impeccably effortless, and always ‘on brand.’
I found this to be true, if to a lesser degree, in their Economy cabin as well. Flight attendants were always friendly but professional, phone representatives were cheerful and helpful and always resolved any issues without attitude or delay. The food was better than on most airlines, the inflight entertainment system reliably good (from both a content and an usability perspective), and the planes flew on time.
The ‘Brand Halo’ of my Upper Class experiences had cast a warm glow on my Economy experience, but the experience itself was good. Booking online was generally easy, and fares were always competitively priced; airport kiosks worked well and never caused issues; checking a bag was always handled efficiently. I could justify my decision to occasionally spend a little extra.
But I had a bad experience last month. First, the checkin kiosk at Heathrow misspelled my name, causing a delay as they figured out that the booking and my passport were right, but the kiosk was wrong. Then we boarded the plane on time only to sit at the gate for almost 4 hours, without air conditioning or refrigeration. We sweltered, the food spoiled. And when they’d finally fixed the problem, they locked the doors, announced there’d be no meal service, and took off, casually mentioning that they had considered canceling the flight but decided against.
While we waited, and when we landed, there were a few hundred people angrily tweeting and posting status updates on Facebook about the botched service. Whoever manages @VirginAtlantic tweeted in response first, the same explanation the crew gave us, and then specifically to me:
@farrahbostic It would be a shame to judge us on this 1 experience if you’ve always enjoyed before. I hope you give us a 2nd chance soon ^G
Maybe I was jetlagged, exhausted, hot, and looking down the barrel of an hour long drive home, only to get up 3 hours later to go to JFK for another flight, one I was supposed to be able to get 7 hours sleep before taking, had our flight from Heathrow arrived on time. But when I saw that tweet I was pretty furious – it was absolutely not an apology. Read one way, it seemed to suggest that the real shame would be if I was the kind of hard-ass to hold a grudge. And also, let’s be clear – these replies came at the start of the British business day – not in real time when people were complaining. You could watch the complaining escalate in the face of silence.
Today I’ll head to the airport for another flight, and yes, it’s with Virgin. But it’s already gone wrong. The online check in system isn’t allowing me to check in, but there’s no explanation why. When I called customer service I was told ‘others are able to check in’ and that I should just check back again later (something I’ve been doing since 10pm last night). Finally I was told that if that wasn’t working there was nothing customer service could do to override the message and so I must arrive an hour earlier than everyone else so that I can try to get a seat that is neither in the middle, nor in the very back row.
I feel mistreated, inconvenienced, and neglected. I’m complaining on Twitter, and now I’m giving 1500 words to it, which I’ll share everywhere. We’re at the inflection point: whatever the flight itself will be like, the service wrapper around that flight is broken, and all the hard work will be done by me, not the airline. The degree to which Virgin credibly stands for ‘a different kind of airline’ is now close to nil – never mind the red and purple suits, the music, the cheeky safety messages, or the decent curry. That’s all window dressing. The product itself – a nearly $1000 flight, delivered via a broken online experience, a bad previous flight experience, and a sub-par customer service experience – isn’t “playing back the Brand Architecture”.
The Bubble, in other words, has burst.