searching for a different tribe

“The fact is, we need divisions as much as we need ways to transcend them.” —Marty Neumeier

The recent recession has only led credence to the idea that we now live in a global economy. A few dominoes topple over in America’s economy, and the chain reaction is felt around the world. But does a global economy also mean that we live in a global village?

Not if “global village” means we are headed to a society with no economic, cultural or national barriers, branding author Marty Neumeier argues. According to him, as soon as globalism removes barriers, people will erect new ones. They need a sense of belonging he says, and he calls the barriers they build “tribes.”

Internet search engines are, of course, a big business. Google has done so well at this business, that in 2006 its brand name was added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as a verb. Even so, Microsoft has seen enough potential that it will soon launch its re-branded search service as “Bing.”

The lessons that Microsoft needs to apply to be successful are the same for any company. People align themselves with tribes because they are familiar, and they feel like they belong. Simply trying to “out-Google” Google will not work.

For instance, Ad Age recently reported that Google had conducted internal tests where it branded other Internet search results with their logo and layout. They found that users preferred results with the Google branding, even if the results were not Google’s.

What is the lesson here? The key is to differentiate. It is important to have a good product, or in our example, search engines. But it’s also much more than that. The reason people unite with the Nike, Apple, and Harley Davidson tribes is because they are different. What if these tribes used their branding on someone else’s product? Would it produce similar results to Google?

Without an obvious means to identify, we would say yes. It’s likely because, similar to Google, these brands have personalities, and joining their tribes is more than just buying their products or services. It also speaks to who a person is and what they value.

power of branding

As the old saying goes, there are two sides to every coin. The idiom certainly describes branding, which has seen its share of detractors and proponents throughout the years. On the negative side of the proverbial coin, branding is portrayed as nothing more than rhetoric a company force-feeds their customers to carefully craft a corporate image of their product. On the flip side, however, we think that branding provides a valuable service to the consumer.

In defense of branding, Steven Kroter recently wrote “The ability to identify and differentiate between options in the marketplace seems to be a core concern of buyers.” To prove his point, he relates the following story about consumer behavior in the early days of the Soviet Union:

When products were sold under a generic name, the factory manufacturing the product had to mark its identity on the packaging. Customers soon realized that a detergent powder produced in one factory was superior to another in quality. Eventually, housewives would turn the packaging around while purchasing to identify the origin of the product and make their choices on the basis of its manufacturing location. The serial number of the factory had become a brand as it is differentiated from other similar detergents, which, according to the state, were supposed to be identical in formulation and in every other way.

Besides being an interesting example of consumer behavior, this example can teach us a couple things about the positive aspects of branding:

First, in the absence of company-provided mechanisms to differentiate products, consumers will do it themselves. In this case, they used the only cues they had available to them–the factory serial number. Imagine if a consumer had to carefully examine every product for factory codes before a purchase! With that in mind, product branding actually provides a valuable service to the customer–allowing them to streamline their purchasing decisions based on past experience.

Second, we learn that a brand name, logo, or tag line did not persuade the Soviet shopper to buy the specific detergent. It was the quality of the detergent that made them choose the brand. If this is true, then consumers may not be as gullible as branding opponents say they are. This would also prove detrimental to any company that tries to rely on branding alone to move their products or services. If you want to build a strong brand in the mind of the consumer, you need to provide a good product, and allow consumers to use branding to distinguish and recognize the positive attributes.

If these lessons are to be believed, then branding power truly is in the hands of the customer. They are the ones searching, and it would be much easier if the products they trust were clearly marked. In this light, companies are actually providing a service to the customer when they differentiate their product or service through branding.

good design is good business

When I graduated with my degree in graphic design, it was a different world. And I’m not talking about the digital divide. Working with computers or without them has nothing to do with creating ideas — the essential element of design. I’m talking about the change in the world’s acknowledgement and acceptance of good design as something valuable.

It’s been 35 years since IBM legend Thomas Watson, Jr. uttered the words “Good design design is good business” in a lecture at Wharton School of Business. The forward-thinking Watson, who hired designers like Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarenin, though, was ahead of his time.

When I furnished my new house in 1985, I had to buy expensive European fixtures to find anything I liked. However, I recently replaced two bathroom faucets — and I bought them at Home Depot. (OK, I did have to special order them; they didn’t stock them on the floor.) And I can now find frames I like for the artwork I want to hang in the house, (and the few family pictures), at Target, whereas I used to have to get them custom made.

When I graduated, Newseek magazine didn’t publish issues entitled “Design Gets Real: How It’s Changing the Way We Work and Live”, or business magazines like Fast Company’s annual “Masters of Design” issue or Business Week’s article on “The Man Behind Apple’s Design Magic”. The Harvard Business Review claims “the MFA is the new MBA.”

Design is hot. And valuable as a strategic perception-changing tool — or at least it was. During a recession it’s not surprising to hear designers talking about the value of what they do. Companies right now may be less likely to invest in non-mission-critical activities like design. And yet there is likely no better way to look more successful than you really are. Branding guru Marc Gobé said, “I believe design is the most potent expression of a brand and that ultimately bringing powerful ideas to life through design is the best way to create a lasting link [with] the customer.”

brand architecture

The term “brand architecture” may sound like a mixture of widely divergent disciplines. Actually, establishing a strong firm identity and position is often related to successful brand architecture.

There are two different types of brand architecture: corporate-dominant, and product-dominant. Some companies successfully mix the two using corporate endorsement of different product brands. Corporate-dominant architecture is found more often in business-to-business companies, with fewer numbers of products and clear target markets. Product-dominant architecture is more consumer-based.

We have recently been engaged by a local company that designs and manufactures a wide consumer product line, with different target audiences–from Nordstrom’s to Sam’s Club. In our Perception Branding d5 Process we identified the differences in the products, the buying motivation and retail experience. Not surprisingly, the company maintains a distinctive brand differentiation between their three retail divisions. The products that sell at Nordstrom are physically different and separately branded from those which sell at Rite-Aid. For this client we will maintain a product-dominant architecture to maintain the physical and perceptual differences between different retailers.

Last year we created a new identity for Albion, an international company based in Clearfield, Utah. Albion has three distinct markets that are so independent that customers in each are best left unaware of the other two. Our brand audit revealed disparate and struggling product brands fighting for attention, while the corporate brand became lost in the mix. The direction for our strategy became clear: we created a corporate-dominant structure, even though the target markets are widely individual.

As indicated by Phillip Kotler in B2B Brand Management, “A key element of success is the framing of a harmonious and consistent brand architecture across countries and product lines, defining the number of levels and brands at each level. Of particular importance is the relative emphasis placed on corporate brands as opposed to product level brands.”

perception’s impact on value

An interesting story appeared in the Washington Post last year. A man stood in the metro station near the top of the escalators on a cold January morning in Washington DC and started to play the violin. He played six Bach pieces for 43 minutes. While he played 1097 people passed by. He had his violin case open and by the end had collected $32.17. And that includes the twenty-dollar bill thrown in by the only person that recognized him.

This was not your typical street performer. The violinist dressed in jeans and a baseball cap was Joshua Bell, who just three nights before gave a sold out performance at Boston Symphony Hall with seats going for more than $100. He was playing some of the most challenging, yet elegant classical music ever written. And Bell was playing it all on his 300-year-old Stradivari violin, conservatively estimated at $3.5 million.

The stunt was organized by the Washington Post as a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities. c Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context? In the 43 minutes the virtuoso played, only six people stopped and listened for a moment. About 20 gave him money but most continued to walk at their normal pace. Interestingly, kids seem to be the most attracted, but were invariably hurried along by their parents.

There’s may be more than one conclusion to draw from the experiment, but the most obvious to me is that your perception has a huge impact on how you value what you receive. As the Washington Post said, Joshua Bell “was, in short, art without a frame. We shouldn’t be too ready to label the Metro passersby as unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.” Are you expecting to receive something valuable in that situation? No. There’s no stage, no sold-out tickets or formal clothes. There’s no supporting cast. There’s no expectation that you will be getting the performance of your life.

Knowing that Joshua Bell was a onetime child prodigy and now an internationally acclaimed virtuoso makes it painful to watch the video. The hundreds of people hurrying to work are oblivious to the value of what they are passing. But the minute you change the perception of what they are getting, by changing the context, suddenly the same people are lining up to pay a $100 a seat.

The connection to brand perception is obvious. Set the stage. Change the expectation. Create the experience. The result will be higher value on what it is that you deliver.

(b) 2b or not 2b

Some of the world’s strongest brands are B2B. Companies like IBM, FedEx, Boeing, General Electric and Oracle are all primarily business-to-business brands as opposed to business-to-consumer. Despite these well-known names, brand management in typical B2B companies is rarely as well executed as it is in the typical B2C company. Business-to-business organizations rely more often on functional descriptions of their capabilities whereas business-to-consumer companies are more likely to emphasize emotional experiences that lead to brand preference.

Making a sale in a B2B company is a more complex interaction than in a B2C company and yet purchasing departments are run by people who make choices based on symbolic as well as pragmatic attributes. After all, your brand is nothing more than a person’s gut feeling about your company. As Waldemar Pfoertsch, professor of business at Pforzheim (Germany) University said, “Successful B2B brand communication requires sales strategies that incorporate brand values that appeal to the social and psychological as well as the rational concerns of the different organizational buyers involved.”

B2B companies often assume their prospects are inherently interested in the products or services they offer, when in fact most prospects are really only interested in a solution to their problems. A B2B brand strategy must address the specific needs of the customer, learned through customer interaction and research.

Fortunately it is usually much less expensive to implement a defined brand strategy in the B2B space than in B2C, because the message is directed toward a more specific audience. Most of modern8’s clients are B2B. Our core competencies are brand strategy and design, which fit perfectly with the needs of B2B.

multiple identities

We are a brand design agency. The value of our company’s services–in fact for our whole industry–is based upon this single truth: image is a perception, not necessarily a fact. Buyers cannot know in a factual sense all there is to know about your company. What they don’t know, they might assume with or without any real evidence. These so-formed perceptions are influential to a buyer, just as real factors based on hard evidence are, and may well determine the buying decision.

Phillip Kotler of the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University tells us that usually a company has several different identities: the communicated, actual, conceived, desired and ideal identity. First, you need to know where you are—your actual identity (1), in order to find a way to your desired identity (2). Preferably, the desired identity is also the ideal identity (3). However, what you’re communicating (4) and how people conceive it (5) can be two very different things.

Your identity is made visible in your brand image: your company name, logo, tagline and brand story. Your brand identity is, of course, much more. It is a long-lasting strategic asset that represents the timeless values of your brand and exists in the minds of your customer. Your brand image (names, logos, taglines) is a tactical asset that can change from time to time.

Potential customers, who have never had any contact with your company, may still possess a strong image of you. Without a purchasing experience, image may decide whether they use you at all. That’s why one of the most important goals in brand management is to reduce complexity. Inasmuch as buyers cannot know all there is about your company, and you can’t be all things to all people, it is essential to concentrate your brand message to what is critically important.

seeing with fresh eyes

Last week I attended “Gain” in NYC, the business and design conference sponsored by the AIGA. Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, a global design consultancy, served masterfully as moderator of the event. Kelley introduced a speaker commenting on the idea of how we stop seeing things; how we often overlook the obvious. We go though life screening out things we see as distractions to our immediate objective.

The art of anthropology teaches that observation is the key to understanding and an important part of innovation and design. Simple observation may not be enough, however.

Marcel Proust, the celebrated French novelist said “the real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” Kelley names this idea by turning around the more familiar word and calling it “Vuja de”, meaning, “the sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before.” When you go out to observe in anthropologist mode, you should aspire to Vuja de, the opposite of Deja vu.

As noted in the Fast Company magazine blog, “If you want to find untapped innovation opportunities, watch the world around you with “fresh eyes.” Go for a sense of vuja de, and then ask yourself why things are the way they are. Why do people wear a watch when their cell phone keeps perfect time? Why don’t movie theaters sell soundtracks as you exit the film? Why do we all have answering machines to record messages from telephone callers, but nothing to record a message from someone who stops by our home or office?”

creativity begins with perception

The October issue of the business magazine Fast Company, is the annual look at the “Masters of Design” –the designers, companies and ideas that are driving creative capital in corporations today. What neuroscience reveals about how we come up with new ideas is explained in an article titled “Rewiring the Creative Mind”, excerpted below.

“Creativity and imagination begin with perception. Neuroscientists have come to realize that how you perceive something isn’t simply a product of what your eyes and ears transmit to your brain. It’s a product of your brain itself,” says Gregory Berns, the author of the article adapted from his book Iconoclast. Some people see things differently. Literally. Creative people may be born that way, but we all can learn how to see things not for what they are, but for what they might be.

“Perception and imagination are linked because the brain uses the same neural circuits for both functions. Imagination is like running perception in reverse. The reason it’s so difficult to imagine truly novel ideas has to do with how the brain interprets signals from your eyes. The images that strike your retina do not, by themselves, tell you with certainty what you are seeing. Visual perception is largely a result of statistical expectations, the brain’s way of explaining ambiguous visual signals in the most likely way. And the likelihood of these explanations is a direct result of past experience.”

“That’s the secret behind the famous illusion above, by the Italian psychologist Mario Puzo. Theories of how the brain works say the perception that the lines are different in length comes from experience. In the real world, lines that converge at the top are generally parallel, but are receding into the distance. Railroad tracks, roads, and skyscrapers (seen from street level) all look like this. This view is so commonplace that your brain has become accustomed to transforming such converging lines into parallels. If you turn the figure upside down, that illusion disappears, because in reality, you almost never see lines that converge toward one another at the bottom and certainly not parallel lines that recede into the distance.”

“In order to think creatively, you must develop new neural pathways and break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. New insights come from new people and new environments–any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will come next.”

marketing-driven or design-driven

Years ago we were working with a marketing executive who managed to repeat the same phrase in every single meeting we attended. She would always work in the phrase “marketing-driven solution”, often in the form of a question. Was our proposal a marketing driven solution? What about the headline? It got to be a joke around the office. Does this color look marketing-driven? This paper stock? What about that typeface?

That was fifteen years ago. Today, design-driven companies are the topics of conversation. I.D. (International Design) magazine published a list of the 40 most “design-driven companies in America”. Obvious selections were on the list: Apple, Gillette, IBM, Patgonia, 3M. But as business management guru Tom Peters says, “More interesting to me, fully half the companies were service companies. Amazon.com made the list. So did Bloomberg. Also: Federal Express. CNN. Disney. Martha Stewart…even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (Note to local readers: that’s the actual quote.)

Coca-Cola’s Vice-President for Design, David Butler, avoids using the word “design” as much as possible. Though he has written up a 30-page manifesto laying out a design strategy for the company, when he is meeting with manufacturing people, he’ll say, “How can we make the can feel colder, longer?” Or “How can we make the cup easier to hold?” He talks about the benefits of smart design in a language to which those he’s talking to can relate. According to Business Week magazine, this surreptitious approach seems to be working. The new Coke identity work won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions awards program in June.

Mohamed Samah, a design socio-psychologist said, “The design discipline itself is expanding beyond ‘form and look’ to include processes and business strategy in general. Organizations are using design as a tool to stimulate creativity and to foster innovation in the market”.

Successful marketing-driven companies are in fact design-driven companies, attested by the success of such divergent companies as Harley-Davidson, Target and Nike.