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the new meaning of a brand
In a competitive, product-saturated marketplace, a new product needs to have something beyond the brand -- an added value, an idea, a "story" behind the brand. Commenting on this new ideology in marketing and what it says about today's consumers and society are Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide; Douglas Atkin,chief strategy officer for Merkley+Partners; Bob Garfield, columnist for Advertising Age; and Naomi Klein, author of No Logo. These excerpts are drawn from their extended FRONTLINE interviews.

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Kevin Roberts
CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide.

…Let's talk about consumer brands, product brands. What is their situation today?

Brands are dead, I think. We've seen this incredible journey that started off years ago with products. Products were invented to supply a benefit, a functional attribute to make you feel better. They morphed very quickly into trademarks, which is all about protection: Protect the manufacturer; protect the consumer. And then in the '30s Neil McElroy at P&G [Procter & Gamble] invented brands. And what were brands? They were based on what I call "ER words": whiter, brighter, cleaner, stronger, fitter. Watch any commercials on American TV and you'll see these words come up in the first three seconds, hammered remorselessly into your brain. But what's happened now is everybody's doing it. Everything works now: French fries taste crisp; coffee's hot; beer tastes good --

How do you go beyond the brand?

You have to really dig in to emotional connections with consumers. The rational side of life isn't enough. We've got too much information. We do not live in the information age anymore, nor do we live in the age of knowledge. We've gone hurtling past that. Once everybody has information and knowledge, it's no longer a competitive advantage. We live now in the age of the idea. What consumers want now is an emotional connection. They want to be able to connect with what's behind the brand, what's behind the promise. They're not going to buy simply rational. You feel the world through your senses, the five senses, and that's what's next. The brands that can move to that emotional level, that can create loyalty beyond reason, are going to be the brands where premium profits lie.

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If you read some of the literature, you see that people are struggling and not knowing where to go next. So there's antiglobalization, anti-brands. It's very easy to be anti-something. It's very tough to be pro something and to build. So I think we're trying to develop with Lovemarks a way forward, not just an anti, "we don't think this is going to work" kind of approach.

What is a Lovemark?

A Lovemark is a brand that has created loyalty beyond reason; it's infused with mystery, sensuality and intimacy, and that you recognize immediately as having some kind of iconic place in your heart. And I'll give you two personal stories of mine. Maybe eight weeks ago now, I was in Seattle talking to 3,000 college professors -- not a very stimulating kind of way to spend the day. And I went to the Adidas concept store in Seattle. I didn't need anything, nothing. $880 later and four bags later, I staggered out of the Adidas store, and I felt great, because I love Adidas and I always have. There's no reason for it. It's beyond reason. I didn't need anything in these bags. I bought stuff for my wife, for my kids, for me. I had no guilt, and I had no sense of "You stupid whatever, you just dropped 880 bucks." I didn't care; I felt great. I have loyalty beyond reason to Adidas, largely because of their heritage, their authenticity. If I try to rationalize how I've developed this -- as I was growing up playing rugby, Adidas were the best rugby boots -- but there's no reason really. I don't know why. They commune with me.

Next example for me. I live in Tribeca, right, in New York. It's a very kind of groovy, hip area, or at least we like to think it is. Everybody wears black T-shirts, and everybody goes out late at night. If you leave the office at 7:00, 8:00 on a Friday night and you go into a bar in Tribeca and you carry with you your IBM ThinkPad or your Dell computer or whatever, you will leave that bar alone. If, on the other hand, you walk in there with an iPod ... or with an iBook, man, you'll be part of the crowd, because Steve Jobs has made Apple a Lovemark. There is no reason why Apple should exist in our world, right? But we have got seven iPods in our family. All the kids have got them; we're all iTunes-mad. We've all been loyal to Mac all through the winters of discontent. And there is no reason for that whatsoever. They charge a premium versus Dell, versus everybody. I mean, hell, they don't even have Microsoft Windows. But it doesn't matter; it's a Lovemark. It's full of mystery and very sensual when you hold an iPod. I remember when the first iMac came out, that round, curved shape on your desk, [it was] amazing, full of sensuality. ...

Do you think the "housewife" is gone?

I think she's been gone for about 30 years, and I don't think she would ever have recognized herself now. We've moved from brands into experiences, right? So you don't buy a washing powder anymore. Look at Tide, for instance. In the U.S., Tide's no longer a laundry detergent; it's not about getting clothes clean anymore. All detergents get your clothes clean. Tide's about a much deeper thing than that: It's an enabler; it's a liberator. I guess you could think about moving Tide from the heart of the laundry to the heart of the family, because if a lady today in her busy life can send her kids, her husband, the rest of her family out into the world wearing the right clothes, clothes that look good, that last for a long time, then Tide's played a role in family harmony, not just in washday.

But Cheer and All will play the same roles.

Oh, absolutely, yeah, completely. I think that brands' role is not based on their product performance at all. It's based on that mysterious emotional connection that they have with the consumer. One of the grooviest things that happened to me, I was in a recording studio once, and Neil Young walked in, and he was wearing a singlet with the Tide logo on it. Now, Neil Young doesn't do any commercial stuff at all; he was wearing this because it was an iconic symbol, I think, of America and American family life. Well, he wouldn't be wearing Cheer or another brand, you know what I'm saying? So you have this mysterious connection, which is a great opportunity for us. …

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Douglas atkin

…Let's start by talking briefly about what a brand is, and its history.

A brand originally was a way for a producer of a brand, like a maker of beer, to put their ownership symbol on it and to give it a sense of authenticity. And this was really, really important when the Industrial Revolution happened, because beer or any other product was distributed widely, away from where it was produced. … Now all of that has changed. Brands have a completely different function in my mind, because the producer is not king; the consumer is.

What's different today?

The difference nowadays is that there are [more] products than consumers need. ... Long ago, producers ruled. The consumer was almost sort of panting for the next innovation, the next new detergent, the next breakthrough in technology. Now they're not. There are more products than consumers, and the producer has to have some kind of different way of selling them.

There was a time when brands and brand symbols were marks of identification for the producer to say: "This is my product. You can rely on its consistency, the same quality time and time again." Nowadays, producers of brands realize that the consumer needs to say: "No, this is my product, I identify with it. The Apple computer is my computer because it stands for creativity and nonconformism, just like I do," or, "The VW Beetle is my kind of car because it stands for antimaterialism, just like I do." So the ownership of the brand has switched from the producer saying, "This is my product," to the consumer saying, "This is my brand."

Who creates the brand?

Good question. Nowadays, it's a fusion of both. In fact, there are many examples of brands where the producer has very little to do with how the brand is constructed. The consumer has almost taken over. For example, one brand that we work with, BMW Motorcycles, it's the motorcyclists themselves who are determining what the brand is all about. It's about the riding experience. They see themselves as the gritty warriors of the road. Harley-Davidson riders are seen as weekend warriors. BMW riders are seen as the kind of people who ride 10,000 miles in one trip. The BMW manufacturers have very little to do with that brand. It's the owners of the motorbikes themselves who have created that impression and have created a community around the brand, importantly.

The brand has moved off the package to --

To consumers' minds. At the end of the day, a brand is simply neural impulses in people's brains stimulated by the experience of using it or of someone saying that they recommend it, or packaging, or whatever. It's simply a neural impulse. The item itself is almost secondary. …

…What do you mean by "cult branding"?

Well, I believe that there is a very, very close relationship between cults and the best cult brands in the sense that people join and stay with cults for the exact same reasons as people join and stay with brands. The reason why is pretty obvious if you think about it: The desire to belong to something, to make meaning out of something, is universal. What's changed nowadays is, as we've become a more consumerist society, the institutions that become vessels for making meaning or venues for creating community have in turn become more consumerist, so the kind of functions that cults and religions used to perform years and years ago are increasingly being taken over by brands. I've interviewed people who are brand loyalists of Saturn, and they will use the same vocabulary as someone who is a cult member of Hare Krishna. They will say that other car users need to be saved, or that they are part of the Saturn family. Whether they're a retailer or a car driver, they will say, "We are the Saturn family," with no hint of irony. They absolutely and completely believe it. …

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bob garfield
Columnist, Advertising Age.

…What's the difference between a brand and a product?

Are you going to buy the Arm & Hammer? Are you going to buy the Colgate? Are you going to buy the Crest? Are you going to buy Pepsodent for a little blast from the past? That's where all the money is spent -- to try to influence that decision. If you buy the Pepsodent, Arm & Hammer, Colgate and Crest have failed. And yet decisions are made to the tunes of billions of dollars every day -- voting for the "other guy." So has advertising pulled your strings? Evidently not. That's one answer. Sometimes brands are just brands.

Sometimes there's actually something inherent, something intrinsic to them that makes them different. Sometimes it's an actual property of the product that's different, and sometimes it's just an idea. Three of the greatest campaigns in advertising history are built on nothing more than an idea. Marlboro cigarettes: It's built on the idea of rugged individualism, of making your own decisions, of taking on the world all by yourself, squinting into the sun. And Nike, "Just do it." They hire the same slaves in Southeast Asia to make a pair of shoes for $4 and then sell them for $120 as all the other sneaker manufacturers.

What has imbued Nike with this special something? It's two things: One is Michael Jordan, who was this extraordinary athlete doing seemingly impossible, virtuosic things, and they borrowed that interest at great expense. The other was "Just do it," because hitherto, no sneaker manufacturer had taken upon itself to say to the audience, "Why don't you just get up off your fat ass?" They began to own the aspirational quality of sport, and the campaign grew to have them own all of the emotion of sport, the drama of sport, the grit of sport, the aspiration, the triumph and so forth. They own the idea of all of the really powerful emotional sentiments that we attach to sport. They own them because they bought them, and they bought them by advertising this idea again and again and again and again and again. There's just not a whole lot of difference between the most expensive Nike shoe and the most expensive Reebok. But they've got much, much, much, much larger share of the marketplace on the strength of an advertising idea.

"A diamond is forever." How is it that the diamond is the default demonstration of lifelong love and affection? How did that happen? An advertising idea. They turned a commodity -- a rock -- into the ultimate expression of enduring love. It was just an advertising idea, and it has penetrated societies throughout the world for 100 years. That's pretty extraordinary.

You know what, though? Marlboro, Nike, "A diamond is forever" -- this very, very seldom happens. These are the few examples when advertising really does cast a Svengali spell. And I guarantee you there's a lot of advertisers out there trying to do that all the time, but 99.9 percent of the time they're failing, because it's hard to do. Very seldom can you trade on an idea to change the way people view your good or service. Mostly it's just "12 percent more whitening power," and the "12 percent more whitening power" struggle and ideas sometimes are triumphant. …

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naomi klein
Author, No Logo.

…What is a brand versus a product?

Brands and products are enmeshed from the beginning. But you have to go back and look at what role the original logos and trademarks played for products. And it really was very much entwined with the dawn of industrialization, mechanization, mass transportation. The first sort of corporate mascots like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's [emerged when] people were buying products that were coming out of factories; that were coming off of trains, coming from long distances that they used to buy from a local shopkeeper, from a local farmer whom they had a relationship of trust with. You would be buying food or farm equipment. You would be looking in the eye of the person who made it, who grew it, and you would have that trust. So it was quite jarring for people to suddenly be getting products that were coming from distances and from people that they'd never met. So the original brands, the original logos, the role that they played was essentially as a surrogate relationship. So you would have this kind of "down-home," comforting, maternal or paternal figure. So the actual role it was playing was as a mark of quality, as a guarantee of quality on the product itself.

The transition that has happened since that time -- and it's come in waves; it wasn't invented in the '90s, but it sort of skyrocketed in the '90s -- was the idea that if you wanted to really be successful in a highly competitive marketplace, simply having a mark of quality on your product isn't enough to give you an edge. In a marketplace where it's so easy to produce products, where your competitors can essentially match you on the product itself, you need to have something else. You need to have an added value, and that added value is the identity, the idea behind your brand. And this is spoken of in many different ways, "the story behind the brand." I don't think we can understand this phenomenon just in terms of how easy it is to produce products. I think it also has to do with a reaction to a culture in the '80s where people were longing for some kind of deeper meaning in their lives.

So what brands started selling was a kind of pseudo-spirituality -- a sense of belonging, a community. So brands started filling a gap that citizens, not just consumers, used to get elsewhere, whether from religion, whether from a sense of belonging in their community. Brands like Starbucks came along and talked about their brand as itself being a community, the idea that Starbucks is what they like to call a "third place," which is not their idea; it's the idea of basic citizenry needing a place that is not work, that is not home, where citizens gather. And they have privatized that idea in a way, and that's really what is behind a lot of these brand meanings: a privatized concept of what used to be public.

Most of it does actually, ironically, have to do with a longing for public space. If you think about Disney, for instance -- one of the most successful brand builders of all time -- they really are selling an idea of a lost American town where there was a town square and your kids were safe to walk in the streets. And they first built that in their films, then brought it to life in their theme parks, and expanded it into cruise ships and things like that, holidays. And then they took it further, of course, with [the planned community] Celebration, Fla., where you pack up the kids and move inside the brand. I find it really interesting that Disney describes Celebration as a tribute, a celebration of public space. What's interesting about Celebration, Fla., is that there are no brands there. Once you actually achieve brand nirvana, what you want to do is you want to seal the exits. There's no competition, and you've got full synergy, full vertical integration, and there's no need for marketing.

It's one of the ironies of our branded age, that unbranded space. Public space, or pseudo-public space, is now a luxury item that is only really available to the very rich. Once you move up the class hierarchy, things get a lot more tranquil and quiet, and you sort of pay not to be marketed to. HBO is the same in a way. You pay extra not to be advertised to. Bahamas bans McDonald's. When rich people get together, they want to be protected from the brands that they got rich creating.

Did brands come to the rescue, filling a need for community or meaning in society?

I think brands definitely are filling a very real need. The question is, are they filling it well? I believe that they tend to fill it in a fairly unsatisfying way. You can go to these brand temples like Niketown, and you can get a piece of the story, the narrative, the dream behind that brand. But when you get home, it is just a pair of sneakers, right? And they might be a good pair of sneakers, but in the end, it is a laptop and a pair of running shoes. They might be great, but they're not actually going to fulfill those needs, which serves them very well because, of course, that means that you have to go shopping again to try to fill them. …

Companies now seem distanced from actual processes of production.

Well, branding, this process of selling an idea as opposed to a product, is not the same as advertising. It's actually in many ways the end of advertising, because it ramps up to the point where you're actually building these fully enclosed branded [lives], fully synergized branded lives, which is a lot more expensive than just taking out an ad and saying, "Hey, guys, we've got a new product coming out."

All of these companies, without exception, that have embraced this ideology have simultaneously embraced a model for producing their products where they don't own any of their factories, where they see production as being really a kind of a menial sideline to their actual production. Their actual production is the production of image, the production of meaning, the production of intellectual property, which is extraordinarily costly and which, on a business model, tends to be incompatible with owning your own factories, having lasting relationships with your employees.

So what are we producing?

We're producing brands. There's a branding agency called The Brand Factory that I know of, and the discussion of brands, from the perspective of designers, from the perspective of marketers, is the language of production -- that they are producing the actual product, and that's why they are paid so handsomely for it. …


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posted nov. 9, 2004

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