On Brand, Innovation and Customers

Jennifer Rice over at Brand Mantra posted some interesting thoughts on “Innovation and brand extensions.” She was responding to a readers who asked if Amazon’s recent performance problems were due to brand extension. She responded with a clear position:

Amazon has definitely overextended itself to a generic “online shopping destination.” It no longer stands for anything meaningful or memorable.

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So coming back to the original question about Amazon…although it was initially groundbreaking, its focus has become highly diluted; it’s moved from innovative ideas to selling groceries. Big mistake; that’s like Mark Cuban becoming a bag boy. By trying to be all things to all people, a brand becomes nothing to anyone.

Let’s break this down a bit. Amazon.com was initially groundbreaking because they sold stuff online. Ecommerce was brand-spanking new. Jeff Bezos’ mission has always been about Amazon.com being the trusted destination to purchase all things online. They’ve focused heavily on their customers – understanding them and meetings their needs – and less on their competition. The Amazon.com brand is about trust, security, convenience, value and understanding.

I would argue that Amazon.com does stand for anything meaningful. They are a safe, secure, trusted partner to their customers. Their customers trust them with a lot of personal information and sleep well at night. Their customers trust them to make recommendations and feel confident they’ll deliver. Innovation is important as Amazon works to deliver over time but I don’t believe the brand hinges on it.

Company brands, like people brands, are most successful when they don’t try to pander to everyone’s tastes. They have a definite vision that’s different from the alternatives. Consumers buy into their vision or not. if it’s a clear vision, it’s easily recognizable regardless of the product to which it’s attached. This is perhaps why some of the most successful companies are associated with a figurehead who has a strong personality. You either love them or hate them, but they probably don’t care too much about what you think.

Virgin = rebel = Richard Branson. Richard sets out to do something rebellious in whatever industry he chooses to enter. The Virgin brand is based not around what Richard does, but how he does it. Consumers understand that anything with the Virgin label will likely have a unique experience attached to it. Therefore, the only way Virgin can be successful with new ventures is to make each one rebellious and new for its respective industry. If the new venture is innovative, it’s consistent with the brand. Unfortunately, the Virgin brand is so closely tied to Richard that it will likely flounder when he leaves (ditto for Steve Jobs.)

Though few would admit it, many of the folks working in the brand space struggle with the importance of the customer in the brand equation. They focus heavily on ‘branding’ (dictating) and less on ‘brand’ (delivering). They approach a brand as if it’s a two-step process: (1) Define the brand, and (2) repeat the brand definition.

Here’s how I define a corporate brand:

Brand = the sum of all perceptions resulting from every point of contact a person has with a company either directly or indirectly over time.

We can deliver the message that a company is innovative, or even rebellious, and customers will line up to see what’s up! Unfortunately the brand doesn’t stop there. The company must then deliver something of value to maintain it’s customers. Perhaps more importantly, the company must deliver in a way that’s harmonious with the projected brand message. If it fails to do so a brand will develop from the mixed messages.

Virgin = rebel = Richard Branson. Richard sets out to do something rebellious in whatever industry he chooses to enter. The Virgin brand is based not around what Richard does, but how he does it. Consumers understand that anything with the Virgin label will likely have a unique experience attached to it. Therefore, the only way Virgin can be successful with new ventures is to make each one rebellious and new for its respective industry. If the new venture is innovative, it’s consistent with the brand. Unfortunately, the Virgin brand is so closely tied to Richard that it will likely flounder when he leaves (ditto for Steve Jobs.)

So will Virgin or Apple crumble if their leaders leave? They may if their respective companies are not delivering what they themselves are selling. But if their companies are delivering, the brands need not die when they depart.

Amazon has done well to keep Jeff Bezos somewhat under the radar. While the company may have it’s ups and downs they can maintain success and a strong brand by continuing to focus on delivering value to their customers.

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