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MSP: Don't Fake It

  |  May 20, 2003   |  Comments

Either you're listening to your customers or you're not. Don't think they can't tell the difference.

Last week's column introduced the idea of what I call the "MSP" brand -- the "me selling proposition" brand. That's a brand owned by you, dear consumer, rather than by the manufacturer. MSP branding is a phenomenon we'll be hearing about a lot in the near future. The reason? Because, finally, it's possible to produce highly customized products that appeal to and are fashioned by individuals.

Some months ago, I was in a perfume store in Tokyo. The crazy thing was that there were no perfume products on the shelves. Instead, the shop offered special expertise in identifying the scent that would complement each customer's personality. After answering numerous questions, I walked out with a perfume designed especially for me. Not only that, but I chose my own bottle and received my own "eau de Lindstrom" presented to me with my own personal label!

This was my perfume. I owned it! In short, the product exemplified the true MSP brand.

Increasingly more brands are arriving at this proposition. Take Procter & Gamble's Reflect.com as a good example. Here's a brand that's realizing its MSP ambitions. Its home page offers its (presumably) female customers the promise of "true custom beauty" and asserts the "active ingredient" is "you." Color, skin care, hair care, and perfume products are offered along with the opportunity to design them according to your individual needs.

I tested the process by randomly selecting the "age-arresting treatment" products. I found myself defining my skin type, answering questions about the current state of my face, and indicating my preference for a cream that felt silky (rather than velvety, another option). I could even dictate the accent color for my product's packaging. And I got to give my customized night cream a name of my own invention.

But for the majority of existing brands, the road to achieving MSP-driven branding is long and often expensive. We're talking about a concept that means more than individualized customization. This is branding that responds to dialogue with each consumer.

Brands such as Dell, Nike, and LEGO are well on their way to the MSP heaven. For example, LEGO offers its devoted customers special sets of LEGO blocks customized so recipients can build their own portraits out of LEGO blocks. Yep, LEGO has designed a computer program that scans an image of the subject, calculates the number of blocks that particular customer's likeness requires, and, along with the customized set of blocks, provides the recipient with a customized instruction manual on building his own portrait.

As you'd imagine, not all brands arrive at this. Pepsi offers us an example of the perils of adopting the idea of MSP-driven branding without fully adopting the spirit of it and developing a process to deliver it. What the company offers is the opportunity for Pepsi fans to join a Pepsi advisory panel. The promise is to involve them in future research and development (R&D) projects.

Keen to see how this worked, I signed up as Peter, age nine. By now it feels as if it were nine years ago that I did so, seeing as I've never had a single word of response from Pepsi. Just a "thank you" or "we'll be back to you soon with more" would have kept a boy involved, interested, and feeling important.

MSP brands live and breathe the principle of communication -- they're born of listening and responding to, learning from, and being inspired by feedback from the consumer. Not an easy achievement. Far from it. The MSP is a trend that demands intimacy between brands and individuals. The established brands of the world are used to having distance between themselves and their customers.

Even LEGO struggled with the attention-intensive strategy required to arrive at the service I described above. In the mid-90s, LEGO's email newsletters were accompanied by the cynical return address Blindalley@LEGO.com, a blatant expression of the company's desire to avoid customer feedback. LEGO took seven years to turn this attitude around and build a culture of dialogue with the consumer.

MSP branding is what Jones Soda does when offering its customers the chance to design their own labels and receive their own exclusive version of the product for use at parties. MSP branding is about handling individual feedback promptly, within 24 hours. It's about building a branding platform entirely according to the consumer's parameters rather than the manufacturer's assumptions.

It's a long, hard road to MSP. So far only a handful of brands can claim to be driven by it. But, for sure, MSP is here to stay. It's only a matter of time before the individual consumer becomes accustomed to expecting brand ownership. That expectation will be what separates the true MSP brands from the fakes.

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Martin Lindstrom

Martin Lindstrom is recognized as one of the world's primary on- and offline branding gurus by the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He is the author of several best-selling branding books including his latest, "BRAND sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound," published by Free Press. BRANDsense.com details information about Lindstrom's "BRAND sense" and the BRAND sense Symposium, a branding conference running in 51 cities in 31 countries.

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