Rethinking the Branding Message

The Tirade

Something about traditional branding bothers me. It’s the idea a brand is maintained by communicating a singular image and message. Volvo is safe. Maytag is dependable.

Not everyone likes a product or service for the same reason. Strange but true.

Take Maytag. Most people love Maytag products, particularly washing machines, because they’re dependable. That’s the brand message the company has communicated for years. What’s a marketer to do with the person who likes his Maytag because it’s quiet? Or with the family enamored with their washer because it looks better than the competitor’s model?

Beginning branders believe people who are off-message should be banished to their rooms with a copy of the company’s branding and marketing plan, only to return when they sing from the same page.

More experienced marketers know branding needs a little give. In other words, good customers are good customers, sometimes for very different reasons.

I also cringe at marketers who claim, “Branding lets customers be lazy — they know the product and don’t have to think about it anymore.” Seems to me you should want customers to think.

As I’ve written, I’m no fan of organizations that get caught up in “logitis”: ornate icons, bizarre typefaces, and all the trappings of by-the-book branding. Who cares if the icon isn’t always positioned in a 1:3 ratio with the typeface? Time spent fretting over such matters is better spent listening to customers.

The Solution

What does this tirade have to do with Web content? It proves a little secret some top sites have known for years. (Hold onto your hats, all you branding gurus.)

Most successful sites are never completely on-message.

Let’s explore Maytag’s site. Surprise! The overall message isn’t about dependable washers. The home page has a large photo of an oven and news about a high-tech drying system. An “Ideas + Advice” section offers tips on household management. It’s a smart site that knows there’s more to marketing than pounding a singular message into peoples’ heads.

Volvo’s home page reinforces safety as the brand message, but it goes a step further. The content recognizes other reasons for purchasing a Volvo — excellent engineering, customer service, and a good finance plan, to name a few. I’m intrigued by the announcement of the “Evil Twin Volvo S60Rs.” Sounds like a blatant appeal to the not-so-safety-minded.

As a wonderfully interactive and limitless medium, the Web provides marketers with the perfect opportunity to wander just a tad beyond a traditional brand message. Don’t misunderstand this. It’s not license for the Cartoon Network to offer martini recipes (which it doesn’t, in case you were wondering). However, the Web does allow one to provide content beyond the usual depth and breadth of traditional marketing.

Take mega coffee-maker Starbucks. The Web allows it to move beyond its ubiquitous image as a purveyor of premium coffee. The site is filled with information on the Starbucks Foundation and other community-oriented activities. The lead holiday article, for example, is about a toy drive. For many who visit the site, it’s compelling information. It helps promote the company as something beyond coffee-merchant status.

Perhaps those who remain in lock-step with a singular branding message should consider 155-year-old Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. As the name implies, it’s primarily a product for baking. Over the course of years, it’s become very apparent the little yellow box means a lot more to people. Arm & Hammer is a cleaning product and an antacid. It has a permanent presence as a deodorizer in most refrigerators. In fact, because Arm & Hammer recognizes its product means many things to many people, it invites visitors to “tell us your favorite use“.

That’s using the Web to get closer to the customer. It adds dimension to the product, even at the risk of loosening up on the message.

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