The Brand Promise

If you’ve ever seen a computer-generated fractal, you know how cool it can be. (If you haven’t, here’s a pretty cool demo.) Mysterious and organic, fractals represent an infinity in an image generated from a single equation.

But beyond the trippy imagery, computer-generated fractals also demonstrate an amazing mathematical concept in that every part of the fractal is made up of similar images of the whole. As you zoom in to a fractal, each subsequent magnification reveals more complexity while, at the same time, still contains information that reminds you that you’re looking at a particular fractal image. No matter how finely you cut it, each infinitesimal part still retains some image of the whole.

Now I’m not a mathematician (not even close… and I can give you the names of several of my high school teachers for independent verification if you want), but I think fractals are pretty cool.

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to what “brands” mean in this digital age. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how “branding” as we know it is going through a dramatic change as more and more channels open up to the consumer via the web, email, wireless technology, innovative placement techniques, and new uses of traditional media.

All these choices add new complexity to the task of building and marketing brands, complexity that no one had even dreamed about 10 years ago. And, to top it all off, all of these choices are made even more complex by the media we have to deliver our messages in: The web is different than print, which is different from TV, which is… you get the idea.

It’s pretty confusing. And there I was, thinking about what I wrote last week about the future of online advertising in an age where clutter is going to become the norm, when it hit me: fractals!

Yup, fractals. “Huh?” I hear you say and with good reason. Let me explain.

It used to be that a lot of people thought about “branding” as the physical process implied by the word: stamping your “brand” on everything you did. In effect, “branding” was primarily a graphic-design problem: Make a logo, get it on everything, and make sure that it’s consistent.

Of course, for most of us, the whole concept of “branding” has expanded dramatically. Today, most of the marketing world understands the concept of “brand” to encompass the experience of dealing with a company, no matter where that company touches its customers. The greeter at the door of Wal-Mart is as much a part of the brand as the logo, just as the goodies that sticks in the delivery you receive are a part of the Amazon brand.

Essentially, brand isn’t as much about the look as it is about the feel, the story, or the experience of interacting with a company. Building a brand means creating something that transcends (but includes) the “look” of a company. True brand building means communicating the promise or experience that makes up that brand.

Taken in this way, “branding” is complicated enough when dealing in traditional one-way channels of print, TV, or radio. It becomes even more complicated when we move into one-to-one communication via the web, wireless, or email. Communicating the brand becomes an ongoing, complex dialogue that goes beyond the medium to the very soul of the company. And that’s when I thought of fractals.

Just as the most infinitesimally fine look at a fractal resembles the whole, so should be the way that we build brands in this increasingly fragmented media universe. This “fractal branding” means that we should be striving to construct a brand that resembles the promise embodied in the company no matter how fine a view we take of the communications or contact points between company and customer. Every part contains the whole.

Truly effective brands are fractal: The experience of dealing with extends through every (or nearly every) contact it has with its customers; Disney has mastered brand building down to the most fanatically small detail; Nike has built a story around itself to the point that nearly any part of the company reminds us of the promise offered by the whole; and Sony and Martha Stewart have both built brands that stand up to incredibly close scrutiny (and usually deliver what they promise).

On the other hand, a lot of companies have built brands that completely break down once you dig past the outward official “communication” channels. How often have you walked into a McDonald’s that, officially, “loves to see you smile,” only to be greeted by substandard service and mediocre food? How often have you gone to purchase something online and been stymied by a complicated interface, poor service, or a lousy user experience? And if you’ve ever come into contact with the typical Kinko’s employee, you know that the experience is far removed from the official promise.

Today, with the explosion of communications channels, the opportunity to create truly fractal brands represents an incredible opportunity (and danger). As wireless communications technologies give us the opportunity to truly be anywhere our customers are, as the web offers new opportunities to communicate experience through service and information, and as email and other two-way technologies offer more and more ways for companies to hold conversations with customers, we need to expand the way we think about building brands.

Brand happens anywhere our companies touch our customers. Thinking about brands as fractals is one way to start.

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