Product Martina Lauchengco

What’s in a Name? Less Than You Think.

No one coming to your website? Company image tired? Business plans changed? It’s time for a rebrand!

Or maybe not.

Somehow “brand” became magic pixie dust to sprinkle on company problems and make them go away. But you can’t create or fix a company with just a name, logo and color palette. Anyone remember Webvan’s “rebrand” into oblivion? In technology, we tend to think we’re the exception to all the rules. The problem is most don’t know the rules, which means brands don’t do what tech companies expect.

What’s the problem? A true brand is much more than a company’s name, visual identity, or how much it advertises. A brand is a promise to customers that transcends any individual product or service. The best brands are built on a foundation of a simple product or service provided consistently. Cheap food fast? McDonalds. Mid-afternoon coffee boost? Starbucks. Need help finding the perfect tie for your suit? Nordstroms. Coolest new tech gadgets around? Apple. Need it overnight? FedEx.

Now quick–Do you know how many logos these companies have gone through in the last five years? My guess is no, and you probably don’t care. This is the power of brand done right and also why creating one is so much harder than people think.

Many high-tech brands start like this: the powers-that-be get together for a “brand brainstorm,” come up with a list of rational brand attributes like ‘smart’ and ‘innovative,’ put it in a PowerPoint presentation, hand it over to an agency that charges a small fortune to create a name and a logo the founders like, and viola a new brand is born. For most companies, the brand experience begins and ends there.

And that’s the problem. Great brands are powerful because their relationship to us is emotional, not just rational. More importantly, they come from the systematic delivery against every aspect of the 4Ps, starting with products (or services). Genuine connections with customers can’t simply be brainstormed into a company mission statement. If your product or service doesn’t fulfill your brand promise, your name and logo don’t matter. Think about most of the newest generation of “breakout” online brands–YouTube, Facebook, FlickR, MySpace. They didn’t succeed because they spend millions on advertising or had great logos. They delivered a consistent product experience. The same holds true for the major online brands that preceded them: Google = search, Amazon = buy online, eBay = buy/sell peoples’ stuff.

A brand isn’t any one thing; it is the collection of all the ways a company touches its customers–on the web, in advertising, in PR, in sales, in retail, and the products themselves–that create or reinforce a brand. This is why new logos and names don’t solve company problems; they usually aren’t the problem.

So if you’re a relatively new brand aspiring to become one of the great ones, what do you do?

1. Start with your product/service.

In technology, you can’t have a great brand if your product or service isn’t. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the most amazing product on the planet-just that what it is and does must be easy to understand, consistent in its presentation, and serve a need people remember or value. It’s easy to look at a company like Netflix and say, “Everyone knows the red envelope. It’s a brilliant brand.” But it’s their rich service that made the brand ubiquitous and successful.

2. Be consistent.

After having a good product, this is the single most important thing you can do, and it doesn’t take extra money, just discipline. Anything that touches the customer is part of the brand and either reinforces what you want the customer to believe or makes you look untrustworthy. This is the one of the biggest failings of technology companies; they stop at the colors and logo being on everything and fail to ensure all aspects of content and product support the brand.

Apple’s recent iPhone pricing debacle is an example. Strategically, a high price point at launch was a shrewd business decision–it limited distribution while they ironed out bugs and instantly gave early adopters the show-and-tell goodie of the decade. But when Apple dropped the price so quickly for essentially the same phone, it sent their fiercely loyal customers into an uproar. It made Apple look like they were exploiting their most loyal fans which is totally inconsistent with Apple’s “power-to-the-people,” populist brand. To Apple’s credit, they immediately addressed the problem.

3. Look at the customer’s entire experience.

Everything that touches a customer needs to embody a brand for a ‘brand effect’ to occur. From language, to look and feel, to how people behave-even dress-it all has an impact. One enterprise startup I know defined a key brand attribute as “leadership,” and they worked hard to ensure everything they did validated it. Their initial target customer list was Fortune 100 only so their customers’ brands could reinforce their leadership claims. Their employees also dressed in formal business wear when visiting a customer. They were told in competitive sales situations, they out-classed their competition, and this perception was reinforced by how everyone dressed. They behaved like leaders, even when they weren’t. Of course they had the products to back up the brand, but it all created a brand effect and momentum that helped them become an undisputed category leader over time.

Again, Apple is the king in technology of using the customer’s entire experience to reinforce their brand, from the elegant, hip packaging, to the lack of documentation, to the “geniuses” in the Genius Bar in Apple Stores-the very fact that they have a store-their advertising, and of course, their consistently stunning products.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of people, pictures and music.

This is the easiest way to move something from rational to emotional. Those “Priceless” Mastercard ads have milked this to an extreme. VW uses music brilliantly in all their ads; BMW did an entire movie short series with A-list talent. But you don’t need to spend millions on TV or film ads to infuse emotion into your brand. People connect with people. Think about where you can humanize your brand experience-such as putting the picture of a tech support or sales person on your website saying “Talk to me live now!” Real people/customer quotes is another example. Having a real customer pick up the phone and call a potential customer is a powerful brand statement. And certainly if you have a direct sales force, they are your foremost brand emissaries.

5. Separate company brand from product and service names.

Many technology companies put their brand investment behind individual products or name the company the same as the product. This can be a fine start but make sure you adapt quickly if your business/products do. The difference is as simple as Oracle Database 11 instead of Oracle 11 or Yahoo! Search instead of just Yahoo! This type of brand strategy is called a “master brand” strategy and means 1) you invest in your company’s brand meaning, not your individual products 2) because the company name carries the consumer promise, it precedes every product or service name. It’s the most common brand and naming strategy used in technology where products change quickly.

Too often technology companies don’t make these distinctions fast enough. Not only does this make things confusing to customers, it can put your business in a corner that is very hard to fight out of. Think about how many years, millions of dollars, and acquisitions it took Oracle to get beyond being just a database company. One of my alma maters, Netscape, never defined the brand beyond the browser, so when the browser was in decline, the entire company was perceived to be in decline. Don’t make this mistake.

6. Be patient-stay steady.

Building a brand takes a lot longer than you might wish, even when you employ the best techniques and everything is going great. It’s true some brands reach mass market recognition faster than others, but even the fastest take years before they reach mass consumer awareness. The more a company’s brand elements change in that period, the less a consumer has to hold on to and understand exactly what the company is about. Consider that each time some part of the brand experience changes, you’re starting over with some customers. And if the ultimate goal of brand is to short-cut decision-making, changes at the brand level take that potential away.

7. New brands are okay for the right reasons.

If your market penetration is knowingly impeded by your existing brand’s baggage, then it makes sense to opt for change. My favorite example is Microsoft’s Xbox. They needed a new brand for gamers that shed the Microsoft baggage because, let’s face it, they just didn’t have street cred with gamers. Halo 3 is also marketed as its own brand, not as Microsoft Halo. It took Microsoft over a decade of trying with “Microsoft Home” and various other brand extensions before they finally took the plunge with a new brand. No doubt this was a battle with the corporate brand police, but ultimately, it was necessary for the product line and brand to succeed.

Great brands engender loyalty beyond reason – because an emotional attachment and consistent experience provide a short-cut for decision-making. Ultimately, brands are about trust-which is hard to gain and easy to lose. So when it comes to brands, take time to think about all aspects of your brand so it can help your company achieve its goals.