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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Your Brand Wanted: Dead or Alive!

What makes a brand? A quintessential question that recently profiled Woman in Flooring - Lisbeth Calandrino - asks and explores in the following guest post.

With sales down in almost all categories, businesses are wondering: what makes a difference to customers? Businesses talk about their brands and brand recognition. In times like these I wonder: what makes a brand?

In 2004, Al & Laura Ries wrote a book called The Origin of Brands: How Product Evolution Creates Endless Possibilities for New Brands, in which they talk about what builds a brand and what keeps it going. They have interesting thoughts. One is called divergence: take an existing brand and look for opportunities to create new categories by diverging existing ones. I think this is something for flooring retailers, many with long-term brands that haven’t changed one bit. Another interesting point in the book is that a brand dominates, and that name alone can represent the primary reason for the brand’s success. Think about Coca-Cola - the world’s most valuable brand because it dominates the cola category. It has since branched into water, sports drinks and the like. Why do we buy these new “names?” Because we know Coca-Cola stands behind it.

Think about Starbucks. This company started out as a “coffee brand” which was able to launch into music, coffee “stuff,” gift cards, etc. Is this a mistake? Well, we know that if you are going to branch off into new brands you had better keep the old brand solid. If Coca-Cola became tainted with salmonella, there wouldn’t be anyone drinking Dasani water. This may be where Starbucks made some errors: moving away from their core brand.

Anyway, I decided to go out and explore some brands, both living and dead, to see how what makes those brands big brands.

Last weekend, two big brands were in town: Elvis Presley and the Temptations. Both brands were big in the 1950s, and continue to bring in audiences. One of those big brands, Elvis Presley, actually died in the 1970s, but continues to live in Memphis with thousands of fans visiting Graceland every year.

In 1954, Elvis Presley was asked who he sounded like. His reply? Nobody! The start of a new brand. Even John Lennon said before Elvis, there was nothing. With that in mind, I set off to see if there really is a “dead” Elvis brand. On Friday, I traveled to Lake George, NY to get a glimpse of the Elvis festival. Sort of tongue and cheek, I wondered why 4300 people descended on this summer resort to dress, sing and parade in their Elvis finery. The first thing I noticed is that I couldn’t find a place to park. I cruised the parking lot as Elvis clones walked around: tall, short, young and old—even fat Elvises.

I finally double parked the car and decided to interview a 60-year-old Elvis. His name is Aaron. He’s from Buffalo and has been an Elvis “aficionado” for over 30 years. With a great smile and good sense of humor, he says he just loves Elvis. I ask him what makes Elvis live on, and he says, “It’s all about emotion.” Elvis was the first to show it and connect with it, he continues. Having grown up with Elvis, he represented his own emotions; in fact he was really the only emotion around.

People take Graceland and their Elvis festivals quite seriously.

Next, I go to another part of the festival in and sit through 30 performances by Elvis impersonators. Wow! Elvis is represented in each stage of his life, including his time in the service.

I gaze around the crowd and realize the place is filled with women of all ages, but mostly 40-plus. Another wow. I thought: these are our flooring customers and they’re all at the Elvis festival. If I had suggested that a retailer have a “sing and look-alike Elvis night”, they would have thought I was crazy. But here they are all gathered at an Elvis weekend.

The other thing I notice is: the water bottles on the table all have the “pink ribbon” logo. In 1995, Jane Weiner, a professional dancer in New York City, learned that her sister, Susan Rafte of Houston, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Jane joined with friends and fellow dancers David Parker, Sara Hook and Robin Staff, to launch the Pink Ribbons Project: dancers in motion against breast cancer. Together, they put together an event in New York City to raise enough money to send breast cancer survivors to testify at Congressional hearings. The 19th annual Susan G. Koman National Race for the Cure drew nearly 50,000 runners. Susan G. Komen has become a very big brand. Two big brands that are co-branded! It’s not just that one and one make two. One and one make three—bigger and better.

I continue to hang out with the Elvis crowd and continue to ask “why Elvis?” Because Elvis is all about emotion and connections, they say. You just want to be with him and be part of him. Forever. Every time I go to Memphis I have to stop by the King’s home. Why? Because it’s there and somewhere deep down Elvis is a part of me and my emotions.

On to my next brand, mostly alive: The Temptations. Actually one of my favorites. The Temptations, traveling the country since the 1960s, seem to change faces but the voices are still as strong and vibrant as their clothing. The dance steps haven’t really changed, but the outfits seem to have more versatility—a black and white striped blazer added to the lime green suits. The music is the same. It brings audiences to their feet. I am a big fan of the Temptations. I saw them at the Riverfront in Catskill, NY last summer and at the Palace Theater in Albany the year before. I noticed the audience was comprised of both men and women, aged 30 and up. The group performed for 1 hour and 45 minutes straight, no breaks, and that was it. Of course they got a standing ovation and came back for two more songs.

After the show I caught up with one of the lead singers, GC Cameron, who actually comes from another great 60s group: the Spinners. I asked him what makes the Temptations live on. He responded simply: the emotion of the music. People just love it. It touches everyone’s hearts and they remember the songs. People just automatically jump to their feet and transform themselves back to the 60s with their own original scores.

So branding is about emotion. Does your brand evoke emotion? Bring people to their feet wanting more and more? Cirque du Soleil has created a new brand of circus by diverging from the original circus by borrowing ideas from Broadway shows. By the way, Cirque is planning a tribute to Elvis in the next year!

So, how important is the brand to your business? It would appear that if you do it right, nothing else really matters. What does “doing it right” mean? How about, for starters, that you connect with your customer? All customers connect differently, so you have to know your customers. Find out what they want, then give it to them. (Both Elvis and the Temptations knew their customers—the youth of yesterday and today.) Have a great product, keep updating and changing your product, but never forget its history. Don‘t forget there are people who will like you the way you were.

Brands have to stay new and fresh, but still retain their core values. When I think of our industry, I think of Karastan going back to 1928 but continuing to update and connect to today’s consumer. I think of Thom Filicia (whom I saw in Boston last year) talk about building your room from the “floor up.” I also think of Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife who also represents the Karastan brand.

Continue to build your core brand, keep it solid and connected to your customer. Don’t know if it’s connected? Conduct a survey and ask the customers you have lost why they left you. What didn’t you do that they found elsewhere? Remember that if you're brand "gets tarnished" it takes a lot to get it back, but it's not impossible. There was the Kobe Bryant brand that went from a very unpleasant incident to MVP. If you work hard enough at it you can reclaim your reputation and your image.

Remember to keep things fresh by adding new lines and making a big deal about things you are doing. Get a connected to your community and build to the brand that “gives back.”

Make your connection emotional. Show your customers that you like them and you will go out of your way for them.

Continue to make your products better than everyone else’s product. If it isn’t different, the differentiating factor will be price. Who wins then? No one! You might think the customer wins but since you have devalued the product by dropping the price, she’s still not sure she got a good deal!

Remember: a brand is a promise to the customer. The promise is: I know the brand will always deliver and I will consistently get what I want. This is the business version of patriotism.

So, how does your brand measure up?

Like my mom used to say, all you've got is your name so keep it clean!
What makes a brand? According to Lis, emotion, connecting with your customers, keeping your promises to customers, being relevant to their lives, being authentic. The business version of patriotism. Wow!

I hope you're inspired now to ask yourself what makes your brand.

Thank you, Lis!

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