11.262008

brand limits or litmus

BusinessWeek’s John Fine issued an opinion this week that I don’t agree with, and I’m curious to hear others’ opinions.  His piece entitled “Your Brand Is Not a Candidatemakes the case that you cannot apply lessons learned from Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the presidency to marketing challenges.  He argues, “…any candidate’s methods and pitches, and Obama’s in particular, are difficult to transpose to other products. If you try to reduce a living, breathing candidate to something you can stock on a shelf…well, you still have an unusual product. A consumer buys a candidate only once per election. A Presidential contender can inspire profoundly emotional responses...”

He further explains, “the Obama campaign managed to leave voters feeling noble merely by participating…yogurt, like virtually all other products, won’t generate intense identification and loyalty and participation among the citizenry.

I just don’t agree.  Isn’t the point of a brand to elicit an emotional response?  And don’t the most powerful brands make people feel as if their purchase is about something more significant than acquiring a tangible object?

Nike has inspired a connected community of runners through its Nike Plus initiative — and Apple has engendered proud identification with its brand as depicted by their “I’m a Mac” commercials, not to mention levels of loyalty and participation that have transformed a niche player into a cultural phenomenon.  When I headed up brand and strategy at Sony Electronics, we crafted a brand core belief that declared, “We create technologies that inspire people to dream and find joy.”

It seems limiting to think of brands as simply vehicles to, as Fine suggests, “build awareness, turn on (and turn out) supporters, and try to sway undecideds.

Instead, I suggest that the litmus test of a strong brand is its ability to go beyond these cursory marketing tasks.  I subscribe to Scott Goodson’s POV that “brands can lead movements.”  Scott explains, “Cultural Movements starts with a social science study and ethnographic interviews to find an idea on the rise in culture that can define the brand…The idea on the rise in culture is then connected back to the culture of the brand – a cultural connection.

I find this an inspiring and challenging view of brands — and I take my role in building these kinds of brands seriously because of their signficance.  John Fine’s assessment, on the other hand, leaves me feeling flat and unfulfilled.  But perhaps his is the more realistic view?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this — please leave a comment.

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  • It strikes me that what anyone – politician, brand operator, whoever – addressing a broad audience must do is understand what the audience most deeply needs. Obama did that well. There’s no reason a brand couldn’t reach for the same goal, even though the effect will be profoundly different.