American companies "obsess over their brand to the point of distraction," creating "a whirlwind of self-defeating corporate and consumer behavior" that has convinced leaders, and even individuals, that they should think about brand first and real product innovation and quality last, argues Lucas Conley in "Obsessive Branding Disorder." A regular contributor to Fast Company magazine, Conley makes some legitimate points, though he ignores the rational and still valid reason for branding.
Lots of "branding" corporatethink is ridiculous, but the worst examples aren't inside companies. Indeed, Conley begins with the story of Mark Singletary, a New Orleans resident who lost three friends to gunshot murder in the city since Katrina. Mayor Ray Nagin's reaction? "It keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs."
To anyone familiar with how New Orleans's flailing business community views the world, Nagin's comment wasn't just dumb. It was bitterly ironic. After all, the city's business leaders and other elite citizens often use their influence not to force the city to make New Orleans safer, but to pretend to the outside world, through glossy "branding" efforts, that everything is great. "Amid all the histrionics and finger wagging" over Nagin's comment, Conley writes, "what really seemed to bother many people wasn't Nagin's insensitivity to murder victimsit was how he had defined the city's brand."
In fact, right at the time of Nagin's comment, the city was launching a global ad campaign to "overcome misperceptions" about New Orleans. But many of them aren't misperceptions at all: as Singletary told Conley, "you can't just brand away a bunch of murders." New Orleans' elites would be better off doing the hard work of fixing their city's crime problems rather than the politically easier work of selling New Orleans to the rest of the world.
Such campaigns only suck energy away from the real task: fixing the reality behind your "brand." And when corporations take the same tack at the expense of innovation, it's certainly just as bad, in the long run, for their shareholders.
Conley illustrates how creativelyor desperatelycompanies are trying to reach consumers today. "Unilever is investigating scented plastic for its Suave shampoo bottles," he writes. Customers in some Manhattan bookstores are subjected to the "mystery whisperer," which uses carefully targeted soundbeams to pitch a murder-mystery novel at a customer as he walks by. Conley has good stories of how corporations are increasingly using neuroscience to tug consumers' emotions. One company, Sensory Logic, gives clients "a direct line to the id" by using electrodes to analyze adwatchers' facial muscles for tiny clues to whether a particular pitch has effectively tugged at potential consumers' emotions. Another firm, Brain Fingerprinting, studies brainwaves to determine "what kinds of ads activate and excite the brain."
The author worries that some people are confusing their own identities with brand identities, a theme also taken up by Rob Walker in his own new book, "Buying In." That book advances, as Conley does, an argument that consumers are increasingly willing to do companies' selling for them, pitching friends and family on products through word-of-mouth. Walker also explores the phenomenon from the other way around.
Technology has made it easy for tiny companies to launch and market their own brands, threatening the big boys, as Conley demonstrates with startup Jones Soda's threat to Coke's future growth. Coke has had some big failures recently, with its quickly yanked low-carbon soda and its failure to see that more consumers were skeptical of high fructose corn syrup. But it's hard to say that the failures were due to "obsessive branding disorder" rather than corporate miscalculation and a failure to take smaller competitors seriously. Moreover, such an example doesn't quite make the case that innovation has suffered because of branding.
Conley should have provided more background on the rational reason many people, particularly in unregulated markets, buy brands. A century ago, women flocked to Standard Oil because it was, well, standard. Travelers frequent McDonald's for the same reason today. If you're in an unfamiliar city or country, you have a reasonable assurancenot foolproof, of coursethat the quality control is backed by a global name that can't take a big hit to its reputation. If quality lags at companies such as this, as Conley suggests, then there won't be a brand to worry about for long.
Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion by Lucas Conley (Public Affairs Books)
Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker (Random House)
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/06082008/postopinion/postopbooks/obsessive_branding_disorder_114475.htm