Why top brands thrive on ‘down-to-earth’ modesty

Brands with ideas above their station play with fire – successful companies are only too aware of the danger of brand arrogance, says Alan Mitchell

How arrogant is your brand? Nobody likes to admit to being arrogant, but brand arrogance has been sweeping the marketing world and damaging brands’ relationships with consumers in the process.

Like most examples of arrogance, brand arrogance has its roots in the recognition of a real strength. Astonished at how embedded their brands are within people’s lives, at the trust people place in them, and the emotional bonds that people have with them, some marketers now seem to believe consumers need their brands more than they need consumers.

One of the great strengths of marketing is that, from its earliest days, it recognised that the economists’ notion of human behaviour, the rational benefits calculating machine, is a fantasy. We humans are emotional, passionate beings who infuse even the most mundane daily tasks such as eating, drinking, and wearing clothes with all manner of social meanings and emotional significance. Successful marketers have always adjusted their brand and marketing programmes to reflect these insights.

But there is an invisible – and critical – dividing line between recognising the emotional value of something, and doing your best to enhance it, and believing that you actually create this emotional significance in the first place. Brands may help consumers express their identity, display their status, or fulfil deep emotional needs such as the need to provide, nurture or mother. But they are a help. That’s all. Except on the rarest occasions, they are not the source of the emotional fulfilment, or meaning, itself.

Recently, however, marketers have begun crossing that invisible line. They teeter at its edge when they start saying, given that product or service differentiation is not sustainable in the long term, that the source of value and differentiation is in the brand concept rather than the offer. They pass over it when they start claiming, as Diesel’s Renzo Rosso did, that “we don’t sell a product, we sell a style of life. I think we have created a movement – the Diesel concept is everything. It’s the way to live, it’s the way to wear, it’s the way to do something”.

They start getting the relationship wrong when, as ad agency man Jesper Kunde suggests, marketers should try to make brands into “religionsí and consumers into believers and worshippers”. Kunde is probably right when he suggests that, increasingly, companies need a “corporate religion”í because “it’s not possible to have any meaningful vision of the future without believing in something”.

But he steps over the line when he claims that brands which make adjustments to fit different cultures in different markets “simply dilute” themselves, and that instead the market should adjust to the brand.

Brands also put the cart before the horse when, like Tommy Hilfiger, they turn the product into a vehicle for the brand. As Naomi Klein comments in her diatribe against brand arrogance “No Logo”, Tommy Hilfiger “transforms its faithful adherents into walking, talking life-sized Tommy dolls, mummified in fully branded Tommy worlds”.

Actually, absurd parody as it is, Tommy Hilfiger expresses a deep truth about modern marketing. Our current marketing system revolves around sellers saying to potential buyers: “Here we are, this is what we have to offer.” And within this system – despite everything marketers like to say about knowing, understanding, getting close to, and focusing on the customer – brands are unadulterated vehicles of organised corporate narcissism and brand management is the ultimate exercise in egocentricity.

The brand is a carefully constructed package of information designed by me about me – about the attributes of my product or my service. My marketing communications are designed by me, to flatter me, so that you see how wonderful I am, and become my customer and loyal to me.

For anyone living in this narcissistic environment, it’s only too easy to cross the invisible borderline without noticing it. That’s why successful marketers always display a healthy dose of down-to-earth modesty about their role in people’s lives. They know that the consumer is the user, and they are the used. Full stop. They know that their job is to make themselves as easy and rewarding to use as possible, so that users keep on coming back to them.

That’s how they make their money. That’s one of the secrets of mega-brands such as Coca-Cola, Walkers and Nescafé.

Yes, they try to claim as much emotional territory for their brands as they can. But at the same time they keep a sense of balance. In everything they do, it’s somehow clear that they know, and we know, they’re just a drink or a crisp. And because they’re not pretending to be anything more fancy, we can feel relaxed with them. We can invite them into our lives as familiar friends, because we know they’re not going to start throwing their weight around.

And brands that do start throwing their weight around invariably get punished. In his book “Corporate Religion”, Kunde points to Coca-Cola as the best example of a company which forces its markets to adjust to its brand.

Douglas Daft, who replaced outgoing chief executive Doug Ivester after a bout of corporate arrogance, would beg to disagree. “Sometimes you have to stumble before you realise you have wandered off the right path,” he wrote recently.

“We know instinctively that the global success of Coca-Cola is the direct result of people drinking it one bottle at a time in their own local communities.”

Daft’s first clear principle to meet the demands of the 21st century is: “Think Local, Act Local.” Likewise, Tommy Hilfiger’s faithful adherents are showing signs of getting tired of paying a fortune to be a walking billboard for the brand. Tommy’s shares have been trading at about 20 per cent of last year’s value.

It’s the unwritten rule of marketing that every brand manager has to do everything he or she can to build his brand within his target market’s hearts, minds and lives. But there’s another unwritten rule which brand managers forget at their peril: know your place. Because nobody likes people who get too big for their boots.

Alan Mitchell, asmitchell@aol.com

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