Fine line that separates brand power from brand deception

While New Orleans summons its age-old image as the home of the Mardi Gras in its rebuilding efforts, McDonalds branding is about iron-fisted control

I’m writing this from the city of New Orleans. It’s my first visit here, on a business trip, and something a friend said got me thinking about our pre-conceptions about places we visit and how we come about those ideas. When I told this particular friend I would be in New Orleans for a few days, he surprised me by saying: “So how long will you be in Louisiana?” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that question – New Orleans is, after all, in the state of Louisiana. It’s just that I hadn’t associate New Orleans with one of the US’s poorest southern states. My mental image of New Orleans is of Mardi Gras, Rue Bourbon, French Quarters, jazz, gumbo and jambalaya. Not cotton and rural farmers. This shows the power and importance of brand perception, whether for a packaged goods product, or a place of interest.

For New Orleans, this fact is all the more poignant considering what the city and its citizens have had to face in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The city is climbing back from difficult times. It’s hard to imagine the floors of the pristine and business-like Morial Convention Center, where I spent most of my working day, as home to thousands of people for weeks after they were forced from their homes by the floods. But everywhere I look now, the posters and signs welcome you with a big smile saying things like “Get jazzed up!” It seems the best way for this city to get back on its feet is to revive the good times for which it is best known – its own brand image

The idea of a city or a country’s brand being of great value, or even detrimental, is one of several areas that writer Lucas Conley explores in his new book “OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder – The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion” (Public Affairs). His first city example is New Orleans. Conley points out how New Orleans was ravaged by violent crime in the early post-Katrina months and was being labelled America’s Murder Capital. However, that didn’t mean New Orleans citizens were unhappy with its mayor, Ray Nagin, for talking about the crime problem to a reporter: “It’s not good for us. But it does keep the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs and what we need to bring this community back. So it’s kind of a two-edged sword,” one is quoted as saying.

Conley says critics were most upset with Nagin’s redefinition of the New Orleans brand as one associated with crime.

Re-branding a city or country positively sometimes works, after all Cool Britannia had its fans, but OBD is littered with examples of American cities and states that blew their annual marketing budget on taglines that really didn’t tell the right story or even upset the locals.

OBD’s key argument is that society has got caught in a web of deception or doublespeak that is the work of the branding expert, agency or chief marketer. Not only is the ordinary consumer buying into what brand promise they’re being sold but they’re regurgitating it or reinventing it.

It’s all about control

“More than marketing, advertising, or positioning, branding is an all-in-one ideology – a facile reduction malleable enough to govern all facets of the modern business,” writes Conley. Conley appears not to be a fan of brand marketers or at least some of their decisions. He dislikes their desire to control every aspect of the brand, from the names to the imagery to even smells. He points to McDonald’s early patenting of the sound made by its soda straws pushing through its plastics lids. The problem as Conley sees it is that McDonald’s should focus on making better quality affordable burgers before buying the copyright to an ad jingle or patent for the aroma of a Big Mac.

“Branding is more distraction than progress,” he writes.” It offers the satisfaction of a sense of change without the hard work.”

One of the ironies of these excessive branding efforts is that while consumers might kick back at corporate marketing attempts, they will listen to friends and family. This is why more companies, including the likes of Procter & Gamble, are using word of mouth marketing to reach consumers. According to Conley, 92% of consumers believe word of mouth product recommendations from friends and family.

Yet, even here, Conley foresees a problem with the eventual overuse of word of mouth channels, which will end up backfiring on marketers. “As these channels become more polluted with marketing, the number [of consumers ’trusting’ this method] will fall. As it does, it will act like a social barometer, tracing the falling level of trust and goodwill in our culture.” The end result, according to Conley, is that we’ll stop trusting each other and lose a fundamental faculty for forming strong communities.

While Conley’s argument is extreme, the consumer rebellion over Facebook’s plans to show other users’ friends the products or services they’ve bought, indicates that young people are less than willing to be caught selling brands for big corporates. Though this was primarily a privacy matter, it shows users aren’t desperate to get automated “recommendations” from their friends based on what they’ve bought.

While OBD might focus on the invidious nature of branding, a Sunday magazine article this month by Rob Walker, a New York Times writer on consumer affairs, paints a more romantic picture of a brand’s everlasting powers. The piece, titled Can A Dead Brand Live Again?, explores the phenomenon of long forgotten brands being revived by branding specialists.

The thinking by these experts is that millions of dollars invested by big corporate marketers over the years has built up a valuable chunk of brand equity. That brand equity lasts long after a brand product has gone. Walker’s example is a coffee brand called Brim, which had to be dropped after its parent General Foods was subsumed by Altria, which also bought Kraft Foods, owner of Maxwell Coffee. Having a much larger brand like Maxwell, it was decided Brim was surplus to requirement.

Inherent value

River Walk, a Chicago-based company, specialises in reviving brands like Brim, which was dropped in the Nineties. River Walk believes that brand equity is very valuable. For instance, if a coffee brand was being started today it would take hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to establish it as a national US coffee brand, but with nine out of ten people over the age of 25 remembering Brim, relaunching it would be much more cost-effective. Walker says River Walk also believes that while memory is important for these brands, so is faulty memory. So consumers remember the brand as making some additional products or services that it never did but which are reasonably close extensions of the product’s main purpose – highlighting the value of branding.

But Conley has different views on the value of brand equity, whether that brand is living or dead. “Chasing brand equity, US companies obsess over their brand to the point of distraction. Foreign competitors in places like India and China are happy to pick up the slack. Shipping jobs, factories, and entire industries overseas, executives maintain control over what they’ve convinced themselves is their those most valuable equity.”

The writer is a New York-based business journalist

email: us.column@gmail.com

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