Thursday, 3 July 2008

Connectivity and Empowerment

CONNECTIVITY AND EMPOWERMENT: Brands tie in with their consumers if they allow a duality. Consumers expressing their individuality in using the brand, while at the same time show a sense of belonging to a larger community that uses the brand. Empowerment. Connectivity.

Here are some questions I am grappling with-
Why are some brands ‘cult’/ ‘cool’/ ‘sexy’ and other not so? What can I expect of my brand? Are there limits to what it can achieve? How do I measure this limit?

What makes an ipod or Nokia so cool and talked about. And a Michelin, that for a 120 years, has been chugging along never spoken of in the same breath?

Is it the quality of brand management? Or is it the category?

Consumers have historically been attached to brands like Coke/ Pepsi/ Levi’s/ Marlboro. These brands find a special place in the consumer’s vocabulary for many reasons. One reason that I will focus on is the “community” brands create among consumers.

Community. This is a self fulfilling and re-enforcing feature.

Say the brand Coca Cola is launched. At some point it breaks out into a “mass market” product with significant consumer acceptance. This is because it builds with its consumers a certain imagery/ usage pattern that drives sales.

As sales increase, marketing investment increases. Eventually, the brand becomes a label that sticks to its consumers. You are a Coke person when you buy the bottle and drink from it. Or when you order it at a restaurant. You then associate with this “group” of Coke drinkers. You are an individual, but in the choice of the brand you submit to belonging to a larger group.

I believe consumer brands must therefore, necessarily, must present this duality of serving each customer, while connecting him to a larger group. The sense of “isolation” and ‘belonging”. It’s a reflection of our need for connectivity to our society. At the same time the need for empowerment and personal independence/ space.

It’s a delicate balance. Nokia manages to tell each consumer it is unique by offering a large range of models. It then also allows a consumer to say “Hey, its ok for millions of others to use a Nokia as well…. I hardly ever come across another consumer having the same phone model as me.” (This has been true for me).

To be a ‘killer brand’, the brand must participate in this duality.

I see it now with a lot of products. Nike offers this duality. Apple (iPod). Coke. I am seeing now Hewlett Packard going this way by making the PC “personal”, again. HP’s new approach invites you to use the PC in your own personal way. But offers you the opportunity of seeing yourself as part of a community that creates and makes things happen because of the power of the mind and the machine coming together.

I cannot however see this happening with Colgate toothpaste. The category does not (today) allow this duality. There is no reason for you to flash your Colgate in public and announce your belonging to a group using Colgate. (Unfortunately whitegoods manufacturers, tire manufacturers seem to fall into this position.)

In the past, consumer brands high on quality became well known. Sony TVs, Sumeet mixies, Vespa scooters. Then, with time, quality was no longer a differentiator- so quality along with Innovation was key to build a brand. Today, quality and innovation are both not enough. The brand must make a personal expression of the user. Otherwise, strong as it may be, it can never become cult.

Sony made this transition with the walkman which could be carried around. Apple with the iPod . Nokia with the phone. With the advent of miniaturisation, we carry a lot of accessories/ electronics/ that we could not have. Personal attachment to brands extends to many categories now.

I believe that the implication of all this is that for a brand to be cool today, it must necessarily extend itself to this ‘personal attachment’ to develop its ‘coolness’. The attachment to the brand comes above all from being able to carry the brand with me, allowing the brand to participate in my life and then using the brand to “signal” who I am.

While miniaturisation of technology was the first platform to do this, the growth of the internet and high speed internet connections creates a second platform. Why for example cannot my Nokia page be configured differently from my wife’s? (an idea I thought of while configuring my igoogle page). And if the mobile web takes off, why cannot I be connected to my Nokia web page or my Bridgestone tire web page all the time. Marketers must participate closely in this emerging technology in India. A Bridgestone mobile web page can allow me to be connected with my brand and a community of formula1 racers at all times. And I don’t need to point to my tires to show my affinity.

My guess is that these categories will benefit from the emergence of the mobile web platforms(second platform) that will allow them to create communities where they can be in touch with their target audience more frequently. But lets leave that discussion for another day.

Connection. Empowerment. That’s my interest.

But, if you’ve been following my notes, here is a good time to summarise where we have been so far:

- I am a brand. You are a brand. We are all brands that need to be managed.
- Brand management today is less about managing brands than facilitating the target audience to arrive at the most knowledgeable judgement of the brand based on information that companies put out. In the form that attracts consumers.
- Brands are built through engaging, entertaining and educating consumers.
- Brands must address the duality of enabling consumers to belong to a community while at the same time retaining their individuality.

Whew! if it was any easier, marketing would be no fun.

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