Jul 14 2007

The Power of Brand Reflection

Published by at 1:08 pm under Idea Driven Marketing

A recent NY Times article featured what it claimed was a major "aha" statement about brands. The story noted how a prime motivator for people buying Toyota Prius cars these days was how driving the "green" hybrid vehicle made them look to others. The article further stated that the earlier purchasers of the Prius hybrids (which included me) were motivated more by the innovative new technology of the cars, rather than what owning a hybrid "said" about them (e.g., "Look at me, I am an environmentally responsible citizen of the world!").

Reading the article was one of those moments when you literally want to blurt out, "Well, duh?!" The fact that people were buying Prius hybrids because it made them look (and presumably, feel) environmentally responsible should not have been a surprise to the Times writer, or anyone else. Thanks largely to Al Gore, the environment is now (finally) a major issue that has seized the imaginations of millions of people who previously would not necessarily have characterized themselves as "green." Well, Al Gore made "green" acceptable, and even cool, and now people want to wear that "badge." Driving a Prius is a great way to accomplish that (while it also saves you a lot in gas money, and makes a tangible and positive impact on the environment).

This process of consumers choosing and supporting brands because of how those brands makes them look and feel, is what I call "brand reflection." It is a very important part of branding, particularly as it relates to consumer brands. For example: Do you think the buyer of a $180,000 Aston Martin would even think of buying that car if the name plate was removed from the vehicle? It would be the same hand made, beautifully designed and powerful British sports car. It just would not have that brand "badge" which immediately says to the world, "I am rich and discriminating enough to own this paragon of British sports machines." Needless to say, without the powerful brand reflection of the Aston Martin name, few if any would invest in a $180,000 sports car…no matter how well made or how fast, or how classic (of course, without the Aston Martin brand name, the car would not be a classic at all).

People buy and use certain things, associate themselves with particular people and issues, and live certain places because of what it says about them and how it makes them feel. Brand reflection is not only evident with luxury consumer brands. A CTO might invest in a hot new technology because it makes her look to her boss, colleagues and peers like she is cutting edge. A mom buys a special brand of juice because it is known to be — or at least purported to be — more healthy. Many agree that Starbucks is not necessarily the best tasting coffee, but the brand reflection just works better for many people than, let’s say, going to McDonald’s for coffee (which is actually pretty good these days).

So what’s the point of all this? The fact that brands reflect on their users, and people invest in certain brands because of that reflection, is not exactly big news. True enough. But, it still amazes me how companies and brand managers forget this sometimes. Every time a brand manager approves an advertising message, or reviews a new spokesperson or alliance partner, or even explores a brand extension, she/he needs to think about what the brand will now say about (and reflect on) the ultimate user. That is a major consideration that must be weighed very carefully. Because if that brand reflection is now compromised or even changed in some way, your users (who are, after all, the owners of the brand) might balk and vote with their feet. And all of a sudden, you’re Dell trying to regain that lost magic!

The hot ad agency Crispin Porter Bogusky understood this fact when it created the new advertising last year for Volkswagen. Now there was a brand that had lost its luster and consumer loyalty. The brand reflection of owning a VW had become neutral at best, with many potential car buyers believing that the iconic German brand now was boring and stodgy. The declining sales of VW’s reflected this declining brand reflection. Crispin came up with several edgy campaigns that, like them or not, injected some cool and fun back in the VW brand. Now owning a VW said you were hip and even kind of cutting edge about cars. The VW brand reflection was positive again, and sales rose (and are still rising). Of course, this coincided with VW also improving its product. But the brand communications work of Crispin and their frankly courageous VW clients played a major role in the company’s continuing comeback.

Back in the early 90′s, the issue of unfair labor practices by American companies who had their products manufactured in Third World nations became a major problem for brands such as Nike and Reebok (in fact, all the athletic shoe and apparel companies). Reebok took the lead in developing its own labor standards for overseas manufacturing and then made it a point to monitor and enforce those standards. Nike, on the other hand, did not. In its usual combative style, Nike tried to fight the efforts to promote fair labor practices in overseas contract manufacturing facilities, claiming that they paid a decent wage given the local standards.

Because of its forward thinking actions to deal positively with the issue of foreign labor practices and standards, Reebok’s brand was enhanced. By contrast, Nike became the target of consumer boycotts and seemingly endless negative publicity stirred up by global labor activists. It was a black mark on the Nike brand, which did not help the brand reflection. Many progressive consumers (especially young people) did not want to be seen as supporting a company that exploited poor workers in the Third World, so they stopped buying Nike products. Nike eventually relented because they knew the negative reflection could be devastating to their brand. The company has since adopted the labor standards that it should have embraced early on, and Nike is again the global leader in its market.

Brand reflection is a powerful asset for the brand manager. It has to be nurtured, protected and promoted. Otherwise, the reflection can end up being a negative one. And, that can kill brands.

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