Join us on Monday, March 28th at 8:00PM Eastern / 5:00PM Pacific for #MMChat on Twitter to discuss Brand Tension!

“A lot of people said you can’t have a brand that is both luxury and irreverent. We disagreed.” Geoff Ross, founder of 42Below vodka.

Conventional wisdom says that branding is all about leaving a single, simple, indelible mark in your customer’s brain, that being known for that One Big Thing is the Holy Grail of marketing.

That’s why it’s called “conventional.”

And conventional may be fine for bureaucracies that grind along under the power of inertia, but for the rest of us – particularly those of us who get out of bed every morning and have to do battle with a Goliath of a competitor – “convention” is the last thing that should be driving our thinking.

A quick digression, first: when I began the interviews for writing Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath In Your Industry, I was sure that the idea of being great at that One Big Thing was a predictor of success. So much so, in fact, that I really did my best to steer discussions with some of the luminaries I interviewed down this path.

These same luminaries gently course-corrected my thinking, convincing me that my pre-conception was dangerous. In retrospect, I’m very glad they did – these interviews and their teachings have changed how I think about marketing and branding and have certainly impacted how I work with clients.

In Praise of “Interestingness.”

“There was no way I could be successful in the long run if I launched a single attribute brand,” Method’s co-founder Eric Ryan explained to me. “The giants would have figured us out.”

What is Method’s brand tension? Think part aesthetics – who else cared about how the soap bottle looked on your countertop or would have commissioned design guru Karim Rashid to create the first products? – and part sustainability – the company was the first real standard bearer for planet friendly formulations. But neither is above the other.

“Green is part of what we do and we do it because it’s the right thing to do and we can take advantage of that from time to time in our marketing where appropriate but it’s ultimately not how we compete as a business,” he continued. “We are a brand that delivers a better experience. That’s delivered in multiple ways from personality to fragrance to formula.” Today, Method is a $200 million brand in an industry space dominated by Fortune 500’s.

Geoff Ross, founder of New Zealand’s 42Below vodka, agrees. “My view is that brands are like people,” he explained. “You would far rather spend time with a person that is many things. – clever, witty, is sound and dependable, is a joker… this is in contrast to a lot of old brand thinking that states a brand should only be one thing.”  

42Below is certainly about more than just one thing. The brand describes itself as “the world’s most awarded vodka” on its website and is justifiably proud of its quality, from its distillation process to its glass bottles imported from France.

But it’s the brand’s commitment to the irreverent – what marketing consultant Simon Young describes as its “New Zealandishness” – that sets it apart. With an edgy tone that often borders on the absurd, the brand has won its share of fans and detractors. There have been boycotts. But with the brand’s acquisition by Bacardi in 2006 for $130 million and the new owner’s desire to retain the edge, 42Below is a clear example of “brand as personality” and brand tension.

Are these two brands alone in this quest for “interestingness”? I’d argue that they aren’t.

Is Apple “just about one thing”? Starbucks? Target? Is Amazon a “simple” brand? What about Audi? In B2B, would you argue that is a one dimensional brand?

What to do with this idea.

  1. What are the 2 or 3 big ideas that your brand represents at its DNA level? You know this already, but remember: this isn’t about aspirations and things you can layer on – it’s about what your brand already is in its bones.
  2. How do these 2 or 3 different and seemingly incompatible ideas work together? What do they become when they’re combined? Look at 42Below again, or Method. Premium but irreverent? Shouldn’t vodka brands be cold and aloof? Design aesthetics and sustainability? Shouldn’t “green” brands be more crunchy granola? Not necessarily and not necessarily, as it turns out.
  3. How can you bring this new “interestingness” to life? How many spokes can you draw from this new hub? If you’re re-designing your logo, does it have to be the generic “simplified version of its former self”?

When you realize that only being about one thing makes you easy to find, copy and kill, it gets less interesting. And potentially dangerous.

The idea of brand tension is an important branding idea and one I enjoyed writing about in Killing Giants. The book comes out on March 31st in the US, UK and all English speaking markets. I hope you like it! Thanks (in advance!).