Dear CMO:

I was absolutely sure, about ten years ago, that the whole question of branding was divining where on the axis of freedom and fear you fell. You were aiming at one or the other. In a way, this is still true. You want to drive the XTerra because Lenny Kravitz is singing “Fly Away” and you, too, want to fly away, with the wind whistling through your hair, leaving all human cares behind, right? And you don’t want to be the trucker on the road to Albuquerque, particularly when he thinks he’s on the road to Fresno (thanks to the IBM Help Desk and the team at Ogilvy — great ads). Back in my OnStar days, it was all about fear. “Don’t leave home without it,” Karl Malden whispered ominously in our ears. OnStar was about a head-on collision on a dark, deserted road in a place far from home. Of course, our consumers were all 70-year old Cadillac drivers, so you can forgive them for not wanting anything else.

All this being said, “my thinking has evolved.”

Branding is movement. Branding gives the consumer a means to transition.

People are gregarious, social beings. Regardless of what the Stoics say, you can’t really view yourself outside the context of how others see you and remain a member of society. We’re just built this way. We view ourselves through the eyes of others. This is why we are always moving from where we are to where we want to be. This has dramatically accelerated in recent months with the explosion of, blogging,, podcasting, and all forms of self-publishing. We’re all trying to transform ourselves into someone new, preferably someone famous. And this phenomenon of rapidly changeable personas is only gaining momentum.

We are all keenly aware of our relative position in life – as a family member, a community contributor, a teammate on a club tennis ladder, a significant other, a boss, a subordinate. In each of these ‘places’ we have aspirations to “move” towards a new place that we like more than where we are today. Branding allows us to make this move. Are you uncool? Be cool. Unloved? Be surrounded by beautiful women. Stressed out? Relax, and be in control. Unsuccessful? Be successful. All elements of branding DNA.

You have to take the viewer to a place they want to go. If you don’t offer a compelling ride, they won’t care, won’t listen, and won’t buy.

Here are two great examples, both in the same vein. Remember Tang? Of course you do. It’s the powdered orange drink that… what? Right. That the astronauts drink, we all say in unison. Does the average eight-year-old want to be more like an astronaut? Yes, he sure does. Eight year olds are tired of being told what to do, aren’t crazy about brushing their teeth, and want to stay up late and watch more TV. Being an astronaut solves a lot of this. And so mom buys Tang.

Conversely, did you buy your headset because it went to the moon? Well, did you? (Hello… is this thing on?). I don’t care where your headset has been. Branding is about me and where you can take me. It’s not about you.

But let’s not be dismissive. Why, again, do I care whether my headset went to the moon? Do I understand exactly how hostile an environment space really is? Do I understand that there is no one to help you if your headset fails in space? Do I care that this company’s headsets are still designed with that same mission critical mindset and that every product they make is built to work, every time, no matter what? Do I care that as a serious road-warrior, I just can’t afford for my stuff not to work? And do I care that if I think my work is mission critical – which I do, believe me – then I should use this headset, the one that went to the moon, because this brand gives me the confidence I need in their reliability and durability – the same confidence and reliability and durability that I strive to represent to my team, my boss and my shareholders, every day?

Stop. You had me at moon shot.

This can be a very subtle difference. I think we can all acknowledge the difference between early adopter, purely technical products that, by necessity, focus on speeds and feeds, and mass market products that rely on judgmental spending. Harley Davidson is about riding, not motorcycles, but motorcycles are at the heart of the experience. Nokia is about ‘connecting people’, but the human factors and aesthetics of their products deliver the brand promise. And don’t get me started about Apple – human-factors driven design, innovation, and interestingly — exclusivity.

So let’s agree on this much. Branding – the development of a sustained, consumer franchise – requires that a series of emotional responses take place when the consumer is exposed to your message. If you don’t have this idea of transitioning the consumer from one place to another, you won’t engage them. In short, this isn’t a static element, but a very dynamic one. Branding that moves people from one state to another is just more compelling and more successful than those that rely on a single data point. Just my opinion, of course.

Pay attention when you look at someone else’s branding for the next few days. Does it offer you a ride? Or just tell you where it’s been?


Copyright © 2006 Stephen Denny