Authenticity- the foundation stone of brand philosophy

Posted November 8, 2006 by kumarnareshk
Categories: Branding, Brands, Business, Marketing

At the core of all great brands is Authenticity. And it is my firm belief that this is the essential difference between great brands and mediocre brands. 

If you think about it, almost every action of every individual is tied to that individual’s self-worth. Our actions and reactions are all designed by our subconscious ego to increase our self-worth. When we get a raise, we feel happy- our self-worth has got affirmed by the outside world, so it increases. When our boss yells at us, our self-worth takes a beating, so in an automatic, unconscious attempt to balance the scale, we feel angry with our boss, feel we have been unjustly wronged. Or our self-worth actually plummets, and we feel “low” or depressed. 

Either way, the problem is apparent- we have made our self-worth a dependent variable on external factors. 

It is “perception of self” that is the real villain. We all have a self-image, a mental picture of ourselves as we’d like to be, not necessarily as we are. What changes with external events is this self-image. So, for instance, John would like to be a witty and humorous man. What happens when he cracks a joke, and no-one laughs? Either he sarcastically dismisses everybody as ”dumb” (an attempt to hold on to self-image) or he gets into a blue funk (he is aware of a gap between self and self-image, and the awareness is painful to him). 

 Authenticity is simply “self-awareness + self-acceptance” – a result of the ability to delink self-worth from external events. 

 To an authentic person, there isn’t an image of what “he’d like to be”. He knows what his shortcomings and his strengths are, but for him, they are devoid of any emotional or “self-worth” significance. He simply IS what he is, warts and all. He doesn’t go around thrusting this into everybody’s face (that is only another form of inadequacy, which has been sexified by giving it the fashionable moniker “attitude”), but there are no apologies either. He is fine with what he is, because he knows EVERYONE- no exceptions- has shortcomings and strengths. This is why no individual is ideal, but every individual is unique. 

 Why is this relevant to brand philosophy? Because brand philosophy works on the same principles as human philosophy.  Let me explain. 


 If you take the mission / vision statements of five different companies, and put them on a table in front of you, after blanking out all names and logos, I wager you won’t be able to make out one from the other. They all seem to be saying the same things- “superior value” customer service”, “respect for the individual”, “quality” et al. The issue is not whether or not five companies CAN believe in the same things. The issue is whether they really DO. My contention is they do not. My contention is that they put all these words in, because they want to “look good”, not necessarily because they feel deeply about them. In other words, they are trying to be ideal. In the process, they end up being inauthentic, and certainly not unique. And this is a major failure, because differentiation is the essence of brand strategy. 

 Perhaps a large part of this is due to the common perception in corporate circles of a mission / vision statement as a piece of communication to the outside world, not as an indoctrination of their deepest values and beliefs. This is why you see mission/vision statements hung at the reception of every big company.  

It takes authenticity to cut through the illusion of an idealized self-image to realize what one is truly about. What one holds dear, and what one does not. What one believes in, and what one does not. Sony was passionate about technology, but not too turned on by customer service. Walt Disney didn’t give a hoot about “respect for the individual”- he was a highly abrasive man. Whether a Mercedes gives “superior value” in the conventional sense is a matter of debate. 

 Brand philosophy, at the end of the day, has to be a true representation of what the people behind it value and hold dear at the deepest level- what their “take on life” really is. Yes, it is possible for a company to decide upon a certain philosophy because an attractive potential target segment might like it. But they would then have to ensure that the people behind the brand passionately share the same “take on life”. If they don’t, the fate is clear- no authenticity, no self-confidence. No self-confidence, no charisma (see previous post). No charisma, mediocre brands. And this is why authenticity has be one of the two foundation stones of every brand’s philosophy.  

 The other foundation stone is integrity, which I’ll deal with in my next post.


Brand Philosophy- the core of Brand Strategy (Part I)

Posted November 6, 2006 by kumarnareshk
Categories: Branding, Brands, Business, Marketing

What is brand philosophy? 

Well, it goes by different names, such as brand vision, brand belief and the like, but at heart, they are all the same. Quite simply put, brand philosophy is the brand’s “take on life”.  It is what the brand, at its very core, stands for. 

Why should a brand stand for anything? Isn’t it merely a business tool? Why load it with things like “philosophy” and “belief” and “standing for something”?

Because, as we saw before, people relate to brands they way they relate to people.  There is a well-known saying which goes-“If you stand for something, there will always be some people for you and some people against you. If you stand for nothing, there may be no-one against you, but there will be no-one for you either.” Just think of your relationships with people. In general, it is seen that there are broadly three kinds of relationships- acquaintances, friends and close friends. These correspond closely to the three levels of interaction that I mentioned in an earlier post (See figure below).   picture2.jpg

Acquaintances are those with whom we have a very superficial relationship, based solely on interactions at the identity / speech level. We know their identity, make small talk with them, listen to their small talk.  When we talk about them to other people, it is generally regarding fairly superficial areas such as their dress, their manner of speech, the way they conduct themselves, and so on. We form a rather dilute liking for (or dislike for) them. In many cases, we are genuinely indifferent to them (your bank teller, or a friend’s friend). Importantly, there is a marked lack of intensity in such a relationship- ”Out of sight, Out of mind” would pretty much sum it up. The key reason – the person really does not make much of a difference in our lives at all.  At the next level are friends – people with whom we have a slightly deeper relationship, based on actions / activities. These are people with whom we spend time with- go out for movies, parties, trips etc. Levels of liking are stronger here, and feelings are more intense. We talk with them (and about them to other people) on areas such as their work, their interests and hobbies, their talents and ambitions, and their relationships (“What does he see in her”?). These people take up much more of or mind-space- we wish them on their birthdays and anniversaries, we buy books (or CDs or decorative pieces) we think they’d like. They have relatively much greater importance in our lives. 

At the third level are a very few, select individuals who are our closest friends. We feel a tremendous connection with them, and admire them for some qualities, at the same time. We share more with them about ourselves than with anyone else. We constantly advise, and take advice from, them on life’s most important and profound issues. These are the people with whom we have the fewest guards, walls or inhibitions of any kind. These are people whom we TRUST implicitly. They are the lighthouses in our lives- we navigate our way through life with their help. They help us better define our sense of self. And there is a high degree of emotional intensity in such relationships.  

 These are the most important people in our lives. And the primary reason they are so is because their deepest values, belief systems, and “take on life” are most similar to ours. This is not to say that we cannot have a very different viewpoint from our close friends on some issues. We could. But on the whole, there is quite a large area of overlap on such issues.

It is the same with brands. If we want people to form deep relationships with our brand, if we want it to have high importance in their lives, the brand needs to have a clear set of values, a distinctive take on life that substantial numbers of people can relate to, and buy into. 

There is another good reason why brand philosophy has to be fountainhead of strategy.  As I’d said in an earlier post, a powerful brand needs to have alignment between its values, activities/ actions, and communication. Alignment implies that one of the three has to be reference point. Now obviously communication cannot be the reference point. Not only will specific communication (advertising, packaging etc.) change over time, even the broader message will change depending upon the requirement (for instance, a brand extension into a new category, or for an IPO).  

Similarly, actions and activities cannot be static over time for obvious reasons. A brand will constantly need to do new things to satisfy needs, build more capabilities, develop more products and so on. 

But values can, and should, stay constant. We expect it of someone we trust that regardless of what else changes, their values will not. Vaues are the only thing that need not depend on market or environmental conditions. They are the true lighthouse. It is of course technically possible to keep changing values depending on conditions, but that is the surest way to rapid erosion of consumers’ (indeed, all stakeholders’) trust. No trust, and you soon have no brand.  Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ classic “Built to Last” illustrates this powerfully. It deals with what they call “visionary companies” and “comparison companies”. Visionary companies are those that are the gold medalists- 50 years or more of spectacular success (Sony, Citibank, J&J etc). Comparison companies are also good companies (Kenwood, Chase Manhattan, Pfizer etc), but they are distinctly “silver medalists”. Tracking stock returns over 76 years, the authors found that the average stock returns of the “gold medalist” companies were almost 16 times higher than that of the “silver medalists”.  But here’s the key point- every single one of the “gold medalist” companies, right at the inception stage, codified a clear vision – their core purpose (a higher order purpose, beyond just making money that would make a real difference to the world), and the non-negotiable values that would guide their every action. 

Not all of those companies are doing as well today. But then, no company can be successful forever- there will be ups and downs. The key thing is that for a very long time, these companies have, with great charisma and vision, captured the imaginations, and changed the lives, of millions of people. (In India, there can be no better example than the Tatas – founded in 1900 on a clear philosophy of upliftment of the people and the nation).  

And there, finally, we have the word- CHARISMA. Great brands are about charisma.  In his book “Organisational Behaviour “ Stephen P Robbins (1998) has broken down the magic of charismatic leaders (people studied included people like John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs) into seven key characteristics, of which the top four are- self-confidence, a vision, ability to articulate the vision, and strong convictions about the vision. I think this makes the case more completely than anything else.

In Part II of this article (next post), I’ll delve further into how to develop a brand philosophy.

Brand building- Meaning, alignment and synergy

Posted November 3, 2006 by kumarnareshk
Categories: Branding, Brands, Business, Marketing

In the highly networked and information rich world that we live in today, companies are far more transparent than they ever were before. People read in the newspapers about a company’s merger and expansion plans. People speak to employees and ex-employees. Company policies and corporate governance practices are talked about in the media regularly. People experience the brand on the website, telephone answering machines, receptionists, customer service executives etc. They know when a company is cut-throat, unprincipled, or when it has a social conscience.  This means that everything about a company or brand adds to the total net impression in the minds of people (See figure below). 

Net impression

The ME in the figure signifies the prejudices, inclinations, assumptions and so on that make up the mental framework of the stakeholder- for instance, our automatic assumption that public sector units are inefficient and uncaring of customers. 

A key aspect is alignment between communication, activities and values / beliefs. In a company context, this means that everything- including company culture, frontline staff behaviour, restructuring plans, processes etc.- need to be in total sync. A company which claims “We Care” and then slashes thousands of jobs is inconsistent. A company which professes customer service as its value, but puts you on hold interminably when you call them is inconsistent.  A company which talks about “Building Tomorrow” but is characterized by old-world bureaucracy is inconsistent. 

Building a brand therefore, entails orchestrating all aspects of an organisation around a central organizing principle, a created, richly textured entity, which key stakeholders would like to form deep relationships with. 

Advertising strategy, packaging strategy, internal communication strategy etc. are not brand strategy, although the terms are often used interchangeably by such specialists.  To use a musical analogy, brand strategy is like an elaborate classical composition – it has violins, drums, oboes, soprano, bass etc., but all of these only play specific roles in the overall composition. It is only when all of these play in concert, guided by a conductor who has the holistic perspective, that the symphony comes alive in all its grandeur.  

In the next post, I’ll start exploring each of these components in detail.

Brands and relationships

Posted November 2, 2006 by kumarnareshk
Categories: Branding, Brands, Business, Marketing

To recap – Perhaps the best way to understand brands is through the metaphor of our relationships with other people. We form deep relationships with people who are sufficiently similar to us, and at the same time sufficiently different from us, in the things that matter most to us, such that the relationship is a mutually value-enhancing one (Value in the broader sense, not necessarily in a commercial or materialistic sense).

The question is : How do we assess people for similarities and differences? Broadly, there are three aspects. 

At the first level of interaction is basic identity, looks and speech. What is the person’s name, and family background? Which field is she in? Is the person tall, short, good looking? How is s/he dressed? What does this say about him (has taste, is vain, is relaxed etc.)? What does he or she talk about?  What is the tone, manner and style (humorous, sophisticated, loud, pompous etc.)? What do I feel about what I see and hear of that person? 

Once we start to know a person a little better over a period of time, the person’s actions and activities also start to play a role in our net impression. What does s/he do for a living? How well does s/he do it? What are his /her skills and talents? What are his / her favourite leisure activities? How does the person conduct his / herself- in public  and private? How do they act / react in different situations? What do I feel overall about their actions and activities? 

Once we know the person well, the assessment gets deeper. What are the person’s values / beliefs? What is his / her take on life? How trustworthy is the person? What is s/he passionate about? What are his/her likes and dislikes? Can I count on that person to be there when I need him? Can I count on her to always do the fair thing? What do I connect with them on, and what do I admire about them? 

Clearly, these are not strictly linear-sequential, watertight compartments, and there is bound to be some overlap. For instance, what a person does for a living could very well be part of a person’s identity in a business context. Or a person’s appearance may count for very little in an Internet chat, while values and “take on life” may count for a lot. However, broadly this is the general pattern that is followed when we form relationships with people. 

At a meta level, there are two other critical parameters of assessment :

  1. How consistent is the person across the three levels i.e. between what he communicates, what he does and what he believes in?
  2. What do other people (whose opinion I value) feel about this person overall?

If you think about it, people relate with brands in almost exactly the same way.Of course brand communications are important (this includes advertising, PR, packaging, etc.) But at the end of the day, IT IS STILL ONLY ON THE OUTERMOST, SUPERFICIAL LEVEL. (The funny thing is that in many brands, there is not even consistency across the brand’s communications i.e. across this single level, leave alone between three levels.) A brand really is a composite of its communications, every single one of its activities, its values, beliefs and skills, and much, much more. 

In the next post, we’ll see the true scope of brands and brand strategy.

Ramble through the countryside #1- Through the Evolutionary Looking-glass

Posted October 27, 2006 by kumarnareshk
Categories: Branding, Brands, Business, Marketing

Ever played “Minefield” on your computer? If you have, then you know how, when you click on certain squares near the edge of the open area, suddenly a whole new area opens up. 

Aaker’s metaphor (in my previous post) opens up a similar area in brand world.  

Let’s say, for working purposes, that we think of a brand as a created entity that enables an organization to have a sustainable, trust-based relationship with a certain group of people, that is mutually value-enhancing

Right away, it becomes clear that understanding human relationships- how humans relate to one another, as well as everything else- is critical for understanding brands. And this is where the complexity begins. 

Let’s think about this for a moment.  How do we, for instance, relate to another human being?  It is an infinitely complex area, and I wouldn’t pretend to be remotely qualified in psychoanalysis or related fields, to be able to answer this with any authority.

But here’s one thing I do know – We like and relate with people who are sufficiently similar to us, and at the same time sufficiently different from us, in the things that matter most to us.  

The first is obvious enough, but the second seems counter-intuitive, right? Let me elaborate. 

Of all the different fields that help in understanding marketing, I personally think there is none more profound than evolutionary psychology. Simply put, it is the science of explaining human behaviour from the point of its evolutionary advantage.  Its underlying premise is that humans have been programmed over millions of years with traits and characteristics that give them an evolutionary edge. A couple of centuries of civilization are hardly likely to erase those programs- they simply find new forms of expression. One of the foundational theories of evolutionary psychology is that of reciprocal altruism. The theory states that certain species realized along the evolutionary journey that their best chances of survival lay in working together in ways that result in mutual benefit.  In bees, for instance, there is only one queen bee, along with a few male bees that are able to reproduce. The rest are all drones – sterile bees that are unable to reproduce. But the drones are the ones which gather honey, build the beehive and generally take care of the queen bee and her numerous eggs. Without the queen bee, there would be no propagation of species. But neither would there be without the drones, for there would be no-one to gather honey, and take care of the queen bee and her eggs. If the drones had not served this very critical evolutionary purpose, there would have been no reason for queen bees to give birth to drones any more, and evolution would have ensured that they had died out. We can see numerous examples of this in the animal kingdom. A wounded tiger or leopard will die soon, unable to hunt. But a wounded lioness will live much longer- because lions live in prides. The wounded lioness usually takes on the responsibility of looking after the cubs while the pride is away hunting.  In return, the pride feeds her and looks after her.The enormous evolutionary success of the human race owes a great deal to this trait. When Stephen Covey made the notion of interdependence famous in his classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, he was really talking about wisdom that is over a million years old. The essence of interdependence is that two or more people working together produce more results that are beneficial to each, than if each were working alone.  The fundamental assumption here, of course, is that both have something precious that the other values, but does not have. This is the context in which I had said We like and relate with people who are sufficiently similar to us, and at the same time sufficiently different from us, in the things that matter most to us.” 

In the next post, we’ll explore human relationships further, in our quest to understand brands.

Definition vs. Metaphor

Posted October 26, 2006 by kumarnareshk
Categories: Branding, Brands, Business, Marketing

Definitions are attempts to capture in words, as precisely and succinctly as possible, the understanding of an idea or thing.  Since precision, succinctness, “capturing” are all left-brain traits, the attempt to define something is essentially a left-brain exercise. And there lies the rub. One can easily define something like a “metre”, or “ampere”, or even “nation”, because these are all man-made conventions, springing from the left brain. Using a left-brain tool for a left-brain concept is no big deal. 

But what happens when you try to define “beauty”? Or “Love”? Or ”Joy”? 

Left-brain cognition is only a small part of the total human experience. This is why no definition can ever do justice to concepts which extend beyond. The reason why a brand is so difficult to define, is because a brand’s domain is not limited only to the left brain. The sum total of brand appeals to the body, mind, heart and spirit of people. To try and “capture” the totality of this experience in “succinct, precise” terms leaves it shorn of texture and granularity. Simply stating that “A brand is a product plus vales plus associations” (or most other working definitions) is merely paraphrasing what a brand does i.e. it appeals to the body, mind heart and spirit. What  it is, is still not totally clear. 

A far more effective method of communicating such concepts is by using metaphor. It may not be short or succinct. It primarily works through associations, which capture a much fuller range of texture and granularity. This is why no definition of “love” ever touches us, but poetry moves us so deeply. 

To understand what a brand is, therefore, one would be much better served by metaphor. In this regard, there is nothing better than the profound simplicity of what the master of them all, David Aaker, has said : “Just think about your relationships with people. The people you like and like to be around have certain characteristics which you associate with them. It’s the same with a brand. You want to have a relationship with a brand that has certain characteristics. You want to have brands that you can trust.”  

To date, I haven’t come across a collection of words that help me better understand what a brand, in essence, is. But here’s the interesting bit- Not only is the concept of a brand better understood by metaphor, a brand IS, in many ways, itself a metaphor. 

Simple, isn’t it?  “Almost disappointingly so”, some of you might think. With those, I’d like to share one of my favourite quote of all times, by Oliver Wendell Holmes “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity ; I’d give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity”  Anyone who has ever tried to sustain a deep relationship over time can figure out that Aaker’s metaphor actually is the distilled simplicity on the far side of complexity. In my next post, I’ll start exploring the contours of this complexity.

What IS a brand?

Posted October 25, 2006 by kumarnareshk
Categories: Branding, Brands, Business, Marketing

Why go back to such basics? Because I firmly believe that the basics, in many ways, represent the purest form of understanding. Human beings in general tend to lose the ability to distinguish between evolution and mutation after a period of time. If you want an example, look at any religion- what it started as, and where it is today. In any case, this question really isn’t as simple as we’d like to think. To illustrate the point, here are some popular definitions from around the world : 

“Brand : Name, term, symbol or design or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or groups of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competition” – American Marketing Association 

“Brand : the set of physical attributes of a product or service together with the beliefs and expectations surrounding it- a unique combination which the name or logo of the product or service should evoke in the mind of the audience” – British Chartered Institute of Marketing 

A brand is the sum total of all perceived functional and emotional aspects of a product or service” – Institute for Brand Leadership 

“A brand is a product, protected by a trademark, which through careful management and skilful promotion has come in the minds of consumers to embrace a particular and appealing set of values, both tangible and intangible”– Paul Stobart, Interbrand.  “A brand is the consumer’s idea of a product”– David Ogilvy.Do you get the feeling that there’s something missing here? I know I do. Most of the definitions are either long and laboured, or short but not terribly enlightening. Either ways, one doesn’t “get” what a brand really is from the definitions.  And the issue has much greater magnitude than we’d give it credit for. In 2003, Jeremy Bullmore, WPP’s marketing guru stated “Brands are fiendishly complicated, slippery, elusive, half-real / half virtual things. When CEOs try to think about brands, their brains hurt” Revisiting the basics doesn’t seem like such an amateurish idea now, does it?! In my humble opinion, the fundamental problem with all these attempts to define a brand is precisely that- that they are attempting to define a brand. I’ll address that in my next post – Definition vs. Metaphor