Wednesday, December 03, 2008

AND BOOM GO THE BRANDS

First we learned there were no 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'. Then we learned the banks were trading worthless securities. Well, I'm now waiting for advertisers to wake up and realize their branding is also worthless.

Because, in a way, a lot of branding resembles sub-prime mortgages. Much of it is intellectual property that has been way, way overvalued. Can branding alone keep a stock afloat? Maybe, but I'm not betting on it.

Branding can only leverage consumer confidence so far. As personal assets decline, overextended brands will stumble. When the dust settles, Branding 2.0 might not even resemble the current practice.

For the purposes of this article a brand is a mark (graphic, sonic or otherwise) plus the perception of the company, product, service or experience which the mark is synonymous with (not to be confused with other creative assets purposed solely as sales generators).

How then does a mark become a Brand?

A brand is born as a symbol: a maker's mark. But a maker's mark has no value until customers endow it with such. Brands aren't born so much as they evolve, the result of a dynamic process that requires the input of both product or service provider –and consumer, viewer, user or audience.

Too many brand handlers have for too long operated on the premise that the assets they represent and manage have inherent value independent of third party perception. Try as one might to position a company (or product, service or experience) –a valid and important task– perception, nevertheless, alone determines value and remains the true brand essence.

Also, like physical property, the value of intellectual property fluctuates according to value of neighboring properties.

Value is never an independent variable. It is always dependent on consensus.

BV=C+D [Brand Value = Consensus + Demand]

In that way, these symbols and the companies, products and services they grace also resemble a floating currency.

In the case of a floating currency, value is determined by a combination of Faith and Trust, relative to other like commodities in the marketplace. Otherwise, the paper itself is valueless. The Dollar itself may not be pegged to gold anymore, but it's still pegged to Faith and Trust. And America, though the empire arguably looks a little wobbly today, is still nevertheless a great, solid brand. But can the same be said about many of the products that fill up our supermarkets and car dealerships? I'm not so sure.

A solid gold coin IS worth its weight in gold, by virtue of the inherent worth of the rare mineral on the open market. But the US dollar is accepted on 'Full Faith and Credit' of the Federal Government. Just like a Pick Up Truck is accepted on the Full Faith and Trust of General Motors.

In the case of the U.S. Government,'Full Faith and Credit' is defined as:

"Unconditional commitment to pay interest and principal on debt, usually issued or guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury or another government entity". (source)

In the case of Your Favorite Brand,'Full Faith and Trust' is defined as:

Unconditional commitment to a consistent standard in the provision of products, services and maintenance, for a fair price, relative to other market entities.

Most brands are not pegged to any kind of standard beyond an Art Director's aesthetic, and his or her gold standard is the latest award that sits on the shelf above his or her desk. Not exactly exchangeable on the free market.

Too often great advertising campaigns are fronts for failing companies. All the worse when the company starts failing after their commercials begin winning prestigious awards based on creativity. I know what I'm talking about. I've worked on award winning advertising campaigns and watched stock prices drop even as the advertising agency was congratulating itself for all the awards it was receiving for creative excellence.

Why are so many people in marketing so disconnected from the causal effect their efforts are supposed to produce: Sales?

There ought be an award show where entrants are required to demonstrate that, indeed, sales purposed marketing assets performed on strategy, as a prerequisite to consideration.

ALL THE PARADIGMS ARE BROKEN – EVEN THE NEW ONES


One thing we're learning about market activity in the new millennium is that it isn't just one or two business models and paradigms that have outlived their usefulness, but dozens –maybe all of them.

I first experienced this disconnect on a personnel level ten years ago, shortly after I founded BLISTER MEDIA, Silicon Alley's first Interactive Audio provider. By virtue of our positioning we generated a fair bit of buzz about the company and that translated into press mentions and all sorts of awards and recognition. But even though word-of-mouth won us notice, and our work earned us Industry recognition, that didn't mean new clients were storming the doors to work with us. We still had to win jobs by building personal relationships and in fact, relied on them. So, even though we had what amounted to an apparently buzz worthy micro-brand, that fact alone didn't actually win us any business.

The only thing that mattered was the relationships, and the quality of our work, and in that order, I might add. When I considered my own products and service choices, I realized the same kind of processes often applied. Only Faith and Trust earned by a solid ongoing relationship resulted in my own consumer choices. I only turned to NEW and NEW IMPROVED when the old relationships broke that trust. And I was angry when trustworthy brands became new but not necessarily improved, as when they changed the taste of classic Doritos.

This transformation of my thinking began in 1998, when I realized that I could no longer simply do my job operating purely as an expert in music or as a creative project manager. In order to provide adequate audio solutions to the agencies, brands and entertainment companies that I was working with, I needed more than a good ear and a turntable: I needed to understand positioning, branding, marketing, linguistics, semiotics, storytelling, consumer psychology –and perhaps to an even more comprehensive degree than my clients.

I've also come to realize that negative space is as important to the presentation of brand assets as the assets themselves. Does one experience a design as positioned in a space, or boldly distinguishing itself from the negative space around it? In a retail environment negative space isn't an empty vacuum, but everything else inhabiting the space. In the same way, music must compete with interference, or any emotive message it might deliver will be swallowed up by its own contribution to the noise threshold.

The second lesson I learned: Of Branding, Identity and Equity, the most important is the latter, Equity. Equity will produce the former whether you execute a directive to do so or not. The mark at the top of your stationary will help a book keeper differentiate your invoice from another vendor's –so you have a good chance of getting paid after a sale– but, really, don't expect letterhead to produce sales leads, horse before the cart and all that.

Extrapolate as necessary and apply to your multi-million dollar image campaign.

The same principals apply when one considers why Sound Mark development or its Commercial Scoring cousin works or doesn't work. If you're a member of the human species I'm going to assume you've heard Walter Werzowa's 3-second, 5-note INTEL 'bong' sonic logo, which according to Wikipedia "is broadcast somewhere in the world every five minutes". If you haven't, then I commend you for having managed to discover the Critical Noise blog before stumbling upon the most frequently sounded sonic brand logo on the planet (circa 1994–2009). Here's the logo:


The INTEL Logo probably didn't create new retail customers, but existing INTEL customers hear the electro-marimba sting, and it certainly reinforces their relationship with what they already either think is, or isn't, a great brand. Advertisers who accept the concept of sonic branding as a legitimate asset may hope it serves more than simply as a mnemonic, but that it will also initiate some sales. Honestly, that's unlikely, even if some creative professionals who produce such sonic solutions promise the world and present some stats to support their pitch.

Wow, I'd like to see those analytics and meet the copywriter that created them. If we can learn anything from the current global financial crisis, it's that formulas are capable of producing elasticity in results, and therefore any formula used as a sales tool can not be taken for granted. Sometimes, as a doctor might tell you, a gut feeling is a more accurate measure of reality than a number.

Fortunately, a Return on Investment (ROI) is not the only measure of creative, experiential or perceptive value.


THE TRUE MEASUREMENT OF A MARK

How do you measure experience? How do you measure feeling? You probably already know that you can measure movies with Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, films frequently demonstrate Quality, Likability and Profit can and often are quite independent of the other. Doctor's use pain charts and the feedback from such things varies according to individual capacity to accommodate negative stimulation. Not really a good deal more scientific than estimating the degree of difference between 'ouch' and a blood curdling scream. So, that said, I think it unlikely that any brand and marketing department is going to out-analyze and out-stat the medical profession anytime soon –although, arguably, the engagement analysts that observe user activity on a given website may have a pretty good head start.

In practical terms, Sound Marks, specifically, do only two things very well: Distinguish/Differentiate and serve as a mnemonic. Non-musical and non-melodic marks might not even be capable of serving as a mnemonic. Not to mention the investment return on a bong is probably impossible to value. However, what you can do is measure the ratio between negative to positive emotion and use the results to manage perception.

Retail music packaging might indeed increase sales, if only by increasing pleasure perception, enhancing experience and therefore extending 'linger time' –but not by some manipulative music psychology magic that turns reticent visitors into buy-frenzy consumers. More likely you will turn them into fans first, and that will translate into sales and word-of-mouth advertising. But I categorize music supervision services like the kinds Muzak is long famous for as less branding than packaging –unless your definition of branding is so elastic that it includes 'EVERYTHING WE DO'. There's merit to that definition, but not in an article like this where I must limit terms in order to investigate specifities.

Network and cable music and sound design packaging won't make you watch a channel, won't even influence your viewing preferences, but it will help you remember what channel your favorite show is on.

I absolutely do think that a music or sound design score accompanying a televised ad campaign can and should be held accountable by analysts. But brand assets? Personally, I don't think you can or should measure branding or what the trade calls Image campaigns by a ROI yardstick. –Unless you understand that though your investment is monetary based, the return is not, and therefore needs to be measured by another scale.

THE ONLY ANALYTICS THAT COUNT

Some transactions have no measurable value but to increase goodwill. If you don't think goodwill serves any importance, than consider what abandoning diplomatic missions overseas would do to Brand America. The Peace Corps may not be a profit-making enterprise, but the amount of good will it spreads around the world on behalf of the American brand is beyond measure by any current analytic.

That's because, unlike the stark pitches of direct marketing, which must deliver sales, some of the best branding (and sonic branding) is –ironically– transparent.

Consider Conversation:

When you and I communicate, we discuss things. I hear you but I don't consider the relative weight of each and every word you utter (unless we're negotiating a legal contract). Instead, I receive an overall meaning from you and go with it. Just like musical improvisation, I'm not thinking 'oh, and now here comes the D flat seven' –there's no time– I'm just responding. Likewise, in conversation, the individual words are incidental, the snappy phrases mnemonic, but in the end all that really matters is that you live not by your specific words –mnemonics aside– but the meanings and message you broadcast which can be translated into consistent behavioral observations. And this assumes you and I both share some degree of fluency in the same language. If you do, you win my faith and trust, and emerge branded as good, decent, honorable and worthy of one or more transactions. If you don't, you're branded as a rascal, a troll –someone who can't be trusted, someone who will sell me junk.

We can certainly enjoy communication using silent cues, but Sound adds Dimension; Music adds Emotion; Melody creates (and colors) Memories. And you know you have a hit when people sing along. Practically speaking, Silence is not an option. Either you, your client and your customers will create the context in which to have the conversation, or consumers will do it alone without you. If the latter is okay with you, then good news, you can fire your entire marketing department. But why would you choose not to use one of the most effective means of communication in your Branding & Marketing tool kit? Filmed entertainment doesn't need sound –or color (do we even need movies?)– but do you see anyone rushing back to silent film?

Music creates feeling and ingrains itself into memory like few other sensory elements available to us. It enhances every experience known to man: Kisses are more romantic with strings; explosions have a greater impact supported by timpani. Strings alone might even  make you feel romantic; timpani alone might even call to mind thunder. So, clearly, if we ask our branding to help us distinguish one product, service or experience from another, then sonic branding, in particular, can do just that, and do so quite capably. But will it drive sales? It may or it may not, but what it will certainly do is it will help audiences, consumers and users make a choice that is shaped by both their knowledge about a product and their feelings about and toward a particular brand.

Signification of all kinds communicates messages and meaning, and as such can be used to identify geographical and psychological locations, and influence direction and activity. But Musical Signification almost uniquely also influences how we feel as we make the choices we make.

It's not magic however. Unfortunately, for those who were hoping that branding alone would sustain them through a down market, I think they put too much faith in symbolism.

Sure, it might work for COKE, but will it work for you?

* * *

Happy to say that his article appears to be right on zeitgeist, for as it happens, the following offer two recent publications that cover some the same material:

A Funny Thing Happened When I Cut My Ad Spend – Nothing
By Peter Daboll, CEO of Bunchball, and published December 2nd 2008, in Adage

And recently published:

The Brand Bubble
By John Gerzema and Edward Lebar, and published October 2008 and available @ Amazon.

2 comments:

Noel Franus said...

Terry -- really great thinking here. Thanks for sharing.

I'd take the sandbox that is "conversation" and make it bigger; conversation is an ongoing dialogue, not just the start of one.

And the role of music/sound/melody in support of that dialogue should live far beyond the mnemonic as well...the blips and bleeps of the products we use, the physical spaces that spring to life (or don't) with sound, the service interactions over the phone that support (or don't) a company's true brand promise.

This 'ecosystem' of touchpoints and experiences is the conversation. And you're right; it's either we or our consumers who will guide that conversation.

You can't not use sound, so we might as well make something useful out of this, traditional ROI be damned.

Terry O'Gara said...

Noel,

Honored to have you comment here. 'The Conversation' is indeed an extensive topic in and of itself, though I only touch on it here. You certainly now have me thinking about it further, and I might very well spin that line of inquiry out, as you suggest, at some later date.

For Critical Noise readers not familiar with Noel Franus, check out his Intentional Audio blog @: http://www.intentionalaudio.com/blog/