Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2004


"What's in a name?  That which we call a Rose by any other name would smell as sweet" 
-- Romeo and Juliet, circa 1609

Within 100 years, the commercial world answered Shakespeare's rhetorical question with the first branded products:  Ireland's Smithwick's Ale, followed soon after by Guinness Stout.


Trademarks and brands are among the most hotly contested intellectual properties in the commercial world.  Don't believe me?  Just try making a commercial likeness of Mickey Mouse's ears, the Nike "swoosh", or Microsoft's Window panes.  A killer brand like Coke or Google can be valued in the billions.  Re-branding exercises have budgets in the millions, and are the subject of a lot of political maneuvering.  So brands must be pretty important, right?

Of course your brand is a valuable asset, but in B2B and high technology markets, branding can't be built the way most people think.  It's time for this month's marketing heresies ;-)

In high tech, a brand cannot be built:  it has to be earned.   Brand strength is the consequence of your actions -- it's your reputation boiled down to a name and logo.  The most powerful brands don't come from "marketing," but from great customer experiences:  terrific product quality, consistency, creativeness, performance, value, features, design, and style.  

Most branding exercises in high tech are a colossal waste of resources because they try to fix the effect without changing the cause. 

Although you can increase brand recognition with sheer saturation PR and advertising, it is incredibly expensive to do so.  Many a dot-com blew up because they tried to buy a brand, preoccupied with brand visibility and notbrand value.   In the long run, your brand is a reflection of your company's behavior and delivered value...not outbound marketing.

Excellence in branding is a lifelong commitment to making and fulfilling promises.
-- Rajesh Setty

So why does this matter?  If you think your marketing guy owns the brand -- in the sense that he can actually control its value -- you need to think again.  Borland spent $140 K coming up with the name "InPrise," and millions more buying brand visibility.  After 3 years they realized that customers still called them Borland... because that's where their reputation was.  InPrise, RIP.

You can't build a reputation on what you're going to do.                -- Henry Ford

If you are going to re-brand your company, spend some time before you spend the money.  Think through what you want people to associate with you (your name, your font, your symbol, your tag line, your color, your sound, your mascot, etc.).   What does your company or product mean to your customers?  What emotional connection do you have?  What customer emotion drives your sale (and make no mistake about it, there's an emotional component to every major purchase). 

When re-branding, make sure that the word(s) you are going to be associated with are:

  • evocative of some image or emotion (Virgin or TelePrompter are way better names on this score than Xerox or Kodak)

  • memorable and different from the crowd of your competitors (avoid names that sound like Pokemon characters)

  • easy to say and spell, even if you just heard it over the phone (Akio Morita chose "Sony" partly because it could be easily pronounced in all the world's major languages)

  • easy to turn into an available URL (avoid long character strings, abbreviations, or hyphens in your URL!)

  • can be turned into an available toll-free phone number (must be abbreviatable into 7 letters or less)

"There are two types of brands:  narrow and deep, or broad and shallow.  While the second type might offer greater sales potential, the first type offers greater profit potential and greater brand stability.  Brands that are narrow and deep are almost invulnerable to competitive attacks.  Think Rolex or even Timex in watches."  -- Al Ries

Branding effects are real, but they vary hugely by company situation.  Read on to find what matters in your business.

Consumer Markets

Consumers are busy, overwhelmed by the number and variety of marketing messages being thrown at them (3000+ per day) and by the number of purchase decisions they have to make.  Brands are a convenient shortcut or placeholder for categorizing product features, quality, price, stylishness, and fad appeal.  To be most effective, a consumer brand should have a clear position, make some sort of a promise (set expectations about quality, value, lifestyle), and evoke a personality or emotional tone.

The most ferocious branding activities occur in product categories where there's little discernable difference among competitors such as vodka, cigarettes, cosmetics, toiletries, cellular phone service, insurance, credit cards, and banking.   Brands also have very powerful effects in highly differentiated areas such as retailing (think Old Navy, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's), luxury items (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dom Perignon), media (Condé Nast, Disney, Playboy), beverages (Coke, Budweiser, Dewar's), apparel (Nike, Armani, DKNY), autos (Jaguar, BMW, Acura, Lexus, Infiniti), and consumer electronics (Apple, Bose, Bang & Olufson, Sony).  

In some cases, the brand literally is the value of the business because it's the unique mark that opens up shelf space and pulls customers in.  The brand image and associations (sex, power, "with-it-ness", etc.) of these brands are the basis of entire careers for advertising and marketing execs.

Unfortunately, brands can become perversely powerful:  a lousy product with a premium price may be able to maintain its cachet for years.  Eventually, though, the consumer sees through the veil of baloney, and once-mighty brands earn a new reputation as laughing stocks.  Think about what happened to Cadillac in the 1970s, Digital Equipment in the 90s, or Polaroid in 2000.

For a while, a consumer brand may be strong before it has been validated by customers' positive experience.  But don't count on this to last...and a tarnished brand will take years to recover.

Business to Business and High Technology Markets

B2B purchases are typically bigger and more critical to economic efficiency, so the decision cycles are more formal and analytic, with professional and disciplined purchasers.  Nobody buys an uninterruptible power supply or an industrial filter system because it has a sexy brand name.

That said, brands are very relevant as a shortcut to a set of known values and vendor attributes.   In virtually all industrial marketplaces, brands as well as reputations are built slowly - not through advertising.  Although there are short-term tricks, the serious players know that the way to build a brand is to make their customers successful.  The most powerful force in all branding is word-of-mouth.  

Appropriate branding activities depend on your industry position.  If you're highly credible (the biggest player, or oldest, or clearly have the highest reputation), branding activities should both leverage and reinforce your "big Kahuna" status.  The world already knows who you are, you want to project that you're the industry rock (think Veritas or SAP here).  On the other hand, fast-moving innovators want to be seen as iconoclasts who deliver superior value by following new rules and setting new trends.

CEOs and VCs will sometimes ask marketing to "build the brand in a major way."  This either indicates imprecise communication or a big mistake (they forgot they're in high tech).  B2B companies can build brand awareness (i.e., "I've heard of you") with a big budget, but Marketing can't really build brand credibility (i.e., "I respect you").  A strong brand is like a good credit rating:  you can't buy one, you have to earn it through good behavior.  Make every customer and prospect interaction the way you build your brand.


Although marketing services is very different from marketing products, the core of branding is similar:  your brand is as strong as your customers' experience.  

Looking at professional services such as law, consulting, finance, advertising, and agents, the brand can become phenomenally important indicators of influence and power.  Think about Chiat Day or Hal Riney in advertising or J. Walter Thompson in talent.  This degree of brand power can be quite ephemeral, however, sometimes established all too quickly by a stellar success (think: entertainment).  But even the strongest services brand can be washed away by a single bad deal or political scandal:  Arthur Andersen, Barings Bank, and Worldcomm quickly became destitute brands despite decades-long performance and expensive multi-year branding campaigns.


Phone Us +1 650 326 2626