MY BRAND RELIGION

There’s a poster floating around on Linked In posted by marketing guru Martin Lindstrom that says that “the world’s most successful brands are based on the exact same principles as religion”. Now this profound and provocative insight was gleaned by a fascinating FMRI, brain scanning study which found that some power brands like Apple and Harley-Davidson, activated the same regions in the brain as religion did. Yes, you got that right. The same grey matter lit up in proverbial multicolor when the subject was thinking about his faith and his favorite brands. So in his own immortal way Lindstrom [the boy Jesus of marketing who started his first agency at age 11 ] goes on to articulate what it takes to build a powerful religion and hey presto that turns out to be as good a gospel about brand building and the science of buying [brilliantly branded “Buyology” ] that you’ll ever find. But no paraphrasing of Lindstrom’s here, because dear reader I’d much rather share my brand religion.

“In the beginning was the word and the word was God” are the very first words of the Bible. And so it is true that the god called the brand begins with the selection of a word that will be its name. Now Shakespeare was wrong when he said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” because nothing is more important in marketing and brand building than picking the right name. Some say the brand name should be descriptive like AirBnB, Facebook and YouTube. Others will argue for a suggestive name like Alphabet, iPhone and Red Bull. A variation that others will prefer is a more symbolic suggestive name like Apple, Nike or Virgin. Then again there are those who flout all this for a coined name that simply stands out and is sticky; like [drumbeat] Google. Bottom line brand religion commandment #1: begin with the right word mark.

One more time with feeling: in the beginning was the word and the word was God. Note the emphasis on one word, one God — as if to say in parenthesis: “two words, two gods and that’s one too many”. Indeed we learn from the old testament that obeying more than one god is more than just frowned upon for as the Bible says: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods”. So in religion and in branding commandment #2 is “one word, one god” because although brands are ideas that people store away in the hearts and carry around in their heads about a name, great brand building comes down to owning just one word in the audience’s mind. And so it was that Colgate was built on owning the one word: “cavities” brought home beautifully through that catchy slogan “helps stop cavities before they start”. Similarly Fedex owned the one word “overnight” through its brilliant tagline: “when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight” [great example of the power of a wordy slogan by the way]. Conversely there are one word slogans like the old “invent” for HP and “safety” for Volvo. Infamously Volvo of course vacated the idea of “safety” to stand for “life” which might sound like evolution in the boardroom but proved too broad in real life. Looks like Google obeys the one word, one god commandment and won’t be vacating “search” anytime soon because when its brand domain became too wide with a host of unrelated businesses, it created the holding company, corporate brand “Alphabet”. Good word. Great name.

If you believe that words are ideas, the more figurative dimension of the law of “owning a word” is commandment #3: great brands are always built on the back of a single, big idea. Now ideas of course are not some magical thing that pop out of nowhere in that “eureka” moment. There is a technique for producing them because they are no more or less than new combinations that are uncovered through the process of immersion to insight to inventiveness. Now having learned that ideas are new combinations [and knowing that when working in Latin America it helps to pray], the good Catholic boy in me eventually formalized a process of “strategic triangulation” to create a big brand idea by finding a new combination between a marketplace insight or the “father”, an audience insight or the “son” and a brand insight or the “spirit”. And so we developed a planning system for Y&R Latam based on triangulating father X son X spirit to create god, the big brand idea following the Christian faith that there are three persons in one God for as the Lord’s prayer says: “In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit”.

Now although my Mom might consider it blasphemy, this “father, son, spirit” metaphor for marketplace, audience and brand resonates very strongly with me, especially the notion of brand as spirit. No I don’t literally think of a brand coming down on me like the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles in the form of a flame which empowered and transform them to go out and bravely spread the gospel in every tongue under the sun. Nevertheless as powerful as the metaphors of “brands as people” or “brands as natural species” [ where only the individual with the sharper beak, longer horn or brighter feather will survive and procreate its kind] “brand as spirit” is even more powerful. So commandment #4 is to thrive on thinking about a brand as a spirit. Strive to find that essential energy, essence, source of vitality or soul. That’s the stuff that will live on regardless of the product’s changing physical form. Net, net once you find your brand spirit, never stop fanning the flame.

Once the brand’s spirit is found, that essential energy needs to be vividly described so everybody that touches the brand can truly understand and believe. And so it is that commandment #5 is to write down and then spread the brand credo which is commonly called a “brand manifesto”. These naturally are not unlike the credos of religions which in the case of Catholics get recited at Mass with conviction and reverence much like one might come to attention hand to heart to sing the national anthem. Now back in the day when we were spreading BrandAsset valuator’s doctrine of “relevant differentiation” being the source of brand power, Y&R Planners would carefully craft the brand’s relevant differentiation into what we called a “Brand Belief” which was written to dramatically express the brand’s ideology and purpose on earth.

Commandment #6 in brand building is to harness the power of symbols because in religion and brands symbols play a crucial role to help people express and internalize the belief system. Thus the cross expresses how Christ died to save us, the springbok how fast and high the South African rugby team jump, the red ball of fire flying through the hoop — a brand called the Miami Heat, the stars and stripes — brand United States, even as the bunny is Playboy, the alps — the purity of Evian; and the bitten apple — a brand that’s as idiosyncratic as Apple was when Jobs was breaking the rules on the road to inventing the next “insanely great” thing. Sometimes just the symbol is powerful enough to resurrect the brand as was the case when new Coke flopped and classic Coca Cola came back with the help of its iconic bottle.

The metaphor of brand as religion goes to the heart of branding which is commandment#7 which states that in the end is all about creating shared values, belonging and above all a dedicated faithful following. Loyal followers make a strong religion even as they make a strong brand for it is these disciples who spread the gospel of the brand and religion far and wide. And so it is said that the spirit came down upon 12 frightened apostles locked away in a room to empower them to go out and spread the good news which now 2,2 billion Christians or one in three people on earth [more or less] believe. Impressive? Not really when you consider that it took Facebook just 10 years to acquire 1,55 billion active users.

In the end the promise of religion and the promise of brands is eternal life. Where religion is concerned there are innumerable “doubting Thomases”. Where brands are concerned even Scrooge recognizes that these so called intangibles can return a timeless inflow of earnings streams and are therefore incredibly valuable. Because as they say in the classics: “cars rust, people die, buildings become dilapidated, what lives on are the brands”.

Seven commandments not ten. Not just because I want to do what Y&R says and “resist the usual” but because seven is even a more magical number if you believe in brand religion because of course we all know that the world and everything in it was created in just seven days! (To be continued on andyhalleywright.com)

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