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Absolute Value: What B2C Marketers Can Learn From B2B Brands

In a recent piece much discussed in marketing circles, James Surowiecki argues in The New Yorker that we are entering the “Twilight of the Brands.” The reason, he says, citing the new book Absolute Value, by Stanford marketing professor Itamar Simonson and software entrepreneur, Emanuel Rosen, is that informed, connected, opinionated customers no longer need or rely on brands for information about products. No, with social media and online product reviews — admit it, who hasn’t decided against a hotel or a destination after scanning travel reviews on TripAdvisor? — people in the market for a product or service can quickly and effectively investigate its “real value” on their own. On this telling, 3rd party “perfect” information plays David to the brand Goliaths. “For established brands,” Surowiecki writes, “this is a nightmare.” What should be pointed out is that he is consciously working within a finite world here, with its own set of assumptions and constraints — the day-to-day world of retail commerce, peopled by consumers, shopping for product.

What strikes me most, as a B2B branding professional, are precisely some of the assumptions that govern this world—three, in particular: (1) brands are “just” logos; (2) brands are not a form of information — are not informative — and (3) brand and product are mutually exclusive categories. When you combine these assumptions, it means that brands have the “freedom to” communicate bogus value. In a word, brand is a form of counterfeit currency. But, it doesn’t have to be so. B2C brands can learn a thing or two from their B2B brethren. From the B2B standpoint, robust information is part and parcel of brand; brand and product form an indissoluble unity (with product at its core); and logos are only one — admittedly powerful — aspect of brand. In B2B, purchases are considered; they are neither reflexive, impulsive, nor irrational. Brands are seen as coordinated systems of verbal, visual, and even numerical assets that make up a distinct, coherent experience. If I were to reframe Surowiecki’s thesis, I would say that the Golden Age of Consumer Information is simply pushing B2C branding closer to the B2B branding model.

Let’s lay this out as a set of basic B2B-inspired principles:

    • Brands can and should accurately convey real value. It is not simply that a brand is only as valuable as what it stands for — it is what it stands for, so to speak. As the product fares, so fares the brand. Not only shouldn’t brands mask value — they can’t, not for very long, if value isn’t present. Brands are intimately bound up in value.
    • Brand is not a synonym for logo. Reebok this month is retiring its logo — one of the most recognized in sports — and introducing a new “delta” logo that is supposed to represent physical, social, and mental change — and a shift of emphasis from elite to everyday athletes. Say what you will about its new symbol — and much will be said — there is a lot more to the Reebok brand than its mark. One proof of this is the whole psychology of identity. Apart from the design pundits, notice how a change of logo is taken not as an event in itself, but as the usual herald of something of deeper import and greater extent. When logos change, it is routinely assumed that much will shift in its carriage. And so it is with Reebok: a new demographic, new apparel and footwear design, a new message. Logos are surface phenomena. Brands you must fathom.
    • Brands are about meaning, not emoting. Brands — like words — are signifiers. They are not the things they refer to, but they do have content. They are just not the last or only word. Product information, ingredient brands, ‘KPI’ should be seen as a core part of brand. Take a B2C example. Say you have two laptops, virtually indistinguishable. The prices are about the same. One is branded apple. The other is an “up-and-coming” Korean brand, call it Hanja. What does “apple” tell you? Apple actually brings to mind a plethora of things in its train: Genius Bar, AppleCare, online and over-the-phone tech support 24/7, form-factor style, national and global retail store presence, free product tutorials, iTunes, iPhones, device interoperability, retinal displays, a whole touch screen lexicon of tap, swipe, pinch, drag, and on and on. That one simple little word is a convenient, portable capsule of meaning — and, as such, adds amazing competitive punch to Apple. Hanja? Huh?
    • Product and brand are two sides of one coin. As the product goes, so goes the brand. While brands and products are not identical, neither are they mutually exclusive. Think about it: can you really separate the “BMW brand” from a BMW car, from the actual experience of owning and — more to the point — driving one? The New Yorker article commences with the cautionary tale of Lululemon Athletica. The once-hot company fell on hard times last year after it introduced a line of shoddy apparel — it yanked yoga pants from shelves last year because they were too sheer. In the months after, its CEO (who made some “ill-considered” remarks about customers) and the Chief Product Officer announced they were leaving. The company still struggles with negative word of mouth and will take some time to recover. A company’s products and services must live up the brand promise always. Smart B2B and B2C companies know this. This was not a case of brand homicide with perfect consumer information holding the dagger. This was brand suicide, aided and abetted by horrible PR.

So, what is a brand at the end of the day…or “twilight?” A brand is a managed complex of assets that runs from the tangible — products, their quality or performance — to intangible facts, promises and impressions of value, that together, form a coherent and unique experience. The branding professional’s job is to create and manage this complex for the promotional benefit and competitive advantage of the client. In short, the term and the concept of brand, is best understood as nothing less than shorthand for brand system.

Companies need increasingly to see and manage brands in this way — not in terms of the emotions they evoke (and the resulting, impetuous actions they trigger), but in terms of what they stand for, what they mean (and the resulting reflection they facilitate and decisions they inform).

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