In case you’re wondering … consumers don’t really care about brands all that much.

branding“I don’t want a ‘relationship’ with my brands.  I want the best products at the best price.” — Jane Q. Public

In the era of interactive marketing and social media, there’s often a good deal of talk about how certain brands are successfully engaging their customers and creating an environment of “brand love” — or at least “brand stickiness.”

It’s not only consumer brands like Chipotle and Under Armour, but also B-to-B and hybrid brands like Intel, Apple and Uber.

As a person who’s been involved in marketing and advertising for well over a quarter-century, I tend to treat these pronouncements with a little less open-mouthed awe than others.

I get how when a brand is particularly admired, it becomes the “go-to” one when people are in the market for those particular products and services.

But the idea that there’s real “brand love” going on — in a sense similar to people forging close relationships with the people in their lives — to me that’s more far-fetched.

The marketing research I’ve encountered appears to refute the notion as well.

Case in point: In an annual index of “meaningful brands” published by the Havas MarComm agency, the research finds that very few consumers cite brands they “can’t live without.”

The 2015 edition of the Havas Meaningful Brands Index has now been released … and the results are true to form. Among U.S. consumers, only about 5% of the 1,000 brands evaluated by Havas across a dozen industries would be truly missed if they were no longer available.

It’s a big survey, too:  Havas queried ~300,000 people across 34 countries in order to build the 2015 index. Broadly speaking, the strength of brands is higher in countries outside the United States, reflecting the fact that trust levels for leading brands in general are higher elsewhere — very likely because lesser known brands or “generics” have a greater tendency to be subpar in their performance.

But even considering the brand scores globally, three out of four consumers wouldn’t miss any brands if they suddenly disappeared from the market.

What are the exceptions? Looking at the brands that scored highest gives us clues as to what it takes to be a brand that people truly care about in their lives.

Samsung is ranked the #1 brand globally. To me, it makes perfect sense that the manufacturer of the most widely sold mobile device on the planet would generate a strong semblance of “brand love.”

Even in the remotest corners of the world, Samsung has made the lives of countless people easier and better by placing a powerful computer in their pocket. It’s only logical that Samsung is a brand many people would sorely miss if it disappeared tomorrow.

The second strongest brand in the Havis index is Google. No surprise there as well, because Google enables people to research and find answers on pretty much anything that ever crosses their minds. Again, it’s a brand that most people wouldn’t want to do without.

But beyond these, it’s plain to see that nearly all brands just aren’t that consequential to people’s lives.

With this in mind, are companies and brands spending too much energy and resources attempting to get customers to “care” about them more than simply to have a buying preference when the time comes to purchase products and services?

Brand-LoyaltyRelated to that, is adding more “meaning” to a brand the answer to getting more people to express brand love? Or does it have far more to do with having products that meet a need … work better than competitors’ offerings … and are priced within the means of more people to purchase?

Havas — and common sense — suggests it’s the latter.

Do that stuff right, and a company will earn brand loyalty.

All the rest is just froth on the beer … icing on the cake … good for the psychological bennies.



Which brands are America’s most “patriotic”?

patriotismWith the 4th of July holiday nearly upon us, sharing the results of a recent brand study seems particularly apropos.

Since 2013, Brand Keys, a branding consulting firm, has conducted an annual evaluation of famous American brands to determine which ones are considered by consumers to be the most “patriotic.”

In order to discover those attitudes, Brand Keys surveyed nearly 5,500 consumers between the ages of 16 and 65, asking them to evaluate American brands on a collection of 35 cross-category values – one of which was “patriotism.”  (The number of brands included in the evaluation has varied somewhat from year to year, ranging between 195 and 225.)

Of course “patriotism” is a hyper-qualitative measure that’s based as much on emotion and each individual person’s own point of reference as on anything else.

Brand familiarity and longstanding engagement in the marketplace helps, too.

So it’s not surprising that the American brands scoring highest on the patriotism meter are some of the best-known, iconic names.

For the record, listed below are the “Top 10” most patriotic American brands based on Brand Keys’ most recent survey – the ones that scored 91% or higher on the patriotism scale (out of a possible 100 percentage points):

  • Jeep (98%)
  • Coca-Cola (97%)
  • Disney (96%)
  • Ralph Lauren (95%)
  • Levi Strauss (94%)
  • Ford Motor (93%)
  • Jack Daniels (93%)
  • Harley Davidson (92%)
  • Gillette (92%)
  • Apple (91%)
  • Coors (91%)

The next highest group of ten patriotic brands scored between 85% and 90% on the survey:

  • American Express (90%)
  • Wrigley’s (90%)
  • Gatorade (89%)
  • Zippo (89%)
  • Amazon (88%)
  • Hershey’s (87%)
  • Walmart (87%)
  • Colgate (86%)
  • Coach (85%)
  • New Balance (85%)

[As an aside … the only entity to score a perfect patriotism rating of 100% was the U.S. Armed Services.]

To be sure, “rational” aspects like being an American-based company whose products are actually made in the United States affect the patriotism rating of individual brands.

But other attributes — such as nationally directed customer-service activities and highly publicized involvement in sponsorships and causes that tie to the American experience — are attributes that add to a general image of being patriotic.

Robert Passikoff, Brand Keys’ president, expanded on the idea, stating,

“Today, when it comes to engaging consumers, waving an American flag and actually having an authentic foundation for being able to wave the flag are two entirely different things — and the consumer knows it. 

“If you want to differentiate via brand values – especially one this emotional – if there is believability, good marketing just gets better.” 

This is the third annual report issued by Brand Keys that’s been focused on brand patriotism – one of 35 brand values comparatively surveyed.  Over the three years, there’s been some change in the patriotism rankings, with Colgate, Wrigley’s and Zippo falling out of the Top Ten and being replaced by Jack Daniels, Gillette, Apple and Coors in 2015.

What I find intriguing about the findings is that there isn’t a very strong correlation between the perceived patriotism of specific American brands and whether or not most of their products are made in the United States versus offshore.   Of course, foreign production is more the norm than ever in the global economy.  What’s important is how the consumer reacts to that reality.

jeep patriotismWith that point in mind … what about Jeep?  Now that it is part of the global Fiat organization, should Jeep no longer be considered an American brand?  Whether it is or not, the brand has the distinction of achieving the highest patriotism score outside of the U.S. Armed Services.

The bottom line is this:  Brands, what they “mean” and what they stand for are based on the emotional as well as the rational – with the emotional aspect being the trump card with consumers.

Jeep, with all of its associations with winning  wartime campaigns (particularly World War II), likely will always be a beloved “patriotic” U.S. brand, regardless of its recent Italian parent company ownership.

Are there brands not listed above that you would consider to be “highly patriotic”?  If so, please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Companies behaving (not quite so) badly: Financial services firms continue their slow reputation recovery.

Financial services industryBack in 2009, no industry in the United States took such reputation beating as the financial services segment.  And to find out how much, we needn’t look any further than Harris survey research.

The Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study of American consumers is conducted annually.  The most recent one, which was carried out during the 4th Quarter of 2014, encompassed more than 27,000 people who responded to online polling by Harris.

In the survey, companies are rated on their reputation across 20 different attributes that fall within the following six broad categories:

  • Products and services
  • Financial performance
  • Emotional appeal
  • Social responsibility
  • Workplace environment
  • Vision and leadership

Taken together, the ratings of each company result in calculating an overall reputation score, which the Harris researchers also aggregate to broader industry categories.

Most everyone will recall that in 2009, the U.S. was deep in a recession that had been brought about, at least in part, by problems in the real estate and financial services industry segments.

This was reflected in the sorry performance of financial services firms included in the Harris polling that year.

Back then, only 11% of the survey respondents felt that the financial services industry had a positive reputation.

So it’s safe to conclude that there was no place to go but “up” after that.  And where are we now?  The latest survey does show that the industry has rebounded.

In fact, now more than three times the percentage of people feel that the financial services industry has a positive reputation (35% today vs. 15% then).

But that’s still significantly below other industry segments in the Harris analysis, as we can see plainly here:

  • Technology: ~77% of respondents give positive reputation ratings
  • Consumer products: ~60% give positive reputation ratings
  • Manufacturing: ~54%
  • Telecom: ~53%
  • Automotive: ~46%
  • Energy: ~45%
  • Financial services: ~35%

So … it continues to be a slow slog back to respectability for firms in the financial services field.

Incidentally, within the financial services category, insurance companies tend to score better than commercial banks and investment companies when comparing the results of individual companies in the field.

USAA, Progressive, State Farm and Allstate all score above 70%, whereas Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, BofA and Goldman Sachs all score in the 60% percentile range or below.

Wendy Salomon, vice president of reputation management and public affairs for the Harris Poll, contends that financial services firms could be doing more to improve their reputations more quickly.  Here’s what she’s noted:

“Most financial companies have done a dismal job in recent years of connecting with customers and with the general public on what matters to them.  Yet there’s no reason Americans can’t feel as positively toward financial services firms as they do towards companies they hold in high esteem, such as Amazon or Samsung, which have excellent reputations because they consistently deliver what the general public cares about …  

[Individual] financial firms have a clear choice now:  Prioritize building their reputations and telling their stories, or let others continue to fill that void and remain lumped together with the rest of the industry.”

Here’s another bit of positive news for companies in the financial services field:  They’re no longer stuck in the basement when it comes to reputation.

That honor now goes to two sectors that are Exhibits A and B in the “corporate rogues’ gallery”:  tobacco companies and government.

Both of these choice sectors come in with positive reputation scores hovering around 10%.

I suspect that those two sectors are probably doomed to bounce along the bottom of the scale pretty much forever.

With tobacco, it’s because the product line is no noxious.

And with government?  Well … with the bureaucratic dynamics (stasis?) involved, does anyone actually believe that government can ever instill confidence and faith on the part of consumers?  Even governments’ own employees know better.

Native Advertising, Sponsored Content and “Truthiness”

There are just a few slight problems with sponsored content:  Readers consider it less trustworthy … and value it less.

Lack of trust in sponsored content
It’s really not that interesting — and I don’t trust you, anyway.

Here’s a behavioral statistic that should be a little disconcerting to marketers:  Only about one in four readers scroll down on sponsored content (native advertising) on publisher websites.

Compare that to ~70% of those same readers who scroll down on other types of news content.

That’s what the chief executive officer of Chartbeat, a developer and purveyor of real-time web analytics software for media publishers, has contended, leading others to try to probe these attitudes further and try to find out more about the dynamics that are at work.

One such effort is online field research conducted this past summer by Contently, a freelance writing services clearinghouse.  It discovered that the difference in engagement levels relates to “trust.”

Generally speaking, readers trust sponsored content a whole lot less than they do “normal” content.

More specifically, here’s what Contently’s research, which targeted ~550 U.S. adults ages 18 to 65, found in terms of trust attitudes:

  • I generally don’t trust sponsored content: ~54%
  • I trust the content only if I trust the brand already: ~22%
  • I trust the content only if I trust the publication: ~19%
  • I generally trust sponsored content:  ~5%

It gets even murkier when we consider that not all readers agree on the same definition of “sponsored content.”

While the largest proportion of people consider “sponsored content” on a news website to be an article that an advertiser paid to be created as well as had input into its content, it was only a plurality of respondents:

  •  A sponsor paid and influenced the article: ~48%
  • A news site wrote it, but a sponsor paid money for it to run: ~20%
  • A sponsor paid for its name to appear next to news content: ~18%
  • A sponsor wrote the article:  ~13%

And here’s a real kick in the gut:  More people in the Contently survey would rather be served “bad ol’ banner ads” than encounter sponsored news and other posts:

  • Would rather see banner ads:  ~57% of respondents
  • Prefer sponsored posts because banner ads are annoying: ~26%
  • Prefer sponsored posts because they’re more interesting than banner ads: ~18%

The findings aren’t much different based on the age or education levels of respondents, either.

If anything, more highly educated people (those with graduate degrees) are most likely to prefer banner ads over sponsored posts.  The reason boils down to concern over the issue of deception:  A large majority of respondents reported that they have ever “felt deceived” upon realizing an article was actually sponsored by an advertiser.

Considering the disapproving numbers collected in the survey, it’s not surprising that Contently also found that respondents are far prone to click on a piece of sponsored content compared to other content:

  • Less likely to click on sponsored content: ~66%
  • More likely: ~1%
  • Equally likely: ~33%

credible sourceLastly, publishers should take note that their credibility is being diminished in the eyes of many, based on the practice of publishing native advertising.  The Contently survey found that nearly 60% expressed the view that publishers lose credibility when they run such sponsored content.

Of course, native advertising and sponsored content isn’t going to go away.  It’s too wrapped up in today’s business models for successful publishing and successful brand engagement.

But it’s clear that publishers, advertisers and the brands they represent have a bigger hurdle to clear in order for their content to be considered worthy of their readers’ attention and engagement.

Company and brand positioning statements: Some laudable … some lousy … many just lame.

Positioning: The Battle for your Mind Al RiesAbout 15 years ago a book was published titled Positioning:  The Battle for Your Mind, authored by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

Although the examples cited by the writers are a little outdated by now, the book remains an important contribution to the literature on the subject of brand positioning and what it takes for a company to build, strengthen and protect it.

Unfortunately, too few companies are paying heed to some of the basic tenets of proper positioning.

Indeed, based on the way many businesses approach their positioning — and the typical positioning statements one encounters — it seems less like a battle for someone’s mind and an exercise in mind-numbing irrelevance, instead.

Here’s a positioning statement I came across recently, from a firm my own industry (MarComm).  I’m shielding the name of the company to be charitable.  But tell me if this isn’t just dreadful:

“[Company X] is a creative marketing communications firm that delivers fresh ideas and authentic solutions that drive measurable business results. 

Our strategic, problem-solving approach generates marketing and communications programs that increase brand awareness, improve sales productivity, increase marketing response, drive revenues and support business goals. 

We plan and implement creative solutions that leverage our clear insight, strategic business skills, team building, proven process, distinctive design and measurement methodology.

… and so on.  (It continues for another two paragraphs.)

The big problem is that there’s little being said that’s either informative or differentiating.

Worse yet, enveloping a wholly indistinctive positioning statement with a bunch of forgettable adjectives, mealy-mouthed platitudes and other “weasel words” just makes things worse.

To my view, when it comes to company positioning, directness and simplicity is always the better route.

For starters, go for facts.  If a company offers what many others also do, that’s no indictment of the business.  It’s fruitless to try to communicate “uniqueness” where there is none, because people won’t be fooled for long anyway.

brand positioningCut the “marketing buzz-speak,” too.  People hear those overused terms as mere noise.  And noise is irritating.

If there is demonstrated singular competence in one or more areas, it’s OK to tout that, of course.  But throttle back on the hype and leave it to the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Speaking personally, when I read a company’s positioning statement, I’m looking for the quintessential “elevator speech” that covers the “Five Ws” as succinctly as possible.

And spare the marketing fluff, please.

More than anything, going beyond “just the facts” is insulting to the readers’ intelligence.  If they want to learn more, they’ll do it on their own terms, thank you very much.

Do you know of any company positioning statements that are particularly effective?  If so, please share them here.  (On the other hand, if the ones you know are dreadful, perhaps keep those ones to yourself!)

Tom Goodwin Sounds Off: Five Big Myths about Advertising Today

Tom Goodwin
Tom Goodwin

It’s so common to hear weighty pronouncements about the changing world of advertising and how the ground is shifting under the discipline.

It seems that we get one of these “new horizons” commentaries about every other week or so.

That’s why it’s refreshing to hear a few countervailing voices among the breathless babble. These are the voices of reason that move past the hyperbole and provide some sober grounding.

One such person is former advertising industry exec Jeremy Bullmore. His recent commentary on the “big data” craze is a good case in point — and well-worth reading.

Another industry specialist whose comments are always worth noting is Tom Goodwin, head of Tomorrow Innovation, a digital marketing consultancy. He’s identified five big myths about today’s advertising environment which need “calling out,” as he puts it.

What are Goodwin’s myths? They’re shown below, along with Goodwin’s “quasi-contrarian” views about them.

“TV is dead.

Nope. More people are watching television than ever before — and that’s looking at just the mature USA and UK markets.  Goodwin contends that TV advertising has never been more valuable — and most commercials are viewed rather than skipped over.  But they’re viewed on many kinds of devices, of course.

Goodwin’s take: “TV is here to stay … [but] the notion of ‘television’ generates false boundaries to what’s possible with video advertising when [people] consume video in so many new ways.”

“Consumers want conversations with brands.” 

Ignore ButtonNo they don’t, Goodwin contends: “The conversations I most often see are those of disgruntled customers, given the microphone to complain that Twitter provides. It strikes me overwhelmingly, with remarkably few exceptions, that for most brands, people want an outcome or resolution or perhaps information — and not a conversation.”

“Brands must create good content.” 

Goodwin acknowledges that content delivered by brands needs to be inherently valuable. But it’s more complicated than just that:  “Branded content is not meritocratic — you can’t say any one piece of content is ‘better’ than another. Perhaps the best real test of content is when it’s served, how, and who it reaches and the value it provides.”

“Advertising is about storytelling.”

Goodwin contends that advertising people are buying their own hype with this whopper. “Let’s not delude ourselves that advertising is not about selling stuff,” he emphasizes.

“Advertising dollars should correlate with consumers’ time spent with media.”

Goodwin claims that advertising industry players feel a compulsion to “be where the people are,” under the assumption that people will engage with advertising in similar ways whether they’re online or offline, on a mobile device or a desktop, and so on.

Because of this thinking, media spend projections looking into the future “bear no resemblance” to what’s working or not working — or how it’s even possible to spend that much money advertising in the channels like mobile.

How have these myths of Goodwin’s taken hold in the first place? Is it because talking about them seems so much more interesting and important than contending that advertising is continuing on a more familiar trajectory?

Goodwin thinks this may be part of it. Certainly, he acknowledges that times are changing dramatically in advertising — as they have been for some time.  But he makes a plea for more wisdom and nuance:

“While nobody gets famous (or a promotion) saying things are complex or largely unchanged … it’s closer to the truth.”

Personally, having spent a quarter century years in the marketing communications field, I feel that Tom Goodwin has raised some very interesting and valid points.

Where do you come down on them?  Do you agree or disagree with the five “myths” Goodwin has identified in modern advertising?  Leave a comment and share your thoughts for the benefit of other readers.

“Surprise & Delight” vs. “Tried & True” Branding

All the emphasis on having consumer-facing brands “surprise and delight” their customers isn’t what many people are looking for at all.

surprise surpriseIn the interactive age, what we hear often is that companies and brands need to go beyond simply offering a high-quality product.

Many companies and brands have the notion that they should strive to engender a kind of “personal” relationship with customers – so that consumers will develop the same kinds of feelings for brands as they have with their close friends.

How true is this?

One marketing company decided to find out.  Toronto-based virtual agent technology firm IntelliResponse surveyed ~1,000 online consumers in the United States earlier this year.

When asked what sort of relationship they would prefer to have with the companies whose products and services they purchase, here’s how the percentages broke for these respondents:

  • Prefer a “friendship” where they get personalized service:  ~24% 
  • Prefer a “transactional” relationship where they receive efficient service and that’s all:  ~59% 
  • Prefer both equally:  ~17% 

Evidently, “boringly consistently good” beats “surprisingly delightful” far more often – assuming the company is minding its Ps and Qs when it comes to product quality.

Here’s what else consumers are seeking:  They want to be able to get the same information and answers from a company’s desktop or mobile website … online portal … or social media sites as they do from speaking with company representatives over the phone.

The IntelliResponse survey found that two-thirds of the respondents will go to a company’s website first when seeking out information regarding a product or service – so the answers better be there or the brand risks consumer disappointment.

The takeaway is this:  No matter how much breathless reporting there is about this “surprising” social media campaign or that “delightful” interactive contest … the majority of consumers continue to view companies and brands the way they have for 100 years:  Companies are merely the vehicle by which they can acquire the goods they need.

Puzzle piecesRather than spending undue energy trying to make the interactive world “fun” or “sticky” for customers, companies should focus on the basic work of delivering products, information and answers that are easy to find, easy to understand, and easy to act on.

And related to that — make sure support systems (and support people) are in place so that customers can get any problems or issues solved with a minimum of time or hassle.

Do those things well, and companies will naturally please the vast majority of their current and future customers.

Everything else is just window-dressing.