One of our favorite authors is Sally Hogshead, who gave us Fascinate. The book explains why people think the way they do and provides helpful advice to improve your brand.
The entire premise of brand management acknowledges that perception isn’t wholly organic – it’s influenced by a thousand different ideas. Some ideas are just more persistent than others due to factors such as effective marketing, the charisma of the messenger, and sheer exposure.
Hogshead gives the example: carrots. Ask anybody what color carrots are and they’ll look at you a little strangely and then tell you they’re orange. But the truth is, carrots come in a variety of colors.
We see carrots as orange because centuries ago, the House of Orange – whose principal export was carrots – decided to “brand” their carrots by genetically modifying them to be orange. Their prevalence in the food industry at the time was so strong that today most people know of no other kind of carrot than the orange one. That’s effective marketing!
Putting a brand name into regular usage is akin to the epitome of success; Kleenex instead of tissues, Band-Aid instead of bandage, Chapstick instead of lip balm. Other words you use that are really just brands include Jell-O, Q-Tips, Styrofoam, Xerox, Vaseline, and Velcro.
Sure, the reason someone asks for shoes with ‘Velcro’ closures instead of a hook and loop fastener is because there were no other options for a very long time. Velcro was first to market – how do you compete with that?
Your brand is everything. The key is to control product-word association in the mind of the customer.
Do you have a tissue? This was an odd question not so long ago. The respondent might ask, “Do you mean Kleenex? Sure, here’s a Kleenex.” They might even offer you some brand of tissue other than Kleenex. The confusion is due to sheer exposure over the years and the fact that “tissue” was until recently most associated with toilet tissue.
Remarkably, Kleenex itself is responsible for separating the product from the brand. This is to avoid genericization, a state in which a brand name is so generally used as to render it too common to trademark. “We’ve worked very hard to keep ‘Kleenex’ from going the route of ‘escalator’ and ‘aspirin,’” says Vicki Margolis, vice president and chief counsel, intellectual property and global marketing for Kimberly-Clark, which owns Kleenex.
She’s got a point; the word “aspirin” was branded and owned by Bayer, but continued in use after their patent expired, because obviously it’s too difficult to ask for acetylsalicylic acid when you go to a drug store. The prevalent usage of this word lost Bayer the right to reinstate their trademark.
Bayer has come back with amazing perceptivity, by using the ability of the pharmaceutical industry to influence public opinion. Their aspirin had already lost market share due to the advent of alternative pain relievers such as naproxen (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Then suddenly aspirin became known as a mild blood-thinner that – according to doctors and Bayer commercials – saves people’s lives.
To this end, Bayer offers a clearly-marked low-dose aspirin, since that’s what doctors recommend. It should come as no surprise that Bayer also developed a “Heart Health Advantage” product line. This is the persistent use of good branding; Bayer performs the research, promotes the results, and meets the need even as the new medical advice they’re acting upon goes mainstream.
All of this is proof that effective marketing is required to manage exposure; which can be had by anybody these days thanks to social media. Brand management both promotes and protects your brand.
Now let’s talk about charisma. Is it a mythical component that can only be enjoyed by few? What turned Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball into marketing powerhouses? Why did America take notice when Billy Mays passed on? The key is that all of them managed their brand.
Monroe managed her life from her earliest years in the foster care system. She was 16 when her foster parents decided to move out of state. Rather than take a chance back in the system, she married a neighborhood boy. Her story is legend – discovered by a photographer, she seized the chance to start a modeling career and even signed with Twentieth Century Fox. While Fox gave her name and the “blonde bombshell” persona, Monroe’s one-year contract expired without the chance of a single role in a movie. Marilyn came back swinging, and the next time she signed a contract with Fox, it was as a star. She eventually broke that contract to pursue a more serious image and studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York. Known by her friends as an intellectual, she made a mark on her industry that stands to this day.
Let’s talk about another brand: Lucille Ball. Like Monroe, her looks got her in the door, but it was her comedic sense that got her noticed. Cast as one of 12 Goldwyn Girls in Busby Berkeley’s Roman Scandals, Ball volunteered to be the girl who gets a pie in her face. It’s said that Berkeley commented, “Get that girl’s name. That’s the one who will make it.”
The difference with Ball wasn’t just that she was willing to take a chance, but that she found a potential niche and set to work making herself a comedic standout. She spent hours studying with the likes of Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, and Groucho Marx – then went home and practiced for hours in front of a mirror. Her signature faces weren’t by accident; when you see Ball selling Vitameatavegamin, you’re seeing a finely crafted performance.
Now consider Billy Mays. A college drop-out, he left his father’s hazardous waste business and moved to Atlantic City, where he sold “As Seen on TV” products on the boardwalk. Like Lucille Ball, he studied and emulated the people around him who were successful. Mays once said, “I was taught to pitch by a lot of old pitchmen. That’s the kind of style I have.”
Even so, he only pitched products he could believe in, and when you watch him you can see he really believes what he’s saying. His sincerity captured people’s attention. By honing his craft and sticking with what he knew best, Billy Mays became a force. When he died, he left an obvious gap that wasn’t easily filled.
From Orange Glo, we come back to orange carrots. That’s what they are, you know, just carrots; a root vegetable. But with determination and ingenuity, even a root vegetable can become a powerful branding tool.