Monday, February 14, 2011

Two Minds Branding

If some consumer research company happened to call me today to ask me the standard series of brand sentiment questions about say Toyota or Bank of America, I’d likely say that my feelings are more negative than they used to be. My reasons for these negative feeling are probably similar to everyone else.

I know Toyota’s legendary quality has slipped in recent years (even if a lot of those careening Prius's were caused by driver error) and of course I am well aware that B of A has had more PR disasters than Robert Downey Jr. since the financial meltdown.

But if this researcher happened to ask me what kind of car I owned, I’d say I just got a new lease on a 2010 Toyota Prius because I’ve had a good experience with my last one and there wasn’t a better option at the price. And if they asked me where I banked, I’d say Bank of America for the same reason. No bad experiences, a few actually positive ones and I don’t really care if John Thain--or any other big bank president--likes to have a fancy office. I'm kind of working under the assumption that they all do.

My point is that these issue--which are undoubtedly impacting how most people answer these brand sentiment questions--have had zero impact on my personal choices. This isn’t to say my feelings about the “master brand” don’t matter at all. If, for instance, some car brand offered a potentially better alternative to the Prius, I’d probably be slightly less loyal to Toyota than I would have been in the past. But not much. Certainly not as much as a declining brand sentiment score might traditionally indicate.

It seems that most of us have two minds when it comes to big brands. On the concrete, day-to-day level, brands exist as the symbolic authors of products and services that we actually use and our experience of those products pretty much defines whether we buy them again. And then there is the BRAND, the big abstraction, existing in culture, which sometimes motivates our choices, but not nearly as much as we often hope or fear, particularly with brands that deliver some functional benefit.

Our relationship to this latter abstract BRAND entity has about as much influence on our purchase decisions as our feelings about a country like France have on our desire to go to Paris in the spring. I’m no fan of the reemergence of the National Front, but that doesn’t have much to do with my desire to see the Rembrandt show at the Louvre followed by dinner at Aux Lyonnais


John Burke said...

interesting and not often discussed as we like to be highflautin about seating brands past their products and in the cultural identity or in tone. while to a certain extent this is an influence long term (IE: as with apple or similar iconic brands) you are correct that day to day our experience with the products or services is usually what drives our purchase decisions. well that is what we would like to THINK it is anyway.

when it comes down to it we don't know why we do what we do and until neuromarketing becomes more accessible to all of us in this business we are simply guessing and or getting lucky with campaigns.

sk said...

Tx, John. Of course, I'd have to say--unsatisfyingly--that it depends. My comment doesn't really apply to all brands. I certainly believe in the power of branding to create an imaginary story around an object (what we call in other disciplines, a fetish) that can create value, define context, and enter cultural conversations: in other words, a brand helps the product mean something. My point is really just about "enterprise" brands, which are abstract corporate entities disconnected from consumer product/brand experiences. I'm seeing evidence that we don't care as much about the enterprise brand level as we used to. Or that our personal product experiences can be more powerful than the brand's identity. Truly iconic brands (Apple, Coke, Harley, etc) have transcended this disconnect by standing for something in the culture well beyond the product. I don't think you could say the same for Toyota, but this is a debatable point.

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