Romancing the Brand

romancing_the_brand__how_brands_create_strong__intimate_relationships_with_consumers

You can tell marketing is difficult because a lot of people spend a lot of time and money trying to create systems for it.

Books are written, seminars given, entire MBA programs developed around the idea that if we just refined the process more, added a little more data, a few more apps, we could eventually shove whatever we wanted into one end and out the other would come work that would get people to buy our product.

It is a dream whose appeal I completely understand. It is the appeal of the quantifiable. The knowable. The repeatable. It is, if nothing else, the appeal of the chance that I might be able to push all this messy emotional stuff off my desk and actually get done some of the other 10,000 things clogging up my calendar – or, God forbid, go home before dark and see my family before they’ve all graduated college.

Believe me, I get this.

I just don’t think it’s possible.

I realize this is not a popular position. For I have had arguments about it with friends who are smarter and more successful than I am. And with MBA students I teach, who will go on to run large brands at large companies. And with CMOs and other clients at large companies.

So maybe I’m wrong.

But if I am, so, it would appear, is Tim Halloran, whose book, Romancing the Brand, puts forth the case that not only can brands create strong, intimate relationships with consumers, they are fundamental to a brand’s success. And he comes armed with examples.

Halloran, president of Brand Illumination in Atlanta, launched Powerade and Dasani, overhauled Coke’s tea business and worked on Diet Coke, Fresca and Diet Sprite. At Brand Illumination he’s consulted for Home Depot, Turner Broadcasting, and beyond. And he draws on all this experience to make some very clear points about the nature of marketing. Like this:

“Marketers often make the mistake of thinking of consumers in terms of their ‘physical’ attributes- their age, gender, income level, education level, and so on – without going deeper. Ask a junior brand manager who her consumer is, and she will usually describe him in these demographic terms. Likewise consumers often encounter brands as collections of qualities or attributes that bundle up to provide some functional benefit for them – or don’t. For those brands with which they don’t perceive a connection, consumers will feel little emotion; these are brands that serve a need and can easily be replaced by something else that is “close enough” if that is more convenient.”

Why is this important? Because it recognizes a subtle flaw in the way brand managers are trained – to think of their consumers as a list of attributes, as one would find in an ingredient chart or on a spreadsheet. And just as “carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, caffeine” doesn’t conjure up what a cold can of Coke on a hot summer day does, those “consumer attributes” fall similarly short.

“Make no mistake, the emotional reasons are there, whether or not the consumer articulates them or really even recognizes them. And they are often the more powerful reasons a consumer chooses a brand. Only when you dig deeper do you find them.”

Which is important because it’s a tonic for focus groups, that most misused tool of brand managers. Emotional reasons are there whether a consumer can articulate them or not. Which means past the “Yeah, I love it”s or “No, it doesn’t excite me”s that you get in a windowless roomful of strangers who are being paid to pontificate. Just because it’s difficult to find doesn’t mean it’s not in there.

“Innovation almost always requires taking risks. Risks are never comfortable, and, by definition, never guaranteed success. In fact, many innovations fail. If we never take risks, our relationships with customers will ultimately suffer.”

Which isn’t just eye-opening for brand managers, it’s actually permission-giving. It redefines the thing they know they need, innovation (they’ve read all the business books you have), in terms of the thing they’re most afraid of – failure. Giving them, perhaps for the first time, a realistic view of the decisions they’re actually making – about everything.

Now, you may say, “we’ve heard this before.” And you would be right, of course. There’s a lot here that people have been saying for decades. Lord knows we’ve reviewed dozens of books by creatives, planners, account guys and SVPs making the same case.

Perhaps the fact that these insights are coming from a brand guy – a brand guy who has worked on some of the biggest brands in America – will make them more acceptable to other brand managers.

But I could be wrong about that.

Romancing the Brand by Tim Halloran was published by Jossey-Bass on 01/07/2014– order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here, – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).