Does anybody care about the product? (Brand Vision part 5)

This is the 5th snippet from the brand vision book. It looks at the rise in popularity of two things which taken together cause brand teams to commit what I call "brandicide": emotional, sizzle-based marketing and brand stretch.

The dual sirens of sizzle and stretch

Many brand owners have been seduced by the concept of emotional branding. Agencies and consultancies have urged companies to forget about the product and "ladder up to find higher-order emotional values". As Greet Sterenberg of RI aptly says: "Product performance has almost been ignored – left off the list at the branding party".

Neglecting the product is dangerous enough, but combined with brand stretch it becomes lethal. Its a license for brands to extend into markets where they have limited or no added value, arrogantly assuming that "logo-slapping" their brand name will be enough to make consumers buy them. What I call a "brand ego trip". David Thomas of MMR has a good old rant about this:

"How many marketing dinosaurs still believe that ‘A great brand need only be suported by a mediocre product?’ What arrogance! Little wonder so many FMCG brand got found out and consumers refused to pay the premium."

A fascinating example of two brands simultaneously ego-tripping in opposite directions and colliding with one another is Axe/Lynx and Gillette.  Axe climbed a ladder up to "grooms men to seduce" and forgot fragrance, leading to the launch of razors and shaving products, going head-to-head with Gillette who’d spent $1billion on R&D alone for the Mach 3. The brilliant ad from BBH broke the pre-testing record for Axe, but the product just wasn’t good enough and the launch was a flop.

Meanwhile, Gillette were busy coming the other way, forgetting shaving and launching into deodorants. This required huge capital investment to compete with Unilever, and from what I could gather was not profitable (may be a different story now its part of P&G).

The power of product
Call me an old fart, but I do still believe in the power of product (you can take the man out of P&G, but you can’t take P&G out of the man). The strongest brands in my book combine both product sausage and emotional sizzle, but with the two working together to reinforce one another; my tip in the book is to "leave the ladder in the garage". Many people talk about the emotional appeal of innocent smoothies, but listen to the management talk about the company and you get a real sense that "product passion" is central to their success. The same goes for Dove. The whole idea of "real beauty" is built on the foundation of a pure, gentle product with 1/4 moisturising cream. And over half their profit still comes from the good old cleansing bar.

There is also one other rather important bunch of people who clearly do believe in the power of the product: the retailers. As many manufacturers have given up on product and gone off in search of emotional differentiation, retailers have has a field day, investing heavily in product innovation to the point where they are now the most premium priced in certain categories. The own label share results in the UK (see left) show the impact of this strategy.

Searching for Product Truth
If you are interested in building you brand on substance, not spin, then the brand vision book has 10 ways to search for or create product truth. Here are a few of them to give you a taster:

1. Ingredients: Dove’s  ‘1/4 moisturising cream’ that allowed the brand to make a claim about not drying out the skin like soap.

2. Product form: Heinz tomato ketchup is a famous example of this approach, making a great story out of the fact that its ketchup is really thick, and using this is a visual cue for product quality.

3. Sensory experience: impregnate the foil cover on their coffee with aroma that is released when you break it with a spoon. Krispy Kreme donut stores have a flashing light to tell people when fresh donuts are ready, and blow the smell out into the street to hook you by the nose.

4. Manufacturing: Pret-a-Manger sandwiches are all made on the premises in the morning before the shop opens. This guarantees the freshness of the product and also gives a hand-made feel to the sandwiches that helps you think they are going to taste better than those made in some anonymous factory.

So, what do you think?  Is product the most important thing? Is it no longer relevant, as long as you have emotional appeal? Of is the answer to strive for product performance and emotional appeal?