“There’s no secret formula to marketing and to working on strategy.”
That’s what branding consultant Laura Ries told me when I interviewed her for the most recent episode of Marketing Smarts, and I absolutely agree with her (though I also thought, “Isn’t that EXACTLY what someone who KNEW the formula would say?”). I believe the same could be said for writing effective copy, designing websites, fixing the economy, and, in fact, for any human endeavor that requires craftsmanship and creativity, and where success depends on a complex amalgam of knowable and unknowable variables.
And yet, naturally, we all want to know how to create the next iconic brand—the next Apple, the next Google, the next Budweiser. My question is: If there really is no formula, can we ever hope to intentionally create iconic brands?
Keys to Branding Success
To figure that out, branding experts look at brands that have succeeded and attempt to reverse engineer their success. For example, as a result of research and years of working in the branding trenches, Ries settled on the metaphor of the visual hammer—”a visual that has emotional power” and is capable of “hammering a verbal nail or word into the mind”—as key to branding success.
When I asked her for an example of a strong “visual hammer,” she cited the contoured Coca-Cola bottle, a shape that so emphatically stands for the brand that the company actually prints it on their cans. Whenever we see this shape, we immediately think of “the pause that refreshes” or “the real thing” or whatever verbal nail the Coke company has chosen to hammer in with it.
The Red Bull Conundrum
Does knowing what worked for other iconic brands help us figure out what will work for our company? That is, did Coke succeed because it had a strong visual hammer (something that Pepsi has notoriously lacked) or did the success of Coke hammer that iconic bottle into the mind of the consumer?
Ries and I talked about this apropos of a leading brand that she believes has a weak or confusing visual hammer: Red Bull. Red Bull’s success speaks for itself, but, as Ries points out, the visuals associated with it are somewhat wanting.
On the one hand, the logo is difficult to remember (it’s two red bulls facing off against a sun-like orb, in case you can’t picture it) and, frankly, when I think of the product, I’m more likely to think of the slim, smallish cans. But that’s exactly where the second problem arises: Although the product is called “Red Bull,” the cans are blue and silver!
Still, Red Bull is No. 1 in a category it itself established—that of “energy drinks,” which means that a brand can succeed even its visual hammer doesn’t.
Ries acknowledged that being the first in a category brings with it a power of its own, visual hammer or no. Nevertheless, she believes that Red Bull could lose its top spot to its main rival, Monster, in part due to the visceral impact of that drink’s slashed-looking logo, hammering in the verbal nail of “unleashing the beast” or “acquiring Hulk-like power.”
Deducing Success vs Inducing It
Maybe I’m too product-centric (or maybe I’ve just had too many Red Bulls and vodka), but I don’t really see Monster, despite its visual hammer, overtaking Red Bull. I actually think Red Bull tastes and is better. And in any case, if it succeeded in the first place without a visual hammer, why does it need one to maintain its position?
Now, I don’t bring this up in order to say that “visual hammers” don’t matter or don’t exist. As I said, many brands are indeed visually arresting and communicate a palpable sentiment on sight. The fact that I could show you countless images associated with successful brands, and that you would be able to name every one and even say what they stood for (brand-wise), attests to this power of the visual.
But was that the power that made these brands successful in the first place? Or was it their “first mover” advantage? Or their status as category creators? Or their inherent quality? Or simplicity? Or timing? Or, well, luck?
I think that most branding experts, Ries included, would say that it was certainly a combination of these factors but that, in many cases, you can reduce the cause of success to one or two: a visual hammer (the three-pointed star) and real, engineered quality, for example, as in the case of Mercedes.
I understand the process of working deductively and figuring out the origins of brand success by studying successful brands. The fact that different experts can identify different origins only points to the complexity inherent in the branding process.
What I don’t understand, is how (magic? genius? luck?), given this complexity, people ever succeed in producing successful brands from scratch.
Am I alone in not understanding? Or is everyone who creates and brings a brand to market, to one degree or another, just rolling the dice and hoping for the best?
If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Laura, you may listen here or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!