Charge your brand with meaning and discover its undeniable touchstone.

If there’s anyone still scratching their head over George Bush’s re-election, here’s a simple explanation. People voted for “security” instead of “change”. People like security. They don’t like change.

John Kerry learned this valuable lesson about marketing when George Bush,the world’s most powerful and clearly defined brand, won a second mandate. The Bush brand, masterminded by his chief electoral strategist, Karl Rove, proved to be unassailable. With the propaganda machine constantly reminding everyone that the specter of terrorism still loomed, Bush and Rove adroitly sold their brand under the banner of an undeniable human value:security. 9/11 was a great opportunity to exploit the desire for this unchanging need.

When Bush strayed off message in the first debate, Kerry made up ground. Social and economic policies were territories that were off-brand for Bush, “…the protectorate of the free world,” as the GOP bills him. Rove quickly rectified this little misstep and astutely put Bush back on course for debates two and three. Stay on message, he urged. Talk security, security, security. The rest is history.

Human values are powerful.

In a marketing universe where first-mover advantage is all but dead, human values can be very compelling. Today, manufacturing and technology are so advanced that a product or service can be duplicated or surpassed in weeks, if not days. One minute you’re Yahooing, the next you’re Googling. In today’s busy and fickle market place, there is no time to lose.

To create an enduring position, you must own something more profound than a functional benefit, which is not to say that product innovations cannot propel brands in the short-term. Long-term survival, however, depends on a broader outlook.

Some human values do not change. A thousand years ago, whether you lived in Europe, Asia or Africa, you valued your well being, your safety, your pride, your liberty and so on. Higher needs play a significant role in our daily lives irrespective of age, culture,sex, or religion.

When you lay claim to one, you define your brand for consumers, as well as your organization. Imagine an oral care company that understands that its quest goes beyond merely killing germs or whitening teeth, but actually extends to selling confidence.
That’s a position that cannot be easily usurped. Trying to build a brand around the latest functional benefit will ultimately erode your position. You have to aspire to something that ascribes meaning, not simply function.

The world’s most potent brands know this. They ultimately operate on higher ground. You don’t sell laundry detergent based on the amount of phosphates it contains; you sell the pride of motherhood. It’s too easy for other manufacturers of detergent to add and tout more phosphates. Moreover,people are simply not that interested.

How many of us know what a computer processor does? People fundamentally want to know how a computer, or any product, will make their lives better. Apple doesn’t sell computers, Apple sells creativity. Coke sells authenticity, not taste. Pepsi may not be the real thing, but it too owns a value: youth.

What these brands have achieved is a connection between human beings and what they desire. After all, a brand is not an ephemeral collection of attributes; rather, it is the ideas attached to a product to make it important to people. Bush knew this when he didn’t concern himself with foreign or domestic policy details, but focused on the transcendent ideal of security.

Looking back at the “orange” surface cleaner wars of 2002, this becomes evident. The introduction of Mr.Muscle All Purpose Orange Action from S.C. Johnson quickly precipitated an onslaught of competitors like Orange Glo, Windex Sparkling Orange, Vim Oxy-GelOrange and PineSol Orange Energy. Sales had a short-lived trajectory, reaching a saturation point in about a year. The orange concept -- a mere feature -- outlived its usefulness and ceased to be relevant to consumers.

Conversely, Apple, knowing it stands for creativity, never goes into detail about IPod in their messaging. Instead, it owns the experience of portable music as a tool for self-expression.

Today’s complex struggle for market dominance must transcend better-parity skirmishes. “New and improved”, as John Kerry found out with his promise of“change”, is intriguing for a moment, but ultimately a dubious proposition. Security, on the other hand, is forever.

When you own a value, you own the future. When you own the future, you win.


True story.
The CEO of an Asian automobile corporation flew to Toronto for a presentation by his newly minted ad agency.  The car company was a motivated challenger brand relatively new to the Canadian market, and the agency, keen to impress, had spent weeks sweating the creative.  For the entire meeting, the CEO sat in inscrutable silence, seemingly immune to the energy and charisma of the senior team and the ideas they’d worked so hard to develop.
When it was all over, the group leaned in for some feedback. Which concept did the CEO prefer?  Each had the potential to become a viral sensation, in the tradition of talking babies or, well, pretty much anything involving cats.
The CEO’s response (which, legend has it, took the agency a few days to fully decode) was as concise as it was cryptic.
Pointing to the collar of his shirt, he said firmly: “Top button.”
Anyone who has ever owned a dress shirt knows that if you don’t get the top button right, the whole garment goes askew: it doesn’t look or fit as it should.
The way the CEO saw it, a brand is a lot like a dress shirt: with the top button being the smart, sustainable idea on which the brand – and ultimately the business – is built. For this CEO, no execution – no matter how clever or crowd-pleasing – was an end unto itself.
In today’s age of amusement, hitching one’s brand to an outlandish or sensational creative premise seems like a nifty shortcut to likes and page views.   But if the strategic message driving it is not meaningful or consistent, the communications will be fleeting and forgettable.
Unto itself, a raccoon wearing a suit and a monocle seems like a disposable amusement. But through the strategic lens of ‘refinement’ – reinforced in everything from Porter Airlines’ stylish uniform design and upscale snacks to the classy tone and manner of its print executions and radio spokesperson, the raccoon becomes a convincing brand ambassador for the notion of ‘flying refined’.
As attention spans and media spends continue to splinter, it’s more important than ever that communications be anchored in a driving idea that comes through in every aspect of brand marketing. No matter what point on the communications chain people access your brand, the primary message they receive should be consistent.
GE – another brand that achieves this singularity – is notable because its positioning strategy also provides the thread that connects the company’s disparate industries.  ‘Imagination at work’ aptly communicates GE’s dedication to life-enhancing innovation – whether in the field of aviation, medical equipment or household appliances.  With such a powerful linchpin, GE’s top button is impeccably fastened.
Giving considered attention to the top button is especially important in a landscape where communications are not just consumed – but CREATED – at breakneck speed.  Marketers lament that consumers are bombarded with content but fail to consider the flip side of the equation: the effort required to create this onslaught. Working across multiple channels on ever-tighter deadlines, even the most resourceful and prolific communicator needs a compass: the ‘top button’ that guides their efforts. Without one, the ingenious execution that does manage to break through and find its audience may do so in vain.
While no brand can afford to make its message disposable in favour of amusement, ignoring amusement, the shiny gem that draws people in, is not an option either.  The top button – the brand’s defining value – must co-exist with amusement to transcend ‘likes’, create meaningful connections, and spur sales.
At the heart of every powerhouse brand and successful business is a uniquely articulated and emotionally stimulating proposition that drives everything you do – from the tone of your catalogue copy to the strategy behind your wackiest, feline-inspired Youtube video.
Is your top button done up right?

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