Don't be a branding fail

By Tom Dougherty

Don’t be a branding fail: Three questions to ask yourself

Fast Company published a list of the 25 most spectacular branding fails of the last 25 years yesterday. And you can read about them here. But what’s more interesting is asking how a branding fail happens in the first place. And what brands must consider when embarking on a branding effort.

In the spirit of accuracy, I warn you that the list isn’t really about branding. There are some branding efforts listed. But most are really advertising failures. A dumb spot. A misguided approach. But the brand itself retains its meaning.

Nonetheless, let’s consider three questions brands should ask themselves for any project. Or risk becoming a branding fail.

Do you have brand permission?

First up, does your brand have permission? The example here is the ESPN Phone, unveiled in 2006. The flip-up phone was targeted to rabid sports fans with scores, ESPN content, and much more.

branding failIt failed because the ESPN brand didn’t have permission to manufacture hardware. ESPN’s brand was always about living in the world of sports. That’s why the series of ESPN commercials, taking place in its headquarters in Bristol CT, is so effective.

But ESPN is a provider of the content. Not manufacturing a physical thing. Which has its own requirements for adoption. This made as much sense as ESPN making a fax machine. Or a refrigerator. Or anything you can touch.

Brand permission essentially means audiences give your brand permission based on your brand promises. A branding fail often happens because it lacks the affirmation of choice.

Target audiences want to know they are making a smart choice. They are instinctively wary. And the way the human brain filters out the many thousands of marketing messages we receive every day is by making sense of it. Does it make logical sense? And does it make emotional sense?

ESPN stands in a better position now, better understanding its brand permissions. Its app and streaming service ESPN+ are the opposite of a branding fail. They are successes because ESPN understands living in the world of sports is a state of mind.

Not a phone.

(One note: The ESPN Phone was also a victim of bad timing. Only a year later, Apple released the iPhone. And our world hasn’t been the same since. While ESPN lost its $150 million investment.)

”The reason the new Gap logo became a branding fail was that there was no reason for the new logo in the first place.”

What’s the point?

Secondly, ask yourself what is the point of your branding effort? A branding fail sometimes arises because a company just wants to do something. But forgetting to ask what is the effort intended to achieve?

gap logo.topCase in point, Gap updating its logo in 2010. The new logo drew roars of protest so loud the retailer went back to the old logo in less than a week.

My thought at the time was that Gap should wait it out. The logo itself wasn’t terrible. And I never thought the original one was any great shakes either. Both lack meaning.

Some of the greatest branding efforts are first greeted with boos. The iPhone was roundly criticized on release. But Apple’s brand of “Think Different” made it an instant success.

StarAnd nearly all new logos are received poorly at first. Because people just don’t like change. They fight it. Then accept it. IF it holds the proper emotional meaning.

The reason the new Gap logo became a branding fail was because there was no reason for the new logo in the first place. I would have understood if the new one presented a meaningful point. But it just looked like a version of the old one. (Which is why I never understood the intensity of the outrage.)

Gap didn’t ask itself why it was changing its logo. At the time, the retailer said it was updating its look. For what reason? What new meaning was the new logo striving for?

It turns out it was just time and money spent for busy work. Gap never had a true goal.

Are you single-minded?

Thirdly, make sure what you’re doing is clear and precise. Eliminate complexity. Because complexity is often at the root of many a branding fail.

Fast Company’s list offers two examples of this. Microsoft’s Vista and Netflix’s Qwikster.

The first was a product failure emerging from an overly complex company culture. For years, Microsoft struggled because it was the king of complexity. Its marketing messages – especially in packaging – were so overrun with messages nothing came through.

Likewise, Vista became a bastion of so many prompts no one knew how to use it. Or cared.

“Of course, asking yourself these three questions is only the beginning. The real successes are those branding efforts that align with emotional intensities.”

How to be noticed

As mentioned before, we are inundated with marketing messages on an hourly basis. Not just TV ads or internet pop-up ads. Look around you as you read this. How many logos do you see? Those are marketing messages.

So how do humans navigate such an onslaught? How does your effort prevent being a branding fail?

Rhino Theme ImagesIt’s simple. Humans ignore most marketing messages by filtering them out. We instinctively find the barriers to adoption without consciously thinking about it. Complexity stands as one of the greatest barriers to adoption.

As marketers, you’ve sat in those meetings. Where everybody wants to add their message to the litany you already have. You appease them so you can get the project done. But, by the end, the main message is drowned out. And audiences ignore you. In an instant.

Avoid being a branding fail: Simplicity rules

That was the problem with Qwikster. And why it became another branding fail. For those who don’t remember, Netflix quite rightly knew in 2011 that streaming was the future. But it was a DVD mail business at the time. So it unveiled Qwikster as the mail service with Netflix becoming the streaming service.

All it caused was confusion. If Netflix had simply asked itself whether the dual effort would make things more simple, it would have avoided that pratfall.

Of course, Netflix rebounded. It’s the largest streaming service in the world, with more than 180 million subscribers worldwide. But simplicity always reduces barriers to adoption. (See Apple.)

Of course, asking yourself these three questions is only the beginning. The real successes are those branding efforts that align with emotional intensities. That is, being so emotionally in sync with your target audience that you can’t be ignored. In fact, you will be preferred.

If you’d like to know how drop me a note. Especially before you start what will become a branding fail.