Saturday, February 4, 2012

Branding the faithful

Being an athlete, amateur or professional, requires a dedication and focus that comes from within, it drives the individual to motivate themselves and stretch their abilities, they must push themselves to the limit. Many give up and only the faithful few make it to the heights of success and achieve the status of champion. At least that is what Nike would like you to think as you aspire to buy a pair of their training shoes. This is the message that Nike preaches to the masses of people that have any thoughts about sports and athletic behavior. The image that Nike wants in your mind as you struggle to make it through another work out is that you are some how empowered by their clothing or shoes to be part of that group of elite professionals that do this everyday come rain or shine. They tell you to "Just do it.", don't waste time thinking about it. They imply that they have already found the answer to the needs that you are looking for, buy our branded goods and you will become one of our champions. They play to your inner self and the story that you tell yourself that somehow by having bought a new pair of running shoes that you are now ready to begin working out and getting fitter. They tell you that you too can become a brand champion that is worthy of their merchandise.

To become a brand champion, requires a level of faith in the messages you are seeing, hearing and reading, it requires you to have a belief in the brand and the gospels of Nike. Nike is not of course alone in their faith building exercises and ardent followers. Many brands that want to make a lasting impression and get to some of the core ideas of being human, touch us where we are most inspired in the faith that we can somehow be better people and fill our lives with meaning. This is what Maslow, would consider at the top of his human needs pyramid, a need for fulfillment and transcendence to be a better person and higher state of being. The power of building a brand is that at some level you transcend the product and service to become almost a religion that has followers and the faithful that are willing to go where you ask them and preach as you tell them. Branding already uses many religious motifs to help them persuade the consumers to become one of the faithful. Icons and logos are powerful badges that show others the brand you follow. Stories and fables are the advertising way to tell the brand messages in compelling ways. They even create "churches" now to worship their gods and icons, the rise of branded retail stores has shown that the parallels to religion are not just a coincidence, these huge corporations and the brands they own are looking for followers and  evangelists to grow the faith. They want to play an important part in your life and mind, they want to be part of what makes you feel like you. Once they get to that place then branding ceases to be a marketing goal but becomes more of a community and one that you are willing to fight for and defend, without prompting from the originators of the brand.

Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed, suggests that religion and branding have common traits on their followers. His list is outlined below, I have added my own commentary to how I think they work for branding.

1. A clear vision
Having a clear vision, is the same as having a clear message, to promote the brand as having particular beliefs and goals, makes alignment to the brand easier. People want to know if the brand stands for the same things they do, this is achieved with a clear consistent vision.

2. A sense of belonging
This is a typical theme in all branding efforts to create a sense of belonging to a larger group of like minded followers. Creating a sense of community can empower the brand to have those that are inside the group and those that are outside. Creating brand evangelists can be the difference between success and failure when competition shows up in the market place.
3. A common enemy
This is an interesting observation that sometimes a brand needs an enemy or rival, to show comparison or rally like minded people together against a common foe. The classic example is Coke versus Pepsi, they seem to need each other to be able to better inspire followers and faithful to defend their brand. The enemy is a good use way to build loyal followers, because the sense of winning battles and time spent fighting can help build a stronger community spirit.
4. Sensory appeal
Experiences make something go from ordinary to extraordinary. The complete experience of being somewhere or doing something can make the difference of our memory recall of that experience later. They raise our emotional states and if we associate a brand with something positive we are doing or feeling then the brand gains a more valuable meaning to us, as it has associated memories to us that are positive.
5. Storytelling
This can be done in many forms today, across many media. Interestingly word of mouth is still one of the most powerful way to send and receive information from another person. Tying a brand to a story helps not only in the telling of that information to another person but also fills the brand with emotion and interpretation that the consumer can add in their own voice.
5. Grandeur
Big and powerful is an image that can work for some brands, the ability to overwhelm the individual with size and wealth can be a positive lasting experience. The really interesting use of this concept is in the physical representation of the brand, building the physical space for the brand to live and breath for a consumer. We work hard to make environments that inspire us, so do brands.
6. Evangelism
Having a loyal following that promotes and lives for the brand is a huge asset. Encouraging people to see themselves as dedicated and faithful, among the chosen few is going to create huge brand value. These evangelists will defend their beliefs and your brand with passion that cannot be bought with money. These evangelists are going to have a more powerful sway over the undecided because of their enthusiasm and apparent enjoyment from being inside the brand circle. These people can become converters to the faith of the brand. 
7. Symbols
Symbols are all part of a mythology that surrounds branding, a logo can be empty of meaning or fully loaded, depending on the branding and investment to fill the narrative of the individual involved with the brand.
8. Rituals
Rituals are part of the mythology, the narrative that gives meaning to things. It can also help in the establishment of social groups and insider knowledge. These can lead to avid brand followers, that feel that they are part of something bigger and are somehow more involved than ordinary people.
Some other branding considerations that could be seen as influential in making people faithful to a brand are:

1. Authenticity
To be authentic requires being real, relevant, have rituals and be part of a story. Companies need to promote and behave authentically to remove doubt around the brand and messaging.
2. Consistency
People like to be consistent not only in what they do but in what they believe and follow. The brand should be consistent so that people can align with themselves and feel consistent in their choices.
3. Perfection
The aim for perfection is part of the concept of self fulfillment and becoming a better individual by what we do and how we act. Perfection can not really be attained but branding most promotes how it can help achieve those levels we seek.
8. Mystery
Mystery helps in allowing the individual to tell a story to themselves about why one thing to them is more important than another. It is the empty space that allow an individual to fill it with their meaning.
These considerations in brand building are powerful motivators to get people involved in the faith of a company, they are tried and tested ways that many religious movements have relied on for centuries. They work and have proven themselves and long lasting. The warning though is that unlike religion the aims of the founders may not be so honest and dedicated to a greater cause than making profits and growing a company. The most valuable advice in this list is to maybe be authentic, if followers are to align with the brand, make sure that they are very clear on the goals and real beliefs of the company that created it. The find out that all that you believe in is actually false can be very consequential to the brand, and suddenly act as a destructive force to bring the brand to it's knees. 
Bringing the conversation to a close, Nike has always promoted itself as an athletic brand, and really there is nothing wrong with promoting healthy living and getting up and doing something rather than nothing. I don't necessarily believe in the Nike brand, but I do like some of it's ideals and ideas. And I think that is how to approach many things, you don't have to be a loyal follower, or sheep with a crowd, sometimes it pays to follow what you believe and what you want to achieve, if the crowd isn't to your liking jump to another or start your own. The point is nothing should be followed blindly, and you have the power to chose, don't let what people or companies tell you dictate you belief, discover that for yourself.

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