On January 12, 2007, the famous violin player Joshua Bell played for an audience of over 1000 people. Interestingly enough, he played while dressed as a common street artist in the subway of Washington D.C. Mostly ignored by the apathetic and rushed subway crowd, it took him almost 45 minutes to earn a meager 30 dollars. A week later, Bell played the same music, but now in Carnegie Hall, which was packed to its limits with ecstatic listeners, who loved his brand.
If you consider this story, it is apparent that branding has a two-faced nature: An excellent brand in the wrong market will crash and burn. The same brand in the right market can be successful beyond your wildest dreams. How can business leaders and professionals ensure that their branding activities really help them to massively improve their businesses?
The triangle rule
If you think of Volvo, what comes immediately to mind? Probably you will think of safe, boxy, durable and maybe some other words around these themes. It is likely that some of these associations are based on the branding effort of Volvo, which has spanned more than 50 years. Branding is important for business success. If it is done well, it acts like a light tower in the market, signifying a safe and valuable harbor for wandering prospects. Branding can be applied to individuals, products and companies alike. Though the internet has accelerated this process somewhat, corporate branding still takes a long time and requires deep pockets. Even Amazon spends more than $2B per year on advertising in the U.S.
It’s interesting that in everybody’s mind, a person, a company or a product will be known for a maximum of three associations. Once set, these associations are cemented in our minds and will hardly change. This is the triangle rule of branding. The reason is that associations with brands are typically executed by our thinking facility called System 1: This is the part of the brain that is fast, intuitive and effortless. It also jumps to conclusions and somehow stops thinking when it reaches the number three. System 2, on the other hand, is the part that is slow and rational, and requires a lot of effort. We typically use System 2 to solve complex calculations, analyze data or look for logical fallacies. We hardly use it to consistently review and evaluate brands, even if conditions change. Therefore, once three brand associations are set, they are extremely difficult to change in the minds of people. While “boxy” and Volvo still go together in the minds of many people, the car company has not produced a Swedish brick on wheels for over 20 years.
With the triangle rule of branding in mind, how can you become effective with branding and quickly improve business results? For this, we need to turn to one of the most profitable and ingenious feats of modern engineering: The production of oil by vertical drilling, horizontal drilling or fracking.
If you want to improve productivity of an oil well, the usual approach is to go vertical and drill deeper. This strategy requires doing the same things, but with more effort and more cost. The same is true for branding. A typical corporate approach to reinforce a brand is to strengthen the branding triangle, keep going and double down on brand value. There is a risk though. About 20 years ago, Unilever introduced an improved detergent in Europe called Omo Power. Its existing Omo brand was built on the strong association with wiping out stains. The problem was that the improved detergent literally wiped out stains by creating holes in your clothes. It took years for the Omo brand to recover from this monumental setback. The biggest advantage of being rich is that it shields you from most of the unpleasant consequences of bad decisions. The same can be said of corporate branding: A corporation with deep pockets may recover from the adverse consequences of a witless vertical drilling strategy for its branding. A small company or an individual does not have that luxury.
In order to improve business results, you should consider moving your brand to a different place, where people simply love what you do. In the oil industry, this approach is called horizontal drilling. The existing well is expanded by moving horizontally to a different place in the same layer. From a branding perspective, you use your existing branding triangle to build the desired associations for a new market. In the new market, your branding triangle may slowly morph into something that resonates well with the market. Think of Subway, which transformed itself from a fast food outlet focused on convenience, to a lifestyle and health improvement business.
Fracking force branding
In fracking you forcibly add liquid to an oil well to crack layers of rock and release additional oil and gas. If you apply the fracking approach to branding, neither the brand triangle nor the location changes, yet you simply apply massive force. This is often the easiest way to improve business results. One way to apply fracking force is to build exclusivity through use of the velvet rope policy. Fashionable nightclubs use a velvet rope to manage entrance: Only the chosen can come in. The more fastidious the bouncers, the longer the line of people wanting to get in. The coveted Amex Black Card is an example of how this idea is done well. You can apply it with three variations.
The first variation is mutual selection. Using this approach, first make a list of criteria that potential clients have to pass in order to do business with you. Share these criteria with new potential clients and together determine if they satisfy all criteria. Accept them as new clients only if they do. If they don’t, refer them to your competitors. In this way, you let potential clients jump through hoops to become new clients. This selectivity will make you exclusive, and exclusivity creates desire. An additional benefit is that price resistance disappears. New clients are so happy they can get in that cost is no longer an issue. This strategy to build exclusivity as part of your brand is a very effective way to offer your products and services at the highest price points.
The second variation is take-away selling. Soup Nazi was an episode of the comedy series Seinfeld that showed a long line of people anxiously awaiting their turn in a line leading to a soup restaurant. Surprisingly, the store owner was unpleasant and egregiously rude, even refusing to serve one of the Seinfeld cast. Ironically, this refusal made the soup even more attractive. In other words, human nature is somewhat perverse. We want what we cannot have. Here is a practical application of take-away selling: At some point, add a step to make it more difficult for prospects to become your clients. For instance, introduce a formal application review step to determine the final go or no go. When you do so, people will become more eager to do business with you.
The third variation is to set up buying criteria for your type of product or business to educate your marketplace. A recent dog food commercial depicts a veterinarian in a white coat explaining why a certain mixture of vitamins is essential to keep Bailey in top condition. This dog food, of course, is the only one that contains these essential ingredients. This trust-building advertisement was designed to educate customers, boosting the dog food rapidly to the top of dog food brands. Educating the marketplace works if you are the first one to do it and you become the benchmark in the mind of potential clients. Think of how BMW has promoted a somewhat arbitrary fifty-fifty weight distribution as an essential criterion for any vehicle to become an “ultimate driving machine.” Naturally, no car maker other than BMW has mastered the fine and elusive art of the fifty-fifty distribution.
After his experience in the subway of Washington D.C., Joshua Bell could have chosen to increase his efforts to have more success the next time he had to play in front of an uninterested audience. Naturally, that would have been unwise. For him, the solution to maximize the value of his unique brand and achieve wild success was to limit access and simply move to a place where people loved his work. The same is true for many of us. Successful branding has less to do with more money, more time and more effort. Instead, it is driven by the smart choices we can make to build and maximize the impact of our existing brands with the least amount of effort. An excellent and often overlooked way to do this, is to create exclusivity by applying the three strategies of fracking force branding. Therefore, once your brand gains some traction and you strike oil, don’t automatically drill deeper, but carefully consider what’s next.