A recent post at ClickZ declares that branding is “Ineffective, Irrelevant, Irritating, and Impotent.” The author, Augustine Fou (I can’t help but point out “fou” is French for “crazy” or “madman” :)), starts by suggesting that “branding” (as a verb) implies an artificial construct, something other than the brand itself. Fou says that he himself isn’t influenced by branding messages:

The exact shade of red in Circuit City’s brand color scheme has little bearing on my willingness to shop there; the more modern-looking yellow-on-blue tag in Best Buy’s logo never got me to actually buy something from that store. In place of genuine innovation, good money and time are squandered on perfectly describing how the consumer should think, smell, taste, hear, touch, or feel about the brand. [From Clickz - Branding Today: Why It's Ineffective, Irrelevant, Irritating, and Impotent by Augustine Fou.]

I suppose it’s pointless to respond to this kind of silliness, since the article is really linkbait much like the “SEO is Dead!” posts written to draw refutations (and, of course, links), from popular search bloggers. The truth is that we are ALL influenced by branding messages that hit the emotional part of our brain without being consciously processed. In Buyology, author Martin Lindstrom describes an experiment in which 600 women were shown a box in Tiffany blue – their measured heart rates jumped 20%. Other tests have shown that adding prominent “bargain” signs to regularly-priced products in stores can boost sales, even though rationalists would certainly deny they could be suckered into such a purchase.

Another telling experiment chronicled by Lindstrom was exposing smokers to images not of smokers, cigarette logos, or tobacco products, but merely of images like red Ferraris, NASCAR and Formula 1 paraphenalia in Marlboro red, etc. Amazingly, brain scans of these subjects showed the brain’s craving center lighting up to a GREATER degree than explicit cigarette and brand images. That’s right – activation levels were higher for the images associated with Marlboros (e.g., red Ferraris) than for an image of an actual pack of Marlboros.

Perhaps some people are indeed completely unaffected by brand colors and other branding messages. Maybe Fou is one of them. But the vast majority of consumers will, in fact, respond to established brand signatures like colors, sounds or music, etc.

One area where I agree with Fou is that branding is a lot more difficult in today’s digital world. Consumers have access to product and brand information in many different venues, many of them unofficial and user-created. Think how much money United has spent hammering us with endless versions of Rhapsody in Blue accompanied by heartwarming animations of weary travelers returning to home and children… and then estimate the damage caused by United Breaks Guitars, a four-minute video created by a disgruntled passenger. The guitar video, which pillories United’s baggage handling and portrays their customer service as uncaring and ineffective, has hit nearly five million views in its first month of existence.

But, just because communicating a brand message is more difficult these days doesn’t mean businesses should stop trying. What companies SHOULD do is work to ensure their branding messages are consistent with reality. In United’s case, there has been a real disconnect between the warm and fuzzy branding commercials and the realities of what their customers experience on a daily basis. The guitar video has accumulated tens of thousands of five-star ratings, which I would guess is due more to the number of viewers who can identify with the singer’s experience than to the production itself.

Branding isn’t dead… but, now more than ever, it needs to be authentic!

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