Thursday, August 14, 2008

Social Media the Cure for OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder

There's a fascinating article over at the Arizona State University School of Business Site. It's called, "'OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder': Has Branding Jumped the Tracks?," and it reviews and summarizes the book, "OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder," by Lucas Conley. While I agree with many of the symptoms Conley has identified, I am not sure I agree with his diagnosis and I believe a cure is at hand: Social Media.

Conley makes a compelling case for OBD. The article notes, "while Ford was operating under the banner of 'Driving American Innovation,' the company's 2007 fleet got worse gas mileage than its 1908 Model T." And AT&T launched the "Your World. Delivered" at a cost of almost $1 billion, but the company had tried twenty-three other branding campaigns in 25 years. "Shareholders must question the utility of such constant and costly reinvention."

The article quotes Conley offering a defense of brands among his many criticisms, and this as concise a description of branding's benefits to consumers as you're likely to find:
"Brands offer us mental shortcuts, helping us cut through the clutter of everything we buy and enabling us to communicate certain concepts quickly and easily. No one wants to sift through tens of thousands of packaged foods on every trip to the supermarket. Instead, we rely on the brands we know. And branding, when it's consistent, provides us with clarity and simplicity in a progressively hectic world."

Conley complains that "Branding promotes the sizzle over the steak," and the time and money spent on branding could be spent on other pursuits, such as R&D and innovation. I disagree with him here--branding has always been about creating a place in people's brains that are related to but separate from the features or functions. Coca-Cola is about spreading joy, not about bubbly black fluid; Apple is about making life better by making the complex simple, not about microprocessors and circuitry.

But I do agree branding can and often does go off the tracks. It does so when branding isn't about both the sizzle and the steak. Here are the two ways I believe OBD can occur:
  • When the experience doesn't live up to the brand promise: This has as much to do with the way the company and its employees behave as with the product. Coca-Cola couldn't be about spreading joy if the organization exploited employees or dumped dangerous products in third world countries. Nor could it live up to the brand with dirty trucks and non-functioning vending machines. And of course, Coke can't spread joy if, when the consumer opens a can or bottle, the pop is flat or tasteless.

    The brand Coca-Cola has fashioned furnishes benefits for the company by creating a strong emotional bond with consumers, but like any strong brand it also raises expectations that the company must strive to meet. If every aspect of the company fails to do so at every touchpoint, the brand can contract OBD and both company and consumers will suffer.

  • When the marketing doesn't live up to the brand promise: You may argue this is the same thing as the first point, but I believe OBD is also achieved when those responsible for the brand platform become completely disconnected from the rest of the organization. The first bullet is about a company failing to execute upon a clearly communicated and achievable brand; this bullet is about marketing forgetting to bring the company along or believing the brand is only communicated through marketing communications.

    Conley derides when a brand becomes more focused on convincing people it is something that it is not rather than on being something it is. This is a huge problem for marketing professionals, who can get tunnel vision when focused only on advertising. When this occurs, consumers are inundated with unwelcome and annoying marketing that interrupts their lives--brands become convinced they can achieve their goals if only they can hammer their message into consumers' brains enough times. This is where distracting product placement, online takeover ads, fake blogs, and abusive WOM marketing comes from. (For more on this, see my thoughts on value-added marketing and the Experiential Marketing Continuum.)

    The other thing that happens when marketers focus only on the message and not on making the brand a reality throughout the organization is that the organization doesn't know what it needs to do to live up to the brand. Some years ago, Cingular blasted a "Cingular Everywhere" message across media channels, but consumers found there were many places where Cingular service was not available. McDonald's once launched a "We love to see you smile" campaign, but employees apparently never got the memo and crabby and disinterested counter staff undermined the brand.

Brands that fail to live their brands or that annoy consumers with excessive advertising have always been skating on thin ice, but the ice is getting thinner. For most of the 20th Century, media was controlled by few large companies that were very cozy with large brands; this allowed little room for smaller brands to compete on a large scale and permitted no voice for disgruntled consumers aside from the occasional letter-writing campaign and their own personal buying decisions. The result was that brands got fat and sassy telling consumers whatever they wanted, knowing the danger was slight, the communications channels were secured, and there was no or little risk of rapid loss of consumer preference.

But Social Media alters all this, and these changes have just begun. If you think the last year or two have been wild with the growth of Twitter, Facebook, branded communities, Digg, social games, and the explosion of other social sites and tools, just wait for the next two years. Power has only begun to shift from brands to consumers, and the marketing environment promises to get even more unpredictable and dangerous in the future.

Brands will no longer be able to say one thing and be another. Consumers won't stand for it, and they'll share their frustration, anger, or disappointment far and wide. Trying to combat this through traditional means will be like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a spoon--brands can run as many ads as they want, but the voice the consumer won't be overpowered with TV, radio, print, and online media.

The good news is that Social Media can and will cure OBD. Brands that fail to understand the new marketing environment will fail. Brands that understand they must be what they say they are will exceed even more so than today.

In the book, Conley tells us that we "must acknowledge that there will always be brands" and that we "must look in the mirror and address our disorder head on." I'm not sure we need to talk to ourselves in the mirror; we only need to engage with each other in social media and let the rest take its course. In a world where one voice can reach hundreds or thousands and a small group of consumers can impact brand perception on a national scale, brands will either find authenticity and respect for the consumer, or once vibrant brands will stumble, fail, and become zombies that are either forgotten or hope for a second chance to get it right.

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