Jeremy Lettiere|Mar 29, 2012

Branding is critical to a company’s success. There is nothing more complex in today’s ever-evolving media landscape than creating and maintaining a strong brand. Social media offers several advantages, and numerous challenges, for branding professionals.

A former practicing psychologist, Tom Guarriello, Ph.D. is currently Chief Idea Officer of TrueTalk, Inc., a management consulting firm, and co-author of the book Work Different: Design For The Rest of Us. He teaches a Masters course in Branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Digital Park is delighted that Dr. Guarriello agreed to participate in a question and answer session, offering a perspective on branding from someone who teaches it to aspiring and practicing marketing executives, management consultants and public relations professionals. Follow him on Twitter at @tomguarriello.

Digital Park: Dr. Guarriello, how do you define “Branding” to your students at the School of Visual Arts?

Tom Guarriello: The class that I teach is called “The meaning of branded objects.” The reason I created the course is because to me brands are bundles of meaning. I’m a psychologist, so meaning is very important to me and brands for me are these packets of meaning that become attached to objects and to experiences. Meaning they’re both individual and collective and logical and emotional. So I define brands in terms of those kinds of characteristics of meaning attached to things.

For example, take a brand like Apple. There is a collective meaning that is a kind of a general context that Apple functions within culturally. So, when you say “Apple” to 100 people you can expect that 95 of them are going to understand that you are not talking about a fruit but a technology company that has a certain set of characteristics or meanings that are attached to the brand. But then there are also individualized, personal wrinkles on the brand. So for each of us the brand takes on a slightly different meaning, tone, and color. Some of us are in love with it, some of us hate it. That’s the individual and collective, logical and emotional dimensions of brands.

You’re very active with social media, both professionally and personally. You were an early adopter of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ and you’ve been actively vlogging on YouTube since 2006. How has social media transformed the way we brand products, services, and organizations?

I think it’s transformed it a lot! The holy grail of brands has always been to try to figure out what people think and how they feel – and what they believe. Branding professionals have tried for decades to find all kinds of ways to determine what the customer thinks about things. You know, focus groups, surveys, all kinds of techniques to try to figure that out. Well, in the last 15 years or so, we’ve been given the keys to the customers thinking.

Every day on social media, the customer tells us in all kinds of ways what she thinks, and why she likes one thing rather than another. Now she may do that actively by creating blogs or tweets or videos, or some such thing, in which she’s telling us a lot about either a particular product or about a product category or the way products fit into her world. All of those active channels are sources of really rich information about what products and what specific brands mean to her.

Then there are the passive channels, which are now the subject of so much controversy. The passive channels are really the “behavioral data exhaust” that we all leave in social media via our journey through the web every day. The Google Analytics trail will tell us what bread crumbs we left to get to a particular site, what our path was. Those are the passive ways that social media has transformed branding.

So branding professionals are becoming highly adept at following those active and passive signal trails to gather the voice of the customer and bring it into the organization. That’s what the smart brands are doing with all of this data that’s out there. Now, it’s overwhelming and, like with any data, you have to be an expert analyst to properly interpret it, but there’s an unprecedented amount of information that the customer is telling us about her world every day in social media. So it’s been revolutionary.

Despite the rapidly-evolving socio-technological landscape, what characteristics of a quality brand will never change?

That phrase “a quality brand” is an intriguing one, because I think the important thing for brands to remember, and you hear it a lot, is that you don’t own your brand. The customer owns your brand, and the market owns your brand.

Branding professionals never believe that. They always believe that they own the brand. The fact is, you don’t get to determine what your brand means, you can influence what it means but you don’t determine what it means. So what a quality brand is, is an experiential reality for customers that we don’t control. For example, if you ask someone if Wal-Mart a quality brand, well sure it is, it’s a very quality brand. But the meaning there is different than saying that Tiffany’s is a quality brand. So recognizing that you’re dependent on the customer assigning meaning to your brand, you can be very clever in trying to influence that meaning, as great branders are, but at the end you don’t get to make that determination, the customer does. No matter what kind of socio-technological changes have taken place, that reality continues to be right at the core of branding. You don’t get to do that. The customer gets to do that.

And even today it’s difficult for organizations to accept that?

They fight it like crazy. And a lot of them fail because they don’t want to be what the customer experiences them as being; they want to be something else. Look, I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been involved with, hundreds of meetings with designers and marketers where their respect for the customer is not as great as it should be.

The customer is paying their salary.  The customer is buying their brand or not. It’s really up to the customer and yet they keep insisting that they are going to make things that the customer is going to like even though she’s told them time after time after time that she doesn’t like that, she likes this. But they don’t want to make this, they want to make that. Why? Because the company likes it. You know, it’s sort of the kiss of death to say that somebody has no taste, and you often hear that the “customer’s taste level just isn’t that great.” That’s a losing formula.

Well, it looks like that may be the most common branding mistake made by companies. What other pitfalls do you think companies make with regard to the branding of their product or service?

The word “authenticity” is a big deal nowadays, and I think it’s a big deal because the customer’s ability to quickly determine if something is what it says it is, is rooted in very deep psychological processes. Our brains are very good at filtering extraneous information and capturing the important aspects of any perceptual experience. It’s that old kind of joke, if it waddles and it quacks you know it’s a duck. Well we’re very good at determining if something is or isn’t something. If a brand says it’s something but it’s not, we don’t trust it.

The Mini doesn’t try to be a BMW, it is authentically a Mini and it uses every aspect of its branding to reinforce the authenticity of that identity: We’re a small fun car for young, hip people, and everything about us is that.

Not being authentic and not being true to your authentic heritage is another huge mistake. Take a look at a company like K-Mart. They’ve gotten battered for many reasons, but I think one reason is because they just didn’t want to be what they are: A discount-focused place, where the customer can come in and find good quality merchandise inexpensively. They tried to be so many other things. It just isn’t authentic.

rbb Public Relations is known as “The Champion of Breakout Brands.” In the past 10 years, which emerging brands have impressed you and why?

I think Zappos has given everybody a great case study of what a brand can mean to a category that was about as pedestrian, no pun intended, as any that you could imagine: shoes. The idea that Zappos could become a shoe brand, and that the brands of shoes that Zappos sells could become the secondary aspect of the customer’s relationship, nobody would have predicted that.

And they did it by creating a meaningful experience that the brand came to be attached with. You know, this dedication to customer satisfaction. CEO Tony Hsieh became an evangelist for that branded meaning. Zappos executes on it. They mean it. Then they were bought by Amazon. That was a really great move on Amazon’s part, to buy a company where the meaning of that purchase was, “Yes that’s who we are, and that’s who we want to be part of the Amazon family of brands”. I just think it was a great story, and Tony Hsieh’s terrific at using social media and PR as a brand-building channel.

I think what’s interesting is that there is the opportunity to have the relationship that is the brand. I mean, that’s what we’re saying:  Customer service is the relationship between the customer and the company. And in the Zappos case, that relationship became the meaning.


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