The brands that break the rules

The brands that break the rules

The rules for developing and managing brands are laid out in a range of principles and frameworks developed by extraordinary marketing minds. Time and time again, we’re told brands follow these rules to achieve success. But every so often, you encounter a highly successful brand that seems to defy the theory. And there are lessons for all of us in that success as well.

In Brand Royalty, Matt Haig talks about a specific category of brands that he calls “Broad brands”. These brands defy the orthodoxy of single-mindedness, he says. They compete simultaneously in categories that seem to have nothing in common, use the same name in both and achieve huge success.

Lessons from Yamaha

The classic example is Yamaha. On the one hand, it’s a highly respected music brand. On the other it makes a range of motorised products. Yamaha means something important and valuable in both markets, and yet the markets themselves have nothing in common. There’s no clear brand extension that I can identify. There’s no uniting figure in the form of a high profile entrepreneur. Yet Yamaha continues to thrive.

Following the rules doesn’t guarantee success. And not following the rules doesn’t guarantee failure. In fact, neither convention nor defiance guarantees anything.

And the learning here for all of us is that brand theory is exactly that. It gives brands structures within which to operate and to be managed, but ultimately all the frameworks are guide-rails only. Following the rules doesn’t guarantee success. And not following the rules doesn’t guarantee failure. Yamaha succeeds because it strikes a chord with consumers in very different markets for reasons I think a lot of us struggle to put our finger on.

Ultimately a brand means what a brand means to the people who choose that brand in that moment, regardless of how well it is structured or not. If that’s idiosyncratic, no matter. The reminder here is that brands don’t work because of their logic, but like all humans, brand owners and managers need to apply a logic to brands in order to make sense of what they are working with and to explain their actions to others.

Customers are not motivated by models

I’m not suggesting for one moment that every brand should abandon a principled way of working – merely observing that the principled way of working is not what consumers love about a brand. They don’t buy a brand because of its ability to follow Aaker or Ries. They don’t delight in the fact that their relationship with their garden centre is a perfect example of Godin’s permission model or that the car they purchased correlated beautifully with something Jim Collins wrote. The brands’ behaviours may align with those models, the models may serve to explain why things happened, but the models themselves of course were not the motivations.

Models also don’t make a brand distinctive. In fact, quite the opposite – they serve to focus ways of thinking into collective truths because they provide retrospective explanations that become precedents. Every brand has values and personality and a single minded proposition now. And they are no guarantee of results. If indeed, as Nigel Hollis has said, only 20 – 25% of brands are recognised by consumers as distinctive, and, as Collins and others have found, 80 – 90% of brands will fade in time, it is tempting to conclude that brand models are not even working to make brands competitive. They simply explain the workings that are being applied.

Equally, exceptions are, by their nature, not repeatable. Other brands have probably looked at Yamaha and attempted to emulate their distinct sector approach, with disastrous results.

Humanity is the secret sauce

Infuriating and frustrating as it is, marketing is ultimately a deeply human discipline. It works for reasons that make sense and for reasons that don’t. It works when it shouldn’t. It fails at times that catch everyone by surprise. There is rhyme and reason in some sectors and none in others. Some companies are successful because they refuse to change, and others die because of exactly the same action.

Be good with that. Your buyers are.

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