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December 17, 2009

Branding – For Better or Worse

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The point of a brand is to create an instantaneous association in people’s minds. The Nike ‘swoosh’ brings to mind footwear, athleticism, and Michael Jordan. The Toyota ‘bull’ logo evokes images of compact cars, foreign business competition, and new ways of doing things. The name Budweiser reminds us of everything from the actual beer to those clever talking frogs, and the ‘wassup!’ advertisements.

These are cases of successful, memorable branding. Michael Jordan is retired from professional sports, the frogs haven’t been on television in years, and wassup has almost faded from day to day use in the American pop culture vocabulary. However, every one of these elements remains identifiable, and mentioning them to most people will get the typical, ‘oh yeah!’ response to memories of clever marketing, cementing the image of the brand in the viewers’ minds.

Branding is the creation of these memories. However, recollections of a product being indisputably linked with a particular name, image, or slogan can be a double-edged sword.

MCI Communications was one of the most successful challengers to the AT&T ‘Bell Monopoly’ consortium between the late 1960s and early 1980s. MCI managed to push through the breakup of the Bell coalition and allow new players to enter into the field of telecommunications. MCI pioneered many telecommunications innovations, such as Single Mode Fiber Optic Cable, when other companies were content to rely on existing standards. They were one of the first companies to offer the now standard idea of ‘in-network’ calling, where MCI customers received discounts when calling other MCI customers. MCI was one of the big, significant players in the telecom world, so why isn’t their name still synonymous with innovation?

Because it is now synonymous with the words Worldcom, Enron, and scandal.

In 1998, MCI merged with another company to become MCI Worldcom, launching a widespread televised and online advertising campaign featuring notable actors such as Sam Neil of Jurassic Park fame. The MCI brand became inextricably linked with the Worldcom brand. Then, on June 26 2002, the Securities Exchange Commission launched a full inquiry into reported auditing and financial irregularities, resulting in allegations of fraud. By July 21st, less than one month later, it was revealed that Worldcom stock was inflated by $11 billion dollars, and the company entered into chapter 11 bankruptcy. MCI was ultimately bought out by Verizon, and the legacy of a once innovative telecom company was left in the same repository as Arthur Anderson, Enron, and the other big financial fraud stories of the early 21st century.

While this is an extreme example, it is a caution worth considering for anyone interested in making a brand name for his or her product in today’s market. The world is more connected, more informed, and more critical than ever, and while a legacy of good choices can create a strong brand, a reputation for poor or improper decisions can and will conspire to bury a once successful company forever.

Many times, no one can predict what will make a brand into a particular success or failure overnight. However, every company can take three common sense steps to protect their brand and the products it represents.

1. Promote a Quality Product

Quality talks – if a product works, then it has a certain degree of merit that puts it ahead of competition. If a company puts the time and effort to get a quality product onto the market and markets the brand in such a way that the actual qualities are stressed, people will remember.

As an example, Tylenol is an effective painkiller for post-surgical use. It is not a homeopathic remedy relying on word of mouth and supposed benefits, but has demonstrable, measurable effects on human pain and healing.

2. Be Informed About the Brand’s Use

Knowing not just what one is putting out, but what is being done with it in the market, is crucial to proper branding. To continue with the example of Tylenol, many advertisements stress that doctors frequently prescribe it, more than any other over the counter analgesic. Knowing what doctors were using their product allowed Tylenol to make a powerful claim and keep the information in people’s minds.

3. Be Prepared to Take Responsibility for the Brand

As seen in the MCI case, scandal led to the irrevocable decline of a once-powerful brand. Conversely, Tylenol managed to take what could have been a public relations nightmare and came out stronger than ever as a result. When Tylenol executives found out that tampering had led to poison getting into the product supply, poisons that killed Tylenol consumers, they pulled every current Tylenol product from the shelves of stores. They investigated each of their production facilities, solved the problem, and then launched an informative campaign letting people know when and why it was safe to come back to their product. This disaster could have led to the death of the company, but the executives’ willingness to take responsibility and act, rather than covering up and denying fault, saved-a brand that is still powerful to this day.

Again, these are examples of extreme events. Only a tiny fraction of companies ever take their investments down the path of fraud, and almost no one will have to deal with their product becoming a poisonous vector. However, they illustrate the case that a brand is a powerful association for people to make, and that like any part of a business, it requires information and action in the proper degrees.

What Does This Mean to Me and My Website

Normal advertising just informs the consumer about a product and a company’s brand identity. With digital advertising, the consumer can be more involved in the brand image. In this interactive domain, a company can listen to consumers who make comments on their website or blog and act on negative feedback before it becomes uncontrollable. They can try out different advertising strategies to learn which products they should continue to develop and which new features a product should have.

Effective digital branding allows you to identify a singular position and establish your own distinctive voice in the marketplace and incorporates all three of the above-mentioned branding points. You’ll be promoting a quality product. You’ll use social media strategies to keep informed about your brand’s image and you’ll take responsibility for your brand, to guide and shape it to its best advantage.

Branding takes time and thought. Digital branding takes time, thought and an interchange with your consumers. Engaging your customers in your brand in a relevant way is the key to successful online branding.


Enzo F. Cesario is a Copywriter and co-founder of Brandsplat. Brandcasting uses informative content and state-of-the-art internet distribution and optimization to build links and drive the right kind of traffic to your website. Go to http://www.Brandsplat.com/ or visit our blog at: http://www.brandsplatblog.com/

2 Responses to “Branding – For Better or Worse

    avatar Tom Hargrave says:

    There are also cases of branding going too far. Take Kleenex for example. No-one goes to the store to buy facial tissue for our colds, we buy Kleenex. They did such a good job that their name became synonomous with facial tissue. Kleenex took their competition to court to prevent them from using the Kleenex name and they lost because the courts determined that their name had become a part of our everyday language.

    I agree with Tom there are definitely brands that take it too far, but there are also many others that effectively get out their messages without overwhelming the public like McDonald’s. You instantly know when you see or hear about Mickey D’s or the Golden Arches that means McDonald’s.

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