Believe it or not, Johnny Depp says something profound as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean. He tells Will Turner, “Wherever we want to go, we go. That's what a ship is, you know. It's not just a keel and a hull and sails; that's what a ship needs. Not what a ship is. What the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe the concept of brand. Sure a brand needs a logo, a color pallet, a tagline and a URL, but that’s not what a brand is. A brand is the promise it represents to the customer. Apple isn’t an iPhone or a MacBook Pro. It’s a delightfully easy user experience and elegant design. McDonalds isn’t the Golden Arches. It’s inexpensive, edible food that tastes exactly the same at every location in the country. The Apple logo and the Golden Arches are just beacons that lead customers to the promise.
Who Defines the Brand?
As a PR professional, I’d love to say that I get to define the brand, but I’d be wrong. Oh sure, we along with our marketing teams have the opportunity to influence the definition of our brand, but we don’t have the final say. It’s only the public’s perception of what your brand means that matters. We can steer it, we can guide it, we can lay out the path to the promise we want to make, but in the end, the public will decide what the brand means to them.
It May Not be My Father’s Oldsmobile, but It’s Not Mine Either
Oldsmobile is a textbook example. Oldsmobile had a specific market that wanted a specific kind of car. For decades there were plenty of people who wanted an Oldsmobile and those people wanted Oldsmobiles to look like Oldsmobiles. It was great, except that the people who wanted Oldsmobiles were elderly, and they were dying. Young people didn't want Oldsmobiles. Grandpa drives an Oldsmobile. Realizing that their market was shrinking, Oldsmobile made an attempt to change the public perception of their brand with the “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” campaign. The PR machine did everything it could to stop the public from believing that Oldsmobiles were for old people. (The name couldn’t have helped.) They failed. Young people simply could not be convinced that this was the brand for them. The last Oldsmobile rolled off the line in 2000. Buick is trying the same trick, we'll see how that goes.
Let Us Know How That Works Out for You
Another example is about to play out before our eyes. Just last week, Playboy magazine announced that it would no longer contain nude photographs. This is in response to the ubiquity of free pornography on the internet. The magazine’s sales have been declining for years and the new approach is designed to appeal to a younger and wider market. But will it work? Will men really read Playboy for the articles? Does long form journalism live up to the brand promise? We’ll have to see, but it’s a leap we doubt the public will be able to make.
So Now What?
PR professionals who want to understand the essence of their brand need to stop looking in the mirror and start looking out the window. Only the public can tell you what your brand really is. Fortunately, they do that in a variety of ways. Every social interaction about your company is a way to better understand your brand. Every piece of content that’s shared or comment that’s left is an opportunity to see your brand the way the public does. Media monitoring and measurement, therefore, are essential to knowing exactly who you are. You can certainly influence perception and try to drive toward a desired identity, but you need to measure public opinion and sentiment to know where you are starting from and how well you are doing along the way.
Jack Sparrow didn’t buy a ship. He bought freedom (or more precisely he stole it). What are your customers really buying when they choose your brand? If you listen carefully, they will tell you.