Friday, October 21, 2011

On borrowed interest, mashed potatoes, and flowers

When I was in fifth grade, I rode my bike to school. The route I took went past a bottle brush tree –– at least that's what we called it. It had soft bark that came off in sheets like thick construction paper and white flowers that looked like, well, a bottle brush.

When the tree was in bloom, it smelled like –– and no, I'm not making this up –– the mashed potatoes at the school cafeteria.

We didn't have mashed potatoes every day, but the tree was in bloom constantly, for weeks. Maybe months. And eventually, I came to think that the mashed potatoes smelled like the tree.

What does this have to do with communication, you ask?

Well, I'll tell you.

One of the easiest ways to get consumers to infer certain characteristics with a brand is to associate your brand with another entity that already possesses those characteristics. A classic example is Grey Poupon. In order to be perceived as a luxury mustard, the advertising consistently put it in the hands of rich people.

If a guy with a snooty accent driving a Rolls Royce ate Grey Poupon, the unspoken logic argued, then Grey Poupon would be perceived as equally as luxurious as the snooty accent and the car.

But as much as a Rolls Royce can bestow attributes to Grey Poupon up, the inverse is true as well. Grey Poupon will inevitably bestow attributes to Rolls Royce.

So now let's talk about Timberland.

Timberland used to be all about chopping through the woods, living in a tent, wearing flannel. Then in the 90s, the brand was discovered in the inner city. Urban youth –– maybe being ironic, I don't know –– took it on as kind of a status symbol. And even though Timberland continued to associate itself with woodsy, northwest imagery in its advertising, Timberland increasingly got associated with rap-listening, bling-wearing images in real life.

Ultimately, consumers saw more Timberland products in real life than in advertising, and the brand became disassociated with what it tried so hard to cultivate.

This is the hazard of creating an aspirational brand. SUVs appeal to soccer moms for their rugged safety, but when you see an SUV on the road, do you expect the driver to be an independent, rugged individual? Nope. She's in her mid to late 30s and on her way to Chuck E Cheese's.

Nike keeps hyping its association with elite athletes, but when you see a huge swoosh on a T-shirt, is your first thought, "Hey, here comes a pro tennis player?" Nope. It's usually a fat person carrying a 32-ounce soda.

What marketers so often fail to realize is that advertising is only a piece –– and a very small piece –– of the message consumers get about a brand. Advertising is the part you can control. But you can't ignore the other stuff. The other stuff is more often than not what really defines a brand's perception.

Ignore the other stuff and you run the risk of having your flower turn into mashed potatoes.
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