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Do As I Say
Today I’m sharing a piece of marketing advice I picked up from Kirsten Zhivago, and yes that’s her real name. Kirsten is a digital marketing consultant and in her book, Roadmap to Revenue, she makes one point that lodged so deeply into my skull that you couldn’t pry it out with Zeus’ forceps. Zeus… famous for his forceps.
Kirsten’s insight is this:
Your branding is the promise that you make; your brand is the promise that you keep
A lot of what I talk about on this column has a singular aim: encourage marketers to keep their brand aligned with their branding.
When we make stuff up about our company or category and share our high-minded opinions as marketing, we put out branding that fails to become the brand.
If McDonald’s promoted the Big Mac as the tastiest burger on the planet, that message will forever remain branding for 99% of all customers who’ve bitten into a Big Mac – that burger, and the McDonald’s chain could not possibly live up to the branding set down by that alternate-reality marketing team.
It’s our responsibility as marketers and business-owners to maintain a realistic grip on branding, an awareness of our brand, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two. But how does this look day-to-day? Quarter to quarter? What does branding look like?
What Branding Looks Like
Let’s roll with the McDonald’s example, since it’s widely recognized. What kind of promises does McDonald’s make? With the dollar-menu, they promise Americans will pay no more than a dollar for certain a la carte items. In the past decade, they’ve pledged to increase the quality of their food and sources.
Around there I rang my brain dry of ideas; McDonald’s makes very few promises. I have a limited lens, but from where I’m standing there’s not a ton of branding going on from a marketing perspective, but what about the customer’s vantage point?
What Brand Looks Like
A brand exists exclusively in the mind of the consumer. And consumers build that collective web of memories and perceptions regarding a single organization through consistency. Consistency is the only thing that builds a brand.
The average McDonald’s customer expects breakfast served until 11 AM (and not a moment later), a quick turnaround on orders, Coca-Cola products at the fountain, and pricing the remains constant across locations.
Whether or not McDonald’s makes those overt promises, they are the promises the customers sees McDonald’s keep, which is another point to make regarding Kristen’s advice.
A brand is a continuum of relational experiences in the mind of the customer, and the more predictable those experiences, the more likely a brand takes the mental shape of a reward button.
In 1953, James Olds and Peter Milner proved you could train a rat to do ‘pretty much anything’ (my paraphrasing) by stimulating the reward centers of the rat’s brain with electricity.
And when you trigger that stimulation by a button activated by the rats themselves, they learn right quick how to hit that button. In fact, they will hit that button 2,000 times per hour for 24-hours straight.
They will press that button in lieu of food, sex, and taking care of their newborn rat babies1. A great brand is a lot like that rat button. We study rats in laboratories because humans share a lot of common traits with them.2
Rats birth like we do, laugh like we do, and apparently get sick like we do – most importantly, they think like we do. We have pleasure centers in our brain that also light up when we bite into a freshly-baked cookie, reach climax, or get a Jeopardy! answer right as the contestants get it wrong – all equally powerful emotions I believe.
And it’s through these neural channels that we form addictions and chemical dependencies; we become those rats cracked out on sweet button hits.
Now I will not nor will I ever advocate a brand to produce a knowingly-addictive product, but there is far more gray area in producing a rat-button-like experience, let’s call these experiences reward buttons.
Imagine you’re a rat in a maze. And if you have a 9-to-5 job, 2.35 kids, and a six-figure student loan, let’s say no imagination required. You approach a button resting patiently under a pair of McDonald’s neon golden arches; what do you expect to receive after you push it?
On your first push, you’ve set your expectations entirely by branding, the promises made by an advertisement, a friend, or some other messenger. Presuming you have no expectations going in, you push the button and receive a Big Mac, fries, a cup of soda, and some ketchup packets.
You wolf down the tasty food because you’re a starving lab rat after all. And this experience creates a mental connection between the McDonald’s button and the pleasure received from having pressed it.
A day later, you press the button and the exact same meal comes out, served precisely as the first – this strengthens the relationship between McDonald’s and a certain kind of perverse greasy pleasure.
If you repeat this for 30-days straight, you gain two things:
an understanding that the McDonald’s button effectively guarantees a satisfying experience
and type 2 diabetes
As brands, the more consistently we hold up our end of the bargain and produce repeatable pleasurable experiences, the likelier our customers are to form these reward-button-relationships in their mind. Push McDonald’s button, get enjoyable McDonald’s “food.”
But what if we fail to deliver a consistent experience?
As we introduce randomness to the customer’s experience through error and sloppiness, the reward-button begins to deteriorate; the customer no longer relies on the button to deliver the expected pleasure.
That, unfortunately, happened to me on my first press of the McDonald’s button circa age 10. I had already seen what a Big Mac looked like on TV, which is a promise McDonald’s makes in its advertisements, a promise which suggests Big Macs come out looking like this
But when I pushed the button, this came out:
What’s great about this example is that it’s a common lived experience. For me, that moment of dissonance shocked my perception of reality and forever left a bad smell in my ear (if you want idiom puns, you came to the wrong place).
And those moments are the kind you want to avoid: you want your branding to align to your brand as closely as possible. But there’s something worse than being inconsistent, you could be consistent…ly bad.
…To The Game
In 2012, America ranked Electronic Arts, a video game developer and publisher, as No. 1… worst company.3 It beat out Bank of America and Sprint. If you’re not much of a gamer, here’s what EA was known for, and largely remains known for today:
Nickel-and-diming gamers with microtransactions
Buying up smaller developers, subjugating their intellectual property, and ruining their franchises
Re-releasing the same games every year with a fresh coat of paint, and charging top-dollar
The list goes on. But certainly what made them so vilified was not just one corporate fiasco, but dozens.
Eventually, the gaming community saw EA as a running joke. As soon as EA announced the impending acquisition of a beloved game studio, the community anticipated the next game to come out of the acquired studio to be a devout capitalist parody of its predecessor devoid of creativity and replete with ‘paid-for’ content and in-game advertisements.
Those running jokes don’t metastasize out of thin air, they are borne of consistently bad behavior, and EA had that in spades.
Consistency Builds The Promise
A brand is a reputation and a reputation is built on repeat outcomes. Which promises are you making to your customers? Write them down. Find the explicit promises such as, ‘24-hour turnaround,’ and the implicit, such as, high quality as a consequence of relatively high price.
To discover which promises your brand keeps, you have to survey and speak to customers – that’s the only way. To align your brand with your branding, and thereby build your organization’s reputation, you only have two options: make reasonable promises, or deliver on the ones you’ve made.
I don’t release this newsletter every week as I ought to do and as I’ve promised to do; I’m failing to build this newsletter, and ipso facto myself into a reliable brand.
So take a lesson from this author: do as a I say, not as I do. But especially that first part. Now go build that brand.
Linden DJ. The Neuroscience of Pleasure. HuffPost. Published July 7, 2011. Accessed December 13, 2021. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/compass-pleasure_b_890342
Glass D. How Humans Are Like Rats. A Moment of Science - Indiana Public Media. Published 2015. Accessed December 13, 2021. https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/how-humans-are-like-rats.php
EA Named “The Worst Company in America.” Game Rant. Published April 4, 2012. Accessed December 14, 2021. https://gamerant.com/ea-named-worst-company-america/