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Decide As You Please with Your Brand, the True Owner Has Other Ideas

Color. Fonts. Copywriting. Social media. You will pour your heart and soul into creating your brand. You’ll meet with users who love it, with others who hate it, and even with people who don’t care one way or the other.

You’ll do all of this to reach a point of confidence. “I understand my customers,” you’ll say.

And then they will prove you wrong.

They’ll dislike your product or service for the very reason they told you they would love it. Or, they’ll use it in a way you didn’t envision or intend.

What’s up with that? What are you supposed to do about it now?

They own it. They own your product or service, and they also own your brand. The biggest mistake we can make as marketers is deciding that we own and control our brand.

The customer owns it. The customer controls it. It exists in only one place. Their minds.

That’s where they manipulate it and insert it into their worldview. So, it’s possible that they have a different idea about how they want to use your brand. They’ll decide to interpret it as they please.

If you want some excellent examples of what can happen to a brand, get a copy of a book titled Brand Hijack by Alex Wipperfurth. Choose your brand identity, but defend it at your own risk, the book explains.

One of my favorite examples is the story about Mattel, which sued Barbie collectors who costumed the dolls in ways the toymaker felt were inappropriate for the Barbie brand. Mattel operated under the assumption that they owned the Barbie brand.

The true owners did not agree. Mattel unleashed a customer backlash that crippled revenue at the time of the lawsuits. The 70-year-old plastic icon has not been able to recover, even after Mattel upgraded boyfriend Ken with a man-bun and introduced a companion pet named “Walk & Potty Pup.” (The Mattel website says that  Barbie’s new dog “really walks and goes potty for a true bonding experience.”)

If Barbie’s lesson isn’t enough, you can read Wipperfurth’s story about Dr. Martens shoes. They were introduced in Germany during the mid 1940s. Their comfortable soles were a big hit with housewives, and 80% of sales in the first decade were to women over the age of 40. Dr. Martens shoes, however, changed ownership—the brand, that is.

Dr. Martens left the worldview of German housewives, only to land in the minds of two groups who were ushering in powerful political and lifestyle statements. The shoes were claimed as preferred brands by both the punk culture and gay men.

If there’s a lesson to be extracted from Barbie and Dr. Martens, it’s that the best you can hope for is to be a brand custodian. Create it as you like, but be prepared to groom it to appeal to the real owners.

Even they may change over time.

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