The Big Brand Bang

It took CERN 10 years and several billion euros to build the Hadron Collider with the purpose of recreating the Big Bang, the birth of the Universe. They claim to be getting very close although in fact they may never actually get there, just close enough to be able to understand the absolute fundamentals of particle physics and the creation of life as we know it, Jim.

As a brand marketer would you not want to witness the birth of a brand? Not the launch of a brand, but the birth of a brand in someone’s mind, the very moment when all the attributes, associations and artefacts of the brand collide to form one coherent whole. Nike, Google, Coke all exist now, part of the Universe, and we can only speculate and guesstimate precisely how the particles all came together. To know for sure you have to see (feel might be a better word) the actual physics of how it happens. Does this possibility not excite you, give you a hadron (sic) so to speak – sorry, I just couldn’t resist. Well you can. I know this because I recently did. And you don’t need a multi-billion euro collider.

Enter, as a consumer, a new market – go buy something in a category you have never worked in nor ever previously taken much interest but which suddenly matters to you. I will share my recent experience of doing just this and you will get the idea.

I have what is known in South Africa as a ‘Bakkie’ (pronounced ‘buckie’) – the Americans would call it a truck, Europeans a SUV. It’s a Double Cab, 4 x4 Toyota Hilux, the top selling car in South Africa for very good reasons. It is not bad on the road, sits 5 fairly comfortably, goes up the side of mountains and is built like a very robust lavatory. In the rare cases it breaks down or runs into something harder than itself you can repair or replace any part of it in any remote part of Africa. Mine has now done 40k, barely run-in, and needed new tires. So what brand of new tires should I buy? Not a category I have ever worked in professionally and frankly not very high interest for me – until now. The choice of tire is now crucially important to me, I cannot hide behind what the manufacturer supplied the car with, I have to make a choice. That choice has a functional dimension, I must choose the right tires for the driving I do (70% on-road, 30% off-road). I won’t buy the cheapest as that is a false saving, I must buy the best value. But my choice has a badge dimension as well. If I rock up to my mate’s farm in the Karoo (very beautiful and middle of bloody nowhere) with the wrong brand of tires I will be derided as a wimpy towny (accurate but hurtful nonetheless). I have done well to buy a Toyota Hilux, a car that commands ultimate respect among the people who make full and daily use of a ‘Bakkie’. My choice of replacement tires has the potential to deepen that respect to the level where he might even let me take a turn doing the brai (Bar-B-Q).

I am standing in Tiger Wheel & Tyre, the biggest and most highly advertised of all the many purveyors of tires – guess why – and the very lovely Lizette is explaining my options and the various deals available. I am in luck as there seems to be a ‘deal’ on all the ‘top brands’. I have no idea whether these deals do or do not in fact reflect any true saving, but there is a lot of point of sale assuring me they do plus the gift of a free Bosch power tool should I buy a full set of 4 (as I intend to do). I don’t think the Bosch power tool would persuade me to buy tires if they didn’t need changing nor, I think, to buy a brand that was not my first choice but it would tip a lot of people into changing all 4, the sensible but not essential thing to do (they wear and drive much better if they are all new but you can sometimes get away with replacing just one pair). Anyway, this is not about understanding the real time effect of promotions, this is about the very moment when a brand arrives in you head, not as disassociated scraps and particles but as a coherent whole. Lizette is now asking me what brand I would like.

I can see the various brands of new tires on display. I recognize some names – Continental, Michelin. There is one Japanese make I’ve never heard of but, hey, it’s Japanese as is my cherished Toyota Bakkie.

“What about the BF Goodrich All Terrain?” I enquire tentatively. “A very good choice” Lizette replies without hesitation. Would she have said that about any of the big name brands? I don’t think so. She seems very capable, has already advised not to spend the extra money on the more expensive fully off-road tires so I trust her, and there is something about the smile she gives me. It’s a knowing smile. Choosing BF Goodrich, it seems, has impressed her.

Let’s examine the particles that existed in my mind. I had heard of BF Goodrich and had noticed them on the kind of SUV’s that mean business – the ones with extra jerry cans, winches, snorkel exhausts etc. The reason you notice BF Goodrich is because the branding is very prominent, a big chunky white logo, and the tread is also very distinctive. A few years back I had briefly flirted with the idea of buying a Land Rover Defender to which the previous owner had fitted BF Goodrich. This was talked up by the dealer as a selling feature – “The previous owner loved this car and really looked after it, look, he even fitted Goodrich”. In other words the previous owner had paid extra to have the new car, not just any car but a Defender, upgraded with more expensive tires.

I am not 100% sure but have a feeling that BF Goodrich are American. The yanks know nothing about cars but when it comes to trucks and the tires that go with them they do have a certain reputation.

And then there was the price – the BF Goodrich were quite expensive, not unaffordably so but noticeably so.

“I’ll take the BF Goodrich”. “Would you like the white lettering on the inside or outside” Lizette enquired, apparently it makes no difference which way round the tire is fitted. Guess which I chose.

Distinctiveness, (relevant) opinion-leader endorsement, country of origin, price, coherence (tread, logo, name, function and badge), multiple points where the brand has touched me and a degree of familiarity, a sense that you are not the only one, that maybe the brand is becoming more popular.  The Big Brand Bang.

As I pulled into the car park of my local just as a car-mad mate was also arriving, the new tires (on my 3 year old car) were instantly noticed. “Decent set of boots, China” he said appreciatively.

I can now tell you with total conviction that if you have a choice in tire for your SUV there is only one brand to buy – BF Goodrich. A brand is born  – in my mind.

PS It turns out that BF Goodrich are now owned by Michelin –would that have made any difference? Who knows. Big Bang Brand Architecture – but that’s another story…….

Justin Bieber and Persil

Back at the turn of the Millennium the venerable Jeremy Bullmore delivered a lecture to the British Brands Group entitled “Posh Spice and Persil”. Victoria had apparently declared at an early age that she wanted to be more famous than Persil and Jeremy took this as his theme to expound the importance, and the magical mystery, of brands to CEO’s. I wasn’t there but like many thousand others I read the transcript. I had heard him talk before about the powerful quality of fame that brands have which, if nothing else, will create preference. When found at the heart of a coherent, yet never fully definable, set of relevant associations it can drive loyalty to a brand of soap powder or baked beans (or at the very least deep, deep inertia).

Was he the first to see celebrities as proper brands? Who knows, probably not, the notion was becoming popular and even back then it was clear the Beckham brand was being managed (and to great effect). I recall many years earlier hearing Peter York (aka Wallis, he of Sloane Ranger fame) liken brands to soap opera stars. We like them because we know them yet every now and again they can surprise us. Product brands hope to surprise us in an appealing way, celebrities often surprise us in a disappointing way that has them reaching for Max Clifford’s number on speed dial. Anyway, my point is celebrities started to realize they were like Persil and more recently Persil et al realize they need to learn to be more like celebrities. They envy their social media status, their content, their multi-media ubiquity – their loyal following. Brands want to be newsworthy.

I am in Cape Town, as I write, and my wife and son are off to see Justin Bieber tonight at the impressive Green Point stadium. The whole city is buzzing, young Beliebers have been camping out all night to get the best spot in the Golden Circle, the traffic tonight will be awful. Justin, I am sure, will be amazing. What a great brand he is, if you happen to like his music, which I don’t.

But here is my point – one I intend to focus a lot more on in my writing, in terms of the marketing technology businesses I am investing in, and for the occasional client I am advising. Justin is a lot more than a strong brand. Justin is a global media channel. This diminutive 17 year old crooner has 45 million facebook followers (his most recent post attracted 2.5 million likes in an hour, I just checked) and 21 million Twitter followers. ”Baby” has been watched 750 million times on Youtube. His total album sales since 2009 are only 12 million – I say ‘only’, obviously this is good going but can’t you see? His music is not the product, the numbers are tiny in comparison to his audience, his reach and frequency. Justin – or one presumes his agent – is amassing a valuable portfolio of investments in social media platforms like Spotify and other internet start-ups. Because Justin can make or break a social media platform. Because Justin is the Social Media Platform. And then there’s Lady Gaga, Oprah, Jamie Oliver, WillIam etc etc etc.

If Justin tweets today that he is wearing his favourite white jacket that he insists is washed in Persil and only Persil wherever he is in the world, a gazillion young girls and future mums will be hooked for life, more than any campaign dreamt up by Jeremy’s and Persil’s old agency JWT could ever have achieved. Am I just pointing out the obvious and age-old power of celebrity endorsement? No, I am pointing out that with his endorsement comes a global audience of his making and under his control, one that will amplify the message with their own audience via re-tweets and likes.

Celebrities are the new media platforms and Social Media is their prime weapon. The top/smart celebrities are managing themselves not just like brands but like social media platforms. And here is just one thing that interests me about this. Most of the technology start-ups I talk to are very keen on securing brand support. They want to charter with the Persils, Cokes, Nikes, Samsungs as their partners because they are the ones with the budgets and inferred credibility. Some are now realizing that if they charter with celebrities (which in Justin’s case means he wants equity in the business) the brands will follow. But the reverse is not true.

Jeremy my old friend – it’s gone way further than any of us could have imagined. Justin Bieber is not just bigger than Persil, he is bigger than commercial TV. He, or more realistically he and all the other savvy celebrities, may end up being bigger than facebook.

So should brands be looking to celebrities for clues about the new model of branding and brand communication? Perhaps, but more importantly they should be looking at celebrities the way they used to look at ITV and have started to look at facebook. Persil and all the other big brands need a Bieber strategy and budget.

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