Do We Buy Brands or Products Today?

IMG_0510Recently, I read a statement by a marketing professional who stated bluntly that people today buy brands, not products.

This pronouncement seemed wrong, like wishful thinking, a little ahead of itself. Regardless of what that writer and other marketers will tell you, people still mostly buy products, not brands.

When people buy brands, they do so because they relate to the company in a way that goes beyond just the function of its product. Cars made by both BMW and Toyota will get people where they want to go, for example. But some of us buy BMWs because this brand makes us feel good about ourselves, perhaps as a reward for years of hard work or for landing a coveted first job. Others buy Nike sneakers because we share this brand’s commitment to achieving excellent athletic performance.

On the other hand, people buy products, regardless of who makes them, because of their function. They provide what the buyer wants. Post Raisin Bran tastes good today, but maybe tomorrow, Kellogg’s Raisin Bran might taste better or might be on sale when the consumer is at the store. Pepsi and Coke might be interchangeable, depending what’s available at the restaurant or from the vending machine. Consumers subscribe to Comcast because it’s the only cable service available in their community, but they wouldn’t really care if AT&T were their cable provider.

Marketers are correct in saying that people are loyal to brands. But, it seems to me, their lack of loyalty to products is what’s really behind most of their purchases.

Some people may always buy Toms shoes because they are committed to the brand’s philanthropic goal of giving one free pair of shoes to someone who needs them every time the company sells a pair. But I believe most people, when they need a pair of shoes, buy the pair that looks best and feels best within their budget. They may occasionally buy Tom’s shoes, but only if the shoes meet these criteria.

Except for one period in the ’90s, I have bought Apple computers ever since my first Mac in 1985. I’m a pleased supporter of Apple, now buying iPhones, iPads and iPods exclusively. I believe in the company and its approach to building products, as Steve Jobs expressed in Walter Isaason’s biography of the Apple co-founder and former CEO:

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

Clearly, I buy the Apple brand, not just Apple products.

But Apple is about as far as I go in buying brands. And I don’t think I’m alone. It seems to me that most people still buy products today, buying brands only in a limited number of categories, perhaps only makeup or designer clothes. Certainly we don’t always—or even mostly—buy brands, regardless of what the wishful marketers may want to believe.

We buy products—not brands—because most companies’ storytelling doesn’t create for us an emotional attachment that goes beyond their products’ functionality. The narratives may honestly represent the beliefs and philosophies held by these companies, but we’re not relating to them, and we are not forming strong relationships with them. As a result, most companies still remain product makers, rather than brands that we feel represent us and our lifestyles.

(Note: I used the quote from Steve Jobs in an earlier blog “The Purity of Simplicity” on craftsmanship, which you may read here.)  

05/11/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are eight recent communications stories of note.

The 10 Best Words the Internet Has Given English by Tom Chatfield, in the Guardian, April 17.

In this article, Chatfield, a self-described etymology addict, looks at the history of ten words that are gaining new life and, in some instances, new meanings on the Internet.

The New Look of Public Relations by Stuart Elliott, in The New York Times, April 28, discusses PR firm FleishmanHillard’s rebranding as an integrated marketing communications agency. The New Look of Public Relations—A Dissenting View by Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, in his 6 A.M. blog, May 8, looks at his firm’s approach to preparing for the future.

The PR business is in flux. And agencies everywhere are trying to determine their future role in the overall marketing space and in controlling their clients’ paid, earned, owned, and shared media mix. The best way for them to brand, or rebrand, themselves for this challenge is up for grabs, as these two articles show.

Solving Equation of a Hit Script, With Data by Brooks Barnes, in The New York Times, May 5.

Barnes writes that a former statistics professor thinks he can improve screenplays by comparing “the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success.” Vinny Bruzzese is not a writer. Instead, he’s interested in using data, which he gathers from focus groups and interviews with moviegoers, to suggest script changes. One screenwriter calls Bruzzese’s approach “my worse nightmare.”

Linguists Identify 15,000-Year-Old ‘Ultraconserved Words’ by David Brown in The Washington Post, May 6.

Some words are coined and then disappear in a matter of years. Even the strongest usually last only about 9,000 years before becoming extinct. But linguists have discovered a few words that have been around for 150 centuries, and they’re wondering why.

Grammar Rules Everyone Should Follow by Thomas Jones in the Guardian, May 9.

Jones says that although these “rules” are really conventions not rules, they’re worth following “in the right kinds of discourse” because they make writing clearer and more elegant. He is correct in eight of his suggestions, but I think he’s wrong about the use of who and whom.

Trying to Be Hip and Edgy, Ads Become Offensive by Stuart Elliott and Tanzina Vega, in The New York Times, May 10.

The authors say that advertising agencies and their clients may be trying too hard to reach millennials and “to create ads that will be noticed and break through the clutter.” The result: They are creating more and more offensive ads, leading to public outrage as well as embarrassment (and worse) for Madison Avenue and the brands being promoted.

The 30 Most Influential Bloggers in Public Relations on The CyberAlert Blog.

Today, there are more than 180 million blogs published worldwide on the Internet. Most have only a handful of followers, and their comments leave little or no trail. But a few bloggers are extremely influential, with thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of followers who can’t wait for their next post.

CyberAlert, a media monitoring service, has identified the 30 most influential bloggers who write about public relations and social media. PR and corporate communications professionals might want to take a look at what these bloggers have to say.

My Blog: Celebrating One Year

shutterstock_85653580With this post, my 65th, I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of my blog.

In my first post a year ago, I said this blog would be about business communications. But my goal then—as now—was to take more of a sidelong glance at this topic than a direct, in-your-face, view of it.

Many people focus narrowly on one aspect of today’s business communications, covering everything there is to know about, say, social media or blogging. Some do a really good job. But most just seem to copy what they’ve seen in someone else’s post. And quite frankly, I often feel I’m reading the same article over and over again, as the third person this week provides a list of the six things you must do to succeed online or the ten things you can do wrong when tweeting.

I chose, instead, to write about what I see as the whole communications process: “word usage, grammar, sentence construction, the structure of documents, communications tools, the strategies and tactics for communicating with specific key stakeholder groups, the execution of these strategies and tactics, and the evaluation of the success or failure of these efforts,” as I said in my first post.

So each week over the past year, I’ve written about whatever communications subject felt important or intriguing at the time, even if this approach produced what might seem—at first glance—to be an array of subjects unrelated to business communications.

Some posts make the connection more directly than others. For instance, my fourth post, from April, ties together a philosopher’s view of shaker furniture and Steve Jobs; a piece from November stresses the need for a company to really understand what its product is; and a post from earlier this month presents a Q&A on digital long-form content.

The subjects of other posts tie less overtly to business communications, but the link can easily be made: tattoos (two Olympians’ and my father’s) with business branding; Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon with the need to write clear business communications; and the different ways “Brussels sprouts” was spelled at the Farmers Market in Madison.

A few posts may require even more thought to find the link. Among these are the September post about my dog, Henry, and the joy he gave me; an October piece about the subconsciousness of writing; and this month’s post on U.S. schools deciding not to teach cursive handwriting.

I believe this circling of my blog’s key topic helps me—and I hope my readers—to think more broadly, and yet at the same time more closely, about the business of communicating about companies, their products and services, and their actions.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vesna Cvorovic

03/16/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are seven notable communications stories from the two weeks ending Saturday, March 16.

Blogs Outrank Social Networks for Consumer Influence: New Research by Patricia Redsicker, on the Social Media Examiner website, March 6.

Redsicker reports some interesting findings of Technorati’s 2013 Digital Influence Report.

Among the six findings she highlights are: One, blogs influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. In fact, they are “the third most influential digital resource (31%) when making overall purchases, behind retail sites (56%) and brand sites (34%).” Two, brands and influencers measure success differently. “Brands see success as increased activity on Facebook, Twitter or their websites, while influencers rank blog or website page views as the best measure of success.”

9 Tips to Enhance Your Content Marketing by Bill Miltenberg, on the PRNews website, March 8.

Miltenberg provides tips culled from PR News’ recent Digital PR Summit that featured three PR/content marketing professionals: David Patton from Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, Chad Melton from Ingersoll Rand, and Eliza Anderson from Intrepid Travel.

Why Brands Should Embrace Honesty by Nicola Kemp, on the MediaWeek website, March 13.

Kemp leaves no doubt how she feels about honesty: “At a time when consumer trust in businesses and institutions is at an all-time low, brands can no longer afford to shroud themselves in secrecy and hide behind generic press releases and oblique statements.”

She also makes it clear that achieving honesty will not be easy for businesses: “While the corporate communications industry has effectively built its trade on helping businesses save face, it has a long way to go in adapting to a world in which consumers are demanding that the face in question is a true and honest one.”

Pope Francis, Need Some Public-Relations Help? Here’s Advice from America’s Political Consultants by Brain Resnick and Elahe Izadi on the NationalJournal website, March 13.

For this piece, the writers asked a number of political consultants what they think Pope Francis might do to improve the image of the church and to shore up its support and confidence.

Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee says, “It’s not that different from politics here—you’ve got [to] connect with people, convince them that you ‘get them’ and that you’re willing and able to fix institutional problems.” Kevin Madden, a Republican advisor, says, “Presenting a reformist agenda will be a critical part of generating goodwill with Catholics around the world as well as those Vatican-watchers.”

Other consultants offer suggestions. Most are not only appropriate for the Pope and his church but are relevant for corporations and other large organizations facing their own crisis.

Gartner Finds Corporate Websites Still a Higher Digital Marketing Priority for U.S. Marketers Than Facebook—Just by Natasha Lomas, on TechCrunch, March 13.

In this article, Lomas says a Gartner survey of U.S.-based companies shows that “corporate websites are ranked as the top digital activity for marketing ‘success’ — beating marketing on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.” Forty-five percent of the survey respondents say that their corporate websites contribute to their companies’ success, while 43% say their social media efforts boost marketing success.

Lomas quotes Gartner’s research director as stating, “The survey results suggest that the corporate website will not be displaced anytime soon by a brand’s social media presence.”

The Journalist and the PR Pro: A Broken Marriage?” by Peter Himler, on the Forbes website, March 14.

“The historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals has taken a distinct turn toward the latter in recent years and cuts across virtually every media beat,” Himler says. But he doesn’t see the relationship as being completely broken.

Himler, a seasoned PR/media strategist, gives a few suggestions for what each side of this media-relations equation might do to do improve its relationship with the other.

How the PR Industry of Yesteryear Compares with Today by Michael Sebastian, on Ragan’s PR Daily, March 15.

Sebastian begins his piece by stating, “In just a decade, aspects of the public relations field have become unrecognizable.” Then he provides an infographic from InkHouse Media + Marketing showing how today’s PR industry compares with itself of a few years ago.

At the bottom of the piece is a link to another story worth checking out. This one lists 10 signs that show you are an old-school PR pro.

A Cursive Letter from Overseas

shutterstock_9776056When we recently visited The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I stopped to view Thomas Hart Benton’s Letter from Overseas. This small lithograph shows a woman sitting on a fence near her mailbox reading a letter by lantern light. It’s an ominous, dark drawing done in 1943, the middle of World War II.

The drawing struck a chord with me, but so too did the note on the gallery wall next to it. The note quoted letters written by soldiers from battlefields overseas and suggested similar letters may have inspired Benton’s work. I wondered if he would have been so motivated by emails sent from soldiers who had never learned to write cursive and could only type their letters home.

This thought came to me because a few days earlier I had read a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal announcing that several elementary schools across the country have stopped teaching cursive writing. Others are planning to drop this subject in the near future.

As schools in 45 states begin implementing the new common core state standards for math and English, they are, according to the Journal, sending “cursive the way of the quill pen, while requiring instead that students be proficient in keyboarding by fourth grade.”

Clearly, in our technology-driven world, having keyboard skills is essential. Every student must be able to type accurately on a computer and a tablet—and perhaps a smartphone—at a very young age.

But do we now need formal typing classes in school—especially if they replace classes for cursive handwriting? I’d be surprised if most children can’t use a keyboard much earlier than fourth grade—most, by the time they finish preschool—even without training from their teachers.

I know one young girl who at one-and-a-half can already turn on her iPad, key in the password, and then find and play her games. She can’t type words, but then she isn’t yet able to read and can’t quite speak in sentences. My guess is she will be emailing before she is three.

So, it doesn’t make sense to me that teachers have to choose (or should even be given a choice) between teaching their students to use a keyboard and teaching them cursive writing. Kids will learn keyboarding on their own, but they’ll never learn handwriting if they are not taught in school.

None of us is blind to the fact that little demand for cursive writing exists today in business or social settings. But it’s still used in a lot of ways important to each of us.

For example, just as our DNA and fingerprints make each of us unique, our individual signatures also define who we are. That’s why teenagers still practice signing their signatures until they represent them in just the right way.

Without cursive, they lose one important aspect of what it means to be an individual.

If schools stop teaching cursive handwriting, other important things might be lost as well:

  • A daughter might never be able to put away with other treasures the letter of love and respect written on her wedding day in her father’s distinctive handwriting.
  • Without his distinctive signature, one of today’s young students might never know the thrill of signing with a flourish the contract for his first apartment after graduate school.
  • When one of today’s preschoolers becomes the most important writer of the 21st century, the world will always miss the cursive handwritten corrections on her manuscripts.
  • The mother of a future soldier might never receive from an overseas battlefield a letter written in her son’s unmistakable cursive handwriting.

Graphic: Shutterstock