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  The Brands We Love to Hate   The Brands We Love to Hate  David Liss  
The Brands We Love to Hate Bottom feeders with their lowbrow markets may be laughable but does your company have as powerful a brand as say World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)? Did your company achieve gross revenues of over US$ 425 million in fiscal year 2002? Does your company have products or services with broadcast coverage in more than 130 countries in 12 languages? Did over two million people worldwide attend your events in 2002? The WWE achieved all of these.

The WWE brand may be a little unconventional but it works. Why? Mostly because it applies basic branding techniques of forming an emotional connection, targeting a distinct group, creating a sense of community, and remaining consistent and true to its own special brand offering.

The WWE defines a brand as a collection of thoughts that consumers have about the individual products or services that make up a company as a whole. "At the end of the day branding is all about how the fans perceive the WWE and whether we are effectively tapping into the emotions of our customer base," says Greg Castronuovo, WWE vice president of marketing, adding, "Our brands are most importantly a reflection of the thoughts that consumers have about what a particular product is trying to project to them. We recognize that our characters and our story lines register with the beliefs and value systems of groups of fans."

Karl Speak, president and founder of Beyond Marketing Thought, a Minnesota-based brand consulting firm, concurs. "Successful brands understand what their brand does and how it makes a difference in someone's life. For Joe Sixpack, going to a NASCAR race, watching (talk show host) Jerry Springer, might be making that person happier than anything else in their life, and what's wrong with that?"

The best and most successful trash brands are those that, like any successful brand, find a way to register on an emotional level with consumers. Although the WWE may not make you feel warm and fuzzy like Disney, Castronuovo notes: “Hate is still an emotion.”

And emotions occupy space in the consumer's mind. Referring to American daytime talk show host Jerry Springer, Janelle Barlow, a partner with Las Vegas-based TMI US, explains how even brands that may be abhorrent can still engage us. “So many of Jerry Springer's guests are outrageous, fat, frequently unattractive, over the edge of social acceptance, and angry. They grab attention and even elicit disgust. And the viewers, whether they finish watching an entire program or not, know what that show is all about. Whenever I watch one of his programs, I have flashbacks for days. I wonder where he gets his guests. I wonder what kinds of the lives they lead. And my reaction simply doesn't vary. That's good branding, even if I personally don't like his brand.”

These lowbrow antics provide an experience that bonds the market to the brand. “Professional wrestling and Jerry Springer take advantage of what I call ‘the power of demonstration’ that ties an emotion to an event or organization,” says Vickie Sullivan president of Sullivan Speaker Services in Arizona. “The Jerry Springer Show gives an experience that creates an emotion that drives the audience to decide, for themselves, the brand and its meaning. The key is that these messages must be consistent to avoid confusion, yet the actual experience must be different to avoid boredom. Professional speakers do this all the time.”

The WWE succeeds through the power of demonstration, which attracts a certain market and a certain demographic and leads to idea ownership. In other words, you decide whether you are with them or not. If you are “with them,” you become part of a community -- a component of successful trash brands like Harley riders, Jeep drivers, and WWE watchers.

Referring to a WWE event (which is staged entertainment), Oregon State University marketing professor Jim McAlexander says, “The fans believe [the event] is true. There is a common bond, a suspension of disbelief; it’s like getting sucked into a movie. There is a story being told, a shared story that has meaning for everyone that participates in this community. There is a connection that people in the audience feel with each other.

“If you take a look at a tractor pull or professional wrestling,” McAlexander continues, “the customers are participants with […] the producer of the product or service. There is relationship-marketing balanced by reciprocity. ‘I gave, they gave, and I had a kick-ass time.’ ”

“Harley Davidson uses hog rallies to bring owners together. Jeep has a Camp Jeep,” says McAlexander. “In both examples the overriding idea is that of establishing a community. The idea of community also has bottom-line impact to loyalty.” Community leads to loyalty and loyalty leads to brand evangelists who will happily promote their common experiences and the benefits associated with your brand.

Not everyone will be your brand evangelist though. Successful brands define their target market and don’t worry about alienating folks outside of that market. Many businesses fail because they try to capture everybody and every market. WWE succeeds because it realizes it can’t be all things to all people, and it doesn’t pretend to try.

Once a target market is identified, the key is to focus on reaching those markets and try not to worry about who you might be missing. “You can expand your target market, but you must be [able] to deal with it. The more important aspect is to focus on improving service to your primary customer base. In the long run that is what will make a company successful,” notes TMI’s Barlow.

Part of satisfying that target is to be true to your brand.

“An authentic brand is a rare thing,” explains Jan Zlotnick, principal with The Zlotnick Group, a New York-based advertising and brand strategy company. “Every person has a small selection of brands in their own universe that register with them. All brands in my brand universe evolve around me as a planet earth with a few moons that are pulled within my orbit. When these brands fall from ringing true they fall out of that orbit.

“Keeping a brand within the orbit of consumers involves establishing and maintaining a constant connection with the customer, constant communications and an offering of solutions. The main thing is to establish a simple motivating truth and to know how that truth resonates with a customer. This truth must always ring true to your brand.”

Authenticity for any brand is about being distinct and completely true to a defined purpose or intent. If customers identify with a brand’s simple motivating truth, that brand rings true to its public. In the case of wrestling, this might be entertainment provided by what may appear to be ridiculous human cartoon characters. This form of entertainment could provide its audience with a release of inhibition that is lacking elsewhere in their lives.

“As a company you have to decide what and who you want to be -- who your markets are. Proactively listen to these customers and have both a short and a long-term vision of the value of your brand. You must constantly work to leverage the attributes of your brand to the fullest. Companies must remember that while there is a lot of equity in a brand, each and every day it will evolve. For us, if a time comes where we feel that a brand is not in touch with the customer, we will change the brand,” notes WWE’s Castronunovo.

After establishing what your message is and who you are targeting, the brand owner should use all communication -- from napkins and uniforms to signage and employee conduct -- to reinforce that connection. Successful brands are always serving, learning and caring about their customers; these companies realize that their business and their brands will die if they take their customers for granted or confuse them with conflicting messages.

What’s more, trash brands have an added advantage over more mainstream brands. They can exploit their ability to appeal to the “inner beast” of consumers. “Businesses learned long ago that success is definitely possible by selling to people’s more base instincts -- sex, blood and violence -- although this is not right for every business,” says Dion Algieri, founding partner of Great Jakes, Inc., a New York-based marketing and brand strategy company. “Regardless of the kind of product or service, the trick is to find a way to use these base instincts to appeal to a higher order instinct such as wealth or status. For example, a more sophisticated brand may sell status, and status is an incremental step of presenting wealth and sex.”

The owners of these brands may be delivering lowbrow entertainment to the unwashed masses but they are as sophisticated in their branding techniques as Tiffany or BMW.    



Dave Liss is a freelance writer, public relations consultant and occasional business radio host based in Washington, DC. He would love to hear your thoughts about this article and your ideas for others.

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