It is a common axiom of branding that the customer owns the brand. No matter what we try to do as marketers, strategists or designers, we cannot directly control what people think about our brands. The only things we can control are (some of) the various touchpoints they have with our brand.
A brand touchpoint is any facet of how a person interacts with a company, product or service – from an advertising headline to a conversation with a customer service rep to the subtle interaction of a single button on a web site. If we are thoughtful, skillful and lucky, we can orchestrate and align enough of those touchpoints – an experiential tipping point – to create a coherent and meaningful experience for our customers. This is underlying principal of what I like to call “touchpoint branding” (more on this in a future blog post).
So that’s the theory of how it’s supposed to work: brand strategy manifests as touchpoints which create experiences which form perceptions. But in practice, of course, it’s rarely so tidy. Customers are exposed to many touchpoints that are outside the company’s control (word-of-mouth being one of the most potent), and these often form lasting brand associations that marketers have to deal with.
So how does the public define your brand? There’s no substitute for good customer research, but there is a fun little site called Brand Tags that offers a “quick and dirty” approximation of how a given brand is perceived (or at least how it’s perceived by the users of Brand Tags). The site lets people “tag” brands with attributes the same way they would tag web content with keywords. What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Volvo? OK, that was an easy one, but things get more interesting as you dig a little deeper.
For example, we’re big fans of Chipotle Mexican Grill – they’re a long-standing client of ours with a great brand. They’re well known as a cool, fun place to get gourmet burritos, and if you ask them how they define their brand, they have a nice short list of inspiring and desirable brand attributes (the kind most companies should have). But on Brand Tags, the three most common tags are “Burrito” (good), “Mexican” (yup), and “McDonalds” (huh?).
What do the Golden Arches have to do with Chipotle? The truth is that McDonalds was once an investor in Chipotle, and even though they have since divested their shares and have nothing to do with each other, it seems the association has stuck. Chipotle’s corporate vision is a sort of manifesto against fast food (to their credit, they are genuinely committed to and passionate about this). Yet there it is, in plain view – the third most common association with the Chipotle brand name is the world’s biggest fast food chain. It’s a reality of their current brand perception and simply wishing it away (or even explaining it as untrue) won’t change it. Because the brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what they think it is. And changing an entrenched perception (even if it’s a misperception) is even harder than getting them to pay attention in the first place.
Again, the Brand Tags site is no substitute for true brand research, but we’ve found it to be an interesting and often useful first stop on the path to understanding what “they” think you’re all about.