The brand dating game

In the pursuit of understanding brands, we often ask people to 'personify' them. Though some may scoff at this practice, a description of a brand as a George Clooney or a Marcia Brady can be much more illuminating than a ubiquitous characteristic like 'confident' (seen on nearly every creative brief).
Sometimes I wonder whether some brand stewards couldn't benefit from taking this brand personification out of the strategic laboratory and into the brand singles scene. I'm talking about 'brand dating.'

In the pursuit of understanding brands, we often ask people to ‘personify’ them. Though some may scoff at this practice, a description of a brand as a George Clooney or a Marcia Brady can be much more illuminating than a ubiquitous characteristic like ‘confident’ (seen on nearly every creative brief).

Sometimes I wonder whether some brand stewards couldn’t benefit from taking this brand personification out of the strategic laboratory and into the brand singles scene. I’m talking about ‘brand dating.’

What’s brand dating? You might think it’s about stamping a ‘best before’ date on a bag of chips but, in this context, it’s about brand partnerships, relationships or, well, dates. Still confused?

Well, if we head back to the topic of brand personification, you might imagine Henrietta Ford picking up the phone to call Eddie Bauer. They have a few conversations, get to know each other better over coffee and, before you know it, their union is consummated in an Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Explorer.

Okay, this brand boot knocking may sound strange in context, but is it that strange for the average consumer to see these joint ventures or brand partnerships in an emotional context as a relationship between two brands rather than in a rational context? After all, we are often defined by our relationships and our environment. Like people, a brand’s status is often dictated by the company it keeps and the environment in which it lives.

While most marketers are careful to ensure that their brands are seen in the right environmental context by choosing those TV shows, outdoor locations or magazines that provide the right rub-off, many do not always exercise such caution when it comes to the peer context (i.e. partnerships with other brands).

In the dog-merge-dog-the-future-is-now business environment of today, this is understandable. Why should we think long-term when many of us are switching brand assignments or companies every 12 to 18 months and a brand alliance with a major marketer today can result in millions of ‘free’ impressions for your brand today? Similarly, an agreement to provide prizes for, say, a convenience store contest may give you increased brand awareness and a major sales order to boot.

However, within the context of brand relationships, some ‘free’ impressions are very expensive and some short-term sales boosts do not contribute to the long-term bottom line. If we are truly interested in bettering the long-term health of brands, we must go beyond sales figures to find ways of rewarding long-term thinking and true brand stewardship.

Nowhere does the saying ‘Choose your friends wisely’ hold more true than in the brand relationship scene. Herewith, some dating do’s and don’ts to help you choose the right partner.

1) Ask yourself which brand stands to gain more by the dating relationship.

Are you dating the homecoming queen for the popularity or the class Poindexter for the money? If you’ve snagged the belle of the ball, congratulations. If you’ve traded a night out for some pocket money, know that you might be seen as no better than a paid escort by the more savvy of consumers.

2) Try to create win-win situations.

The best dates are the ones where each party benefits. One of the most successful brand dates in recent memory was Volkswagen’s association with Trek mountain bikes in creating the Trek Jetta. Volkswagen was young and widely popular and Trek was young and authentically sporty. Consequently, Trek got their wish of becoming more widely popular and Volkswagen their wish of becoming more ‘sporty.’ Pure symbiosis in action.

3) Think long-term.

When the callers come courting, conduct yourself like an Amish teenager. Ask yourself how a brand date today will affect your reputation tomorrow. Brand exposure aside, I’ll bet you a Malibu Barbie Beach House that the brand guardians of the VW Beetle are kicking themselves over licensing their car to Mattel. (Tell me, how many ‘Turbo’ Beetle ads does a man need to see in order to overcome the fact that his eight-year-old daughter is chauffeuring Barbie in a pink Beetle across his living room?)

4) ‘Free’ isn’t always free.

During my tenure at Nike, we turned down millions of dollars of free advertising each year from other brands who wanted a little rub off the magical brand lamp. Given the ubiquity of the swoosh in recent times, consumers told us we should have turned down even more. While most brands only have to worry about being seen in the right places with the right people, some even have to worry about being seen the right number of times. ‘Free’ impressions overdone can cost.

5) Scrutinize the logic and legitimacy of your partnership.

A bike rack on a car makes logical sense – but an ad for James Bond’s Samsonite 735 luggage? Nice coup for Samsonite to draft off the James Bond brand, but what can we expect next? Scope, the official mouthwash of 007? Partnerships with the Bond brand are nearly bulletproof and as old as the hills. Still, one has to ask whether dubious brand dates such as this will eventually dull the shine of the Bond brand.

While good brand dates are providing consumers with some of the most exciting marketing promotions seen in today’s marketplace, bad ones are just like bad people dates – they can haunt you for years. So, choose your partners wisely, do your research and I’d appreciate it if you could have Donna Karan home by her 11 o’clock curfew.

Jeff Spriet is the founder of Wiretap, a guerrilla marketing agency based in Toronto. He’s dating a number of brands but insists he’s not ‘easy’. Reach him at 416.535.9038 or jeff@wiretap.ca.