Flexing the brand

Nokia logo (1865)

Nokia logo (1865) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Nokia brand has been on a remarkable journey.  To early Finnish consumers, the brand first meant wood pulp for paper, then rubber boots.  To my generation, it means sleek little mobile phone handsets.  Following the company’s recent calamitous decline and now Microsoft’s acquisition of its devices business, it’s set to change again. To future generations, assuming Microsoft eventually drops the brand on mobile handsets, “Nokia” will mean something completely different… mapping apps perhaps, or whatever else emerges out of the rump company’s extensive patent portfolio.

The name means nothing in itself — Nokia is a town in Finland — so perhaps it is innately flexible.  But what about the Microsoft brand?  Software for Microcomputers?  Until this month, Microsoft had remained reasonably true to its software roots, building on its two great monopolies of Windows and Office, although it had made exploratory forays into the hardware field with the Xbox and the Surface tablet.  Now, with this $7.2bn investment in mobile devices, the old brand identity has gone out of the window; Microsoft is clearly positioning itself as an integrated hardware/software brand to rival Apple.

Apple, of course, has been on its own brand-stretching adventure, from desktop computers via music retail to smartphones, mapping, TV, publishing and everything else.  A brand which was once all about computing has now come to represent primarily an abstract combination of design, quality, usability and attitude which, one suspects, could be comfortably extended to solar panels, space travel or kitchenware.

This is all fairly remarkable when we consider what a brand is meant to be.  Every expert will offer a different definition, but a core feature of the brand is a promise to the customer.  We buy XYZ brand rather than a cheaper rival because we trust the promise implicit in its name, logo, colour scheme or mascot that the XYZ product or service will perform or benefit us in a particular (often unexpressed, even inexpressible) way.  And for that promise to be credible, to hold its value over repeated transactions, it has to be — at least to some extent — true.

So what is the truth of a brand that can change as much as Nokia, or Microsoft, or Apple?  Can a brand bear multiple truths?  Can it bear competing truths?  Can it mean different things to different people, in different places, at different times, and still maintain its integrity?  This is a subject of great debate among branding gurus, and for every successful brand transformation story like Virgin or Samsung there is a cautionary tale about the brand that stretched too far (Zippo perfume or Colgate food, anyone?).  FMCG brands that represent luxury in one geographical market yet target the mass market in another come unstuck as globalisation and the internet reveal all.  Banking brands that mean financial prudence and safety to one consumer segment are playing with fire if they promise high risk super-profits to another.

Nevertheless the general trend has been away from the disciplined consistency that marked early brand management and towards fluidity across all the many media and social media platforms now available to marketers.  And where brand identity used to be closely tied to the core products and services offered (BMW=cars; Gillette=razors), now brand shapers concern themselves more with core principles, values or emotions.  These are intended to be fundamental, almost primeval in their longevity and deep meaning, but of course they also have the benefit of being endlessly flexible in terms of the products and services that can be tacked on to them.  If your brand says “Environmental Responsibility, Playfulness and Family Unity” you are far less restricted in your future business activities than if it spells out “Safe Air Travel”.  This is helpful in a world where companies everywhere are radically rethinking the business they are in.  Tool manufacturers now see themselves as selling holes rather than drills; handbag designers aspire to shape lifestyles; car companies have become financial services providers; mobile phone operators hope, at least in one extreme case, to sell “everything everywhere“.

But this is surely problematic.  If a brand no longer promises anything directly related to the product or service you are actually buying, how can it still convey a truth of any practical consequence?  What truth about our clothing are we supposed to derive from the fact that it bears a well known cigarette or motorcycle brand?  What about supermarket brands on our mortgages and current accounts?  If Google brings a driverless car to market, what brand truth can we cling to from our experience of their search engine that will see us through that first, nerve-wracking ride?  Should we content ourselves with hoping the car will do no evil?

Ultimately, brands have to offer some truth more than “we’re a successful company you’ve heard of so you can trust our product to work”.  They have to confer an extra element of value on products and services, be it reassurance, excitement, glamour or meaning.  And they have to do this in a business environment where rapid, radical innovation is increasingly the norm.  Multiple truths are therefore inevitable, and some of these truths will seem contradictory, even when they are well supported by one or other facet of the evolving business offering.  Where competing brand truths arise the trick is to have an extremely good story, consistently expressed by all members of the organisation, as to how they all fit together.  “Beyond Petroleum“?  Well, maybe one day.