The message is determined by analyzing the brand being marketed, and doing
so with clear vision and self-knowledge. Too many marketing executives rely
on their own concept of the brand's identity, and never bother to discover what
attributes the public has assigned to a product. Just because you've decided
that you want to project a certain image doesn't mean that's the image you're
projecting. Extremely high-profile marketing campaigns have failed because
not enough market research and communication with the consuming public
When AT&T Wireless decided to consolidate its wireless phone, pager, and
Internet technology into something called mlife, it gave the public examples of
what the company meant. Unfortunately, the public still doesn't understand,
and has no idea what the m stands for (it is messaging).
United Airlines has long invited the public to "fly the friendly skies of United."
The public has noticed that the experience on the plane is not terribly friendly,
and is now distrustful of all airlines' claims.
The criteria for effective public relations messages should be: (1) is it true? (2)
Is it unusual? (3) Is it interesting?
On the other hand, if a company already exists in the marketplace, a new
message will have to be identified. For retail companies, the addition of a new
product category or a price reduction are always effective messages.
Sales promotions, particularly very public or extremely unusual ones, make
good messages. Anything out of the ordinary being done by the company in
the name of public service or community aid is a legitimate message.
In order for the message to be even rudimentarily effective, it absolutely must
be true. Remember, the message is being disseminated by the legitimate news
media; a false message will be discovered and exposed, and win immediately
brand the company negatively. It will do more damage than having no message
at all, and such situations must be avoided at all costs.
Unique messages are going to be more noticeable and more attractive to the
gatekeepers who determine which stories are told and which are not. So an
unusual message--something a company is doing that no one else has
considered or been creative enough to conceive-will be considerably more
successful than one that seems tired or old simply because it has been seen
It goes without saying that the message must be interesting. If it is unique,
unusual, and true, but without any interest to the general public, the message
being delivered will most likely never find the light of day. If it does, it will
undoubtedly be ignored, or worse, ridiculed. Many companies make the
mistake of assuming that if a message seems unusual and interesting to them,
it will be those things for the general consuming public. People in business
tend to find their business fascinating; it is the thing they spend most of their
time thinking about, so they are more knowledgeable about and concerned
with their business than any casual observer or consumer would be. That is
only natural and proper. But it is far too easy to make the miscalculation that a
message that might be fascinating to an industry insider-for example, "Ours is
the only paper bag made with 100 percent maple fibers"-will also be of interest
to a casual user of the product. In almost every case, that assumption will be
So, commununication with the consuming public is an essential component to
any successful Branding venture. Discovering from the public what its true
feelings are about the brand identity being contemplated, as well as any
changes being discussed concerning an existing brand identity, can help a wise
marketer avoid miscalculations that can prove disastrously costly and possibly
fatal to the brand, the product, or the company.
This is not to imply that the public must be allowed to dictate all Branding
decisions, however. What's more important is for anyone involved in Branding
to have a clear-eyed view of their brand identity. Wal-Mart remains a wildly
successful brand by not trying to be Tiffany's. McDonald's, although it has
slipped precipitously as a trusted brand in recent years, still has the good
sense not to hire Wolfgang Puck to rethink its hamburger recipe.
When a Branding professional loses sight of the original mission-that is, the
brand identity-and tries to be all things to all people, the results are almost
always calamitous. The archetypal example of New Coke works as a warning
about so many different Branding errors that it seems clich?d to mention it, but
consider: The fundamental miscalculation being made was the level of loyalty
the average Coca-Cola drinker had for what was, and remains, unquestionably
the most well-known, best-loved brand identity on this planet. To think it was
a good idea to remove this beloved product-in favor of a formula that
emulated the competition and was bound to alienate Coca-Cola loyalists who
had stuck with the brand, in some cases, for decades-is astonishing.
A FEW BASIC PROMISES
Public relations can operate effectively only when a clear, realistic brand
identity has been conceived. Certainly, PR, professionals can be part of the
team that establishes that identity, but it must be, above all else, a true
identity. That means it must have specific attributes, specific philosophical
tenets, and, most important, a few basic promises made to the consumer that
will never, ever be broken.
These promises, which should be written down in the simplest language
possible and distributed on a regular basis to every employee of the company,
are a covenant made with the public. They define the brand identity; they
provide reasons to patronize the brand; and they offer, at the most basic level,
differentiation from all competing brands. They are never to be taken lightly by
any employee, and under no circumstances are they ever to be broken for any
If your business is a store that sells items that cost $1 apiece, you must never
charge $1.05 for anything. If your restaurant prides itself on cleanliness, the
rest rooms have to be absolutely spotless anytime anyone walks in. If your
promise is that every customer will be served within 30 seconds of entering,
you'd better have a stopwatch on every employee's wrist and be sure it's
The promises your business makes are the central core of that business. If
you've promised to provide the longest hot dogs in town, and you provide
them, no reasonable person is going to complain that you don't have the best
cr?pes suzettes as well-unless you've promised that too.
It's extremely important that the promises you make flow from your brand
identity. Understand what you are to the public and what is expected of you,
and you can make bold but realistic promises. Try to provide every solution to
every problem, and you win end up providing nothing that is the least bit
Consider, for example, the Disney brand. Here is a company whose name and
logo are recognized in every country on the planet, whose message is received
and understood everywhere from Beverly Hills to Beirut. It was once estimated
that Mickey Mouse was the most recognized figure anywhere on Earth, more
than the president of the United States, more than Tom Cruise, actually more
than Santa Claus (who is famous in only about one-third of the world's
On the surface, Disney might appear to offer all things to all people. Besides
its movies and television programs under the Walt Disney name, it also
produces entertainment under the Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures
banners. Disney has a network television show on a network it owns (ABC), and
also provides programming on cable TV via the Disney Channel and ABC
Family. The company owns theme parks in California, Florida, Japan, and
France. It also owns ESPN, publishing companies, video distribution companies,
real estate, and retail stores. Disney logos appear on merchandise ranging
from souvenir Mickey Mouse ears to fashions created by respected designers,
electronics, calendars, furniture, musical instruments, sound recordings, and
timepieces. Disney produces Broadway shows. It even owns a town in Florida.
But no matter how widely it casts its net, Disney always promises its
customers the same things: high quality, fanatical customer service, and a
dedication to the family. It might produce some R-rated movies under its
Touchstone, Miramax, or Hollywood Pictures umbrella, but never with the
Disney name. It will provide scary thrill rides in its theme parks, but you'd
better believe the streets in that park will be clean and the "cast members" who
work there will find a way to solve virtually any problem a guest might have
during the stay. Guests at Walt Disney World are never told, "We can't do that";
they are always given at least an alternative solution. Maybe the ABC network
will broadcast NYPD Blue, which offers controversial language and partial
nudity, but the Disney Channel won't ever consider such a thing. If Disney
produces a show on Broadway, you can rest assured that children will be
admitted and the content will not offend their parents.
Disney has become the tremendous conglomerate it is today by making
promises to its consumers and keeping them consistently since the company's
inception. Anything that bears the Disney name has a special trust, a covenant
with the consumer, and Disney lives up to that covenant every single time.
It's easy to ridicule the seemingly fanatical insistence Disney has on referring
to its employees as cast members, in considering the consequences of every
word spoken on every program its networks air, in not allowing its male
employees to grow beards, or in its sanitized image that seems unrealistic in
modern society. But it would be foolish to attack the surface of the Disney
brand and overlook the unprecedented success it has enjoyed for a number of
decades. The company continues to grow, but never for a moment does it take
its covenant,the promises it makes to its audience for granted.
Go to the Disney Web site at www.disney.com and you'll see the company's
dedication to its core philosophy at work with every click. Want to discuss a
vacation at Walt Disney World in Florida? You can book your vacation, including
airfare, car rental, hotel, and theme park tickets, through Disney online. If you
need personal assistance, phone numbers are always available. News about
upcoming movies from the Disney studios can be found, including coming
attractions trailers. Games are available for children and adults. Want to buy
some Disney merchandise? The Disney Store has an online catalog. There is
always the option of speaking to a Disney representative with any question or
concern you might have. And the Disney Web site is careful not to provide links
to ABC, Touchstone, or Miramax, because those companies deal in material
that, although affiliated with the parent company, does not conform to the
Disney brand. They are separate brands and are treated separately. They have
their own Web sites.
While the philosophy is not directly presented to the consumer in words, it is
not in the least difficult to discern or understand. Disney will provide you with
high-quality, attentive customer service and a dedication to family. It's there
on the Web site, in the theme parks, and in the entertainment provided by the
company under its own name. Under no circumstances does the Disney
Company ever renege on those promises, and it holds firm to them in every
aspect of its branded business.
On those occasions when there is even the suggestion of a break with the
covenant, Disney works swiftly to correct the situation. When some video
copies of its animated film The Little Mermaid were rumored to have an off-
color visual joke in three frames (1/8 of a second), the company made sure the
rumors were dispelled, and the offending three frames, although they really
didn't contain what the rumors said they did, were cut from subsequent copies.
Disney takes its covenant very seriously.
BRANDING IS ESSENTIAL
Everything impacts on Branding--the smell of the bathroom, the signs in the
window, the product being sold in the store, the things people say. One of the
most powerful things that impacts all people's perceptions is what they read,
see, or hear about in the media, because it carries with it the imprimatur of the
To illustrate: If a garage band pays to produce its own CD and sends out fliers
to every record store in the country saying the album is a breakthrough
collection, it won't carry a fraction of the impact that same CD win have if
someone on MTV uses the exact same words, because now the brand of the
garage band has been enhanced with the brand MTV.
The old saying, "There is no such thing as bad publicity" is absolutely
incorrect, however. Having a brand's name mentioned in the media is a very
strong influencer, and it can cut both ways. Should a media outlet say
something negative about a brand-even if the information is proven to be
totally inaccurate-the negative repercussions on the brand identity can be
devastating. It can take a lot of damage control, in the form of advertisement,
retractions from media outlets, and strong statements from the brand itself, to
undo one misplaced comment from a credible media outlet. Sometimes the
damage can't be controlled or undone.
When public relations is done properly, an item of information is disseminated
to media gatekeepers, who then decide to report the information either directly
or indirectly. Reportage is done, research is accumulated, interviews are
performed. Eventually the information item becomes a media report, and it is
at that moment that the public relations professional can no longer control it
entirely. Media outlets-particularly the most desirable, most credible ones-
operate autonomously, reporting the information they deem necessary or
interesting and excluding all else. Time constraints, space limitations, and the
realities of economics play as prominent a role in the decision-making process
as the newsworthiness of the information being considered.
If a company is launching a new brand, the temptation will exist to try to
saturate the market with information on that brand. Often, when my company
is contacted about the creation of a new brand or a new product, the request
will be, "Get us as much exposure as you can." That is absolutely the wrong
thing to request at that time, because it is not a strategic position.
Such a company should be requesting a strategic plan that is consistent with
their short-, middle-, and long-term goals. (Short-term is defined as 6
months, mid-term as 18 months, and long-term as 36 months.) It's very
important to define those goals before seeking media exposure, because the
lack of a goal is the lack of a plan, and that will obliterate any hope of Branding
before it ever has the opportunity to begin.
In Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, there is a marvelous
moment in which Alice, trying to find her way through the maze that is
Wonderland, asks the Cheshire Cat for direction. The cat asks, quite logically,
where Alice's destination might be, and she replies that she doesn't care where
she ends up, but needs to know which road to take. Told that Alice doesn't
care where she's going, the Cat replies, "Then it doesn't matter which way you
Companies that want to create brands but don't know what their specific goals
are for the next 6, 18, or 36 months can't possibly be expected to define their
brand identity or the proper kind of media coverage they need to best exploit
their brand's possibilities.
A good percentage of Americans believe that Elvis is still alive; there's no
accounting for what people might think. But the reality is that a Branding
campaign, fueled by public relations efforts, will fail miserably if it doesn't have
specific, well-defined goals in place for various points in the future before it
How do the elite Branding experts determine their goals ahead of time and
pass that information on to public relations professionals? It helps to be first in
your field. Those companies that came to the marketplace before anyone else -
Wal-Mart, Johnson & Johnson, Kleenex, Coca-Cola, Disney, McDonald's-had an
advantage before they generated their first media placement. Nobody was
ahead of them, and they knew precisely what they intended to do.
Keep in mind that most of those brands established themselves very early with
very little (in many cases, close to no) advertising budget to work with. They
managed to create an impression in the minds of consumers without spending
millions in magazines and newspapers or on radio or television (in those cases
when radio and television existed at the brand's inception).
They did it almost exclusively with public relations. These companies had a
plan, a course of action, long before they had a brand name or a brand
identity. They projected the possible sales for their products and services and
had realistic goals for the coming six months, the coming year, the coming
three years. In many cases, those goals were far exceeded, due in large part to
the brilliant public relations campaigns that had been launched and executed
to establish and support the brand. Without those plans, goals, and
projections, there would have been no road map-and, as the Cheshire Cat
would say, there would be no point in choosing one road over another, since it
wouldn't matter where you ended up anyway.
It is extremely important, then, to set realistic goals. In order to do that, the
smart Branding practitioner needs to have a clear-eyed view of his or her own
product and company. Only with that can a true brand identity be created, one
that will capture the imagination of the targeted consumer and differentiate the
new brand from whatever competition currently exists or will exist in the
future. Keep in mind that even those who were first ended up dealing with
competition. Kleenex may be the most famous brand of tissue available today,
but it is far from the only one on the market.
Michael Levine is the founder of the prominent public relations firm Levine
Communications Office, based in Los Angeles. He is the author of Guerrilla PR,
7 Life Lessons from Noah's Ark: How to Survive a Flood in Your Own Life.
GuerrillaPR.net is a resource for people that want to get famous in the media,
without going broke. http://GuerrillaPR.net