November 29, 2010

What your brand says about you when you’re not “branding”…

Last week on the subway, I saw a guy listening to a Sony Walkman.  Like…with a cassette tape in it.  (note to blog subscribers 21 and under…ask your parents what a cassette tape is)

Not an iPod…or even a Discman.  A Walkman.  And he wasn’t studying it like it was an exciting artifact.  He was just sitting with it in his lap, listening to the music, and bopping his head along with the beat in the carefree way that long-time subway riders often do.

It intrigued me.  And as a marketer, something seemed odd to me…out of place.  Everything about this guy screamed young, modern, SoHo sophisticate with money.  Designer glasses, Swiss Army backpack, messily-stylish haircut.  Trendy…but not vintage.  He definitely wasn’t going for a “defiant throwback” look.  But he clearly LOVED music, and it seemed that any moment, he might start to boogie down in spontaneous performance.

So…what gives with the Walkman?  Why did this guy not have the latest version of iPod?

I confess.  The branding disconnect overwhelmed my curiosity.  And I had to know the story of the Walkman.  So I asked him about it.

The answer?  So simple.  He helped his parents move the weekend prior and while packing up his room, he found his old Walkman and some of the “Gary’s Groovy Mix” tapes he made in high school.  So he was just reminiscing.  And then he showed me the zillion gigabyte iPod he normally uses.  Mystery solved, and my raised eyebrow returned to its usual position.

This got me thinking about the way a brand projects itself.  People form an impression with just a single point of contact, and sometimes they catch you at a moment when you’re not in “branding mode.”  Like when you continue to use leftover collateral material with your old logo/tagline on it to delay spending money on the new stuff.  Or when your hotel has two simultaneous wedding receptions, so your regular dining room guests “will just have to understand” that service will be a little slow that night. 

Or when you know that your website’s home page is a mess…but you just don’t have time to deal with it right now. 

Or when you didn’t spend the money on just the right photo shoot…so your marketing materials never quite do your brand justice.

In that one second that you relaxed your brand standards, someone formed an impression of you…and it probably wasn’t the one you wanted.  Upholding a brand’s image is a 24/7 job, and while limited resources often force us to make less-than-desirable choices, we’ve got to be fierce about protecting our brands.  Those first-impression disconnects can turn people away before we ever get them engaged, and not everyone is curious (nosy?) enough to ask the your-brand version of… “Dude, what gives with the Walkman?”…and give you a chance to explain.

So…learn a lesson from Gary.  You may be inadvertently sabotaging your own brand image.  And while it didn’t matter to Gary what I thought of him during that three-stop subway ride (seriously…a boogie down was imminent), I’ll bet my brand new iPod that first impressions matter to YOUR brand…and your bottom line.