Admiring a Brand for the Wrong Reason is the Biggest Branding Mistake

Apple Logo

Do you have Apple Envy?

Several years ago I was put in charge of informing how a giant telecommunications company should rebrand after a major acquisition. The client saw their past as an era of “utility monopolization” and all of the consumer negativity that comes with it. The post-merger future appeared to present an opportunity to start a new chapter, and be an iconic brand that people would love and respect, versus tolerate. The available resources put towards the new brand seemed limitless, so the potential for this big change seemed plausible.

What resulted was what I dubbed “Apple Envy”, and it inspired me to look at brands in a fresh way. Following Apple was a potential trap. Did the audience for telecommunications services want their provider to be like Apple or did emotions and “belonging” not drive their choice?  We did exhaustive research on what does drive choice in this space and concluded that consumers did not. In fact they hated the idea. They certainly didn’t want the current brand, but they did want one that helped them do more and be better connected to the world.

So can a brand be iconic and not be another Apple… not be a rockstar? This client’s brand was an American institution so it seemed destined to make an impact, but how and why?  The answer appeared to lie in how we as humans attach to brands, not how brands project themselves to us. Understanding Brand Attachment was going to provide the answer, and it did.

I won’t disclose the details behind the eventual solution for this client, but I will share what I believe to be an important aspect of how we all should approach Branding, based on how customers engage and attach with Brands.

To begin, we humans are not hardwired to create relationships with corporations; we are wired to relate to each other as fellow humans. We identify each other by name and we categorize each other based on perception and experience: friend versus foe, strong versus weak, supportive versus destructive, etc. We can see this categorization in action when we feel in need. Who do we turn to when we feel lonely, feel depressed, need leadership and wise counsel, or maybe need a ride to the airport? This categorization process is fundamental to our social abilities as humans.

Brands are the personification, or humanization, of corporations. We can’t help it. As humans we automatically evaluate corporations as human entities. We project our human bias onto whatever and whomever we have a relationship with. This can be seen in our behavior towards our pets. Who hasn’t felt like their dog is sad when we leave them alone? We project our human feelings and emotions onto a dog or cat irrationally and expect them to be like us emotionally. In reality the opposite is also at work. Our dogs and cats project their “dogness” and “catness” onto our behaviors. A recent scientific article just proposed that cats see their owners as giant, benevolent felines. We import each other into our respective realities. Likewise we project our human bias onto organizations, and Brand is the manifestation of that projection.

The mistake many Brands make is benchmarking against a homogenous, monolithic notion of a great brand. The reality is that there are myriad ways a brand can be great, or iconic, just as there are many ways a person can be great. We categorize people as great leaders, athletes, entertainers, hard workers, and on and on. We would not expect an Olympic champion to go through a makeover and become a world-class chef.

With brands the first level of categorization is utility. Not basic utility, but a higher order idea of what we need from them as human surrogates. This first division is Affinity or Enabling.

Affinity brands fill our need for identity; to define ourselves to others, project our values, and our basic need to belong. Affinity brands end up on tee shirts and tattoos. Apple is an affinity brand, as is Harley-Davidson, Nike, and Rolex. These brands are iconic in the way celebrities are iconic. These are the friends we want to be associated with. The cool kids who make us feel good that we know them.

Enabling brands fill our need to be more powerful and effective. They give us “Superpowers” to become like comic book heroes. Enabling brands give us extreme capabilities like the ability to get a package from New York to LA overnight, or get a pizza to magically show up in 30 minutes. We don’t wear enabling brands on tee-shirts, but they make us feel secure and empowered on the inside. They make us feel smart.  UPS, Delta, and Verizon are enabling Brands, and iconic. These are the experts we go to when we have a problem. These are our BFFs.

There isn’t a “preferred” place to be with this Affinity/Enabling classification. Both fullfill a need and both have icon potential. It is like male and female; they are different but equally human. I also believe that it is more of a scale than an absolute, but be careful not to try to be both. Take a stand. The point is that a brand should know how its desired audience desires to attach to it and the utility it provides. For existing brands, like my telecom client, it is not impossible, but unnecessary to change from what they were (Enabling) to what they aspired to be with Apple Envy (Affinity) and they fortunately saw the logic.

In today’s customer-centric, brand-experience focused world, an understanding of Brand Attachment is not an option. Resources are too scarce and there is less time to correct mistakes. So start by asking yourself if your brand would pass the tee-shirt test. Would your shirt make you feel like you were really cool or delivering a delicious pizza?

Bill Chidley is a Partner and Co-Founder at ChangeUp. Creating Innovating Experiences that Drive Growth.


2 thoughts on “Admiring a Brand for the Wrong Reason is the Biggest Branding Mistake

  1. Nice article Bill. Well articulated. I would call this brand authenticity. Do you think that’s a valid description? Consumers can see through brands that are trying to be something they’re not. Consumers connect with authentic brands.


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