When I would travel abroad for clients in Europe as the Chief Creative Officer for Young & Rubicam’s former healthcare powerhouse agency, Sudler & Hennessey, I would pick up small presents for my twin girls. Since they were around five or six at the time, such gifts were simple and somehow associated with the culture from where I’d been. While working on an assignment in Munich, I purchase two dolls dressed in traditional Bavarian clothes. They were identical. Yet when I presented these dolls to my daughters, they examined them and swapped them. “But they are exactly the same,” I said. “No, they’re not,” one of them said. “This is the smart one.” My other daughter piped up, “And this one has the best stories.” Without being solicited to do so, my daughters had branded the dolls.
The human mind cannot abide sameness
There is an innate tendency for people to sort objects into different groupings even when—on the surface—they are exactly the same. In order for the human mind to hold the concepts of products and services simultaneously in thought requires that they get tagged with a differentiator—whether real or imagined—that forces them into distinct categories. This makes people feel comfortable. One might say it’s an instinct. I know this sounds implausible, but consider the top three credit cards: Visa, American Express and MasterCard. For all intents and purposes, these are identical pieces of plastic that represent the ability to defer payment of purchases. Yet, through branding, we know that Visa is the one that can create more opportunities for you (it’s everywhere you want to be); American Express offers you a sense of security in an uncertain world (don’t leave home without it); and MasterCard can make your dreams come true (priceless). Note that such intangibles form the basis of why brands are different even when products or services are basically the same. Giving these products and services different names allows people to sort them easily into distinct pockets of thought, and propagates the satisfying feeling that one has mastered the powers of observation. Creating a brand experience for separate entities continues to reinforce these powers, and doubles down on one’s keen judgment in the first place.
To experience sameness is to experience psychic pain
Have you ever thought about products and services that are undifferentiated and felt resentment? They don’t represent who I am. I’m not the same as everyone else. These entities don’t ever bother to understand me and my need to find a self-reflection in selecting one over another. That’s right: brands are a flattering reflection of who you are in your mind. To select a consumer brand is to select an aspect of yourself and impart it to your personal identity in a wonderful celebration of self. Look at me, I’m discriminating (I own a Mercedes), I’m down to Earth (I drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee) and I’m cool (I own an iPhone X). And for healthcare brands—especially regulated pharmaceuticals and services, such as hospitals—to use these brands is to help restore aspects of your identity that has been robbed by illness. If products and services fail to differentiate themselves as brands, then the human mind loses their taste for them and spits them out in disgust.
If you don’t brand your products and services, then others will brand them for you
This is a received bit of wisdom, but it rings true in any argument about the value of branding. I’ve done quite lot of work in corporate branding lately, and these are some of the worst offenders in creating a well-differentiated brand identity. Because corporations literally can only be consumed by purchasing stock in the company, such entities typically spend the bulk of their marketing and public relations wooing Wall Street and not the customers who buy whatever they are selling. Examine the websites or annual reports, and there is nothing but bragging going on: we do such and such, we offer this and that, we specialize in X or Y. Good for you, a customer might say; but what does this have to do with me? This is an attitude that manifests itself in sameness. We see it especially in technology companies, ad agencies, and universities. When I was helping my daughters “shop” for colleges, I listened in pain to them touting their great teachers, their wonderful campus, their sports program and whatever. When they finally asked me what I thought about their school brand, I replied, “You’re the expensive one.” When someone cites price as a differentiator it means that the product or service has not created an engaging value to customers—a value that, again, is reflected in a customer’s self-image. So the customer, in turn, brands such entities with distain as I did.
Branding is the enemy of sameness
Ever notice in sci-fi fantasy movies that the villains are all the same while the heroes are distinctly branded? Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia all have personalities and distinct personal brands, while the storm troopers are identical. Hell, even their faces and bodies are encased in helmets and uniforms that obscure any possible differentiation. And in the Alien series, the alien monster always looks exactly like every other alien monster in film after film, as if their species has no individual characteristics to which we can engage as deeply as Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley. That’s because the filmmakers are trying hard to create a sameness from which we can all distance ourselves, and get us rooting for the branded characters to which we can all relate.
There’s a war going on. And if you are on the side of good branding, then you are on your way to victory. If you are on the side of sameness, you had better be careful because such soldiers get eliminated at the very beginning of the battle just like the nameless Star Trek character (Casualty #1) gets sacrificed. You cannot build esteem until you first build in differences. And you can’t build in differences—real or intangible—without good branding.