Branding Is What You Do to Cows
How many famous speeches can you think of that were given by American business leaders? There are literally thousands given every day – at conferences, at annual meetings. Can you think of even one that is cited as one of history’s great speeches – along the lines of speeches by Lincoln, Dr. King, or Churchill? How about one that is even cited for great content?
If you can’t think of any – don’t despair because I have one for you. It is the one speech by an American business leader that, in my opinion, speaks to what is happening in American manufacturing, retailing and specifically in the world of catalogs. (OK – it may not be on a par with the Gettysburg Address, or I Have A Dream, but it is still pretty good for a business speech).
The speech was given by Roy Disney at the 2004 annual meeting of The Walt Disney Company, the company founded and started by Roy’s father (also named Roy) and his uncle Walt. At the time, Roy Disney was on the Board of Directors of Disney, and was leading a shareholder movement against then President and CEO of the company, Michael Eisner. Roy felt that Eisner had taken the company in the wrong direction and was cheapening their product – which he saw as“entertainment through animated films”.
Eisner, and other members of Disney’s upper management, kept saying their actions were meant to strengthen “Disney’s brand”. Roy Disney countered, in a very impassioned speech to shareholders, that “Branding is what you do to cows, since cows do tend to look alike. Branding is what you do when there’s nothing original about your products.”
How many meetings have you sat through at your company where everyone dismissed dismal response rates by saying that at least you are building brand awareness, or that your catalog is becoming a “lifestyle brand” to your customers?That line of thinking is bogus. Customers are not going to buy from your catalog because of your “brand”. You aren’t selling cattle that are all pretty much the same.
In my opinion, the one thing that motivates your customers to buy is the merchandise. Get that wrong, and it does not matter how well targeted the mailing is, or how many friends you have on your Facebook page, or how strong is your perceived brand quality. You’ve got to get the product right, and you’ve got to have it priced right – or nothing else matters.
When I hear clients talking about their “brand”, I always think of Roy Disney’s comments, and I ask the client about their products and merchandise. How truly unique is it? What truly sets it apart from others catalogs? What benefit does it truly provide the customer that they can’t get elsewhere? What are the runaway best sellers that are going to drive your business next year, which no one else will have?
I rarely get satisfactory answers about the product itself. Instead I hear about their lifestyle branding efforts and their “branded, curated collection”. There never seems to be any concrete merchandise knowledge and direction. That is what is missing in American retailing and catalogs. We are focused on how we are selling, not what we are selling, because we have nothing “original about our products”. Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod were all original – that’s what made their company so valuable. And even with this week’s 10% drop in stock value, Apple is still the second most valuable company in the world. That is not because of “brand” alone – it is because of product.
You catalog product has to be original. Having a black dress with five buttons instead of the four buttons that everyone else has does not make your dress exclusive or original. And you are going to lose in the long run to companies that are bringing products to the market that truly are original.
Roy Disney closed his speech with this thought“Speaking as someone with the last name of ‘Disney,’ it is my firm belief that we are not a commodity. As long as we continue to believe in the power of creative ideas, then our best years still lie ahead”. If your product line and merchandise assortment is simply becoming a collection of commodities, your time is short.
The internet breeds product ubiquity. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your products are unique, and that you can sell them because you are a skillful marketer.
By the way, Roy Disney’s efforts at that meeting resulted in the resignation of Michael Eisner shortly thereafter. Here is a link to Roy Disney’s Speech – Well worth the read.
By Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics