British industrial designer, Sir James Dyson, is best known for his iconic bagless vacuum cleaner that he peddles on television. And among frequent travelers who wash their hands in airport restrooms, for the Dyson Airblade, which dries your hands as would the edge of a tornado.
But after a recent comment in which he said he didn't believe in branding - "We're only as good as our latest product. I don't believe in brand at all." - he is now famous for being the anti-branding guy.
Matt Straz, blogger of MediaPost's Online Spin, wrote yesterday, "Like a cat coughing up a hair ball, Dyson's comment caused a loud, involuntary response from the advertising world."
Let me give you some context: Dyson was speaking at Wired magazine's "Disruptive by Design" conference earlier this month. He responded to the question, "Does brand make the product or does product make the brand?" He said that "Brand was the only word that was banned at his company," then concluded with the statement above.
A Forbes.com article about his statement said, "A remarkable comment from someone who has stood in front of a camera for the last decade or more on behalf of creating his own eponymous brand of vacuum cleaners, and spending millions in the process."
The Forbes article suggests that Dyson may not understand what "brand" or "branding is, and it goes on to describe what it is. It talks about how successful brands create new rituals:
"Powerful brands have rituals. Much as Starbucks changed how we have coffee in the morning, and Ikea has changed how we interact with newly-purchased furniture, Dyson has changed the ritual of how we interact with our vacuum by handing us one that can be snapped together (or unsnapped) much like Lego blocks. The rollerball changes the way we move across the floor. The quick-open canister lets us dump right into the garbage can, rather than unleashing those nasty vacuum bags. And if you really want to get into it, there’s the ritual of innovation–and creating 5,127 prototypes, and more innovation."
I asked friend and colleague Norm Rubenstein, Partner and branding expert at the Zeughauser Group, about his take on Dyson's slur - and whether law firm leaders with an anti-branding bias might have new fodder to dispute its efficacy. Norm says:
"There is profound irony in Dyson’s claim 'I don’t believe in brand at all.' Dyson’s company is reminiscent of Apple, a company whose followers buy products, often products they don’t need, because of their elegant marriage of form and content. In creating his high-end vacuum cleaner, Dyson has made it the ultimate status symbol: what greater triumph of brand recognition than to invest in a luxury good that lives in a closet with one’s cleaning supplies as opposed to on a desk or adorning one’s person? And once people got on the Dyson bandwagon, reinforced through traditional advertising that always has extolled the product’s innovative technology and consumer benefits, they suddenly found a need for Dyson’s chic fans, and one suspects, will require his future products in the same way as they are introduced."
Online Spin also points to Nike, who has significantly reduced its investment in traditional branding pillars, such as advertising.
"Having relied for years on mass branding messages like 'Just do it,' the company has now dramatically scaled back its investment in traditional branding. Nike has also reduced its emphasis on big brand athletes like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lance Armstrong. Instead, the company has focused on creating software and gadgets like its new Fuel wristband that measures athletic output. Instead of marketing products, Nike is using products to market itself."
To that, Norm says,
"The truth is that brand development and brand maintenance, decidedly different stages in a product’s life cycle, are opportunities to employ different tools and tactics for reinforcing brand awareness and loyalty. Products and services require significant marketing focused on developing and raising visibility in their infancy: in their adolescence, assuming they come to enjoy unaided top-of-mind recognition as both Dyson and Nike have done, they can rely on satisfied customers to help sustain their brand equity."
Social media has changed the branding landscape in ways we couldn't have imagined even four years ago. It supports both mass customization and engagement at the most powerful of all levels - person to person. And the dollar investment is a fraction of the cost of traditional broadcast and print advertising.
"The emergence of social media makes it possible for a company like Nike to shift the extent to which it has to rely on traditional branding tools. In its previous marketing, which always has been advertising-intensive, Nike has made its 'swoosh' synonymous with the achievements of admired athletes. By creating ongoing demand for its products and aligning them with a promise of quality and performance, Nike now enjoys the benefit of extensive brand equity. As the marketplace shifts and consumers now have become their own product reviewers/marketers, the company theoretically can take advantage of marketing that shifts its focus away from admired role models (who often disappoint in real life) and place it on the traditional—might one say, the average, buyer—the buyer whose endorsement in the Zagat world in which everyone’s opinion counts—can begin to redefine its approach to the marketplace."
So, what does this mean for law firms? It's challenging for law firms, even the largest of the AmLaw 100 firms, to defend their brand positions as unique among all their competitors. Is it possible? Yes, absolutely, but it requires research, rigor and patience, plus a significant and consistent investment of time and money. Law firms can take advantage of all the media that Dyson, Nike and Starbucks use - but they often don't have the stomach for it or the budget to sustain it. It also requires leadership and vision constancy - meaning, firms whose Chair and Managing Partner positions are up for grabs every two or three years will have a harder time than those firms who invest in the same leaders year after year.
Norm concluded our interview by saying,
"... For a law firm to follow the lead of a Nike and begin to shift its marketing focus, say by taking greater advantage of new media as a critical component of its marketing mix, it needs to assess the brand equity it already enjoys, and if it is not an acknowledged market leader in the spaces for which its seeks to be known (defined not by the firm, but by the market), it will need to maintain or to develop a robust strategy that well may continue to require extensive use of traditional marketing tools (e.g., thought leadership and credentialing)."
I'd say that Dyson is all about branding, even if he doesn't call it that.