A Brand is what you Make of it

When you spend your formative years as a businessperson working for Procter & Gamble, you certainly master one thing: Doing consumer research! Lots of it. P&G will research every detail of a new product launch. I have spent thousands of dollars researching the smallest of elements, down to the color schemes on the pack.

There is certainly nothing wrong with investing time and money to understand consumers better. But when it comes to research, like all things in life, you can have too much of a good thing. And one of the most useless researches we used to do was studying potential brand names, commonly called “name research.” What an absolute waste of money.

Great brands don’t come from name research. Great brands are made long after the name is given. A brand is what you make of it. Pure and simple.
There are just a few problems with this example. First of all, it is nothing more than urban legend: it never really happened. In fact, the Nova sold quite well in a number of markets like Venezuela. Secondly, even if it was true, you don’t need huge reams of research to figure this out. All one has to do is to talk to a few Spanish speakers to discern a possible issue. It’s really not that complex.

All we have to do is look at the world around us to see the simple premise: a brand is what you make of it. It’s not in the name itself.

How did Apple, one of the most globally recognized brands of our time, get its name? Well, it seems Steve Jobs, during his “Frutopian” diet days, had just returned from an apple farm and decided “Apple” would be a good name because it was a fruit and was uncontroversial. That’s it. He was in a period of his life where he only ate fruits when he formed his company. He just picked a fruit. No fancy research at all. And now look at what Apple stands for today. It’s an iconic brand. It’s not the name that made it great. It’s the technology and innovation that Apple Corporation delivers that makes that brand great.

A brand is what you make of it.

I used to work on the Gillette brand. Far and away the market leader in shaving, with up to 75 percent worldwide market share in past years. The brand name is synonymous with a high-quality shaving experience. So how did Gillette get this amazing name?

Well, it’s not complicated. A guy named King Gillette invented the concept in 1901. It was named after him. That’s it. No research whatsoever. And today the name owns the category of shaving.

A brand is what you make of it.

A common approach in Hollywood was to ensure actors and actresses had “easy” names. This was important for success! So people like Doris Kappelhoff, who grew up in my hometown of Cincinnati not far from my neighborhood, and was a talented actress and singer, was urged in Hollywood to change her difficult-to-pronounce last name. So she became Doris Day.

Well, in 1977 an Austrian-born bodybuilder decided to give Hollywood a shot. He could barely speak English. He had a thick accent. His name was, well, a kilometer long! He started auditioning and people told him, “You need to change your name to Arnold Strong, because nobody can even read your name! He laughed and said, “A brand is what you make of it. If I do well, everyone will know my name no matter how it is spelled.” So he stuck to his name. And now Arnold Schwarzenegger is a universally recognized name.  A brand with huge equity.

A brand is what you make of it.  Not what you name it.

My favorite branding story is actually a Filipino story. And it is the best one you are ever going to hear.

It involves perhaps the greatest instinctual businessperson I have ever met, Mr. Lucio Co, the founder and owner of Puregold stores (among many other businesses).

Well, over a decade ago, Co was the importer for one of the leading global brands of brandy. He invested and built the business up to a market-leading position in the Philippines as an exclusive distributor.

One day, the owner of the brand, a multinational, came to see Co and told him they had decided to “take over” their brand and run it themselves in the Philippines. It seems Lucio Co was a victim of his own success. He built the brand to such a level that now the mother company wanted to take it all away from him. So he had no choice but to bitterly accept losing the business that he invested years of hard work in building up.

When the deal was closing, Lucio told the mother company, “I am going to launch my own brand of brandy, I just want you to know.” The leadership of the mother company smiled and told him, “Go ahead,” clearly unworried by the prospect of a locally owned and developed Filipino brandy entering as competition.

So Co flew to Spain, the center of the brandy-making world. He met with one of the old and prestigious brandy companies, and told them over lunch he wanted to launch his own brandy in the Philippines. He outlined to them the taste profile and pricing range he wanted to be in. They worked out all the details, or so it seemed. But near the end of the discussion, one of the brandy company’s executives asked, “But sir, what about the brand name? What do we call your brandy?”

Co, knowing instinctually that “A brand is what you make of it,” really didn’t care about the brand name. So he responded with a question of his own: “What is your name?”

The executive responded, “My name is Alfonso.”

Co responded back, “Well, that is the name of my brandy, then. Let’s call it ‘Alfonso.’”

So Alfonso is what it was called.

Alfonso brandy was launched in the Philippines. Co invested in his brand and built it up from nothing, just like he did before with someone else’s brand. After a few years, Alfonso became the market leader in the Philippines. Today it is the market leader by a huge margin. In fact, Alfonso is a massive Filipino success few know about. The brand is exported all over the world. I was once in a boutique wine shop in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa and snapped a picture for Lucio of bottles of Alfonso for sale on the shelf! Alfonso today is a leading brand in the world of brandy.

Alfonso is a Filipino-born success, and was named in 10 seconds at the end of a business lunch in Madrid, Spain. Because all the research in the world won’t make a brand great. A brand is what you make of it.

So, take a lesson from Lucio Co, one of the world’s savviest businessmen:  Save your money from useless brand-name research. Just pick a name and get on with it! And spend your money and your time on what matters: investing in the elements of value and quality that make a brand great.

A brand is what you make of it.

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James Michael Lafferty

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