Brands need a good personality to succeed. When a brand doesn't present admirable character traits – be it trustworthiness, value, or anything else – it’s not effectively connecting with customers and that could compromise the goals of the business. One of the best investments a business can make is ensuring that its brand identity is focused, clear and precise. More and more, however, truly successful brands are defined not by what they say about themselves, but what they say about their users. In addition to creating affinity through a solid brand image, businesses need to focus on what their brands say about their customers.
One of the best examples of this is Apple’s post-2001 product line and brands (the iPod, iPad, iPhone and iMac). Beyond being solid, well-designed machines that reliably serve their intended purpose, the “i” line of products purposefully says something about the user’s identity. The “I’m a Mac” series of advertisements illustrate this: while they emphasize product-focused benefits (like ease-of-use, simplicity, etc.), they also quite pointedly define what a Mac user is: relaxed, fun and more productive.
More recently, Lady Gaga (and many others in the music business, as this recent Atlantic article details) have employed user branding to great effect. Gaga’s chosen epithet for her fans, “Little Monsters,” and its accompanying website, have been instrumental in establishing her success. By creating and emphasizing the term “Little Monster,” Lady Gaga makes it easier for fans to integrate themselves into her brand, increasing affinity by allowing users to feel personally connected. Pairing that affinity with the rise of social networking has earned her the number two spot on Twitter, with almost 35 million followers (just behind 36 million Justin Bieber “Beliebers”).
For many companies, trying to implement a brand strategy employed by Lady Gaga sounds somewhat ridiculous; most aren’t in the businesses where end users are defining their personalities by the use of a product. But it’s important to remember that 20 years ago, most computers and electronic devices were considered tools, not personal statements. In fact, Microsoft is a case in point: after two decades branding itself as the reliable and hard-working standard for operating systems, it joined the hardware market with the Microsoft Surface, whose messaging is a textbook example of user branding that says very little about the product itself.
Moving forward, companies need to be aware of not only what their communications say about themselves, but what they say about their end users. To create greater brand affinity, companies will need to identify, provide development avenues for, and communicate with their brand’s “Little Monsters.” It’s time to start thinking about who yours are.
Zach Pearson is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_p_pearson