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Strike Up the Brand

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...a brand is more than a name, it's everything that makes a company who the company is - right down to the products they develop and the services they offer...

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Brands are really hard to build and even harder to maintain. Do it right and you'll garner loyalty and admiration, not to mention a great business and in the publicly traded world, momentum that will boost your stock price. There are the obvious players in the world of big brand; Apple (AAPL), Coke (KO), Pepsi (PEP), General Motors (GM), Chrysler (DCX) and Starbucks (SBUX) to name a few. And as you can see from those names, a brand is more than a name, it's everything that makes a company who the company is – right down to the products they develop and the services they offer...

In the past week we've seen some monumental brand faux pas. It is this kind of action that can really tarnish a company and certainly does nothing for the stock price.

As a long time Apple loyalist, I watched the events there last week with a high degree of interest on a several levels. Why the interest?

First: I sprung for $600 bucks on day two of the iPhone's introduction to buy one, and another $600 two weeks ago for my daughter, so I had some real skin in this game. I was feeling that in one turtle-necked moment I was transformed from techno dude/dad of the year to what Joey La Motta referred to in Raging Bull as the,"Mamaluke of the Year."

Second: I was shocked that a company as market savvy as Apple would put its brand values in play like that. This company takes its brand as seriously as any company I have ever seen. It seems to agonize over everything it does to determine how it will help nurture not just its brand equity, but more importantly its brand mystique. How could Apple have been so arrogant/blind/foolish as to not think that its most loyal customers weren't going to feel like one of the people in its "Lemmings" commercial from Super Bowl 1985?

Third: I used to run global brand management for what was once ranked as the 19th largest brand in the world. I'd rather not mention the name, but will tell you that after all these years it's probably still "Bullish on America" and the symbol is MER. (How's that for great brand equity?)

So I kind of take this brand management stuff seriously. Not as seriously as some of the people in the latest Hoofy and Boo's News & Views, but on the other hand I did once contemplate having my brand's bull symbol tattooed (branded?) on my own shoulder before being talked out of it by my level headed wife.

So from a brand perspective, what should an investor take away from the events last week at Apple?

First: The Raised Nail Gets Hammered

If this mistake had been made at Gateway (GTW), Dell (DELL), or Lenovo would we be having this conversation? I don't think so.

Maybe somewhere on page 57 of The Knights of Columbus Newsletter we would have seen a blurb about it, but front page news in every major publication/network for two days???

Not unless you're Britney Spears sliding out of a limo shooting the paparazzi an inadvertent "Have a Nice Day" Smiley Face can you get coverage like that.

But this was Apple the company and Steve Jobs the man, the myth, and the arbiter of corporate cool.

In one fell swoop he made his best customers seem like pawns in an earnings game. A real bad move. Especially when he was quoted as saying this price drop was "part of the plan". Ouch!!!! Steve, I thought we were tight?

As a Street savvy playground sage once told me, "Screw enough of your friends and sooner than later you ain't gonna have no friends."

Having (or wanting to have) a strong brand requires every decision you make to be viewed through the prism of the brand, and the eyes of your customers. And remember a brand is the sum total of everything you say and do. Talk the talk and walk the walk.

Second: You Don't Own Your Brand Equity, Your Customers Do

Brands are emotional attachments that consumers feel towards companies and products. It's that emotional attachment that determines the strength of the brand. You don't own it. The only thing you can do is try to nurture it and keep it in synch with what the customer wants.

Third: If You Mess Up, Fix It Immediately

If you look back at the greatest brand threat responses of the last 30 years there are two
categories of responders... the quick and the dead.

If you're a brand investor you want to be long Tylenol (JNJ), Coca Cola, Nike (NKE) and other companies that faced real threats to their brands.

I'm not feeling really good about Mattel (MAT) right now. It should have been all over this from day one. As my pal Jeff Macke wrote on the Buzz & Banter yesterday, contrast Mattel's actions with those of Disney (DIS). Which brand is going to come out of the toy crisis in better shape?

The Bottom Line: Treat the Reputation of Your Brand Like You'd Treat Your Own

I was pretty impressed with the attention Apple paid to the letter of protest that I sent, but the $100 store credit…not so much.

When I lecture at Universities on the subject of brand management, I always ask the students, "If you were the CEO of Coca-Cola and you were forced to choose between your secret formula and your brand, which one would you choose?"

In today's world of the three minute first mover's advantage, copycat and everything in between, a strong brand in the truest and most complete sense of the word is your only advantage. Companies (and the people who invest in their stock) that get that will prosper, the others will pretend.

As Todd's grandfather Ruby used to say, "The only thing you have is your name and your word." It's as true for companies as it is for people.

It's too bad Steve never met Ruby.
Position in MER
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