Home / Opinion / Online-views /  The power of brands with a view

The future belongs to brands with a view.

Consider a smattering of iconic brands that the world is falling madly in love with—Apple, Harley-Davidson, Benetton, Nokia, Body Shop, Dove. They share a common theme. They express a sharp point of view about the world, about life, about ourselves. Or look at timeless brands from an entirely different sphere: popular music—Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd. Again, each of them has a distinct take on life, which is what makes them endearing.

Garments may be about colour, but Benetton has a view, not just on colour but on a contentious arena of colour—race. Soap may be about cleansing skin, but Dove has a point to make not just about beautiful skin but real beauty itself. Mobile phones are mostly about communication, but Nokia makes a fundamental point about people connecting with one another.

Sometimes brands choose to express such fundamental points of view in an adjacent space, not directly derived from category benefits. For instance, beauty products retailer Body Shop has a very strong point of view about saving the planet and about animal testing. This has linkages with the production of cosmetics rather than the benefits these products deliver.

Other iconic brands just have a point of view, nothing to do with the products they peddle, but everything to do with the brand itself. The most telling example is Virgin. Virgin always has an unforgettable point to make about a David taking on an arrogant Goliath, regardless of whether it is talking airlines or colas. This is Virgin’s unique take on the world and, of course, it captures a basic human truth.

Looking beyond these illustrations, why should brands have a point of view? What makes consumers flock to these brands and pay unreasonable premiums to buy into them? Why do the few brands with strong and distinctive points of view achieve iconic cult status so easily while, in contrast, so many brands struggle to just maintain consumer loyalty? Here are four reasons.

To begin with, there are no sustainable technology or product advantages in most categories today. Any brand of soap, cola, airlines or adhesive can easily replicate every feature that another brand offers. Some benefits can be offered instantly, others in time. Even in hi-tech categories such as biotech or electronic goods, any technology breakthrough at best offers transient “patent" advantages.

To build a brand on the back of product benefits alone is unsustainable, as consumers will migrate without pain to other brands that offer the same benefits, sooner or later. A point of view, however, comes to be uniquely associated with a brand. British Airways (BA)?may?be in a position to offer every benefit offered by Virgin, including its delicious in-flight massages. But Virgin has appropriated the “irreverent challenger" point of view, and neither BA nor any other airline can ever hope to take this away.

Second, in a world littered with brands jostling each other for consumer mindspace, distinctive views offer the best chance of cutting through the super-clutter instantly. Points?of?view?do?not?merely?inform; they engage, provoke and stimulate our intellect. And all of us love being engaged, provoked and stimulated. These are fundamental human longings, even more relevant in?today’s?crowded,?yet lonely,?world.

Therefore, Dove’s powerful point of view on real beauty and its implicit dismissal of skin-deep cosmetic beauty challenge our commonly held notions of feminine beauty. We are drawn by the brand because,?by?stimulating?our?thoughts, it has entered into the protected recesses of our mind. By talking benefits of toilet soap, Dove could not have made this privileged entry.

Brands with a view also capture our hearts by making us part of a larger mission. Most human beings long to live life to achieve a larger cause. Unfortunately, we expend most of our lives for our personal causes—spouse, children, parents, a better house, a faster car. Therefore, if a brand were to enter this space and provide us the rare opportunity to be part of a superordinate mission, we often embrace it fondly.

Consider the Body Shop. By espousing the cause of the planet, by railing against animal testing, a retailer of cosmetics suddenly gives us ordinary mortals the privilege of supporting an important global and ethical cause. Every lipstick we buy from the Body Shop elevates us by enhancing our commitment to the cause. Once we subscribe, we are often lifetime members. What better base for consumer loyalty?

Finally, brands with a view are interesting. Because the views they express are often contentious, sometimes controversial, always topical. We like to talk about these brands, discussing their take on the world. Benetton’s use of race has raised a million heckles, but it has also been the topic of animated discussion at a million cocktail parties. We all like interesting people and interesting brands.

Middling brands can perhaps get by for some time with appealing product benefits and excellent marketing. But compared with brands with powerful points of view, they always run a far greater risk of commoditization. And they will be insipid or, shall we say, Cheeni Kum.

Harish Bhat is chief operating officer-watches, Titan Industries Ltd. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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