Bad Branding Traps, Even Puts in Graveyard Status

Feb 29 , 2020
By Abraham Worku

Many brands are in a graveyard position, where consumers reach a point where there is nothing more to hear and know about a particular brand. They may know about the brand, but it never comes to their mind when considering purchases, writes Abraham Worku (, founder and CEO of Abraham Management Consultancy who also earned his MBA from Open University – UK.

Studies show that 30,000 new products are innovated globally every year. With many such options, 30pc of consumers in the developed world change brands overnight after listening to a radio or TV commercial. Only strong brands withstand such stiff competition.

Thanks to globalisation, many of the successful new products hit the Ethiopian market.

If in the developed world many customers quickly forego brands that they once adored, what is the percentage of Ethiopian consumers who switch brands after being exposed to a new brand? Do Ethiopian companies have local brands that weather such stormy pressures?

Finding answers to these questions requires an extensive study. However, dodging or getting out of some of the typical branding traps will be a big step forward toward building stronger brands.

One of the most common branding challenges that many companies and brand managers grapple with is a fixation on product features as a point of differentiation. But there is a difference between a product and brand.

“A product is anything we can offer to a market for attention, acquisition, use, or consumption that might satisfy a need or want,” according to marketing definitions.

Thus, a product may be a physical good like injera, a mobile phone or an automobile; a service from an airline, restaurant, or insurance company; or from a retail outlet, namely a small shop, drug store or supermarket.

A brand, however, is different and is more than a product, because it can have dimensions that differentiate it in some way from other products designed to satisfy the same need. These differences may be rational and tangible - related to product performance of the brand; or more symbolic, emotional and intangible - related to what the brand represents.

When a company’s strategic and tactical marketing is solely focused on a product and its attributes, it denies the brand any role in the company’s marketing efforts. This gradually erodes the brand’s capabilities to stand apart and to create bonds with customers.

Banks and bottled water, canned juices and food manufacturers have difficulty branding themselves or their products differently because their products are similar or sometimes the same as those of their competitors in their respective product category. Thus, marketers in these industries should focus on the more symbolic, emotional and intangible dimensions of their brands. Unfortunately, we observe that most of their marketing communications are entirely based on product attributes.

Why are such product-based branding efforts doomed to fail?

A fundamental reason is selecting product features that do not differentiate. A marketer may believe that certain product attributes are critical to consumers. However, if other brands in the category are perceived to be adequate on that dimension, it does not differentiate the brand.

Take the naturalness and the minerals in bottled water, which could be important attributes to consumers. If a bottled water company defines the product’s brand identities on naturalness and the minerals, and its marketing communications focus on these attributes only, its branding effort fails because all the other bottled water brands are expected to fulfill these requirements as well. These attributes are the marks of the product category.

Selecting attributes that are easy to copy also frustrates a company’s brand building effort. Many product attributes are easy to duplicate or leapfrog. Even when a company’s product pioneers to embody a particular attribute, competitors will soon beat it on that very quality and erase the difference in the product category.

This is what is happening to some industries like banks in Ethiopia. The technologies in the banking industry are almost the same and are available to all. No one bank can afford to fall behind the competition with technologies, and new entrants or late technology adopters could have technologies with better features than the pioneers. It is no wonder that branding efforts of most banks are typified by “me-to” marketing communications – differences are erased.

Marketers often fall into these traps for two main reasons. To begin with, they assume consumers are rational. This model assumes that consumers collect information about product attributes and make decisions based on the relative importance of the attributes. However, research has time and again proved that most consumers even of high investment goods experience mistrust, confusion or impatience in most contexts.

Additionally, many consumers do not care as much about function as they do about style, status, reassurance and other less functional benefits. Thus, even with visible differences, products with stronger brands sell more and command better prices than products with weaker or no brands but better functionalities.

Marketers are also guilty of favouring product attributes, because they are easier to name and develop marketing communication materials from. They also assume that consumers are comfortable to be talked to, and also to talk to each other, about product attributes rather than intangible benefits, which seem irrational. With extensive data on hand now about consumer behaviour and branding, nothing is further from the truth.

Therefore, marketers who base their marketing communications on product features are doing a disservice to their brands. By competing on product features that do not constitute any point of difference, they are not helping consumers make any tangible or intangible differentiating perceptions in their minds about their brands. As a result, consumers base their choices on other considerations, such as price, locations or conveniences like they do with commodities, such as a kilogram of salt or a bar of soap. The brand becomes commoditised.

Arguably worse, though these brands may achieve high recognition with repeated but undifferentiating marketing communications, they may occupy a ‘graveyard’ position in the consumers’ minds. This happens when consumers reach a point where there is nothing more to hear and know about a particular brand. Worse, if such awareness about the brand is compounded with one or two perceived or negative experiences, the brand could be pushed deep into the graveyard, and getting out of that could be very difficult. Consumers know about the brand, but it never comes to their mind when considering purchases.

Just like a brand, a company also is more than a product. A company or an organisation is many things to different entities, can be defined in many ways and has more differentiating features than a product can have. The company’s experiences, human resources, culture, management capability, money, heritage and history are all factors that can go into or help build a richer brand identity. To consistently identify a mature, rich and large company with one or more of its products and their attributes is belittling.

“The new competition is not between what companies produce in their factories but between what they add to their factory output in the form of packaging, services, advertising, customer advice, financing, delivery arrangements, warehousing, and other things that people value,” said Theodore Levitt, former editor of the Harvard Business Review.

Another trap many brand owners find themselves caught in is having a brand designed for them before they conceived and defined identities of the brand. Many such brands have a nice-looking symbol and an inspiring slogan.

The problem with such a situation is that marketers find it difficult to effectively and meaningfully include the symbol or the slogan in their marketing communication materials. That is why we often hear TV commercials airing slogans that neither define the companies nor describe what the companies actually do. We also notice some symbols that signal strength or care but do not occupy a meaningful place in the communication materials.

If they somehow get a space, the communication fails to describe the symbolised brand personality, if at all the symbol was originally meant to position the brand as such.

Brand identities are the soul and vision of the brand, determining its symbol and slogan, not vice versa. Because brand identities spring from or contribute to (or both) the marketing strategies of the company that owns them, they play strategic roles both in the present and in the future.

Some companies hold on to a leading role in their product categories by capitalising on their innovativeness to produce leading-edge products or on their ability to quickly adopt new technologies. Yet, they add a number of different types of intangible image associations that are embodied in their brand identities.

Others have been leaders in their product categories for decades by understanding consumer motivations and desires and creating relevant and appealing images surrounding their products. Often these intangible image associations may be the only way to distinguish different brands in a product category.

Strong brands, both in the manufacturing and service sectors, carry several different types of associations. Marketers behind Ethiopian brands must learn these associations and must account for all of them in their marketing decisions.

No one has heard Coca-Cola talk of the texture and sweetness of the syrup in its marketing communications. After all, the syrup’s ‘secret formula’ is carefully locked inside a vault. Even when it is necessary to mention new product features, in case of Diet-Coke or Sugar Free Coke, the emphasis is still on the rich identities of the brand – fun, celebration and family.

In the same token, no one spends 25,000 Br or more for the latest Apple iPhone just for its signal strength or for the quality of the pictures it offers. Although, as an innovative tech company Apple refers to new product features, it also makes sure that the self-expressive and emotional benefits - status, style and coolness - are more pronounced in its positioning and carefully worded and painted marketing communications.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 29,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1035]

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