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Can your brand make customers hide the evidence they were just talking to your competitor?

Taio Cruz’s hit song says, I came to dance, dance, dance, dance/I hit the floor ’cause that’s my plans, plans, plans, plans/I’m wearing all my favorite brands, brands, brands, brands. We live in an era of brands, branding, brand power, brand influence, even “personal” brands. We’re more agog over brands than ever, from grocery stores to cell phones.

We’re a brand generation.

Now, before spiritualists start ohm’ing resistance to such rampant commercialism, keep in mind branding isn’t new. Today’s brands might be wrapped around products, but people have always branded themselves, whether in religious, social, economic or national terms. Brands are shorthand for conveying what we value to others.

Brands have always mattered.

While social and cultural brands make intuitive sense, it’s always amazing to watch a commercial brand so influence personal behavior that it moves from to a norm. Think back to your high school horror at a parent’s attempt to buy no-name jeans or store-brand sneakers. Remember parking your woody station wagon behind the school, far away from the cool kid’s Mustang?

When brands make it to this level, they influence our behaviors even when no purchase is involved.

A recent experience brought this clearly to mind. I was picking up a few things in the local mall, including a replacement garage door opener for the one we’d finally lost. That meant a trip to Sears, which still anchors one end of the mall. After purchasing, I entered the mall thinking I’d go to the Apple store and check out the new iPad (mine is only iPad 2).

Just as I thought it, I froze in my tracks.

I can’t be seen in the Apple store with a Sears shopping bag! How embarrassing would that be? Totally old school, unhip, un-i-generation. After all, I’m only 41; I even have a tattoo. I’m still cool, right?

Thus I found myself (did I just write thus?) in the middle of the mall, throwing out the Sears shopping bag and stuffing my purchase in my back pocket, before resuming my trip to the Apple store.

Later, in the safety of my car, I laughed at myself. Imagine being embarrassed to be seen with the evidence of shopping at one store when visiting another! Yet I admit, I had felt strangely exposed, almost as if I’d betrayed my favorite brand by shopping at a lesser one. Was I over-thinking it? Maybe. Or would it have been better to have ordered on, and had it discretely delivered by mail?

Now that’s brand power.

Neurotic, or genuinely influenced by the meaning of a favorite brand? You decide; Even though Sears isn’t really Apple’s precise competition, the broad principle applies. We’ve all seen the line around the corner at the Starbucks in the airport, when across the way is a perfectly empty Au Bon Pain. Even with options, consumers will pay more, wait longer and even cover their tracks, just to live up to a trusted brand’s cachet. Not all companies can pull this off; getting consumers to so intimately identify with a brand is hard. But it can be done.

Whether you’re developing a new brand or evolving one that’s been around, it’s no longer an adequate measure of a brand to survey icon recognition or consumer awareness. Today, the power of a brand can be measured by how it affects consumer behavior outside of the presence of the brand itself. Not just repeat business, but non-transactional behavior.

When customers avoid being seen with the competition, your brand has made it.