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A Physicist's Views on Branding
WHY DO PHYSICISTS account for a sizeable proportion of Nobel laureates in non-physics disciplines? Because in a physics classroom people acquire a whole lot of useful assets and habits, e.g., rigor in definitions, models, techniques, and analysis, which help them along enormously. James Heckman, Nobel Laureate, Economics, 2000: “Under his [Oppenheimer] guidance, I learned the beauty of experimental science and the pleasure of matching theory to evidence. Although I later abandoned physics for economics, my enthusiasm for scientific empirical work guided by theory was born in his classroom.” And when physicists later abandon physics, they continue to think and feel like physicists and remain sticklers for rigor in their reasoning or whatever.
If grounded in things branding, a physicist (let’s call him Phys) would find a lot of exciting parallels between physics and branding. As a physicist-turned-marketer and copywriter myself, I cannot help thinking of how the multidisciplinary and fuzzy domain of branding could benefit from physical thinking and those parallels.
Definitions of “brand”
Descartes said: “Refine the meaning of words, and you would save humanity from most of its delusions.” Physical “words” are refined so meticulously that any physicist will give you identical definitions of “voltage,” “force,” or “neutron capture cross-section.” (Marketers will give hundreds of definitions of “marketing.”)
Now, let’s expose our Phys to the definition of “brand”: “A name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” Phys’ll be stunned — the definition does not stand the easiest test: suppose we give our cow some name, say, Cleopatra. It perfectly identifies her as distinct from cows of other sellers, thus meeting the definition. Is our darling Cleopatra a brand? If Mercedes tomorrow becomes Dolores, will it stop to be a brand? Or, if Pentium were dubbed Intellect or ProChip, will it sell less?
Phys’ll find that while many serious branding texts de facto ignore the dated definition, regarding names and symbols simply as identifiers, many companies are naïve enough to believe (courtesy that definition) that branding is just about naming and designing. That’ll give Phys a clue to why most of new introductions fail in the market.
Transformation of quantity into quality
Inquisitive Phys’ll discover that decades ago it took guts to “brand” a product to distinguish it from a sea of commodities, thus inviting possible criticisms and rejections. To survive, branded products had to be superior; and, when proven to be superior, they sold better and made more money. That’ll explain to Phys the “name-and-design” definition — there was no need to stress the implicit financial aspects!
Phys’ll also discover that things have changed radically ever since. Now, with nearly all products “branded” in the old sense, simply naming a product would NOT automatically generate extra cash any more — a case of quantity transforming into quality. The scenario of a big fish in a small pond was replaced by that of thousands of sharks in an ocean. To Phys that’s like a leap from Newton to Einstein in physics.
With products in any category being almost equal, Phys will perhaps think of Orwell’s words: “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” And so the task of branding now is to create and maintain products that are “more equal than others.”
Phys defines the ”modern brand”
Phys will reason that business would hardly be preoccupied with the concept of branding, if it were not for financial benefits involved with the possession of a brand: more sales, often at premium prices, and lower marketing expenses. With this in mind, Phys will try to work out a water-tight definition.
At the core of the notion of “brand” is an OBJECT with good qualities. If we do not have such an object, any other “branding” efforts are exercises in futility.
Well, but even the best object ever will not automatically become a brand — what use are good qualities, if they are not widely known! Therefore, we also need AWARENESS of the object and good ASSOCIATIONS (reputation, image, expected quality) in the minds of people. Of course, to link the associations to the object, we need some IDENTIFIERS (names, symbols, etc.).
And now Phys’ll find himself on shaky ground. How “more equal” than those of the competition must the associations be? It depends. Sometimes even not “more equal” at all.
How many people must have those associations? Dozens? Thousands? Millions? Just the more the better! With FMCGs it may be millions; with ship yards it may be dozens. Are associations an end in itself? — No. Take Rolls-Royce, for example. It enjoys the highest prestige with billions of people, but… some time ago the company was floundering. Something is missing here. And so Phys introduces the final condition — the object must generate SUPERBENEFITS — “super” meaning above the average level for a given category:
Thus, calling anything a brand only makes sense when the bottom line is superbenefits. Without superbenefits, the very concept of branding might concern only scholars, but not businessmen.
A good FMCG (Packaged Consumer Goods) brand
Technically, a good FMCG brand is a good PRODUCT per se, with good IDENTIFIERS, good ASSOCIATIONS, and good AVAILABILITY. Generally, a brand needs good advertising, but there are some brands that fare perfectly all right without any advertising of note.
Phys will find it amazing that the literature generally overlooks availability. However, any practitioner knows that an excellent FMCG (consumer packaged goods) brand that is only available at 20% of marketing outlets, will hardly outsell a poorer product available at 100% outlets. Introducing the availability gives:
On careful consideration, Phys might suggest to replace the misleading term “product brand” by something like “winning” or “best-selling” product.
Product categories: brandability and hardness
Phys may well stage an “experiment” asking people to make lists of all familiar tradenames irrespective of the category. The lists will consistently cover several FMCGs, cars, consumer electronics, and a couple of other categories. Not many. How about other thousands of categories? Is it in principle possible to become a brand in all of them?
Take construction materials, for instance. An improvised poll revealed that most of those who had had their houses renovated (they had had to buy dozens of items in the process) could not remember any construction materials tradenames. Speaking to audiences, I sometimes ask if anybody knows the manufacturers of their suites, ties, shoes, shirts. In some audiences the show of hands is nil!
May be it makes sense to talk about brandability of categories. Clearly, brandability depends on a variety of things, e.g., on how often we buy given products; on whether or not products have the manufacturer’s name on them (like cars, hi-fi, sportswear); on how “hard” is the category.
In physics the idea of hardness and softness is used widely, e.g., to characterize radiations. Likewise, in branding we could talk about hard and soft product categories. If you ask for a Pepsi, but the store does not have it, would you walk a mile to get it, or just take a Coke? It you want a Mercedes, would you buy an Audi, or spend some effort to get a Mercedes? We can thus say that beverages are a softer category than cars. “Hardness” does not necessarily mean financial success. One example is Rolls-Royce, one of the “hardest” brands.
Philosophy and techniques
Einstein viewed himself as a philosopher rather than a master of physical techniques. Prabhu Guptara: “There is a distinction between the philosophy of marketing and the techniques of marketing.” An ideal marketer is a “philosopher” and “technologist” at the same time.
Unfortunately, “philosophers” are a rare species in whatever profession. Business schools churn out hordes of marketing “technologists” mesmerized by numbers, however useless. According to Dichter, they simply report “the facts” and cannot interpret them: a large sample does not compensate for a lack of creative interpretation — “A thousand times zero is still zero.” Phys would agree with Peter Drucker: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” Specifically, that pertains to market research.
Both in physics and branding, research should be rigorous and based on well-grounded models — a poor model means “garbage in, garbage out.” Our Phys may spend more time substantiating assumptions, simplifications and uncertainties concerned with his models than on actual measurements.
Measurements in branding resemble those in quantum mechanics, where objects are so delicate that a measurement destroys the picture. Precisely this happens when market researchers crudely probe into delicate motivations to get just “truthful lies.” Marketing philosophers seek undistorted results obtained mostly using observation of shoppers’ behavior, or naïve listening.”
Phys would also be amazed at how some brandologists do their testing — often in wrong environments and for irrelevant parameters. Nobody would think of test-riding a car without an engine, but ad-testers sometimes play around with ad-looking dummies.
Everything is physics has its domain of validity. So, the atomic nucleus is described by a set of theories, each of which being valid for a given range of atomic numbers. Phys will discover that in marketing and branding, similarly, what suits FMCGs may not suit high-involvement products; what is good for reminding stuff is not good for launch adverts. Being a brand in beverages is a far cry from being a brand in cars or machine tools.
So, in most FMCGs some factors at play are… our laziness, least-resistance principle, herd instincts — can you imagine a crank pre-tasting ALL the teas, ALL the whiskeys, etc., to identify his best choice? At the other end of the spectrum, an average American household spends months selecting their next car.
Branding texts are rife with facile statements that only refer to some specific situations, with the authors making no attempt at delineating their validity domains.
“Combinations of opposites”
Aristotle said that “harmony is a blending and combination of opposites.” In physics, a striking manifestation of this combination is an atomic object — it’s a wave and a particle at the same time. In branding, these combinations are aplenty.
A brand is an economic entity and a bunch of associations at the same time. Other examples are the interplay of art and science, and of the verbal and the nonverbal (“A picture is worth one thousand words” vs. Goethe’s “Only the word can express the power of thought.”)
But the ultimate combination of opposites in branding is the harmony of the rational and the emotional in everything.
Our brain has two hemispheres. The left one is responsible for logic and speech; the right one, for imagination and intuition. Modern physics has become so brain-raking that the left side alone is not coping; and thus physics needs people with “both” hemispheres, the likes of Leonardo da Vinci.
Albert Einstein, a good violinist himself, maintained that “the greatest scientists are always artists as well,” stressing that fantasy, intuition and imagination had been more important to him than knowledge. Niels Bohr: “When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Robert Oppenheimer: “Both the man of science and the man of art live always at the edge of mystery. Both have always had to deal with the harmonization of what is new with what is familiar.”
Modern branding calls for two-brain thinking in a big way. Ogilvy said of launching a new brand: “That is not work for beginners. It calls for vivid imagination, tempered by marketing acumen; an ability to peer into the future; and, not least, a genius for writing introductory advertisements. I doubt whether there are more than a dozen people in the United States who are qualified by temperament and experience to perform such an operation.” “Vivid imagination, tempered by marketing acumen” — that’s exactly the kind of two-brain thinking that branding needs!
Although two brains are not used by some brandologists, they are always used by buyers.
The “one-brain” buying scheme
Consider the well-known FCB Planning Grid (also known as the Vaughn Grid), where each product is represented by a dot on either “think” or “feel” quadrant:
Oddly enough, the authors of this “one-brain” Grid attach to products either a “think” or a “feel” tag, thus suggesting that buyers have in their minds a sort of “think”/“feel” switch, which is in a specified position when they buy a given product. Specifically, the Grid “maintains” that when you purchase a sports car you allegedly only feel (and don’t think!), and when you buy a portable TV you only think (and don’t feel!).
Do you “buy” that?
The “two-brain” buying scheme
In actual fact, purchasers think and feel at the same time (except when they just locate routine products on the shelves and put them into a cart, thinking and feeling about something else.)
To represent graphically the fusion of the emotional (feel) and the rational (think) involved in a buying decision for a given product, I developed a “two-brain” (think-AND-feel) diagram:
Here a product is described by two squares (left and right) that represent inputs of reason and feelings, respectively, to a buying decision. The larger the area of a square, the larger the contribution of the respective hemisphere. So, the white squares in the picture (the small one on the left and the large one on the right) describe a product bought largely emotionally (jewelry, etc.); the gray squares describe products bought using mostly rational thinking (industrial equipment, etc.). The shaded squares describe an intermediate case. The sum of the squares’ areas is a measure of involvement.
Experience has shown that this think-and-feel diagram is a pretty useful tool, more useful than the “one-brain” model. Visualizing the buying decision for a product, it helps one not to overlook any selling points “on the other side,” thus making the picture complete.
Practitioners in branding could benefit a lot from physical thinking, especially in the harsh world of the looming New Economy. Contributions of physicists are already sought after in wider social contexts. One example is the International Conference on SocioPhysics (June 2002; Germany). Its brochure says: “It brings together scientists from various disciplines, such as physics, sociology, informatics, demography, philosophy, political sciences, economics. They will jointly discuss whether and to what extent physical models and tools can be reasonably used to enhance quantitative methods in the social sciences.” It’s time perhaps for a conference on BrandoPhysics or Physico-Branding.
Last and least, how about the brand consciousness of physicists themselves? Most of that absent-minded lot are hopeless! When prompted to use different kinds of soap for washing and shaving, Einstein retorted “That’s too complicated to me!” Thank God, humanity is not 100% physicists, otherwise the entire branding profession would go redundant.
Other English-language articles by A. Repiev