A Story About Branding that’s Really about Building Relationships

I once got into an email discussion with an engineering director a couple of levels above me about a concern I had with engineering’s decision to use interchangeable brand names for two different types of microprocessors. He challenged my assertion that co-mingling the brand names would confuse customers; he was of the opinion that it didn’t matter.  I and my team were putting the finishing touches on the complex microprocessor documentation for one of the microprocessor families and I argued that we needed to resolve this branding issue before finalizing the many documents and thousands of pages of information.

When pushed, I pushed right back. I stated that Brand X microprocessors already had an established positive market identity and tossing in a new type of microprocessor (that did different things from those identified with Brand X) would not only NOT extend the brand identity and preference for Brand X, but dilute the progress that Brand X had already made in the market. The features and benefits of the new product were different from those of Brand X and it would be a huge marketing mistake to feed the new and different product line into the existing established one. I cited research that showed that leveraging brand equity of a successful brand (Brand X) would make the introduction of a new Brand X product entry less costly; but to toss in a new Brand Y product entry into the existing Brand X product stream would be a bad decision.

Throughout this back-and-forth email debate, we copied all the marketing directors…and not ONE of them joined in the discussion. The silence was, in fact, deafening.

Building brand equity is an investment, and studies of consumer brands in different markets found that successful brand extensions spent less on promoting extensions because of the intangible “good will” built up with the parent product.  For example, Coca-Cola introduced six brand extensions that captured a larger market share than the original brand; Cherry Coke, one of the extensions, was hugely successful despite a near-zero advertising budget.

Finally, the engineering director asked me “So just where is the value of Brand X products that you keep talking about?”

It was one of those epiphany moments one remembers as I replied with: “Where’s the value of the Brand X brand awareness, brand recall, image, brand association, and brand preference with target customers and investors? That’ simple: it’s reflected in the stock price.”

Boo-Yah!

And with that final retort, I thought that maybe I had better find some empty boxes and start cleaning out my office ahead of the HR Grim Reaper. I had tugged on Superman’s cape; I had peaked under the mask of the Lone Ranger.

Long story short, I kept my job without any negative repercussions, the product line was merged with Brand X (much easier to keep your job at the executive level to agree with a wrong decision than for someone to say a decision may be a wrong one), and shortly thereafter, the engineering director resigned to “pursue other career opportunities.” In the high-tech world, that’s usually a euphemism for getting fired or being asked to resign.

Did our disagreement have anything to do with it? I doubt it; but it had me thinking about this individual’s knowledge of creating brand identity and building brand equity (in fact, why was an engineering director controlling branding discussions when it was really marketing’s job?). Why was he pushing back on what I thought were sensible, research-backed ideas. From what I later heard, this engineering director lacked certain relationship-building skills up the corporate ladder. Yes, he stepped outside of his domain expertise (engineering) by insisting the two brands be combined and that there would be no downstream (i.e., customer) issues–even when presented with a rational, logical argument for keeping the brands separated and understanding how the brand equity is determined (partly in the stock price). His disregard for wise council from others–and how he responded to suggestions–ultimatly led to his exiting the company.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. You may possess all the technical or professional skills necessary to do your job, but what really propels you upward and forward in your career are your verbal and written communications skills–including your ability to evaluate your own self-talk–to know your domain of expertise and to know when you’re out of your league– and your ability to nurture relationships up AND down the organization ladder.

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