Get Aboard the Branding Train

Here, there, everywhere. Big brand is watching you. Small brands are bombarding you. Online brands want you sticky, consumer brands want you cradle to grave. There’s no escape from the branders. And just when you thought there was nothing left to brand, get this: Now riding a train has been branded.

Amtrak has announced Acela, a new era in train travel. The marketing folks at the transport company, watching their peers at eBay and Amazon create branding experiences as business models with billion-dollar valuations, have had it with the netrepreneurs having all the fun. So they created Acela – as they say on their site, a service designed from a customer perspective (I guess that’s better than the engineer’s view). The train branders go on, “Acela is Amtrak’s brand for most service in the Northeast.”

OK, I give up. What else is there to brand? Standing in line for a ticket, squeezing into a rickety seat and reading the paper for three hours are now brandable. Used to be we’d brand our cattle to claim them, or brand prisoners to track them. The manufacturers did it to demonstrate quality. Then we branded shopping — retail — to claim distribution quality. With physical goods all branded, services became the next brand craze, from FedEx to pin-drop dial tones. Then even intangibles were branded, like calling some programming code Java. Just when you thought branding was ubiquitous, the online experience got branded too — buying a book online, making a trade online. Now, a brand identity for riding a train?

Every day I talk with folks who want to put branded e-mail on their sites. It’s understandable, because business models are worth only their balance sheets if there is no brand behind them. And what better way to brand customers than to brand their communications? After all, e-mail is the conduit for e-commerce, and when brands and wallets meet, business managers and investors nod approvingly.

E-mail is the latest channel of mass-market communications, and branding communications is hardly a novel concept. The combined branding investments — including marketing, advertising and public relations — of telecom giants such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint can be counted in billions. But brands are not created just by slapping a name on something and spending to exploit it. A true brand oozes invisible power that embodies the value the service has for its customers. It binds the product, surrounds the service and captures the essence of what you are trying to sell.

When it comes to technology, marketing folks have only a small role in brand building. This is especially true in services such as communications. It’s the chief technology officers, vice presidents of operations and the like who build the brand.

So what does it mean now to build a brand in an industry like e-mail services? When it comes to e-mail, consumers aren’t buying on price (because it’s now free), and businesses aren’t buying on performance (because if you aren’t rounding to 100 percent, you can’t get in the game). Branding e-mail is not like branding detergent, where you need a snazzy campaign to drive an emotion-based purchase decision. Branding a service like e-mail is about value, the credibility you build by promising value and consistently delivering on your promises.

It comes from everyone in the organization, because everyone touches the customer. (Remember those quality-assurance circles of the ’80s? They’re still there.) It comes from every customer experience — because one bad move or missed promise spreads like wildfire to all your other customers and prospects in our wired, networked world. It comes from the heart and soul of your company’s leadership, staff, vendors — your “extended family”– because you can’t pretend or cheat behind a brand. True brands — like personalities — always end up exposing themselves after a while.

It’s no different if you are buying soap or putting your brand on an e-mail service, on your Web site or boarding a train from New York to Washington, D.C. Everything you do can be distilled into a brand play of some sort. Companies that understand the essential nature and character of their brands — and can connect that essence to the tangible characteristics and attributes of their products and services — will be the brands we support for years to come.

So next time someone mentions that branding e-mail seems like overkill, direct that person to the Acela ticket counter for a real branded experience. The lesson: Whatever you are doing, brand it. No matter what it is: installing a server (Servela), aggregating a group of nearsighted wine drinkers into a niche portal (SeeItPinot) or changing your kid’s diaper (PeeYoo.per), you must brand it. Don’t be left at the station. All aboard the branding train!

• Rip Gerber is chief strategy and marketing officer at e-messaging firm Commtouch Software Inc., Mountain View, CA. Reach him at [email protected]

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