Are you doing enough to make people hate your brand?

A business associate of mine hates Starbucks. Just hates the brand, refusing to go to one of their ubiquitous locations even if it’s the most convenient place to meet.

I love Starbucks. It’s one of my all-time favorite companies and I consider it not only a great and distinctive brand, but a wonderful example of strong corporate management. I’ve read both of Howard Schultz’s books, have grown to admire his vision and have found Starbucks employees to be universally above average in their character qualities.

My friend, on the other hand, loves Canada’s Tim Horton’s brand of coffee shop. He thinks as highly of Tim Horton’s as I think of Starbucks.

All of this was merely interesting until a lunch time conversation made me give more thought to the branding value of controversy.

I was pointing out to another associate how consistently Starbucks manages to emphasize the key element of its brand position. The entire basis of the Starbucks brand experience, established at the company’s foundation, was Schultz’s passion for the quality of handcrafted coffee-style beverages, something he had experienced in Italy and wanted to bring to America. This emphasis threads its way through every aspect of the Starbucks brand communications, including the hand-made styling of things like signs and in-store displays.

Of course today, with tens of thousands of employees, it becomes increasingly challenging for the company to infuse that passion as consistently as it would like, a fact that Schultz admits in “Onward.” Yet even though its employees, many of them young college students, aren’t all as passionate as he is about making a perfect hand-crafted beverage, Starbucks still manages to do an admirable job of giving us that experience.

At least, it does in my view.

My meeting companion did not share the same understanding of the Starbucks brand. He had always thought of the company as an example of American mass production, with no connection to hand-crafted anything. He had never gone into Starbucks with the feeling that anyone was passionate about creating his beverage experience. He had never thought about how details like hand-drawn signage found in every Starbucks location meant someone had to do some things by hand, not to mention the drinks, made one at a time, hundreds or even thousands of times a day in each store. And it hadn’t impacted him that the text on the Starbucks daily features chalkboard, often signed by employees, was certainly not mass produced.

We discussed this for quite some time, and it was obvious to me that the two of us have very different viewpoints on the same brand.

If people don’t get it, is your effort wasted?

So if even a huge brand like Starbucks doesn’t always get people to see the brand in the same way despite all that money and effort, what does that mean for branding and marketing? Does it mean lesser companies, those with infinitely smaller budgets, don’t have a chance?

If people don’t “get” what you’re all about, does this mean all your work at creating a powerful brand presence has gone to waste?

If people don’t “get” what you’re all about, does this mean all your work at creating a powerful brand presence has gone to waste? Not at all!

The fact is, if your brand isn’t at least somewhat controversial, it’s nothing. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. Anytime people are talking about something, they are bound to argue. If they aren’t disagreeing about some aspect of your brand, that means they aren’t talking about it. And if they aren’t talking, it means you have no significance. It means your brand is too boring.

Are you trying to be all things to all people?

When you try to avoid controversy, trying to be all things to all people, you essentially become nothing to anyone. As the now-famous example goes: “What’s a General Motors? It’s a large, small, cheap, expensive car especially targeted at young people, seniors, students, business tycoons and families.” Who’s going to talk about that?

Far too often I find business leaders terrified of negative mentions of their brand. The moment someone — even one person — says anything disagreeable in a letter, Facebook post, website comment or Email message, they overreact and want to “win them over” by diluting the things their brand stands for in the hopes that the negativity will vanish and be replaced by an all-embracing worldwide community that loves every aspect of the company.

Embrace the controversy. Let it happen. Your fans will jump into the fray and defend you, just like I defend Starbucks to my friends and just as my other associate defends Tim Horton’s when anyone says anything disparaging about that brand.

The power of focus

In an increasingly transparent world, no brand will ever be universally loved. You simply can’t afford to be. You’re only hope is to be talked about.

Some people love Apple. Some people hate Apple. Some people love Virgin Airlines. Some people hate Virgin (same goes for Virgin’s enigmatic figurehead Richard Branson). Some people love Porsche. Some people hate Porsche. That’s healthy, because it means people are engaging. They’re talking about these brands. That’s because each of these brands has a focus and a plan and a direction that will attract some people and alienate others.

As you focus your attention on a specific market segment, your brand becomes more distinct and consequently increases your visibility in the marketplace.

As you focus your attention on a specific market segment, your brand becomes more distinct and consequently increases your visibility in the marketplace. If you focus on youth, seniors will think you’re shallow. If you focus on seniors, youth will think you’re old fashioned. If you focus on quality, some people will complain you’re too expensive. If you focus on fast turnaround, some people will be convinced your workmanship is sub-standard.

Apple’s computers are designed to be closed systems. That was a strategic decision sitting at the foundation of the brand distinctiveness. Every computer geek who loves to tinker with the insides of the computer will hate that. It’s okay.

Southwest Airlines focuses on affordability and efficient travel. Those who prefer to pay more for comfortable seats will hate the brand. That’s okay!

Are people talking about you?

The more people discuss, the more powerfully that brand distinction is embedded in the minds of people having the discussion. When people talk like this, the discussion actually helps to frame everything you’re trying to do with your brand.

You’ll never please everyone. There are simply too many opinions and expectations out there. To even try is folly. Embrace the arguments. Let them happen. As long as your company is focused and you have a plan for where you want to go, this kind of brand hate is not going to hurt you but will actually help build your brand awareness.

Ask yourself if people are disagreeing about your product or service.

If not, you need to find ways to make it more distinct. Because nothing is worse for a brand than not being heartily argued over. Will people be arguing about your brand at the Thanksgiving dinner table?

George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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