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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Luke Sullivan: Brand = Adjective

Luke Sullivan: Brand = Adjective

Posted on March 30, 2008 and read 5,704 times

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ihaveanidea is pleased to present the fourth in a series of excerpts from Luke Sullivan’s third edition of his renowned book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. To order your copy today, click here. Essential pre-Portfolio Night reading here, folks.

Each brand has its own core value. Dan Wieden says it another way: Brands are verbs. “Nike exhorts, IBM solves, and Sony dreams.” Even Mr. Whipple, as bad as he was, helped Charmin equal soft.

This is an important point, and before we talk about strategy, it bears some discussion.

People don’t have time to figure out what your brand stands for. It is up to you to make your brand stand for something. The way to do it is to make your brand stand for one thing. Brand = adjective. Everything you do with regard to advertising and design—whether it’s creating the product or designing the web site—adheres to absolutely draconian standards of simplicity.

Recently, I was on the phone with a client who works for a nationwide chain of grocery stores. This director of marketing mentioned in passing that the number of brands on the shelves in his stores had just passed 50,000.

That’s 50,000 brands competing for a customer’s attention.


This number alone should take the spring from the step of any advertising person whose job it is to make the silhouette of a brand show up on a customer’s radar. Until recently, it’s been reasonable to assume that the way to make customers remember a brand is to differentiate it from its competitors: “The model of car we’re selling has incredible styling and the other guy’s brand doesn’t.”

But your competition isn’t just the other guy’s car.

When you sit down to do an ad, you are competing with every brand out there. You’re competing with the 50,000 packaged-good brands on the shelves at the grocery store, as well as every other product and service and logo in the country. You’re competing for attention with every TV commercial that has ever aired, with each billboard on every mile of highway, with the entire bandwidth across the radio, and every one of the 100 trillion pixels on the Web. All those other advertisers want a piece of your customer, and they’re going to get it at your client’s expense. Looked at from this perspective, through the teeming forest of brands vying for customers’ attention, cutting through the clutter may require more than giving a sharp knife-edge to your brand. It calls for a big, noisy, smoking chain saw.

But a kick-ass Super Bowl commercial isn’t what I mean by a chain saw.
The chain saw you need is simplicity.


When you think about it, what other antidote to clutter can there possibly be except simplicity?

Perhaps we should try cutting through the clutter with clutter that’s extremely entertaining? Should we air clutter that tests well? Or clutter that wins awards or clutter with a big 800 number?

I propose that the only possible antidote to clutter is draconian simplicity.

Draconian simplicity involves stripping your brand’s value proposition down to the bone and then again to the marrow, carving away until you get down to brand = adjective. Make your brand stand for one thing. Pair it with one adjective.

But which adjective?

If you ask consumers in focus groups to talk about buying a car, with sufficient amounts of Dr Pepper and M&M’s, they will amaze you with their complex analysis of the auto-buying process. I’m not kidding. These groups go on for hours, days. But if you ask a guy in a bar, “Hey, talk to me about cars,” he’ll break it down to a word—usually an adjective.

“Yeah, gonna get me a Jeep. They’re tough.”

Porsches, they’re fast. BMWs perform. And Volvos, they’re . . . what?

If you said “safe,” you’ve given the same answer I get from literally every person I’ve ever asked. Ever.

In every speech I’ve ever given, anywhere around the world, when I ask audiences, “What does Volvo stand for?” I hear the same answer every time: “safety.” Audiences in Berlin, Los Angeles, Helsinki, Copenhagen, New York City all give the same answer. The money Volvo has spent on branding has paid off handsomely. Volvo has successfully spot-welded that one adjective to their marque. And here’s the interesting bit: In the past couple of years, Volvo hasn’t even made it onto the top 10 list of safest cars on the market. So here’s a brand that, having successfully paired its logo to one adjective, rides the benefit of this simple position in customers’ minds long after its products no longer even merit the distinction. Such is the power of simplicity.

The adjective you choose is key. Once it’s married to a brand, divorce can be ugly. On the good side, once it’s paired with the brand, that one square foot of category space is taken. If all the good adjectives are taken, don’t settle for the second best. (“‘Refreshing’ is taken? Oh well . . . gimme ‘Quenching.’”) Second best won’t be different enough. Try a polar opposite. Or consider a flanking move. In ketchup, the adjective everyone fought over for a long time was to be the “tomato-iest.” Then one day Heinz came along claiming it was the “slowest,” and sales went up—and stayed up. You can also try creating a whole new adjective that alters the playing field in your favor. (Axe cologne’s “Bom Chicka Wah Wah” comes to mind.) The right adjective, the answer, will come out of the product. Or from your customers. Ask them. They know the answer.

Find an adjective and stick to it. But it’s the sticking to it that so many brands seem to have trouble with. The problem may be that, from a client’s perspective, there are many things to admire about the product.

“How can we narrow down our brand’s value proposition to a word? Our product lasts longer, it’s less expensive, it works better. All that stuff’s important.” Yes, those secondary benefits are important, and, yes, they have a place: in the brochures, on the packaging, or two clicks into the web site. All those other benefits will serve to shore up the aggregate value proposition of a brand, once customers try it. But what they’re going to remember a brand for, the way they’re going to file it on their desktops, is with a word.

Find that word.

You may argue that I have oversimplified here. And I have; I’ll accept the criticism. Because I’m arguing for purism in an area where it’s often impossible to think that way. Many brands simply do not lend themselves to such clean theoretical distinctions. But at least try; try to find that one word.

You’re going to thank me when it comes time to sit down and think up an ad.

Luke Sullivan
Creative Group Head
GSD&M Idea City




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