The Flying Object Brand Marketing 101: Part 1 - Brands
The key concepts in brand marketing, from a Flying Object point of view
What makes a vodka good? Take Grey Goose: £39 for 70cl in Tesco, made from French wheat and spring water. Or Tesco’s own Imperial Vodka: £15.40 for a litre, and made from - well, it says “grain”. French wheat sounds better, right? Grey Goose must be more “good”.
Thing is, vodka - basically by definition - is tasteless. It’s ethanol and water, and whatever base grain, potato or other foodstuff you start with, the distillation process is designed to get you to that same place each time. As this rather great podcast explains, it’s actually regulated as such: the US code directing vodka defines it as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color."
So why is Grey Goose almost four times the price of Tesco Imperial? And why are people buying it? The difference is branding.
So what is a brand?
A brand is a wrapper for a product. It tells you what’s inside; makes a promise for the experience you’re going to have with the product, and tells you to how you’re going to feel about using it.
With Grey Goose and other premium vodkas - and premium brands across sectors, in fact - marketing, advertising and other brand building activity build out far beyond the core product - the liquid in the bottle, in our case. What you’re buying with Grey Goose isn’t just 70cl of ethanol and water, but an experience, a gift, a statement of your identity and aspirations - basically, more than just vodka.
In fact, Grey Goose itself started with an attempt to make a premium vodka - the creator, Sidney Frank, isn’t even French, but figured the caché of the country would be a good start for this upmarket, aspirational, and therefore expensive, brand.
All branding theory and strategy collides with the real world at the point where a customer is making a buying decision, like standing in front of a shelf at a supermarket - so to understand better, let’s think about this moment. As customers, we don’t tend to explore every option in front of us, and most of the time we can’t try out the product before buying anyway. So we resort to a bunch of mental shortcuts in our mind - “heuristics” - for what is good: good quality, good value, good to show off in front of people, etc.
For vodka, this might not mean recalling exactly the kind of french wheat used, but a general sense that Grey Goose is a high quality, well respected, product - something to pull proudly out of the freezer at the end of a dinner party, say. In the 90s, Stella Artois’s advertising said the quiet bit out loud, and the same applies here: Grey Goose is “reassuringly expensive”. This heuristic - this shortcut is built through advertising, sponsorship, availability at fancy bars, cinematic brand films, bottle design, and so on.
Of course, this heuristic means different things to different people; for some it’ll feel like a rare luxury, to bring to swanky parties; for others, an investment worth making regularly to keep up a certain lifestyle, perhaps. But this is mostly or entirely brand perception. Only for a few experts who can really tell the difference is a purchasing decision being made about the specific flavours of Grey Goose’s ethanol and water combination.
Thinking about the brand-product relationship
I’ve picked on Grey Goose because vodkas are famously similar products - in fact, Insead business school teaches branding with a vodka case study, complete with taste test. But the learnings are transferable, across sectors, across B2B and B2C, and across brands where there isn’t a “traditional” purchasing moment.
A key learning is about the relationship between product and brand marketing. Good brand marketing doesn’t forget about the product, but nor does it prioritise product details above brand storytelling.
Ultimately, you want to build compelling brand narratives - and create those heuristics - through activity built out from the product itself. So, when we work with Twitter, we focus on the very best Tweets, and stay really close to them even in our wildest creative flights of fancy. We are not moving away from the experience of the product, but nor are we telling people what exactly the Twitter product does. We’re simply showing it, and amplifying the very best experience of using it.
Or, with Life in a Day, a feature film crowdsourced through YouTube, we honed in on that unique element of the YouTube experience - this chance to see through other people’s eyes - and gave participants full creative freedom; we didn’t hire big-name influencers or script anything.
With these projects we build emotional resonance, that re-wires how people think about the brands, and the heuristics built around them. Much like selling premium vodka.