Customization: Building A Brand Advantage

Martin LindstromSeptember 29, 20084104 min

First came Nike iD, a customization concept that enabled consumers to design their own pair of Nike shoes. Then Jones Soda offered a customization platform: bottles became vehicles for consumers’ customized labels, Jones Soda even guaranteeing brand fans that their bottles would be distributed in stores. Shortly thereafter, Build-A-Bear broke new ground in the teddy bear game inviting kids to use their imaginations and construct their own bears. Imagine the LEGO factory enabling kids to design their own LEGO sets. Consider Mercedes-Benz’s design-your-own-car option and, of course, the hundreds of clothing web sites that offer consumers the chance to design their ideal streetwear. These consumer lures have all been exercised in parallel with the online world to which the very concept of customization is fundamental and in which the potential for customization has yet to be fully exploited.

Once we’ve had the chance to pick and choose, to become kings and queens of our own brand universes, product functions and designs, there’s no turning back. In the future we will be able to customize every consumer item we use. The days of Henry Ford’s manufacturing mantra —  “You can have it in any color you want as long as it’s black” — are, even now, long gone. The question thus arises, what’s the role of the brand? Is it at all possible to build a brand if its products can be customized by its consumers?

The answer is simple: the role of the brand is to remain instantly recognizable, even without its logo.

Take the your iPod as an example. Where’s the logo on it? You may not have consciously examined an iPod to discover this but you may be surprised to learn that the logo is hidden on the back, not displayed prominently on the front as any marketer would have insisted on. Yet I’m sure no-one in the world would confuse, say, a SONY Walkman with an iPod. The comparison demonstrates a crucial feature of good branding. Were the SONY Walkman to remove its logo, the device could be identified as being the product of any other number of competitor companies, from Panasonic to Samsung. But no-one would mistake the iPod for one of its competitors.

And here’s more cleverness. You may immediately claim that the distinctive white of the iPods components sets it apart. But an iPod in yellow, blue or red would be equally recognizable. The fact is that the brand has been so embedded into the product that every square inch of it is the brand. The logo is just the final dot on the “i”.

If you break down the Apple brand and examine each of its components, you’ll realize that the logo is a very small part in the whole equation. Today Apple owns the navigation wheel, the materials (combining steel and plastic), the rounded shape, the simplicity of design, the weight, the navigation, the navigation sound, the slow yet balanced movements (when navigating) and, of course, the distinctive white earphones which signal that an iPod is hidden in the wearer’s pocket.

This leads me back to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog post. The steady growth in customization — online, offline or wireless — will require brands to develop and maintain more coherent, stronger brand identities which emanate from the full spectrum of product and service components, not just from a logo.

The theory which I called ‘Smash Your Brand’, and which I discuss in my book, BRAND sense, refers to the principle underlying the classically-contoured 1915 Coca-Cola bottle which was designed to be recognizable even if smashed into thousands of pieces. And this theory sums up the role of the brand in the age of customization. Assuming this trend will continue and grow, it will be essential for any brand to be ‘Smashable’ to ensure that the soul of a brand shines through the most customized of customizations. The brand must be visible, distinctly perceivable, to justify the consumer’s choice of it for their customized product. Brands which continue to rely on a logo for credibility and distinctiveness will face tough times in the future because, ultimately, products will need to be so well-branded that no logo is needed to signal its brand identity.

So prepare yourself for an interesting future. Conduct a brand health check today. Remove your logo, from offline products and your online presence, and see what’s left. If the disappearance of your logo means farewell to your brand identity that’s a warning signal: it’s time to reconsider your brand strategy. The good news is that there’s still time for improvement. The bad news is that the clock is already counting down.

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