My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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one company, ten brands: lessons from retail for tech companies

Lots of folks are unaware that multiple brands are owned by the same company (e.g., the same company owns Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy). Consumer activists often complain that this practice is deceptive because it tricks consumers into believing that there are big distinctions between brands when, often, the differences are minimal. Personally, while I’d love to see more consumer brand awareness, but I think that brand distinctions play an important role. I just wish that the tech industry would figure this out.

I’m a relatively educated consumer and I’m also one of the most brand-loyal customers out there. When it comes to food and personal care products, many of my brand decisions come down to smell and taste, even when these are completely manufactured in a lab in New Jersey to differentiate soaps, toothpastes, and other products that are chemically identical. I buy All laundry detergent and not other Unilever brands (Surf, Wisk) or P&G brands (Tide, Gain, Cheer) simply because it smells better. When it comes to clothes, fit trumps everything.

In other words, my purchasing decisions are heavily affected by “interface.” (Politics and convenience too…) When a company changes the interface, I get cranky. I’m still cranky with my favorite pretzel brand for eliminating the air bubbles in their pretzels that allowed for more salt to build up. The reason that I’m committed to most consumer brands is not because I love the company. For many products, I’m not even influenced by the lifestyle being sold. I simply love the interface. Luckily, most retail companies get that their interface matters and when they futz with it, they create a separate brand or segment the primary brand into “Original” and “New with XYZ.” In the world of retail, a brand represents its interface. There are interfaces I like, those that I don’t, and those that I’m completely ambivalent about. But the interface often matters a whole lot more than the “features.”

Why do technology companies often fail to understand branding the way retail folks do? Many think that they can change the interface at whim to spice-up their product. They approach user retention as user lock-in, rather than user satisfaction and commitment. They try to shove everyone into the same interface in a one-size-fits-all paradigm that tends to fit few. Why??

Unfortunately, I don’t think that many companies are aware of the limitations of their brands. When they’re flying high, their brands are invincible and extending it to a wide array of products seems natural. Yet, over time, tech companies’ brands get entrenched. Certain users identify with it; others don’t. New products using that brand enter into the market with both cachet and baggage. Yet, tech companies tend to hold onto their brands for dear life and assume users will forget. Foolish.

We all know that youth talk about certain products as “sooo last year.” This tends to cover a genre rather than a brand. Yet, teens also have plenty to say about the brands themselves. Yahoo! and AOL, for example, are for old people. When I asked why they use Yahoo! Mail and AOL Instant Messaging if they’re for old people, they responded by telling me that their parents made those accounts for them. Furthermore, email is for communicating with old people and AIM is “so middle school” and both are losing ground to SNS and SMS. While Microsoft is viewed in equally lame light amongst youth I spoke with, it’s at least valued as a brand for doing work. Yet, even youth who use MSN messenger think that msn.com is for old people. Why shouldn’t they? When I logged in just now, the main visual was a woman with white hair sitting on a hospital bed with the caption “10 Vital Questions to Ask Your Doctor.”

Take a look at all of the major portals attempting to reach universal audiences. Now imagine yourself as a teen. Why would you even visit them? Even if you were the rare teen who cared about Autos, Careers & Jobs, Dating & Personals, Finance & Money, Health & Fitness, or Real Estate, one click in and you know that this content is not targeted at you. Even the sites that allow you to “personalize” your modules rarely let you get rid of these or make them relevant to you. To make matters worse, now that these companies are heading towards mobile, they are taking these one-size-fits-all interfaces and cluttering up the phones. Ugg! Why?

I would like to offer two bits of advice to all of the major tech companies out there: 1) Start sub-branding; and 2) Start doing real personalization.

If you’re creating a new product, launch it with a new brand. Put your flagship brand on the bottom of the page, letting people know that this is backed by you – this is not about deception. Advertise it alongside your flagship brand if you think that’ll gain you traction. But let the new product develop a life of its own and not get flattened by a universal brand. Some products should be niche, especially those targeted at youth; while youth are happy to use well-established tools, they also like to distinguish their practices from those of adults and mature into new brands. In other words, they aren’t going to fall to your lock-in for very long. If you’re buying a well-established brand, don’t flatten it, especially if it’s loved by youth. Kudos to Google wrt YouTube; boo to Yahoo! wrt Launch. Even at the coarse demographic level, people are different; don’t treat them as a universal bunch, even if your back-end serves up the same thing to different interfaces.

Personalization is more than skinning and moving modules around. Give me a blank slate and let me add modules that might be relevant to me. Alternatively, make some good initial guesses based on what you know about me and let me modify them from the getgo. Help me find the modules that are most likely to appeal to me – you already have a lot of data on what it is that I do; use it for something that helps me. This is particularly important if there are going to be a bazillion Apps or Gadgets or Widgets out there because I don’t want to comb through the crud. A targeted interface is just as important as a targeted ad.

Above all, understand that no brand is universally loved and one size does not fit all. Most of us look like idiots in XXL shirts and we don’t want our technology interfaces to be XXL. People like brands that fit them like a glove. The tech industry serves up ads this way; why doesn’t it get this when it comes to their own brand? Technology is well positioned to create sub-brands and personalize those brands from there. It’s high time for the tech industry to grow up and start doing so.

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12 comments to one company, ten brands: lessons from retail for tech companies

  • We should count our blessings in the tech arena. Though there is certainly some vaporware and empty branding in the tech industry, fashion brands aimed at tweens and teens have some pretty content-free attributes. It appalls me how little some of the merchandise actually differs in function and basic form, and how much the clothes are just billboards for the brands (some of the most evil examples are American Eagle, AĆ©ropostale, Hollister, and Abercrombie). As a non-t(w)een, I strongly prefer not to pay people a premium to do their advertising for them. And add to the visual branding the very strong perfumes at Hollister and even worse at Abercrombie and you also have a recipe for some serious health issues. Whether its overt bullying or just peer acceptance going on, its a pretty despicable set of marketing practices that we allow our youth to be subjected to.

    Actually, the Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic in my area are all close together on the same road, so it’s conceivable to start at Old Navy, then look at Gap, then Banana Republic, working upscale and taking advantage of sales and clearances along the way.

  • Sorry to interrupt, Danah,
    Not knowing how to let you know of this I use this blog: I think the news that this young educated, professionnal Moroccan man has been sentenced to three years in jail for using the king of Morocco’s brother’s name in Facebook can provide material for your researches.
    The guy never even sent a message from his Facebook stolen identity (apparently this is not a first: Bush’s identity resounds more than 200 times in Facebook).
    On the way to the detention center prior to the judgment he was taken in a car, blinfolded and beaten to a point that the word “torture” can be used.
    As far as I know it is the first time someone is tortured and goes to jail for impersonnating someone else in a Sns, namely Facebook.
    The police who broke into his family’s house to take his computer asked his aunt “when did he create the website Facebook”?
    Great.

  • Very interesting post. However, I think their is a key difference between buying a well established brand (Youtube/Blogger/Orkut) and a less-established once/starting a new service from scratch (mail/maps/froogle).

    With the newer services, people would be drawn to them precisely because of the association with the google brand name. It goes back to the interface – people know what to expect with google. With the glut of products and services out there, the established brand name is an important draw to get people to try the service. A completely new brand (even if were “from the people behind ___) wouldn’t be able to do this.

    Obviously there is the balancing act between diversification and keeping an eye on your core proposition, and companies may find it difficult to enforce the brand qualities to the same degree as they get larger.

    On a sidenote, it would be interesting to see how the shorter shelf life of tech products interfaces with the merits and drawbacks of a completly new brand.

    Best
    Simon

  • Ezra

    You’re exactly right. I just watched this great presentation by Malcolm Gladwell where he explains this idea, but in context of spaghetti sauce. It’s a great watch.

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/20

  • Traditional marketers and retailers care so much about individual brands because they take so much money and time to foster and grow. At the speed at which most tech companies go, sitting around and thinking about such concepts as sub-brands and how to personalize their offerings gets lost in the rush to be the next Google.

    This thinking will probably change as brands such as Yahoo and AOL start to plateau and shift into middle age. In fact those two are probably there now.

  • “We should count our blessings in the tech arena. Though there is certainly some vaporware and empty branding in the tech industry, fashion brands aimed at tweens and teens have some pretty content-free attributes. It appalls me how little some of the merchandise actually differs in function and basic form, and how much the clothes are just billboards for the brands”

    @Logical:

    It’s certainly a personal choice to what extent you pay attention to brands and want that philosophy entering the industry. But I do think you’ve misunderstood the fashion brands you use as an example. You act like the products should be differentiated and the logo is an ad. The differentiation on the products IS the logo. And it’s an ad alright, but an ad for the person wearing it that they identify with (and are trying to embody) all the values that the brand reflects in their advertising and marketing. Kids aren’t buying clothes using feature comparison charts. They are buying image.

    Personally, I think image and emotion can be very powerful. I think branding can be done poorly and awkwardly and be a cynical attempt to wring more dollars from an identical product, and it can be done spectacularly and build a genuine and long term relationship with an audience that is getting what they need on a practical AND an emotional level from those products.

    On a personal note, we started our software startup – Jackson Fish Market – just over a year ago (www.jacksonfish.com). Our choice of name itself was a strong statement in terms of our company’s brand. Even more relevant is that every product we put out (two so far, working on a third) has it’s own distinct identity and brand. No sub-branding. It’s likely quite the opposite of most careful brand expert advice, but we intend to create dozens of brand over several years, each for it’s own small, focused software experience. We think the emotional statement of the product is just as important as the function it performs.

  • For operating systems specifically, you basically described Linux (and, to a lesser extent, BSD; maybe just Unix in general). There are tons of different sub-brands (individual distros, though Linux isn’t a parent company that owns them), each with a slightly different interface, and for people who don’t like any of the default offerings, there are individual window managers and the like for further customisation.

    Of course, the OS market specifically and the tech market in general is one where finding the “right” flavor for you requires some commitment. You can’t just smell a distro to find out if it’s right for you.

  • *re-jig of what I commented an hour ago on RWW’s “Web3.0” post; thanks to Richard McManus’s (quite unrelated) tweet I found myself here.*

    A piece of your text practically echoes what I wrote earlier this evening, i.e. “Personalization is more than skinning and moving modules around. Give me a blank slate and let me add modules that might be relevant to me. Alternatively, make some good initial guesses based on what you know about me and let me modify them from the getgo” concords perfectly with what I just wrote … about an hour ago.
    (I know there’s a fine term for “oddly coincidental” … I thought “xenosynchrony” and now can’t think of it.)

    (Forgive me for self-quoting … I practically never do this but the sync is astonishingly tight.)
    In RWW’s “Web3.0 is About Personalization” I wrote,

    “I’m going to suggest a slight refinement to “personalization” … not a contradiction, not at all, but taking a vector away from the most immediately obvious sense of “decentralized asynchronous me.”
    Thinking of a typical FaceBook or MySpace page what comes to mind is, well, the all too typical DailyMe. My books, my new”friends”, rel-me rel-me rel-me or the most superficial sort.
    How about s/personalization/customization … yaa, that stuff.
    Why should I have to accept FaceBook’s look? MySpace trolled all sorts of activity by letting folk /really/ personalize … at least the look. Why not extend that?
    Best practices of NetVibes + MySpace + FaceBook […] And what happens in the end? Users will have in effect one seamless interface … “sites” disappear; their functionalities appear on the fully customized interface as though services.
    There’s nothing http that isn’t virtual … so why the constraints? Fine, sites and companies plow a lot into design. But if they succeed in attracting users, Q: what is there about limiting the user’s abilities that leads to retention? A: nuthin’ at all. Get’em in, sign’em up, […]”

    I’ll add something in this context: information providers have to realize that the medium may be the message, but the packaging is not the product. (And if it’s otherwise then I hope they go out of business pronto.)

    nice to meet you
    –bentrem

  • well, actually Yahoo!’s Launch was good while it was launch.com, i.e. before being bought by Yahoo! – their idea was better than last.fm (I don’t like to see all those faces from nowhere) or pandora.com(neither I like rafinated melomans teaching me trough their *algorithms* what to play me), and when Yahoo bought it and beefed up it with MS-sponsored music, it was clear that DRM-only-windows-media-only codec will be show stopper. Yahoo people were refusing to switch back to anything open, presumably due to legal bindin gwith MS, and here we go – Yahoo Music is dead šŸ™ probably, good lesson for MICROHOO merger from customers point of view

  • The web changed some of the rules of branding, but the importance of that change got a bit obscured in the dot-com bust. So, the 1980s, ignore all but the lizard brain of the consumer approach to branding, is still a big influence on marketing, advertising and even product design–even in “web 2.0 companies,” etc. In this old school approach, the products are competing with your needs, and the idea of the brand is to steer your needs to match the product’s features. So, for example, a company tries to convince teens to need the same products that are already being sold to adults, and then the company’s brand gets “stronger” or more “buy in” from “consumers.” The brand owns the people, in some sense.

    The web unleashed an almost opposite idea about brands: the products and the company itself are attributes of the brand that expresses your needs. The people own the brand, in some sense.

    danah said: “I’m still cranky with my favorite pretzel brand for eliminating the air bubbles in their pretzels that allowed for more salt to build up.”

    Now that’s classic!

  • Brian O' Hanlon

    Invaluable reference here Danah:

    Re-inventing the Brand
    By Jean-Noƫl Kapferer
    Kogan Page (2001)

    The book is divided up into various ‘essays’, in the same manner as Peter Drucker’s books were for instance – making them really easy to dip into. Kinda books I love, as I tend to jump around a lot. I am book promiscuous, if you care to put up with such a phrase.

  • Brian O' Hanlon

    [quote]danah said: “I’m still cranky with my favorite pretzel brand for eliminating the air bubbles in their pretzels that allowed for more salt to build up.”

    Now that’s classic![unquote]

    If you think that is good, you could check out Clayton Christensen talking about Milk Shakes.

    B.