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Would You Trade Your Girlfriend’s Life for a Miller Lite? A Few Thoughts on the Limits of Brand Loyalty…

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I spend a lot of time looking for blog content these days. Which means I spend too much time scanning my RSS aggregators, doing Google searches and panning for Twitter gold amongst the dozens of Tweets that wash up on my desktop daily. Lately, a lot of folks in Twitterland and the Blogosphere have been speculating on what the hot new trends in marketing will be for 2011. What values should brand managers be thinking about this year? Some of the brand-defining adjectives that seem the most popular are “transparency,” and “authenticity.” “Accountability” and “generosity” are another couple of terms people seem to think are particularly relevant.

Anyone that knows me personally understands that I’m a bit of a skeptic. I’m self-aware enough to know, however, that others don’t necessarily share my slightly cynical outlook on things. I understand that much of the world is subject to the the charms and seductions of a well conceived sales pitch. And — well — I say “Thank God for that!” Our clients, after all, have products and services to sell. Hopefully our skills of persuasion are helping to get them sold.

Setting aside my personal biases, though,  I still feel like the whole idea of brand “authenticity, transparency” and, even the entire concept of brand loyalty really has distinct limitations.

I’ll tell ya why.

Fundamentally, brands are products and services which are being sold for a profit. Most consumers are not stupid: they understand this. The problem with brands requisitioning the language of personal relationships is that the language itself (featuring words like trust and authenticity) are words derived from our deepest, most meaningful bonds. I “trust” my family. I know that, if my life or livelihood were threatened, I could rely on them to protect or help me. Despite corporate slogans such as “Like a Good Neighbor, You-Know-Who is There,” in this social media driven world we live in — where Facebook viewers can just visit the Fan page of any major product or service provider and find lots of disgruntled consumers — the “realest” most authentic strategy for many brands might just be to observe the intrinsically transactional nature of their service offering.

“Keeping it real” shouldn’t mean trying to make it “realer” than it really is.

Which is why I think that, ironically, the greater a “trustmaking” claim a brand may actually have, the farther it should stay from taking that approach.

Let’s take the insurance industry, for example.

We’ve all seen Geico advertising for many years now. The smartest piece of strategy behind those cavemen and gecko ads, for me. is that they use humor to gain brand recognition and then follow-up with a very simple value proposition: We’re cheaper than our competitors.

Contrast those ads with the historic tack of State Farm. State Farm promises that they’ll be there for me, in periods of dire need. That’s a really big promise to make. And, in this era of cynicism and the transparency with which corporate acts of irresponsibility get publicized, is anyone really believing this message? Even if the message has resonance, why would we trust them more than one of their competitors? (Please don’t think I’m questioning State Farm’s essential trustworthiness as an insurance provider. I’m not; I’m just challenging their historic ad strategy.)

I think making me laugh and seducing me with an “I’m cheaper” value proposition is both easier and more likely to work in the age in which we live.

So, there you have it… That’s my somewhat critical take on one of this year’s perceived trends in branding. Let me know what you think!

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