This blog chronicles and analyzes developments in the Upper Delaware Valley, with an emphasis on public affairs, politics and what people are doing to make this a better place. You can find news here as well as commentary - but don't expect neutrality. The award-winning editorial writer for The River Reporter from 2004 to 2012, I am an advocate for sustainability, self-sufficient economic growth vs. globalization and protecting the environment on which our health, prosperity and quality of life depend.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What’s in a brand?

Pretty much any conversation about how to market this area, whether to tourists, food consumers, second-home owners or prospective businesses, sooner or later seems to wind up with a discussion of the concept of brand. But while everyone seems agreed on the importance of branding, there isn’t necessarily a clear agreement as to what it means, as was brought to my attention at the recent charrette for the Upper Delaware Waterfront Revitalization Plan in Hortonville, NY.

In particular, it seemed during part of that discussion that the concept of brand was being confused with the concept of product—when in fact, it is precisely the distinction between brand and product that is key to the usefulness of the idea. Branding is the establishment of a charismatic character or image that can be cast over a wide variety of products and/or services offered by a company or, in our case, a geographic area, that will prompt customers to choose them over similar products and services offered by other entities.

The exchange in question started when Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Luiz Aragon said he thought that the county might need not just one brand, but a multiplicity of brands. One of the consultants responded that they had just dealt with something similar, and gave the example of Watkins Glen, which he said had gone through a similar identity crisis, starting out at first identifying itself with racing, then with wine, then with its canal.

But racing, wine and a canal are not brands. They are, in effect, different items in the product line. We don’t need a wide variety of brands; we need one or two strong brands that can encapsulate our wide variety of products. It is not just, say, fishing, local food or gallery crawling that we need to be able to market and sell, any more than Nike can sell running shoes and T-shirts with a swoosh on them for three or four times what it costs them because it has brands called “running shoe” and “T-shirt.” We need to create an Upper Delaware (or Sullivan County, or whatever the brandable unit turns out to be) swoosh, that will not only distinguish our fishing, galleries and food products from everybody else’s, but make people willing to pay extra for them.

All of which is not to say that Aragon was wrong about Sullivan County needing more than one brand. The eastern and western portions of the county seem to have characters and histories that are different enough that the river valley brand, however it is ultimately defined, can probably not be used to encompass the eastern side, the erstwhile Borscht Belt—and though I was not at the earlier portions of the charrette, it was clear from the presentation that this was a belief that had apparently already been articulated by others. The river itself provides such a strong image that it clearly needs to be central to whatever brand is established for the western portion of the county, and to try to extend it too far from its banks would tend to vitiate it.

It seems clear, by the same token, that the natural unit for the Upper Delaware does not stop at Hancock along with the Scenic Byway, but extends all the way to the heads of the tail waters, including much of the coldwater fishery, meaning that in any branding effort, a coordination with Delaware County may prove even more important than with Orange County and its southern piece of the NPS river corridor.

Apart from the geographical unit to be branded, what more precisely is the essence of a brand? It is not just an image, but an image that evokes an experience. It establishes an emotional connection. It can be seen as an idea or even a lifestyle.

Those interested in an insightful discussion the concept should take a look at Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo,” especially the introduction to the 2010 and the first couple of chapters. Klein’s book is actually a searing indictment of branding as an increasingly pernicious trend toward the substitution of form for substance and propaganda for action in both the corporatization of the global economy and in politics (which, sadly, have become pretty much the same thing).

But I think there’s a possibility of coming up with a relationship between product and brand that does not have the pernicious effects Klein describes. Branding becomes destructive, as Klein details, when the connection between branding and product becomes severed entirely, when the quality of the product, the process by which it is created and the people entrusted with its creation become simply immaterial to the lifestyle, or attitude, or personality being extolled in the marketing campaign. “These pioneers made the bold claim that producing goods was only an incidental part of their operations,” Klein writes. “What these companies produced primarily were not things, they said, but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing.”

But if you create a brand that makes people think and feel certain things, whether it be “green” or “natural” or “hospitable” or “small town America,” there is no reason you can’t remain committed to actually delivering those qualities in your goods and services. That, it seems to me, will be the challenge for those of us who are interested in constructing a brand for ourselves here. It’s kind of like creating a soul for ourselves, and then setting out to figure out what we have to do to keep it—while reaching out to invite others to share it.

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