Passion Brands: Kate Newlin Explores the Whys and Hows of Brand Passion

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Passion Brands: Why Some Brands Are Just Gotta Have, Drive All Night For and Tell All Your Friends About, by Kate Newlin (2009, Prometheus Books)

The marketing shelves at bookstores are crammed with books dancing around the implicit edge of promising The Secret Key to Success is to be found in its own particular buzzword — customer retention, customer relationship management, customer centrism, jazz improv, loyalty, flow, creative destruction, whatever the latest silver bullet buzzwords is, that’s the Missing Ingredient in what your company’s doing, why your company isn’t Starbucks or Home Depot or Microsoft.

You know the pattern: Trot out the typical brands with strong followings everybody uses when they write these kinds of books — Jack Daniel’s, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, Camel, Google, a funky airline (usually Southwest, Newlin refreshingly picks Midwest Airlines) Amazon, Apple, Jeep, Harley-Davidson, Levi’s. Throw in a new lifestyle brand or two such as Chemistry.com and Orbitz, and pick an off-the-wall brand the mass market hasn’t heard of, which for Newlin is Fresh Direct, a Webvan-style grocery delivery service in her home of New York City.

Then run through the metrics and anecdotes and say why your particular buzzword is why they’re so successful. Toss in a villain or two, brands which squandered their consumers’ passion — Gateway Computers, United Airlines, pretty much the Central Casting villain in these books, and there you have it.

By focusing on passion, Newlin does have something important to say. She does identify a crucial component of some pretty successful brands, the fact that many of its consumers feel rather passionate about it. “There really is a vital, viral life force to these brands,” she writes. “We can have a relationship with them because they seem to be alive, whether it’s how they seem to get smarter as we use them (Google) or how using them can create a sense of instant community with others (Starbucks).”

Newlin, who did not respond to a request for an e-mail interview, calls these “passion brands,” ones that you “form such a personal attachment to that it becomes an indelible aspect of your identity,” where you are actually “relating to a thing, a brand, a totem more passionately than we do to some of the people in our lives.”

Towards the end of the book she’ll expand on this theme, speaking of the “social factors” pushing us towards “an evolving sense of a personal, private community that uses brands as the ‘dog whistle’ to signal membership… It’s my unique playlist, but I’m a member of the iPod tribe.”

In the end, she finds, through brand passion for products “we genuinely engage with,” we postmodern people “find a way of expressing our individuality, not our commodification,” as we use certain brands to build our identity. You know the type — I’m an Apple user, I’d die rather than use a PC. I’m a person who will only drive Volkswagens, eat Hellmann’s mayonnaise and buy clothes from L.L. Bean. I follow only Kyle Busch and can’t stand Dale Earnhardt Jr. The “that’s just who I am” people.

Well, okay, obviously at certain levels in an organization there does need to be a certain amount of passion for the brand to succeed, but obviously there’s a whole lot more than just passion going on here.

Newlin’s tack as a marketing consultant is to use a hypnotist to interview customers. She’ll put them under and get what she says are a customer’s truest, deepest feelings about a brand, what they associate with that brand and why they like it — because it reminds them of the comforting cherry pie their mother made when they were six and struck out with the winning run on third, or how angry they are at their mother for feeding them cherry pie to make their thighs fat.

Frankly I’d never heard of that tactic before, using hypnosis to elicit brand identity feedback, maybe you have. Newlin relies upon it heavily, saying focus groups are almost useless, and touts hypnosis as revealing the deepest passions people feel for brands. Some of the results she reproduces have insight, some are amusing.

She gives seven “accelerators” for building a passionate brand, advising readers to “Differentiate on Design,” and appeal to a world view, not a traditional age-income demographic: “People want to be associated with products and companies that share their values,” she quotes one business executive as saying.

But the list reads more like a result of having a passionate brand than a blueprint or recipe for building a passionate brand — for “Hire Passionistas As Brand Stewards” she basically advises you to find a group of really talented, committed, fun, smart, hard-working experienced people who are as passionate about your idea as you are. Sorry, those people all have great jobs already. With dental plans.

Newlin is correct in identifying passion as an ingredient of brands enjoying long success, but I wonder how much of that is due to people selecting them as identity markers, or simply the result of a brand performing its job, fulfilling its role so well that people are grateful for reliability and consistency in a world which often seems to offer anything but.

It’s a deeply comforting, reassuring thing to walk into any Starbucks and know you’re going to get a good — not great, not bad, reliably good — cup of coffee, that whenever you order from Amazon you’re going to get what you ordered in good condition or else it’ll be rectified.

I don’t know that I’d call the customer loyalty built up and the good word of mouth such reliability engenders “passion” on the level that cultural icons such as Harley-Davidson or NASCAR generate, I’m satisfied calling it a default preference for that which you have found to simply work best — you know you’re going to get the best search results from Google, the day you find a better search engine your “passion” will shift as well.

Read over that list of brands at the top of this review again — those are extraordinarily competent, reliable, consistent brands. Jack Daniel’s is, in fact, great whiskey. Jeep is, in fact, a great car. Krispy Kreme is, in fact, a great doughnut.

Look at me — I would have been, in Newlin’s view, “passionate” about the Firefox browser. I use it, I evangelized for it, I tried other browsers such as Safari, Opera, Chrome and Explorer and found I preferred Firefox.

Then one day I read a review of the newest Safari browser, tried it, found that it performs better than Firefox and haven’t used Firefox since. Is that “passion” at work?

Because the real magic of why certain brands achieve that mythic status is, of course, a combination of things. Passion, yes, in certain doses at certain points, but there’s a whole lot else at play, too — creating a niche, timing, breaks and tons of hard work, as well as simple competence and reliability.

I ask you: Is the passion Newlin identifies probably first and foremost a passion for the activity the brand is used for? I don’t smoke so I’m not passionate about Camel cigarettes, I don’t watch auto racing so I’m not passionate about NASCAR, I don’t ride motorcycles so I’m not passionate about Harley-Davidson. I do a lot of Web search so in Newlin’s words I’m “passionate” about Google, but only because it’s the best tool for that. My passion is for the best Web search results, not the tool — if another tool brought me better results I’d dump Google.

I’m fully aware that competence and reliability don’t by themselves engender passion, there has to be a savvy marketing job done as well, and that’s where Newlin’s work would be most useful. I can’t see a slipshod or unreliable brand benefiting from the advice and findings Newlin presents, but I can see a highly competent, reliable brand suffering from a rather gray, dull image getting a great deal of value from the book.

Worst of all would be somebody misusing the book, thinking “Okay, if I just get passion I’ll have it,” without bothering to work hard on competence and reliability.

No you won’t. If there is a brand I’m passionate about it’s Ritz crackers. There are a million imitations but no equal, I’d get a Ritz t-shirt if I could only wear one brand t-shirt, for my birthday one year a friend went to a grocery store and arranged to get me an unopened carton of Ritz. But I’ll be honest — if a better snack cracker comes along, I’m there.

David Sims
David Sims Writing
David Sims, a professional CRM writer since the last century, is an American living in New Zealand because "it's fun calling New Yorkers to tell them what tomorrow looks like."

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