Brands So Tricky They Cancel Out and Are Forgotten

When businesses create consumer brands, they sometimes forget the primary purpose of a brand. The idea is that consumers should remember the brand and what it stands for. This is harder to accomplish than it seems.

To succeed, a brand has to stand for something and the customer has to remember both the brand name and the essence of what it stands for. This is actually three things to remember because the customer has to know both the visual form of the brand, usually a logo, and the way the name is pronounced. In the United States, there are about a million consumer brands, too many for any one person to know more than a small fraction of them. People remember the brands they depend on for their everyday lifestyle, but they also remember brands that are easy to remember. When they remember a brand, they also remember something of the company the brand belongs to. For a business, branding is part of the struggle to be known and remembered.

Businesses forget this partly because it is so basic and partly because it is no trouble at all to remember one’s own brand. There is a basic difficulty in perspective when you work on something day after day, but others may spend only seconds on it. To illustrate this, imagine a business that has spent years developing the brand name “Bardstone.” It is a name the staffers know well. It is hard for them to imagine the confusion the name may represent to customers. “Bardstone” is not a familiar word to many people, and customers may mistakenly say “Breadstone,” “Bardstown,” “Bearstone,” “Boardstone,” or even “Barstool.” As hard as it is for the company itself to imagine, all these mistakes are inevitable. If customers have this much difficulty with a simple two-syllable name, imagine the extent of the mistakes they make in explaining what the company does. And it is not just a matter of getting the details right, but of being remembered at all. People more quickly forget things that are confusing or that they feel unsure about.

One way to think about this is that a brand name should be the opposite of a password. The ideal password is easy for its owner to understand and remember but is meaningless to anyone else, making it difficult or impossible for them to remember. Further, a passowrd is kept secret, while a brand is repeated for anyone who cares to read or listen. A brand that even slightly resembles a password has failed in its purpose.

A brand name, then, has to not only be a name simple enough to learn, but it has to stand for something simple enough that the average customer can remember it for a long time and explain it in a few words.

Designing a brand that is this simple and clear is difficult enough to begin with, but there is an added challenge in the way nearly everything of human creation tends to get more complicated as time passes. A brand can start out standing for something clear and simple, but become more complex, and therefore harder to remember, when the business changes.

In the worst case, businesses that try to be too tricky with their brands turn into something that even longtime customers have trouble grasping. Then both the brand and the business can tend to be forgotten.

I saw an example of this when I visited the new Whole Foods Market store in Exton. This is one of the first Whole Foods Market stores to show the new design concepts that the company took on after its acquisition by Amazon. For years, Whole Foods Market had stood for products that are carefully selected, often more fresh, and in some sense safer to use than comparable products found in other stores. Yet this is nearly the opposite of what Amazon stands for as a company, and the redesigned Whole Foods Market has changes that are meant to align better with Amazon’s business sense. In particular, the new Whole Foods Market is meant to accommodate large numbers of shoppers and get them through the store quickly. The shopper I was with said the new store had something of the feeling of a cattle chute. At the same time, the new store concept takes away many of the fresh products customers might remember from previous Whole Foods Market stores. For example, the in-store bakery appeared to be limited to bread and cakes, with all other “bakery” items made at a factory far away. So does the Whole Foods Market brand now stand for a rapid store visit of less than ten minutes? Well, no, that is too difficult to reconcile with the old meaning of Whole Foods Market. So, in fact, if someone were to ask me what Whole Foods Market stands for, I wouldn’t be able to give a clear answer. I would be forced to say something like, “It used to be _______, but not it seems like they are trying to do ________, and I’m not sure it’s working.” It would be a confusing, conflicted message that the requester would have trouble remembering.

It is not just that the new-design Whole Foods Market is hard to explain. It turned out that it is hard for me to remember. Three months have gone by since my store visit, and I have nearly forgotten that the store is there, even though it is just a few miles from home. Not knowing what the store is supposed to be, I find it harder to remember the store at all. This all happened after the company itself became conflicted about what it stands for and built those conflicts into its new store design. The result is a brand message so complicated it is hard for even a longtime customer to understand.

Starbucks is another popular brand that has added so many twists to its brand promise that customers are starting to get confused. The core of Starbucks’ business has not changed. The cup of coffee is still based on globally sourced coffee beans brewed with filtered water. But in its push to expand, Starbucks has added on so many cumbersome new features, such as the drive-through, a large and constantly changing food menu, a membership program, and an ordering app, that customers may soon find it hard to think of it as a simple place to get coffee. The confusion is compounded by Starbucks’ new logo, which no longer contains any text, so that customers have to memorize the name. Loyal customers will do so without difficulty, but what about the new customers? Starbucks was never an easy place for new customers to navigate, with the small size labeled “tall” and the traditional coffee shop menu painted on a distant wall in letters so small that many customers can’t read it. Every added complexity makes it that much more impenetrable. It risks eventually being known as a corporate café, a concept so close to a contradiction that customers may struggle with it.

If Starbucks still works as a brand, it is partly by force of habit and partly because the brand promise of the coffee beans themselves remains intact. Starbucks probably must continue to operate its own coffee roasting plants, even if some of the (ahem) bean counters at headquarters see it as an inconvenience, just so it can have something tangible to tie its logo to.

Whole Foods Market and Starbucks are edge cases, consumer brands so complex that they risk disappearing into the ether. The ideal consumer brand should be much simpler than this. If a brand is easy to say and easy to explain, then it is more likely to be remembered.

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