In Business Squeaky Clean

Lots of people get very excited about this thing called “branding”. Flatfooted thinkers use the concept as though they thereby are granted great insights into the mysteries of business.

It’s easy to see why. After the serious business of wrestling with deep financial thoughts, you can do sexy things with branding : psychoanalyse brands, for example, or run focus groups about them.

You can even do that weird sort of reverse branding exercise that recruitment people used to specialise in. “If you were a car” they would ask, intently, “what sort of car would you be?” Abject nonsense.

Now I am not trying to undermine the value of brands themselves. Big brands are both powerful and very valuable to the companies that own them.

Branding (or sign-making) is an ancient game: witness the bushes signifying a mediaeval pub, or the barber’s pole (that means more than just a close shave in some parts of the world).

What makes me annoyed is when everybody gets the idea that brands can be dreamed up, advertised and made to happen, just like that.

“What values do we want to attach to our new brand?” people ask at brainstorming sessions, before they pass some sort of brief to an advertising agency who’ll whip up some clever ideas.

Brands shouldn’t be bolt on attributes, like that. Brands should be virtues accruing to products and services over long experience of them by customers and consumers.

Real brands have lives of their own, and flourish because of it, not because somebody is spending millions face lifting them.

The best brands are an implicit part of the experience of product, and are probably inseparable from it.

So the question for businesses to ask is not “how to we build a brand” but how do we make things that people really want to buy and value and pay more for?

How do we make our products real experiences for our users, so the brand and the things are intertwined?

These thoughts are driven by this week’s programme from San Diego, California. I dropped in to a workaday industrial estate to listen to Gary Ridge, chief executive officer of a company called WD–40.

You probably know the product in its distinctive blue and yellow cans, and you probably know how it starts off as a lubricant and then generates all kinds of other uses, most of which give the users the wonderful feeling that it’s their cleverness to spray on the WD–40, rather than the product’s versatility.

That’s what I mean by branding: the product is so satisfying that people are constantly trying to think up new uses for it.

One women told the company she stops squirrels from climbing up the pole on which her bird feeder is placed by squirting it with WD–40.

The brand has a story attached. The death was announced earlier this year of John Barry, the man who took over the Rocket Chemical Company in 1969, when the main market for what became WD–40 was stopping space rockets corroding.

He saw the potential of this water dispersant as an all–purpose lubricant, changed the name of the company to reflect the 39 unsuccessful attempts they had to find the magic formula that finally worked with mixture number 40, and built the brand.

What’s nice about WD–40 today is that the company under Gary Ridge still understands and respects that splendid tradition.

Yes WD–40 is a wonder international brand, and understands itself. When Gary Ridge looks for acquisitions, they have to meet a difficult criterion... they have to over impress the user. And that’s what I call branding.

Peter Day

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

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