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Carol Avenant
Branding lessons from the highway
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I don't profess to be skilled in many things, but when it comes to branding and traffic I consider myself an expert. My claim to fame in branding is that my day job is being a strategist at Yellowwood - I live, breathe and brainstorm strategies for big and small, local and international brands daily.

My reasons to believe that I'm a traffic expert are that I've been stuck on highways for the last 15 years of my life, I've been in 3 serious accidents (only 1 was my fault), I have written off 1 gorgeous Jaguar (not my fault), have a file filled with traffic fines (okay, that was all me), and no insurance company will consider me a low to medium risk client. Some people might call me a bad driver; I consider myself experienced and prepared for the worst.

For the last 2 years, I've spent an average of 2 hours a day, 5 days a week, in the parking lot that is the N2 highway to Cape Town. I spend the time thinking about what I could have achieved in the time lost, and calculating the opportunity cost of time wasted. But that's not all; I'm also in a lift-club, trying to save the world, with 2 very different personalities to mine.

One is a very calm, creative soul that is content with the reality of moving slowly home. The other is a no-nonsense project manager that attacks the highway in a zig-zag fashion using her brights and hooter to voice her frustration with the crawling cars. To add to the already mixed pot of emotions, I really suck at small talk. Hence my obsession to rather extract lessons for brands from the highway and the odd threesome stuck on it.

Filtering from a list of many, here are my top 3 lessons brands can learn from bad traffic.

1. Big doesn't mean best

It often just means you are big. And most likely bad for the environment and not trying hard enough. Even though I believe "value-for-money" cars are made for quick top-up trips to Spar and not for the highway, they are fuel friendly, accessible to many and cheaper to maintain. One by one, small cars are taking up more space - on the roads, in consumers' consideration sets and in their spending habits. Likewise, big brands need to watch out for small start-ups that are nimble and show lots of personality. Small brands often try harder because they still need to get noticed, they respond to change faster and do it in a refreshing way that cuts through the noise. Even though I'm a big-brand-kinda-gal, when I get generic responses, no customisation and little original thinking from leading brands, I'll quickly zip off the highway in search of an alternative. Think about how your brand can act like a small brand when it interacts with consumers - find ways to be refreshingly different, uniquely creative and professionally personal.

2. Turn the journey into a memorable experience

Trust me, the conversation and music matter. They are what make the drive bearable, and sometimes surprisingly, even fun. And I think it's even more fun when everyone talks about me. There's a lesson in that for brands. As much as consumers are buying your brand, make the experience about them. The glass of champagne and artisan chocolate truffles I get every time I shop at Jenni Button make me feel like a princess. The invitations I get telling me I'm one of their most valued clients and deserve to have a front row seat at their new seasons' range unveiling make me feel special and appreciated. These things make me forget that I'm spending half my salary on a few dresses and shoes. Brands need to understand what's important to consumers and then create moments of joy around what they value. The secret is in being genuinely interested in what matters to consumers, you cannot fake your way into their hearts.

3. Set the GPS before you leave

You can spot an out-of-towner a mile away. They slow down at every turn off, use their indicators excessively without ever having any intentions of turning left or right, and eventually overcome their fear of talking to strangers by asking homeless people for directions. Brands that have no vision and no strategy are the same. They are on the road to nowhere. Time invested in defining your destination and planning how to reach it is priceless. It is your roadmap to success. Be thorough, talk to experts, consider all possible routes and then decide who the driver is going to be. In other words, do your research to understand your market, explore how you can satisfy their needs and how you can create a brand and an experience that truly engages them, and then create your marketing plan with a clear objective, the jobs that need to be done to deliver on that objective and the resources you will deploy for each. As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.

Allow me a parting wisdom; a yellow BMW is never a good idea. If you're not a Lamborghini, don't paint yourself yellow and think you are. Always be true to who you are. And know your limits.

Happy driving, all. Good luck getting your brand to its desired destination and may everyone enjoy the ride.

(As published on Marketing Web 31 March 2011)


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