Last week at Wired magazine’s "Disruptive By Design" conference, Sir James Dyson responded to the question, Does product make the brand, or does brand make the product? by declaring that the word “Brand” was the only word banned at the Dyson Company.
"We're only as good as our latest product,” explained Sir James. “I don't believe in brand at all."
A remarkable comment from someone who has stood in front of a camera for the last decade or more on behalf of creating his own eponymous brand of vacuum cleaners, and spending millions in the process.
Perhaps Sir Dyson is confused about what “brand” or “branding” really means, the term being a dumping ground for so many things: corporate identity programs, tricky advertising, the nexus of corporate manipulation and so on.
But brands are really communities of people who share approximately the same values and like to feel they belong together. These are the so-called affinity brands. Who are they? All those people who line up on the street to buy the latest iPhone (or line up online for the new iPad). Mini Cooper drivers who nod to one another at stoplights. Starbucks drinkers who stop each other on the sidewalk to ask where is the nearest Starbucks. Toyota off-road enthusiasts who blog each other about the best off-road trails, Nike runners who seek the best running routes from their hotel, designers who meet at design conferences. And so forth.
People like brands and like the feeling of being part of a collective experience, even if they don’t think of it as such. This sense of belonging is what successful brands are all about. And brands that people care about have a collection of elements that help drive that brand experience.
So perhaps Sir James’s confusion stems from the fact he doesn’t think his products add up to a brand that people care about. Let’s check off the boxes.
As many already know, powerful brands have a story about their origin. In Dyson’s case, the story is not about two guys working in a garage like Apple, but it’s close. Dyson visited a local sawmill and noticed how large cyclones removed sawdust from the air. He has even memorialized the event in film. So, check.
Powerful brands have icons. Dyson vacuums have that iconic yellow color that makes them look childishly simple. Some have a roller ball to help them work corners more easily. They have transparent plastic holding cells that do not conceal the yucky dirt they remove. Instead, they celebrate their hard work, and show us how much dirt we’ve been living in, reminding how much they benefit us. Even Dyson himself has become an icon, as he stands face toward camera in television commercial after television commercial accenting his ingenuity and common sense engineering--reasons why we should pay hundreds of dollars more for his products.
Powerful brands have rituals. Much as Starbucks changed how we have coffee in the morning, and Ikea has changed how we interact with newly-purchased furniture, Dyson has changed the ritual of how we interact with our vacuum by handing us one that can be snapped together (or unsnapped) much like Lego blocks. The rollerball changes the way we move across the floor. The quick-open canister lets us dump right into the garbage can, rather than unleashing those nasty vacuum bags. And if you really want to get into it, there's the ritual of innovation--and creating 5,127 prototypes, and more innovation.
Rituals? Dyson has them.
Powerful brands also have their own lexicon. That’s not a coffee, it’s an iced grande skinny decaf latte. There's the Dyson cyclone, cylinder ball, radial root cyclone technology, triggerhead floor tool, turbine tool, Airmuscle™, Ball™ technology, Musclehead™, airblade technology. Words.
Power brands also have a group that is their opposite: the nonbelievers. Think burger wars, cola wars, Republicans versus Democrats. Mac vs. PC. Dyson himself has told us who they are. They are the old, annoying ways of doing things with vacuums, hand dryers, and so forth. Okay, check.
Brands also have a creed. Not a mission statement, but a snappy few words that tell us what they're about. Dyson is horribly straightforward on this. Lines like, “The vacuum that doesn’t lose suction”, “Designed to move”, and “No clogging. No loss of suction.” Are hardly on par with “Think different.” or “Just do it.” So only a half check here.
Finally, powerful brands have a leader who set out against all odds to recreate the world according to their own vision and superior way of doing things. Sound familiar? Check.
So Dyson has all the makings of a brand. In fact, even very conservative estimates show that Sir James has spent over $20 million in television advertising alone trying to create that brand.
Brands are powerful things. When they work correctly, brands create trust, empathy, advocacy, zealotry. They create community and people feel they belong within that community. And there's nothing like someone from the other side telling you you're wrong to harden your beliefs (remember, it's election year). Best of all, your advocates stick with you through bad times.
This is one of the most powerful aspects of having a brand. When my FedEx package doesn’t arrive when I thought it should, I don’t immediately blame FedEx. Instead, I wonder, Did I make out the FedEx slip correctly? Did I check the right box? That’s because, as a member of that brand community, I trust FedEx to do what they have accepted as their charge: to deliver my package on time, as promised. All relationships are fallible elastic things, and so are brand relationships.
As a Dyson owner, I feel that I belong in the Dyson community of people who like to buy well-designed functional objects that might change the world, even if it’s only one carpet at a time. I even pay a little more to revel in that community. But here's the thing. Have I myself been fooled by branding? Some people in our family complain the Dyson doesn’t work right, or doesn’t clean as well as the old vacuum. I get defensive and say they must be doing something wrong. And even in those between times when I roll out the Dyson for myself and see it’s not sucking up cat hair the way our old vacuum seemed to without hesitation, well, I think I must be doing something wrong. After all, it has great design. And it costs so much, it must be better. 5,127 prototypes can't be wrong.
Or maybe the Dyson vacuum just isn't better after all. Perhaps it's simply the illusion of paying for an expensively designed vacuum that makes it seem better.
If others feel the way I do, Sir James had better hope that, despite the fact that "brand" is the only word outlawed in his company, that the millions he's spent effectively creating a brand will save him.
As for myself, I'll think about it some more. Probably the next time I go shopping for a new vacuum.