Walk the line—What can black do for your brand?

Jun 01, 2010 9:30 PM  By

If I were to say, “The Man in Black,” who would you think of? If you’re a music fan, chances are country legend Johnny Cash would come to mind.

How can the simple mention of a color bring about associations of a specific individual? Somehow, Johnny Cash was able to elevate his image beyond just a singer/songwriter to the status of a brand.

There have been many musicians over the years who have understood the art of branding and used it to their advantage to build careers that transcend their music. The Beatles, Elvis, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince managed to do it. But I’m listening to Johnny Cash as I write this, so I’ll use him as the example of how to build a lasting brand image, regardless of the channel or delivery method.

Building a brand takes patience, time, perseverance, focus and, perhaps most important, consistency. Consumers today interact with brands at multiple touch points at unpredictable times, so merchants must deliver a consistent message across all channels. Chances are, your customers will come in contact with your brand in a variety of ways, so make sure the experience is the same — no matter where they engage you.

It’s best to think of a brand as a real person with distinct personality traits, a recognizable face and a unique story to tell. Taking this approach makes it easier to communicate the same thing, in the same manner, with the same voice, at every point of contact with the customer.

You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel, or who you are, every time you reach out to your customers through a different channel. Real people don’t change their appearance or the way they act or talk simply because they’re in a different environment.

The same goes for a brand. Be who you are, act the same at all times. Don’t change your appearance every time you leave the house.

Johnny Cash understood that in order to distinguish himself from other musicians and stand the test of time, he’d have to find a way to stand out from the crowd, be memorable, and connect with his audience in a special way. These are good lessons that can benefit all brands today. Here’s how he did it.

ESTABLISH A VISUAL CUE (Ring of fire)

Everyone associates Johnny Cash with the color black: It’s the only color he wore — ever. It became the outward expression of everything he was and added an extra dimension to his mystique.

Brands can borrow this trick as well. Think UPS. Brown immediately comes to mind, right? The parcel carrier’s brown trucks. Brown uniforms. Brown packages. Brown logo. You can see the brand in your mind.

Just imagine if UPS changed everything to blue on its Website, then suddenly changed all its storefronts to green. And then, just for kicks, it repainted several of its trucks purple because the company was growing tired of brown.

That would be an immediate disconnect for the customer. Confusion would set in. What happened to UPS? You wouldn’t be asking what Brown can do for you; you’d be wondering, “Where did Brown go?”

Think about the ever-present red of Target that permeates everything the general merchant does. Or the iconic shape of the Coca-Cola bottle, or even home improvement guru Ty Pennington’s spikey hair. These all serve as visual cues for each brand and aide in quick recognition.

What’s your brand’s visual cue? Can you own a certain color or develop unique packaging? What can you do to make your brand stand out in a crowd?

DEVELOP A DISTINCT VOICE (Cry, cry, cry)

You don’t have to see Johnny Cash singing to know it’s him. You only have to hear that distinctive baritone to instantly recognize who it is. Whether you hear him on your iPod, on the radio or on TV, that unique voice always sounds the same.

Brands should have a distinct voice, as well. Take Geico, for example. The insurance company essentially provides the same products and services as its competitors, but the difference is in the way it delivers the message.

Geico’s cute and whimsical gecko adds a distinct voice to the brand. His personality is a direct reflection of the brand’s personality. Regardless of where you come in contact with Geico — a television commercial, a radio spot, a magazine ad, its Website — the company delivers its message in the same fun and playful way.

Your brand needs to develop a distinct voice, too. Not the literal sound of it, but the manner in which you speak to your customers — the words you use, the impression you make.

Is there a consistent style and tone to your copy? Or do you have different copywriters banging out text for your catalog, Website and direct mail campaigns, all with a slightly different twist? Take a fresh look at how your customer service reps answer your phones. Is it consistent with your brand’s “voice”?

STAND FOR SOMETHING (Get rhythm)

Johnny Cash’s fans love what he stood for just as much as they love his music. He always made it clear that he represented the downtrodden, the less fortunate. He brought attention to wrongdoing and unfair practices. This was the whole reason he chose to wear black. It, like him, stood for something. In his words, “Until things are brighter, I’m the man in black.”

This is a valuable lesson for brands today. People don’t just want to buy products. They want to support brands that stand for something.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is a great example of this. The company was one of the first brands to donate a portion of its earnings to charity.

Patagonia has always stood for the protection of the environment. BMW wraps its entire brand around the joy of driving. The multichannel marketer Uno Alla Volta, which sells one-of-a-kind items handcrafted by artisans, is all about the “journey of discovery” — and supporting the art of these craftsmen all around the world — not just products on a page.

What does your brand stand for? Are you simply about the transaction, the latest offer, driving traffic to your Website? Or do you stand for something much bigger and more important? Make an emotional connection with your customers and they will love you back.

TELL YOUR STORY (I’ve been everywhere)

Johnny Cash created a unique persona around his life story. He would often refer to his rough upbringing, his days in prison, his constant battle with drugs and alcohol and, later, his strong religious beliefs. His life’s journey was very much a part of who he was.

Many successful brands have a compelling story to tell and often refer to their heritage. L.L. Bean does a terrific job of reminding customers that the brand began with the design and creation of a new hunting boot by the company’s namesake; the boot served as the foundation for many quality products to come. The cataloger’s new Signature line of apparel reminds customers that what made the brand great still applies today.

Fairtytale Brownies sets its brand apart by spinning a tale about Brownie, “a cheerful fairy of Celtic folklore who delights in performing good deeds. He lives in an enchanted forest tending to the exotic cacao bean trees from which our chocolate is crafted.” How fun! This adds an extra dimension to the brand and makes brownies seem even more magical.

Do you have a compelling story or an interesting heritage? Are you sharing it in your catalog, on your Website, through your social media outlets? It might be just the thing to set your brand apart and tie all your channels together.

Building a successful brand is challenging — no one said it was easy. And trying to maintain a consistent message across all channels just adds to the difficulty.

But it can become easier if you establish visual cues, create a distinct voice, stand for something and tell your unique story. Johnny Cash did these things and his brand is still strong today.

Yes, he was a good singer and songwriter — even a great performer. But he was so much more than that.

Johnny Cash was and is a brand, successful and timeless. If your brand can walk the line like that Man in Black, you just may have the same kind of staying power and resonance.

Brent Niemuth (brentn@jschmid.com) is vice president/creative director of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog/multichannel consultancy based in Mission, KS.