Framing Your Brand
We've been framed and don't even know it!
By Reid M. Neubert
I just read a fascinating book: Don't Think of an Elephant, by George Lakoff. Lakoff is an expert in cognitive linguistics – I know that's quite a mouthful. Cognitive linguistics is the scientific study of the nature of thought and its expression in language. His specialty is applying the science to politics, especially the framing of public political thought.
While the book is billed as an "essential guide for progressives to understand the radical right," it was of particular interest to me as a marketing and branding consultant in its application to my field. The concepts Lakoff brings to light in the books are 100% applicable – and are in fact used already – in marketing the most successful brands. But the way in which Lakoff explains the concepts makes them especially easy to understand.
A Political Example
Here is a recent example of cognitive framing in the political arena: When George W. became president, his administration started talking up "tax relief." Tax relief. They didn't talk about tax cuts, but tax relief. Think of what a difference that choice of words makes in the impression that is relayed. Saying "we're going to cut taxes" is one thing, but saying that you are going to provide relief from taxes is quite another.
As Lakoff points out, the notion of "relief" implies that there is something, an affliction, to provide relief from. The reliever then becomes the hero of the situation when he provides the relief. This, at the same time, makes people who are against the proposal seem like villains because they oppose the hero.
That is how framing works. "Tax relief" is a framing term. In the end, through repetition of the framing term, people become convinced that this is a good thing, something to support, even if it may be, in reality, something very different than they think it is.
The notion of relief is common, of course, in advertising medicines. The commercial shows the suffering patient, talks about how the remedy will relieve her suffering, then shows the happy patient, now relieved by the medicine, which is the hero of the commercial.
Your Right to Frame
A sterling example of how terms can reframe a political debate was the naming of anti-abortionists as "right-to-lifers." "Anti-abortion" is a negative term, cumbersome and off-putting. "Right to life" on the other hand, is a positive expression, and a highly emotional one at that.
What is brilliant about the new term is that it did three things, as the best framing will do: First, it completely reframed the debate. It was no longer about being for or against abortion being legal, but about being for or against life itself! Second, it put the pro-abortion rights people at a distinct disadvantage from a linguistic, and therefore cognitive standpoint. The reframing moved them from the linguistically positive side to the negative side. Third, they were now on the negative side of what? Life! They could not successfully take up that framing terminology and say they are "anti-right-to-lifers"! That would not do at all.
In response, they came up with the term, "pro-choice." From a naming standpoint, that was an exceedingly difficult challenge, I'm sure. "Pro-choice" succeeds as a framing term in its own right because, like "pro-life," it is a positive rather than a negative statement. But, it will never be as effective as "pro-life." The concept of pro-choice requires a little rumination to integrate into one's thinking: "Choice is a good thing to have. What choice are we supporting here? Oh yeah, a woman having the right to choose." It doesn't immediately resonate emotionally like the term "pro-life" does.
But, our interest here is not about political commentary, it is about marketing and branding, so let's look at the applications of framing there.
Creating a Frame for a Brand
When we work on a branding strategy for a client, we look for what linguistic and/or visual concepts we can use to create an effective frame. In the case of a new product or company, we can create the frame from scratch, which is often easier. In the case of an existing product or company that we are rebranding, we have to consider the company's current perceptions by customers and prospects and it's position in its competitive environment. Because brands live in the minds of the consumers, a new frame will only work if it is reasonably consistent with the perceptions now held by them. We can steer, but we can't necessarily bulldoze.
The strongest brands are those that have framing concepts that resonate with their customers. A classic example is Nike's "Just Do It." With those three words, the company effectively framed their brand as the one for people who are serious about sports, conditioning, and working out. That frame moved Nike out of just being an athletic shoe brand, albeit the leading one. It subordinates the weight of stories that their sneakers were made in Asian sweat shops. "Just Do It" frames Nike as being apart from the competition who are now "the other guys" who also make athletic shoes. It makes Nike athletic shoes somehow better than the other ones, because Nikes are for Serious Athletes. It's a club that beckons us to join, even if we are more couch potato than athlete.
That is how a resonant brand is built. Most companies, however, take a much more pedestrian approach. It can be risky to do something out of the ordinary, but that is what it takes. If a company is to succeed in building an exceptional brand, it cannot communicate from within the same frame as everyone else.
Owning the Market
It has traditionally been the case that the leading brand in a market would usurp that market. In other words, Hertz promoted rental cars. IBM promoted computers. In doing that, they framed their brands as being synonymous with those industries. That left their competitors as also-rans, comparing their offerings with the leaders'.
When we rebranded a self-storage company, I researched the market as usual and found that none of the other companies had framed their brands as being synonymous with self-storage. Public Storage perhaps comes closest just because the brand is so ubiquitous, but that is not sufficient. I realized that we could grab that opportunity, at least in their local area. So, in developing the company's marketing message, we extolled the benefits of using self-storage rather than saying how the company was superior to or different from its competition.
Most companies make the mistake of saying they are better, faster or cheaper in some way. The problem is that that is not a framing statement. You can't market yourself as being better/faster/cheaper if you want to be seen as owning the market. You have to create an ownership frame, and let the other guys try to show how they are better/faster/cheaper than you are.
Good Frame: Game Over
The brilliant thing about a well thought out linguistic frame is that as soon as the other side – or the competition – starts talking about the issue in terms of your frame, they've lost. As Lakoff points out, if one side can talk about their position in two words, and it takes the other side a paragraph to enter the debate, the two-word side wins every time.
Another important point, as we touched on above, is that a negative cannot be used either to create a frame or effectively combat one. Saying "our product contains no saturated fat" doesn't work. You'd think it would because that is a straight-forward statement, easy to understand. But it doesn't. It doesn't work because, first of all, using a negative to express a frame or position creates a negative impression. That's part of what we learn from cognitive linguistics. Another part is that many people will just start associating "saturated fat" with the product rather than remembering it as having no saturated fat.
What has to be done to create a new frame that will counteract an established one is to come up with one that presents your side, your position, or your brand in a positive light. "Pro-choice" does that. It doesn't argue the negative side of being "pro-life"; it presents that new frame of being pro-choice, which is a positive statement.
"Fat-free" is a positive way of expressing that a product contains no fat.
Create the New Frame
In branding, the most effective way to compete with an established brand is also to create a new frame. Hertz may be synonymous with rental cars, but Enterprise is the company that will pick you up. Coca-Cola, long the leader in colas, has been extremely difficult for Pepsi to beat. But once upon a time, Pepsi started to marketed itself as "the choice of a new generation." Remember that? Great framing! That moved Pepsi out of Coke's frame and into its own where Coke was at a disadvantage.
Think about it: Who drinks the most soft drinks? Young people. Pepsi's framing statement had the effect of reframing Coke as the cola for older people. Older people like their parents. Brilliant! The problem was that they could only use that frame for one generation.
More recently, Seven-Up reframed their soft drink as the Un-cola. That moved them out of the non-cola soft drink category into the cola category, by far the most popular one. In terms of sales, there was much more to be had in third place in colas than first place in non-colas.Perhaps the best way to reframe something is to invent a frame that establishes a whole new category that it can own. The term "personal computer" did that, not for any one brand in this case, but for the whole product category. At the time, a "computer" was an unfathomably complex, hugely expensive, room-sized machine. The term, "personal computer," made the new, small machines seem like something regular people could relate to.
When Apple came out with the iPod, they adeptly framed it through design, branding, and marketing. The iPod isn't an "iPod MP3 player." Its framing created for the product an iconic status, completely separate from the rest of the MP3 player market. There is the iPod, then there are all the other devices. Ask kids what they want, they don't say they want an MP3 player, they say they want an iPod.
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