Byline: Lisa Lockwood

NEW YORK — “Brands don’t belong to corporations. They belong to people. People are voting with their wallets.”
So says Marc Gobe, author of the new book, “Emotional Branding,” (Allworth Press) who believes that the most successful brands connect with people on a personal and holistic level.
In a recent interview, Gobe, who’s also president, chief executive officer and executive creative director of d/g* worldwide, a brand image creation firm here, said successful brands such as Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, Wal-Mart and Victoria’s Secret have forged a powerful bond with their customers.
“Great brands have built in their communication as a reflection of a very unique corporate culture. Brands have lifestyles like people. Some are being born; some are growing and evolving, and some brands are maturing.
“The hardest thing for a corporation is to reevaluate a brand when the brand is doing well,” he said. As an example, he cited Victoria’s Secret, which six to seven years ago decided to change its direction.
“It was very English and very Victorian. Business was growing in a very positive way. They made a decision to reposition the brand to younger customers with more sexiness and a connection with supermodels.” He called it a very successful move.
Gobe believes that brands need to be targeted in their communications and can’t appeal to everyone.
“The age of mass communications is not appropriate anymore. You’ve got to target your particular group of customers.” He said the challenge of branding is that by the year 2004, there will be 2,000 TV channels, 18,000 magazines and 44 local radio stations, versus 1960 when there were only four TV channels, 4,500 magazines and 18 local radio stations.
“If you add all the promotional devices and posters we are bombarded with, it’s an unheard of amount of material trying to get our attention and trying to make us think about their particular product and their particular brand. It creates huge pressure for corporations to stand out.
“If you’re targeting teenage groups, you have to speak their language,” he continued. He pointed to the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, featuring provocative shots of college-age men and women, which he called “pretty hot.”
“I have a daughter in college and she looked at it with some other students. There’s a total connect,” he added.
Describing the situation last year when many dot-com companies tried to build a brand overnight, he observed, “It was a big misconception in the area of branding. People think branding is about awareness only. Awareness is only part of the equation. Branding is building a level of trust and dialog with your customers. You can buy awareness but you can’t buy the customer’s heart. Dot-coms thought by throwing millions into venues like the Super Bowl, they would buy branding status. It doesn’t work, not in three months.”
Gobe also noted that some brands may be hot today, but cool tomorrow.
The Gap, for example, “is very consistent with its message, but I don’t think they’ve ever been able to transcend the product to communicate more emotion.
“My perception of the Gap is it’s a store where you can find very quickly basic items. I don’t make them a destination. They have limitations in their offerings. Their communication has this kind of rigidity.” For example, he said the “West Side Story” campaign didn’t exude a great sensuality. “It’s very posed, very stiff. Almost like a brand trying too hard.”
Asked why Levi’s is having such a hard time honing its image, he said, “Levi’s had the best image and brand anybody could have. Outside the U.S. people pay a premium to get Levi’s. Levi’s has a rich history and an emotional heritage. But they’ve never been able to bring a fashion component to the equation. They missed out on women’s opportunities. Brands like Guess delivered what people wanted.
“Look at a powerful brand like Dior. It took a lot of courage for Bernard Arnault to hire John Galliano and say ‘give that brand life.’ Galliano has a tremendous sense of style and has brought to life a brand that was perceived as old. What’s missing for a lot of brands that can’t get to the next level is an element of creativity and commitment to creativity,” he added.
He said brands that have connected emotionally have three interesting elements. “One is a powerful culture. They’re not retailers of clothing, but providers of lifestyles. They offer unique experiences and almost help people enjoy their life more. Two, they express very visual and unique vocabularies, and three, they create emotional connections with messages that make people want to love their product.”
He pointed to Target’s success in connecting with its customer.
“They suddenly realized they could reinvent mass, and be something people could enjoy. They understood the difference between mass and class. And people of all means buy in all forms of distribution. They took the challenge by offering people goods they could feel good about. They expressed it with graphic language that was very unique and appropriate to them — the logo. There was an emotional connection and respect.”
He recalled that 10 to 15 years ago, people used to go to mass market outlets, and it gave them the message, “You’re poor. The environment is really bad and the products are bad.”
He pointed out that Wal-Mart understands the importance of being part of the community and helping people with their lives. “That’s the emotional connection,” he added.
Some brands, he said, have successfully kept their status for years, such as Tiffany and Hermes. “Luxury brands have the discipline and tradition to nurture and protect their brands,” he said.
He believes Liz Claiborne, which didn’t do any advertising in its first 10 years of business, had a good thing going.
“It was better without advertising. Liz [Claiborne] at the time was the personality behind the brand and people talked about her. There was a lot of credibility coming from her,” said Gobe.
When he did work for Ann Taylor, he said he tried to “emotionalize Ann Taylor as a person.”
“People want to feel that there’s this human aspect, even if it’s not totally there. We’re living in a society where we have less time for ourselves, and it’s extremely demanding and stressful. People want to have moments in their lives they feel good about. They’re willing to interact with stores that can transport them to a different place.”
Overall, Gobe believes that department stores have lost that magical feeling.
“I think department stores have forgotten that they need to be places where people can have imaginative and outstanding experiences. The last department store that did that was Bloomingdale’s under Marvin Traub. It was a destination. People felt good about spending time there and people could discover the unexpected. Marvin Traub was a genius. Department stores used to be incubators of new ideas and new brands. Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein were all launched by department stores.
“They brought their genius and creativity and exposure to people.” Now, however, “they still have the same brands, the same formats, still the same presentation. The pressure of shopping at a department store is greater than the excitement.”
Asked why the Internet isn’t catching on as a shopping site for teenagers, Gobe responded, “I’ve talked to teens and Generation Y and their sentiment is that the Internet is like the telephone for the baby boomers. There’s no magic, no excitement; it’s to find information and buy books quickly. In terms of shopping, they prefer to visit stores with friends and have a good time.”
He believes that online advertising is so new and there are so many limitations because of the bandwidths. He believes that Tommy Hilfiger does a good job with his series of communications online.
“I do believe that communication through ‘advertising only’ is dead. Technology, if integrated, can be a tremendous opportunity to reach people with the right message. People prefer to communicate on a personal level.
“Technology will evolve the paradigm. The new job that hasn’t been created yet is brand marketing integrator, someone who understands New Media, traditional media and retail.”
Finally, the age-old question, does sexy advertising sell merchandise?
“I think sex sells and always has,” said Gobe. “The difference today is sex is not used only by men to attract potential buyers. It’s an expression of a woman’s right to express herself in her assertiveness and in being real.”