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When Brand Is A Figment Of Imagination: “About Jenga” (Part 4)

Posted on Sunday, Oct 11th 2009

By Guest Author Leslie Scott

[Leslie wraps up her series of excerpts from her book, "About Jenga: The Remarkable Business of Creating a Game That Became a Household Name."]

Unlike Jenga, not all brands succeed in achieving so close a link between the product being marketed and the image conveyed by a brand mark. Perhaps this is because in many cases, a word or image is chosen to brand a product because of the concept that the word or image already encapsulates, even when there is no cognitive relationship between product and word.

In fact, some very famous examples (Nike for one) exhibit so great a disconnect between the aura of the brand and the specific product it purports to identify as to suggest that some phenomenon subtly different from branding, at least as I have defined branding, may be going on. However, this use of the word branding to label what is in fact the marketing of ethereal ideas rather than tangible goods or services is so widespread that I think perhaps a clear distinction needs to be made between the two.

What distinguishes one type of branding (such as Jenga) from another (such as Nike) is that, while both types may encapsulate and represent the reputation and the character of a product for sale, in the second case the product for sale is, first and foremost, the brand itself. Furthermore, I suggest that companies turn to this form of branding when there is nothing intrinsically unique about the products they sell.

There is little difference, for example, between Nike’s running shoes and those of their competitors. So, to differentiate itself from other shoe companies, Nike created and branded a myth. In ancient Greek mythology, Nike is the winged goddess of strength, speed, and victory. Clearly inspired by the goddess whose name it had adopted as its own, Nike the company set out to establish a mythical world, or society, inhabited by sporting heroes (latter-day gods) such as Michael Jordon, in which ordinary mortals (well, mainly teenage boys) have the opportunity to strive for and win the crown, the victor’s prize, the mark of sweet renown that only Nike can confer. In other words, when you buy Nike shoes, you don’t just buy any old sweaty sneaker or trainer, you buy a passport to Nike’s enchanted world. The only way of gaining access to that particular world, to that particular culture, is by owning and wearing Nike shoes. Nike defines, owns, and sells membership to the club.

This branding of a lifestyle is an astonishingly successful way to sell shoes and, as it turns out, thousands of other products that would be indistinguishable from one another if not for the brand logo they prominently display. Its success, however, rests almost entirely on a company’s ability to keep persuading its customers to keep buying into whatever myth or yarn it continues to spin.

Not all large corporations have had to resort to building their brand’s reputation on a myth. Hasbro, for example, has a huge portfolio of toys and games that includes numerous stand-alone brands: Transformers, GI Joe, Monopoly, Jenga—each brand with its own story and its own character and reputation. The one thing they have in common is that each carries the Hasbro brand and therefore its “seal of approval.” This guarantees that the product will live up to the Hasbro brand’s reputation for quality. As Hasbro’s games executive Phil Jackson says, “The consumer can be confident that a Hasbro toy or game will meet the highest standards of manufacturing in the industry.” In the case of Jenga, this means that consumers can be certain that if they purchase a genuine Jenga game, rather than a knockoff, it will be made from “good wood”: “The wood will come from certified sustainable forests. The wood will be 100 percent non-toxic. The wood will not splinter.”

He adds that “Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro’s Chairman makes sure that Hasbro are leaders in social and environmental responsibilities. As a Hasbro-branded product Jenga, you can be certain, will be made in factories where the health, safety, and welfare of the employees are of paramount importance.”

Whether your brand is corporeal (a game of Jenga) or a figment of imagination (a lifestyle), living up to your reputation is the most powerful tool in the powerful art of branding.

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