For almost 60 years, Marlboro has successfully pinned its brand to the image of the western cowboy, a rugged individualist that resonates as American and independent, and boils down to the most basic and appealing characteristic of a macho man. Cowboys smoke Marlboros and so do other tough guys. The brand has presented a never-ending parade of cowpunchers in scenes at the corral, out on the range, sitting around the campfire. All the while, a Marlboro cigarette dangles from their lips or is held casually in a crooked finger.
The Marlboro Man is one of the most tangible of all branding figures, and yet, despite all the leather and branding irons, he is completely synthetic. Marlboro’s name comes from a street in London. Prior to 1954, the cigarette was marketed to women with the slogan “Mild as May.” The cowboy imagery was originally conceived to change the perception of the brand that, as a filtered cigarette, it was made for women. The Marlboro Man isn’t real. Which begs the question: So what?
Häagen-Dazs is great American success story. Its founders wanted to create a brand that sounded foreign, specifically Danish, and came up with the name Häagen-Dazs. It wasn’t important that the Danish language does not have umlauts or combinations of ‘z’ and ‘s.’ Though the brand’s story is of two entrepreneurs creating a huge brand, its DNA, like Marlboro’s, is largely synthetic.
Some brands go so far as to hide their DNA. Lexus makes no connections in its marketing to its Toyota lineage. When Daimler owned Chrysler, they talked of bringing German engineering to the U.S., but there as nary a peep in Germany about bringing U.S. technology to the Mercedes brand. Verboten, more like it. As with many phenomena, branding only flows downhill.
So does a brand need an authentic backstory to be successful? I submit that it does not. Coke vs. Pepsi is a great example. You likely have heard of Dr. Pemberton, the inventor of the original Coca-Cola product. Dr. Pemberton is not the center of the Coke brand (the joy of life is), but he is present on the home page of their website and has been over the years. Heard of Caleb Bradham? Even my dog has guessed by now that he must have something to do with Pepsi, and, indeed, he invented the drink in his drugstore in 1893 and originally called it, “Brad’s Drink.” Pepsi gets its name from “pepsin,” a digestive enzyme which, at the time of the name change in 1902, was intended to position it as a tonic that was good for the gut. While Coke’s history is readily available on their website, none of this Pepsi backstory can be found on their site among the pop-culture figures, tweets and promotions.
Coke is the bigger beverage brand overall, but Pepsi does quite well with a very different approach to their DNA. And, certainly, a compelling story can drive a brand’s success. Perrier comes from underground French springs and is naturally carbonated. That’s powerful stuff that commands a premium price.
One argument is that older brands may be able to get away with made-up or murky histories, but in this new age of transparency, driven by the Internet’s supposed searing bright lights of truth, no new brand could give us a wink and ask us to play along with them. But, while we know a little about the background of Facebook because the movie “The Social Network” told us about it, what can you tell me about the DNA of other recently formed brands like Google or Yahoo? Not much, even though you likely used one or the other just ten minutes ago.
Which is not to say that a brand can claim anything it would like in order to create the image it desires. Häagen-Dazs still has to put out a great-tasting product to create a satisfactory experience. Lexus has to consistently build very high-quality cars. But, the reality is, when a brand like Pepsi or Google says, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” their customers are likely to say, “What man? What curtain?” Their perceptions of the brand don’t necessarily depend on an in-depth knowledge of its actual history. Which is just how many brands like it.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal.