The ‘Verbing’ of Brands

Given the intense economic pressures that are challenging the ROI of every marketing decision, changing consumer perceptions of a brand is good, but changing consumer behavior is better. I like to think of it as a shift from the nouning of brands to the verbing of brands.

It wasn’t too long ago that we preoccupied ourselves with what the brand is, obsessing over the USP and actually trying to cement a brand’s position. But today a brand’s success is determined more by how it enhances the consumers’ world through its behavior, which makes it very much a verb.

After all, why would you just deliver a message when you can deliver an experience? A service experience, an entertainment experience, an educational experience, a useful experience. What is a brand doing, not saying, to keep itself relevant, connected, alive?

Interestingly, the most famous new brands to achieve universal awareness and popularity in this decade have always acted as verbs. Brands like Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, Google and Zappos all went from non-existence to household names in record time because they were so useful and readily adopted into the daily lives of consumers.

Part of this shift in perspective from perception to behavior derives from the many new possibilities technology has enabled that turn consumers from passive to active participants in the brand experience. The fact is that there are so many new ways a brand can act to provide consumers a utility, a service or an experience that simply did not exist before.

Here’s an interesting one: Mail Goggles. Mail Goggles is a feature on Google’s Gmail program to help prevent the embarrassment and regret that can come from late-night e-mailing under the influence. If you enable the function, the e-mails you try to send past 10 p.m. will not leave your outbox unless you are first able to perform five simple math problems in 60 seconds. It’s undoubtedly making the world a better place for those who typically pursue passion over reason.

In a world where lean-backwards media such as TV are no longer enough to break through and reach consumers where they work, live and play, consumer engagement has become the dominant paradigm. But, like any paradigm, it’s also a terrible cliché. How many times have we resorted to launching a social network, putting up videos on YouTube or doing clever stunts in Times Square? The fact is, marketing brands as verbs requires a strong strategic approach, just as was required to uncover those USPs of old.

As anyone who has been sprayed without permission by perfume or cologne in a department store can attest, engaging with a brand requires more than reaching out and grabbing a consumer’s attention. (Besides, don’t they know I would never wear any fragrance besides Coco Chanel?) Brands need to put themselves into the minds of their consumers. What can this brand do for me? How can it enable and enrich my life?

Here’s a recent example: the Starbucks Election Day coffee giveaway. Offering a free coffee to Americans on Election Day was a warm and surprising way for the brand to participate in the spirit of the country on a historic day. Not only did it drive positive energy for the brand, but in so doing, it reportedly drove behavior via traffic and ticket too. The mechanism for consumers was simple: all you had to do was ask for it. The investment was relatively small for a national effort, and was largely communicated through traditional means: TV and in-store.

This reminds us that making your brand an active player in your consumer’s life does not always demand the latest and greatest technology platform (although in this initiative, amplification by consumers on the Web certainly helped). It’s really just about taking a big action, in any relevant form, that shapes positive opinion through active involvement.

The first question a marketer should ask when looking at a brand assignment is: What can the brand do to translate its attributes into actions? What behaviors can the brand take to reach its marketing goals? What can the brand do to make itself more relevant, integral, helpful or entertaining to its audience? A simple acid test: Show me, don’t snow me.

It’s not surprising that, in a world of increasing transparency, actions speak louder than words. Brands need to act thoughtfully, tangibly and honestly to live the promises they make … not just talk about them. They need to verb.

Of course, no idea is ever truly a new idea. One of the ad campaigns we developed more than 10 years ago showed us the power that actions have over things. The insight behind the MasterCard “Priceless” campaign was that consumers, deep down, valued experiences more than possessions. The things we buy are simply a means to an end. What we want, all of us, are experiences that matter.

Lori Senecal is president of McCann Erickson, New  York. She can be reached at lori.senecal@mccann.com.