brand_imageI WAS fascinated by Professor Christo Boshoff’s assertion in a recent article that “consumers do not care when brands get ripped off”. This followed, reportedly, a study done through some “neurophysiological methods” to test subconscious responses of consumers.

His research is said to be the first to shed some light on consumers’ emotional responses to so-called brand tarnishment.

In the article, the Stellenbosch University Department of Business Management professor argues that “big businesses that feel slighted that their logos have been ripped off on a quirky T-shirt do not need to go to court to try and save face. No financial harm will come to them, because consumers actually show little reaction to attempts to tarnish a brand”.

He makes reference to a number of recent incidents in which disgruntled consumers, frustrated by poor or lack of response from the companies concerned, went on to design alternative logos of those companies, often with bylines communicating their frustrations. The most recent of these were targeted at Cell C, which went to court and lost; and to FNB.

I beg to differ with the distinguished professor on what he refers to as “brands”. Like many people in this country, he seems to confuse “logos” with “brands”.

These two are not the same thing. A logo is a visual representation of a brand. If we think of brands in terms of “icebergs”, logos would be the visible part of the iceberg. The submerged part of the iceberg is more important, as that it where the brand is defined. The soul, the values, the raison d’être, the unique offering, etc. of a brand resides in the submerged/invisible part of the iceberg.

“Tarnishing” a logo is one thing, but a brand that is tarnished risks losing support from stakeholders. Consumers will abandon a brand if, in their perception and  experience, it no longer represents the service quality and values that they have come to be accustomed to and to love over time.

When respected brands stop caring for their customers; when they start delivering sub-standard goods and services; when they start messing with the environment; when they display disregard for the rights of animals and human communities in parts of the world where they source raw materials and other supplies; their customers and other stakeholders will take notice and stop supporting them.

These are fundamental sine qua non conditions that assure brands of the goodwill and patronage they enjoy.

The “brand tarnishment” referred to by Professor Boshoff is only skin deep because it seems to only refer to an aspect of the brand that doesn’t change its fundamental values. Logos change all the time and people make fun of them often.

A good example is the recently changed logo of the City of Cape Town. For the taxpayer money the city authorities spent on it, it is as ugly as they come and has no immediate reference to what Cape Town stands for. Unlike its predecessor, the new logo has to be explained first before whatever it is meant to depict becomes clear; if it ever does! But we’re all learning to live with it.

But the fundamental attributes of the City of Cape Town – politics aside – have not changed. And this is what matters to consumers/residents. Compared to other cities in South Africa, the Mother City is still generally perceived – in as far as perceptions go – as a city that works for its citizens; where services are delivered and where, on the whole, citizens are happier than elsewhere in the country.  And this is not a political view of brand Cape Town.

The professor further argues that “consumers are wise enough to be able to differentiate between different forms of tarnishment, and seem to, in particular, not frown upon examples that involve social commentary. This may be because the consumer agrees with the commentary provided, or may even find it mildly amusing and not of a serious nature”. He uses this observation to conclude that the results add credence to calls to restrict the legal protection of trademarks.

In terms of criticism of brands on social media platforms, the professor believes that “business firms will simply have to learn to deal with being ripped-off by their competitors and by the customers of their competitors”.

He quickly adds, and I agree, that “the right response to brand tarnishment can create a sense of fun, raise interest in a brand, and demonstrate that a brand is more than just a logo, and that it can be an elusive, priceless phenomenon with real personality.

But my argument stays: brands can get away with tarnished logos, but they will need much more than fancy advertisement and press releases – irrespective of their length – if their core being gets seriously tarnished.

Go on, ask Eskom!

*Written for*