Mark Ritson on Branding: stop all this 'you-centred' branding
A view from Mark Ritson

Mark Ritson on Branding: stop all this 'you-centred' branding

Brands aiming to be whatever the consumer wants will suffer from a resultant lack of identity.

When I was at university, I used to have this terrifically easy-going girlfriend. If I wanted to go out with my college mates for a piss-up, she was fine with it. If I wanted to stay in, eat pizza and watch Match of the Day - she'd smile and agree. It got to the stage where she stopped suggesting things and just went along with whatever I wanted to do.

I often think about her - especially when my wife is telling me to do the recycling. Or changing the channel when I am in the middle of watching Mad Men because Hell's Kitchen is on.

Don't get me wrong. I don't yearn for my former girlfriend - quite the opposite. I remember how bored I was in that relationship and how horribly I behaved. The more pliant my girlfriend, the more lazy and distant I became.

This fact should worry Vodafone, Yahoo! and T-Mobile, because all three brands have repositioned themselves around being whatever you want them to be. Vodafone is spending millions declaring 'Power to you'. Yahoo! is proclaiming: 'There is a new master of the digital universe. You'.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile is launching its myTouch smart-phone by asking consumers to imagine a 'one-of-a-kind phone for your one-of-a-kind life'.

'We are about you,' say these brands. 'Whatever you want, that's what we are.' It's very 'co-creative', 'empowering' and all the other things 22-year-old marketers crap on about.

Unfortunately, it's not going to work, because when you don't stand for any-thing, you get eaten alive by competitors who do. When I met my wife, she had opinions and interests that sometimes clashed with mine. I loved that about her. We are attracted to substance - not vague and open assertions of empowerment and affection. You must represent something specific to a particular segment or you will lose.

Even before Vodafone ramps up its 'empowerment dialogue' with consumers mumbo-jumbo, Tesco is seemingly making fun of it in TV ads that use a tone of voice that is straightforward, on your side, low-cost and unmistakably Tesco. That's the point - be yourself, not whatever anyone wants you to be.

It also won't work because, in my opinion, it bores consumers. Arguing with my wife is infinitely more arousing than my ex-girlfriend's constant acquiescence. When Time magazine tried the empowerment approach in 2006 and declared that its 'Person of the Year' was You - complete with a reflective  cover - it sold poorly compared with editions from earlier years with specific people. 

Equally, it won't work because it will make these companies lazy - just like me in my university days. Saying you will be whatever the consumer wants is very different from knowing what they want and delivering it. It seems to me, one of the big problems of Dell's mass-customisation offer, in which you can build any PC from a range of options, is that it has excused the company from understanding its market. Dell has evolved a big suite of product permutations, a brand that does not stand for anything and a rapidly declining share of a market that is more attracted to better-positioned brands such as HP and Acer, which know what their segments want and offer it to them.

We are all aware of the folly of mass-marketing. Just because it is wearing a 21st-century outfit won't change the outcome. You cannot be all things to all people. The old school of marketing is still the only school that counts: know your consumer. Segment accordingly. Target sparingly. Position specifically. Then have these 'you-centred' empowerment brands for breakfast.

Mark Ritson, PPA columnist of the year (business media), is an associate professor of marketing and consultant to some of the world's biggest brands

30 seconds on...   you-centred brands

  • T-Mobile's myTouch phone features Google's Android software and boasts 'vast personalisation options'. Ads in the US feature celebrities revealing how they have customised the device.
  • 'Power to you' is replacing 'Make the most of now' as Vodafone's strapline, after four years. According to global brand director David Wheldon, the repositioning signals 'Vodafone going to market through dialogue rather than monologue'.
  • The latest Yahoo! campaign also focuses on the user. The tagline states 'It's Y!ou,'while ads claim that, 'The Internet is under new management. Yours'. Yahoo!'s homepage says, 'The web the way "You" want it. It's Y!ou'.
  • In 2006 Time magazine high-lighted the rise in online con-tent and the importance of online communities by making its 'Person of the Year' the everyman. The cover feat-ured an iMac computer with a YouTube-like web page on the screen that was also a metallic strip in which readers could see their reflection. The cover was widely panned.