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Great Brands Just Say “No”
by Claude Singer


People have observed that a baby’s first word is often “no.” A friend of mine says that his baby son’s first complete phrase was, “No way.”

“No” is such a common first utterance because babies are constantly fussed with, propped up, and wrapped up. Adults badger them with objects to bat, suck, get into, and swallow. Under such ceaseless demands, no wonder the little critters communicate defiance. “No” is a primitive declaration of one’s personal freedom.

The marketing world’s term for independence is brand differentiation. Brand differentiation separates a company or product from the pack. It presents a different point of view, a style or voice that customers can notice and favor.

What’s significant is: Achieving brand differentiation is, to a large degree, a daily exercise in saying no. No to fads and conformity; no to temptations to wander from a brand’s core; no to departures from what makes a brand great.

Sometimes it’s “We won’t sell that,” as when the 100 year-old Bartlett Tree Experts won’t lop off the top of a mature tree or treat a tree that’s clearly dying. Even if customers want to pay for such futile or destructive work, Bartlett refuses because the company has a single-minded purpose of maintaining healthy trees.

Sometimes “no” comes in the form of, “We won’t buy that,” as when CIGNA was tempted to buy a large managed care company several years ago. CIGNA executives pored over issues of financial and strategic fit. But one matter proved decisive: The offered company did not – in its culture, policies, or reputation – have anything close to CIGNA’s brand values as captured in the tag-line, “A Business of Caring.”

And sometimes it’s a matter of, “We won’t go there,” as when one of the dominant figures in the building of McKinsey rejected plan after plan to remake the firm into something it wasn’t. Marvin Bower, called by The New York Times the man most responsible for McKinsey’s preeminence, opposed taking the firm public, even though it would have enriched the partners. He said no to mixing consulting and accounting. He even said no to the powerful industrialist Howard Hughes, whom he didn’t think was an appropriate client.

A brand is a promise to perform at a certain level of quality, and brand stewards who can’t say no may hurt a brand’s credibility. The classic case was Coke’s plan to scrap a century-old recipe and produce New Coke. What a terrific idea! A simple no to the scheme would have saved Coke millions of dollars and heaps of embarrassment.

The dot-com boom was a brief, intense age of excess yeses. There always seemed to be a euphoric yes to businesses, brands, and ads that should have been sagely rejected with an infant’s “no way.”

And finally, we have Wall Street, where denizens have choked down the lesson of over-accommodation. Financial firms said yes to privileged clients who wanted to make late trades; yes to corporate clients who wanted unfriendly research squelched; yes to shady schemes to deceive investors; and yes to fund companies who paid for steering individuals their way.

Yes to this, yes to that, yes, yes, yes. Millions of dollars in fines later, these firms would do well to reconsider their basic brand values. Time to define who they are, what they stand for, and when the right answer is simply no.

But how can you tell whether an idea is promising or not? That’s where understanding your brand becomes critical. Organizations with strong, driving brands have a filter, a template for making decisions. They’ve asked the hard questions: Who are we at our core? What’s expected of us? How do we create value and what do we do that people would miss if we were gone?

If you can answer these questions correctly, you too will have a foundation for making the right decisions.

Last year the CEO of BMW told The Wall Street Journal that, when it comes to maintaining a brand, “The biggest task is to be able to say, No. When something doesn't fit, you must make sure that that it is not done.” The example he gave was clear: “We don't have a van because a van as it is in the market today does not fulfill any of the BMW group brand values. We all as a team said no. We will not bring a van.”

So there it is. A tough question is asked. Shall we bring a van? A New Coke? An accounting division? The answer – as with great brands that are well defined – is often a resounding “Nein!”


The Author

Claude Singer is senior vice president at Siegel & Gale, the brand strategy and implementation firm owned by Omnicom. He can be reached at Visit for additional information.

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