"Segway's a good product, but not a strong brand for that reason," he said.
The message was part of a conversation in the packed Manhattan Grand Hyatt convention hall on the benefits of simplicity in building a brand and why companies like Apple and Google or Timberland, for that matter, succeed by simplifying consumer choices and the brand's own proposition. "If the brand doesn't make it easy, it won't work."
Speaking at yesterday's Association of National Advertisers Conference, Adamson argued that a brand can be successful if that formula is reversed, but the best brands are blessed with both relevance and differentiation.
"The most common pattern we see is companies who have strong awareness, nonetheless continuously worried about awareness, who do things like get stadium-naming rights. They focus on that because it's easy to do," he said. "Dealing with the issue of differentiation and how to deliver it is complex and hard to execute."
The problem, he said, is that few companies are able to boil down their brand and what makes it different to a few simple words. "We'll sit down with a CEO and ask what the company does that's different, and we may get something like 'innovation.' That's a popular word these days. When we speak to the executive board of that company and ask them what innovation means, we'll get twelve different answers."
He said developing the brand's identity in simple terms and then creating a symbol and/or a compelling phrase defining it is critical not just for consumers but for employees, too--because it is clear and unambiguous, and therefore a kind of "veni, vidi, vici" for company workers, particularly those who deal with consumers.
"Once you get to where your story is, you need then to get it simple, if you can't get it down to simple idea it won't stick," he said. "If you have a brand promise, and you have dozens or hundreds who are supposed to be delivering that promise, you will never succeed ... if there's no clear, simple sense of what the customer journey is."
Examples of successful brand ideas: BP's "Beyond Petroleum" mantra; H.R. Block's "Friendly enabler" positioning. "You need to deliver that promise along consumer touchpoints, but the most successful brands choose their touch points carefully," he said. "Figure out where you want to win, and make sure you do that."
He said a simple and clear brand premise--one that argues that a brand is different from its competitors--starts with something that isn't fulfilled by what's out there already. "I always think that Jerry Seinfeld would be great at branding because he always asks the question, 'Do you ever wonder why?' You have to get to the 'ever wonder why' phrase," he said.
As an example, he illustrated how Timberland's rise from no-name boot brand to fashion accessory and one of the best-known work boot brands came from an observation by CEO Jeff Swartz.
"He bought a shoe company in Maine, was doing pretty well--some years were good, some bad, but he couldn't grow the business. One day he got out of a car, stepped in a puddle and said, "Why can't I do a waterproof shoe?' The company designed it, came up with the name Timberland."
Adamson also gave a nod to Bose headphones, Baby Einstein and FedEx (with its brand premise of absolute certainty) as companies that are successfully tapping a core consumer insight. And Mazda.
"I spoke with Mark Fields [EVP/Ford Motor, and president, Americas] as part of BrandSimple [Adamson's book on branding, published last September by Palgrave/Macmillan]. We talked about how he helped turn Mazda around with the 'Zoom Zoom' campaign, but he also worked with Mazda product people to deliver everything from 'Zoom Zoom' brakes to windshield wipers. Now you see him trying to do the same thing with the Ford brand."
Fields, who had been president and CEO of Ford's Mazda unit, is counting on Ford's "Bold Moves" campaign to work the same magic in support of new vehicles like the Edge crossover.
"When you do make the promise, if the product isn't delivering on the promise the advertising becomes risky. I know Ford is under pressure to turn things around fast, but often getting out there too soon, especially when there's a disconnect between brand marketing and product, can hurt rather than help," said Adamson.