THE BLOG
07/25/2013 04:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2013

Test of a Great Brand: Does Anybody Hate You?

Some years ago, I was with the CEO of a major multinational telecom company and his top team. The firm had over the past decade spent hundreds of millions on advertising. Yet, to the dismay of the CEO, while brand awareness was very high among the consumers; these same consumers were unable to spontaneously recall what the brand stood for.

I was following a long line of consultants who had been engaged by the firm. My predecessors had made the usual branding presentations with repeated references to famous brands -- yes you guessed it -- Apple, Coca-Cola, Disney, Harley Davidson, Red Bull, and Starbucks. The boardroom had been filled with how these great brands had created such emotional bonds with consumers that they ended up as tattoos on bodies. This led to a discussion of why this firm had failed to generate similar enthusiasm and love among its consumers.

The problem often is that aspiring brands wish to be universally loved. Unfortunately, universal love is neither achievable, nor desirable. Instead, great brands are loved by some and hated by others because they actually stand for something. As a result, to provoke a discussion, I stated that the test of a great brand is "does anybody hate you?" The CEO leapt up to this challenge by screaming "Disney!" My response was "American sap being force fed to our vulnerable children in order to brain wash them and homogenize the wonderful diversity of this world. Sexist fantasy world that simply does not, and should not, exist." In a room of Europeans, this brought immediate smiles to their faces and more than a few nods.

The CEO, used to having the last word, could not resist, "Mercedes Benz." My response: An expensive taxi, classic symbol for those nouveau riche middle aged people who want to scream they have arrived. Would not accept one if given to me free!

The point is that in the desire to sell to everyone, we often lose what makes for a soul of a great brand -- one that stakes out a unique position, which is different from anything else that exists out there. As a result, it attracts a segment of consumers, but is disliked by others. The problem with the mobile industry is that it deals with an intangible service which is largely similar across major players. Most consumers cannot tell the difference between Vodafone and Orange, or AT&T and Verizon in the U.S., beyond the colors and the logos. I suspect neither can the companies. Furthermore, it is consumed in a manner that is invisible to observers. No one can see which operator you subscribe to easily, unlike your Nike shoes. Nor, does having a particular operator enhance your feelings of self as cosmetics do. No wonder consumers love and hate smartphone companies but are relatively indifferent with respect to their operator. And, billions more spent on advertising is probably not going to change that.

If done brilliantly, you can even get those who hate the brand to pay. Consider an old story of Muhammad Ali entering the arena for a fight and the audience immediately started booing. An observer asked how it felt to have all these people here who just wanted to see him lose. He smiled and noted, yes but they still paid to come and see me fight. Muhammad Ali was a great brand!

Of course, if everyone hates you then the brand would not be able to generate enough sales. So the challenge is to strike the right balance. As brands become larger, the need to reach greater numbers of customers makes them less edgy and dilutes their unique positioning as they try to please everyone. It is therefore not surprising to find such brands go into a few years of decline before they are able to reinvent themselves. Think of Burberry's being about more than checked trench coats, Starbucks about being more than coffee, or MacDonald's about being more than cheap and reliable hamburgers.

The telecom company I spoke with continues to pour money into advertising, as in an undifferentiated market, share of voice determines market share. They do what they must to keep up with competition but still struggle to stand for anything.

Next time you encounter a great brand, ask, does anybody hate them?

Nirmalya Kumar is professor of marketing and director of the Aditya Birla India Centre at London Business School. His latest book is Brand Breakout: How Emerging Market Brands Will Go Global with Jan-Benedict Steenkamp.