Two years after Katrina, the FEMA brand is still tainted (as is the brand of the White House and the entire federal government) by the relief efforts that took place after the hurricane. The question is, why? If you look at the White House factsheet (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/08/20070829-1.html) on Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, you see that the government has spent many billions of dollars to assist hurricane victims and strengthen infrastructure against floods, and President Bush and his wife personally visited the area, reinforcing their commitment to help in the recovery.
Yet as recently as yesterday (8/29), on the Oprah Winfrey show, CNN's Anderson Cooper talked about the inadequacy of government efforts to help people in the area, and a story was told of a family suffering continual illness as a result of living in a FEMA trailer.
Clearly there is a disconnect between the efforts being made by the federal government and the experiences and perceptions of the affected citizens of the area. I am not an expert on the situation in New Orleans, but Cooper gave a clue as to what one of the key problems might be: communication by the government to affected individuals. People don't understand where to go for help, said Cooper; the government has left people to figure it out on their own. I didn't watch the whole show (probably like many people, I got just a few bits and pieces), but my impression is that a better communication plan by the government, and FEMA in particular, might help enormously in routing people to the services they need, and in turn improve impressions of the public regarding what the government is doing to help.
This is a good example of how simply throwing money at a problem does not necessarily help. Because separately from relief funding, what is called for is a coordinated brand campaign demonstrating what has been done, what the remaining needs are, and what the plan is for closing the gap. (Yes, that will cost money too.) It's not just a communication plan, but a brand communication plan, because it affects the entire image of the White House, the federal government, and FEMA. Not only that, but there should be some sort of listening mechanism, if there isn't one already, instituted by the government to pay heed to what affected citizens have to say about their experiences obtaining relief. At a minimum, every call and email should be acknowledged; optimally, incoming cases would be managed from beginning to end to make sure that every last citizen is being taken care of.
Brand is a promise made and delivered. More can be done to communicate to citizens how the promises associated with Katrina are being handled effectively—and what is being done to improve things where they're not.
Does this kind of payment system make branding sense? On the one hand, notes the article, "the marketing buzz such a scheme generates can help a business stand out from the pack." On the other, I think, having a no-price payment system, with a unique selling proposition that involves feeding the poor, makes the whole thing seem like a soup kitchen. That is not an appealing image.
The success of this kind of business depends on finding the right kind of customer, as the article notes, "one who understands the concept and, therefore, contributes appropriately." Apparently there are those kind of customers out there in states like Washington, Utah, and Colorado. But I'm not at all sure that the model extends to urban metropolitan centers like New York, which is where One World Cafe founder Denise Cerreta plans to open a pay-what-you-want cafe. You never know--but it seems unlikely to me that the model will gain mainstream traction.
The answer is, it depends. Certainly it fills a need for both Schrager and Marriott. As the article notes, the partnership will instantly put Schrager "in his rightful place as a major player in the lifestyle market segment and in the longer term will position him to build a mass customer base for his innovations, a la Apple, Nike, and Sony." As for Marriott, though it "has $12 billion in annual sales worldwide...the company is notably absent in the boutique segment."
But does the partnership fill a need for the hotel-going customer? This, I think, depends on how well the plan is executed. As the article notes, Schrager is "obsessive about details" that can seem quirky, like leaving the lights dim or putting "stylish" notepads in each room, while Marriott is more "mainstream" and cost-conscious--the lights will likely be brighter for safety reasons and the notepads may be too expensive.
How will they collaborate? Which brand will have the larger share of voice, if you will? And which customer will they serve--the potential Marriott customer looking for a boutique-like experience or the boutique customer looking for a more Marriott-like experience? My guess is that it's the former--which means that Marriott will need to let Schrager's voice be heard loudly and clearly in order to have an impact.
Here are some other similarities - drawing from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion) as the source; my thoughts in bullets.
"Religion is a set of common beliefs and practices generally held by a group of people....Religion also encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience."
- Strong brands prescribe a set of values and practices (use of the product or service)
- Strong brands have traditions and myths associated with them
"In the frame of...European religious thought, religions present a common quality, the "hallmark of patriarchal religious thought": the division of the world in two comprehensive domains, one sacred, the other profane."
- Strong brands divide the world up into the sacred (those who use the brand) and the profane (those who don't)
"Religion is also often described as a 'way of life.'"
- The brands that people are loyal to often describe their way of life
"'Religion' is sometimes used interchangeably with 'faith' or 'belief system,' but is more socially defined than that of personal convictions."
- Brands are used by individuals but their meaning is defined socially.
Some people believe that it is the opposite - the consumers assign the brand its meaning first and then the brand manager facilitates that co-creation between the customer and the brand. ("Classic marketing.") That may indeed happen.
But 9 times out of 10, when you are dealing with a strong brand, you are dealing with a brand where the owner had a vision for what it would mean and then imparted that vision to the outside world. Target, Starbucks, Nike, Microsoft, Oprah - all of these and more are examples of "classic branding."
It is true that "classic marketing" appears to be on the rise with Internet brands like YouTube and Google -- where the customer's input shapes the presentation of the brand nearly completely.
However, brands that endure impart an idea to the public and then keep the public engaged with the brand over time - it is not easy to create a substitute for them. That is what branding is all about - establishing a strong, distinctive meaning that customers can then work into their lives as an enduring symbol of something that matters to them.