I have this art project thing that has been rattling around in the back of my head for years and I guess, when I have some spare time (Yeah, like, what’s that?) I might get around to looking at it again. It adopts a utilitarian icon that years ago everybody in the UK had, and highlights how these things mirror the development of our individual characters. The reason I have brought this up here is that this is not just about human character development, but the character of all living things, which, to me, and I hope to you, includes brands.

When I was a kid in the UK everyone had a pressed steel dustbin (trash-can, garbage can – insert as appropriate) that they kept outside their house and one of the distinctive sounds of my childhood was that of steel dustbins banging on the edge of the bin-men’s trailer when each week they came to empty the bins and haul the rubbish (trash, garbage) away. These days its all plastic wheelie-bins and automated heists and the music is less interesting.

Actually, these bins were multi-purpose and perhaps their most popular application, next to keeping rubbish in them, was as football (soccer) goal posts. We kids used to stand them up in the street to mark the soccer goal. Being kids, of course, we rarely returned them to their rightful place and so they were variously hit by cars or knocked over by drunks that didn’t see them in time. They were also dented as the bin men dumped the rubbish over the side of their truck.

trashcan3.jpgSome folks painted their bins and I am aware that there are projects by students and artists in cities around the world even now where rubbish bins in public places have been decorated too. In the UK at least some people added their house number to them (in case they were stolen, I guess!) and the lids, which were also steel received the same treatment. Over their lifetime, these various encounters gave each bin an individual character – just as all other living things (and I include brands among them) are influenced by events that happen to and around them. So, that’s where my idea to adopt dustbins as my icon came from. The only trouble was, that when I got down to the execution … Yes, you are ahead of me … there were no old bashed-up bins to be found. Back to the drawing board on that one then!

So, what has this to do with anything? Well, as I said, brands work in exactly the same way. A brand character is not a rigid, one-time only tablet of stone, it evolves just like you and me. We can change our views in response to stimuli, events and the actions of others and brands, partly because they are our communities too, do the same.

Like the street where we live the nature of a brand community is influenced by the individual character, values, opinions of its inhabitants at any one time, and people will come and go. Its also influenced by what competitors do, like introducing new features, as well as by political actions. The current most powerful political influences are things like GM, global warming, carbon neutrality, sustainable living, vivisection, the green issue, third-world debt, exploitation and fair trade, which brands like Starbucks have adopted as an element of their own brand character.

Its vital for any brand manager to have a finger on the pulse of what their community members (their customers, suppliers, investors, distributors etc.) believe is important. If you don’t, you’ll lose existing community members. Its also important to know what’s buzzing in the world outside of your community so that you can reach out to potential new members with whom you might have some affinity.Good marketing is always interactive and good brand stewardship is about listening and responding to your brand community, which is why good brands stay topical and popular and in a constant state of change. Its also why, over time great brands evolve distinct, vivid characters, just like a dustbin (trash-can)!

trashcan1.jpgPostscript: If you bump into a steel dustbin that you feel has character, by all means, snap a photo and send it to me. I’ll reserve the right to publish it in whatever way I see fit of course, but I’ll promise to credit you if I use your picture anywhere. If the numbers justify it and the quality is there, maybe we can create a gallery! Watch this space.

Michael Weaver
March 6, 2008

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