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I had an interesting experience on my way to PodCamp Toronto that I recorded as audio, but unfortunately, the quality of the audio was less than ideal, so I’m turning it into text. When I first entered Canada (thanks to the folks sitting at the table next to us at dinner for clarifying what Canada was, a former Dominion and now a federal constitutional monarchy – the US is a federal republic), I saw some brands that I completely did not recognize.

What was interesting though, was that other brands that I was familiar with conferred information about the unfamiliar brands. On the drive to Toronto, I first encountered a sign for Tim Hortons almost as soon as I entered the country. I had no idea what Tim Hortons was at all. However, what helped immediately was that it was next to a Wendy’s and McDonald’s logo on the road sign. That instantly communicated that Tim Hortons was a food source of some kind.

In this case, known brands established the function of another brand. While they didn’t necessarily convey any information about the quality of Tim Hortons, it told me enough to know what general function Tim Hortons played.

In another instance, driving along the QEW, I saw a store called Chapters. It was somewhat apparent that Chapters was a bookstore of some kind, but what really made it obvious was the positioning of a Starbucks coffeeshop in the corner of the Chapters. In this case, architecture and design of another brand indicated to me what the main brand was all about, much more so than the name or logo. Christopher Alexander, author of The Timeless Way of Building, calls this a pattern language of architecture – how we use a space defines the space. How bookstores use coffeeshops not only define the coffeeshops, but also define the bookstores.

The most interesting thing to me as a marketer, driving into Canada, was that purely Canadian brands had exactly zero brand equity with me, being an American who doesn’t get out much. As a result, I was being exposed to their brands for the first time, and I took note of what their brands conveyed and how quickly I “got it” with regard to their brands.

In an environment where brands have no equity, no mindshare, functionality is king – the brand name itself has to provide useful information so that I know what it does. On the top of the obvious charts: ScotiaBank (extra props for sponsoring PodCamp), Bank of Montreal, Maple Leaf Foods, Rogers Communications. On the list of brands whose names conveyed no useful information: Leon’s, Tim Hortons, Aviva, Country Style, and Domtar.

If you’re not a brand equity leader, or if you’re the leader with only a certain segment of the population, make sure your brand name conveys useful information in and of itself. Edvisors, Inc. is not as helpful as Student Loan Network or Financial Aid Podcast. Tim Hortons doesn’t say as much as Dunkin Donuts, but says about as much as Starbucks. If you’re in a niche market and looking to expand, think about what your brand says to someone with whom it has no equity – do they know enough to at least inquire about you if they need services in your vertical?

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