A few years ago, I was with the Chief Executive Officer of a major multinational telecom company and his top team. The firm had, over the past decade, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising. Yet, to the dismay of the Chief Executive Officer, 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 people’s bodies. This led to a discussion about why this firm had failed to generate similar enthusiasm and love among its consumers.

Quest for love

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. To provoke a discussion, I stated that the test of a great brand is “does anybody hate you?”

The Chief Executive Officer leapt up to this challenge by screaming “Disney!” My response was “American sap being force-fed to our vulnerable children to brainwash them and homogenise the wonderful diversity of this world. Sexist fantasy world that simply does not, and should not, exist”. It was a room of Europeans and this brought immediate smiles to their faces and more than a few nods.

The Chief Executive Officer, used to the last word, and being German, could not resist, and said “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 for free!”

The point is that in the desire to sell to everyone, we often lose what makes for the 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 telecom industry is that it deals with an intangible service that is largely similar across major players. Most consumers cannot tell the difference between Vodafone and Orange, or AT&T and Verizon in the US, beyond the colours 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 then that consumers love and hate smartphone companies but are relatively indifferent with respect to their telecom service providers. And billions more spent on advertising by these providers is probably not going to change that.

Muhammed Ali the brand

If done brilliantly, you can even get those who hate the brand to pay.

Consider an old story. The boxing legend Muhammad Ali once entered the arena for a fight and the audience immediately started booing. An observer asked Ali how it felt to have all these people out there 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 will 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 McDonald’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 the competition but still struggle to stand for anything.

Next time you encounter a great brand, ask, “Does anybody hate them?”


I wrote the piece above some time ago, and recent events have led me to reflect into writing this addendum.

The argument that I conceptualised for brands also applies to people. If a person is universally loved, one should be suspicious. Have they ever taken a stand? Have they ever fought for an unpopular or inconvenient cause? Has this been achieved because of their desire to please everyone and be ingratiating? In the future, my antenna will be up when I encounter such a person, and would not trust them. And, I now also have an answer to the question I faced this week: “Why do people have such extreme reactions to you.”

Though I do wonder and worry if age and experience are having the unfortunate effect of turning me into a cynic.

Nirmalya Kumar is a visiting professor of marketing and London Business School and distinguished Fellow at INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute.