What Azerbaijan’s New Taxis Can Teach Us About Branding

A businessman recently asked me:  What does branding mean?

It was an unexpected question coming from a sharp guy, late at night, and although I’ve practiced and championed branding for many years, it was difficult to boil it down for quick understanding.

Photo: London Taxi in Baku, Azerbaijan. http://www.news.az

I thought back to that question when I read about the success The London Taxi Company is having in Azerbaijan.  Yes, that’s right.  Azerbaijan.

First, some background.  If you’ve never had a chance to ride in a real London taxi, you’ve missed a cool experience.  Spacious, distinctive, elegant and super clean are some top-of-mind adjectives.  Most importantly, it’s the look, that iconic design that instantly conveys what that vehicle is all about.  See for yourself in this video.

For a number of reasons, the Azerbaijan government wanted to change its taxi system.  Paul Sonne, writing in The Wall Street Journal, explained:

For decades, Baku and other former-Soviet capitals have been dominated by unmarked, unlicensed cabs that dwellers hail like hitchhikers. The cars are mostly old, cheap Russian-made vehicles resembling toaster ovens on wheels. Passengers endure a fare negotiation that is based on everything from a journey’s distance to the passenger’s good looks. Starting May 1, however, Azerbaijan officially banned all Russian-made cars from serving as taxis in Baku. Rising instead is Azerbaijan’s dream of becoming a country with a metered taxi service.

I was most interested in why the London taxi was selected.  It was a personal decision by Azerbaijan’s president, after viewing an assembly of vehicles from international manufacturers in late 201o:

“All the vehicles were on display, including the London taxis, and the president looks at them and says: ‘Those are the vehicles I want. Those are a taxi to me.’ ”  [emphasis added]  (The quote is from a member of The London Taxi Company, reported by the WSJ’s Sonne.)

You want a definition of branding?  It doesn’t get any better than:  “Those are a taxi to me!”

In case you want something more academic, here’s a good, basic definition of branding from the American Marketing Association:

A name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.

And, here’s a more advanced definition that I created with help from a colleague for a major consumer products client a while back:

The product name has equity, a different meaning and or possesses a specific identity to the consumer.  A clear and unique relationship with the consumer…AND

The product line/service has an identity and personality; and the brand stands for something recognizable and tangible in the mind of the consumer…AND

The consumer (or end-user) references the product by its product name (e.g., “Google it“)

Back to Azerbaijan and its taxis.  The rest of the story is that 1,000 taxis have been purchased with plans to obtain another 3,000.  London Taxi is even providing training to the local drivers.  And, by the way, the color isn’t black, it’s a purple, eggplant color.  Hey, that’s what happens in global marketing – local customization.  It’s a good thing.

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The next time someone asks you to define branding, tell the story about how Azerbaijan selected the iconic London taxi for its fleet modernization.  That’s all you really need to know.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.

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