When media covers your brand, they’ll summarize the zeitgeist of your company’s identity with a handful of words that distill what readers or viewers need to know in the most succinct possible form.
For example, a recent article in the New York Times on Volkswagen started with: “Volkswagen, the German automaker, now at the center of a firestorm over its cheating on diesel emissions, . . .” using a sentence between commas to provide context to readers on what Volkswagen does and how they are currently perceived.
For brands regularly covered in the media, the “comma comma” effect refers to the common descriptor that becomes used across multiple media channels as the shape of a public brand forms.
A major newspaper or media provider’s “comma comma” description of your company can be an important gauge of the health of your brand. No matter what words are used to describe your company in a press release or announcement, good journalists will always choose non-promotional descriptive language that reduces your identity to what people really need to know. This independent, and sometimes brutally honest, description can provide a good read on how a company is perceived.
For example, we can look at the “comma comma” description of Volkswagen over the last 73 years to see exactly how the brand has evolved in the eyes of American journalists. Over this period, the New York Times has continually evolved their description of the company as the Volkswagen brand’s role in the world has shifted.
Here are the last 70 years of “comma comma” descriptions of Volkswagen from the New York Times:
- Volkswagen, a small german automobile (1942)
- Volkswagen, a german version of a jeep (1944)
- Volkswagen, the German people’s car that Adolf Hitler promised to his faithful (1945)
- Volkswagen, or “people’s car” (1947)
- Volkswagen, or People’s Automobile (1950)
- Volkswagen, the biggest European producer of low-cost automobiles (1954)
- Volkswagen, the biggest single exporter of cars to the United States (1955)
- Volkswagen, West Germany’s largest exporter (1969)
- Volkswagen, West Germany’s biggest car maker (1984)
- Volkswagen, Europe’s largest auto maker (1993)
- Volkswagen, Europe’s largest car maker (2000)
- Volkswagen, Europe’s largest car maker (2002)
- Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest auto maker (2007)
- Volkswagen, Europe’s largest auto maker (2013)
- Volkswagen, the German automaker, now at the center of a firestorm over its cheating on diesel emissions (2015)
Every marketer and communications professional has a set of messages and attributes that they hope people will think of when they think of their brand. One of the interesting things is to see how often these messages are pulled through in media descriptions of your company. For Volkswagen, the “comma comma” description often included powerful proof points related to the company’s size and clout. In bad times, it framed the company based on its problems.
Since the strength of a brand is also related to the consistency of perception, it can be interesting to look at the way that a brand is described across multiple media channels. If different publications and media providers describe your brand differently, or have trouble understanding what you really do, it’s probably sign of the broader perception challenges your brand is facing.