For many product categories, a brand’s products leave a deep, indelible imprint on the mind. I call it ‘physique’, drawing upon similar usage in the literature. It is a powerful stamp, often a defining one for some brands, more so than its logo or name. Its power comes from our automatic, helpless response to it, which precedes any formal or rational thinking. The idea is introduced more fully in my previous post.

Since physique is defining for some brands, it can be seen as a constraint. Of course constraints can be beautiful, in that they guide us to solutions by eliminating distractions. Automobiles are certainly a case in point. The size and design of many cars (or trucks or earthmovers) impacts their brand’s personality; so can the physique of an industry (what images flashes in your mind when you hear ‘iron and steel’?) Here are three paths along which to think.

1. Brand Architecture

Physique, in this sense, is a subtle, powerful aspect of a brand that’s underweighted when brand architectures are built, and brands are mapped to products. At a guess, it’s the rational considerations that rule, such as category, price bands, and the like. So if we’re talking cars, then an automobile is an automobile is an automobile.

Born Small: India’s Big Little Car

Consider that Maruti, India’s most successful car maker, has hardly ever succeeded in the upper segment of longer, plusher cars  (its Grand Vitara, Kizashi and Baleno Altura hardly rolled). You could explain that by its initial offerings: light, economy oriented, with strongly utilitarian propositions. Indeed, this is also an example of primacy at work (the information registered first takes precedence over others). Or, you could consider its physique as India’s very own first “small car”. The image of the little Maruti that brought motoring to India in a mass sense, still rules the mind (800, Alto, Wagon R and more). Maruti is a giant in a child’s physique.

Maruti is a giant in a child’s physique.

I believe that Tata Motors’ Indica and Indigo suffered in a similar way to the Logan when they came out. Early quality issues (noise, vibration, harshness or NVH in the trade jargon) were popularly attributed to its trucks heritage. That same heritage which may have cast a favourable halo on the Sumo, a match of physique.

2. Naming, Design and Looking After Your Physique

Tata’s physique (massive, grey, smoky, industrial, ‘national’) is embedded in our minds by the physique of Tata Steel, and from there carries over to Tata Motors. In the psychological sense Tata is not much of a lifestyle proposition, despite the corporate brand’s famous stretch across a bunch of categories. So what does Tata do when it launches fine, elegant products like jewellery, watches or deluxe hotels? It names them Tanishq, Titan and Taj. Likewise, in FMCG/lifestyle, with Himalaya mineral water, or in its JV with Starbucks or Docomo, it needs to be careful how much visibility, and of what kind, the Tata name can enjoy. In Tata Sky, Sky gets its own styling while appearing next to Tata. This range of design solutions illustrates a visual architecture at work, and that’s deft management for you—so far.

This range of design solutions illustrates a visual architecture at work, and that’s deft management for you—so far.

3. Physique is an Asset

An asset, by definition, can be transferred. Physique can be seen as an asset, and transferred. The brand Caterpillar is a great example of transference of physique (again a super rugged one) from earth moving equipment to fashion. It was beautifully accomplished and, at this time, the physique connection is evident and successful. 

Next: But what’s an honest brand to do to escape its physique, if it can’t harness it, like Caterpillar?