I mentioned a few days ago that I'm reading a new marketing book about habits. As I've moved through towards the end of the book, the author has started getting into branding. His argues that branding is really just a way to identify habitual behavior (You pick the Apple computer not because of the brand story, but because of the Apple icon or the expected look and feel of the product). I really think he's on to something, but I want to take it a few steps further.
According to Neale Martin (the author of the book), you have two minds: the "executive" or conscious mind and the "habitual" or unconscious mind. Branding, in my opinion, speaks to both minds. The brand story and general positioning of your products speaks to the executive mind. You connect with your customer on a personal level, creating a sense of comfort and companionship with them. When they first buy your product (a conscious decision) it is up to your brand to deliver on your initial promise.
If you deliver consistently, the customer will eventually pass on the purchase decision to his or her habitual mind. The purchase decision becomes an automated process. At this point, your brand story isn't as important as your product packaging or your ability to deliver on your brand promise. You're trying to retain a customer by keeping him or her operating out of the habitual mindspace.
Buying your product is no longer a decision, but an automatic default choice.
This is why the protection of intellectual property is so vital. A few years ago, a cafe in Japan (Excelsior Coffee) tried to copy the look and feel of the Starbucks logo on it's similarly designed coffee shops. Starbucks sued almost immediately. While Excelsior's logo was not identical to the well-known Starbucks image, it was similar enough to confuse customers. Starbucks invested a great deal in building an automatic purchase habit into the market (You see the sign, you enter the store, you pay $4+ for a coffee, you go home, then you realize you just bought a coffee). They established the customer base, programmed the habit, and built their company on an expected bottom line.
By copying their logo, Excelsior was tapping in to this automated behavior. Customers would see their sign, enter the store, pay $4+ for a coffee, go home, then realize it wasn't a Starbucks experience. Disgruntled and unsatisfied, customers would begin to question their habit and start thinking about their morning coffee purchase. This destroyed Starbucks' well-built customer base in areas of Japan and, even though no one had directly copied them or attacked their business, Excelsior's attempted coattail ride damaged the Starbucks brand.
So, is habit-forming essential to branding? Absolutely! Both when you build the brand and when you try to encourage repeat behavior, buying up habitual mindshare among your customers is vital to the success of your brand!