I’ve always been amazed by how the pendulum of time pulls things in and out of fashion – how things that were once widely accepted as good an important, are suddenly shelved, only to become front and center again a few years later.
I’m not talking about hem-lines or designer shoes. I’m talking about branding.
How and when branding is embraced, or put on the back burner, seems to have followed economic cycles. In good times, many companies feel confident and have invested more willingly in brand development. During economic downturns, many reduce the marketing communications budgets, and what’s left is generally allocated to activities that produce tangible, short-term results.
Does this make sense?
Well, yes and no. Regardless of economic climate, you strive to reach your marketing objectives. But, what is it that captures and holds consumers? There are hundreds of theories. There’s also an undeniable truth that many marketers tend to overlook – most product categories have matured to a point where they’ve reached commodity status. Certainly, every brand or marketing manager wants to think that their company or product is different and special when, in fact, they’re not. Off the top of my head, I’d be hard pressed to identify a single category where there are genuine, demonstrable differences in product performance from one brand to the next. So, as brands find it difficult to separate themselves from their competitors based on what they actually “do” for the user, they can certainly differentiate themselves on the basis of how users “feel” about them. This is often the tie-breaker.
Think about it –
Nike vs. Reebok.
Bank of America vs. Citibank.
Coke vs. Pepsi.
Kellogg’s vs. Post.
Apple vs IBM (PC)
American Express Card vs. Mastercard.
Mercedes vs. BMW.
Chevy vs. Ford.
Hilton vs. Marriott.
The list goes on and on, and even extends to smaller players.
Do any of them really perform that differently or produce a dramatically different end result? Or do we just have different perceptions about what they stand for?
There’s no question that all of these companies have generated huge levels of “brand awareness” through the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve spent in various media over the years. But their “brand perception” – the element that separated one from the other was carefully determined, and meticulously managed over time. Building a “desired brand perception” with your audience is what ultimately leads to an Emotional Connection and a long-term relationship between brand and user.
Doing this takes time, corporate soul-searching, but is ultimately well worth the trouble. Here are a few fundamentals to get you started.
First, forget about “we.” Start by thinking about “you.”
Clients spend a lot of time, money and energy building their businesses. It stands to reason that they are proud of what they’ve accomplished. They passionately believe in what they have to offer want to convey this with “ We have…We’ve done…
We believe…We this…We that…” Forget about “We,” and start thinking about “You,” the customer. People care about themselves first, and what “Weve” got or done is meaningless until it is relevant to “Your” audience and solves a genuine problem. So, focus first on your customer. Know them as well, or better, than you know yourself. What’s their hot-button? If you’re not sure, find out by doing some research. Sounds pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how often we have to remind clients about this reality.
Now it’s your turn. How are you different?
If your product or service is truly one of a kind, your job is a lot easier. But, in the absence of a genuine, demonstrable product difference, go to the core of your organization and try to find something that’s different about you. It might be in your mission statement, or maybe it’s imbedded in your corporate culture or values. Perhaps it’s a belief or philosophy that you hold about your product, your industry, or your customer – it can be many things. Then try to articulate this in a simple sentence that states your “position” in a clear, conversational, understandable, and accessible way. Don’t make it florid, lofty or pompous. Make absolutely sure that it separates you, that it has inherent longevity, and that it contains certain “truths” to protect it from obsolescence. Remember, this will be the foundation of what you say about yourself, and what makes you different.
How do you want to be perceived?
Once you’ve determined exactly what you intend to stand for, you can begin to move outward. Imagine that your company is a person, and then try to describe that person in great detail. Delve deeply into the “person’s” life-style, life-habits, using both demographic and psychographic factors like gender, educational level, purchase habits, place of residence, hobbies, style of dress, etc. Suddenly, a picture emerges. Do you like this picture (person)? Is it you? If it is, it will become your “brand personality” and guide the style, tone and manner of every vehicle you use to present yourself to customers and prospects.
Does anybody care?
This step is a reality check, based on the irrefutable fact that self-interest is the single greatest motivator. Ask yourself, does your brand position and brand perception connect with your customers’ and prospects’ needs, habits and beliefs? Are you connecting with them on both a rational and emotional level? Do you represent a long term solution to what they (not you) are looking for? And, will the manner in which you’re presenting yourself make them want to build a long lasting relationship with you? Most importantly, don’t assume you’re right. Prove it. Do some testing – some focus groups. Run it by your current customers and prospective customers and see if it resonates with them. If you don’t do this, you may waste a ton of money and discover that you need to start over.
Make it religion
Now that you’re convinced that your brand position and brand personality are truly distinctive and relevant, they must become your corporate DNA. This means that senior management must fully embrace it, and go officially on record as doing so by making sure it filters down throughout the organization.Your brand must be reflected in the way your establishment looks (vehicles, if there are any), and the way your people conduct themselves both internally and externally. Adherence to the principles of the brand should even become a part of HR policy and be reflected in employee performance reviews.
Make everything consistent
Every conceivable way your company makes contact with the public should be done with almost mindless consistency. This is especially true in the beginning when you first launch the brand. This means things like stationery, corporate graphics and signage, store design and point of purchase materials, advertising, website, literature, promotion, even PR – everything should reflect and advance the brand. Doing this creates a “multiplier effect” that will speed brand awareness, the desired perception, and maximize your marketing communications budget.
Make it last
Of all branding fundamentals, this is the most frequently violated, the most disruptive, and becomes very expensive. Even though there will be occasional temptation, if you have taken then long view and done so with diligence, stick with it. If the marketplace changes, see if you can “evolve” the brand to the new environment. If new managers arrive, do not allow them to practice “not invented here.” It will cause the brand to lose momentum. Whatever equity you have built will evaporate, and there will be confusion as to who you really are. Remember, the brands we all admire, and can quickly name, are probably the ones that have been with us for a long time.
At the moment, we’re hearing a lot of talk about a recession. As I mentioned in the beginning, this has historically been the time when many marketers shelve brand building activities. My suggestion? Don’t do it. Never stop protecting and building your brand because it’s the most important marketing tool you have. In fact, this could be a great time to stand apart while everyone else hides under a rock. And when times improve, and everyone comes back out into the open, you’ll be ahead of the game because people got to know who you are, and how you fill a need in their lives.