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How We Think About Brand

Remember who you are.

Can you imagine a person who has not reflected on who they are? How they present themselves to the world? A person understands that answering these questions is part of what of what it means to grow up and mature. When we undertake this process — because it’s personal and often profound for us — we understand that we’re shaping the identity that will shape us. Think for a moment about how you choose a leader, a spouse, or a close friend. You want to know who this person is, but it’s just as important for you to know that they know — in the deepest sense — who they are.

Knowing and remembering who you are is crucially important for an organization, too. Competitive factors, economic turbulence, and an information glut all contribute to a dynamic where current and prospective customers’ attention spans and patience continue to decay.

Organizations that build a clear, compelling and differentiated identity grow strong and healthy in the marketplace. These organizations understand, however, that the identity is built in the interior landscapes of their current and prospective customers.

Branding is a process of building an intentional identity in the minds and hearts of your customers.

Your organization determines its identity just like a person decides whom they will be, what they value and believe, how they will conduct themselves, and what they want to get done —through the power of intention. The more you focus, the more you accomplish.

Building a brand is building a “trust fund.”

A great deal has been written of late about growing disenchantment and loss of trust in public and corporate institutions. Francis Fukiyama’s brilliant book, entitled Trust, explains that trust is a kind of capital. Like other forms of capital — money, health, or education, among others — the presence of trust offers strategic advantages. If you are trusted, you wield a significant competitive advantage. It’s probably not an overstatement to posit that you wield the competitive advantage.

When it comes to branding, nothing matters more than trust. The simplest definition of the word “brand” is: promise. A brand is a promise. A promise where trust is lacking is worth little or nothing. The first thing you must know about branding is the first thing you must know about a person: trust matters.

Just because you’re new to branding doesn’t mean you don’t have a brand.

Every person, company or organization has a brand. Some just bring more focus, clarity, and intention to their brands. Your brand is the sum of your messages, images, stories, myths, memories and associations — both positive and negative. Brands transcend the products they represent in both real and perceived value. People buy the brand, and not the product. Sergio Zyman, former Chief Marketing Officer of Coca~Cola, described brand as the “summary of all communications strategies.” Stop and think for a moment; you didn’t start communicating when you first heard about branding. You have a brand. But, do you have a strategy?

Anyone who tells you that you can brand yourself doesn’t understand branding.

You can’t brand yourself or your own organization. People who tell you that you can don’t know much about branding. Your colleagues, friends, family, and visitors brand you. At the very most, all you can hope to do is influence your brand. And if you’re persuasive, influential, and understand the tools that are available to shape your brand — your intentional identity — you can help shape a brand that is powerful, now and in the future.

Brand-building and soup-making have a lot in common; there are a lot of canned approaches out there. We customize our process to reflect the competitive, social, and category contexts within which the brand is experienced.

Individual brands may not be as unique as individual people, but as a brand’s definition and character improve, so does its uniqueness. That’s why we reject a one-size-fits-all approach to brand strategy. The reason is simple: brands live in the minds of the people who buy them and people are wonderfully and quirkily unique.

We do, however, believe strongly in process and methodology. A disciplined approach to branding yields sounder strategy. Good methodology offers side-benefits as well, like building more nuanced internal expertise about the brand’s audience and how the brand “fits” into the audiences’ lives. Ultimately, a good process pays off with more and better brand equities. In both branding and in financial terms, more equities translate into more value.

Since brands are co-created by both the brand’s owner and the brand’s audience, we begin by developing a vivid, textured, and detailed profile of our client’s current and prospective target audiences. Then, working closely with our client, we co-construct an audience-segmentation model that is both meaningful in terms of insight about the audience, and useful in terms of developing strategies that will build the brand. We profile the audiences’ demographics, lifestyles, values, belief systems, and behaviors. We evaluate whether the brand speaks to the hopes and dreams of the audience (Is it an aspirational brand?) and whether it is affirming of the audience’s beliefs and experiences (Is it an affirmational brand?).

Our investigation requires a process of deep inquiry about the nature, perception, and history of the brand. Using a variety of primary and secondary research methods, we learn how the brand is perceived and how our client has sought to influence the brand-identity-formation process. We accomplish a comprehensive brand audit which includes a review of: marketing plans and policies, informational and sales materials, press clippings, graphic standards programs, advertising products, promotions programs, customer service program design, WEB sites, point-of-purchase displays, and any other relevant messaging or imaging products.

As we review marketing, press, and promotional materials and products — those developed for both internal and external publics — we evaluate their branding effectiveness. Among other questions, we consider:

  1. Does each communication vehicle fulfill its mission?
  2. Does the client represent their product or service goals consistently?
  3. Does the image vocabulary mirror the values, lifestyle, and behaviors of the target audience?
  4. Does the visual and verbal brand language create desire in the target market? What role does the product or service play in fulfilling the aspirations of the target audience?
  5. Is there evidence of a disciplined, clear, and consistent message strategy?
  6. Does the language establish a “voice” that is likely to resonate with our client’s established target audience?
  7. Does the target audience see themselves in the people who are represented as brand consumers?
  8. Have channel strategies been developed that reinforce the positioning of the brand?
  9. Has the product or service been placed in a distribution context that compliments its brand values?
  10. Has the client created a brand narrative?
  11. Has the brand developed its own mythology? Its own creation story? How do these myths and stories underpin the brand personality? How do they interrelate with the cultural contexts of the brand’s audience?

Grasping Competitive Dynamics

Once we believe we have grasped the brand’s “DNA,” we examine the brand’s competitive context and do an abbreviated analysis of other brands within the competitive set. We analyze how effectively these competing brands might fulfill the needs of the target audience and evaluate the effectiveness of their positioning and marketing strategies compared to our client’s brand. This analysis helps us understand competitive dynamics within the category and helps guide the development of a positioning strategy for the brand.

As we work through this process, we seek to uncover the “difference that makes a difference.” We’ve found that clients reflexively look to attributes when they differentiate their product or service from that of a competitor. But, brand differentiation requires a different approach. What matters is how our target audiences’ feel about themselves by making a different choice, not about how they might think the products are different.

People Self-Actualize Using Brands

Consumption has become a primary modality of self-expression. What matters to consumers is: “What does this product say about me?” Since most products or services have become too complex for most consumers to effectively compare and contrast, what matters is how the brand manages the evidence of fulfilling the affirmational or aspirational needs of the consumer. The best product doesn’t necessarily win; the evidence that best persuades does. As a result, we carefully evaluate how our client has managed the evidence of meeting their target audiences’ needs to self-actualize and self-express.

This process yields a lot of information. Distilling it, synthesizing it, and making it useful is where we excel. It’s easy to get lost in information. It’s even easier for information to become so slippery that the brand-building process loses traction. Building a brand is akin to distilling bourbon. It takes a whole lot of sour mash (information) to make a little bit of whisky (the brand).

Key Deliverables

What emerges from this burgeoning mass of information is brand strategy that must be translated into tangible brand-building products and programs. Key deliverables include:

A Brand Plan that includes:

  • Category Strategy
  • Positioning Strategy
  • Target Consumer Profile
  • Key Message Strategy
  • Public Relations Strategy
  • Channel Strategy
  • Distribution Strategy
  • Creative Platform

Creative Brief for brand design or brand refreshment that includes:

  • Guide for logo identity design, e.g. applications
  • Logistical direction
  • An inventory of signal brands (other brands that the target audience values)
  • Creative considerations
  • Typography, Image, Shape, Line, Texture & Color considerations

The best competitive defense is a strong brand.

If you want to understand how redoubtable a strong brand is, try and take market share away from a category leader. Category leaders — like Coca-Cola and General Electric have powerful brands. When thinking about stopping for a latte somewhere, do you reflexively look for that green awning and mermaid — a Starbucks? That same dynamic plays out in nearly every category.

A strong brand equals top-of-mind positioning. A strong brand flanks the consideration phase of the purchasing process. A buyer jumps straight from awareness to choice; considering competitive options is minimized. When a brand is top-of-mind, there is little rest-of-mind. The brand equals the category and, functionally, if not really, the brand becomes not only the preferred option, but the only option.

When you are not a category leader, inventing a new category is a strategic option. For example, before Orville Redenbacher and Mont Blanc, there were no gourmet popcorn or luxury pen categories. These companies achieved category leadership by establishing the category. Category leadership connotes a winning organization and everyone wants to be a part of the winning team.

Pre-selling is especially important if new products, services, or companies are invading your competitive set. Understanding how to use brand — and human nature — as a tool to differentiate and eclipse your competitors radically affects your performance in the marketplace. If your competitors develop an understanding and strategy that is superior to your own — and more relevant in people terms as opposed to product terms — then you may find yourselves in need of a refreshed, re-invigorated strategy.

Doing as opposed to talking is a good thing, but only when it’s the effective thing to do.

When we build a branding program, our objective is to access, build, and ultimately own top-of-mind inside a category. Our approach to branding strategically leverages category ownership. The approach is strategic because every action focuses on an ownership-of-category outcome.

Our approach separates thinking from doing, so when you’re executing, you’re confident that the time and energy you’re investing will pay off. Our process will give you more refined knowledge about how current and proposed messaging and imaging strategies will resonate with your current and potential audiences. We create strategies that shape and influence perception because perception — not reality — is where brand lives. We work to create leverage in your audience’s hearts as well as their minds. We develop strategies that focus on deepening current commitments while creating new audiences.

Brand building is equity building.

If you think that building an intentional brand strategy might be expensive, compare the expense with the magnitude of those opportunity costs incurred by drifting. If somebody takes considerable market share away because your brand strategy was not focused or effective, what is the cost of regaining that share? Have you ever determined what capturing one customer costs you? A strong brand doesn’t stop at dampening the competition’s effort to win over your customers or flank your position. It puts your customer at the center of your business universe. A strong brand helps your customers or audience feel more personally vested in the brand. They literally have more at stake; their own brand identity depends on their association with your brand.

Ironically, the fewer your resources, the more a strong brand is a necessity, not a luxury. A strong brand is an asset that works right along next to you and your people. When your other assets are asleep or on vacation, your brand is still hard at work. Brand research suggests that organizations that maintain strong branding programs return markedly higher revenue returns — both in earnings and equity — than organizations that don’t. The smaller your budget, the more powerful your brand must be!

Branding aligns and “unleashes creativity.”

Through branding we better understand our own organization — clarifying the mission and bringing alignment of purpose. Scott Bedbury says in his book, A New Brand World, “When all levels of a company grasp the core truth of a brand, there is less friction, dilution, and delay between idea and action. Inspiration replaces frustration and the creative process is unleashed intelligently.”

Openness to change and growth is vital.

Change is also a bit scary, especially when it’s concerning identity and culture. Brand is central to identity and culture, especially when the strategies are broadly implemented. It’s important that your campaign be perceived as one that cuts across the whole organization; it’s not just a marketing or public relations campaign. Dialogue must be opened and open across the organization. This work takes time, money, cooperation, and thoughtful deliberation on the part of everyone. Our process enrolls the whole organization in campaign execution.

Branding campaigns fail or succeed in execution.

The greatest possibilities of success or exposures to failure rely on savvy and tasteful translation of brand values into tangible products. We recommend that important creative products be qualitatively tested to make sure that products hit the mark. The best creative strategy selectively embeds particular attributes in tension with others. Branding campaigns, in order to show big results, require discipline, collaboration, compromise, commitment, and patience. It takes awhile for the results to register. Minimum, it takes a two to three year program for the big results to be universally acknowledged. You can expect to see results earlier than that, but broad registration across select segments takes time.