Branding: a key strategy in the age of parity
Demographics / Sarah White
Blame it on the cattle ranchers. When they started "branding" their herds for easier identification, it helped cement a tradition that's vital in today's business world.
A brand strategy is the core of all sales efforts, customer service and corporate communications. It sets the tone for internal and external interactions at every level. Every company, even a startup, should have a brand strategy in place before initiating a marketing program. A brand strategy can:
• Make you stand out from your competitors.
• Give heft to your advertising messages.
• Enable you to launch new products or services quicker and at lower cost.
• Help you attract and retain quality employees.
Branding: what it is (and isn't)
A brand establishes an identity, stirs feelings and makes a connection between those feelings and that identity. Your brand resides in the hearts and minds of customers and prospects.
A brand is much more than a trademark or slogan. At the core of a brand lies the question: "With our [product or service], how do we make our customers feel?" Making customers feel good about your product or service is the key to breaking through the cluttered marketplace of products and messages. Branding helps customers build loyalty to your company and its offerings.
A brand is made up of a complex mix of components. These include:
• logo or symbol
• company name
• product name(s)
• slogans and taglines
• musical signature or "jingle"
• color scheme
• packaging designs
• staff phone demeanor
• uniform or dress code
Each of these components contributes to the feeling that is your brand, but none by itself creates a brand. The brand is the result of consumers' accumulated experiences with and perceptions about your company, its people and its products.
Branding unlimited. Branding works for services as well as for products. Branding can be created around ingredients or around whole companies and even geographic regions.
Examples? California marketing boards for raisins ("Heard it through the grapevine") and milk ("Got milk?") raised farm commodities to cultural icons through the power of branding. Consider the ingredient-branding strategy in the catchy four-note chime that says "Intel Inside," or BASF's long-running slogan: "We don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better ." These examples prove that a branding strategy works for a wide range of offerings.
Why branding works
Branding works because it gives the mind something to hang on to. Several aspects of cognitive behavior explain why branding has become a key component of marketing strategy.
Looking for good enough. In the search for products and services to fill their desires or solve their problems, people are looking for "good enough." In an uncertain world, we value consistency over quality, predictability over risk. Most of us are satisfied if we avoid making a bad choice. Branding builds confidence that, among many offerings that appear "good enough," yours will meet the criteria with fewest problems and greatest satisfaction. The brand purveys a promise of reliability. It says, in effect, "We stand behind our product."
The halo effect. The mind works by associations. For example, we tend to believe attractive people are smarter than less attractive ones, even though we know that one trait has nothing to do with the other. Our minds insist on associating many positive traits with each other. The brand conveys a positive feeling, and by "the halo effect," the product and company become associated with other positive attributes.
Anchoring. The mind does not simply form impressions, it becomes anchored in them. Our first snap judgments are apt to become our enduring beliefs. The brand communicates directly at the "feelings" level, and thus is easily anchored as a core belief.
Branding and product parity
We live in an age of product parity, when most offerings are essentially "good enough." Products and services that are seriously flawed quickly wash out in a marketplace already crowded with reasonably good alternatives.
Once upon a time, products had real differences. When running shoes first came on the market, it was a remarkable improvement over the old sneakers and high-tops. A vast array of features, from heel stabilizing to shock absorption, made it clear why a consumer might want to buy the new shoes. But soon the market became crowded with shoes bearing a wide variety of features, at a wide range of price points.
In a marketplace saturated with parity products, how can a shoe marketer persuade consumers to choose one product over another? With branding. The Nike "swoosh" on a consumer's shoes enables her to display that she, like Nike, believes in the "Just do it" philosophy. Branding lifts a simple offering into the realm of feeling and self-expression.
In a world of product parity, it's crucial that you leverage consumer emotions in your favor.
Building brand equity
The goal of your marketing is to build your brand's equity. You invest advertising dollars to build awareness, and to form positive associations in the minds of your targeted audience. These are banked over time, and converted to profits when the brand-loyal consumer purchases your offering.
Let your marketing messages display both points of parity and points of difference . Help potential buyers see that "this is good enough" by showing how you are similar to other offerings. Then, help potential buyers see that "this is better" by communicating the differences only you can claim.
Every marketing activity your strategy calls for should be carefully chosen to support your brand. Your advertising campaigns, sales promotions, special events, and team or event sponsorships must reinforce the brand. Every interaction a potential customer or referrer has with a member of your staff is an opportunity to build the brand.
Use the tools on this site to better understand consumers of your product or service. Use the Demographic Profiler (if you sell to consumers) or Business Profiler (if you sell to other businesses).
Keep in mind, even if your business model is business-to-business, that the person who cuts a purchase order for your product is just that a person. In your research, look for what stirs feelings and connections in the hearts and minds of these individuals. Build your brand identity around that.
Managing the brand
Branding is not an activity you can accomplish overnight, or purchase ready-made from a consultant or advertising agency. A successful brand is built over time from the hundreds of little things you do right.
The brand is, at its heart, a promise. It warrants that the product or service carrying that brand will live up to its name. The value of that brand rises or falls with the integrity of the people behind it. The ultimate authority for managing the brand lies with the highest officers in the company. The "principles of the principals" make or break a brand.
Successful brand managers learn how to leverage every customer contact into a "moment of truth" that reinforces positive aspects of the brand.
Measuring the brand
To improve the long-term profitability of your brand, you'll need to measure its performance. And to do that, you'll need a sense of where you stand at the start of your brand initiative.
Before you deploy a branding strategy, use research to probe perceptions regarding your company and its offerings. Based on that knowledge, you can build a brand that plays to your strengths.
As you implement your branding strategy, use research to track changes in perception in your target audience. Adjust your use of messages and media, in advertising and other marketing, to counter weaknesses or leverage strengths revealed by your research.
Burning questions. Focus groups, quantitative surveys, comparison of sales volumes, and internal review of customer accounts can all add to your understanding of how your marketing initiatives are creating or shifting brand awareness. In measuring a brand, you seek to understand:
• Is your desired audience aware of you?
• What attributes do they associate with you?
• Do those attributes support your Unique Selling Proposition?
• Should your marketing strategy be adjusted in light of new information about your brand equity?
Putting branding to work for you is not difficult in fact, because of the way human minds work, it will happen whether or not you are controlling the process. To use branding strategically, integrate branding into every aspect of your business, from top-level corporate strategy to the last detail of packaging and display. Your branding strategy will make you stand out from the crowd.