Who IS Your Brand?

May 1, 2012

Let’s say you’ve segmented the market, targeted a promising group for growth and created a meaningfully differentiated brand positioning. Your brand may even be successful by now.

As the brand and business grow, it’s critical to continually ensure your carefully crafted brand positioning is embodied and communicated in everything your brand does and says – even (or especially) if you don’t have much of a media budget. Whether it’s the innovative product with a unique package and graphics, motivating online or in-store promotional materials, systems and processes, or consumer services scripts, each element can work to build the brand…or detract from it.

If you’re not purposeful and careful, your “brand” is nothing more than an undifferentiated product. While this may sound obvious (gee, you mean I should track my brand and make sure all elements work to support it? Thanks, hadn’t thought of that!) too many examples indicate just the opposite.

Are you at risk for becoming:

  • The higher education brand that has marketing materials (website, brochures, social media presence) and career opportunity postings riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors? Is that where you would want to go to school to learn and effectively compete on the world stage?
  • The state “brand” that proclaims to be the “gateway to romance” in the first 30 second ad, quickly followed by a separate 30 second ad describing how important it is to support a “road work alliance” to fix the terrifying images of crumbling infrastructure? The media buy may have been efficient but the overall message is confusing…which is it, the idyllic vacation spot or the potential disaster site?
  • The telecommunications brand that seems to do everything it can to avoid communicating with its consumers? Really, a phone company   that doesn’t answer the phone? When they say your call is very important to them? Think about it.
  • The major financial services company that tells a customer it will take 3 weeks to stop payment on a check the firm issued? That’s right;   it would take this bank multiple weeks to accomplish what a consumer could do on its website in under a minute. Is this where you want to invest and have access to your hard earned money?

This list (of real brand experiences) could go on for pages – and you likely have pages to add, and also shaken your head as you asked yourself what were they thinking? – but you get the point. Perhaps we should create an ongoing list of brand experience disconnects…feel free to add comments.

Brands evolve, managers change, stuff happens, but brand-building discipline should endure.  Most of it is just common sense with a marketing twist. Why risk what you’re investing so much in talent, time and money to create?

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Did you play softball in the 70’s or 80’s? If so, you were likely part of a wave of players using the next new thing…an aluminum bat. That’s right, the thwack of wood was turned into the clink of metal. And, it hit harder and further too. Better performance and no more bats cracked in half, thrown across the plate and discarded in disgust.

And, if you played softball with an aluminum bat, odds are you played with a Bombat. What? Not a Louisville Slugger or an Easton? That’s right, the Bombat had the lion’s share of the aluminum bat market at the time. While others had tinkered (including a sports nut working at Alcoa Aluminum), Ronald Foreman was the first to successfully commercialize a bat that changed an industry. Think about it, how often do you still see wood softball bats these days?

How’d he do it?

An entrepreneur by nature, and a former jock who could still throw a pretty mean pitch, he was looking for the next piece of sporting equipment to turn from wood to metal. I must say, he had a thing for aluminum. His other ventures included manufacturing aluminum storm windows/doors and an above ground swimming pool. I guess he liked durability.

The company started with a foray and moderate success in the aluminum tennis racket market. Though he tried, tennis was tough given his company’s limited resources and the competitive strength of the Wilson, Spaulding and Head brand juggernauts of the time. The Ten Pro aluminum racket really just couldn’t compete.

So, like any good, struggling entrepreneur with a wife and four kids to feed, he scoped around for inspiration. He found it in a local sporting goods store while looking at pool cues. Hmmm, they were aluminum and really, they looked just like skinny bats. Eureka!

After many months of fits and starts, the Bombat was born. How did he know it was any good? He certainly didn’t have the money for extensive market research and there weren’t web consumer panels or Survey Monkey to work with in those days. So, he used his own style of consumer ethnography and did the unthinkable…he drove around to softball fields and put the bat in the hands of players (major, minor, local kids, slow pitch, fast pitch, basically anyone who would use it) and watched them play the game. Then he asked questions. Lots of questions. And really listened, making improvements along the way. He never stopped directly asking consumers/players, sales reps and store buyers questions and incorporating their feedback in multiple new products over the years.

The Bombat brand was initially built by his intrepid cold calls to independent sporting goods stores and some chains and spurred by word-of-mouth among the players and teams, long before the internet and social media existed (some print advertising featuring “famous” minor league players came later). Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he knew he’d succeeded when a major manufacturer named its new aluminum bat the “Super Bomb” – as in Super Bomb Bat – and must have felt great when they backed down from his threatened trademark infringement suit.

I suppose the greatest success marker was the sale of the brand to a major sporting goods manufacturer, Easton Sports, in 1981. I guess they would rather have joined than fought and, accomplishing his goal, Ron was ready to have someone else take the lead. He worked for the “new company” for 7 years until he retired.  He passed away three months ago.

Did the Bombat change the world? Nope, just a very small corner of it. Did it provide some terrific lessons in entrepreneurial spirit, innovation, brand building and perseverance? Absolutely.

Thanks Dad…you taught me well.

With all our sophisticated marketing tools and years of experience, sometimes we forget the basics.

My (brilliant and precocious!) 10-year-old niece has been lobbying her (no doubt Neanderthal) parents for a cellphone for quite some time. When whining, pleading and begging failed she decided to take a different approach. A PowerPoint presentation. Filled with structure, logic…and pure emotion.

Reasons that I need a phone

In addition to using the persuasive power of positioning — she wisely started the presentation with the key to any parent’s heart and fears: “Emergencies,” she also divided her argument into “needs” vs. “wants.”

And, just to be sure she reaches her ultimate goal, she closes the deal by specifying the brand names of acceptable phones.

So, it got me to thinking about the number of  meetings in which we all argue about the finer points of positioning, parsing consumer responses to the nth degree and analyzing data to often ridiculous decimal points. While I would never say these things are unnecessary, I do wonder if we wouldn’t be better served as marketers if we remembered to do the “gut” check…what do consumers really want? What do they need? How can our products best serve those needs? And, what’s the extra oomph required to satisfy what they really want?

So easy, even a 10-year-old gets it. Yet, so hard for experienced marketers to recall and put into practice on a daily basis.

As for my niece and her coveted phone, I’m not sure she has  won over her parents…yet.  But, her example is a great reminder and she’s welcome to work with me anytime!

Brand Trustiness

June 27, 2009

It’s hard to know who to trust, especially for breaking news. Certainly, everyone has their favorite, trustworthy sources for credible news but sometimes that’s upended like it was on Thursday, the day the King of Pop passed away.

As an article in today’s New York Times describes, TMZ, the 4 year old celebrity news/gossip site owned by Time Warner, was a step ahead of the “major” news outlets by an hour on every aspect of the story. It was quite surreal to read on TMZ (via Twitter) that Michael Jackson had died at the same time CNN, The New York Times, LA Times and others had him in various stages of cardiac arrest and coma for an additional hour. TMZ seems to have out-scooped them all (scary as it may be to contemplate to whom they had access in order to do so…so much for patient confidentiality).

In these days of viral content and citizen journalism it’s even easier to get swept away in a maelstrom of rumors. While credit is certainly due to the news outlets fearful of reporting a death before its time, in this case, by the time they did report, it seemed a bit like old news. Does that make them seem dated? Or even more trustworthy because they were quadruple checking their sources?

Which news outlets will people turn to the next time? And for what types of events?

We’ve always been warned to “not believe everything you read” and caveat emptor so how does this dynamic apply to your brand in other categories beyond news reporting? Granted, in most cases it’s fair to say that the proof is in the pudding; if the brand does not deliver against expectations consumers have their answer about what to do the next time.

However, it’s also worth considering how your brand can build maximum trustiness, especially when it is among many that do not.

Otherwise, who will believe your brand when it really has the OTC diet product that actually results in safe, rapid weight loss and maintenance, or the cure for baldness, or the wireless service that never drops a call, or the moisturizer that reverses the aging process?

 Who will consumers trust…your brand or an upstart competitor?

Wants vs. Needs

June 8, 2009

“Lose 10 pounds in 5 minutes!”

This sign outside a Chicago lingerie retailer is making the universally compelling promise of rapid weight loss…minus the pills, treadmills, sweat, grapefruit or South Beach. The “magic bullet” that’s sure to drive their sales of Spanx-like body shapers.

As signs go, this one is right up there with “Free.” The steady stream of curious, yearning customers entering the store is a testament to human nature. And, despite knowing the product may just help them look a bit thinner they’re still filled with hope; quite a few customers leave the store happily clutching their new purchase.

Consumers may need to lose weight but what they want is to do so instantly with no work involved.

There’s a holy grail in every category, how close does your brand get to delighting consumers with what they want vs. just satisfying what they need?

Remember the good old days of brand management, that is, as recently as 3-4 years ago? The brand team and its agency worked diligently to position the brand, develop the message and create compelling advertising to communicate it in a range of media. Campaigns went up the ranks of management through rounds of review, refinement and final approvals before being aired, printed, recorded or billboarded. 

At each step, the creators and brand champions were subjected to increasingly pointed questions about whether the advertising was on strategy, adhered to the previously agreed creative brief, consistently communicated the desired message, provided opportunity for pool-outs, and would be placed in target-relevant media.

How quaint. 

Do strong brands still craft and adhere to positioning strategy, key messages and advertising briefs? Sure. But, a lot has changed in the wild, wild west, interactive world of Web 2.0. 

Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogs and many similar social media routes are now taken by a number of brands to address consumer experience issues, promote new products and engage consumers in conversations. Like anything else, some brands are doing this really well (e.g., Zappos, Comcast, Jet Blue, Bigelow Tea), others less so. 

It’s still too early to adequately judge effectiveness and determine how much all this on-line activity really builds a brand. Nor is it clear how much message control is possible or even desirable…after all, the point is authentic interaction with potentially millions of consumers which can naturally go any number of ways. However, the controllables do start with the brand’s core. 

Keys to success so far seem to include:

  • Clear, relevant brand strategy – who is the brand and what benefits does it offer?
  • Consistent message communication – does the brand stand for the same core values regardless of media platform?
  • Authenticity– is the brand Twitterer, Facebook poster or blogger clearly identified, with the knowledge and passion to communicate brand values and authority to resolve consumer issues? Note: this is usually a senior level marketer, dedicated consumer experience manager or CEO, not a junior level techie or outside agency staffer…consumers can, and have, swiftly sniffed out and widely commented on the difference
  • Engagement – are the brand communications interesting enough to encourage interactivity and longer term consumer involvement?

Yes, times and media are rapidly changing but it’s funny how these “basics” look a lot like what built strong brands in the old days.

Think Again

May 11, 2009

“Uns” rarely mean good news…undo, unravel, uneventful, unthinkable, unimaginable, unproductive, etc. are not usually positives.  Unless (sorry) something is unbeatable, un is a non-starter. 

More important than KFC’s latest headline language and the launch promotion executional flaws, it seems the bigger issue is the  “un” branding of the fast food fried chicken category leader. KFC has spent many decades and millions of dollars staking out defined territory in consumers’ minds – fried chicken made from Colonel Sanders’ special recipe.

Do they really want consumers to “unthink” the brand? Successful brand extensions transport the driving equity dimensions to adjacent categories. The best extensions evolve the brand over time, bringing consumers along a continuum without pushing farther or faster than they can or will accept. It’s always a careful balancing act to attract new users to drive growth without alienating the loyalists.

Sure, chicken is part of the KFC equity and may offer extension opportunities but fried chicken is the frame the brand currently owns. Clearly, KFC is not abandoning fried chicken any time soon but clearly wants (presumably new) target consumers to make the perceptual and behavioral leap to grilled chicken.

But, mass communication of “Unthink KFC” to all consumers does raise the question, “where does KFC think their fried chicken lovers should go?”