The name game: How branding has changed

By Cheminne Taylor–Smith

A quick search on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.com will give you a sense of how hot the topic of branding is today. For many, branding is seen as the magic bullet for all that ails American companies. There’s advice for those with major brands, and advice for companies who are competing against the bigger names.

Almost all of the authors and experts agree that the thinking about branding is shifting. It’s no longer about being the biggest name on the block, but about nurturing an emotional tie with the consumer. It’s about trust, and about developing a brand that is understood and promoted from within the company as much as to the outside world.

If you have an established brand, it’s a good time to reexamine what that brand stands for and how it’s perceived. If you don’t have a national brand, cult and regional brands can be as successful as the bigger names if they are handled correctly.

Branding 101: The hottest topics in the brand school of thought

By Cheminne Taylor–Smith

The topic of brands has heated up to an unbelievable level. There are hundreds of books, and just as many experts, that cover branding from every angle. However, many of those branding initiatives and ideas end up fizzling rather than succeeding. According to a branding poll of 700 businesspeople conducted by business guru Tom Peters last year:

  • Over 50% of employees don’t know what a brand means,
  • Over 75% of employees don’t support their company’s branding initiatives, and
  • Over 90% of employees don’t know how to effectively represent their company’s brand.

The key to unlocking all that potential, and to maximizing your brand, is through emotion, people and product, according to the newest thinking in brand strategy.

Emotional rescue

Emotion and the corporate world have not made good business partners in the past. But now, if you believe what the brand experts are touting, “passion” is entering the boardroom.

“Passion is so important to a company’s brand,” says Brad VanAuken, the former brand director of brand management for Hallmark who is today a principal of Brand Forward and the author of Brand Aid (available in July). “Making an emotional connection with consumers is absolutely key. And being passionate about your product and protecting your brand, all of those are critical to success today.”

Al Wight, president of Strategic Decisions, says that passion can make or break a consumer’s decision about a brand–name product. “There are a lot of issues about brand preference. One of the biggest concerns is that consumers don’t just know your brand, but that they care about your brand enough to choose it over all the others.”

And that’s where trust comes into play, says Rob Frankel, a branding consultant and the author of The Revenge of Brand X. “You need to build that trust with consumers, to nurture their needs. Companies must make consumers feel that they aren’t just selling them a mattress, but that the company itself really cares about them. You must deliver what you promise, and you must know your customer better than anyone else.”

In his book Emotional Branding, author Marc Gobe, president and CEO of Desgrippes Gobe, says that all companies – no matter what they produce – must develop intense and emotional relationships with consumers, “elevating purchases based on need to the realm of desire.” He also says that today’s business climate should be categorized as an “emotional economy,” one that closely tracks and feeds on cultural changes, values and trends. Gobe has used his theories to build brand campaigns based on emotion for Coke, Victoria’s Secret, Godiva, Versace and Starbucks.

Speaking of Starbucks, every expert says that’s the brand that has done the best job of reaching consumers on an emotional level. “Starbucks was built totally on retail exposure,” says VanAuken. “It’s built on a solid foundation of image and a quality product, with no national ads at all. That’s unheard of.”

“It usually takes 30 years minimum to build a powerful international brand,” says Wight. “If you see one come into play faster than that, it’s amazing.”

That’s the power of community, Frankel says. “It’s customers talking to other customers. That’s the biggest part of emotional branding and that’s where you build the trust.”

And you have to put your product where your mouth is. “Don’t just say it,” VanAuken says. “You must deliver on expectations. The product has to live up to what you say it is. And if you have some unforeseen problem in the future, you can be forgiven by a consumer much more easily if you have built that emotional connection and that trust in your brand. Brand equity creates a relationship and a strong bond that grows over time.”

Knowing it inside out

That passion for the product and for the brand begins at home. Once a company has decided what it, and its brand, stand for, then the work to build that brand starts within, from the top down. The brand should begin as an integral part of the business model.

“Internal brand building is the hottest topic in brand management today,” VanAuken says. “Your products and services, every point of contact that your brand makes with consumers must reinforce your brand’s promise. Everything – your company’s mission and vision, your employees, internal communications, operational systems – must be consistently delivering on your brand.”

The leaders of the company must believe in the brand and what it stands for, experts say. Without that drive and that belief, brands can’t work. “If you don’t believe in it, and if you employees don’t believe in it, then who will?” Frankel asks.

“Often you’ll have reps out there pushing your product, or talking to retailers on a show floor, and they don’t really ‘get it,’ ” says VanAuken. “That can ruin your entire image. You have to carry it from the front office, to the factory, to the industry shows, to the retail floor. Everyone must understand and be able to say what your brand stands for. Front–line employees are critical to the success of your brand.”

“People are so important to the success of a brand,” Frankel says. “And that means both your own people and your customers.”

Dare to be different

What makes your company and your product different from all the others out there? If you don’t know, or if you have too many answers to that question, then you need rethink your “hook,” experts warn.

Wight says there are three things that his company, and other, look for when studying how consumers think about brands:

  1. The unaided first mention, or which company comes to mind first.
  2. Brand awareness, or which brand the consumer knows or has heard of.
  3. Brand preference, or which brand the consumer prefers.

All the experts agree that the last one is the most critical. “I call it relevant differentiation,” says VanAuken. “You have to truly understand your customer segments and what makes each one of them want to buy your brand. A company should pick a benefit that is very important to its customer segment, one that it can deliver really well, and that its competition can’t deliver as well.”

VanAuken says that consumers have too much on their minds to remember every single company and all the things it delivers or stands for. “Usually there’s one hook that they remember about your company, whether it’s that the company has the quality product, or the cheap product, or the ‘scientific’ product. You want to decide what the hook is and then deliver it.”

Continuing to deliver product innovations is also key. “You need to continue to invest in new ideas, to retool your products for a new age, to identify consumer needs that are not being satisfied.”

Frankel says, “Branding can be the most misunderstood thing in marketing. Keeping current and keeping the message clear helps companies to define and protect their brands through any economic situation. The more you tell the customer why they should buy your product, the less focused they will be on price. And when the economy tanks, the first to die are those relying on price and not on what they can deliver.”

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