Brands are not as easy as they look

Brands are not as easy as they look

A lot of people talk a lot about brands as impressions: brands are how you are talked about when you are not in the room; your brand is the sum of the prompted and unprompted associations that people have of you; your brand is expressed in the ways that you are remembered. All of these definitions accurately describe the associative advantages of a powerful brand. But the critical aspect for me is that a brand today must not only look the part, it must also function as an asset – by definition that means it must be “Something valuable that an entity owns, benefits from, or has use of, in generating income.”

In order to do that:

  1. A brand must be tangible – there must be something identifiable to offer, and that something, whether it is a product or a service, must have value.
  2. There must be a distinctive and viable business model – a brand requires an efficient and competitive commercial delivery model in order to get into market and to meet demand.
  3. A brand must differentiate itself from other offerings like it in order to prosper – brands require a competitive environment in which to thrive because without such an environment the concept of a value equation means nothing.
  4. A brand must be visible to the people that matter to it – a brand must take conscious and measured steps to gain and retain their attention.
  5. A brand must engage with the people it seeks to work with – so it must have a personality that people are attracted to and it must tell a story that people want to hear more of.
  6. A brand exists to earn margin beyond the going market rate – and a brand that fails to do so joins the ranks of the commodities.
  7. It must create expectations – and those expectations must underpin the promises the brand makes in market and the values that it works by.
  8. Brands must capture who they are through a distinctive identity across a full range of touch-points – great brands are symbolised in ways that people know and that graphically capture their character.
  9. A brand must offer experiences around the goods or service it offers expressly to generate trust, connection and distinction with its audiences.

While these characteristics will be familiar to many, the implications are wide-ranging:

  • A brand needs a vision but it cannot just be a vision. If there is nothing tangible in the sense of a product or service, then there is just a concept. Equally, a brand needs a powerful idea, but it cannot hope to take complete ownership of that idea, no matter how big it is. There is no brand that owns the emotion of love to the exclusion of everyone else. Or happiness. Or enjoyment. Or speed. A brand can only ever be an interpretation of that idea. One interpretation – potentially of many.
  • A brand is only as robust as the business model that drives it. If there is no ‘go to market’ mechanism, there is no brand.
  • Brands make a conscious effort to stand out and stand apart from their competitors, and they do so on the basis of a value equation. If you have a product in the market that is the same as everyone else’s and your key reason for being there is simply to under-price, you don’t have a brand, because whilst there may be a budget equation there is not a value equation. That is the mistake that so many budget airlines made and many house brands continue to make.
  • In fact, the power of a brand can often be judged through its asking price. Unless it is specifically geared to a challenger model and has consciously oriented its entire business around price accessibility (e.g. Virgin), companies that ask lower prices often do so because they do not carry the brand equity to ask for more. Even then, challenger brands are about a lot more than pricing – attitude, experience, distribution and personality all loom large.
  • The ideas behind a brand can be protected by IP, but there must be more to a brand than a trademark or a patent. For all the claims from IP firms that they are helping to build brands, they’re not. They are protecting a mechanism of a brand. I’m not underplaying the importance of that, but the fact is people don’t bond with legal protections.
  • If no-one sees you in a marketplace because you carry no sustained awareness, you are not a brand because you are not functioning as an asset. Equally, if you generate instant profile through an action or scandal that takes social media by storm, you don’t have a brand – yet – because all you have is awareness in that moment. Unless you can capitalise on that, you will quickly revert to anonymity.
  • A strong brand often has a powerful identity, but an identity alone does not constitute a brand. As Darren Coleman puts it so well here, “Brand name, term, symbol etc., play an important role in brand. They’re not a brand per se. They’re physical manifestations of the emotional bond brands look to develop” You can have a beautiful identity system and still, in the words of the Sex Pistols, be pretty vacant. Equally, you can change the identity system you have to make it more upscale, thinking it will grow that bond, and actually diminish your value in the minds of your consumers: Gap.
  • Experience is not service. But great service is critical to delivering a customer experience. If you are delivering what people expect by way of assistance and back up, you are only doing what’s expected. If you have found a way to deliver what you do that sticks with people and that they talk to others about, you have created an experience. As Denise Lee Yohn reveals here: “seven out of ten marketers believe that investing in customer experience is more effective than investing in marketing communications, but only 13 percent believe that their company “excels” at delivering a day-to-day brand experience that matches up to what the brand promises”. To me, those perceptions by managers are a fail on two counts. Firstly, you can’t offer an experience unless you have made people aware of the brand because you have not linked the two, meaning you have not branded the experience. Secondly, if 87 percent of marketers believe their experiences are substandard in that they don’t deliver on what was promised, that means the vast majority of transactions are disappointing and are working against the brand in terms of generating trust.

It’s far from easy to build brands that work as assets.

We talk about brands as if they are all around us. But walk down any high street or through any CBD on any given day and ask yourself how much of what you see fits within the characteristics of brands above? How many of the companies that call themselves brands really do have distinctive business models, differentiated offers, great visibility, memorable experience models …? It’s far from easy to build brands that work as assets. But equally, that means there are more opportunities to create, manage and invest in brands that really do work to their potential than many companies realise.

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