Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Are Brands Even Real?

Let's take a step back and think about it. What are brands anyway? Aren't they this kind of fuzzy idea that no one can define perfectly? Does labeling something a brand make it a brand?

When I think about brands, it's about attaching labels and identities to things and imbuing them with human qualities. But isn't it really all about quality products and innovation and outstanding service and responsiveness and trustworthiness? Isn't it also about what your product or organization stands for and how you treat your customers? It can also be about creating a unique value proposition and consistent messaging. And it can be about making promises and creating real value and differentiation. 

So, in a way, "brand" is an umbrella or catch-all term for managing the branded item in a way that makes it stand out and achieve marketplace success. It is a set of tools, techniques and measurements that lead to uniqueness and superiority. It is a process and a methodology. It is a discipline. It is a gestalt. 

And, in a way, that is what makes brand management so difficult. It is so much more than marketing communication or even marketing. It is about creating and maintaining a successful identity and strategy for your organization and its products and services. 

So, whether brands are real or not, they serve a very useful purpose. And frankly, it is much better to be a strong brand than a commodity. To this I say, "Long live brands!"

Monday, September 11, 2017

Honing Your Marketing Skills

In addition to consulting with a wide variety of organizations regarding brand strategy, I also have served as an adjunct faculty member in the marketing departments at two different business schools, guest lectured at dozens of business schools, conducted "brand camps" at other business schools and helped MBA students at different business schools develop their personal value propositions. I have also judged MBA students' new business ideas and served as a mentor to MBA students. 

These are all ways not only to gain exposure as a marketing consultant, but more importantly, to hone one's brand management and marketing skills. I have found one activity to be even more valuable in keeping my creative marketing ideas flowing. I serve on the marketing committees of a variety of not-for-profit organizations, sometimes as a committee member and often as a committee chair. Today, I am involved on the marketing committees of six different not-for-profit organizations, but over time I have been involved in the marketing committees of dozens of not-for-profit organizations. Further, as a board member and volunteer for the Advertising Council of Rochester (now Causewave Community Partners), I have helped dozens of other not-for-profit organizations wrestle with their marketing issues. 

Skills become more ingrained when you teach them and being an adjunct marketing faculty member provides you access to the latest business school marketing case studies and concepts. Volunteering on marketing committees of organizations with limited marketing resources helps you become highly creative and efficient in developing successful marketing strategies and tactics. They also expose you to a variety of marketing approaches that larger organizations may not have tried. And the combination of consulting, teaching, conducting research, writing books and articles and volunteering on not-for-profit marketing committees, provides for an amazing amount of cross-fertilization of ideas. 

If you are a marketing professional, whether working for a company, a marketing agency, a brand consultancy or some other type of organization, teaching what you know, writing about what you know and especially helping not-for-profit organizations with what you know is a win-win activity for all involved, but especially for you. Consider doing one or more of these things.

Six Approaches to Brand Positioning

Brand positioning is perhaps the most important task in brand management. Ideally, it should drive everything else. Brand positioning is part art and part science. I like to inform the exercise by in-depth research including qualitative customer benefit exploration, brand equity measurement, brand benefit importance/delivery mapping and brand position testing. Having said that, intuition and creativity also are important skills that feed into this process every step of the way. 

There are six basic approaches to brand positioning:

  1. Own one or a unique combination of two benefits that are highly compelling to the end consumer and unique to the brand within the traditional product/service category. The benefits could be emotional, experiential or self-expressive. (I no longer advocate focusing on functional brand benefits.)
  2. As a variation on this, own an emotional, experiential or self expressive benefit and a functional benefit that serves as the proof point for the emotional, experiential or self-expressive benefit.
  3. Own a highly compelling value that is shared with the end consumer.
  4. Focus on both (1) a differentiating benefit within the tightly defined product/service category and (2) the primary category benefit. (See Promoting Category Benefits for more information on this approach.)
  5. Choose to compete in a broader category than the traditional product category, providing for potentially more sales but also more competition. This usually results in a significant repositioning of the brand focusing on non-traditional brand benefits, but can include focusing on the narrower category benefits associated with the traditional product category as a point of difference in the larger product category. 
  6. Create a "category of one" brand by creating a new highly compelling category for which your brand is the only choice. (See Creating "Category of One" Brands for more information on this approach.)
I wish you great success in optimizing the position of your brand.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Promoting Category Benefits

Usually the brand that has the most to gain by promoting category benefits is the market share leader. For instance, as market share leader, Hallmark had the most to gain by promoting the benefits of sending greeting cards. 

However, over time, I have come to realize that many brands would benefit from promoting category benefits. While those brands are competing most directly with close-in competitors, that is competitors in the most tightly defined product/service categories, they are also competing with what I call "everyone and everything else." 

Consider a fine art museum. It is certainly competing with other nearby fine art museums but it is also competing with every other use of its potential patron's time and money - other recreational or educational activities including other types of museums, botanical gardens, movies, baseball games, etc. That is why it would be wise not only to focus on differentiating benefits within the category but also the category benefits themselves as ultimately, the brand is competing against brands in other categories.

As another example, consider a yacht club brand. It is competing against other yacht clubs within the same geography. But it is also competing against other uses of recreational time - traveling to a nearby city, playing tennis, riding bicycles, playing golf, having a picnic, visiting a zoo, etc. A yacht club can grow by stealing share from other yacht clubs (that is, by getting a bigger slice of the pie) or it can grow by convincing more people that sailing and racing sailboats are very rewarding activities (by expanding the pie). 

At Hallmark, we produced two different types of advertising. One highlighted the benefits of maintaining relationships through card sending, while the other spoke to why someone should give a Hallmark card instead of another brand of card. 

Promoting category benefits is particularly important in categories that are static or shrinking. It will have a much greater impact on revenues than trying to steal share. 

If you haven't considered this already, consider whether promoting category benefits would be beneficial to your brand.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Brands & System Design

How many times has a brand's computerized system made you frustrated or angry? Have you ever had to enter your user name and password more than once to get what you wanted either online or via the telephone? Have you been offered a price discount as a valued customer only to not receive it because the link on the push email sent you to the website without recognizing you? Have you ever encountered an automated customer service system that does not provide a choice for the issue you are trying to resolve? Or how about the automated system that keeps sending you in an infinite loop, never to reach your destination? How about when you have to explain your problem over and over again to each new person because they do not have a system of shared notes? My favorite is holding for say 30 minutes only to discover that the automated system sent me to the wrong department, resulting in another 30 minute hold. Once, I had this happen with four different telephone number transfers. I was really upset by the time that I finally reached the person who could help me. 

I encountered one website that only allowed me to buy one ticket at a time. (I wanted to purchase multiple tickets for the event.) I had to reenter all of my information including name, contact and credit card information for each individual ticket purchase. How ridiculous is that?

Most recently, I booked flights on Delta Airlines for my wife and I using Expedia's online platform. (I have been an elite status member of both Delta and Expedia for years.) Unbeknownst to me, the only Delta tickets that Expedia listed were Basic Economy fares. I booked my flights and discovered at the airport that we had no seat assignments. We were assigned separate middle seats in the back of the plane at the boarding gate, were boarded in the last boarding group and there was no room for our luggage in the passenger compartment. I politely inquired about this at the boarding gate, reminding the gate agent of my elite status, only to be told that I had purchased basic economy tickets with no frills. The gate agent even subtly implied that I was a cheapskate and that I got what I paid for. The only problem is that I did not know that I had purchased Basic Economy tickets and I was not given an option to purchase a better ticket. My wife kept asking me (sarcastically), "So, this is what you get for your years of loyalty and elite status?" I am definitely annoyed at both Delta and Expedia. 

The point of this blog post is to indicate how important system and process design is in creating and maintaining brand loyalty. 

On the flip side, I am a very loyal American Express customer. Why is that? Because their customer service systems work very well and I have always been treated very well by their customer service representatives. Ditto with Ritz-Carlton systems and employees. 

When designing your brand experience, don't forget about the role systems and process design play in customer satisfaction and loyalty. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Brand Associations

To really understand brands you need to understand what people most often associate with those brands. It is from these associations that a viable brand position could emerge. The best way to identify these associations is through specific exercises often used in qualitative research designed specifically to identify these associations - collages, ideation, metaphorical thinking, vignettes, various projective techniques, picture interpretation, word association, cartoon completion, laddering, role plays, sorting exercises, etc.

As an example of what I mean when I say brand associations, I will provide my own associations for four places in which I have lived.

New York City - Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, Upper West Side, Upper East Side, Broadway, Wall Street, Greenwich Village, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, subways, taxis, Harlem, Cotton Club, Freedom Tower, Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, Times Square, MoMA, Lincoln Center, Bronx Zoo, University Club of New York, The Explorers Club, Harvard Club of New York City, New York City Ballet, Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn Bridge, South Street Seaport Museum, The Blue Note, The High Line, the Cloisters, Cathedral of Saint John the Devine, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Chelsea Market, SoHo, Rizolli Bookstore,  Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany's, FAO Schwartz, New York Yankees, New York Mets, Forest Hills, US Open, Southhampton, Jones Beach, JFK, Rubin Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller Center, Saturday Night Live, Studio 54, The Limelight, McSorley's Old Ale House

Boston - Faneuil Hall, Boston Commons, Swan Boats, Cambridge, Harvard, Harvard Square, Hong Kong Restaurant Harvard Square, Scorpion Bowls, the Coop, MIT, Wellesley, Tufts, BU, BC, Berklee College of Music, Freedom Trail, Willow Pond Kitchen, Union Oyster House, The North End, Legal Seafood, Boston Pops, The T, Beacon Hill, New England Aquarium, Walden Pond, The Charles River, Head of the Charles Regatta, Museum of Fine Arts, Fenway Park, Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics, Cape Cod, Newport, Gloucester, Salem, Marblehead, autumn/fall, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Paul Revere, Boston Tea Party, John Quincy Adams, Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston Logan International Airport, Route 128, Arnold Arboretum, Fogg Museum

Kansas City - Country Club Plaza, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, KC Royals, KC Chiefs, Hallmark, H&R Bloch, Garmin, Sprint, Brookside, Mission Hills, Overland Park, Leawood, Prairie Village, Olathe, Lenexa, Parkville, Lee's Summit, UMKC, Johnson County, Ward Parkway, boulevards, fountains, Kansas City Zoo, barbecue, Bible Belt, KU, Jayhawks, Wizard of Oz, tornados, Missouri River, Lake of the Ozarks, Loose Park, National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, WWI Museum, Science City at Union Station, Kansas City Power & Light District, KCI, Unity School of Christianity, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Unicorn Theatre, Powell Gardens, Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Garden, 18th & Vine 

Rochester (NY) - Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, Constellation Brands, Paychex, photonics, University of Rochester, RIT, Eastman School of Music, Eastman Theatre, dance, film festivals, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, Finger Lakes, wineries, Lake Ontario, Irondequoit Bay, Genesee River, Erie Canal, parks, festivals, golf, sailing, George Eastman Museum, The Strong National Museum of Play, RMSC (Rochester Museum & Science Center), Memorial Art Gallery, RoCo (Rochester Contemporary Art Art Center), Geva Theatre Center, The Little Theatre, Pittsford Village, Fairport, garbage plate, white hots, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Rochester Public Market, East Avenue, Park Avenue, Neighborhood of the Arts, Canandaigua, CMAC, fruit farms, dairy farms, grapes, Abbott's Custard

This was all off the top of my head. Now conduct this analysis with hundreds of people from various market segments, in the case of places, including at least residents, visitors, event planners and business relocation consultants. From this, you can discern patterns and potential brand positioning angles. For instance, in my associations, consider what types of associations came to my mind and whether the types of associations differed from city to city. And consider how many of each type of association (building, cultural institution, neighborhood, town name, sports team, event, type of food, company, famous person, etc.) emerges for each brand. Also, consider how the associations vary by market segment and which ones are shared by all market segments. In brand positioning, one must always focus on the positives or the assets, not the negatives or the weaknesses. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Tell-tale Signs that Your Brand Consultant is Inept

The problem with any industry is that it includes some inept practitioners. The marketing industry is no exception to this. If you have retained a marketing research firm, brand consultant, marketing agency, brand identity firm or other outside expert that displays any of the following, reconsider using that entity or individual for brand strategy work:

  • They talk about trustworthiness, integrity or say, "to tell you the truth." It has been my observation that individuals and organizations that talk about these things are the ones for whom the truth does not come naturally. 
  • They are happy to reposition your brand without extensive customer research.
  • They do not have a deep knowledge of marketing research techniques. 
  • Their only employees are graphic designers or copy writers. (To be fair, although rare, I have known some very strategic graphic designers and copy writers.)
  • They create brand positions that focus on more than one or two brand benefits or values. 
  • They use lots of confusing jargon. ("If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.")
  • You end up with any of these brand positions: "We are the brand leader in the XYZ industry." "We are the innovation leader in the XYZ industry." "We are the quality leader in the XYZ industry." "We are the customer service leader in the XYZ category."
  • They immediately jump to specific tactics such as social media, advertising campaigns or websites rather than strategy.
  • They have a system that labels your brand as one of a few specified types, such as one of twelve archetypes. I was made aware of one firm that charged clients for determining if their brand was a bear, dolphin, wolf or lion.
  • Everything in their proposal seems boilerplate. It probably is. 
  • They seem to tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to know. That is, they cater to the client's whims whether or not those whims are supported by the data and sound thinking. 
  • They sound more like slick salespeople than serious, thoughtful consultants.