Monday, February 23, 2015

Branding as a Solution to All Organizational Problems

As a branding consultant, I am the beneficiary of branding being a high profile area of focus for organizations.  We have been invited into hundreds of organizations to help them improve their brand awareness, positioning and perceptions. However, perhaps one out of every five times we are contacted, the primary problem is not a branding problem. Organizations often try to solve other problems with a new name, logo, tagline, “elevator speech,” or brand marketing campaign when the problem really lies elsewhere.

What are the sorts of problems that we encounter? First, business model problems. The organization is approaching its business or its customers in an unproductive or unprofitable way. Second, leadership problems. The leader gets in the organization’s way, creates a toxic culture or is leading the organization in a direction that will not achieve the intended results. Third, systems problems. Computer or human systems are working against the ideal customer experience, despite the organization’s best intentions. Fourth, business development/sales problems. I have encountered organizations in which the salespeople were pursuing the wrong customers or the right customers in unproductive ways or just plain scaring customers away. Fifth, product or service problems. I have worked with organizations that were trying to market products or services that no longer met customer needs or that were otherwise no longer competitive in the marketplace.

When I encounter these types of situations, as the retained consultant, I share my assessment of the underlying problem and recommend solutions. Often the organization listens to what I have to say and initiates other projects to solve the underlying problem. But some organizations turn a deaf ear and demand a new name or logo to solve the problem.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Self Image and Branding

Most people view themselves in the context of a wide variety of identity elements:
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Intelligence
  • Physical characteristics
        o   Health
           o   Fitness
     o   Attractiveness
  • Personal values
  • Personality attributes
  • Competencies/talents
  • Vocation
  • Avocations/hobbies
  • Religious beliefs
  • Nationality
  • Place of residence
  • School affiliations
  • Political party affiliation
  • Other organizational affiliations
  • Income level
  • Wealth level
  • Social class
  • Peer or social group affiliation

Many of the identity elements interact with and reinforce (or conflict with) one another. People often emphasize the elements that are the most advantageous in a given context.  Each of these identity elements contributes to a sense of self and each of these could be an entry point for brand alignment and self-image reinforcement.

Source: Brand Aid, second edition, © 2015 Brad VanAuken

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Branding Lessons for Entrepreneurs

It is never too early in the process to understand who your brand’s customers are, what motivates them and how to reach them. Doing this at the end of the product development process is usually too late. You will have developed a more unique and compelling solution if it was based on these insights earlier on in the process.

Your solution needs to deliver greater value (that is more functional, emotional, experiential or self-expressive benefits for less money or effort) than competitive offerings for it to break through and gain share. Make sure you understand what your brand’s unique value proposition is.

Customer insight will help you create a brand message that resonates with your customers, one that is unique and purchase motivating. Effectively articulating relevant differentiation is key to building a strong brand.  In addition to advertising copy, this message can be translated to a pithy brand “tagline” and a brand “elevator speech” (typically 40 to 70 words) that you and your company’s employees can use when talking about your brand.

Marketing your brand and its products should not be underfunded. If you offer superior products backed by outstanding service at very good prices delivering an outstanding value but no one has ever heard of your company, brand or products, how many sales will you get? Zero.  No awareness = no sales. Awareness building is perhaps the most important component of building a strong brand.

You have the most potential to save money on marketing when deciding on which media/vehicles to use to get your messages out – email, direct mail, targeted publicity, targeted advertising, specific trade shows, etc. Spending money on highly targeted media (versus less targeted or mass media) will save you quite a bit of money in reaching your target audiences. It is usually not wise to jump on a good media deal if it is not laser focused at your intended customers. Develop and follow a highly effective and efficient media plan.

After you have accomplished all of this, distribution becomes the most important key to success.  The brand that is more available to its target customer has two advantages: (1) it is easier to find and purchase and (2) it has greater marketplace exposure leading to greater brand awareness.

Finally, a word on consistency. Changing the brand’s logo, tagline and messaging on a frequent basis will ensure that nothing about your brand sticks in your intended customers’ heads. Consistency and repetition build strong brands.  Once you have developed a unique and compelling value proposition for your brand, repeat it again and again and again. In general, people need to hear something 7 to 10 times before it registers with them.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Brand Momentum

Owned for many years by H&R Block, CompuServe was the first major commercial online service in the United States. It was founded in 1979, dominated the field in the 1980s and was still a major player through the mid-1990s. Prodigy, the second major online service provider, was founded in 1984 as a joint venture between CBS, IBM and Sears. It offered its subscribers access to a broad range of networked services, including news, weather, shopping, bulletin boards, games, polls, expert columns, banking, stocks, travel, and a variety of other features. In 1990, CompuServe had 600,000 subscribers and Prodigy had 465,000 subscribers. But then AOL entered the scene and quickly dwarfed both companies. Begun as Control Video Corporation and focusing on games using specific computer platforms in the early to mid-1980s, the company altered its strategy over time and changed its name to AOL in late 1989. Positioned as an online service for people unfamiliar with computers, at its peak, AOL had more than 30 million subscribers worldwide. How did it do this?

AOL was infamous for saturating the market with its FREE CD-ROMs and diskettes containing computer software for accessing the America Online service in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I recall personally receiving at least 20 of these disks during that time period through multiple distribution vehicles. Each one offered 700 or 1000 free hours of service. They featured such a wide variety of designs (more than 4,000) that people began collecting the disks. This is the momentum that pushed AOL over the top. (Unfortunately, AOL began a steady decline soon after its merger with Time Warner in 2001.) also experienced huge momentum that has brought the company to its current size today. It was the darling of the business press and rode a wave of increasing publicity throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.  In 1999, Time magazine named Jeff Bezos “Person of the Year” for’s pioneering and popularizing of online shopping. While’s business plan allowed for four to five years of red ink before it became profitable, its constant publicity built its brand name quickly not only among the business community but also with the general public.

When I took over as marketing vice president at Element K, a leading e-learning company, our intent was to be one of the first companies to “cross the finish line” in the very new and crowded e-learning space. In less than two years, we emerged from one of thousands of e-learning companies to one of the top four due to aggressive and unrelenting awareness building among our primary target audience, chief learning officers of Fortune 1000 companies.

These are three examples of brand momentum, something we measure in our brand equity studies. Think of brand momentum as the general perception that the brand is an exciting up-and-coming brand, a brand to be watched and a brand to be tried. It is the opposite of a legacy brand that “rests on its laurels.” A brand with momentum will receive high scores on the following measures:
  • I seem to hear and see more about this brand lately
  • I feel like this brand is changing for the better

It will also be perceived to possess the following personality attributes:
  • Dynamic
  • Up and coming
  • Leading edge
  • Progressive

And not the following personality attributes:
  • Boring
  • Traditional

We have found that brands that are perceived to be vital and possess positive momentum will have sales that exceed those predicted by purchase intent scores, while legacy brands that are perceived to be the opposite will have sales that lag those predicted by purchase intent scores.

The trick is to create the perception of strength, vision, forward momentum, popularity and thought leadership without breaking the bank or running out of capital. This can be best accomplished by laser like focus on the primary target audiences and then through aggressive and relentless communication to those people. Investing resources in substantial public relations efforts, keeping industry and financial analysts and other industry experts well informed, writing white papers, authoring popular blogs, dominating the most important industry trade shows and conferences and other such activities are critical to building and maintaining this momentum, as is delivering legendary service whenever possible to generate “buzz.”

In a way, this goes back to the evergreen advice, “Fake it until you make it” or “Act as though you are what you aspire to be.” That is, be confident and assume the leadership role in the industry even if yours is the smallest organization in the industry. Perceived momentum creates the conditions for further momentum.  That is at the core of the concept of momentum. A caution: an organization will not survive in the long run if it is all hype and no substance. Ultimately, you will need to bring something unique, fresh or superior to the market, but the perception of momentum will attract more confidence in and resources to your organization while it is on its path to industry leadership in a crowded market.

I wish your brand significant perceived momentum in its industry.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Brand is a Friend

The following story best illustrates what brand equity is.

Imagine you are having lunch with a longtime and very good friend. Several times throughout the lunch, she makes disparaging and sarcastic remarks that make you feel bad. You think to yourself, “This just isn’t like her. She must be having a bad day.” You meet with her again a week or two later, and again she acts ornery and negative. You think to yourself, “Something must be going on in her life that she’s really struggling with. Maybe she is having difficulties with her job or her health or her marriage or her children.” You may even ask her if everything is all right. She snaps back, “Of course it is.”

Your interaction with her continues in this vein over the next couple of months. You continue to try to be supportive, but she’s definitely getting on your nerves. After many meetings and much interaction, you finally decide that she’s a changed person and someone with whom you prefer to spend less and less time. You may get to this point after a few months, or perhaps even after a year or more. She doesn’t change, and eventually the relationship peters out.

Now consider for a moment that the person you first had lunch with is the same person as before, with one exception: She is a total stranger to you. You haven’t met her previously and she is not your dear friend. I would guess that after enduring many caustic comments and being insulted a few times at that lunch, your first impression wouldn’t be very positive. In fact, you’d probably be inclined not to get together with that person again. You’d probably walk away from that lunch thinking, “What a miserable person. I hope I don’t run into her again.”

In both of these scenarios it is the same person behaving the same way in the same situation. Yet in the first scenario, you are very quick to forgive the behavior. In fact, you feel a lot of concern toward her. In the second scenario, you can’t wait for the lunch to be over and you hope never to see the person again.

In the first scenario, the person was a longtime good friend. She had a lot of equity with you. In the second scenario, she had no equity at all. You see, if people or brands have a lot of equity—that is, if you know, like, and trust them—you will “cut them a lot of slack” even if they repeatedly fail to meet your expectations. If a person, product, service, or organization has no equity with you, no emotional connection, and no trust, then you are much less inclined to forgive unmet expectations.

© 2015 Brad VanAuken
Excerpted from Brand Aid, second edition

Friday, February 13, 2015

Volvo Brand Strategy

In the late 1990s to mid-2000s, Volvo Car executives believed the brand position of the “ultimate safe car” for families was too limiting and began to extend the brand into the performance car segment targeted at men. Results were disappointing. When Ford bought Volvo in 1999, it pushed the brand into the crowded luxury brand market. Ten years later, sales were down 20 percent from where they were when Ford first purchased the brand.

Volvo Car Corporation was then acquired by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. Under this new ownership, in August 2011, Volvo Car announced a new global brand strategy—”Designed Around You,” focusing on a position of human-centric luxury cars that are safe and dependable.

In November 2013, Volvo Car Corporation announced a new brand strategy designed to revive the brand in the United States after a decade of declining demand. According to Automotive News, “The new focus is on ‘Scandinavian’ design, safety, environmental leadership, and ‘clever functionality’ reflected in state of the art—yet simple— infotainment systems.” 

Volvo’s primary brand association is still “safety.” And safety is still most valued by parents with children living at home. And Volvo is still one of the most trusted automobile brands. Any repositioning must be congruent with and build on its reputation as the “ultimate safe car.”

Excerpted from Brand Aid, second edition
© 2015 Brad VanAuken

Brand Aid, second edition can be purchased at or now.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Understanding the Customer

Brand naming, brand positioning, brand architecture, product design, package design, advertising campaigns - what do all of these and every other marketing component have in common? To be successful, they must be based on a deep understanding of the customer, including his beliefs, attitudes, values, hopes, fears, desires and needs.

I continue to be surprised by how many of our clients lack this customer insight. They create new brands and sub-brands without it. They name brands without it. The create tag lines without it. They design products without it. They create new packaging without it. And they even develop new advertising campaigns without it.

Every organization should have resources and processes/mechanisms to gain deep customer insight. This could be in the form of consumer managers, marketing research professionals, salesforce feedback mechanisms, customer co-creation processes or something else.

Related to this is the belief that "our brand is for everyone," giving the marketer a "pass" on creating more focused marketing messages and campaigns. "We can't say anything in particular because our brand appeals to such a large cross-section of people."

Central to brands are their focus and targeting. This is what makes them relevant and compelling. Take the time to get to know your customers so that you are able to focus all that you do for greatest advantage based on their particular beliefs, attitudes, values, hopes, fears, desires and needs.

I wish you every success with this.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Market Segmentation

Markets can be segmented in the following ways:

  • Product Usage Segmentation. For instance, some people use baking soda to deodorize their refrigerators, while others use it as a surface soft scrub, to treat insect bites or itchy skin or as a toothpaste.
  • Purchase Behavior Segmentation. In many industries, four groups that often emerge to one degree or another are:
             1. Brand loyal consumers
             2. Convenience-driven consumers
             3. Price-driven consumers
             4. Consumers that enjoy seeking out new brands and products within the category

  • Benefit Segmentation. People might buy a sailboat to race, for a daysail, to cruise on a vacation, to live aboard, to entertain friends, or as a second home.
  • Price Segmentation. Price segmentation will yield higher overall revenues and profits if designed properly. Airlines have made a science out of price segmentation. First-class travelers pay more. Business travelers with tight schedules will be less price sensitive. Tourists with fixed budgets, flexible schedules, and a long planning horizon will look for lower fares. Some people will only travel taking advantage of last-minute seat-filling bargain prices. Other last minute travelers have no choice and behaviorally (but probably not attitudinally) are virtually price insensitive. Seats are less expensive on slower days (Saturdays, December 25, etc.).
  • Lifestage Segmentation. There is a system of segmenting adults into eight distinct mindsets using a specific set of psychological traits and demographics that are proven to drive consumer behavior. Consult: Strategic Business Insights VALS (values and lifestyles) at vals/ustypes.shtml, and Yankelovich MONITOR at
  • Cohort Group Segmentation. Refers to people who were born at approximately the same time and who have experienced the same events at the same life stages.
  • Psychographic Segmentation. Refers to segmenting people based on their values, attitudes, and lifestyles.
  • Geographic Segmentation. Segmenting people according to their geographic location can help target people in the same socioeconomic bracket who may share interests or concerns.
  • Geodemographic Segmentation. Refers to segmenting people based on their location—typically zip or postal code—and demographics, such as age and income. Consult: Nielsen PRIZM and Nielsen’s other segmentation tools ( and CACI’s ACORN (

(c) 2015 by Brad VanAuken, excerpted from Brand Aid, second edition

Available at or now.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Brand Schizophrenia

While brands should not be monolithic, one-dimensional or static entities, neither should they be something different at every turn. Complexity and nuance can work, as can an evolving personality. However, standing for something different from one medium to the next or from one customer to the next borders on schizophrenia. An inconsistent brand voice borders on the same, as does an inconsistent brand identity or message. 

How does this happen? Are your brand's marketing efforts divided into silos? Is advertising separate from promotion? Does someone else handle selling scripts or trade show booths? How about social media? Who handles package design? Who handles store signage? Does your brand use different marketing agencies for different needs? Do you allow a decentralized sales force to create marketing pieces for your brand? Do you have frequent turnover or promotion on your marketing staff?

What mechanisms have you created to insure consistency? Do you have a widely understood and accepted brand positioning statement? Is there consensus on your brand's archetype, personality, voice and visual style? Do you communicate all of this in every agency brief?  Do you have a brand identity review board? How about a digital asset management system? Do you measure your brand's equity on a regular schedule? Is someone responsible for your brand's management? Does everyone in your organization know what your brand stands for and what its promise is? Do you integrate brand strategy training into all employee training? 

I hope you are not creating a schizophrenic brand. People don't know what to expect of schizophrenic brands. They can't trust schizophrenic brands. And, most importantly, it is difficult for them to encode any association with schizophrenic brands into their brains as the associations are constantly changing. Say "yes" to layered, nuanced brands that have a strong point of view and a consistent promise and message. Say "no" to brands that act as though they have multiple identities and personalities. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Trustworthy Brands

While high awareness gives a brand an edge in the market and constant innovation makes a brand exciting and appealing, being worthy of a customer’s trust keeps people loyal to a brand.

People don’t like surprises, especially of the negative kind. They don’t want a product that breaks or fails. They are not happy about a service failure.  A strong brand that is consistent in its delivery can be trusted. People don’t want to worry about poor quality or non-performance. If they purchase a brand that they know and trust, they can rest assured that they will get what they expected.

If a brand does fail, it needs to transform that failure into a brand-building moment.  It needs not only to recover from the failure but also to surprise and delight the customer with its unexpected value-added remedy.

And woe unto a brand that is found to be dishonest. As in human relationships, if a brand is discovered not to deliver on its promises, especially more than once, people find it difficult to ever trust that brand again.  And, if you can’t trust the brand, why maintain a relationship with it?

Have you established systems, policies, processes and training that insure brand integrity and consistency and that prepare for remarkable recoveries?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Choosing a Brand Consultant

Choosing a brand consultant can be tricky. First, you must determine what you are seeking in a brand consultant. Do you want to know how your brand stacks up against competitive alternatives? Are you concerned about an emergent competitor? Has your brand lost its competitive edge? Do you need to reposition your brand? Has your brand’s architecture gotten too complicated? Are you seeking an updated identity? Does your brand need a new tagline? Do you want to create a new marketing campaign? Are you trying to rally employees in support of the brand? Are you trying to create an improved brand building culture within your organization? Do you need to understand your brand’s customers better? Are you looking for ongoing education for your marketers? Be specific and clear about what you are seeking in a brand consultant.

Next, find out what the consultant’s skill sets are. Marketing research? Brand equity measurement? Brand valuation? Marketing strategy formulation? Brand (re)positioning? Brand identity development? Brand plan development? Advertising campaign development? Brand extension? Ask not only for a client list, but also for case studies on the services in which you are most interested. What type of person is the organization mostly comprised of? Brand strategists? Marketing researchers? Graphic artists? Copywriters? Account executives?

And, know this, if the consultant’s tool is primarily a hammer (or copywriting or marketing research) every one of your problems will seem like a nail (or a copy writing exercise or a research exercise) to him or her. People and organizations mostly use the tools with which they are most familiar.

While a list of big name clients can be impressive, ask what project or projects the consultant did for specific clients. Many of the biggest brands have used multiple consultants over time and even in a given year depending on the division or specific need. Sometimes a consultant’s best work may be for a smaller, lesser known client for which there is a greater chance for enterprise-wide impact.

We often are asked if we have extensive experience in category XYZ. Sometimes the same people also want us not to have worked with one of their competitors recently. Other than the pharmaceutical industry, I have found that brand work does not vary much across branded entities, from consumer packaged goods, B2B, healthcare and professional services companies to universities, museums, municipalities and start-ups. While there are some differences, deep knowledge of a specific industry or product category is generally far less important than specific brand consulting knowledge and experience.

A good consultant is good at listening. Have the consultants you are considering feed your situation and issues back to you. The one who has the deepest understanding and insight is the one most likely to do the best job for you. That is probably also the one who asked the most probing questions before crafting a proposal. Watch out for the consultants whose approach is “cookie cutter” – replace the last client’s name with your brand’s name and the proposal is “good to go.”

Client references and testimonials are also very helpful. Don’t hesitate to ask the references detailed questions about their branding projects and the value that the brand consultant added to those projects.

Be wary of large consulting companies that send in their business development “A” team to make the pitch. They will knock your socks off (because that is what they are supposed to do), but you will likely never see those people again. Someone else will be assigned to your project. Make sure you have met the people who will be assigned to your project and especially the day-to-day team leader. That is the person on whose shoulders your project’s success will rest.

I wish you great success in selecting the brand consultant who is right for your brand’s specific needs.