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.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

When a Brand's Problem is Not a Marketing Problem

Occasionally, I have encountered brand problems that are not marketing problems. As we conduct brand equity research for companies, we discover that the problem is not with the brand's promise, nor is it with the marketing communication. In fact, it is not with any of the typical brand equity dimensions (such as awareness and relevant differentiation) but rather it is with operational, service and quality issues. These are often detected through open-ended brand association responses and brand personality assessments among other metrics. 

I have always contended that delivery against the brand's promise is at least as important as the brand's promise itself. If a brand is delivering inferior products or horrible customer service or if other points of interaction with customers are broken, it doesn't matter what the brand promises or how good the marketing communication is, the brand will fail. It is important for a brand manager to know if the brand's products and services (including customer service, technical support and online interaction) are of the highest quality and responsive to customers' needs. A comprehensive brand equity measurement system will uncover these problems. 

Sometimes a brand manager needs to inform his or her organization of other issues that are standing in the way of brand and business success. An effective brand manager will know how to do this without placing blame, damaging egos or creating turf battles. The most important thing is to fix the problems.  Certainly, these are the issues about which a CEO needs to be informed.

Businesses, Brands & Human Needs

The primary purpose of a business is to make money, right? And shareholders are a business' most important stakeholder, right? And the marketing and sales functions exist to generate additional revenues, right? So, ultimately brands exist to increase sales and profits, right?

Partially right, but it is always important to remember that any business, in fact, any organization truly only exists because it meets one or more human needs. The needs can be functional, emotional, experiential or self-expressive. The organization and its products and services can solve a problem, reduce pain, increase comfort, free up time, lower costs, improve self-esteem, heal an illness, distract, entertain, assist in a difficult task, aid in learning, support a lifestyle or hobby, increase a person's success, impart knowledge, reduce weight, increase beauty or one of a myriad of other things, but they meet human needs. And strong brands do this in unique and emotionally compelling ways.

As marketers we would be wise to always remember that. How does one increase revenues, profits and shareholder value? By consistently meeting human needs. And how do brands do that? By consistently meeting human needs in unique and emotionally compelling ways. Remembering this will make all of the difference in the world. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Brand SWOT Analysis

Do you fully understand all of your brand's strengths and weaknesses? Do you understand its opportunities and threats including its brand positioning opportunities and threats? Do you know how to optimize its positioning? Have you identified your brand's critical vulnerabilities? Do you know what you need to do to take your brand to the next level? 

Is your brand plan based on these insights? Is your spending designed to leverage your brand's strengths and overcome or compensate for its weaknesses? 

Paraphrasing management guru Tom Peters, you can't manage it if you don't measure it. 

So, what can you do to identify your brand's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? You can start with a comprehensive brand audit. You can also conduct a wide variety of brand research. But, perhaps most importantly, you can conduct brand equity research.

Your brand equity research should be diagnostic and it should be comprehensive. It needs to include the five drivers of customer brand insistence - awareness, relevant differentiation, value, accessibility and emotional connection - at a minimum. It should identify what your brand owns in the minds of its customers - its position. It should result in detailed brand positioning maps. Ideally, it also measures brand vitality and brand loyalty. It is helpful if it identifies all of a brand's associations and the brand's personality. And finally, it is essential that the research measures the same for competitive brands because no brand operates in a vacuum (or is positioned in a vacuum). 

If you would like help in measuring the equity of your brand and discovering its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) including its brand positioning opportunities and threats, our proprietary BrandInsistence(SM) brand equity measurement system does just that. It measures more than 70 different brand equity components for your brand and competitive brands, resulting in detailed findings including a SWOT analysis and specific recommendations.

Here are some other blog posts I have written on brand equity measurement: Brand Equity Measurement 101 and Brand Equity Measurement 101.

To read more about brand equity measurement, refer to the chapter with this title in my Brand Aid book

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Reemergence of Authenticity

I am making a prediction. In the age of "false news" and "alternative facts," more and more people will grow weary of being lied to. While the Internet and instantaneous global communication enables people to easily create unverified and uncorroborated "stories" and "news," it also enables the truth to eventually come out on almost everything. And while it may enable tribalism and tribal echo chambers, it also can be the source of whistleblowing and challenging alternative points of view.

It is my opinion that we are on the cusp of much greater transparency and a return to authenticity. Nothing is purely good or bad or black or white. Everything is much more complicated than that. I believe we will soon enter a period in which the ugly truth will be preferred to a sanitized lie, where the admission of guilt will be better received than the denial of wrongdoing, where a brand's warts will be viewed to be a part of the brand's rich tapestry of existence.

In this world, brands will level with their customers. And they will work together with them to solve problems. If errors are made or service is lacking, the truth will be known, amends will be made and the brand and its managers will learn and grow from the experience. In this world, brands are trustworthy. They possess integrity. They are introspective. And they listen, learn and grow from feedback.

And, in this world, consumers are more patient, more tolerant, less judgmental and more understanding. This all occurs because there is a partnership between brands and their customers, a real partnership, a partnership based on trust. In this world, brands need to come clean if they have made mistakes. And customers will need to cut them some slack for having done so.

I think people will increasingly long for authenticity. "Just be real." "Just let me know what is really going on. I can work with that."

Yes, there will always be charlatans and people and brands who will make promises that they can't keep, but increasingly we will search out those brands with which we can let our guards down, one's that we know are not lying to us, one's that we can rely on to be who they say they are.

And this authenticity does not substitute for excellence or even a unique value proposition. But, I believe there will be a backlash to the time in which we are currently living and the backlash will demand authenticity. You would do well to get your brand ready for that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Key Brand Management & Marketing Decisions

Decisions, decisions, decisions. What are the most important ones for brand managers? It depends on the scope of the job function within your organization, but here are the typical important decisions:

  • Who are the brand's target customers?
  • What are the different customer segments and why have we created those segments?
  • What is the brand's competitive frame of reference? 
  • What is the brand's essence, promise, archetype and personality?
  • What are the brand's key differentiating benefits or values?
  • What does our brand "own" in the minds of its customers? What is its positioning from their perspectives?
  • What are the most important proof points for the brand's unique value proposition or promise?
  • What are the most important brand messages overall and for each market segment?
  • What is the brand's elevator speech?
  • Do we need a brand story? Do we have one? How compelling is it?
  • What is the brand's product/service portfolio?
  • Should we add some products or services? Which ones and why? Should we eliminate some products or services? Which ones and why?
  • What sub-brands and product names exist as a part of the brand's architecture? Why?
  • Should we simplify or otherwise optimize our brand's architecture?
  • What is the brand's pricing strategy?
  • What is the brand's distribution strategy? Is our brand in the right distribution channels?
  • Does the brand have a consistent but powerful identity system? Is this codified in a guidelines manual? 
  • Does everyone in our organization know what the brand stands for? Can they consistently articulate the brand's elevator speech?
  • Do we know how to define and measure the brand's equity? Do we know what it is?
  • What are the metrics by which we will evaluate the success of the brand?
  • Do we have a comprehensive brand plan? Are we actively managing the brand against that plan?
  • What are the brand's market share, sales and profit goals?
  • Who is responsible for achieving or exceeding brand goals?
  • Should we extend the brand into new product or service categories? If so, which ones and why?
  • Should we license the brand to third parties? Why? What impact will it have on the brand and its associations?
  • Should we expand the brand's geographic footprint? If so, to what markets?
  • What is the brand's awareness among its target markets? If it is not acceptable, what should we do to increase the awareness?
  • Are our customers emotionally connected to our brand? If not, what should we do to increase that emotional connection?
  • Are people loyal to our brand? If not, what should we do to increase that loyalty?
  • Do we have the right marketing mix? What is our media plan? Is our media mix optimal?
  • Given limited budgets, to what extent should we focus on reach versus frequency in brand communication?
  • Are we using proactive publicity to supplement our paid brand marketing?
  • Do we really understand how to build our brand online through social media and other digital approaches? If not, how do we get better at this?
  • Are our marketing agency partners the right ones? Are they doing the best job for us? Is it time to conduct an agency search/review?
  • Are we doing all that we can to protect our brand's intellectual property legally?
  • Do we possess all of the competencies necessary to manage the brand properly and to increase its equity and financial contributions to our organization?
How many of these decisions are you actively making as brand manager? What other key decisions have I missed? Let me know in the comments section below.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Global Branding and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

As a marketer, you are likely quite familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  If you are not, please read this blog post first.

I have spent time in a number of countries on different continents training brand managers and helping them build their brands. In the process of doing this, I have noticed that different types of brand messages work better in different countries. In particular, a country and its stage of development seems to be closely correlated with the effectiveness of specific messages. Here is what I have found:

  • If a country is only a generation or less removed from tribalism, especially nomadic tribalism, safety, security and belonging messages work best
  • If a country is developing, family, belonging and especially status messages work best
  • If a country is an advanced civilization with long-time urbanization and significant wealth, the messages that work best are a combination of social status and increasingly self-expression, creativity and self-actualization

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Branding in Highly Competitive Categories

Today, almost every category is a crowded category. Whether I am working with company, product, service, university, municipality or personal brands, it seems as though the majority of competitors are choosing to say the same things about themselves within their categories, rendering all of them undifferentiated. This is because most every category is mature and most every brand is informed by robust customer research.

For instance, I just returned from facilitating a "personal value proposition" workshop for MBA students. I was retained to help the students differentiate themselves in job interviews. In reviewing each student's personal value proposition, I found that more than half of the students chose to talk about some of the same personal qualities that would be important to employers. "I am a good team player." "I am a strategic thinker." "I have strong analytical skills." "I can get things done." "I can think 'out of the box.'"

This reminds me of work I recently did to help a business school create a differentiated brand. When I looked at what that school was saying about itself and what its primary competitors were saying about themselves, they were the same things. "We provide a career-focused education." "We prepare students for the global economy." "We emphasize leadership development." "Our student's are job ready on day one." "Our program has strong analytical and technology components." "We teach teamwork skills." "Entrepreneurship is an important part of our program."

And, if I think about the corporate brands that I have worked with, they also seem to orbit around a certain set of attributes - innovation, trustworthiness, responsiveness, customer-service orientation, high quality products, and more recently, brand purpose. 

This sameness even extends itself into specific product and service categories. Beverage brands seem to focus on the same things as do grocery store chains, pet food products, apparel brands and almost every other category of brands. 

So, what is a brand to do? Southwest Airlines picked "a sense of humor" as a differentiator, an unlikely benefit for an airline to try to own. I helped a bank pick a similar attribute - fun, again an unlikely differentiator. Interestingly, a global reinsurance company that I worked with was also known for its sense of humor. I worked with a children's beverage brand whose primary differentiator was that children considered it to be a toy as much as a drink.

But this is not the only type of unexpected differentiator. Let's go back to MBA students again. What if your point of difference was "I speak five different languages fluently" or "I have started three highly successful companies" or "I am a big picture thinker who is also highly detail oriented." Or what if your point of difference was "I am completely calm under the greatest pressure." Not every MBA student is able to or will say these things about him- or herself. 

My point is that there are still highly compelling points of difference for a brand to own despite great pressure to say the same things as your competitors because those things emerged as top customer needs from extensive research. 

I wish you great success in differentiating your brand.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Choosing the Right Competitive Frame of Reference

It is more important to choose an appropriate competitive frame of reference for your brand than you might think. The competitive frame of reference has significant implications for competitive strategy, brand strategy and brand positioning. And it has significant implications for brand research, including brand equity research.

As I am in the midst of conducting a brand equity study for a health care brand, I am reminded again how important it is to frame the category properly and to choose a category label that the brand's customers understand. For instance, people get confused about "health care" brands, "medical provider" brands, "health care system" brands, "health care network" brands and "medical center" brands. When asked about one or more of these brands in open-ended brand awareness questions, people list medical insurance companies, medical insurance exchanges, individual doctors, local medical practices, hospitals, outpatient clinics, dentists and other categories of brands. For instance, people might answer with all of these options for the same competitive frame of reference question: Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, Kaiser Permanente, Obamacare, Medicaid, Medicare, Dr. Schwartz, Memorial Hospital, Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic, Springfield Medical Practice, Feldman Chiropractic, Rochester Medical Center and Gemini Medical Office Park. However, this list of brands is akin to comparing apples to oranges to bananas to cherries. 

To arrive at the right competitive frame of reference wording, you need to consider each of the following:

  • The set of competitors you are most interested in for your brand
  • The set of competitors against which you are positioning your brand
  • The most appropriate label for this set of competitors
  • Whether your customers will understand this label or whether you need to modify it for them to better understand it

I wish you great success in choosing the most appropriate competitive frame of reference for your brand.

To read more about this topic, my previous posts on the topic are here and here.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Don't Wait Until It's Too Late

Organizations of all types contact us when they need help with their brands. Often, we work with very strong brands that want to improve their marketplace positions. At other times, we work with brands that may have lost their edge or even their way over time, either because they had become complacent or because of marketplace disruptions. Today, I want to talk about a third type of brand. These are the desperate brands that are in crisis mode. 

One organization we worked with had computer system failures that made it impossible for its customers to use its brand. Further, this brand's customers were pursuing a class action lawsuit against the brand.

A luxury brand we worked with had an absolutely beautiful product that typically sold at a 95%+ price discount. This was because the product rarely lasted a few weeks before it broke and was no longer usable. Further, the management team of that brand had no idea who its customers were or why they bought its defective products.

A higher education brand we worked with had no competitive brand position or messaging. They basically said, "We are a college. Come here if you want to go to college."

One brand had a problem with its billing system that made it very difficult for the company to collect its earned revenues. 

Another organization's problem was its management team and the toxic culture that it created. Everyone was focused on taking everyone else down, not on doing what was right for the business. 

We have been approached a couple of times by high profile personal brands (individuals) who were in crisis mode because they had run afoul of the law.

We worked with another organization that had been taken over by a venture capital firm. That firm was targeting a new customer segment that was completely alienating that brand's core customer segment to "juice" short term revenues so that they could sell the company at a profit.

Another brand we worked with had less than a .5% unaided awareness among its target audience. Very few people had ever heard of the brand.

One brand had not attracted a new customer in over two years. A large part of the problem was nepotism. The business development person was ill suited to the job but the son of the founder. 

One business owner had a very high end restaurant that was doing poorly. The problem was a total lack of marketing skills including the nearly fatal targeting of the wrong customer who could not afford the product.

Fortunately, in all cases, we were able to help these brands. However, many of these brands were at a point of desperation before they decided to reach out for help. And some of them had cash flow and other financial problems, making it much more difficult for them to seek the help they so desperately needed. 

It is much easier to strengthen your brand when things are going well than it is when your brand is on the brink of failure. In either case, we can help you. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Quick Brand Health Assessment

You know your brand is winning in the marketplace when:
  • The brand is mentioned to customers and potential customers, and they brim with enthusiasm in their response.
  • Your brand’ s external messages “ring true” with all employees.
  • Employees are enthusiastic and consistent in recounting what makes their brand special.
  • The brand’s market share is increasing.
  • Competitors always mention your brand as a point of reference.
  • The press can’t seem to write enough about your brand.
  • Your CEO has a strong vision for the organization and its brand and talks more about the vision than financial targets.
  • Your organization’s leaders always seem to “talk the brand” and “walk the brand talk.”

Regarding the fifth bullet, your competitors mention your brand as a point of reference, I am always amused by the colleges or universities that describes themselves as "The Harvard of ..." Here is a partial list of those:
  • Stanford: Harvard of the West
  • Duke: Harvard of the South
  • Washington University: Harvard of the Midwest
  • University of Arizona: Harvard of the Southwest

Can you think of another category in which one brand is the point of reference for so many other brands? Every brand should aspire to be referred to in this way.

Bed Bath & Beyond - A Simple Marketing Tactic

As we approach mid-summer, retailers have begun merchandising back-to-school items (always a depressing thing to me because it reminds me of the fleeting nature of the summer months). Bed Bath & Beyond is no exception to this practice. My wife arrived home yesterday with a "School Information Document" for the University of Rochester that she picked up at our local Bed Bath & Beyond. She indicated that the store had made available customized versions of this document for each of our 18+ local colleges and universities. These documents are checklists that indicate what items are provided by the school and what to bring and what not to bring by category. The categories include bedding & accessories, storage and organization, bath/personal care & grooming, desk accessories, laundry & cleaning, electronics & audio, room decor and kitchen tools & dining. The documents indicate how you can shop online for these items and feature a map and directions to the local Bed Bath & Beyond store. 

Having spent years running marketing departments for companies, I can recognize a brilliant marketing tactic when I see one. This targets an important market segment at the right time of year. It requires minimum cost and effort to implement. It is likely to be very helpful to the targeted customer and it is very likely to result in significant incremental sales. My hat is off to the person who thought this up. This is what marketing is all about - discovering ways to make your customers' lives easier while selling more stuff. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Online Brand Management & Marketing Resources


www.brandingstrategysource.com—Branding Strategy Source provides practical information on brand research, strategy and positioning. It also covers brand equity measurement, brand architecture, brand extension and other brand management concepts.
www.clickz.com—Marketing news and expert advice, with a comprehensive archive of articles on all aspects of marketing.
www.iab.net—The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is comprised of more than 500 leading media and technology companies that are responsible for selling 86 percent of online advertising in the United States. The IAB educates marketers, agencies, media companies, and the wider business community about the value of interactive advertising.
www.mad.co.uk—Mad.co.uk is a group subscription service rather than an individual news site that connects marketing, advertising, design, and new media industry professionals to:
  • News, in-depth analysis, case studies, and best practice from its leading industry websites
  • Jobs through the Madjobs portal
  • Exclusive discounts and benefits to conferences, training, and awards
  • VIP networking events
marketing.about.com—About Marketing: articles, forums, chat, and more.
www.marketingprofs.com—The MarketingProfs editorial team finds the experts and in-the-trenches marketers who know what they are talking about and delivers practical advice that you can actually use through its newsletters, conferences, seminars, podcast, articles, and webcasts.
www.marketingsherpa.com—MarketingSherpa is a research institute specializing in tracking what works in all aspects of marketing, offering practical case studies, research, and training for marketers.
webmarketingtoday.com—The mission of Web Marketing Today is to publish down-to-earth articles, tutorials, webinars, and podcasts to help smaller, local businesses succeed online. Its authors are Internet marketing experts.


thearf.org/jarJournal of Advertising Research
www.brandingmagazine.com—Independent, daily brand journal
www.emeraldinsight.com (select the Journals and Books menu)—The Journal of Product & Brand Management
www.marketingpower.com—American Marketing Association
www.palgrave-journals.com/bm—Journal of Brand Management

www.salesandmarketing.com—Sales and Marketing Management

List excerpted from Brand Aid, second edition. For the complete list, purchase the book here© 2015 Brad VanAuken

Sunday, July 16, 2017

What Really Matters in Building Strong Brands?

So what's the bottom line? What really matters in building strong brands? 

This is what matters:

  • Creating an interesting and memorable identity and consistently presenting it over time
  • Gaining deep customer insight through market research
  • Owning a benefit that really matters
  • Standing for something admirable or important
  • Creating a compelling brand story
  • Maximizing brand presence (through communication and distribution)
  • Promoting brand buzz
  • Anticipating customer needs and innovating solutions to those needs
  • Paying attention to aesthetics
  • Engaging consumers at different touch points
  • Establishing brand metrics and managing the brand against those metrics
  • Building on brand strengths while shoring up potentially fatal brand weaknesses
  • Enlisting organization-wide understanding and support of the brand

Friday, July 14, 2017

Personal Branding

My favorite definition of a brand is "the personification of an organization or its products and services." In this way, the brand can hold a certain set of values, stand for something, have a personality and make promises. It can also connect emotionally with its customers and its other audiences. 

That is why the notion of personal branding seems somewhat ironic to me, because, given that definition of a brand, personal branding must be the process of making a human being more human. Or put in a slightly different way, it is imbuing the human being with a unique and admirable set of human qualities that are highly compelling to his or her target audiences. 

My approach to personal branding began with a very useful course that I took at Harvard Business School (HBS) - Self Assessment and Career Development. The course was based on the school's realization that those alumni who pursued what they loved were the most successful throughout their lives. So why not give its students a jump start in determining what they love and how that could lead to a highly successful career choice?

For more than two decades, I have developed, refined and taught a course entitled, "Discovering Your Truth, Living Your Truth." It is informed not only by that HBS course, but also by several courses that I took at Center for Creative Leadership, Esalen Institute and through a variety of other leadership and personal development organizations.

Our approach to personal branding is very simple. Develop a succinct and powerful personal elevator speech that is no more than 30 words (and hopefully far fewer words) based on deep personal and marketplace insights. We spend most of the time helping our clients develop the insights necessary to craft the right personal elevator speech (sometimes called a personal value proposition). 

Core to that statement is focusing on attitudes, attributes, skills and competencies that are found at the intersection of the following three sets: (1) this is one of my personal strengths, (2) I love using this skill and (3) it is a strong marketplace need.

The trick is to use the most powerful assessments and other tools to help people determine what is in each of these three sets (personal strength, personal motivation and marketplace need) for them. This includes extensive journaling against a set of highly introspective questions.

I am increasingly asked to teach this as a one or two day "boot camp" as a part of the MBA student's career development at business school MBA programs throughout the country. 

If you have not gone through this process and you are competing for jobs in the job market, you are at a disadvantage.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Understanding the Competition

WHEN A COMPANY positions its brand in a customer’s mind, it is positioning that brand against other brands. It is critical to understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of each of those competitors along with the industry structure itself. (In fact, wise organizations dedicate a person to understanding the competition.)

Important sources of competitive information include:
  • Competitor websites.
  • Press releases. There are free online services that can send you daily e-mail messages with press releases on topics of interest to you.
  • Industry analyst reports.
  • Financial analyst reports. (If you have a Charles Schwab or Fidelity account, you can use their research functions to view company research reports from a wide variety of financial analysts.)
  • News clipping services.
  • OCRInternational (www.ocrinternational.com) and Avention (www.avention.com) consulting and research services.
  • Harte Hanks (www.hartehanks.com), Hoovers (www.hoovers.com) and other company databases.
  • Online database searching services, such as FirstSearch, ProQuest, and Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe.
  • Services that track advertising spending.
  • Search engines and intelligent agents.
  • Online chat rooms, bulletin boards, and discussion groups.
  • Product/brand review websites e.g. epinions.com.
  • Trade magazines.
  • Trade shows.
  • Competitor direct mail campaigns. Add a friend or relative to their lists.
  • Your field sales force. Responding to the information they send from the field will encourage them to send more.
  • Ex-employees from competitors’ firms. They may be under your employ now, or they can be identified from job search databases.
  • Current customers. Many of them will pass on competitive communications they receive.
  • Primary and secondary research (qualitative and quantitative, including brand equity studies). Make sure to investigate syndicated studies. Syndicated studies are typically published by large research firms such as ACNielsen, Harris Interactive, and Forrester Research. An example is IntelliQuest’s Computer Industry Media Study.
  • Purchase and use a competitors’ products (i.e., become a customer). Your entire management team should do this; it is an excellent way to understand competitors’ customer experiences.
  • Market tours. If you work in retail, visit stores that carry your competitors’ products and talk with the sales associates about their products and services and what the companies are like to work with.
  • Competitive intelligence firms

Reprinted from Brand Aid, second edition, available here© 2015 Brad VanAuken

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Most Pressing Brand Management Issues

Since November 2016, we have fielded a continuously running survey of marketers' most pressing brand management and marketing issues. Specifically, we asked marketers to indicate how important each of 29 different marketing issues were to them and how easily they could address these issues internally or with external resources. 

The respondents represented a wide variety of industries and industry sectors. 

Brand managers, marketing directors, marketing managers and marketing consultants comprised more than half of the respondents. 

Respondents also included CEOs, presidents, chief marketing officers, marketing vice presidents, marketing associates, copywriters, account executives, digital marketing managers, marketing coordinators and digital marketing associates.

These are the most pressing issues according to the survey's respondents:

  • Aligning our execution in support of our brand's promise
  • Updating/refreshing our brand's identity
  • Aligning employees in support of the brand
  • Gaining greater customer insight

The next most pressing issues include:
  • Telling our brand's story better
  • Improving our brand's unique value proposition
  • Developing a (better) brand elevator speech

The next most pressing issues are:
  • Getting our brand management team to buy into our brand strategy
  • Managing our brand image on social media 
  • Building more emotional appeal into our brand
  • Connecting marketing campaigns and creative with brand strategy

Do you find that you have any of these issues in your organization? Please share your brand management and marketing issues with us through this ongoing survey: SURVEY LINK

BrandForward offers services to address all of these needs. For more information on BrandForward, go here.

Copies of Brand Aid book are available here.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Branding and Accessibility

Accessibility is one of the five drivers of customer brand insistence in our proprietary BrandInsistence (SM) brand equity measurement system. Accessibility is critical in converting preference or need into an actual purchase. Time and money are the scarce commodities in most peoples' lives, therefore accessibility is related to locations, hours of operation and price. If the brand you prefer is available somewhere near or convenient to you during the hours when you are available and at a reasonable price, you will very likely make the purchase.

A few decades ago, Hallmark discovered that its card shops' typical hours of operation (9 am to 6 pm) was limiting their revenue potential, especially compared to grocery stores and other mass merchandisers that had much more convenient hours.

Amazon.com (and the Internet in general) shook up the retail world for a number of reasons, not the least of which was 24/7 accessibility. 

In real estate, the mantra is "location, location, location."

I have been frustrated visiting a city on a Tuesday or Wednesday only to find that its public art museum is closed. Most (so I assume all) museums are closed on Mondays but open other days of the week.

It took me quite a while to realize that a fine dining restaurant in my town is only open on Thursday evenings. (It caters events the other nights of a week.) In the interim, I largely ignored that nearby restaurant because it was mostly closed. 

Recently, I happened upon a place whose hours are Friday through Tuesday from 10 am to 2 pm.

My point in all of this is that your brand must be accessible. Ideally, it is available 24/7 at a reasonable price. 

Here are two other blog posts that I have written on brand accessibility: 1 and 2.