Monday, November 13, 2017

Brands & Tribalism

As in the television program, Cheers, everyone wants to belong somewhere.  Everyone wants to call some place home. Nuclear and extended families have always been tribes. Often, churches are tribes. Some times, towns are tribes. Schools can be tribes. Increasingly, political parties are tribes. Is your state a blue state or red state? You may be part of the NRA tribe or perhaps you are a part of the Tesla tribe. Maybe you are a part of the Wall Street tribe. Or maybe you are a part of the super yacht tribe. You could be proud to be called a tree hugger. Or maybe you feel completely comfortable with the redneck label. 

Recently, a growing number nation states are shying away from regional and global alliances to retreat to their nation-state tribes. And sometimes people feel more comfortable in their state or local tribe. Witness Texas or Vermont or Quebec. Or how about Portlandia or "The City" (New York) or the "Hub" (Boston)? Everyone knows Austin is intent on keeping itself weird. And everyone knows what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. And, as the recent emergence of hate groups have brought to light, some people only feel comfortable with people of their own race and are intent on dehumanizing people of other races. 

This all get down to personal identity, comfort and feeling safe. Often, we fear what we don't know. At a minimum, many of us feel uncomfortable in places that seem alien to us. For instance, some people may not feel comfortable in an upscale specialty store that requires one to be buzzed in. While others may not feel comfortable at a hockey game or in a trailer park. Many people may not feel comfortable where confederate flags are flying, while others may not feel comfortable at a black tie gala. City folks may feel scared in the country while country folks may feel scared in a big city. And, if you are in a tribe, it is easier to place blame on the other tribe rather than take personal responsibility for an outcome. And most of us enjoy having an enemy or two. I remember wearing at hat that was given me at "The Game" (Harvard vs. Yale football). It said "Go Harvard Yale Sucks." At the same game, they were also passing out a variation of that hat: "Go Yale Harvard Sucks."

Brands can play off of tribalism in a variety of ways. They can appeal to a specific tribe such as Tesla, FOX News, MSNBC, The Peninsula Hotels, Duck Dynasty, Orvis or Carhart. Or increasingly, they can appeal to a much broader view of the world in which one reaches out across tribes. Witness these recent ads: 

A spiritual counselor once told me that to reach a deeply awakened state your embrace needs to be unbounded. That is, your loving kindness and compassion needs to be unconditional and unbounded. Rather than a response of judgment and condemnation, the response should be one of empathy, understanding and caring. Put another way, you have only truly arrived home when your concept of tribe is as wide as the universe. 

So whether your brand aligns itself with a specific tribe or two or whether it is one of the more enlightened brands that encourages one to extend one's reach across tribes, the notion of tribalism is useful for brand managers to understand and use. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

What's Your Brand's Buzz?

A brand is owned in the minds of its customers. So, what is your brand in their minds? Do you know?  If not, do you know where to go to find out? You can always use marketing research, but today, the Internet provides an unfiltered ongoing look into your customer's minds. And it is as simple as monitoring what is said about your brand on several different websites. Some websites even let you respond to your customers comments and address their concerns. 

So, where should you look online? Start here:

  • Your brand's Facebook page
  • Twitter search
  • customer reviews
  • Yelp reviews
  • Yellow Pages reviews
  • BirdEye reviews
  • Citysearch reviews
  • Google Reviews (Google My Business)
  • Foursquare
  • HomeAdvisor reviews
  • Angie's list reviews
  • TripAdvisor reviews
  • Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline or Travelocity guest ratings
  • Zamato reviews
  • Open Table reviews
  • PlanetRate
  • Manta (small businesses)
  • G2Crowd (software/tech)
  • Better Business Bureau
  • Glassdoor (employee point of view)

You might want to set up a brand or company intelligence gathering function that regularly checks these sources for customer feedback and reports it to the brand's or company's managers.

Know though that only a small percentage of your customers will provide feedback, usually those who encountered a problem and those who just love your brand. But for everyone who provides a rating or review, there are perhaps dozens, hundreds or even thousands of others who feel the same way about the brand. So carefully listen to what they have to say. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Peeling Back the Onion

Sometimes, in brand research, one must continue to "peel back the onion" to better understand what the consumer is really saying. Recently, a client of mine (a heath care system) discovered that it was delivering well against convenience and accessibility. They discovered this through a quantitative brand equity measurement survey. Multiple data points pointed to this strength, including a variety of scaled response questions and some open-ended response questions. 

What they didn't discover, however, is what this actually means. For that, they will need to "peel back the onion" through further research. For instance, in their industry, accessibility could mean any of the following:

  • Convenient locations
  • Convenient hours
  • Convenient parking, including uncrowded parking, valet parking or free parking
  • 24/7 accessibility in a non-hospital setting
  • A wide variety of payment options, including installment payments
  • A wide variety of insurances accepted including Medicare and Medicaid
  • Accepting patients who cannot pay
  • Short wait times
  • Immediate access to doctors
  • Easy access to patient records
  • 24/7 waiting or lobby areas
  • Quality on-site food
  • Easy admissions process
  • Clear wayfinding
  • Easy website navigation
  • Handicap accessibility such as parking spaces, ramps and elevators
  • Accommodations for deaf and blind people

If this client wants to tout (and even enhance) its accessibility, it needs to know how it is perceived to be accessible. A marketer is very lazy if he or she stops at the concept of accessibility without exploring what that actually means. How else can he or she talk about it properly on behalf of the brand and how else would he or she know to whom this might have the greatest appeal?

When conducting brand research dig deep enough to fully understand what the customer is telling you. This may require "peeling back the onion" in a number of steps.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Determining the Current Brand Position

One of the first steps in a brand repositioning project is to determine the current brand position. While this is often done through a brand audit in which the brand's website and its collateral materials are studied along with those of its competitors, this only identifies what the brand in question and its competitors are saying about themselves, that is, it will only help you identify the intended brand position, not the actual brand position. Why? Because a brand is owned in the minds of its consumers (and anyone else who is aware of the brand). It's position only really exists in their minds. 

So, to uncover the real brand position, one must find out what consumers are thinking. This can come from qualitative research such as focus groups or depth interviews or quantitative research or both. I have talked about our proprietary BrandInsistence(sm) brand equity measurement system. It measures over 70 different components of a brand's equity. It uncovers the brand position though open-ended response questions and brand delivery rating questions. This results in brand positioning maps for the brand in question and it competitors. 

Some of this can also be discovered through third party product/service rating websites and social media discussions involving the brand. Examples of third party sites are,, and

The important point is to understand what consumers are thinking and not just what the brand is saying about itself. I have seen brands that have claimed to be the quality, innovation, customer-service or style leaders only to be discovered to be inferior in those areas after hearing from consumers. So, as you can imagine, brand positioning maps and work driven from marketing communication can be quite different from that driven from customer research. Make sure you always conduct customer research before repositioning a brand. Otherwise, you might end up with a highly flawed brand position. 

This problem can occur with marketing agencies that are weak in marketing research capabilities or that want to reserve the vast majority of a client's budget for the creative work. It can also occur when a client is not willing or able to provide adequate budget for the research. All of the subsequent creative work may be for naught if the positions of the brand in question and its competitors were not really understood because customer research was never conducted. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Importance of Brand Planning

"If You Don't Know Where You Are Going, You Will Probably End Up Somewhere Else" - book title by author David Campbell.

Hopefully, you have developed and are executing against a detailed brand plan. And hopefully, you are measuring the results against that plan. 

Brand plans are much like business plans or marketing plans. You start with high level objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? Increased revenues? Increased profitability? Increased IAT (individual average transaction)? Increased brand awareness? Increased distribution? Increased market share? Increased brand loyalty? Adoption by new market segments? Changing brand perceptions? Dialing up a particular brand association? Changing the brand's unique value proposition? Increasing customer engagement?

These objectives are then supported by strategies and tactics. The tactics usually have budgets and timelines associated with them. And often there is an assigned "point person" for each tactic.

Numeric goals or targets may also be associated with each of these objectives, strategies or tactics. That is, the plan should have some metrics associated with it. 

Finally, a plan is always an "ask" for a certain level of budget in return for a certain level of delivery against the objectives. That is, to some degree, a brand plan is a roadmap for achieving a specific set of objectives for a specified level of investment. 

Plans can look out over a few years but given the changing nature of markets, they often require tweaking on an annual basis if not more often. 

Even if you are in an extremely fast moving industry and even if you are consumed by daily crises, it is an important exercise to step back at least once a year to reassess if you are focusing on the right things to achieve organization and brand objectives. Brand plans reinforce a certain level of logic and discipline.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Twenty Brand Management Tips

Today, I am sharing twenty tips or "rules of thumb" about brands and brand management.

  1. The only thing that stands between a commodity and a brand is relevant differentiation.
  2. More than anything, your brand must be admirable. And, if not admirable, likable. 
  3. In the long run, a strong brand will not completely compensate for a faulty product or service.
  4. Brands that stand for something of substance create more loyal customers. 
  5. In general, broader distribution aids brands in two ways - increasing awareness and accessibility.
  6. Everything else being equal, brand accessibility will translate brand preference to brand purchase.
  7. Your brand must deliver a strong value. Value is the ratio of benefits (functional, emotional, experiential and self-expressive) divided by costs (monetary and time). 
  8. Brand crises are inevitable. Planning for successful crisis recovery is critical. 
  9. Brands are stronger the more targeted they are.
  10. Outside of demographics and usage, attitudes are one of the most effective ways to target brands.
  11. All marketing plans must be informed by in-depth customer insight.
  12. In general, strong brands share these qualities: trustworthy, responsive, reliable, innovative, service oriented.
  13. Online marketing makes it quick and easy to test the effectiveness of different messages and approaches.
  14. The increasing political polarization in the US creates opportunities to target based on this polarization. 
  15. Increasingly over time, services and experiences will be more in demand than tangible products. 
  16. If brand perceptions are a result of the total customer experience then brand managers have a very wide set of dimensions that they must manage or influence.
  17. The market for products and services targeted at the top 1% of income earners and asset owners is large and growing. 
  18. In many ways, the notion of "reach and frequency" is still quite relevant. The importance of each will vary depending on what you are trying to accomplish.
  19. Increasing marketplace transparency will only hurt brands whose delivery does not live up to their promises.
  20. Never forget that you are only employed because your brand and its products and services are delivering something of value to their customers. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Brands, Mystery & Exclusivity

Mystery and exclusivity are two very powerful human motivators. Let's take one at a time.

A partial reveal is always more powerful than a full reveal. And the more often one is exposed to the partial reveal, the more one craves the full reveal. It's human nature. Whether it is in a new product unveiling or a television series plot line, people get hooked based on the mystery and not knowing. I have witnessed many successful new product introductions in which outdoor advertising reveals a little bit at a time in each subsequent iteration until the buzz reaches a very high level. In dating, playing "hard to get" is often a very successful strategy. 

Which leads to exclusivity. If a brand is only available in certain places, especially a limited number of upscale places, it usually has significantly more cache. For instance, if you can only purchase the brand on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Upper Fifth Avenue in New York, Hong Kong's Causeway Bay, New Bond Street in London, Champs Elysees in Paris, Orchard Road in Singapore or The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey, then your brand likely has significant luxury cache. 

A brand is even more exclusive if the vast majority of people in developed countries have never even heard of it. Such a brand can serve as a badge to inner circle members. These brands might be found in enclaves such as Aspen (Colorado), Costa Smeralda (Sardinia), Côte d’Azur (France), Monaco, Northeast Harbor (Maine), St. Moritz (Switzerland) and Yellowstone Club (Montana). 

Sometimes being mysterious and playing "hard to get" creates even more demand. Some brands might want to choose this strategy.

In case you are wondering, the image at the top of this blog post is of a Maybach Exelero. It's a very nice car with a top speed of 218 mph. You can purchase one for $7.8 million.

Brands & Risk Taking

Sometimes a brand's worst enemy is its risk adverse caretaker. Usually, to break through in an overcrowded marketplace, a brand has to take some risks and do things that other brands in the category are not doing. 

My biggest disappointment as a brand strategy consultant is when, through rigorous research and out-of-the-box thinking, we help a client identify a breakthrough strategy that has the potential to catapult their brand ahead of the competition but then, due to their risk aversion, they decide not to execute that strategy. 

These phrases are telltale signs of that type of thinking:

  • I just don't know if senior management will go for that.
  • It will cost too much.
  • It is a risky move.
  • But we don't know if it will work.
  • We've never done that before.
  • No one else is doing that.
  • There's probably a good reason it never has been done before.
  • It is just too edgy.
  • What if it turns some of our current customers off?
  • I want to hold on to my job.
  • But we don't know how to do that.
  • I think we just need to take small, incremental steps toward that.
  • It's a great idea. Maybe we should consider it again in a couple of years.
  • But that will require a lot of changes.
  • I just don't know if our people are up for that.
  • But how can we walk away from 150 years of history?
  • Don't ask me to present that.
  • But what if it doesn't work?
  • I think it will put our brand too much in the spotlight.
  • That is crossing a line that no one has crossed. 
  • But what if we fail?
  • It's more than this organization can digest right now.
  • I am afraid that there are too many fires we need to fight right now. We do not have time for this.
  • I think the idea is just too far ahead of its time.

Only leadership teams that are willing to try new approaches and take calculated risks will ultimately survive and thrive in the long run. Breakthrough thinking and disruptive strategies are essential to long-term survival and growth.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Customer Profiling

Customer profiling helps organizations identify and then effectively target the most lucrative customer segments including how to best reach them in the shopping process and what brand messages are likely to work best with them.

We help organizations profile their customers in actionable ways. First, we measure brand purchase intent. We then discover the values, attitudes, aspirations, behaviors and demographics that have the highest correlation with high purchase intent for their brand. This helps us identify different customer segments for targeting, including the most promising segments. For more information on customer segmentation, go here or here.

Specifically, we measure the following:
  • Brand purchase intent
  • Customer demographics:
    • Age
    • Gender
    • Marital status
    • Employment status
    • Occupation
    • Presence of children
    • Household income
  • Shopping behaviors:
    • Where information is gathered
    • Influencers
    • Distribution channels and stores shopped
    • Purchase frequency
    • Average amount spent
    • Importance of quality
    • Importance of design
    • Importance of customer service
    • Importance of price and price discounts
  • Values, attitudes and aspirations
    • Lifestyle/activities (3-6 statements)
    • Shopping (3-6 statements)
    • Self-perception and personal style (3-6 statements)

We can also include product usage questions, depending on how many categories the brand represents. And we can correlate values, attitudes, aspirations, behaviors and demographics with brand preference and brand loyalty (including Net Promoter Score) as well.

If you do not have an actionable profile of your customer, you should consider doing this work. It makes your marketing spend much more effective and efficient. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Things that Marketers Know

Having worked with many non-marketers in organization leadership teams, it has occurred to me that many things that I think are "common sense" are not so common for non-marketers. That is to say that skilled marketers are intuitive about some things that non-marketers are not. Here is my list of things that skilled marketers just know (or think about) that others may not:

  • What things will create an emotional response for different types of people
  • What will increase a product's impulse purchase appeal
  • What simple phases and messages will cause something to go viral
  • What words and phrases have the most power to cause someone to make a purchase
  • How to pick the right target customers for different products or services
  • Where a person is most likely go to get information about your product or service
  • How to stay in front of people and build relationships
  • The need to minimize the steps or barriers to purchase
  • How to "close the sale"
  • How to get people to "buy now"
  • Developing the right angle to get publications to cover your story
  • How to generate massive proactive publicity
  • Where to place a product on a shelf or in a store to maximize its visibility
  • How to upsell
  • How to bundle or unbundle products and services to maximize sales
  • How to create reference prices to increase the average price paid
  • How to use price segmentation to increase revenues and profitability
  • How to signal quality through pricing
  • How to use exclusivity to increase demand
  • The importance of location
  • The importance of timing
  • The importance of listening to needs
  • How to plant doubt about or reposition a competitor
  • How to stand out in a sea of sameness
  • That "less is more" in package design and messaging
  • What the visual "strike zone" is in any advertisement
  • The importance of brand identity consistency
  • When to be consistent and when to "mix it up" with unpredictability 
  • How to plant ideas in people's minds and make them think that the ideas were their own
  • How to connect with anyone on a personal and emotional level
  • With a few simple questions, knowing what is the primary driver in a person's life
  • Related to this, knowing where in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs a person primarily resides

So, when you think, "well, this is just common sense," it may not be. It may be something that is learned over time by skilled marketers. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Brands & Crisis Management

Although all organizations intend to create the best possible customer experiences, occasionally something real or perceived happens that produces just the opposite effect: a crisis. Every brand will experience a crisis at one time or another. The hallmark of a strong brand is how well it handles those crises. The crisis could come as a result of something the company does (such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—more on this in a moment) or something that is foisted upon it (rumors that McDonald’s’ hamburgers are made of worms). But, when a crisis occurs, it is time to enact a well-rehearsed crisis management plan. So, think about a crisis management plan now (hopefully, long before any actual crisis), and begin with the following considerations:
  • Steadily and consistently build brand goodwill over time.
  • Identify and address potential problem areas ahead of any actual crises.
  • Have a well-thought-through crisis (or emergency response) plan, including scenarios, step-by-step instructions on how to best address each scenario, approved spokespeople, contact information, and key communication documents (e.g., fact sheets, backgrounders, press releases, bios).
  • Work with crisis management experts and your legal staff in developing those plans.
  • Conduct crisis management drills at least once a year.
  • Conduct a crisis vulnerability audit.
  • During the crisis itself, follow these general rules:
    • Follow your crisis plan.
    • Identify your spokespeople.
    • Respond quickly.
    • Be honest. Don’t deny or cover up things; ultimately, they will be exposed.
    • Accept responsibility as appropriate.
    • Share as much information as is possible and prudent.
    • Let people know what you are doing to manage the situation
    • Show concern for those affected.
    • Let people know what you are doing to help people who are negatively impacted.
    • Explain what you are doing to cooperate with the authorities.
    • Let people know if neighbors or others are in danger and what they can do about it.
    • Provide the media with telephone and Internet access and the other tools that they need to perform their jobs.
    • Provide frequent updates to keep the communication lines open.
    • Act with integrity, reinforcing the brand’s personality.

If not handled well, a crisis can undo years of brand equity building. According to Bob Roemer—who was then responsible for BP-Amoco’s public and government affairs worldwide emergency response capabilities—the key to effective crisis management is to offer maximum information with minimum delay. If you don’t have a well-rehearsed plan, you should work with your public affairs department and a PR agency to develop one.

Reprinted from Brand Aid chapter 14: Creating the total brand experience. © 2015 Brad VanAuken

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Brand Aid

Since it was first published in 2001, Brand Aid has sold more than 20,000 copies. Now in its second edition, it is available in digital and audio formats and has been translated into several languages. It is used by business schools around the globe to teach brand management and marketing. Here is what people are saying about the book:

‘My desk has been home to a bumper crop of worthwhile new books on brands and branding. A standout in the group is Brand Aid by Brad VanAuken, which offers an almost encyclopedic look at every step in the brand process (designing, building, leveraging, managing). The advice is straightforward, voluminous and informed by experience. VanAuken also includes lengthy checklists at the end of each chapter that help readers assess their own situations and also serve as a good platform for brainstorming. Highly recommended.’

Joseph Rydholm, editor, Quirk’s Marketing Research Review

‘Brad VanAuken knows his stuff - and he knows how to share it with the rest of us in a clear and concise manner that will leave you feeling: "Now I get it!" With a tremendous understanding of how to take complex marketing systems and put them into an easy to understand, universal language, VanAuken brings the reader up to speed quickly and comfortably with simple terms and concrete examples. This book will serve well as not only a quick reference, but also as a step by step tool to creating a branding identity that will stand the test of time.’

John Copeland, program manager, National Arts Marketing Project

‘This is a terrific, pithily-written book that stands head and shoulders above most other branding books currently on the market. Its fluid style and concise treatment of the major issues in creating winning brands makes most other such texts look pedestrian by comparison.’

Keith Dinnie, Book Review Editor, Journal of Brand Management

'I am a huge fan of Brand Aid #2 and have been using it in my keystone graduate class called IMC 463 Brand Communications Decisions. I feel your book is one of the most practical and valuable books ever written about brands. I love the checklists and remind the students that your book is my graduation gift to them because it is a resource they will find useful every day they are developing, managing or increasing the value of brands.'

John Greening, Associate Professor at Northwestern University in Evanston IL heading up the Brand Management specialization in the Graduate Medill Integrated Marketing Communications Program

'Since we first communicated, I have used your book in graduate level branding course for three cohorts. Simply, your book is a tremendous asset to me and my students. They rave how your content and writing style is so practical, direct and applicable. Furthermore, the cornerstone of the course is a group assignment where the students complete the Brand and Brand Management Audits for an organization of their choice. I couldn’t be more pleased and impressed with their effort and the quality of their work.'

Brian Vollmert, Assistent Professor of Marketing at North Park University

'The big idea: As a business leader, you know that every company, object, service, person or pet hoping to compete for public attention needs a brand. An enormous cottage industry has grown up around creating and improving brands, making it increasingly harder to cut through to useful, actionable information to help position your company’s products or services in the market. It should come as an enormous relief, then, that just about all the information you need has been compiled in a single book. The second edition of Brad VanAuken’s Brand Aid includes everything from a basic introduction to brand management to advice on leveraging and measuring your brand’s success.

Read it: Each chapter of the book includes an exhaustive list of tips, examples, case studies and more. The content of any given chapter is summarized in a handy, comprehensive checklist you can use to track your own branding efforts. The book’s cleanly organized chapters and checklists make it easy to dip in and out of if you don’t have time to read cover to cover. The writing is straightforward, easy to follow and almost entirely devoid of jargon. Extensive appendices offer many suggestions for further reading as well as useful resources for brand audits and online brand management.

Skip it: There’s really only one reason to skip this book: You already own the first edition, published in 2003. However, given the rapidly evolving nature of branding and consumer preferences, you still might consider an update.' book review

'There are literally dozens of flags marking pages in my copy of Brand Aid. Pick up a copy, and it will undoubtedly look the same in short order. Brand Aid functions equally well as a troubleshooter for underperforming, established brands, and as a toolkit for launching new brands destined for legendary status.'

'Powerful yet intangible, a brand is the personification of your organization. Learn to build, nurture, and grow a strong brand that inspires people, forges emotional bonds, and moves customers to insist on buying your brand.

This book guides you through the entire branding process, from using social media effectively to linking your brand to human needs.'

Advertising Educational Foundation

‘VanAuken has distilled his enormous practical knowledge about the theory and practice of brand management into this smart…volume. The book is packed with information and good ideas – so many, in fact, that it is virtually an encyclopedia of brand management does and don’ts’

Publishers Weekly

‘Of all the books I’ve read on marketing and branding, this one is the shining star! I’ll also go out on a limb and assert that it’s one of the best books I’ve seen published by AMACOM.’

Roger E. Herman, Midwest Book Review

‘This is an EXCELLENT practical book in a field awash with theory and useless generalizations.’

Anne Holland,

‘You will not want to be without this book in your library.’

Laura Schneider, About Marketing (

Brand Aid is available here.

Customer-Centric Brand Strategy

Too many companies still think of marketing as the thing to do to sell more products. The products are a given and marketing plans are created and executed to sell more of the products the company produces. In this way, marketing is a tactical afterthought. 

But what if the purpose of the company was to meet (and even anticipate) the needs of one or more specific customers? What if that company focused on a limited number of very specific customers with very specific needs? And what if that company used research to better understand (and again, even anticipate) those needs? And what if the company's focus was to meet more and more of that customer's needs through additional products and services?

What do I mean by focus? Bass Pro Shops focuses on people who fish. Orvis focuses on people who fly fish. Arena and Speedo focus on swimmers, and especially competitive swimmers. Lane Bryant and Avenue cater to plus-sized women. Paul Smith's College is for students who love the outdoors and especially the Adirondacks. Brigham Young University caters to LDS college students. caters to musicians. 

But what if their growth strategies were not focused on targeting new markets for the same products and services but rather, creating new products and services to better serve their specifically targeted core markets? To become invaluable to a specific set of people creates tremendous brand loyalty and even advocacy.  And, more importantly, it insures that the brand remains current and relevant leading to a much longer life. Specific products and services can become obsolete over time. Meeting important customer needs in an ever increasing and evolving set of ways does not. 

Instead of a product-centric strategy, consider a customer-centric strategy. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What Do Brands Signal About You?

Regardless of product or service category, brands signal something about you. Consider the shirt that you wear. If you are wearing a Carhartt shirt, what does that say about you? Do you live in a large city or out in the country? Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? Do you pursue physical activity outside of a gym? How about Under Armour? Columbia? Patagonia? The North Face? Loudmouth? lululemon? Eton? Calvin Kline? Robert Graham? Vans? Versace?

Now think about cars. What does driving a Tesla say about you? How about a Mercedes-Benz? BMW? Toyota? Honda? Hyundai? Mini-Cooper? What are your motivations for buying the car that you drive? To get you from point A to point B and that's it? To haul a trailer or a boat? To enjoy the drive itself? To maximize gas milage? To reduce carbon emissions? To signal your social status? To show that you are cut from a more interesting mold than most people?

How about schools? What does going to a community college say about you? What does going to UC Berkeley say about you? Are you smart? Are you liberal? How about Liberty University? Brigham Young University? Reed College? MIT? University of Kansas? University of Florida? Rhode Island School of Design? US Military Academy at West Point? Naropa University? Hampshire College? Williams College? Stanford University? 

What are some of your favorite brands of wines? Carlo Rossi? Reunite? Trader Joe's Charles Shaw? Yellow Tail? Barefoot? Duckhorn? Stag's Leap? Caymus? Silver Oak? Hall's? Sloan? Maybach? Screaming Eagle? Chateau Lafite Rothschild? Chateau d'Yquem? Or do you drink beer instead? Or perhaps craft cocktails? Or maybe you don't drink alcohol at all.

For each of these brands, think about what you are signaling to others whether you want to or not? Are you signaling social-economic status, region of country, religious affiliation, personality type, social consciousness, urban versus suburban versus rural residence, IQ, political point of view, profession, hobbies, family size, age, gender, how well traveled you are, how well read you are, how fashion conscious you are, how self-actualized you are...and I could go on and on.

Now think about what YOUR brand is signaling and to whom.

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.