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.