Strategic Branding in the 21st Century
Clarence Henderson, Henderson Consulting International Manila, Philippines - June 2000
Things have always been highly competitive in the business world -- the phrase "dog-eat-dog" has been around a long time for a good reason. But today's fast-paced, technology-driven, and hypercompetitive marketplace is more brutal than ever. The "fine art of selling" is a thing of the past, replaced by self-service and hassled customers drowning in a sea of product choices. There's so much static in the air that most product messages never even penetrate the customer's awareness.
Effective marketing today demands compelling marketing messages based on:
What we're talking about, of course, is branding. The problem is that the term "branding" has been overused and abused to the point that it has lost much of its meaning. Like most marketing terms that evolve into "buzz words," it is often bandied about and used to refer to things that have basically nothing to do with the true meaning of the word.
Many marketers claim they are running a "branding campaign" when in fact all they're doing is selling. Price-based ads or ads offering promotions based on discounts or beating the competition on price alone are not about branding. They are one-shot efforts to move product. There is no relationship with the customer being formed and no long-term promises to deliver being made.
In contrast, a true branding effort involves communications that inspire an emotional reaction in the recipient. Branding does not sell a specific product. Rather, it creates an image of what the brand stands for (often called "image campaigns" in the ad trade). Further, that created image evokes a positive emotional response in the consumer's mind.
Branding is not about being creative and it's not something that comes from the Creative Department of your ad agency. It's about that warm, fuzzy feeling your customer gets when he or she sees your product display. It's about your customer service and how salespeople greet your customers even when they're having a bad day. It's about how your company is portrayed in the media. It's about how fast your product is shipped or delivered and how the package looks sitting at home on your shelf. In short, branding involves the complex matrix involving every single contact that occurs between any product or human representative of your company and any customer or potential customer in the whole wide world.
One of the most amazing branding stories of recent years has been that of Amazon.com. Amazon.com has done an exemplary job of creating one of the world's strongest brands in record time. How did they achieve this? By recognizing what their real business is . As stated clearly by CEO Jeff Bezos: "We're not in the book business or the music business. We're in the customer service business."
Amazon.com's highly effective brand positioning was built on the conviction that even though web shoppers want the ease and convenience of doing business on-line, they also want personalized customer service. Based on this fundamental insight, Amazon.com goes to tremendous lengths to make sure that the subjective, online shopping experience supports its brand positioning.
Customer service has been raised to unprecedented levels at the company. Order a book from Amazon.com and you'll usually get it sooner than the company promises. If they're out of stock on that paperback book you ordered, don't be surprised to receive the hardback version at no extra charge. This branding strategy, which has been referred to as "WalMart on the Web," shows just how powerful a fully integrated branding strategy can be.
The Amazon.com story highlights what brands really are:
In other words, customers identify with the brand. The brand resonates emotionally, leading customers to think: "this brand is a reflection of me... this brand is meaningful to me."
Customers don't just buy products or services; they buy particular brands, and those brands are based on psychological positioning. Positioning involves defining and communicating, both overtly and subtly, the one core idea that your brand stands for in the mind or heart of your customer. Effective brand positioning:
Having the latest products or services or the best-engineered, best-manufactured widget is not enough. You must create a compelling marketing message to communicate how your product differs from all the others. You must simplify your marketing communications and focus your branding message exclusively on winning customers' hearts and minds. The pesos will follow.
Powerful branding campaigns are carefully planned, designed and implemented. They are based on a logical and a supportable strategic foundation. Successful branding is based on simplicity and clarity. And there's no point trying to be all things to all people. That dated strategy is doomed to failure in today's highly segmented markets.
What do you stand to gain from a well-positioned brand? Nothing much, just:
On the other hand, having a poorly conceived branding strategy, which really means not knowing what business you are in, can:
The core of branding strategy lies in knowing - beyond a shadow of a doubt - just exactly what business are you in. And if you think your core business is defined simply by the product, technology, or business category in which you compete, then think again. Ask yourself hard questions:
In getting your branding strategy right, you have to communicate a unique idea that separates your brand from the competition. Make sure you have the credentials and product quality to render your "unique image" real and believable to customers. And keep it concise - the more you say, the less people hear. Powerful ideas are best communicated with small words and simple but compelling images.
Concentrate on fulfilling your customers' needs and communicate what differentiates your product from the competition. There's nothing wrong with exposing the other guy's weaknesses, but don't dwell on the negative. Instead, keep returning to the theme of your own brand's unique advantages. Your goal is to create a perception in your customers' minds that "There is no other product in the world quite like this product - this product is for me." When you win hearts and minds like that, you eliminate your competition from the race. You have achieved brand loyalty.
(This article was originally published in the Philippine Marketing Association newsletter.)
Clarence Henderson is president of Henderson Consulting International, Manila, Philippines. He also contributes the monthly Pearl of the Orient Seas column on the Asia Business Strategy & Street Intelligence Ezine.