The Blake Project, the brand consultancy behind Branding Strategy Insider, delivers interactive brand education workshops and keynote speeches designed to align marketers on essential concepts in brand management and empower them to release the full potential of the brands they manage.
We all know the fundamental issue: consumers are suffering from attention deficit disorder brought on by too much choice. Now the moral imperatives brought on by concerns over global warming—to buy local, to buy green—are layered on top of an already bewildering variety of alternatives. People are recognizing that every purchase decision has consequences, but figuring out what the consequences really are is tough.
In theory, new media give consumers control over this complex world. When people can rouse themselves to use them, search engines, product ratings and social networks can help shoppers make better purchase decisions, but in reality the online world of search and word of mouth is just as complex and confusing as the offline world. As a result, I believe that people will still be drawn to a simple, straightforward brand promise. If they find that a brand lives up to its promise, they are likely to stick with it. Why make another decision? If and when a brand exceeds their expectations, they are likely to recommend it to others. Advocacy will spread the word more effectively than search engine rankings or branded TV shows.
That said, a brand still needs to make its promise heard, and people need to find that promise personally relevant. They need to feel they can trust the company behind the brand to act in their best interests. Given the diversity of interests out there, many brands will need to align themselves with ever-narrower communities. If a brand cannot maintain broad, mass-market appeal, then it will have to focus on the needs of specific segments of consumers, which may be defined more by shared attitudes than demographics. A brand that can serve the needs of a specific target group better than any other can compensate for lack of mass appeal and trade volume by charging a premium price.
A really strong brand can rise above a specific product category. Apple offers the same philosophy and sense of design across computers, laptops, music players and phones. Dove offers the same promise across soap, body lotion, anti-perspirant and hair care. Disney spans theme parks, cruise ships, movies and games.
What will be far tougher in the future is for a brand to rise above an established connection with one community in making a broad appeal to others. The more a brand draws strength from a sense of community among users, the more likely it is to have a polarizing effect. Apple has set itself up against PC's in its "Mac versus PC" advertising. In doing so, it may alienate PC users with its superior and self-satisfied tone. Dove, in seeking to appeal to Western values of personal self-worth, may undermine its appeal to women who still appreciate the adulation that outer beauty might bring. Disney, being firmly associated with family fun, will not make my short list of vacation destinations.
Walking the talk
Brands like Nike, Guinness and Dole are just a few examples of well-established brands that are happily surfing the new media wave. Increasingly, however, engagement is going to mean more than creating an engaging brand experience. For many brands, engagement will come to mean standing for something—a belief or a set of values—and inviting customers to stand with you. Brands need to declare their beliefs and act on them. Brands that are succeeding in doing this today include Whole Foods, Innocent, Patagonia, Newman's Own, Body Shop and Fair Trade coffee.
Declaring and living out values should not be confused with merely supporting a good cause. Brands like Yoplait, M&M's and Lee Jeans prominently support the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in the United States. Assisting such a worthy cause is a laudable corporate action, but if a related value, such as the promotion of women's health, is not part of a brand's DNA, then its association may be viewed as nothing more than a marketing tactic. People know which brands are really committed to something and which ones are just trying to sell more stuff.
The future is uncertain but one thing is sure. People pay a lot more attention to what companies do than to what they say. People respect companies that try to do the right things. If they believe companies are acting out of enlightened self-interest, as in the case of Wal-Mart, they are less likely to be cynical about their motives. On the other hand, companies that seek to market their brands through "greenwashing" could find themselves pilloried online and off.
Surfing the wave
Successfully riding the wave of the future will require anticipation, poise, and agility. It will require us to become far better at understanding our target audience and anticipating their needs. Marketers will need to find ways to make their brands stand up and stand out, going beyond functional benefits to create a sense of purpose and identity.
We will need to be adaptable, changing to meet shifting conditions. The future of global brands does not lie in one-size-fits-all offers and cookie-cutter marketing. The successful global brands will embrace the diversity of individuals, communities and cultures around the world. They will be comfortable appealing to a mindset, not an age bracket. They will deliver great brand experiences, and they will orchestrate that experience across a wide variety of communication channels. To do so effectively and efficiently, these brands will have to allow local team members the freedom to act quickly and sensitively.
Advantages of scale will be realized not from the application of rigid rules and rote systems, but from a broad, shared understanding of the brand and the functional, emotional and social benefits that it brings to its customers.
Contributed to BSI by: Nigel Hollis, excerpted from his book The Global Brand, Palgrave Macmillan
Sponsored by: The Brand Positioning Workshop