So someone’s supposedly discovered the recipe for Coca Cola. What does that mean for the world’s most popular drink? Very little I would have thought. Because the world’s most closely guarded beverage trade secret has already done its job – it has helped build perhaps the most consistently powerful brand in the world. Beyond that, its value as a formula today is questionable.
Even if someone did replicate the taste, so what? They still wouldn’t be Coke. Great brands grow beyond the products they marque. They actually come to embody ideas – such as happiness in the case of Coca Cola – that the product reports to, and not the other way round.
The New Coke debacle might suggest otherwise to some, but to me that was much more about changing a product that consumers held dear rather than a taste issue. Consumers expressed their apprehension by citing taste, but taste, in my reading of this particular case, was the identifier to the wider fear. What they were really saying is – don’t touch.
So often brands think that their product recipe is the greatest thing they have to offer. They trademark their products or their designs and think the business and the brand is future-proofed. Not so. IP protection is important, don’t get me wrong, but it must form part of the wider, on-going telling of a compelling and relevant brand story.
In the hunt for more streamlined businesses that are less resource intensive, how real is the risk that brands are actually putting people off dealing with them? When does an efficient process become so rationalized that it loses its humanity and therefore its appeal?
On the face of it, brand and efficiency have similar objectives. They’re both about creating financial headroom – but of course they approach that goal from opposite directions. Efficiency is so often about what can be subtracted. Brand is all about what can be added, at least perceptually, that people will pay more for.
The problem occurs when the experience is over-compromised in the interests of saving money: when the seats become too cramped; the aisles too narrow; the servings too small; the service too automated…Because it’s at that point, that delight leaves the building, and customers start looking elsewhere because they feel you’re being mean-spirited.
There are, as I see it, two ways to address this:
1. Set very clear customer expectations. If you’re running a high volume, scaled brand, make it very clear to customers why they’re getting what they’re getting. And when you make a change that delivers them perceived greater value, talk about that openly and clearly as well. I refer to this so much because it’s remarkable to me how many brands are vague about what customers are getting that they’re interested in for their money.
So you’ve looked long and hard at how your brand is managed, and it’s clear that the truth has been allowed to slip. If you no longer want to be managing a deceitful brand, how do you find a way back?
1. Start by setting new rules. Articulate “new rules of brand” that set out in a clear manifesto form what you will do and won’t do going forward. If necessary, revisit the values and behaviors that have condoned how your brand has been managed in the past.
2. Look for quick wins. What are the immediate things that you can do to turn around how your brand is managed? If you’re making claims you can’t back up, for example, either alter the claims to make them realistic or seek further substantiation. Quick wins do two things. They establish momentum, and they signal that you are serious about the changing of the guard.
3. Change what you reward. Oftentimes, brands are managed in ways that directly mirror the priorities and attitudes that are prized internally. By shifting the emphasis to integrity for example (not just what happens, but how), you can motivate people to rethink the actions they will accept from themselves and from those around them.
Last week, brand leaders from many industries gathered for The Blake Project’s annual Un-Conference at the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach. During a segment led by Mark Di Somma on Evolving Customer Engagement, one participant smartly reminded the group that transparency and authenticity are each unique.
Mark Di Somma offered this, “We quite rightly think of both transparency and authenticity as being about truth. The difference is that transparency is about being true to others in what you disclose while authentic is about being true to yourself in how you act.”
Transparency is a property of observation
For brands to be transparent, there must be an absence of hidden agendas and conditions, and a minimum degree of disclosure wherein transactions, practices, dealings and agreements are open to all for verification. While the operations of a business can be made to be transparent, it does not mean it creates resonance. The Edelman Trust Barometer findings in the US and Canada revealed an overwhelming majority of consumers felt the speed at which new pharmaceuticals and technologies were coming into market did so without adequate testing and trials. The curious insight from the Edelman study is that most companies had conducted adequate testing, well within required regulations and making full disclosures publically available. Given this level of transparency, why was there so little belief?
During the Un-Conference, Dr. Gerard Gibbons shared a compelling example of statistics illustrated as a well-designed infographic followed by a story which incorporated every data point from the infographic threaded as a narrative line in a video. By the time Gerard’s session was finished, nobody recalled the stats, but everyone remembered the story. The implication: While transparency requires that disclosure and data be made available, the data alone is not enough. Human beings do not communicate with charts and white papers no matter how well they are designed, we communicate with stories.
Being non-popular is not the same as being unpopular. Brands that are non-popular are simply not prepared to do whatever it takes to court popular favor. They do their own thing, their own way – and look to attract cult followings via like minds. But brands that have become unpopular have lost likeability. That’s a disturbing development if you’re trying to be liked by as many people as possible.
The hardest thing about seeking to be liked is that we all do business today in an environment where criticism is ubiquitous. The ability for anyone with an internet connection to not just hold an opinion but to broadcast that opinion to the world is freedom of speech on a good day and freedom to abuse on another day. At a time when it’s easier than ever for others to get the knives out, the problem it seems to me has shifted for those on the receiving end. The dilemma these days is less about what do the critics think and rather, which criticisms should you act on and which are you better to brush off as beneath your dignity?
While every brand will quite rightly set its own guidelines, there are some clear principles that make sense to me in terms of meeting the balance between maintaining reputation and over-reacting:
- Hold firm on your purpose, your worldview and your values.
- Debate priorities, opinions and options.
- Initiate or at least participate in conversations about matters that have been raised that you believe have not been properly explored and to which you believe you can bring a refreshing perspective.
- Encourage suggestions, feedback and criticism of experiences and service. (As long as you’re prepared to reply stating what you’re going to do about what’s happened.)
- Acknowledge and apologize for mistakes, errors of judgment, accidents and cases where you have not been fair or consistent.
- Redress scaremongering, inaccuracies, speculations, lies – and sometimes comparison wars and competitor taunts.
- Acknowledge, even applaud, a witty joke or satire at your expense (depending on its cleverness)
- Ignore idiots.
[Webinar: May 21st 1PM] You make decisions emotionally and so do your consumers. Learn how to reach them in their emotional glory – Featured speaker: Shar VanBoskirk, Forrester Research
IN PROGRESS: The Un-Conference: 360 Degrees of Brand Strategy for a Changing World. May 18th ~ 20th at the famed Versace Mansion in South Beach, Florida. A fun, competitive-learning experience reserved for 40 marketing oriented leaders and professionals. *Special Offer Available for MENG and AMA Members*
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