Your word is your brand. Or rather, if the words aren’t right and your consumers depend on them for vital information, your brand will quickly find itself in the crosshairs of regulators, activist groups and annoyed consumers. The recent case concerning the contents of herbal supplements is more than an argument over percentages; at its core lies a simple question that underpins consumer trust.
Does it do/have what it says on the box?
You can see this as a labeling issue – particularly where food is concerned. Even that soon evolves into an argument about detail, consumer knowledge and mandatory disclosure. It doesn’t change the fact though that consumers expect to get what they pay for and there are brands that continue, wittingly or unwittingly, to short-change them. The halo effect of these actions carries through to everyone else in the sector.
As Walker Smith observed last year in this piece on Branding Strategy Insider, “Trust is a third rail for every kind of business or brand. It is an intangible requisite for staying in business of which companies dare not speak. As soon as you ask for it, you lose it. If trust cannot be taken for granted in the everyday course of business, if trust is not beyond question, then customers immediately jump to the conclusion that something is out of sorts.”
I suspect that, for some, the reason “something is out of sorts” is because two very simple words are being confused: earn; and earnings. In the bid to tell the market what they are making revenue-wise, brands sometimes overlook what they should be building reputation-wise. To earn takes time, effort, integrity and the willingness to forge. Earnings are now, today, what it says on the press release. Central to this is the ongoing tension, identified by Steve Denning in this article, between the “real market” (the world of real transactions) and the expectations market (the world in which investors form and articulate expectations of how companies should perform).
Which leads to a dilemma that to my mind remains unresolved. Whose trust should brands value most – the trust of the consumer; or the trust of the market?
Communication is just one tool to convey brand message. Marketers and brand strategists are not employed by companies to create communications – they are employed to create change in consumer behavior. Instead of deluging customers with messages about the point a brand is trying to make, imagine how a brand might let customers experience the point it’s trying to make.
This subtle, but powerful shift moves customers up the ladder of marketing effectiveness*. Instead of absorbing a message (theoretically), customers begin to interact with the brand (practically).
Take credit cards as a first example: Most of the revenue made by credit card companies comes from card use. Many card companies have automatic budget alerts, monitors, trackers, and smartphone apps – these all help customers perceive they are better in control of their finances as they have something easy and practical to help them economize. They go beyond the message by designing an immersive program that encourages sustained interaction with the product. Who doesn’t want more control of their finances? And what card company doesn’t want more point of sale and transaction fees? A win for both, and the message is only a small part in the program design.
People buy brands, not managers. And yet think about the number of managers who make judgment calls, sometimes very big judgment calls, based on their own opinions and experiences? They feel comfortable because they are expressing views and making decisions that fit with their worldview. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily doing the brand justice, particularly if their viewpoints compromise the personality of the brand itself.
Hands up if you’ve ever been to this meeting:
“I like orange.”
Or “Don’t make it orange.”
“Use short words.”
Or “People don’t read.”
“We need to be on TV.”
And/or “We need to export.”
Brands thrive when they are based on meaning, trust, relevance and delight – but of course they must deliver that meaning, trust, relevance and delight to the buyer, not the seller. Otherwise they risk narcissism.
Every brand must pursue a life of its own – not affirm the life of a manager. And to me, that integral sense of being an asset in its own right hangs on ten things. A brand must have:
“I never worry about action, but only inaction.” ~ Winston Churchill
There’s a simple, human reason why behaviors happen time and time again. We are creatures of habit and familiarity. It is much more comforting to keep hammering away at what we know than it is to stop, reappraise the problem and completely redesign the playbook.
Relentless speed and ubiquitous impatience have spawned an approach to strategy based on “not enough time”. The underpinning philosophy is that there are either not enough minutes in the day to do the thinking, or even if these can be found, the strategy will be outmoded by the time the company gets to implement it.
Wrong. It will almost certainly take far less time to strategize the road ahead than it took to get into trouble. And it will cost a whole lot less than reacting to another bad snap decision.
However, those who hate change can always fall back on a simple tactic. If in doubt, raise more doubt…
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“But it’s not working now.”
“OK, what if it makes it worse?”
We’ve all been in those meetings.
I mentioned previously that branding goes as far back as recorded history. However, in the modern era, outside of brand identity development, branding activities were largely confined to consumer packaged goods companies such as General Mills, Kraft Foods, Nestle, P&G and Unilever. Then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, companies began to realize that their corporate brands were assets of great value that needed to be managed and leveraged. This is when companies started creating brand management positions at senior, and sometimes even corporate officer levels in the their organizations. I was the beneficiary of this movement at Hallmark Cards, when I was named Hallmark’s brand czar (not my real title).
Since that time, municipalities, universities, museums, professional trade associations, sports teams, churches and even individuals have gotten into the branding act. Talk of brands and brand positioning has become ubiquitous within our society.
Today, when we are asked to facilitate brand positioning workshops for organizations, the workshop participants are almost always the organization’s CEO and his or her staff, not the marketing department (although they participate). Further, increasingly, we are asked to facilitate a mission, vision, values workshop for the company just prior to the brand positioning workshop because the two activities are closely linked for organization brands. I have also written about the need to touch organization-wide communication, training and development, organization design, recruiting, performance appraisal, budgeting, capital investments, customer service design and other functions as a way to ensure that the organization delivers on the promises that it makes. These activities are clearly outside of the scope of a typical chief marketing officer’s role and responsibilities.