Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ducks and Turtles and Bears... Oh My!

The only thing the Rose Bowl-bound Oregon Ducks are better known for than dominating PAC-12 football is their dramatic uniform combinations. In 2011, the Ducks wore a different uniform for each and every game they’ve played. When the Ducks first began experimenting with their uniform “fashion,” many fans disliked the idea of switching uniforms for every game. They wouldn’t have put it in these terms, but essentially, they were worried about the Ducks brand being corrupted. We always admired the team’s chutzpah and felt that the brand actually attracted the right kind of attention by being flexible with its identity – while always remaining true to the spirit of the Ducks brand. And fans have come around, as evidenced by this blog post about which uniform would be the best Rose Bowl combo for the Ducks.

When the Maryland Terrapins launched their own totally cool multiple-combination unis this season, we realized that we were looking at a trend in flexible brand identities. And we wondered if this trend was extending into non-football territory as well. Flexible identities can command attention, inspire consumers and signal a new direction, but how can brands stay true to their core identities while allowing for flexibility and creative expression? Branding firms have long held that brand guidelines allow for creative adaptation, but most brands err on the side of strong consistency and adherence to rules.

Coca-Cola put brand flexibility to the test this holiday season when it launched an all-white Coke can to herald its campaign to protect the Arctic for polar bears, the brand’s mascot. We loved the design and thought it was a brilliant move, until we went to buy a 6-pack of Coke and realized that we could not just scan the shelf for red; and in fact, that the new white cans looked an awful lot like Diet Coke cans. We weren’t the only ones confused, and Coke has since switched out the white cans for red ones (still with a polar bear design) for the remainder of the holiday season.

Clearly, brand identities will need to be more and more flexible to command the attention of unfocused consumers. But brands must be careful about how they execute that flexibility so that they don’t confuse or alienate customers instead of inspiring them. As you plan for 2012, ask yourself if your brand identity is nimble enough to motivate customers, without being so flexible that it fails to help them embrace or understand your value. Then settle into your sofa on New Year’s Day to join the world in wondering which uniform the Ducks will be wearing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Can branding really increase sales?

Brand Endeavor’s own Christie Harper was recently invited to contribute to an interesting new book called The Book on Business from A to Z: The 260 Most Important Answers You Need to Know.  The book contains 26 chapters penned by business specialists who provide brief, focused answers to the 10 most frequently asked or hotly debated questions in their field.  Chapters range from E: Equity to J:Juris Prudence or Y: Yield.  And yes -- B: Branding.
The instigation for this book was the dilemma consultants often find themselves in when clients ask questions that are slightly (or very) beyond our range of expertise.  The co-authors all do our best to find the right answers for the client -- and this book can be par of the solution.  In this newsletter issue, we're featuring an excerpt from the Branding chapter -- one of the questions that’s already garmered a lot of interest from early readers:
How does branding increase a company’s sales?
Branding works in three direct ways to increase sales: attracting new customers, retaining existing customers and enabling you to command a price premium.  By making a compelling and relevant promise, you attract new customers with that promise, you retain customers by providing the experience you have led them to expect, and you can command a price premium over others who are not making or keeping relevant promises.
This dynamic is easiest to spot in consumer branding, when you consider a pair of brands in the same category.  Consider Target and K-mart.  Both are discount retailers, providing clothing and household goods at low prices; both have high levels of awareness; both have partnerships with celebrity brands.  But K-mart’s brand promise really stops at the commodity “low prices” promise, while Target’s promise encourages consumers to aspire to something more: not just low prices, but great design at low prices.  Target’s promise is “Great design doesn’t have to be expensive.”  Target’s revenue in 2010 was $66 Billion.  The entire Sears entity, which owns K-mart among other retailers, was $44 Billion.  Target was also significantly more profitable than Sears.
You can see the same dynamic in B2B marketing.  IBM was ranked #2 on Interbrand’s 2010 List of Best Global Brands.  Just behind Coke.  Astonishing for a “boring” B2B brand.  IBM’s promise is about smart people doing smart and complex things.  Compare this to its closest competitor, HP, which, while still a very powerful brand (#10 on Interbrand’s list) is struggling to rationalize its broad portfolio of products and services.  Its new brand promise is “Let’s do amazing,” which is emotional, but not particularly differentiating or relevant.
IBM reported a profit margin of 15% in 2010, while HP’s was less than half that.  On every financial level, IBM is besting HP by more than 50%. 
This is one of the 10 branding questions answered in Christie's chapter -- others include "How does branding improve a company's bottom line?" and "Why is Apple considered the most valuable brand?"  The book will be released in early September but is available now for pre-orders here or at Amazon

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Are You the One and Only?

There is a commonly cited conventional wisdom in the branding world that your brand promise should emphasize that your company is the ONLY one that does X or provides Y. We’ve had a lot of clients and friends ask us about this recently – should their brand be held to the standard of “Only Us?”

This standard is very difficult to reach in a competitive and commoditized environment. But not only is it a difficult standard, we think it’s an irrelevant one. In our view, competitive differentiation is not absolute – it is not obtained by BEING something ONLY you can be. It is obtained by OWNING something credible that only YOU are claiming.

Consider Volvo. Volvo is widely recognized as the automotive brand that owns the concept of safety. But is Volvo the only safe car? Is it even the safest car? No. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for 2010 the safest large car is the Buick LaCrosse, the safest midsize is the Audi A3 and the safest small car is the Honda Civic 4-door model. That said, Volvo vehicles are credibly safe – they are on all the relevant safe car lists. And they staked their claim on safety before any other brand did. So they own it now. And while other automotive brands emphasize safety as functional benefits, no other company will be able to OWN safety unless Volvo relinquishes its hold on the concept.

Likewise, Las Vegas could credibly be the “city that never sleeps,” but that idea was first claimed, and is now owned, by New York City. New York is not the ONLY city that never sleeps, but it got there first and staked out the territory. So Vegas has to find something else.

So when seeking competitive differentiation for your brand, you don’t necessarily have to hold yourself to the nearly impossible standard of finding something only you can BE. What’s more important is to find something that only you can OWN, and then vigorously stake that claim so that no competitor can credibly threaten it. Then you’ll seem like the One and Only, whether you actually are or not.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Branding With Heart

As the country’s most celebrated and simultaneously reviled Hallmark Holiday approaches, our thoughts have turned to the importance of emotion… in branding, of course. Companies often think they win based on price, features or functions – and their brand messages reflect this. Comparing Kmart and Target is always a great demonstration of functional vs. emotional marketing. Check out Kmart’s back-to-school commercial from this past fall – while high spirited, it still focuses on the functional benefits of fashion and price, without an emotion that runs deeper than an adrenaline rush. Compare it to Target’s back-to-school ad , which focuses on the feeling of freedom – both mom’s freedom from the kids, and the kids’ freedom to be themselves. Which resonates more for you?

Emotionally devoid branding is especially prevalent in the B2B category. But we must remember that business customers are people too – people with feelings that motivate their work purchases just as they do at home. We have seen several experts suggest that B2B marketing may be better thought of as B2P – Business to Person – marketing, reminding us that there is a human being at the receiving end of our message.

Here are two questions you can ask yourself to ensure that your brand has heart:

1. What do we want stakeholders to FEEL when they interact with our organization?
Be careful here: this is not about what you want them to THINK – you have to identify a legitimate feeling. For instance, they might THINK your product is better than the competition, but they will FEEL smart for purchasing it.

2. What do we deliver that makes our stakeholders LOVE us?
This is the “love it, not leave it” principal. There are basics you must provide that, if you don’t, your customers will leave and go elsewhere. But this is very different from the greatest possible thing you can provide that will ensure that customers love you for all time.

Answering these two questions – and then incorporating those answers into your brand messaging and identity – will ensure that your customers will always be true.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

If you make it, don't break it

Six months ago, we wrote about Toyota and its Brand Bank Account. We asserted that Toyota’s strong brand equity – built by making a brand promise and consistently keeping it year-after-year – allowed Toyota to weather its quality crisis better than a brand with lower equity would have. Toyota didn’t go “into the red” reputationally, because its pre-crisis brand equity was so strong.

Now we have another brand in crisis – BP. Of course, the sheer magnitude of the damage BP caused is enormous. And BP execs committed PR gaffes that will go down in the annals of P.R. media training “don’t do this” case studies. But there is also a brand issue in play that all brands – large or small – can learn from: don’t make a brand promise unless you are really, really, REALLY committed to not breaking it.

In 2000, BP re-branded itself from British Petroleum to its initials, which the company asserted stood for “Beyond Petroleum.” It positioned itself as the green “energy” (not oil) company, and it appeard to be living up to its promise. People were excited and pulling for BP to succeed. And the competitors were wondering about how to respond. (I know, because I was in the room with some of those competitors.)

The competitors weren’t prepared to make the kinds of brand promises that BP was making. They rightfully acknowledged that they needed to remain “traditional” oil companies while they evolved their businesses to embrace new forms of energy. They were right to be cautious, because as they were taking an evolutionary approach to their brands, BP was making promises about being green while consistently breaking those promises behind the scenes as it committed the vast majority of “egregious and willful” safety violations in the US industry.

Part (and only part) of the reason Americans are so unforgiving of BP right now is that they fell for BP’s promise to be a new kind of energy company, and then were betrayed when BP broke that promise in such a dramatic fashion. These “logo redesigns” tell the whole story. I suspect that, even though we would be broken hearted and angry, we would not be so vitriolic if any other oil company had been responsible for this spill.  We don't expect anything more from others -- they haven't asked us to.

The moral is: if you are not fully committed as an organization to keeping a brand promise, no matter how breakthrough it is and how much it appeals to consumers, don’t make the promise. We learned it in kindergarten, but apparently it didn’t catch on with BP – if you make a promise, don’t break it.

Friday, May 21, 2010

We're Not for You

“We’re not for you.” These may be the most empowering words in your branding arsenal. Once they learn the phrase, our clients delight in saying it, over and over, just for the sound of it. It doesn’t make sense in this era of scarce resources that we might actually turn a prospect away by saying, “We’re not for you.” But it might be exactly the right thing for your brand to do.

Great brands have always been good at clearly defining their sweet spot customer. Once they know who the right customer is, they can develop a brand promise that motivates that customer, and then can deliver on the promise in ways that delight them. But the unexpected truth of customer targeting is that great brands are just as good at defining who they’re NOT for, and then letting those customers go to a competitor.

One of our favorite recent examples of this concept is the “Most Interesting Man” campaign from Dos Equis beer. Most women we know don’t get this campaign, but the men in our lives love it. And one line resonates with them more than any other: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.” In other words, “if you’re one of those beer-swilling frat boys who drink Bud Light from sunup to sundown, we’re not for you.” The brand manager for Dos Equis credits the Most Interesting Man for increasing the brand’s market share by 22% between 2008 and 2009. By turning away some prospective customers, the brand broke through the beer category noise and dramatically increased its appeal to the RIGHT customers.

Do you know who your brand is for? Give some thought to what defines your sweet spot customer. Where they live, how much money they make, what they value. Once you’ve come up with a few ideas, then think about who your customer ISN’T. It just might be that determining who is wrong for your brand is the most right thing you’ve ever done.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Brand Bank Account

The cocktail party conversations about Toyota’s recent troubles have been very interesting to us from a brand perspective. While there are certainly the jokes about drivers being worried every time they see a Toyota pulling up behind them, we have heard a greater number of comments from those quietly loyal to the Toyota brand. I must confess that I am one of those Toyota loyalists, having driven both Toyota and Lexus vehicles at various points throughout my adult life; and I found myself skeptical about the news coverage of Toyota’s faults, and forgiving of the brand in general for any missteps. And as this story has unfolded, I have learned that I am not alone.

Recently overheard comments from the Quietly Loyal include: “You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to have a gas pedal problem with a Toyota.” “They were the first to make a real hybrid, and for that reason alone, I will never buy another brand.” “If I needed a car right now, I’d buy a Toyota – this is probably the best time to buy one.”   In fact, just this weekend, NPR reported that Toyota sales in March have rebounded to pre gas-pedal levels.  This rebound is attributed to aggressive sales incentives, which likely serve to reassure the Quiety Loyal, not to convert the Overtly Afraid.

Whatever you think about Toyota’s recent issues, the Quietly Loyal provide a great example of what we call the “brand bank account.” This is based on the concept that brand equity can be built over time and essentially put in reserve for when the brand needs excess equity to help it weather a rainy day. Toyota has spent decades building up its brand bank account with its consistent delivery on the promise of quality and reliability, and more recently, innovation. While the recent turmoil has significantly drawn down this equity, it is likely that Toyota’s brand equity will remain “in the black” during a situation that would put other auto brands under.

You do not have to be a brand the size of Toyota to benefit from a brand bank account. Imagine Company X, a small company that continually delivers on its brand promise, day in and day out. But something changes – a principal gets sick, or the project manager goes on vacation, or there’s just a slump, and the promise delivery suffers. Chances are, because of the equity Company X has built up by consistently delivering on its promise, customers will give the company a chance to recover and regain its momentum.

Next time you hear some news about Toyota, consider your own organization’s brand bank account. How rich in brand equity are you? If you’re feeling a little equity-strapped, what could you do to enhance promise delivery so that you can build up those savings for a rainy day? Hopefully, you’ll never need it. But it’s always good to know it’s there.