a key strategy in the age of parity
bCentral - Sarah White is a small-business consultant affiliated with Third Wave Research Group. She is the author of several books on marketing and advertising, including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Marketing Basics."
Blame it on the cattle ranchers. When they started "branding" their herds for easier identification, it helped cement a tradition that's
vital in today's business world.
A brand strategy is the core of all sales efforts, customer service and
corporate communications. It sets the tone for internal and external interactions
at every level. Every company, even a startup, should have a brand strategy
in place before initiating a marketing program.
A brand strategy can:
Make you stand
out from your competitors.
Give heft to
your advertising messages.
to launch new products or services quicker and at lower cost.
Help you attract
and retain quality employees.
How well do you understand the needs of
your hottest prospects?
As an example, we will show you how much households spend on baby food
in your area. Enter your ZIP code and click "Go." Scan the report
for the highest "demographic index" numbers. An index higher
than 100 indicates households making higher than average purchases of
baby food. If you were marketing to new mothers, this information would
help you develop your branding strategy.
Branding: what it is (and isn't)
A brand establishes an identity, stirs feelings and makes a connection
between those feelings and that identity. Your brand resides in the hearts
and minds of customers and prospects.
A brand is much more than a trademark or slogan. At the core of a brand
lies the question: "With our [product or service], how do we make
our customers feel?" Making customers feel good about your product
or service is the key to breaking through the cluttered marketplace of
products and messages. Branding helps customers build loyalty to your
company and its offerings.
A brand is made up of a complex mix of components. These include:
logo or symbol
Each of these components contributes to the feeling that is your brand,
but none by itself creates a brand. The brand is the result of consumers'
accumulated experiences with and perceptions about your company, its people
and its products.
Branding unlimited. Branding works for services as well as for products.
Branding can be created around ingredients or around whole companies and
even geographic regions.
Examples? California marketing boards for raisins ("Heard it through
the grapevine") and milk ("Got milk?") raised farm commodities
to cultural icons through the power of branding. Consider the ingredient-branding
strategy in the catchy four-note chime that says "Intel Inside,"
or BASF's long-running slogan: "We don't make a lot of the products
you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better." These examples
prove that a branding strategy works for a wide range of offerings.
Why branding works
Branding works because it gives the mind something to hang on to. Several
aspects of cognitive behavior explain why branding has become a key component
of marketing strategy.
Looking for good enough. In the search for products and services to fill
their desires or solve their problems, people are looking for "good
enough." In an uncertain world, we value consistency over quality,
predictability over risk. Most of us are satisfied if we avoid making
a bad choice. Branding builds confidence that, among many offerings that
appear "good enough," yours will meet the criteria with fewest
problems and greatest satisfaction. The brand purveys a promise of reliability.
It says, in effect, "We stand behind our product."
The halo effect. The mind works by associations. For example, we tend
to believe attractive people are smarter than less attractive ones, even
though we know that one trait has nothing to do with the other. Our minds
insist on associating many positive traits with each other. The brand
conveys a positive feeling, and by "the halo effect," the product
and company become associated with other positive attributes.
Anchoring. The mind does not simply form impressions, it becomes anchored
in them. Our first snap judgments are apt to become our enduring beliefs.
The brand communicates directly at the "feelings" level, and
thus is easily anchored as a core belief.
Branding and product parity
We live in an age of product parity, when most offerings are essentially "good enough." Products and services that are seriously flawed
quickly wash out in a marketplace already crowded with reasonably good
Once upon a time, products had real differences. When running shoes first
came on the market, it was a remarkable improvement over the old sneakers
and high-tops. A vast array of features, from heel stabilizing to shock
absorption, made it clear why a consumer might want to buy the new shoes.
But soon the market became crowded with shoes bearing a wide variety of
features, at a wide range of price points.
In a marketplace saturated with parity products, how can a shoe marketer
persuade consumers to choose one product over another? With branding.
The Nike "swoosh" on a consumer's shoes enables her to display
that she, like Nike, believes in the "Just do it" philosophy.
Branding lifts a simple offering into the realm of feeling and self-expression.
In a world of product parity, it's crucial that you leverage consumer
emotions in your favor.
Building brand equity
The goal of your marketing is to build your brand's equity. You invest
advertising dollars to build awareness, and to form positive associations
in the minds of your targeted audience. These are banked over time, and
converted to profits when the brand-loyal consumer purchases your offering.
Let your marketing messages display both points of parity and points of
difference. Help potential buyers see that "this is good enough"
by showing how you are similar to other offerings. Then, help potential
buyers see that "this is better" by communicating the differences
only you can claim.
Every marketing activity your strategy calls for should be carefully chosen
to support your brand. Your advertising campaigns, sales promotions, special
events, and team or event sponsorships must reinforce the brand. Every
interaction a potential customer or referrer has with a member of your
staff is an opportunity to build the brand.
Use the tools on this site to better understand consumers of your product
or service. Use the Demographic Profiler (if you sell to consumers) or
Business Profiler (if you sell to other businesses).
Keep in mind, even if your business model is business-to-business, that
the person who cuts a purchase order for your product is just that - a
person. In your research, look for what stirs feelings and connections
in the hearts and minds of these individuals. Build your brand identity
Managing the brand
Branding is not an activity you can accomplish overnight, or purchase
ready-made from a consultant or advertising agency. A successful brand
is built over time from the hundreds of little things you do right.
The brand is, at its heart, a promise. It warrants that the product or
service carrying that brand will live up to its name. The value of that
brand rises or falls with the integrity of the people behind it. The ultimate
authority for managing the brand lies with the highest officers in the
company. The "principles of the principals" make or break a
Successful brand managers learn how to leverage every customer contact
into a "moment of truth" that reinforces positive aspects of
Measuring the brand
To improve the long-term profitability of your brand, you'll need to measure
its performance. And to do that, you'll need a sense of where you stand
at the start of your brand initiative.
Before you deploy a branding strategy, use research to probe perceptions
regarding your company and its offerings. Based on that knowledge, you
can build a brand that plays to your strengths.
As you implement your branding strategy, use research to track changes
in perception in your target audience. Adjust your use of messages and
media, in advertising and other marketing, to counter weaknesses or leverage
strengths revealed by your research.
Burning questions. Focus groups, quantitative surveys, comparison of sales
volumes, and internal review of customer accounts can all add to your
understanding of how your marketing initiatives are creating or shifting
In measuring a brand, you seek to understand:
Is your desired
audience aware of you?
do they associate with you?
Do those attributes
support your Unique Selling Proposition?
marketing strategy be adjusted in light of new information about your
Putting branding to work for you is not difficult -
in fact, because of the way human minds work, it will happen whether or
not you are controlling the process. To use branding strategically, integrate
branding into every aspect of your business, from top-level corporate
strategy to the last detail of packaging and display. Your branding strategy
will make you stand out from the crowd.
Sarah White is a small-business consultant affiliated with Third Wave
Research Group. She is the author of several books on marketing and advertising,
including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Marketing Basics."