I’ve written before about how brands work like symbols in our brain. Successful brands cause us to respond by associating strong positive pictures, sounds and feelings (and possibly smells and tastes) to the brand stimulus. You can study how this works in your own experience. I want you to think for a moment about BMW. As you think about BMW, make a note of what your mind does. Do you see images? What do you see? Does anyone hear anything? Are you in the picture, perhaps driving the car? Or are you watching the car in your mind’s eye? How many of you have positive images of BMW? What you see are the results of BMW’s branding efforts. If you choose, you can change your feelings about BMW by changing the quality of the images you see: if you make them smaller in your mind, they become less powerful. If you make them bigger, add motion and sound, and put yourself in the picture, they get stronger. If you would prefer not to like BMWs, because they cost too much, you can shrink the images down, and perhaps make them black and white.
Why did we go through this? The point is that if you don’t control the images in your head, someone else will. Branding is powerful, and we as business people with responsibility for brand-building should use these tools responsibly. Many people don’t know how to change their own beliefs by consciously manipulating their own perceptions. Advertisers know how to manipulate your beliefs through the management of perceptions. Is this an ethical problem? It can be.
Unscrupulous advertisers use any means at their disposal to create the impression that will sell the product. We don’t need to worry about that, so long as we’re attending to issue number four above: ensuring that the brand actually delivers real value to the customer. All communication is about building images in the mind of the customer. Branding is a powerful communications tool. As with all other communication: be honest. Tell the truth.
Then your customers will thank you for helping them to buy the right product.
Now let’s look at a basic branding recipe. A recipe is a set of instructions that help you achieve some goal. Our goal is to cause our target segments to believe that our product is desirable.
I call this recipe the three Cs. This is where it all starts. In order to understand anything about marketing, you must understand these three things. In the real world, you can’t study them sequentially: they all feed off one another. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I will take them one at a time.
- The Company is about you and your stuff. What do you do? What are your products? What are your services? What is great about them? What makes them valuable? This is not just a list of product features. Think about the richness of your company and its capabilities. Make a big list. If you want to build a product or service brand, you can do the same thing for a specific product or service. We use workshops, internal interviews and literature reviews to get this done. By the way, one of the goals of service branding is to make services as easy to buy as products. That means making them tangible. How to do that is another story, but one I’d love to talk about offline.
- The Customer is that group of people who in the end pay your salary. More than one person has said “life would be great if it weren’t for customers.” The challenge with customers is that they don’t all think the same, and it’s tough to figure out what they do think. As marketers, we have to aggregate the individual opinions of our customers and prospects, because we have to market to entire populations. That’s one of the differences between marketing and sales: sales people operate one-on-one, while marketing operates one-to-many. In general, you have to do research to work out what customers think. A lot of our work is related to gathering, organizing and interpreting customer data for our clients.
- The Competition is all the reasons why someone might not buy from you. We are used to thinking about direct competition—the companies that make stuff like our stuff. Honda and Toyota are competitors in this sense. So are Dell and Compaq. This kind of competition is important, and we need to understand it. In addition to direct competition, there’s a second type: we call it indirect competition. This means all the other kind of solution that a customer might find, that would send their dollars to someone else’s pocket. We study direct competition with literature searches, web site searches, customer and sales interviews, and a special kind of focus group we’ve developed called Structured Study Groups. Indirect competition is studied the same way, except we’re looking not at product comparisons, but at the arguments that would lead someone to buy a different class of product. For example, if we’re selling skis, what would cause someone to buy a snowboard instead? It’s not a direct competitor in the sense that we can usefully compare specific product attributes, but it’s absolutely a real form of competition. Another example might be buying a motorcycle rather than a car. They are quite different, yet they are alternative ways of providing transportation. Our goal in the competitive analysis is to understand how we can successfully differentiate ourselves in the crowded space between the customer’s ears.
Only when we understand all three of these issues are we ready to really talk about building a brand.
- The company discussion helps us understand what we’ve got.
- The customer discussion helps us understand who needs what.
- The competitive discussion helps us understand what we’re not.