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How to Build a Strong Brand in 5 (not so easy) Steps

2010 February 21
by Greg Satell

In a hypercompetitive, globalized world, a strong brand is essential for profitability.  If you want your business to enjoy premium pricing, lower customer acquisition costs and big fat margins, brand equity is the best (legal) way to do it.

Building a powerful brand isn’t easy by a long shot, but there are some key principles that can guide you on your way.

1. Find a Job

Clayton Christensen makes the point that customers “hire” a product to do a “job” and I think that’s a great place to start.  Conventional marketing segmentation focuses on how a product fills the needs of the company that makes it rather than the consumer who is supposed to buy it.

We often talk about “categories” and “price points,” but those are not needs that consumers (businesses) need to fulfill.  Store bought cosmetics compete with beauty salons, tax software competes with accountants, robots compete with cheap labor, etc.

Some companies have been able to disrupt industries, create new categories and build great brands by finding new ways to do jobs for consumers.

Southwest Airlines didn’t try to segment airline business; they found a new way to do the job of getting people from Point A to Point B.  ESPN dominates the marketplace by doing the job of providing sports information, regardless of media platform.

As I’ve  pointed out before, new trends arise when we can find new problems to solve , new jobs to be done.  Trying to predict “the next big thing” by extrapolating current ones often misses the mark.

2. Make (and keep) Promises

Phillip Kotler, who many credit with creating modern brand management,  says that a brand is, in its essence, a promise.

This becomes clear when you enter a world with an absence of brand promises, like I did in the 90’s when I first starting working in post-communist Europe.  Brands were somewhat new and so were brand promises.

In the old system, goods were scarce and the women (it was almost always a woman) who ran the stores had real power.  If they had something, everybody wanted it – no matter what it was.  Usually they didn’t have what anything and would tell you “Nie ma!” (it’s not here) and go back to ignoring you.

It was common to find meat or cheese that was well past the due date and rancid.  When confronted with a spoiled product, the woman behind the counter would just shrug and throw it back on the pile.

After a few bouts of food poisoning, I learned to appreciate the promises of fast food brands.  They don’t promise much, just quick service and minimal quality at an affordable price, but they keep their promises.  If even one location fails to live up to the promise, it puts the whole multi-billion dollar brand at risk.

That’s the power of a brand.

3. Promote!

No matter what the product is, people have to know about it if they are going to buy it.  While there are some important exceptions (i.e. Google), as a rule the world’s greatest brands have been built through vigorous promotion.

Effective promotion has three elements: a strong brand message, efficiency and repetition.

Brand Message: Regular readers of this site know that emotions are essential to a good brand message.  The emotional center of our brain alerts us that something is important and encourages us to remember what our senses take in.

However, emotions just open the door.  There must be a rational component as well.  A good brand message also needs to promise to do an important job.  Emotions can create desire, but when the time comes to open their wallets, rationality comes to the fore. Many people want a Ferrari, few buy one.

Efficiency: No matter what the brand message is, it’s not going to be effective unless consumers actually see and hear it.  Mass media persists because it allows us to find the right people at the right price and lets us reach a lot of them very quickly.

Repetition: When I was a child, my mother used to point out that she had to ask me 100 times when she wanted me to do something.  Now that I’m an adult, not much has actually changed except it’s my wife who has to ask me 100 times.

We remember things through repetition.  Every time we use a synapse, it strengthens. Emotions can give the process a jolt, but chances are that it will take a number of exposures before a consumer will remember our brand and continued exposure to stay top of mind.

 

4. Join the Conversation

Word of mouth was always important, but now with the success of social media we can do a whole lot more about it.  Network Theory pioneer Duncan Watts is advocating an idea called Big Seed Marketing (pdf) which extends mass media through the use of social media.

Another good use of social media is listening.  Many companies do, and all should, monitor what people are saying about how their brands are keeping their promises.  Moreover, social sites like twitter can also be used effectively to contact directly with customers who are having problems and fix them.

5. Track

Often, the most neglected element of brand building is tracking. Most industries have standard research available and research companies like Millward Brown offer custom tracking surveys.  This data can be plotted against promotional activity to see what’s working and what’s not.

It’s also a good idea to talk directly to consumers, through focus groups and corporate sponsored events.  In order to develop a strategy for where you want to take your brand, you first need to know where you are and that’s a lot harder than it sounds.

So there you have it: A strong brand in 5 (not so easy) steps.  I hope this has been helpful and would love to hear your comments.

– Greg

23 Responses leave one →
  1. February 21, 2010

    Ok Greg, I will bite. My son and I have formalize a consulting practice base on successful side work accomplished over the past 2 years. I am a Duncan Watts fan, and have often told my children that no one has a job to offer you. Companies have problems to solve, however, and it is your responsibility to know, articulate, and match your skills and abilities to to problems in order to secure a position. The wording is a bit different that your first principle, but I think the result is the same. Your blog is not far off from what we are doing. I will make some tweaks and put the other principles into practice and keep you updated on the progress. Thanks for the road map.
    .-= David Lamoureux´s last blog ..Casual Friday’s =-.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    David,

    Thanks for your input. Good luck with your consulting business.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. February 21, 2010

    hi greg good one..most imp aspect is ‘benefit’ factor for customers. new trends arise cos competitors keep raising customers expectations abt wht is a.dequate as u stated in ur first paragraph abt ‘doing a job’ others also will follow doing the same job.. branding is how ‘differently’ we do it from competitors.. in this world where its eitehr innovate or evaporte companies keep thinking new but establishing a ” specific Benefit value propisition – a concrete benefit is essential. ex.in automobile indsutry

    mercedes- most prestigious
    volvo- safest
    hyundai- least expesnive
    bmw- best driving

    as u said ore than category n pricing .. developing a total value propisition with specific benefit & attribute in answering the question ” why shud i buy from u” makes a brand. once we establish this then we promote

    thanks
    sushmita mutnuri

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Sushmite,

    Good points. Thanks.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. February 21, 2010

    over all very good one..grt articulation.. good luck greg

    [Reply]

  4. February 22, 2010

    Greg,
    Great insights in 5 steps. Creating a brand and delivering on the promise requires lot of patience and persistance. What I see many times is steps 3,4 and 5 are usually missed.

    Do you have any suggestions how you measure the brand equity when it comes to personal branding.

    FYI, I have linked your blog to my blog so my readers can take advantage of this article.

    Great content again. Thanks for sharing with us.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Chaitra,

    It’s a good question about personal brand. I never really thought about it, but I guess it’s somewhat tied up with your salary. However, personal brands are about fulfillment as well (i.e. getting to choose the kind of work you want to do), so I doubt that salary or net worth would suffice.

    I guess, just like a corporate brand, you have measure your personal brand against internal objectives.

    Thanks for the link!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  5. February 22, 2010

    Hi Greg, I totally agree. It is not the product, it is the need that it fills. I created the Deployment Bracelet® when a good friend’s husband was deployed in 2002 so she could stay connected with him while he was gone. The reason I sell a bracelet is to help loved ones show their support and feel that same connection. I registered the trademark so I could protect the quality and commitment of my brand. By far my best promotion comes from a happy customer so I provide a photo of each bracelet I make for the customer to send on to both the loved one they are supporting and their friends and family. I have recently started to track my brand through Twitter and have been tracking through Google. I have done all 5 of your not so easy steps and plan on working each of the steps more thoroughly. I don’t know what step this would be in but I give a portion of the profits from each Deployment Bracelet® to the USO. Thanks for the reminder.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Sheree,

    What a fantastic idea! Glad you’re doing well with it.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  6. February 23, 2010

    Good points and thanks for sharing them. I tend to look at things from the agency perspective – often information like this is most effective when presented to the client.

    My biggest challenge is getting clients to adhere to the longer term strategy of communications and marketing. It takes as much (perhaps more) to get a client to “stay the course” and not give up the program.

    But that may be just me.

    Cheers, PJF

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Peter,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think that the having difficulty sticking to a plan is part of human nature. It certainly isn’t specific to marketing and communications. Traders on Wall Street have the same problem.

    It’s called getting “whipsawed” and it works like this:

    A trader starts wit a strategy. After a while, he has some doubts and changes it. By doing so, he takes a small loss and gets hit with some transaction costs. The some more doubts, some more small losses and transaction costs, etc. Each time he switches, he loses just a little bit, but it adds up.

    It takes intestinal fortitude to make a strategy work, but making a change is always interesting and exciting.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

    A.J. Reply:

    Intestinal Fortitude? I like that term! I’ve heard “thick skin” and “having the guts” very often, but this analogy is very visceral.

    Okay, about the topic, I would say that from my experience I always try to plow the communication with my client FIRST. I make sure that he/she understands the long-term value of a thorough branding process. Then, I bring point #5 track AND EVALUATE, and if something is not giving the desire results, then change course.

    Yes, it takes guts or “intestinal fortitude” to admit your superb idea didn’t nail it, but consumers change/evolve and if you don’t evolve as a marketer, then you are completely missing the mark. (tell that to your clients) (no offense intended here)

    Marketing is not a tool to perform A JOB, it’s a companion to any business. At least, that’s the way I approach it.

    These are my two cents, Peter.

    Cheers,
    A.J. Cuervo

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    AJ

    Thanks for your input.

    – Greg

  7. Dick Laurie permalink
    February 23, 2010

    Great article Greg, it’s a brave company that continues to deliver against all 5 steps consistently, especially under recessionary environments, where often marketing/communication budgets are slashed to protect bottom-line and shareholder investments. Arguably, those who promote through a recession often come out stronger in the longer-term but this requires considerable bravery, which many of today’s organisations/brands don’t seem to have.

    I think your point about promote and the reference to Google not doing so much of this, might need a caveat insomuch as defining promotion. I would argue that Google has promoted, but much more in the viral/WOM sense and through user spread.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Dick,

    It’s an interesting point about Google. I think that it can be argued that they do promote now through PR efforts, albeit at an extremely low cost. However, that’s after the brand was already built.

    In truth, Google was one of those lucky products whose time had come. From the beginning, their main challenge was in keeping up with demand, not creating it.

    The vast majority of us do not have such a happy problem, and therefore need to work to get the message out there.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  8. Angela permalink
    May 27, 2010

    Great summary. I’ve broken it down to 4 things that make great brands:
    1. Figure out who you are what you stand for.
    2. Deliver it in a way that creates “meaning” for your customers. I think meaning comes from fulfilling a functional (and relevant need), in a way that is unique AND compelling and creates an emotional connection.
    2. Reinforce it in everything you do (delivering on the promise).
    4. Become known for it, loved for it, revered for it (driving awareness and engagement wherever your customers are)

    We’re undergoing a major branding project and I am trying to organize an entire company around this and the hardest part isn’t just figuring out who you are, it’s also figuring out who you aren’t. The other hard part is where the rubber hits the road: delivering on the promise. I hate lip service and it’s incredible how many companies only give you just that. Any suggestions on how to inspire and convince an organization to do what it takes to make this (delivering on our promise) happen especially if/when it means serious change?

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Angela,

    Thanks for that. Very helpful.

    Regarding brand delivery, I think it’s important to build consensus at every step. It’s easy for people to agree in a conference room, but unless they have truly bought in they will defect later.

    I think the solution is to uncover as many objections as possible and deal with them before they become problems. Don’t look for quick agreement, but observe body language, etc. Generally you know when someone is uncomfortable.

    It’s easy to move forward when everyone has voiced agreement, but if you sense that a true commitment hasn’t been made, you need to go back and solve the problem before moving forward.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  9. Charles Thoeming permalink
    June 12, 2010

    Early on the entrepreneur should search availability of the brand to avoid legal entanglements and/or protect the brand through trademark registration. This is also critical from the standpoint of avoiding time and costs directed towards an un attainable brand/mark.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks for sharing, Charles.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  10. Bill Noonan permalink
    June 12, 2010

    The soft side to brand value is what proportion of the cap value is related to the public perception of the organization’s brand management.

    Some top advertising houses estimate it to be one third or more of the cap value.

    The examples of Sushmita Mutnuri’s comment tipped on attention to brand positioning and imaging has little to do with the objectivity of product sales. Rather, the subjective value of how the organization’s brand is perceived, precedes the actual value of the product sale.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks for your input, Bill.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  11. May 17, 2012

    I’m doing my job which is branding consultant, I really thank you for your article, look forward to read a lot more articles about branding. thank you very much

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    You’re welcome:-)

    [Reply]

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