Like news in the age of Twitter, Facebook and CNN.com, today new brands ascend and legacy brands fade almost at the speed of light. Even those who pioneer new product or service categories discover that brand leadership can be fleeting. Brand imitation or innovative substitution can overtake the most secure brands almost overnight.
At today’s speed of business, brand complacency is not an option. A brand that stands still for just a moment can quickly fall prey to the aggressive challengers around it. With an expanding array of media and other channels lending speed and power to new or reinvigorated entrants, there’s a good chance you may not recognize the threat until the damage has been done.
The early warning signs of brand decay may already be present: An influx of new competition poised to feed on your hard won market share. Fractures in customer loyalty as engagements become clouded by conflicting messaging. Eroded perceptions of value as others seek to establish offer equivalency. Once rewarding customer relationships reduced to haggling over the low bid.
For those lucky enough to ride demand driven by advances in technology, new regulations, or global megatrends, brand development and preservation may not seem to be a first priority. While it’s true your markets and your market share could continue to expand without a lot of brand building effort on your part, it’s likely that others have identified the same opportunity. That makes establishing competitive differentiation and market advantage early in the game an important part of your near- and long-term marketing plan.
Branding: The Anti-Venom
Branding is, at its essence, the creation of competitive differentiation. It is the anti-venom that protects businesses in poisonous competitive environments that erode the value of your business one bid at a time. By creating and tirelessly maintaining a powerfully relevant brand, your business won’t be dragged into the morass of commoditization. Existing customer relationships can remain vibrant, healthy and mutually rewarding, not just a means to a P.O. New business acquisition can remain focused on value, reputation and staying power, not just the low bid. And your business can remain true to your goals for investment, people, and financial reward, not driven by the need for cutbacks, reduced expectations, and pleasing the banker at the door.
A healthy, living and breathing brand is the foundation that supports your company and its product and service offering, attracting customers, convincing them to buy, and retaining their loyalty after the sale. A brand that is uniquely meaningful and valuable to customers can help you resist the forces of commoditization, overcome the perception of equivalence in the marketplace and allow you to compete on terms favorable to your business and not those that favor others.
Making it Real
Some criticize branding as superficial decoration, applying a veneer of messaging and graphics to a product. It’s true that some branding efforts aren’t much deeper than a coat of paint, but successful branding brings the richer, innate value of a product or service to life for the customer. Upon exposure to your offering, they can envision almost immediately the solution they are seeking.
Great brands are only possible when product or service quality is indisputable, where innovation continues to keep pace with evolving customer needs, and where customers can actually be convinced that competitive differences exist. The customer is king in branding. Far from decoration, successful branding is based on an in-depth understanding of the customer and a genuine focus on building a business driven to serve customer needs. It doesn’t take long for any customer to detect a phony. It’s why superficial brand embellishment rarely makes a meaningful contribution at the bottom line.
We can all name brands that appear to have grown up organically as unique offerings holding a special place in the hearts and minds of consumers. Coke, Nike and Apple are all examples of brands that established a strong relationship with consumers early in their histories and have sustained that relationship over time. The power of effective branding is just as evident in B2B markets. Honeywell, Caterpillar and Cisco are just a few examples of brands that have achieved an elevated status in the hearts and minds of specifiers and buyers in their specific business categories.
But successful branding – even for leaders like Honeywell or Apple – didn’t begin magically at the outset of corporate or product life. Many of today’s most successful brands are the products of conscious midlife branding or rebranding efforts. In almost every case, the branding process is both aspirational – “What do we aspire to be as a company or a brand?” – and investigative – “How do we add value and achieve success with customers today?” To get to the bottom of your brand story, it is important to invest in the diligence necessary to define aspirations and understand or decode where the brand already enjoys its greatest customer relevance.
While all of this may seem obvious to some, those closest to a brand are often least able to clearly define the attributes that create the essence of a strong brand. A disciplined immersion process conducted by experienced third-party B2B experts can help ensure that the most-relevant attributes are identified and understood before the branding solution is formulated. The process doesn’t “create” the brand. Instead it draws the brand out from within the business where it already resides.
In-depth internal interviews across a full range of stakeholders capture aspirations and important cultural attributes. External interviews with customers, channel partners and others, market and other research findings, competitive analyses and other tactics are employed to fully understand the organization’s business environment and, most important of all, the company’s successful interactions with customers today and in the past.
This process helps business managers understand why their products or services are most relevant to customers and how their organization interacts most positively with customer organizations. They can use this fundamental but informal brand “DNA” to build a formal, differentiated brand that truly resonates with, and serves the needs of, customers. One that stands apart from your competition. One that your business authenticates every day. And one that resides and is sustained at the most basic level of your corporate culture.
Why is this last point important? Because branding, no matter how carefully created, is only an academic exercise if your business organization cannot “live” the brand at every touch point in the customer relationship. A “real” brand is the body and soul of your organization. Behind the logo, tag line, and other visible elements of your organization’s identity, the behavior of every employee and representative provides convincing evidence to customers that your brand is real. If your people can’t live it, your customers won’t believe in it.
When you build and support a powerful brand, you invent, promote and deliver your product or service in such a way that an intimate connection with the customer is established. This connection is both rational and emotional. Particularly in the business-to-business world, buying decisions are made more deliberately and with the full knowledge that they have to be defended or at least justified to secure management approval. A “reasons why” messaging approach is often critical to arm customers with the information needed to defend a purchase decision.
But also at stake is the reputation of the customer within his or her organization. With a career or even a job on the line, you need to earn the customer’s confidence and trust. That requires more than reasons why; you need to make a deeper and more emotional brand connection. While pure emotion doesn’t drive most business decision making, these decisions can be strongly influenced by the intangible value associated with a particular brand. While managers who have risen from the financial, engineering or R&D ranks may bridle at the thought, product specs as well as purchase and delivery terms are often only door openers. The real sales conversation begins as the less tangible, more emotional brand dimensions are discussed. When customers perceive the value of a product as greater than the sum of the tangible product and service attributes, the brand makes a deeper connection and there is a better chance that – everything else being equal – higher margins, increased customer loyalty, and lasting competitive advantage will follow.
In a fast changing business environment, it’s never a good idea to address your brand reactively. By the time you identify a problem, it may be too late to repair the damage to your business. Vigilance and proactivity are required. Be alert to changes in your business that could or should have an impact on the brand you take to market. Changes to monitor include:
- Expansion in the competitive landscape
- New or evolving market opportunities
- Shifts in customer profiles and personas
- New customer expectations
- An expanded product or service offering
- Misunderstanding or confusion in the marketplace
- Low awareness of your solution and capabilities
Today’s markets are changing rapidly – if not at the speed of light, then at least at the warp speed generated by expanding media channels, social networks, global competition, and the accelerating pace of innovation. Under these conditions, constant care and feeding of your brand has never been more important. The price of inaction is steep: lost differentiation, commoditization, and shriveled margins. If you have read this far, you can’t say you didn’t see it coming.