Brands and branding have endured for years, centuries in fact. And despite dire predictions from some pundits, there really is no reason to expect that brands cannot continue to thrive for years to come. At their best, brands convey and signal different kinds of information that allow consumers to reduce risk, simplify decision-making and achieve greater satisfaction in their lives.
To consumers, strong brands make their lives a little – or even a lot – better. But, as has always been the case, there will be winners and losers in the marketplace. For every strong brand, there are other, competing brands that struggle to achieve or maintain similar success.
What will separate the winners and losers, in part, is how well those brands are managed, especially in terms of how effectively the prevailing branding trends and developments are understood and handled.
One of the fascinating aspects of branding is the constantly shifting environment in which marketers operate. The rules of the branding game change constantly. What worked ten years ago might not work now and almost certainly will not work ten years from now.
Brand management has had to evolve through the years as a result of technological, social, economic, natural environment and other changes.
Arguably, the dawn of the 21st century has brought more changes in the marketing environment than have been experienced in a long, long time.
HOW TO BE A SUCCESSFUL BRAND
So what, then, is the prescription for branding success in the coming years? What are the important branding priorities on which to focus?
Although a number of issues exist concerning brand measurement, ROI and accountability, as well as the optimal organisational structures and processes for effective brand management, we concentrate on actual marketplace effects in branding.
Here are five keys for brand success that reflect the recent shifts in the branding environment.
1. Find out How Much Involvement Consumers Actually Want
This means practising 'participation' marketing rather than 'one-to-one' or 'permission' marketing.
Much has been made of the newly empowered consumer – in charge, setting the direction of the brand and playing a much bigger role in how it is marketed. There is no question that consumers are more actively involved in the fortunes of brands than they have ever been before.
But the reality is that only some of the consumers want to get involved with some of the brands they use and, even then, only some of the time.
Consumers are, after all, just people with lives, jobs, families, hobbies, goals and many other commitments. Many, many different things matter more to them and take up more of their time than the brands they consume. As much as a consumer may personally value a brand, that doesn't mean that he or she would necessarily have the interest or even the opportunity to get actively involved – directly or indirectly – in influencing its fortunes: that's the marketer's job.
Largely due to the internet, consumers can choose to become more involved than ever with a brand – communicating with the company and/or other consumers about their likes and dislikes and even how it is marketed. No question, some consumers will choose to become engaged at a deeper level and marketers must do everything they can in the coming years to encourage them to do so.
Nevertheless, many consumers will choose not to do so, and understanding how best to market a brand, given such diversity in consumer backgrounds and interests, is crucially important.
Along those lines, concepts such as one-to-one and permission marketing have been proposed in the past as one means to more effectively address the newly empowered consumer. However, one drawback to such concepts, is that they often presume that consumers know what they want. In many cases, consumers have difficult-to-express, undefined, ambiguous or conflicting preferences. As a result, consumers may need guidance and assistance in forming and conveying their preferences.
In that regard, 'participation marketing' may be a more appropriate concept to employ, because marketers and consumers need to work together to find out how the firm can best satisfy consumer goals given their knowledge and interests, and what they are willing to put in to and hope to get out of the brand.
2. Recognise the Increasing Importance of Design
An increasingly crucial component of the value propositions for many firms is the design of their products and services. Adept marketers at firms such as Apple, Nike, Ritz Carlton, Singapore Airlines and Samsung are maximising functional and aesthetic aspects of the design of their products and/or services. Product design is not only how a product works, but also how it looks, feels, or even sounds and smells. Service design similarly is a function of all sensory aspects of a consumer encounter and experience with a brand.
With the right design, a brand offers advantages in product and service performance and imagery that can create significant functional and psychological benefits. A well-designed product or service affects consumers rationally and emotionally.
However, developing increasingly better-designed products and services requires a clear, comprehensive and up-to-date understanding of consumers: how they purchase and use products and services, and how they think and feel about brands.
Design considerations will increasingly drive the innovation pipeline in terms of both new, as well as improved, products and services. Competitive advantages and brand strength will thus come from having better-designed products and services than competitors, providing a wider range of more compelling consumer benefits as a result.
3. Assume Integration is the Norm
The diversity of means to communicate about products and services and sell them to consumers has exploded in recent years. Major shifts in media viewing habits have emerged due to the fragmentation of TV viewership; the growing use of DVRs, video gaming and internet broadband; the rise of mobile phones as a ubiquitous tool; the explosion of online blogs and social communities; and the greater importance of events, experience and buzz marketing. Some of these developments have also affected how companies now distribute their products and services.
Marketers are increasingly embracing traditional and non-traditional communications, and different types of personal and mass media. It is hard to imagine a modern communication programme that does not attempt to skilfully combine some form of: (1) online, interactive communications, (2) 'real world,' experiential communications, and (3) traditional, mass-media communications. Such a combination helps marketers to inform, entertain, persuade and engage consumers, and initiate ongoing conversations and dialogues. Marketers are also combining 'push' and 'pull' in their distribution strategies, selling directly via the mail, the internet, telephones and cell phones, and company stores, while also selling indirectly via different types of wholesalers and retailers.
Savvy marketers know that any communication or distribution option has strengths and weaknesses, and can accomplish different objectives. They should therefore be combined in such a way that the advantages of one option help to offset the disadvantages of another. Skilfully choosing some communication options that share meaning and others that offer different meaning helps marketers to effectively translate their brand positioning and 'paint a picture' of their brands in the minds of consumers.
Similarly, a well-integrated channel strategy should maximise coverage and minimises conflict in a way that, directly or indirectly, increases consumers' propensity to purchase and use the brand. Collectively, communications and channels need to be combined in a way to maximise their joint effects, so that 'the whole' is in fact greater than 'the sum of the parts'.
4. Practice Social Responsibility
Corporate social responsibility and a corporate point-of-view on societal, environmental and community issues will increasingly be necessary.
In part due to the heightened media coverage of business, there is greater transparency and awareness of companies and the words they use and actions they take, both inside as well as outside the company. Of greater concern to many consumers these days, especially younger ones, is whether a company is doing 'good things' in terms of all aspects of society and the environment, and all facets of their lives.
Marketers will need to proactively exhibit behaviour that is ethically, morally and socially responsible. Marketers need to find 'win-win' solutions with 'cause' marketing programmes and other activities that allow them to enhance the welfare of consumers while still running their businesses profitably.
If designed and implemented properly, cause marketing programmes can accomplish a number of objectives for a brand: building brand awareness; enhancing brand image; establishing brand credibility; evoking brand feelings, creating a sense of brand community and eliciting brand engagement.
However, to receive brand equity benefits and for long-term programme sustainability, it is important that cause marketing efforts be branded in the right manner. In particular, it is important that consumers be able to make a connection from the cause to the brand.
Perhaps the classic example of doing so is McDonald's, which has effectively leveraged its Ronald McDonald character and its identification with children via Ronald McDonald House Charities. This well-branded cause programme enhances McDonald's reputation as caring and concerned for its customers.
5. Brand Architecture Needs to Be Comprehensive
The brand architecture strategy needs to be more comprehensive in order to maximise growth across products, consumer segments and geographical markets.
Brand growth requires a well-thought-out and implemented brand architecture strategy that defines: (1) the potential of a brand, (2) the types of product and service extensions that allows a brand to achieve its potential, and (3) the brand elements employed, and positioning and images conveyed about all the different offerings for a brand in different markets and to different consumers.
A good brand architecture helps to define brand boundaries in terms of what products or services the brand represents, what benefits it supplies and what needs it satisfies. A good brand architecture provides 'guard-rails' as to appropriate and inappropriate line and category extensions. It clarifies the brand to consumers and motivates them in terms of which are the right versions of the product or service for them.
In defining brand architecture, a number of guidelines exist to ensure that the right brand portfolios and brand hierarchies are put in place. Two key principles of brand hierarchies are the principle of relevance – put as much equity as possible at the highest possible level of the hierarchy – and the principle of differentiation – ensure that offerings at any one level of the hierarchy are well distinguished. Similarly, a number of guidelines exist as to how to also leverage a brand across markets and market segments. Understanding the relevance of the brand promise and how it should best be translated and adapted to different markets is of fundamental importance.
Given that the vast majority of new products are extensions and the vast majority of new products fail, the implication is clear: too many extensions fail. Why? Extensions are not creating sufficient relevance and differentiation in their product or service categories. An increasingly competitive marketplace will be even more unforgiving to poorly positioned and marketed extensions. Marketers must be rigorous and disciplined in their analysis and development of brand extensions to increase the likelihood of success.
Recognising the substantial intangible value of brands to a corporation, branding is likely to remain a top priority for organisations of all kinds. Successful branding in the 21st century, however, requires new areas of emphasis and new skills. In this article, five priority areas were identified and briefly discussed concerning:
1. actively engaging in participation marketing
2. crafting well-designed products and services
3. developing fully integrated channel and communication strategies
4. embracing enlightened corporate social responsibility
5. designing and implementing a robust brand architecture strategy.
Obviously, each area is complex and challenging, and deserves greater analysis and discussion. But, regardless of the particular outcomes of that debate, one fact will remain. Branding has been and always will be a combination of art and science. If there is one safe prediction to be made about the future of branding, it is that the logic and creativity of the marketers involved will be the single most important factor determining the fortunes of brands and separating the winners from the losers.