Picture this, what brand comes to mind? - It’s 7am on a cold, wet morning and there’s a 1,000-strong queue snaking round a store in Regent Street, London, as customers wait to get their hands on the latest must-have gadget. When asked what’s so special about it, one fan replies: “It’s the usability, there’s no other phone or operating system like it.”
Just 54 words, yet we’re willing to bet that the word Apple popped into your head. So solid is the Apple brand that it has attracted devotees who are prepared to get up at the crack of dawn and queue for hours to be among the first to buy the latest device – because it’s not just about the device itself, it’s about the whole Apple experience; from the thrilling in-store atmosphere through to the quality of the packaging that has people itching to un-box it.
According to Forbes, as of May 2016, Apple was the world’s #1 brand, and worth an eye-watering $586 Billion. But it’s no accident that Apple has created such a compelling brand. As Interbrand points out, ‘Apple’s relentless focus on the user is embedded in its very core... People have become central to much of its marketing as Apple weaves its products into people’s personal stories.’ If there’s any clue as to what helps propel a brand to the top, making it a hit with customers, it’s in that term ‘people’s personal stories’. As we’ll discover later, it’s by fostering strong, meaningful personal connections that successful brands are able to create a firm foothold in the marketplace.
But what exactly is a brand? At its heart, it’s an emotive, abstract concept – one that is more than simply the bricks and mortar of your store, the products that line your shelves, or the services you offer. It’s your company’s ‘personality’ – that chemistry you create between yourself and your customers which bonds them to you in an emotional and psychological way.
It’s the thing that makes people stand for hours in the pouring rain the day a new phone comes out. It’s what makes ereader users choose the same brand of tablet because they like the way the company speaks to them, or what makes someone choose a MacBook over other laptops because the brand is embedded in their psyche, aided not only by innovative features but deep brand affinity.
It’s not necessarily something that customers would be able to articulate in words but somewhere along the way, that brand has worked its way into their consciousness and earned their trust, respect and loyalty. If you think about your own favourite brand, the chances are, you’ll associate it as much with a positive feeling as you do with the company’s products or services. That’s because a great brand will always hit consumers at their emotional core.The Ancient Art of Branding.
In its most simplistic form, branding is a mark of ownership. Sometimes quite literally. For hundreds of years, livestock in America were physically branded with hot irons so that ranchers knew which animals were theirs. But they weren’t the first to do this. Evidence shows that livestock branding was going on around 2000 BC. Today in the UK, New Forest ponies – which are feral, rather than wild, and come under the control of commoners who tend the land – can’t be put out to graze unless they’re branded with their owner’s mark. So within the agricultural industries, this has long been a way of determining possession.
As far back as 1300 BC, potters were placing marks onto their work across countries as diverse as China, India, Rome and Greece. And it goes back even further – with archaeological finds telling us that the Babylonians were advertising their wares in 2000BC.
In the 1600s, criminals were also branded, both as punishment and identification. But even this wasn’t a new phenomenon, and Ancient Romans marked runaway slaves with the letters FGV, for fugitivus. Meanwhile, in 17th century North American Puritan settlements, if a man or woman played away from home, they were branded with an ‘A’, marking them out as an adulterer. Even those who imbibed a bit too enthusiastically had to be careful, for fear of having a ‘D’ emblazoned across their forehead.
Perhaps one of the greatest turning points for the future of advertising and branding was the Industrial Revolution which began in England in the mid 1700s and reached America by the early 1800s. This was the first time that goods could be mass produced, and because it was so cost-effective, it allowed the growing middle classes to enter ‘consumer’ territory. Suddenly, a mass-market was springing up, and this led to the growth of visual identification for products, along with trademarks. By the 19th century, with packaged goods really beginning to take off, manufacturers started putting their mark on packaging. It’s during this period that one of the world’s best-loved and most iconic brands made its debut – Coca-Cola. That famous Spencerian script was a way of ensuring consumers would be able to identify their beverage amid a number of other similarly-coloured fizzy drinks also doing the rounds.
At the same time, the invention of typewriters, photography, better postal systems and a rising literary rate all facilitated the emergence of brands. It soon became clear that visual communications were key to helping companies stand out and create a loyal customer base.
By the latter part of the 20th century, marketers began to notice that there was more to the perception people had of products or services than just their names. David Ogilvy summed it up as ‘the intangible sum of a product’s attributes’. It was that ‘essence’ of a thing that drew people to it. Marketers realised that they could give their products more leverage within the marketplace by creating a perception in consumers’ minds as to the inherent qualities and attributes of their non-generic products or services. This is what they meant when they started using the term ‘brand’. It was a little like imbuing their product with a soul – an inner, indefinable quality that was capable of turning something inanimate and intangible into something worthy of loyalty, trust and, even, love.
Think for a moment how a woman who is presented with a pantone 1837 (otherwise known as forget-me-not blue) box with a white ribbon accent might feel. She doesn’t have to move the ribbon aside to know that the words Tiffany & Co. are printed on there. Already, that box will have created an emotional resonance with her, and instinctively she will associate it with romance, quality, timelessness, elegance etc. Nobody has taught her this or specifically told her what Tiffany & Co. stands for, but the brand is so ingrained in the public consciousness as to be able to say a hundred things through the medium of one small blue box.
This is the power of a brand. Something that exists not only visually in the real world but also as a concept in people’s minds. And any brand, with the right investment, has the potential to resonate with consumers at a very deep level.Leveraging Brand Equity.
While it’s clear that brand equity is an intangible quality, this doesn’t mean it can’t have huge advantages for your business. In fact, a well-developed brand can be one of the best assets your company owns.
If you think of brand equity in terms of ‘inherent value’, it’s all about how engaging, popular, enticing and reputable your company’s persona is according to public perception. A positive brand image can add intrinsic value to a company. Here are just some of the ways it can help boost your business:
- Increased margins: A positive brand image goes hand in hand with higher margins. It allows companies to charge a premium for products or services because consumers place a value on more than just the product or service itself. At its highest level, the brand is capable of creating devotees who wouldn’t even consider looking sideways at another brand. It’s what makes people willing to pre-order the latest Apple device without even having held it. And because they have faith in the product, they’re willing to pay a premium too – according to Desk, 60% of customers are happy to pay more for a better customer experience. And once customers are paying more for your product, simply because they value your brand name and trust it implicitly, it’s then that your profit margins are really able to take off.
- Customer loyalty: According to research by RightNow, as many as 89% of customers turned to competitors after a bad customer experience. So a positive brand image is integral to holding onto your customer base. As well as being prepared to pay more for a brand they trust, customers are also amazingly committed to them – and if you’re able to consistently provide an excellent experience, people will want to repeat that time and again. As Walt Disney once said, “Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” Loyal customers are also great advocates for your company – to such an extent that positive word of mouth can even help reduce advertising spend.
- Negotiating opportunities: Once you have a loyal brand following, you are able to enjoy greater business influence. Manufacturers, distributors and vendors positively clamour to do business with reputable brands. This in turn gives you considerable powers of negotiation, allowing you to buy for less and then either lower the cost of your products or simply enjoy a stronger profit margin.
- Growth opportunities: If you’re a brand people are willing to follow, it allows you to add products to your line safe in the knowledge that your customers will be willing to try them. Just think how Apple has expanded its offering. It also allows you to expand into new markets and territories as people there will already recognise your brand and be willing to follow you. For example, Sephora, an American beauty outlet, has such a huge following, along with the backing of so many beauty vloggers, that British women are positively itching for them to expand across the UK.
- Competitive edge: Once you have a brand that customers are willing to stick by and pay a premium for (even new, unseen products) and you’re also able to obtain better pricing from manufacturers etc, this is hugely advantageous to your business. It’s not quite so good for your competitors though, and it’s notoriously difficult for a rival company to topple a beloved brand with a loyal following – giving you even better traction in the marketplace.
Evidence shows that truly effective brands are the ones which manage to engage consumers on an emotional level. They’re the ones consumers speak passionately about, often using the term ‘love’ to describe their relationship with the brand. Marmite recognised this emotional reaction, playing on it in a very clever way, since there was no in between with their brand. Instead of ignoring the fact some people disliked it, they used emotions to reinforce the brand, and to make the Marmite lovers feel even more special. Yes, it was okay to hate it – but those who loved it really loved it. To such an extent that people were even willing to try (and enjoy) Marmite chocolate.
It’s this relationship between brands and consumers that will continue to be of paramount importance going forward. Companies are realising that it’s becoming increasingly necessary to use storytelling to capture the emotional heart of a product and solidify the consumer-brand relationship. It’s long been known that the senses can lead to powerful memories and associations – and if brands can create lasting connections between themselves and people’s emotions through engaging, impactful adverts and experiences, then they’re halfway towards forging a meaningful relationship with their consumers.
And there’s hard evidence to back this up. Findings by Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, published in Psychology Today, proved how pivotal emotions are in consumers’ buying decisions. FMRI neuro-imagery demonstrated that consumers primarily use emotions rather than information when considering brands. In fact, studies show that consumers are far more influenced by an advert’s emotional pull than its factual content. If a customer has a positive emotional response towards a brand, this has a direct impact on loyalty – over and above any other factor.
Without a doubt, the future of branding lies in emotional storytelling. Brands need to demonstrate how they make consumers feel, rather than simply push their product on people.
A wonderful example of this is Google Chrome’s Dear Sophie advert. It said nothing overt about the product, instead it demonstrated how its various features could be used by a new father. He is shown setting up an email account to write to his newborn daughter. As time goes on, he keeps her updated with her milestones – the intention being that one day she’ll be able to open the emails and read them for herself. It’s the type of advert that would make any parent want to rush off and create a Dear ‘Whoever’ account.
There is an irony in this for marketers – because the more virtual our lives become (including our ability to view ads online via various devices), the more we crave something real and genuine. Globally, 30% of millennials say they are cynical about the way that brands market to them (this rises to over 40% in the UK and US). To rectify this, savvy marketers have increasingly sought to engage with consumers through poignant stories. The John Lewis Christmas ads are a classic example.
For those looking to get closer to their consumers in 2017, the following are good ways to do so:
- Focus more on brand experience: Rather than focusing on a specific brand image or USP, it’s important to create a positive experiential interaction with customers. Whether this is via Social Media connections, vlogs, useful articles or emotive adverts, the aim is to try and resonate with customers on a deeper level. A wonderful example of this is Google Android’s Friends Furever ad. It was not only the most shared advert of 2015, but the most shared ad of all time. People adored the ad – it gave them a feel-good experience which they then associated with the brand.
- Get personal: Everyone’s different – including customers – and in order to compete, brands need to tailor their comms to diverse groups. Fortunately, Social Media enables companies to be flexible and to interact with their consumers on a one-to-one level. Services and products will also need to be adapted to individual needs – and we’re already seeing this with things like engraving on the back of devices, personalised start-up messages, or cans featuring people’s names.
- Present a human face: Even the largest corporation needs to present a real, human side. Consumers are wary of faceless corporations – so the closer a company can get to showing its underlying ethos, heritage or core values, the more traction it’ll have with consumers. Jack Daniels does this remarkably well by referring back to the brand’s origins and letting consumers know what goes into the creation of each bottle. Those companies that are consistent, passionate, honest and willing to tell stories that are grounded in truth make great strides towards creating a strong brand equity. A good example is the 2016 Jeep Superbowl ‘Portraits’ commercial which hands ‘ownership’ of the brand back to the public by demonstrating that real people (famous and ordinary) have helped shaped the vehicle’s history over the years. Both poignant and informative, this one minute and seven second ad succeeds in showing how entrenched the brand is within the nation’s history. By hitching their brand to the pre-existing patriotism associated with a national institution like the Superbowl and then presenting their own patriotic brand ad, Chrysler was able to forge a hugely effective emotional connection.
To succeed as a brand going forward, it’s becoming increasingly necessary to reconnect with the core values of your business, strip back the layers and be willing to present a more transparent and authentic image. In a nutshell – be real; be honest; be personal; be emotional.
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