As old fashioned as it is, I think there is still a very common, working misunderstanding of brands as mere marks of identity.
Those of us who work with brands for a living, and keep at least a jaundiced eye on the industry, know that a brand can be so much more, and do so much strategic work, for any company. It is really the ingredient that differentiates the leaders from the pack. The tools for better sales through branding are available to everyone. So, why do so few really do
My experience is that this is rooted in three things. First, really the only, or at least primary, goal for most companies is a revenue goal; this then naturally gets led by sales and supported by marketing. Usually, internal teams are under-resourced or under-experienced to lead. Sometimes there is just systemic and endemic bad practice going on. Because revenue is a ‘sales thing’ and ‘they must know what they’re doing’, internal teams demur, get shut out, or get harassed into doing what’s expedient. Sales, because they’ve been given the revenue priority, and they have bonuses attached, does what sales usually does to get the job done: fire and aim. Add a bad economy into the mix and things get worse. ‘If we waste a few good customers in the process, who cares there are more’, is a still rampant sales philosophy. I have heard many times sales say they ‘know their customers best’, which means just give me what I want so I can sell stuff. And they’re usually happy to have ‘anything’ to market with – often even better, to them, if they’ve mainly authored it.
Sales is always looking for big and early wins, so very often companies go full tactical by default through deferring to sales leadership without fully realizing what they are giving up in their drive to make quarterly numbers. And sales, and most others, especially don’t appreciate that your brand’s very aesthetic can help drive better revenue numbers if carefully crafted and connected everywhere your customers are. (Back in the ‘real’ world, if I said this around many boardroom tables, especially in a recession, I might be patiently listened to, while in their head they’re thinking: ‘did he just say aesthetic? We don’t have time for some airy brand exercise, we need real sales now!’)
The second barrier I come across is ‘yeah but….’ This goes something like this: ‘yeah that might work for Coke and Nike, but we have small budgets and we can’t do really ‘do’ branding and advertising like that so…it’s not really relevant to us.’ This misses the point of basic human cognition and good strategy: neither did those companies — at the start. But they did use brand strategies to elevate their sales performance. Think of a more recent example, someone like Under Armour, who built brand awareness of their symbol in a very short time through a sports celebrity endorsement strategy that concentrated on injecting its own brand symbol with those star qualities. The Under Armour symbol is now a powerful embodiment of character and values to the point they hardly need to say Under Armour anymore. They built a sign more powerful than words that attracts their customers. You think it all when you see the symbol. Under Armour didn’t have huge budgets to start with. All they did was put into practice what others have to create powerful connections with customers much faster. You don’t need celebrities. You just have to pay attention to people, their affinity for symbolic meaning, and how they interact with things and ideas.
Third, the Executive doesn’t really value brand as a strategic asset or commit to its development. In down economic times, I’ve yet to come across a client who says ‘we need to invest in our brand more now than ever’ — which is actually at least part of the right answer. Usually, brands and branding get shoved aside as the company instead uses budgets to hire and train new sales people to pound the pavement. They keep cheapening their brand over and over and cheating themselves out of a better business. It’s difficult to do much within organizations like these. They are quite possibly doomed, or eventually and slowly convert to more strategic ways of thinking.
So, what is a brand story then, really? It’s not about (or just about) being consistent or being technically ‘on brand’ in what you say or do. In fact, that can be very boring and unengaging and actually hurt your image. A brand story is not even just one story. It’s really many threads of associations, feelings, shared ideals, facts, insider jokes, images – it’s a relationship that has a past, a present and a future. Everyone, big budget or small, benefits from developing shared stories, ways of seeing the world, ways of speaking and being, that create connections with customers that make you part of the world that they want and see themselves in. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. It just has to be holistic, deliberate, smart, and managed.
In an article from DeepDyve about the silent power of brands, researchers looked at the evolution of branding over the last 45 years. One key finding that shouldn’t be so surprising, is that your brand can really help improve your immediate sales if you have the equity built into that brand. In other words, so long as the stories that connect your customers to you are there, so long as that shared memory and shared feeling is there or is being built, you can draw on that equity later to ‘hit them’ with a quick promo or some immediate sales ask. And it will be easier then because they will ‘get you’ better and faster. You won’t need so many low-value prizes draws to foster customer interest anymore — which is really a dead-end anyway, when you think about it. You will find better ways of connecting – through empathy, ideals, shared interests, listening, shorthand humour — the ways that friends do.
I sometimes think of brand stories, at least in part, as the creation of a shared memory. It’s storytelling in a voice that tells and retells stories visually and in text, sometimes together, sometimes not, to create a semblance of memory and associations of recall. Sometimes brand stories are not drawn in straight lines either – like stories themselves, with non sequiturs and surprise endings. Like any good storytelling, and any close relationship, pieces of stories crop back up; they can get to be so shorthand that customer and brand co-create a shared cultural meme (Budweiser’s ‘Wazzup?’ campaign is a case in point) that lasts for years beyond the paid media. Strong brands re-use stories and build on stories to create customer affinity. Too many companies don’t build on what they’ve already done and the equity they’ve already realized. Stories, images, symbols, signs, the working stuff of memory, past campaigns and ideas: too few companies re-use and re-purpose their story assets in ways that create stronger awareness and deeper connections.
With stories that are understood by your customers, and incorporated into their lives about you, you can do more than sell better. You can also improve your PR, and do better damage control on the corporate and crisis communications side. If you’ve built up positive community and partner equity, you have a better chance at weathering potential negative outcomes in the media – if and when you need it. If you’ve spent your time also consistently seeding your communications and advertising with positive associations, this work will also help you deflect negativity later. Positive market associations around your main brand also creates a halo effect that makes brand extensions or new products more compelling to your customer base and other stakeholders. The reasons are all strategic to care about and develop and reuse brand stories in a language that connects with your customers. The DeepDyve article asks us to remember that babies can recognize shapes and symbols long before they grow to have the ability to recognize and interpret language. There is psychological power in your brand that you can unlock by understanding the power of symbolism, images, colour, language and the cultivation of shared memory, feelings and associations. Purchase decisions aren’t really conscious – as much as many of us would like to believe we have a choice. The mind is already attuned to receive and tell stories, problem solve, categorize, compare, and sort the base material of our brands and advertising. This is the thread that runs through everything you do. The more you pay attention to people and building a web of associations and relationships with your customers through powerful visuals and stories, the very real stuff of their lives in ways that they see themselves, the more you can simulate memory with them through a shared world view. Sales can reap this harvest all day long. But without this, and being attentive to it in everything you do, it gets harder to focus, harder to plan, harder to sell, harder to compete, and harder to retain loyal customers – since there is really nothing to be loyal to if you’ve got nothing in common with your customer, and nothing to share to keep and build that relationship. Brand stories create a world that helps take you beyond function and lifts you up into a higher, more strategic place from which to work. Smart marketers have their brands think and act like real people with something to say, a point of view, a tone of voice, an attitude, and a way of relating to the world that’s not just about shouting out the next promo. Unfortunately, human beings aren’t really built for long-range planning (if only we lived 1,000 years it might be better), so brands everywhere suffer under the anxiety of next month’s sales projections. And organizations aren’t usually ‘patient’ with brand discussions – it’s the so-called ‘fluff’ before the serious business discussions begin. This is folly. As Apple would attest, sales can’t take a bigger bite out of any market without a powerful brand feeding it at the root.