Branding: More Than Meets The Eye

June 2008


My mom and I had a tradition when I was growing up. Each year, when it was time to go to the department store and get new school clothes, I would hit the ground running with no budget and impossibly high expectations. At the same time, she would move cautiously, armed with frugality and a map to the closest clearance rack. For her, items that were marked “half off the last marked price” were the ultimate treasure. For me, they were just another season pass to social purgatory at my cliquish middle school.

When I protested her decidedly out-of-style selections with the usual groans, tears and eye-rolling tactics of ungrateful teenagers worldwide, my mom would give me her usual, frank reminder that my parents weren’t “made of money.” She clearly wasn’t going to spend our family’s modest income on expensive items and there were, as she reminded me, no “ifs, ands or buts” about it.

I can now appreciate my mom’s position. As a teenager though, I felt crushed. By then, I’d decided that brand-named clothes were a form of currency that I could use to stealthily buy my way across the rocky landscape of adolescence. What I didn’t realize then was that the labels on my peer’s clothes were nothing more than symbols. They weren’t really going to make anyone’s life easier over the long haul. That’s why they came and went. They had no staying power because they had little substance. It was that simple.

Unlike flash-in-the-pan fashion statements, a genuine and enduring brand is much like a likeable and trustworthy friend. People want them in their lives because they have made a series of consistently positive impressions on them. This underscores the fact that a brand is not a symbol – just as much as a person is not their name. Yes, symbols and names can be powerful, but they are not substantial enough to create sustainable relationships. Businesses that want loyal customers must think deeper. They must think like their customers and assess both the functional and emotional benefits that customers receive when experiencing their products and services. Only then will they begin to understand the power of branding.

Unique advantages
Perhaps best way to understand the elusive concepts of functional and emotional in the context of branding is to look at a very familiar and successful Washington-based business. Starbucks Corp. is functionally in the coffee business, but they are emotionally in the business of creating a unique consumer experience. Or, as Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz put it, “We’re in the business of human connection and humanity, creating communities in a third place between home and work.” This perspective is quite different from the predictable “we make coffee.” It informs all that they do – from customer service training to marketing to café design – and that makes Starbucks unique. Even though this statement may run contrary to what most of us learned in middle school, being unique is good. More than that, it is essential to business success. This is why Duane Knapp, chairman and founder of Anacortes-based BrandStrategy Inc., developed his BrandStrategy Doctrine Process. This process, which Knapp teaches worldwide through his books and lectures, helps businesses and other organizations identify their uniqueness, build their brand and enhance their customers’ lives.

Assessing perceptions
Without exception, all businesses and organizations beginning the branding process must start by asking one simple, but sometimes tough, question: How is our brand perceived both internally and externally today? Businesses must not replace that question with other questions, like “How do we want to be perceived?” or “What is our mission or vision statement?” They must also ask this question from a variety of honest sources – such as customers, stakeholders, employees and other key players. Honest is the key word here. Skewed or watered-down information is useless at any point in the branding process, but especially at this point, when it takes honest insight to build a sustainable future.

It is also important for businesses to conduct customer research, monitor the current business environment and review their current marketing strategy as part of this assessment. To underscore the importance of this first step, Knapp reminds business leaders, “If you have ever been lost and called the place you’re supposed to be, the first and most obvious question you’re asked is, ‘Where are you?’ It’s the same for a brand.”

Once a business has carefully assessed their brand, they are ready to develop what Knapp refers to as the brand’s promise. This promise is different from a mission or vision statement. Its purpose is to shift paradigms and create a long-term business plan that optimizes the emotional and functional benefits of the brand from the customer’s perspective. Once complete, the promise serves as the key driving principle behind everything that the business does – just as the concept of the “third place” informs Starbucks’ every move.

Businesses must also effectively symbolize their brand. This is where names, signature colors and other identifiers often associated with the word “brand” come into play. If they are successful, these identifiers visually stimulate consumers, while also effectively situating the experience of doing business with them in the mind’s eye of the consumer. Quite simply, no matter how one-dimensional the identifiers are, they must create a three-dimensional response in consumers. The only way they can do that is if the brand delivers on their promise by enhancing customers’ lives.

An organization must also extract and develop brand principles, brand goals, a communication plan and a brand culturization plan (different from a training plan) from their promise, in order to be successful. All employees within the organization must also individually and organizationally “live the promise,” according to Knapp. They can only achieve this through activities that create the appropriate brand attitude toward its customers.

Excellent customer service is one of the most powerful ways to differentiate a brand, build long-term brand equity and sustain competitive advantage. People are paying for an experience, not just items. This is why consumers will actually pay more for a product from a company that offers hassle-free returns and complimentary add-ons, like free shipping or alterations. These extras help them feel cared for, which leads to brand loyalty, which then brings customers back to the same business time and time again.

In order to earn this loyalty, however, customers must first feel as though the brand is a friend. Only then will they develop purchasing interest. This is what it’s all about: building relationships and customer service, rather than the stuffy, old transaction-process model.

For small businesses that feel they can’t compete with the service reputations of large businesses, Knapp advises that they only need to be legendary with their own customers, not everybody else’s. He is quick to point out that many successful and revered brands, like Starbucks, started out as small, entrepreneurial enterprises that kept their promises and delivered uniquely satisfying customer experiences.

Once an organization achieves a measure of success, there are many strategies they can continue to use to increase their brand’s equity and maximize their success. One good strategy is forming alliances with other businesses that have similar business cultures and ideologies. Through these “marriages,” businesses have an opportunity to reinvent and improve themselves, while also diversifying their customer base and market.

As the old adage states, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” It doesn’t matter whether you are the owner of a small business, the dean of a college, or the director of a destination management organization. The rules are the same for everyone: make a promise and stick to it. Nobody likes disappointment.

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