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WHEN BRANDING IS THE KEY BUSINESS DRIVER

Things have always been highly competitive in the business world. But today’s fast moving, technology-driven, and hyper-competitive marketplace is more vicious and erratic than ever. I was going through a blog few weeks ago. The blog was about how clothing industry got affected by the new iPhone 5 in some parts of the US and the EU. Clothing industry altogether falls under a different category and/or industry. However, from a macro point of view, marketers from both the industries are actually targeting the same group of people who possess limited discretionary income. In business terms, we call it intra-industry competition. I think this should give you a picture about how complex the market has become. As the competition is getting severe, it has become obvious for the companies as well as for the marketers to differentiate their products and services from others.

Yes, I am going to talk about branding. The problem is that the term “branding” has been overused and abused to the point that it has lost much of its meaning. The term branding has become nothing but another marketing jargon (or buzz word) which refer to things that have basically nothing to do with the true meaning of the word. Many marketers claim that they are running a “branding campaign” when in fact all they are doing is selling. Consumer promotion (buy one get one), price based communications (lowest call rate), etc. are not about branding. These are single shot efforts to increase the pace of products. There is no relationship with the loyalty being formed and no long-term promises to deliver. In contrast, a true branding effort involves strategically planned communications that stimulate positive reactions in the minds of customers. Branding does not sell a specific product. Rather, it creates an image of what the brand stands for.

Branding is not about being creative and it’s not something that comes from the creative department of your ad agency. It’s about that warm, fuzzy feeling your customer gets when he/she looks at your product. It’s about your customer service and how sales people greet your customers even when they’re having a bad day. It’s about how your company is portrayed in the media. It’s about how your company is engaged with the customers. In short, branding is the face of your company.

So in this article, I tried to address some of the burning issues and misconceptions that companies as well as the marketers are facing while establishing brands.

Management of many local companies perceive marketing or branding department as solely responsible for the overall branding activities. It is true that the marketing department plays a vital role in the process of branding. However, brand building is not a series of isolated activities performed only by the marketing department. Rather, it is a collective approach. Building a brand is like building a culture. Therefore, each and every individual must understand the brand as well as the company objective. I must also add that a culture cannot be created overnight. It needs time to grow and get established. The process of branding needs to be viewed as a complete system which includes each and every activity that a company does for its existence and growth.

The initiative for Branding is not a bottom-up approach. It is rather a top-down approach. The Board along with the Management must feel the urge to establish a brand. The instructions should come from the very top. Without the willingness and right attitude towards branding by the top level, it is hardly possible to establish a brand. However, in most local companies of our country, branding activities are considered as expense. When the economy goes through a recession, the first thing that the management does is to cut the marketing and HR budget. However, it should have been the way around. Recession means less buying power by the customers. Therefore, we can easily construct a hypothesis that customers will spend more times for their purchase decision process during recession. If this is the scenario, why not reinforcing the branding budget and try to grab more attention by the customers? Once again, it needs to be viewed a culture where every single individual plays an integral part in the process of branding.

I talked about the complex business environment earlier. In this fiercely competitive market, a brand has not much of room for making mistakes. However, if somehow a brand makes a mistake, it must be identified in an early stage so that it doesn’t create a lasting effect. So, the questions are “how to establish a full-proof brand?”, “how to identify mistakes?” Well, there is no straight forward answer to these questions. However, there are certain activities that the marketers can do to reduce the chances of making mistakes. Prevention is always better (if not the best) than cure. It is always better to test the market before you make a move. A marketer can initiate different types of studies such as ad testing, brand health checkup, measurement of brand recall rate, market feasibility, promotion vs. sales, etc. These studies not only enrich product/brand knowledge, but also help understand the market dynamics.

There are a good number of research agencies in our country and they are ready to serve you at a fairly reasonable cost. And if you do not have enough time or money to hire these agencies, there are some other ways to conduct small scale studies. One can use the Facebook/LinkedIn polls to get a direction or organize a focused group discussions (FGD) to understand how the customers want something. Conjoint analysis, observation technique, etc are also great tools for research. Observations sometimes provide insights that cannot be found through any other research tools or techniques.

I have personally seen that a lot of marketers think that brand building starts from changing the logo/payoff, developing new grid or color scheme, etc. These abrupt exercises may merely be termed simply as a desperate attempt to give the brand a new look and feel. Yes, for some struggling brands, this change may be instrumental. But it is not always the wisest thing to do. Changing the appearance not only involves high budget, but also involves higher risk. The customers may not like the new appearance even though it looked excellent before launching. Like I said earlier, every move should be insight-based. If you look at some of the successful brands like Coca-cola, Google, etc, you will find that these brands have conquered all the confusions through up-to-date and need-based market research.

Advertising is one of the key elements for brand building. A good advertisement interprets the key characteristics of the brand to the targeted audience. Companies develop advertisements on different occasions for different objectives, i.e. corporate identity, product launch, product maintenance, tactical promotion, etc. But whatever may be reason for developing the advertisements, a marketer must ensure two basic aspects. These are Attraction and Benefits. Attraction mainly refers to the overall presentation, usage of color schemes, arrangement of contents, copy, visuals, etc. Benefits on the other hand refer to the “get”. The “get” should always be higher than the cost. Get does not always indicate monitory gain. It can be something else. If we consider Attraction and Benefits as the inputs for the process of developing an advertisement, then the outcome will be Creativity. However, it is important for the marketers to understand who they are talking to. If the advertisement is not understood or acknowledged by the target audience, there is no point of publishing it.

There are companies such as Banks, FMCG, Telecom Operators, etc who offer mass products. For them, it is important to find something unique and something that differentiates. In marketing terms, we call it USP (Unique Selling Proposition). But while marketing or branding different products, you may not always find USP. Then what to do? Let me give you an example. For a long time, Hertz dominated the car rental business, and AVIS was perceived as equal to all of the other seven competitors. To differentiate itself, AVIS positioned itself with the message: Because we’re only #2, “We try harder.” As a result, AVIS’ business increased and no longer was it lumped together with the lesser brands. It became a distinct #2 and the alternate choice to Hertz because it clearly positioned itself against the leader. So, the point I am trying to establish is that sometimes you’ll have to develop brand imagery, rather than looking for an USP. With hundreds of cars to choose from, what makes you think that Volvo is the safest car? It is because Volvo has positioned itself as the safest car through a series of advertisements and communications. But why did Volvo pick “safest”? Why not “fastest” or “powerful”? In fact, this is the call every marketer needs to take. It is essential for the marketer to pick a proposition (or you may call it “need”) that is elastic and relatively time proof. Safety is one of the basic expectations from a car. Therefore, Safety sells for Volvo. But if Rolex claims to be the safest watch, it may not create any appeal. It is because a wrist watch has no connection (or, relevance) with safety. Therefore, it is essential for the marketer to identify which basic need the product is expected to satisfy.

There is a saying, “advertising is the amount that the companies pay to be unoriginal”. If I were asked to comment on this, I would say that an advertisement talks about the products in a more sophisticated and tempting tone. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s needed to differentiate the product from others. However, sophistication should not offset the originality. Make sure you have the credentials and product quality to render your “unique image” real and believable to customers.
Media planning is one of my favorite areas of marketing. An effective media plan helps a brand to convey its message faster and to the right set of people. However, what is an effective media plan? Every brand has a specific set of customers/consumers. No brand should try to sell to everyone in the world. No brand can be all things to all people.  An effective media plan understands this very principle. Media vehicles should reflect the media consumption trends and patterns of consumption of the targeted audience. Selection of wrong media vehicles sometimes causes serious injuries to the brand. A good media plan not only deals with demographic characteristics (i.e. age, sex, occupation, etc), but also addresses psychographic characteristics (i.e. innovator, early adapter, etc). In addition to these, a media planner should also understand how the product is connected to customers’ life-cycle.

Considerably big media budget usually results in big impact or Top of Mind awareness. However, it is not universal. I think it is important for the marketers to fix a goal first. Then, decide and measure what they are going to get after the execution of a campaign and what should be the feasible budget. It is important for everyone to understand that sometimes a bad idea can do great if the execution is fantastic. And the opposite can happen too, good idea may fail due to bad execution.

Sometimes, you may find that a brand is involved with a communication/campaign which has no direct relationship with the brand essence. Marketers usually get involved with these kinds of activities (known as strategic media plans) to achieve a certain goal through nontraditional means. Developing media plans for these campaigns are really tricky. Marketers as well as the media planners need to do a lot of homework, make ground level studies, pretesting, etc before designing such campaigns. These campaigns yield higher levels of awareness for the brands, hence turn out to be extremely risky if not well-planned or executed.

PR (Public Relation) is one of the most powerful tools for building a brand. It is one of the most talked about topics these days. Many marketing experts will tell you that a well-planned public relations campaign is often far more effective than advertising. Therefore, many companies are now shifting their advertising budgets to PR and consumer engagement programs. However, to many local companies, PR is mostly about press release. Yes, press release can be one of the tools for public relations. But when it becomes the only responsibility of Public Relations Department, you should reconsider its efficacy. A PR professional should be a lot more proactive than anybody else in an organization. He/she must have the inner drive for meeting new people, exchanging new ideas and sharing company values. However, it does not mean one should shake hands with everyone. There has to be a definite goal and a well-designed plan to reach to that goal. We should also keep this in mind that PR is not a standalone activity. Rather it must create synergy by coinciding company’s public relations plan with other marketing efforts.

From a product or service standpoint, for example, a customer expects a bank to be trustworthy, a mobile phone service provider to be high-tech and an organic farmer to be environmentally friendly. Consumers are now also interested in how a company treats its employees. The majority of consumers want to buy from companies that are respectful of their employees. People also feel good about doing business with companies that support their communities i.e. carries more social responsibilities (SR) for which ISO 26000 is in the offing. Some companies even publicize that they are a double layer company — pledging to donate a certain percentage of their profits to charity/social cause as a part of SR. According to a research by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, being a good corporate citizen is an effective branding tool and should be considered a good opportunity for building brand image.


Bottom-line:
The objective of branding is no longer about creating a space in the customers’ mind. Rather it is about winning customers’ hearts. When you win the hearts, you eliminate your competition from the race. But it’s not easy. You must create a series of compelling marketing messages to communicate how your product differs from all the others. You must simplify your marketing communications and focus your branding messages exclusively to win customers’ hearts. Try to keep your message concise. Because, the more you talk, the less people hear. Powerful ideas are best communicated with small words and simple but compelling images.

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