Advertising and non-advertising folks alike use the word regularly. Like, love, we don't bother to define it. We simply use the word as we do many words -- we have all grown up with an intuitive understanding of what it means, and what we mean when we use it. We use it in reference to companies, products, and even people. But ask someone to define "brand" and you get a deep and confident inhale followed by a few words of preamble, starting with one that indicates the coming statement will be replete with logic and certitude, and continuing with a few words that restates the question as a declaration, "Well, brand is a…" quickly followed by some sputtering that ends up in a verbal morass of conflicting descriptions.
It's not really important to define what a brand is before discussing what it means to create a brand strategy. The difficulty is that "brand" is something that we understand deep within the lineaments of our souls, but is defined in the same way Justice Stewart defined obscenity -- "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." Definitions are legion. Heidi Cohen, marketing expert and adjunct professor at NYU, once listed 30 different definitions of branding.
Ultimately, to develop a solid brand strategy, it's more important to define what a brand is supposed to do, than what branding actually is.
What is the general objective of a brand?
The objective of a brand strategy is to accomplish branding. And branding's goal is to instigate an irrational response in a person who encounters it. When all is said and done, stripped to its underwear, branding's goal is to get someone to pay more for something that they can pay less for -- given that something has another source. There are ancillary effects branding needs to accomplish, too. It must serve as shorthand for a host of attributes that, once awareness and familiarity are established, moves one towards purchase and advocacy, namely, consideration, preference, and intent. But it all boils down to getting someone to respond irrationally. Which, it's important to note, is how most of us respond to most things. So, how do you do that? Appeal to emotions.
Most purchase decisions are not rational ones. In fact, most of the decisions we make are not rational -- those decisions are rationalized later. In order for a brand to elicit an irrational response on the part of the consumer, it must appeal to emotions. The brand strategy must be built against that goal.
The place to start for such an exercise is with the product or service. No matter how ethereal the constituents of a "brand" might be, there must be something that occupies real space around which concepts are wrapped -- that "something stony," as Ezra Pound would call it -- that can serve as tangible proxies for the feelings a brand manifests.
The following are five questions that guide the brand strategy development process.
What does the product or service do?
This is the practical identity of what is being advertised. Beer? A car? Financial services? There has to be some "there" there where the brand begins and back upon which the brand reflects.
Let's use "beer" as our example. What does it do? Basically, it quenches thirst. But it also imparts certain flavors. It also has alcohol, which possesses a number of noumenal and phenomenal qualities that are known to instigate a number of changes in the person who drinks it. It is also frequently consumed in certain social environments. In the modern first world we have pretty safe drinking water, so thirst quenching is of little or no importance. So you need to choose one, or several, of the other things the product does to serve as your starting point for developing the brand.
Flavor, good feelings (strategically ignoring that those feelings come from the foreshortened sense of consequences due to intoxication), and the occasions for it to be drunk are all starting points for the emergent branding enterprise for "beer." Now, start filling that first white board!
What need does it fill? What space does it occupy?
This is really related to the point above. But it moves the development of the brand from the product or service's specific purpose to a more generalized concept of its identity. It's like going from "poodle" to "dog."
Why would this be necessary? It is to universalize to some degree what you are seeking to sell. Yes, bark as a particular dog, but in doing so, you bark for all dogs. The appeal has to be what I like to call "generally specific." Regardless of what the digeristas would have you believe, one-to-one marketing is not a perennially applicable strategy; it is an occasionally applicable tactic.
Sticking with "beer" the need being filled -- and remember, in marketing, "need" is frequently synonymous with "want" -- could be… oh, great taste? Less filling? That combination of hipster-hops and malted barely that brings you and your bros together? Is the beer organic? Sustainably farmed hops? Made according to the purity law of 1516? Will buying it contribute to saving the world?
Fill the next white board!
Is the space that product or service occupies own-able? Sharable?
After you've completed the two aforementioned tasks, which are really more or less parts of the same task, you have to determine if the space is ownable; and if not ownable, is it at least shareable? Realize that it's preferable to own the space, but if there's plenty of room, it's possible to share. If Miller Lite hadn't owned both "tastes great" and "less filling" in the light beer space, it could conceivably have been shared. Sharing is also possible if dissimilar products occupy the space. For example, both an automotive and a medical products company can share family safety.
How do you own a space? This is when it becomes necessary to understand the emotional content of needs filled and spaces occupied. Are there emotional analogies? How does the intended audience feel about great taste, less filling, or hanging out with their bros? This is where it is time to determine how you are going to tap the limbic system.
Does the space that product occupies have an emotional analogy?
Tastes great and less filling were able to work because the presentation of the concepts had an emotional appeal, namely, it entertains. But part of the entertainment value derived from the already established notion that light beer couldn't be either. So the wrinkled nose and the frown were replaced with a smile and the raised eyebrows of surprise. The expectation of disgust and a concern with health are replaced with the amazement of good flavor and the freedom from worry about calories. "Amazement," "freedom," "worry." These are the ideas that matter and are necessary to manifest, not "flavor" or "health."
SUVs were sold successfully not because of their ability to navigate rugged terrain, or because their carriage capacity appealed to the consumer. It was because moms felt the SUV would keep their kids safe in an accident. That seems rational: big + sturdy = safe. But it was first the fear of harming kids that drove the decision. The fact that SUVs are involved in more accidents would seem to have no bearing on the purchase decision. The conclusion of "safe" was post action, as was the rationale of navigating rugged terrain or having more room to carry stuff. A solid brand strategy must find the emotional trigger in order to activate it.
Is there any "white space" where invention is possible?
This is the final question to be answered. Is there a place your product or service can be that doesn't exist yet? In the burgeoning social app and technology space, this seems more possible than it is in the beer or auto space. But those, too, might have "white space" to occupy. It is the white space where disruption is possible not only as a product or service development objective, but as a brand attribute for that product or service. The white space is where invention is not only possible but also necessary. Portable music was an old concept; the MP3 was a new format; the iPod is a disruptive device that brought both together in a way that, before it, no one conceived they needed it. Now, no one can live without it.
A brand strategy is more a pedagogical exercise conducted with the product or service at the center than it is a linear process of rote action. Especially now, when the marketplace is more of a conversation than it's ever been, a brand strategy has to concern itself not just with what the advertiser wants to say, but it with what the advertiser will have to talk about. That conversation can be about the tangible elements about the product or service -- an articulation of function -- but if it doesn't contain the intangibles of feelings, there's no brand. It's just a lump of stuff. A metal box with wheels. A yellow, sudsy liquid in a white can with black letters stamped on it that reads "beer."
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"Confused young businessman" image via Shutterstock.