Written By: David Winter, Columnist, International Director
Brands help organizations differentiate themselves in the minds of customers. They enable organizations to get traction on new products easily by building on their brands’ images, which typically should convey the high level of quality to which customers are accustomed. In short, brands are an efficient way for companies to maintain their competitive advantages, and they are well worth the investment. However, given the recent vast changes in the business environment, one question emerges: are brands still a viable investment in the current business conditions characterized by rapid change and customers switching brands quickly?
Brands are quicker to rise (and fall).
Companies usually build a brand concept, then manage it. Brand-concept management is a fundamental marketing activity, and a competitive necessity. But today, managers have to do more than ever before to maintain a strong brand image. Technological advancement and lower entry barriers in many industries require this. In the current social media age, any business can broadcast information at a negligible cost and build its brand from scratch. So in essence, building a brand has become much easier, and much faster, which is a challenge for established brands.
Consider brands such as Uber and Airbnb. They began with very limited resources, and they were a hit in no time. These companies have disrupted currently existing business models, and their successes have been like bushfires. Yet, afterwards, scandals about Uber followed, and it was banned in many countries. The lesson is that no longer does it take many years for a brand to become widely recognized, but without a solid foundation, it can crumble fast.
Evolution of brands
Branding, much like the broader field of marketing itself, has evolved through various stages with a different focus at each stage. In the beginning, it was about ownership and source of product. For example, Coca-Cola was one of the leading companies to build a brand concept and a logo to display an image of quality. Then branding was about value, then experience and then consumers themselves. In essence, branding moved from being producer-centric to being consumer-centric. During this evolution, new elements emerged, such as green brand image and social value of the brand.
Companies such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola, for example, understand this evolution and have responded by putting people’s names on bottles, effectively making it about “you”, the customer. This has resonated well with consumers, who have felt that this was about them, and sales have been boosted.
Brands are now social.
Brands are no longer about the identity of the supplier, but they are now a social issue. They signify belonging and affiliation, and often provide a community for people to meet and build strong connections with one another. Consider YouTube, with its video-makers’ space in many locations around the world, or others such as Snapchat. Their secret ingredient is that they now act more like a home for their supporters than merely a company.
Elements in a successful brand
But although today brands are quicker to rise, they do not become stars overnight. According to Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, success factors in building a strong brand include your identity as a producer, your performance and image, your customers’ feelings and judgements about you, and their relationships with you.
Successful brands and meaning go hand in hand.
In large part, brands today are defined by customers’ perceptions about a company’s performance or identity, rather than the reality of that performance. If brands are to succeed, they have to go beyond merely selling products and services with high quality. They have to build a meaningful connection with customers and contribute positively to their lives by understanding their struggles. Examples of success in this area are plenty, from an airline company that went further and offered to deliver passengers’ luggage directly to their hotels or their places of residence, to Nike sending trucks filled with sneakers to soccer fields to give parents and their kids a special and memorable moment. This is just the tip of the iceberg as Nike has significantly contributed to producing a jogging culture in the United States. Those companies understand how the process of building brands has evolved and know it is about also building meaningful bonds with customers, rather than just awareness.
Age groups with stronger brand affiliations
Customers today have a significantly shorter attention span, and brands need to adjust. They love brands that help them build bonds with one another (not with companies). This applies to most customers who are between 30 and 60 years of age, who can switch brands more readily. Conversely, customers who are under 30 or above 60 years of age have strong brand affiliations. Investing in building brand recognition and equity among those age groups can yield stronger brand loyalty than with the remaining age groups.
Building a brand is certainly an investment with exponential returns. The age of branding is far from over. But brands have evolved, and companies need to do more in terms of branding than following their own traditional methods. Customers need to feel a sense of “belonging” to a brand, and companies are now required to represent a positive environment for their supporters. Brands are no longer static; they are dynamic. A logo and packaging design are no longer enough in a world in which consumer tastes change in a heartbeat. Consumers desire novelty and assign higher value to brands that consistently provide novel products and services (such as Zara). If branding is done successfully according to today’s standards, companies can enjoy great financial results and deliver new products much more easily to an already eager audience.