How to make sure your brand strategy isn’t just brandsturbation

Over the past 20 years, branding has come to dominate the marketing agenda. Prior to that marketing had reflected the customer-centric philosophy espoused by Theodore Levitt – whose seminal article Marketing Myopia does not mention ‘brand’ even once – that was codified for generations of MBA students in the books of Philip Kotler.
But the value attributed to brands in a number of high profile acquisitions of consumer products companies at around that time, notably Philip Morris’s purchase of Kraft for six times book value in 1988 led to what Naomi Klein called ‘brand equity mania’, the rise of brand management as an academic discipline and marketing’s centre of gravity inexorably swung away from customers towards brands.
Both Philip Morris and Kraft inhabited the traditional heartland of branding – the FMCG sector. But the value ascribed to brand equity came to the notice of managements in other sectors. Seeking to sprinkle some magic dust on their share price valuations, seemingly every marketing job advertised in the 1990s demanded FMCG experience.
The assumption behind importing these consumer goods marketers was that the FMCG approach to brand building could transfer from low-involvement, inexpensive and frequently purchased goods to more expensive, functionally richer and infrequently purchased offerings such as cars, computers, mobile telephones, telephony services and financial services among others, even to B2B sectors such as professional services.
The power of perception
In FMCG markets, a brand’s power is derived from how it is perceived. Purchase is primarily an emotional decision as no one wants to evaluate all the different toothpastes on offer in a rational way. Differentiation derives from intangible benefits created in the minds of buyers, typically through advertising. But in other sectors value is derived from how a brand is experienced – what it is like to use the products and services, navigate the website or talk to a customer service representative. Rational decision-making criteria, such as tangible features and benefits, play a far bigger role.
This is not to say that emotional benefits do not exist – they do. But they accrue in a different way, driven far more by the customer experience than an image created by clever marketing. The intangible benefits are a function of both measurable factors such as the service level delivered and immeasurable ones such as the empathy shown when a dealing with a customer’s complaint. Typically the buying and usage cycle is more complicated than the selection of a product from a shelf and its being opened at home, frequently involving interactions with multiple departments. But to whatever degree that intangible benefits play a part in driving preference, marketers play a far less important role in their delivery.
Branding is much bigger than just marketing as it touches everything a business does. Conversely, marketing should encompass more than just brand-related activities (notably all the customer-facing ones). In FMCG companies, marketing is critical to shaping customers’ perceptions and therefore to the brand’s success. As a result it sits atop the organisational tree, containing the most prestigious roles and seen as a fast-track to success. The marketing function holds sway over what other areas do – brand managers are, de facto, general managers.
Every industry has a functional area that enjoys favoured child status, typically it is the one seen as most critical for success. Rarely outside FMCG is it the marketing function – indeed marketing is frequently looked down upon. And in terms of creating value for both customers and the company, there are other functions which play a far more important role – design, engineering, manufacturing even customer service.
The marketing-led approach to building a brand
Such differences have not stopped companies outside consumer products from attempting to follow the marketing-led approach to building a brand. This is compounded by marketers retaining ownership of brand strategy, even when other departments contribute more to brand value and arguably have a greater claim to being responsible for strategy development.
In such situations brand strategy is often reduced to what marketing controls directly – typically advertising, events and promotions – with the intention of creating positive emotions in the heads of customers. Branding becomes synonymous with look and feel – rules governing communication materials are ferociously enforced. Marketing – in the eyes of other customer facing functions (such as sales and customer service) – is reduced to font fascism.
If this is what brand stands for in your organisation, let me suggest the following rule for you to share with your colleagues: the value of any conversation about brand strategy is inversely proportional to the percentage of marketers involved.  For those of you who like to picture such relationships graphically, this rule would not be presented as one curve, but as a series to reflect the varying importance of rational benefits relative to emotional ones across different sectors. But even where the latter is high, any conversation that purely involves marketers, whether employees or from outside agencies, should be classed as brandsturbation – a self-indulgent pleasure for those concerned, but of little value to anyone else.
This is not to trying to suggest that psychological factors don’t play a part in purchasing decisions, nor that marketers cannot influence them as neuro-scientific evidence suggest both are true. But what it is arguing is that outside the FMCG sector the dopamine reward pathway is also influenced by how products look, sound, feel and smell (perhaps even taste) and not just marketing messages. Design, engineering, manufacturing and even procurement have their part to play in influencing emotion-driven purchasing decisions. And with repurchases, customers’ experience of using the product or service and interacting with the company become critical so even more organisational teams are involved.
Even if brand strategy continues to be owned by marketing, it needs input and buy-in (the two being closely related) from an array of other areas. But if marketers are not prepared to play nicely with the other kids – share their toy – then it should be taken away.
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About Jack Springman

I am a consultant with experience in business strategy and customer strategy development, customer management and customer service transformation.

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