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Why Big Time Branding is Critical

Contributed by Rob Frankel

Branding is arguably the most misunderstood concept in marketing. Everyone says they know what branding is yet nobody can define it. Most people think of brands as a logo, nothing more than names propelled into high public awareness by huge media budgets. But they're wrong. A brand is the emotional investment made by an end user who purchases your product or service. It's the reason why you'll pay more for a cup of Starbucks than the stuff they pour at Denny's coffee shop. Especially on the web, where 80% of people drill no further than your home page and can zap to your competitors' with one click, presenting a strong, compelling brand is crucial. It forms the basis of a community of your customers. It provides the foundation for programs that go directly to your bottom line. It gives end users a reason to move away from price point as their deciding purchase factor. Most importantly of all, it establishes the motivation for end user referral -- and that's what the web is all about. Most branding neophytes know so little about branding that they all stumble into the same mistake: they refuse to acknowledge Frankel's First Law of Branding, which clearly states:

Branding is not about you. Branding is about them.

Think about it. You know what your product is. You know what your company does. Let's face it, you're your product's biggest fan. If it were up to you, everyone would be buying your stuff. So you don't need an education as to why buying your product (or service) is the money move -- it's everyone else that needs the education.. Given that, why would you ever develop a brand that appeals to you? Yet that's exactly the goof that almost every business makes when they attempt to do their own branding. The fact is that your end-users are the ones who have to be sold on your stuff. They're the ones that need to know why your widget is better than the next guy's. That's why I keep insisting on Frankel's First Law. Before you can brand anything successfully, you have to consider for whom you're branding. And in every single case, that means you're branding for the end-user's benefit, not yours. Of course, the term "end user" means different things to different people. For retailers, it's consumers. But I submit to you that an end user is simply anyone you've nailed in the crosshairs of your market gun. Business to business. Trade groups. On intranets or extranets, the point is that brands are for end users. They're the ones that need convincing -- not you. If there's anything that I want you to take from this article, Frankel's First Law has to be it. But if there are two things, Frankel's Second Law of Branding has to be next:

If the branding is wrong, so is everything else.

So many people have so little understanding of what branding is and how it works that they simply skip right over it in order to get to the sexy stuff, like television and print ads and radio commercials and overly-technical web sites. Forget it. Big mistake. Because if you don't have your branding chops down from the very first note, everything -- and I mean everything -- else that follows gets further off track. The first derailments are the wrong brand names. Then come the off-strategy marketing materials. Then the oblique, misdirected advertising. Then the yelling and the firings. You can't build a solid marketing campaign -- on or offline --without a strong foundation. And the only foundation strong enough to support all that is a well-conceived, compelling brand. A Big Time Brand When you start with a clearly articulated brand, you never have to worry about your television commercial delivering the wrong message. You web site exudes the same tone and personality as the premiums you hand out at the national convention. Everything works together like a well-oiled machine, because every single gear in that machine is held to the same rigorous standards of that well-defined brand. If it doesn't, it never makes it off the desktop -- let alone out the door. The problem is that you have to understand what branding is and how it really works before you can create one. And I'm not talking about something that your Aunt Doris thinks is cute or your kid thinks is cool. I'm talking about brands that drive stakes into people's hearts and leave them begging for more. The kind that get them to pay double retail and leave the store smiling. You want to do TV commercials? Funny radio ads? Fine by me. Just make sure that your targets remember who the ad was for and why whatever you're selling fits their needs like no other. Of course, my favorite reason for proposing a strong, well-articulated brand is that when people can articulate how your brand is different, they voluntarily move their purchasing criteria away from a simple price point. The minute they do that, it removes your brand from commodity status.

If that still doesn't make sense to you, look at it this way: if you don't articulate how your brand is different, what other basis are you giving people to use for making their purchasing decision other than price?

That's what branding can do for you -- if you know what you're doing. And that means getting the brand right before you do anything else.

Bottom Line Increases Through Branding

Before I get too far into the actual branding dance, however, I want to run down a few points that ought to really get your juices flowing about branding. Let me start out by telling you some straight-the-bottom-line reasons why you want to march right into your boss's office and demand more attention be paid to your brand:

1. Branding is the quickest return on your marketing investment: A strong, well-articulated brand provides the engine behind a more effective marketing message, which means more people get your message right the first time. You spend less money on drilling the notion into their heads with costly media budgets. Lower customer acquisition costs mean higher profit margins and higher margins are what get you the keys to the executive washroom.

2. Increase customer loyalty. Yes, it's true that we have all kinds of wires and screens to reach these people, but the fact of the matter is that despite the likes modems, hard drives and broadband technology, human beings are far more emotional than they'd like to think. And for all your graphs and ledgers, more purchases are influenced by emotion than anything else. Well-crafted emotion, I grant you, but emotion just the same. After all, there's a reason why the Porsche owner's manual is a thousand times thicker than a Hyundai's -- you've got to justify a purchase like that with some semblance of rationality or everyone is likely to think you bought the car just to impress chicks.

3. Increase end user frequency and response rates: A well-crafted brand not only brings your end-users back for more, it also brings them back a whole lot more often.

They come back because they like you. So you reward them and they reward you. Pretty soon you've built a mutual admiration society built squarely around the attributes of your brand to the point at which your end users begin to feel a responsibility for your brand's welfare. When you find yourself in the middle of Brand Nirvana like that, you'll notice another convenient benefit: your end users not only visit more frequently, but they respond to your overtures more readily -- at rates that average between 10% and 25%.

4. Increase referral business: Another advantage of a well-founded, well-articulated brand is that when people love you, they tell everyone else about you. No, let me re-state that: they evangelize for you. They get their friends, associates and grandmothers to visit more and buy more. You get third-party endorsements up the yin-yang, from satisfied end users who have personally benefited from your brand.

And you get them for free. Talk about lowering your customer acquisition costs!

5. Increase market awareness: Like a French avalanche, a Big Time Brand explodes out of the white noise, on to the web and gains momentum from there. Of course, not everyone who hears about your brand immediately clicks over to your site to buy it. But the clarity and compelling aspects of a Big Time Brand sticks in the minds of those end users who intend to buy sometime in the future. Which means that of its own accord, a well-built brand can not only help you increase your market awareness, but secure it, as well.

6. Increase rates and profitability: When end users integrate a clear, concise and compelling brand into their consciousness, they move your brand into a place where price points suddenly don't matter. In fact, they're willing to pay a premium for your brand because they find it so compelling. Brand Valhalla. Every marketer's dream.

7. Defend your market share: It might have been John Milton who wrote, "they also serve who stand and wait." Personally, my take on it is that if you wait long enough, just about anything can happen. Sooner or later, there are going to be times when the economy starts rotting. And when the paychecks start drying up, the first thing that sales departments do is start cutting prices, in order to preserve market share.

In a bad market, panic rules the roost. But as long as we're paraphrasing fine English writers, I think Kipling put it best when he wrote something about the guy who stays calmest usually wins. In rough times, you'll find everyone panicking except for those who have invested in Big Time Branding. And the reason they don't panic is because they know their products and services moved off from price points as a purchase criterion years ago.

Because they're less sensitive to price, the well-branded contingency gets through the cannibalism far more easily and emerges far more healthy than their price-cutting competitors.

The Big Time Brand

Okay, so now at least if you can't define what a brand is, you know what qualities a killer brand has to possess. And while the definition of a brand may be hard to articulate, my personal definition of branding reads as Frankel's Prime Directive:

Branding is not about getting your targets to choose you over your competition. Branding is about getting your prospects to see you as the only solution to their problem.

Gives you chills, doesn't it? I know. Me too. If you look closely, you'll find traces of Frankel's First Law of Branding there. The one that states, "Branding is not about you. Branding is about them." Remember? This is a critical point that separates the real brands from the blowhards. This is the bell you want to ring in your end users' heads when they give you the once over. You want them to see your competition and come running your way bellowing, "Nobody understands me the way you do!" So how can you tell a good brand from a bad one? Pretty simple, really:

1. Delivers the message clearly: I don't know if it's our university system, but someone out there is teaching people that if you just use enough syllables, you'll eventually impress -- or bore -- your audience enough to the point that they really won't care about what you're saying. Alternatively, our politically correct culture dictates that taking a stand on just about anything guarantees that somebody, somewhere will take offense to it, spawning an entire industry that specialize in saying nothing with as many words as possible.

The best brands go against the cultural grain and make clear, concise statements. You don't have to be a creative genius to make these kinds of statements, either. Having contempt for lawyers certainly helps. But in any event, simply stating something clearly in a society weaned on weak generalities is the first step toward creating a solid brand.

2. Communicates quickly: The same people who brought you multi-syllabic gibberish are also responsible for creating the short attention span. The bad news, incidentally, is that attention spans aren't getting longer, either. In the age of the quick cut music video, where scenes seldom last more than a fraction of a second, an entire generation has grown up to believe that if they don't dig it in a second, it's time to change the channel. This has never been truer than it is on the web, where your home page does it all. If your brand doesn't get them the second after they've hit you, they're back to the search engine's listing of everyone else in your category -- and you're dust.

3. Projects credibility: Sometimes it seems that everyone's been trying to sell me something since the day I was born. I don't mind that so much, except that somewhere along the way, their claims, language and promises became so ridiculously inflated that they actually mutated from non-believable all the way to becoming laughable. A few pages from here, I'll go into that more deeply. If I forget, remind me.

4. Strikes an emotional chord: No matter where I travel or who I meet, the reaction is always the same: everyone concentrates on technology, products --everything but the people who do the purchasing. Even on the web, programmers push pounds of technology across the wires, promoting its efficiency, all the while forgetting that technology ain't doing the buying.

The technology is there for one reason: to put people in touch with other people.

It's the same thing with a Big Time Brand. It's not about you. It's not about your product. It's not about your service. It's about them. It's about their problems and their solutions. And that's an emotional contact. Sure, it's driven by your strategic goals and objectives. But it's the brand's job to integrate the two of them to the point where they become inextricably intertwined.

A Big Time Brand makes it easy for people to like doing business with you.

5. Motivates the respondent: When people like doing business with you, they're more prone to actually doing business with you. But lowering that barrier to sales does nothing for you unless to close that sale. A Big Time Brand will motivate the respondent to cross that line.

It could manifest itself as a higher rate of response. Or higher purchase per visit. Or greater propensity toward upsells. In any case, a Big Time Brand not only presents its solutions, it draws in end users to try it, as well.

6. Creates a strong user loyalty: Out of all them, this is the one for which branding is most widely known. Yet it's just as misunderstood as the rest because it's almost always wrongly attributed to any number of causes. The very best brands are a mix of rational differentiation and compelling personality. Two powerful ingredients that cause end users to invest their emotions -- along with their wallets -- into your brand.

All of which brings us to Frankel's Third Law of Branding:

Advertising grabs their minds. Branding gets their hearts.

First you create the brand, then you raise the awareness of the brand. As you can see, doing it the other way around makes absolutely no sense at all, yet that's exactly what most of mainstream America does every day of the year. It's important to develop branding strategies and executions that can be articulated effectively to your web developers. PR people, design firm, ad agencies and eventually, end users. If all your vendors, staff and end users aren't rowing in the same direction, you end up with mass confusion: too many people confuse your message, which results in lots of revisions from your ad agency, disagreement among your staff and low referrals from your end users. In fact, smart businesses secure their brand right there in their business plans, often before they seek funding. After all, the people who most need compelling differentiation are the venture capitalists are wading through all those other business plans. In any case, don't let anyone fool you when it comes to branding. In the marketplace, it's crucial. On the web, it's vital. A Big Time Brand isn't something you bolt on to your business when sales begin to suffer; it's the foundation upon which stronger businesses are built.

There are actually ten laws of Big Time Branding. All of which can be found at or in The Revenge of Brand X, due out from McGraw Hill later this year. 

"Branding is not about getting your prospect to choose you over your competition;
it's about getting your prospect to see you as the only solution."


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