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Fireproofing your brand.

Even the most sophisticated of marketers can find their brands going up in flames. Most fires start from within, so here are some safety precautions.

The subject of branding is very "hot" today. Business people are well aware of the mega-deals made to acquire strong brand names throughout the late '80s. Brand valuation has made brand names part of a corporation's financial statements. Unfortunately, much of the focus on branding is on what a brand is worth today, not on how to protect and enhance the value of the brand.

Despite all the talk about the importance of branding, most brands suffer from the practice of benign neglect.

Even the most sophisticated, well-intentioned marketers of famous brand names can fall prey to this phenomenon. What has happened to Sears and IBM should send alarm signals to all of Corporate America. The message: "Nobody can count on being fireproof."

The press has been full of stories of the great brands that have stumbled, slipped, and lost traction with their customer base. Sears and IBM, once great, trusted names, are now sadly tarnished. Both Sears and IBM fell into the trap of thinking about "what we can make/offer" instead of "what do people expect and want from us."

Is it reasonable to expect people to buy value-priced household durables, automotive services, manufactured "semi-designer" fashions, financial services, etc., from the same place? That position can only result from an internal focus on the strong distribution network Sears had, instead of on customer needs and, more importantly, what they would expect and accept from Sears.

You needn't look much farther than Detroit to understand what happens when you start thinking about what you can make rather than what you should be providing to your customers. Once that happens people no longer can tell you the difference between brand offerings, nor do they much care.

Branding takes time and attention and, properly managed, it can become a powerful productivity tool. Knowing what the brand stands for and its relationship with its customers provides the focus to channel efforts and resources across every department, from research and development to sales.

The purchase of a strong name simply takes money. The building of a strong brand takes a good deal more than financial wherewithal. The key to success begins with understanding the relationship customers have with the brand.

People have relationships with strong brand names. If you have any doubt that this is true, or applies only to high-ticket items like the automobile, think about Tylenol for a moment. Tylenol was able to rebound, stronger than ever, from a crisis that would have knocked many a brand off the shelf forever. It survived because of the special, trusted relationship consumers had with the brand. This is not a sophisticated marketing concept we're talking about. It's simply common sense.

Understanding the customer requires a lot more than being up to speed on product shipment data. It is amazing how many top executives in the food business don't regularly walk the supermarket aisles. Peter Lynch, famed former manager of Fidelity's Magellan Fund, made fortunes for his investors just by listening to his wife and daughters talk about their favorite panty hose. There is no substitute for "being there" when your customers shop and use your product and services.

Lack of Focus as a Hazard

Branding is about creating differentiation -- with a basis in fact and proofs to support it -- that resonates with customers.

The surest way to create a fire hazard is not to address what the brand stands for and what it delivers to its customers. If you don't take a position, you can be sure your competitors will be happy to define it for you.

A lack of focus is certainly not unique. There are many companies that have brand mission or vision statements. Unfortunately, many of these are generic claims about quality, value, and service. Few are customer led and most lack specific proofs and supports that demonstrate commitment to those vague promises.

A good brand position should be benefit-driven and reality-based. Very importantly, it must be specific and direct the marketing efforts, as well as product/service development. In effect, a good brand position should open some doors wider and close others. It should act as a stimulus to produce ideas that strengthen the brand relationship, whether those ideas are promotions, events, or product enhancements. It also should prevent wasted time and resources against ideas that don't fit the brand strategy. People should be able to say that a line extension idea, distribution channel, or pricing move is not right for the brand.

McDonald's has a carefully defined, carefully articulated brand position that describes how each and every facet of the organization supports the McDonald's brand identity. McDonald's sets its own brand agenda, and as the saying goes, "he who sets the agenda wins the debate." Burger King was left scrambling even though there are many who believe their hamburger is technically superior. What McDonald's did is understand that the relationship with the McDonald's brand is a lot more than the taste of its burgers. Most importantly, that brand relationship is spelled out in detail in a manual and is part of the company's employee orientation.

Key to McDonald's success is ensuring the brand identity is understood, embraced, and felt at every level of the organization. It knows that branding cannot be left to an advertising campaign or new corporate identity materials.

Too many people assume branding is about creating imagery through advertising, packaging, public relations, etc. Communication tools can only help deliver the brand story. If there isn't a story that can be supported, delivered, believed, and felt by the customer, media dollars will only fan the flames.

Neither Sears' or IBM's problems were due to a lack of advertising support. Hershey was an extremely successful brand without any advertising support for many, many years.

Some Flame-Resistant Role Models

One only has to visit the Fancy Food and Confection Show, the annual convention for the specialty food trade, to see what people with limited budgets, facing intense competition for limited shelf space, can do with product positioning, naming, and packaging to create a brand identity.

These people can't afford mixed signals. Everything in their marketing mix supports the brand's premise. Ben & Jerry's was born in that kind of environment. The premium ice cream maker has continued to flourish because everything it does, from the look of its offices, to internal communications with its employees, to the events, sponsorships, and causes it promotes, has the unmistakable stamp of the Ben & Jerry's brand identity.

One very simple and easy way to start is to think about employee training and orientation as, in effect, an opportunity for a brand "rally." The Leo Burnett advertising agency shows a videotape of its namesake and founder talking about what Leo Burnett stands for. It's no accident that Leo Burnett is one of the few agency names that has maintained a strong brand identity despite the fact that its founder died in 1971.

Sam Walton's Wal-Mart took Sears' place for many. And, his employees can continue to realize his vision because it was inculcated into their culture. Ned Johnson's Fidelity Investments continues to thrive because of a very clear idea of what its relationship is with its customers -- access, convenience, fairness, and enablement. These companies have set their agenda, supported it with demonstrable proofs, and marched ahead.

Safety Starts at the Top

Much of the reason for all the fires in business today is that branding has not been a priority of top management. Outside arsonists are not the cause of most brand fires. They start from within and burn slowly. The only way to protect a brand is ensuring that everyone within a company knows exactly what the brand stands for, what's good for its relationship with its customers, and what can be harmful.

This understanding must start at the top. It's very simple: What's important to the CEO becomes very important to everyone, quickly. Unless branding becomes part of the CEO's agenda, it won't be felt or acted upon throughout the organization.

Strong brands almost always have a champion at the top -- someone who can look and plan beyond quarter to quarter.

Michael Eisner took over Disney when the brand was smoldering. It had become old-fashioned, lackluster, and unfocused in its efforts. He revitalized the brand by understanding its special "magic" and applied it to a broad range of entertainment possibilities.

Lee Iacocca took charge of a brand in flames. He put out the fire by admitting Chrysler had failed its customers, and set out to prove it deserved a chance to re-earn their trust.

What both proved is that when properly practiced, branding is the corporation's productivity tool to marshall and focus company resources. These people understand that brands are a corporation's most valuable assets. It's far easier to rebuild a factory than restore a reputation.

Staying Up to Code

* Make branding a priority, starting at the very top.

* Write a reality-based brand positioning statement and live by it.

* Maintain a close-up and personal understanding of the relationship you have with your customers.

* Make sure every employee knows what the brand is and what it is not.

* Conduct a brand audit, on a regular basis, to ensure all your activities enhance and protect the brand positioning.

John Allen and Kathryn Feakins are the founding Partners of BrandResource, a Boston-based firm that helps its clients identify, develop, and leverage their brand equities. Each has 20 years' experience in marketing and marketing communications with both Boston and New York advertising agencies, including 13 years with Geer DuBois for Allen and 17 years with Ogilvy & Mather for Feakins.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Directors and Boards
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Building Brand Strength
Author:Allen, John; Feakins, Kathryn
Publication:Directors & Boards
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:1618
Previous Article:Brand oversight: what's a board to do?
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