Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The last of my three-part series on branding appears in this month's Business People magazine. I'm also posting one of the columns each month on SBB. Click here for the first one, read number two below, and watch for the third one in June.

Branding by Example
What your company can learn from world-class brands

Last month, I began a three-part ProSpeak series by discussing what branding isn’t. This month, in part two, I’ll focus on a few world-class brands that demonstrate what branding is--and how it applies to your business. No matter what industry you’re in, or how big your company is, these brands offer great lessons that can help you cut through today’s crowded communication environment with a message that’s clear, differentiated, and focused on your best customers and prospects.

Let’s start with retail giant Target. Target has carved out a niche for itself by delivering on a very specific, easy-to-understand promise. Where Wal-Mart and other retailers simply offer low prices, Target takes things a step further by offering low price combined with high design.

Here’s just one example: let’s say you need to buy a trash can for your home. If you’re looking for the cheapest option you can find, you’ll likely think of Wal-Mart. And what you’ll get is a perfectly functional but otherwise nondescript trash can to put in the corner and never think of again. But let’s say you’re someone who values aesthetics as much as price. For a few dollars more, Target will offer you a trash can designed by Michael Graves. Chances are, you’ll invest the extra money to get something you perceive to be better.

Now not everyone will pick the Michael Graves trash can—but that’s what makes Target a world-class brand. Instead of focusing on “everyone,” they pursue a very specific audience. For Target, this means conceding the shopper whose only concern is price, and focusing on those who “Expect More,” as its tagline states. This approach guides everything that Target does, from its advertising to its store design. And because Target is consistent at every touch point, their message cuts through the clutter.

Although conceding customers seems counterintuitive, it’s integral to building a world class brand. Consider Apple, for example. In a world dominated by Microsoft’s operating systems and programs, it takes a lot of courage to concede everyone with a PC. But that’s exactly what has made Apple so successful. The company positioned itself as an alternative, making the Mac a niche choice for designers, educators, and others who like to “think different.”

Today, the Apple brand extends well beyond the Mac, but every one of their products is designed (literally and figuratively) consistent with the brand promise. The iPod, the iPhone, and iTunes, to name just a few, have helped Apple become the choice of the early adopter and the technophile. This also gives Apple a significant price advantage, since its products are anticipated long before they arrive in stores. For a technology company, that’s an invaluable strength—and it wouldn’t be possible without the overall power of Apple’s brand.

While it took Apple years to build its brand, another technology company —Google—gained world-class status in about the time it takes to click a mouse. Even though Google is less than ten years old, it ranked 20th in Interbrand’s “Best Global Brands 2007” report, ahead of such powerhouses as Pepsi (26), Nike (29), and Budweiser (30). How has Google succeeded so quickly? By articulating a brand promise that, while ambitious, is incredibly easy to understand: Google provides a gateway to and framework for all the information and tools you need to get answers and stay productive.

The true key to Google’s success, however, isn’t just its brand promise: it’s the company’s commitment to delivering on that promise. After having revolutionized search, Google continues to innovate, building on its reputation as the world’s information storehouse. Just when you think Google can’t get any more amazing, the company unveils a product like Google Earth or Google Analytics, and their reputation is reinforced and even enhanced. Google also isn’t shy about acquiring products and ideas consistent with its brand, further extending its position and further defying those who say world-class brands can’t be built overnight.

Now your company might not yet be in a position to grow as quickly as Google, or to innovate like Apple, or to be as ubiquitous as Target, but you can still learn quite a bit from them about what you should do when building your brand:

1. Specify. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Do one thing, and do it well

2. Differentiate. Be not only better than your competitors, but different, too.

3. Simplify. Covey your unique brand promise in a phrase that’s concise and easy to understand.

4. Repeat your story. Remind people over and over again how you’re different. Share your brand’s story in your advertising, public relations efforts, design, packaging, and at the point of customer interaction.

5. Deliver. It’s not enough to make a brand promise—you have to keep that promise, too. Nothing is more important to your brand than the customer experience.

Now that you’ve been introduced to the tenets of branding and have seen examples of what it takes to succeed, it’s time to put a plan into action. Next month, I’ll conclude this series by discussing the five steps to a successful brand launch. There are no shortcuts, but with some careful planning you’ll be own your way to building a world-class brand of your own.


Anonymous said...

Great article on branding! Have you ever come across an example in which a brand became too exclusive and needed to regain some market? (Say, suddenly Target finds that everyone just wants cheap trash cans, for example?) If so, what did that company do to broaden the perception of who should be a target in its market without diluting its perceived quality?

Anthony Juliano said...

Thanks for the comment, Julianne. I haven't seen anyone SUCCESSFULLY broaden their audience, although I'm sure some have tried. I do know of a recent example, however, of a brand that broadened its scope and did some major damage to its brand: Starbucks. Starbucks used to be about ONE thing: great (or expensive, depending on your perspective) coffee, everywhere you are. They created a new market by establishing themselves as a "third place" (in addition to work and home) and then expanded upon this success by becoming ubiquitous. One of the things that made Starbucks successful was that they didn't try to be all things to all people. (I, for example, have only been to Starbucks about 4 times--always at someone else's suggestion--because I hate coffee, most chains, and words that try to make a "small" into something more "grande.") Then, however, they got into the music business, created down-brand options, and tried to serve breakfast. Now they seem to be going through an identity crisis. And with the economy being in the state it's in, this is a bad time to have an identity crisis.

Beth said...

Yes, Starbucks is suffering from an identity crisis. But, in a way it's not their fault. EVERYONE jumped on the coffee bandwagon. So, to compete, they forfeited their cachet by expanding into department stores/grocery stores such as Meijer. They're over-exposed, over-saturated, and their product, frankly (and I am a coffee drinker), is not worthy. In a time when we are on the brink of a recession, over-priced coffee drinks are certainly an area where we can cut back. I am hoping the return of a cup of coffee being just a cup of coffee -- and not a status symbol.

Regarding the cheap trash can example -- Target continues to do a great job of branding themselves as an affordable, "upscale", big-box store. There are some that will never shop at Wal-mart, regardless of how inexpensive they are, because of the bad PR they've received. Wal-Mart is taking measures to reverse that, but it will be awhile I think, before they can correct the perception that their low prices come at the expense of their employees.