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Defining a brand

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Brands are living systems. They evolve by necessity. At their core, they consist of a brilliant idea—an elemental product concept that delights the customer. For Apple®, it’s design. For FedEx®, it’s overnight. For Disneyland® Resort, it’s happiness. Beyond their core, brands offer a constant stream of ever-changing smaller ideas. To stay fresh in the minds of consumers, great brands constantly innovate. Brands must also be relevant, because ultimately, people buy relevant things from brands they trust.

Years ago, marketing disciplines focused on the concept of differentiation. All great brands are well positioned (differentiated) against their competition. Yet when it comes to competitive positioning, simply being different is not enough. Being different while also being relevant to your market is the key. For example, when Federal Express® (then called FDX Corp.) was first introduced to the marketplace, the company promoted the fact that it had its own fleet of jets. Guess what? That fact, although unique in the delivery-service category, didn’t matter to the target market. Eventually the company learned what did matter—delivering packages anywhere overnight. FedEx evolved into a relevant brand concept by listening to its customers.

Try this exercise: Think of a product or service you don’t want to live without. Then ask yourself why. No matter what your answer, ask why again. Do this as many as five times, and you’ll end up at the real reason a brand holds meaning for you. For example, if you can’t live without your Apple® iPhone®, ask why. If the answer is that you like the design, ask why you like it. If the answer is that the design delivers an elegant user experience, ask why that is. If the answer is that it’s easy to use, then ask why that matters. If the answer is that the simplicity makes you feel technologically confident, now you’re getting somewhere. You’ve arrived at how it makes you feel.

Brands create loyalty through their power to connect to customers emotionally, not just rationally. Often the reasons that drive a market’s allegiance to a certain brand are both aspirational and inspirational, because we are both thinking and feeling beings. Purchasing choices reflect this complex integration of head and heart. A brand’s true resonance is often found in its emotional appeal: its personality, its story. The more relevant and resonant a brand feels, the more we believe in it, and the more we have a sense of belonging to the implicit community it creates.

Anne M. Berg is the principal of Vyway® Market & Brand Strategy in Minneapolis, Minn.

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