The branding battleground moves to customers’ hearts.
By Anne M. Berg
Modern marketing is in a state of evolution—driven by a power shift of nearly seismic proportions. Today, true brand power exists not within the environs of the manufacturer or service provider, but within the hearts and minds of the consumer. Companies can seek to influence perceptions of their brands, but the truest meaning of those brands lies solidly in the experiences of the audience. Understanding this rule of today’s marketplace is critical in helping organizations make better product and marketing decisions. Increasingly, successful companies integrate the customer perspective all the way from product development through after-sale support. Businesses that have the agility to innovate around customer-centric thinking—what really matters to the customer—are the ones that will reap the benefits of new opportunities.
It’s important to approach marketing as a way to drive business strategy. Success in both marketing and branding is driven by strategic choices and disciplined execution. The key is to begin with strategy. Many businesses falter when it comes to marketing because they start with tactics. Business slows down, and the reaction is to create an ad or build a website or host an event. Any of these tactics may be helpful short-term, but they’ll only be truly successful if based on solid strategic thinking.
First: a customer-focused strategy
How to create a strategy? A good starting point can be as basic as answering these three insightful questions posed by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. To paraphrase:
Purpose: why do we exist?
Core values: what tenets do we value?
Audacious goal: where are we going?
Every organization should have a clear sense of the answers to these questions: the essence of how to deliver value to the marketplace. More specifically, if the answer to the first question doesn’t focus on solving a customer problem or addressing a customer need—better start again.
Suppose a company has answered those questions; leadership is now equipped with a clear, customer-focused business strategy. The next challenge is tapping marketing to take that strategy into the marketplace.
For decades now, marketing tenets have revolved around the standard principle of the “Four Ps.” This approach includes the analysis of four key elements of marketing: Product, Price, Place (distribution channel) and Promotion (marketing communications). Although consideration of these elements continues to be at the core of a strategic marketing plan, the true driver of high-performance marketing today could add a fifth P: Purchaser.
The marketplace is more important than the product or service you sell. Any given relationship you cultivate is ultimately more valuable than any given sales transaction. With that kind of value in play, it’s worth changing the way we think about some traditional marketing concepts. Marketers must integrate an ongoing customer dialogue into all facets of their operations. Today’s great brands build the opportunity for a two-way conversation that respects the interests of the customer above the interests of the company.
Build on relationships
Building customer relationships ultimately builds brands. If you make customer value your first priority, you’ll be serving all the stakeholders tied to your product. To do so, think about what the customer values most. That may well require an investment in market research (often called Voice of the Customer research), but it will more than pay off in simplified, focused decisions—and more happy customers down the road.
When you choose customer orientation over all other factors, brand performance accelerates. Part of the equation for success depends on your ability to take the long-term view. One word of caution: Market pressures and investor expectations encourage short-term thinking, but your brand’s performance requires a more thoughtful perspective. Great brands are the result of a sustained and cumulative effort. Without a long-view attitude, you risk creating a brand bubble rather than an enduring brand success.
Great brands also require ongoing innovation. In today’s global marketplace, we see a lifeless economy, a flat world and a social revolution. Meanwhile, advancing technology and increasing mobility are changing everything, every day. Survival in this new environment requires radical advances. Businesses lacking the will to reinvent themselves are destined to struggle or fail. Customer-focused innovation drives brand performance. It’s that simple.
The new age of marketing places the brand on center stage. The brand resides in the mind of the consumer, so today’s techniques automatically place the customer at the heart of the marketing discipline.
When you execute your brand message across multiple touch points (the places and times in which the customer interacts with your product), while continuously renewing your product or solution, you create a focused and dynamic brand. The alignment of brand experiences that consistently deliver on the overall brand concept creates consumer trust; that trust garners customer loyalty, and that loyalty delivers real dollars to the bottom line.
Mind the brand basics
When you create or reinvent a brand, keep it present and consistent in the marketplace: the brand name, the brand identity (design of the brand’s logo and communications systems) and the total brand experience. Everything you do and say about your company and your product or service has an impact on the brand impression. Even what you don’t do and say can have a powerful influence on how well your message is received by customers and stakeholders. As you develop a vision for your organization and its ultimate value to your customers, be simple, and be bold. Dare to provoke a reaction in your audience. It’s your job to give your brand meaning—meaning that matters to customers, and to all of your stakeholders, including employees.
It’s wise to consider not only the positioning but also the personality driving a brand’s uniqueness. Consider those characteristics from a customer-centric viewpoint. Testing potential brand names, positioning strategies, and messaging platforms with the intended audiences will help guide your decision making and tactics. Ultimately, the positive emotional significance your customers experience in your messages, with your products and around your service are what create enduring loyalty and enhanced equity.
Business owners sometimes make the mistake of assuming that these principles apply only to consumer brands. In business-to-business markets, the same rules apply. Marketing communication today is virtually instantaneous and increasingly interactive—if you don’t focus on what the customer wants to buy (or hear), rather than what you want to sell (or say), your brand will lose meaning.
The marketplace determines a brand’s value, and the market forces that drive that brand equity are complex. Successful marketing requires clear strategy, customer centricity and ongoing originality. It also requires a long-term outlook. With that understanding, you can begin to create enduring brands that will in turn create significantly higher return on investment over time.