Is your brand ready to pass marriage test?

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I recently spoke at a New York conference about brand valuation. It struck me how many of the speakers confused product or service issues with brand issues.

I recall, among others, the executive of a well known software company who spoke of branding on the Internet. She told of how it was important for Web pages to load in under 6 seconds, how shoppers should never be more than three clicks away from the check-out counter, etc.

Those are important points. Yet they are not "branding" issues; they are "product" issues. While it is important to have a good product behind a brand, confusing "product characteristics" or "positioning" with "branding" hampers the clarity of the analytical process. It also results in making the subject of branding more complex than it needs to be.

I explored this issue on this page 15 years ago ("Give your brand in marriage," AA, July 22, 1985). With so many new marketing managers at work, it's time to review these brand marriage vows.

EMOTIONAL INVOLVEMENT

For a brand sell to be effective long-term, its communication must create an emotional involvement between the consumer and the brand. The kinds of emotions that are translated into words like: my Apple Computer, my Tide, my Olds. Consumers with this kind of involvement become literally married to their brand. They are more brand-loyal, usually refusing to consider the arguments of competitors (adultery), but receptive to those from their brand.

They will switch brands (divorce) only if forced to, or after many disappointments. When a marketer achieves this kind of status with enough consumers, he begins to breathe easier, feels less competitive pressure, has better margins and a steadier income.

How can advertising make a consumer marry a brand? By providing the same kind of information needed to evaluate a prospective spouse, i.e., information about physical attributes, style and character.

* Physical attributes. How good-looking is the brand? How engaging is its smile? How well does it perform? Physical attributes can be encountered in many areas like packaging, product performance or superior value. It is, for instance, Era's stain removing ability, or Federal Express promising overnight delivery.

Information on physical attributes is necessary in the courtship of the consumer. But the consumer will continue purchasing only until a prettier product comes along. Brands sold for their physical attributes live with the permanent obligation of justifying every sale with performance or price.

Attractive physical attributes are reason enough to date on a day-to-day (or purchase-to-purchase) basis. Alone, they are not enough to justify long-term commitment and marriage.

* Style. Style is the way the brand presents itself. It can be serious, tongue-in-cheek, scientific, fun or down-to-earth. All those are style descriptors. Style is what makes you feel whether a brand is "right for you" or not. Style helps determine if the brand is compatible with your own sense of self.

Whether we like the style of a brand or not is essential in determining the kind of relationship we will have, at least initially. While sales based on physical attributes rely on convenience, performance or perception of value, style adds the first step of emotional involvement, an incentive to take a good look at the product. If the consumer likes the style, he or she will look at a product a little closer -- and might even overlook (temporarily) a prettier brand for one that has a style that fits his or her own.

And if handsome physique was enough for dating on a day-to-day basis, attractive style can justify going steady.

* Character. To create the long lasting bond of marriage, we need more than handsome physique and attractive style: We need character. Character is what exists when you are confident that you can anticipate a person's or a brand's actions even when it faces a situation you've never seen it face before. Character is based on the observer's understanding of the brand's values. It is the base on which long-term relationships are built. But communication of character is very difficult to achieve because:

a) Character cannot be communicated proactively. Nobody can tell his character. We must witness it ourselves to be convinced. Assessing someone else's character is based on personal observation.

b) Communicating character takes time. While physical attributes take fractions of a second, and style a few minutes to impress, character takes time to discover. It is only after we form our own assessment that we may be impressed. And that takes time.

c) Consistency is essential for creating character perception. How often have we doubted our own assessment of someone's personality based on one trivial faux pas? One step that's out-of-character can set a budding brand back to square one.

Character is Marlboro, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Keebler, Apple.

Advertising that communicates the same set of values consistently, over time, builds the character of brands and gets consumers wed to them.

LITTLE CONSISTENCY

Yet brand communication is seldom consistent. The elements of consistency are difficult to identify in an ever-changing market. Brand managers (who in reality manage products, not brands) are too focused on day-to-day management of sales and promotions.

This is because at marketers and agencies there are powerful incentives to change ad campaigns, incentives such as fame and promotion, and few, if any, to keep campaigns consistent. It's also because young managers, still low on the totem pole, must justify their decision with logical rationales: To them, making the "right" decision is key. Yet, paradoxically, to the brand, it is more important to be consistent than right.

Big profits go to those who organize their brand speech decision process to improve its chances of communicating character.

Most other brands live out of wedlock.

Mr. Chevron is a partner in JRC&A Consulting, LaGrange, Ill., which specializes in branding strategy and new product development (jacques@jrcanda.com).

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