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Never before has the right brand strategy, with all its attendant benefits, been more critical to a marketer's success.

And yet, never before have marketers had to confront such a maze of opportunities to connect with their target audiences.

According to a report by consultancy McKinsey & Co., brand-building has evolved to a state where marketers can no longer simply depend on a product's functional attributes to shape its identity. Consumers not only want a quality product -- they want a product that makes them feel good about their choice.

An explosion of media and new ways to cultivate relationships with consumers make access to the purchaser easier. At the same time, marketers now carry a greater burden to present a consistent and strong image -- an impression that often must be carried from print to TV to Internet to retail environment.


Urgency has become the watchword for brand builders cutting through the clutter of media messages.

"The role of branding has never been more important, and that importance will continue to grow," says Allen Adamson, managing director for New York-based Young & Rubicam's Landor Associates, a branding consultancy.

"With more product and service choices and new distribution channels, branding simplifies consumer decision making in a world that is more complicated and more confusing."

If this scenario of time-pressed consumers and increasing media opportunities weren't enough to keep brand strategists hopping, consider the dramatic impact of the Internet.

This young medium is proving to be the great leveler, one that can help new, upstart brands achieve the same stature as long-established competitors. This ascendancy can be accomplished at a velocity seldom, if ever, achieved through more traditional media.

"The Internet has changed everything," says Becky Saeger, exec VP-brand marketing for Visa USA. "It's forcing us to think faster, move faster and be more aggressive. We feel the pressure of moving at Internet speed."


While both the media and the message components of brand strategies are being reexamined, the clearest direction of change lies in marketers's collective bid to achieve a connection with consumers based on a relationship rather than one which solely emphasizes their product's functional benefits. This is not so much an "in-your-face" approach as it is an "in-your-life" strategy.

"Branding and brand strategy have been around forever, but the advent of the Internet is challenging brands to be very proprietary and very differentiated. If you are a 'first-mover' you are going to lose [by not using an Internet component]," says David Ropes, Ford director of corporate advertising & integrated marketing. "It's why Barnes & Noble and Borders have struggled against"


Mr. Ropes also says 70% of Ford's dealers will be trained to interface and communicate with the consumer via Internet and e-mail.

"It's important to understand the consumer's total life and how you fit into it. Then you can present total solutions," says Betsy Holden, Kraft Foods' exec VP of operations. This strategy is manifest in taglines developed by Kraft. Until last year, for example, the brand's message was, "Good food and good ideas," now it's "Let's make something good."

Similarly, Maxwell House coffee was known for decades as being "Good to the last drop," now the message is, "Let's make every day good to the last drop."

The changes reflect a deeper more personal relationship with the consumer, rather than a pure functional message. For some marketers, that expression must emanate from deep within the corporate culture.

McKinsey argues Starbucks Coffee is an example of how a retailer can control its brand through the physical presentation of its stores and the experience the consumer has while visiting a location. In the case of Starbucks, the store, its ambiance and finally the coffee, are the main touchpoints to connect with the consumer.

Starbucks is able to control its store identity by refusing to franchise its stores and maintaining real estate and design facilities to ensure consistent outlets. Its retail environment is secured by serving fresh coffee made with high-quality machines and emphasis on staff training.

Finally, McKinsey says, a quality coffee is delivered in an environment where the consumer is encouraged to relax, sip a cup, enjoy the music, chat or read a book.


Ford, for example, commits heartily to communicating its branding message inside the ranks as well as to the consumer masses.

According to Mr. Ropes, Ford has cultivated a guiding corporate principle -- "Trust our company, love our brands, and be delighted by our services" -- that is communicated to employees at every level across all brands. Ford has a corporate Intranet system and the message is reflected there.

The philosophy is the result of two years of research and brand positioning and the development of a common understanding of all its brands, what they stand for and what they mean for the automotive marketer.

"We want consumers to 'Trust our company, love our brands, and be delighted by our services,' whether it's in our credit, leasing or renting, in the case of Hertz," explains Mr. Ropes.


In general, Mr. Ropes sees a continuing, strong role for traditional media, but says the mix may require some rebalancing -- which will include a strong Internet presence -- to reach younger and older audiences.

"A recent J.D. Power survey showed that 40% of the car buying public is using the Internet to access car buying information. That's 100% growth year to year," Mr. Ropes reports.

AT&T Corp. places a premium on communications channels that go beyond connecting with consumers by being interactive, says Stephen Graham, VP-marketing communications worldwide, .


"The most attractive media will be those that facilitate the direct interactive relationship with the customer, two of which will be the Internet and interactive TV," Mr. Graham observes. "However, I think you will continue to see a strong role for the existing media. Each medium has an implicit strength and you have to understand what that medium and what that channel does best, then make sure it is additive to the core message you want to communicate and the brand message you want to build."

Ms. Holden says she thinks the expanded media opportunities and consumer touch points are as an exciting opportunity.

"It puts a premium on really knowing who your consumer is and gaining real insight to what is important in their lives. We have traditionally relied on mass marketing like TV, [free-standing inserts], and mass mailings, but we are now required to use the full arsenal to reach consumers at key points to break through the clutter and make sure our message is integrated and consistent," she says.


This process of reevaluation and evolution in brand strategies isn't new to marketers, but the stakes are certainly higher.

"Today, unquestionably, the consumer holds all the cards. It's up to us to delight our customers on many different terms. In the past, there were those[retailers] who dictated price points and store hours to customers, but today's savvy consumer knows where to go, when to go, how to get it done, and frankly, doesn't have the time or money or energy to waste," says David W. Selby, senior VP-retail marketing for Sears, Roebuck & Co. "We have gone through and continue to go through an extraordinary transformation of our marketing and our product. At the heart of this is our brand strategy, and at the heart of that is our attentiveness to our customer."


To this dialogue of urgent evolution in brand marketing, Ms. Saeger offers a few words of caution. First, despite the clear trend toward brand positionings that embrace relationship strategies, Visa continues to reap the rewards of its "acceptance" or functional message: "It's everywhere you want to be."

Ms. Saeger credits this focused strategy with keeping Visa and its member banks ahead of the competition. Second, and more fundamentally, she accepts the old saw suggesting, "Don't just do something, stand there!"

"You need to be just paranoid enough to be always on your toes, but confident enough that you don't change for the sake of change," says Ms. Saeger. "That's

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