7 Rules for Branding in the “New World”

There has been a fundamental shift in how brands are perceived and the value they provide. This is true in consumer and corporate brand arenas alike. There is truly a “new world” emerging in how brands build relationships with customers, consumers, employees, the media, the financial community and other important audiences. To understand the impact on brand strategies, it is important to understand what has happened.

What has Happened to Get us Where We are Today?

Loss of Credibility and Increased Skepticism
There has been a slow but continual downward drift in credibility of many institutions that we look up to over the past four decades.

– Government and political leaders have misled us for personal agendas and gain
– Church leaders have tried to hide the truth and stay aloof to their responsibilities
– Corporations have become places where employees have become uncertain of messages from the leaders knowing that there is a different agenda than the words often indicate
– Manufacturers, by the nature of offering everything from cents-off deals to deep discounts, have undermined the perceptions of the value of what they make.

The result has been a growing “tuning out” of messaging.

Brand Overpromise
In difficult times, two things can occur. First, brands tend to amplify and exaggerate their brand promises to have their voices heard above the crowd. This often accelerates the problems as claims are often filled with over-promise and become unbelievable to customer or consumer audiences.
Second, brand marketers can become nervous and start to throw as many promises “against the wall” as possible to hope some will resonate somewhere. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and wariness.

The New Challenge of Difficult Economic Times
As the economic situation continues to languish, it is also driving several interesting social trends. Most immediately, it is driving people back to traditional values. You will see this happening everywhere. As a culture, we return to what we are familiar with in difficult times. As New York Times columnist David Brooks puts it, there will be a drive “towards order and stability”. This will happen in every corner of our lives. Fashion will steal from the past… what is old will become new again. The commercial arts and entertainment will resurrect tried and true ideas. Old brands we are familiar with will have an opportunity to re-enter our lives. We have truly entered an era of comfort food, both literally and metaphorically.

This will truly become a time of resetting our values and expectations. One of the benefits about tough times is that it provides the opportunity to ask ourselves what is important and act on those conclusions.

Thrift is the New Status Symbol
Since the 1970’s, there has been a continual rise in discounting and promotional couponing. The result is that we have been sensitized that things can always be purchased at a lower price. The Internet has further expanded our ability to find and purchase goods and services at lower price-points. This behavior is being accelerated by the economic downturn. One consequence is that buying on discount has grown to become the new status symbol. Today, it is hard to imagine that someone would want to admit to paying full price for anything… and this mindset should last a long time. Thus, for almost all organizations there is a crying need to market more efficiently, describe “value” in more concrete terms, and acknowledge this new mindset in marketing and communications programs. Being a smart shopper, both at the consumer and business-to-business level, has become the new emblem of intelligence.

Getting Good Customer Support has become Onerous
Many factors have led to the decline in customer service. While not universal, most customers feel that service has gotten worse, not better. Lack of resources to build a ‘best in class’ offering have become hard to justify, out-sourcing to lower cost countries has created some unsuccessful solutions, product proliferation has led to complexity in service solutions, and a drive to web-enabled solutions has created an unintended set of frustrations. Compared to decades ago, today customers are frustrated.

“Community” Grows at a very Quick Pace
Given the times we live in, the realities we face, there is a rapidly growing sense of “community”. But the meaning and value of community has changed. The social need for help, guidance, understanding and learning will accelerate the role communities play in our lives. More than ever, we will look for like-minded people with shared values to help us navigate the times we now live in. Because we know we can’t do it alone, we will learn to reach out and join communities in new ways. These communities, both physical and virtual, will become our source for information and validation.

7 Rules for Branding in the “New World”

Brands must be shaped in new ways. The new rules should become the “filters” used to create and evaluate brand communications and behaviors.

Rule 1. Value must be communicated.
There is a greater desire for price/value knowledge as a result of the collision of consumer skepticism and the difficult economy. This is as true in the B2B and B2C worlds. Where lofty aspirational promises were part of some brand positionings, there is a natural shift towards value as a foundational element. Customers and consumers have a much larger magnifying glass to evaluate price/value comparisons and will find it hard to justify a purchase without a very strong reason-why. So value becomes a very important filter.

Rule 2. Function becomes more important than end-end-benefit.
Since the era of modern marketing and branding initiated by Theodore Levitt at Harvard in the 1960’s, marketers have grown up searching for the end-end benefit as an integral element in brand positioning. However, today there is a retrenchment and a shift to functional benefits (e.g. a car manufacturer stressing miles per gallon) versus emotional end-benefits (e.g., you’ll feel sexy driving XYZ car). This is true for all audiences from corporate customers to employees. Each will be looking for more communication about the functional value brands bring to them.

Rule 3. Transparency and honesty are mandatory.
There are two aspects to transparency – being transparent and communicating transparency. In the “New World”, both are imperative. This means changing internal behaviors, and communicating in new ways. Customers will be looking at this aspect of their brand relationship as one important criteria for maintaining the relationship. So marketers must ask: a) is my company/brand being transparent, and b) are we communicating this transparency. This is a new filter for many companies.

Rule 4. Messaging must be simple and clear.
The razzle-dazzle of the past decade has left everyone breathless. In the new economy, brands must shed multiple claims, over-promises and implied benefits, and bring a new simplicity and clarity to messaging. It means creating new filters to evaluate existing messaging and developing communications strategies to isolate what is important and what can be shed. The new world actually offers the opportunity to re-evaluate everything from communications and marketing materials, to directing speech development and training materials.

Rule 5. Express confidence and optimism through identity.
In difficult times, it’s no surprise that people want to be uplifted. Because an identity is the visual expression of a brand, it should reflect a company’s core beliefs and strengths, and also signal an optimistic and positive attitude. This is a good time to take toll of both a company’s central identity, and also the rigidity or flexibility of the identity system. There may well be room for modifying an identity to project a more realistic and optimistic statement about the brand.

Rule 6. Communities are critical to brand acceptance.
The evolving shift from top-down to bottoms-up brand influence is being further accelerated. “Communities” have become the place where we can find information, validation, security and new types of partnerships. Recognizing this, smart marketers will recognize that brand authenticity will percolate up from these communities, and not be dictated via mass communications to them. The current term of the day, “social networks”, is part of a larger concept of the integration of specific audiences to bond, evaluate, determine and share. So a new priority must be to understand and participate in communities as a critical way to grow brands.

Rule 7. Customer service can be a brand-defining attribute.
For many companies, the critical place where a brand is defined is when customer service is needed. For example, when there is a technical issue, or a product doesn’t work, or there is a general “how to” question, this becomes the seminal moment where a brand can build a bond and relationship or turn off a customer. It is a touch-point loaded with skepticism and hope at the same time. Successful brands of the future will embrace the importance of this interaction and think about building world-class customer service rather than adequate, competitive levels of service.

The new world is emerging, and it is up to smart marketers to help evolve their brands into this future. Using these seven rules can be filters to shaping brands to capture and sustain leadership.

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