Brand Expectations Have Changed: Have You Changed With Them?

We’re living in a hyper-connected world.  Linear brand strategies for a small business have become dwarfed by the radical, multi-dimensional, highly mobile consumer influences.  21st century consumers all have smart phones.  They all have cameras.  They all have video recording devices in our pockets.  And they share their brand experiences on the fly inside of a network ranging from Twitter to Pinterest to Foursquare to Facebook.  Social sharing has increased the level of responsibility that a business owner must assume in order to maintain contemporary brand relevance and intimacy.  A company brand now faces a fundamental challenge couched in emotional terms:

                                                  The expectation of a brand is that is it far more intimate.

Intimate.  A word once associated with very personal emotions is the new standard for brand strength.  A level of emotional intimacy with a consumer will be the gauge by which today’s consumer will measure successful brands.  And it’s happening right now.

Successful brands will surprise their audience.  They will challenge the normal expectations of how their brand functions on a product and service level.  They will excite the customer by reflecting the customer.  And they will involve the customer in the intuitive process of co-creating their brand message and delivery.  We’ve seen the biggest and best already win at this game.  Nike+, Mini, Domino’s Pizza, Coca-Cola, Volkswagon–they’ve all adjusted their branding message, product position, and consumer connection.  They’ve also used massive budgets to make it happen.  On a smaller scale, savvy business owners can take the first steps toward similar ends by following a three-step process for re-defining their company brand.

Step 1: Define a Company Brand Strategy Around a ‘Why’ Before a ‘What’

What a company does is always obvious.  ‘Install HVAC products.’  ‘Service Equipment.’  ‘Solar.’  ‘Make money.’  These are the outward expressions of a product/service company.  They are also easily viewed as a commodity in the marketplace.  A reinvented brand strategy, however, goes deeper than a function.  It aims to have a purpose, a cause, a battle-cry.  “Enrich our customer’s life.”  “Support the well-being of our community.”  “Improve lifestyles.”  “Live better.”  Asking a ‘Why’ question forces a business to re-evaluate the purpose for the work rather than simply sell the work itself.  In the process of asking ‘Why’ the business undergoes a re-evaluation that will eventually reshape every single business function that touches a customer.  The ‘Why’ becomes the basis for a new brand identity that creates differentiation and a multi-faceted branding opportunity.

Step 2: Content Curation

This is about determining the touch points or access points through which a customer will participate in the company brand, the company ‘Why.’  Thankfully there’s no shortage of ways to create these channels.  Start with the obvious: Does the staff share the vision and do they understand their role in communicating/executing the brand ‘Why’ with customers?  Does the company have mechanisms to share this brand position easily?  Is the company utilizing available technology to extend the brand message as far as possible?  And, most importantly, are these touch points consistent and repeatable?  The level and types of connected sharing allows terrific levels of transparency, consumer involvement, and brand co-creation.  They key is to strategically design these touch points to maximize exposure without diluting the strength of the brand’s position in the market.

Step 3: Production

The down-and-dirty brass tacks of making it happen.  It’s very easy to brainstorm a million great ideas.  It’s altogether another thing to execute the plan and produce the results.  If a business wants to drive their lifestyle brand using Pinterest then someone must be responsible for curating and managing the pin board.  A company that intends to integrate their field staff using video sharing needs to have a consistent way to create quality videos, manage the content, ensure the messaging is aligned with the brand message, and share the results.  A simple blog (I’m in to Tumblr.) needs to have fresh, brand related content updated on a regular basis.  Producing a brand doesn’t simply happen–there’s no flip-of-the-switch and ‘ta da’ we have a new brand.  It grows over time and reflects a clear vision, defined messaging, varied touch points, and solid execution.

One of the comments that I frequently hear from my clients is “I don’t sell a product, I sell my company.”  And I agree.  A company is something to be extremely proud of–especially a good one.  But what they fail to realize is that the company itself is a product (if not THE product) in question.  By the time a salesperson sits down with a homeowner that homeowner is already in the process of making a purchase.  At that point they’re making evaluation-based decisions: Is this project in my budget?  Do I trust these people?  Am I making the right decision? Can I find a better deal elsewhere?  The purpose of a deeply defined brand is to help shape the customer’s understanding of what it means to partner with a company.  The purpose of a deeply defined brand is to create a greater level of transparency and intimacy with a consumer so they feel like they’re part of something more significant than ‘Product X.’  And the purpose of a deeply defined brand is to stimulate an emotional response from the consumer toward the brand/company in question.  None of this can be accomplished by looking, sounding, and feeling like every other competitor in the marketplace.  

For years marketing and advertising companies have attempted to motivate customers with incentives, images, and explanations as to why they are the best choice (“Lowest prices!” “We’ll beat the competition’s price!” “Your comfort experts!”).  These days, however, the predictable outbound messages are commodities themselves and fail to create the sustained response and intense loyalty that businesses need to survive.  In today’s economy a company/brand simply must do more than register as a blip on a radar.  In order to improve the overall level of meaning and relevance, small businesses must begin to re-think the nature of who they are, what they stand for, how they deliver this brand proposition, and how easily they’ll let consumers aide in co-creating something truly unique.  

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