Branding gives marketers a bad name. People hear the word “brand” and conjure images of Superbowl ads, money burning holes in agency pockets, hipsters in skinny jeans pitching ideas on foam-core boards and a myriad of other marketing scenarios. While these activities certainly take place, the reality is that only a small percentage of companies with very deep, pockets can afford them. C-suite people often reject the idea of brand-focused work because they cannot see the value. Being in the weeds of sales pipelines, tech projects and new product development can often leave little time to think about who you are as a company, why you are different than your competitors and what your brand stands for. Before you spend a dime on display, PPC, marketing automation, demand gen or anything else (I have opinions on this too), is your brand ready to make a connection with your audience?
Forget the resolutions to run the marathon, eat more vegetables and drink less beer. Your brand needs you. As you kick-off the new year, give your brand a health-check and see how it stacks up against these 5 core values.
1. Know your audience
Great brands take the time to understand their customers. Whether you’re a B2C, B2B or B2B2C brand, your marketing, product and overall business success depends on intimately knowing your customers. Your customers are defined as the customers you have today and those prospective customers you dream of for tomorrow. The best ways to get to know your customers are 1) Talk to them 2) Build personas to make them real. So many companies are afraid to talk to their customers. Reaching out and talking to your customers about your brand is job one. Often times, customers become “users” as we sit in our offices and pontificate about who we think they are and everyone internally has an opinion on who they might be. Talking to your customers face-to-face helps you build relationships and also gives you the opportunity to use their accolades to help you build your brand through testimonial content. Your customers are the best spokespeople you could ask for.
Does your brand have personas? In addition to being instrumental in product design and development, building customer archetypes helps you relate to your customer on a personal level. I use personas in all of my brand work to center us around the customer and get a deeper undertanding of who the customer is and how they think and act. There are always lots of opinions about who the customer is and the tendency can be to based what the customer wants on what internal folks want, which is so not the same. Take the subjectivity out by talking to your customers and building brand personas. Understand how your customers interact with your brand and other brands. How do they use technology? Where are there opportunities to innovate? To connect? To deliver value? Listen and learn.
2. Create a connection
Building a great brand starts with creating an emotional connection with the customer. You know, that connection that you have with a product or service where you say, “Wow.” Once you know who your customer is, then it becomes all about understanding why they would by your product. What drives their decision? How should your brand make the customer feel? What is the experience the customer has when they interact with your brand? What makes them love your brand? How do you get them to “wow”?
Fifty percent of every buying decision is driven by emotion. Which, for anyone responsible for bringing a product to market, makes a recent Forrester Research survey a concern. It reported that 89% of the respondents felt no personal connection to the brands they buy. Simply put, the foundation of the marketing communications industry–the consumer’s emotional relationship–has never been more fragile. (Fast Company article authored by Woodshop’s Sam Swisher and Trevor Shepard.)
I think about the connection I made with Apple way back when I was switching from my Blackberry to an iPhone. It was a big decision after using a Blackberry for years. Where did Blackberry miss the boat? I had no emotional connection to my Blackberry. I had to use my Blackberry for work and it did what I needed to do – check email, text, go online, talk on the phone. But, they completely missed the boat on really making me feel excited to use my device. They bet that customers would stay loyal and failed to embrace new technologies that would transform a phone into a must-have, can’t live without, mini computer. People say Blackberry missed the market because their technology didn’t innovate, which is true. But, in my opinion, they missed the market because they didn’t understand the customer and failed to make a connection, which meant they missed the opportunity to innovate. Focus your brand on how you want your customers to feel and how your product helps to meet their needs and wants – through copy, images, video, product development, design. Is your brand creating the connection that will keep your customers coming back for more? Create the wow.
3. Be authentic
I get emails from lots of different brands. Most I delete before reading. Some, I always read. Why? The ones I read do a great job of talking to me like a human being. They know I want to see something I can relate to, they talk to me in plain and simple words, they make me feel like they know me. Then there are the companies that never email me, but I go to first because they are so real that I always feel good when I interact with them. Zappos is one of these brands. I know that when I shop with Zappos, they treat me like a VIP. They ship my purchase to me next day for free and take back returns no questions asked at any time, for free. They want the customer to be happy, they epitomize surprise and delight and think through all the little touches that make them feel like humans, not some mass marketed brand that just wants to take my money and run. Their culture is their brand and their brand is their culture. They make it easy to interact with them and they earn my loyalty by being authentic and real. Think about the tone and personality of your brand and how that gets translated into the words you use. Does your company use lots of jargon? Words like leverage, synergy, cross-platform, disruptive, datafication – what do these words actually mean to the person who might buy your product? A word like cross-platform makes me stop and ask: “Across what platforms?” and now, you’ve lost me. Take the buzz words and internal geek speak out of your copy, your headlines, your content and talk to humans like humans. Let’s translate cross-platform into human-speak and it sounds like: Our product can be used with any type of software and on any type of hardware. Easy peasy. There is no value in the word “cross-platform,” but when you put it in plain English, I can see why this matters to me and it becomes valuable. Put on your human-speak glasses and give your content the once-over. Is your voice authentic? Remember, I’m only human.
4. Articulate the difference
When someone comes to your site, uses your app, reads your email or interacts with you in any way, do you tell them how and why you are different than their other choices? I’m not talking about calling the competition on the carpet by name, I’m talking about knowing your differentiator and clearly, authentically communicating it to prospects and customers. Clearly stating why you are different is key to customers who don’t have the time or energy to try to figure it out. What’s the big idea of your brand? Once you’ve tackled 1-3 above, it’s time to hone in on what makes you different. I read so many company mission statements that all sound the same. Buzzwordy and passionless and they never tell me why they are better than the guy selling the same stuff on another website. Again with Zappos, they chose Service as their differentiator. If you read Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, you get insight into why this was a big, scary decision for them. Differentiating on service was unheard of in the online shoe business, or even in most businesses for that matter. Tony felt strongly that differentiating on price, brand names and selection would become a commodity (he was right). Customers would always demand those things but could be surprised and delighted by great service. There are lots of places to buy shoes online. Believe me, I know. I shop on Zappos because of their commitment to service. They articulate their differentiator with every touch you have with their company – app, online, shipping, packaging, phone – every touch point tells me that service is what matters and that is what makes them different. They are consistent and consistency matters big time when it comes to brand. What is your company’s differentiator? How does that come across in every way you interact with your customers? Be consistent and tell them why you’re different.
5. Deliver value
At the end of the day, 1-4 above don’t really matter if you can’t deliver value to your customers. You may be delivering value but are you showing and telling the customer what that value is? The value your brand delivers goes hand in hand with your differentiator. I follow a variety of businesses and see so many opportunities where a business can tell customers how they deliver value but they fail miserable on this. For example, I see so many ecommerce businesses running campaign after campaign offering 50% off, 75% off, why not 100% off?! Customers become blind to the offers and you miss the opportunity to deliver value. Sure an offer is great, but is that your value? Why not think about marketing the uniqueness of your merchandise or product benefits? Is it something I can’t get anywhere else? How does it make me feel special? How does it add value to my life? Money in my pocket adds value, but positioning yourself on price alone is a dangerous game. You’ll quickly find yourself in the discount downspin, where customers expect discounts all the time and often won’t shop or purchase without them. Consider the value your business delivers to the customer. How can you reinforce and remind customers and prospects of that at each turn and across each channel? Value delivers on your brand promise.
So, how did your brand do? One of the reasons I love being a marketer so much is that the marketer’s job is never done. A brand is never “final.” A brand must continue to evolve. It needs constant attention as your customers grow and change and your position in the market will move as your customers need or want something different. Keep your eyes on your customer at all times. Listen to what they have to say about you, about your market, about your competitors. Building an emotional connection with your customer takes time, passion, consistency and commitment. When it happens, it’s a real wow.
Michelle Heath is a marketing consultant with Growth Street Marketing and the former CMO / VP of Marketing at Currensee and Matchmine. You can find this blog post, as well as additional content on her blog located here. You can also follow Michelle on Twitter (@michelleheath) by clicking here.