OPINION: The brand control delusion

Brent Heatley
By Brent Heatley | 11 December 2012
Brent Heatley, freelance brand strategist

Some high-profile and long-established marketers still believe they’re the all-seeing, all-knowing architects, designers and engineers of their brands’ destinies.

Like the major global player who recently convened a one day workshop to hammer out the core elements of a new consumer brand being developed for launch.

Everyone had a terrific time debating the brand’s values and attributes and benefits and rewards and so on - trying to rationally distil it all down into some kind of elemental DNA within the brand itself.

The idea was that this brand essence would become a core statement in the agency brief - the holy grail upon which their new baby’s fortunes would turn.

In the marketer’s mind, it would then be just a straightforward process for the agency creatives to work up some nice brand comms. Problem was, from a customer perspective, there was precious little within the brand to differentiate it.

And like the well-intentioned petroleum brand who decided to launch a smartphone GPS app, which would alert their customers to the location of the nearest brand name (theirs) servo, wherever they were driving.

But in their short-sighted attempt to build brand loyalty, the marketer missed a brilliant opportunity to connect with zillions more motorists - whether or not they were unconditionally in love with any particular brand.

Imagine if, instead, they’d seen things from a broader customer perspective, and offered a brand-agnostic servo-finder app, for those anxious low-fuel kilometers. For all servos - theirs and their competitors combined.

Strategically repositioning themselves as a generous, community-spirited host brand, they could have pumped awareness levels, multiplied engagement opportunities, won lots of own-CRM brownie points, and scored priceless free PR.

Traditional top-down brand thinking used to be okay, to a point - except that in our new brand democracy, marketers don’t hold all the cards anymore. It’s a world full of better informed, highly-connected and more empowered customers who decide whether brands will live or die.

It’s customers who now determine a brand’s purpose and meaning, through the relationships they have with their preferred brands - from fashion and banking to media consumption and political advocacy. In most categories, in fact, where lowest price isn’t the prime driver.

Customers are averse to marketing-speak. They’ll decide whether something is ‘value-for-money’ or ‘affordable’.

They’re smart enough to make their own comparisons and judgement; to figure out which brands to trust.
Listening to customers is a smart investment. They don’t ask much of brands. How is it different/better? Is it in sync with my life? Do I like it?

Understanding what’s in their hearts, minds and community conversations may expose a value proposition’s flaws, unlock an unexpected channel planning opportunity, or reveal a delightfully surprising brand expression.

Where no obvious value propositions exist, thinking and feeling from the customer perspective can generate some brilliant brand differentiators - like the Art Series Hotels’ late late checkout time, Tontine pillows’ Use By Date, and the ‘Share A Coke’ social initiative.

It can build a strategy from a simple insight - like the classic ‘Just Do It’ expression of the sports brand’s positioning, capturing the behavioural opportunity of what happens when people run out of excuses to avoid exercising.

Being the customer in strategic thinking can deliver brand-differentiating masterpieces like the Opera House’s ‘Ship Song’, engaging brand stories like ‘Rhonda & Ketut’, and long-tail brand narratives like ‘Landcruiser Country’.

Among the treasure trove of customer stories, anecdotes, expressions and observations, there’s also a chance of discovering the stardust particles that make up a brand’s personality.

Building and evolving brand strategies from the customer perspective is a smarter way of gaining permission to connect, adding value and, ultimately, of winning hearts and minds.

Marketers who persist in imposing their top-down processes are likely to end up with brand strategies that are little more than wishful thinking.

Brent Heatley
Freelance Brand Strategist

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