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Making the concept of 'brand' meaningful once more

Is brand becoming a dirty word within many organisations? asks Linda Cornelius, managing director of strategic branding and consulting company Siegel & Gale.

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At a recent marketing conference in Chicago, several speakers and attendees described with dismay the great lengths to which they were going to avoid using the "B" word inside their companies.

My Chicago conference experience crystallised for me a phenomenon that I've sensed gaining momentum for some time: That "brand" and "branding" may be hurtling toward the Buzzword Hall of Shame with the likes of "paradigm shift," "mission critical," and "synergy".

How did this happen? For starters, brand has been misused and overused so often, by so many people, that it has ceased to have any real meaning.

A quick search of Amazon.com reveals 74,763 books with the word "brand" in the title. By comparison, a search using "Abraham Lincoln" produced just 21,049 titles. Enough said.

Brand deserves a better fate than to be tossed on the scrapheap of business lexicon.

Brand is an important word that expresses a simple but powerful connection that a company, product or service makes with its customers. Sure, there are layers and complexities to a brand and how it exists, grows and is experienced, but at its core the compelling promise of quality and trust that every great brand represents is a concept that most people once understood. Not any more.

The cacophony of brand blather in recent years has confused and annoyed so many people that companies seeking to implement major branding initiatives are encountering strong resistance, suspicion and outright hostility from employees.

Disney's diss

At Disney's shareholder meeting in Philadelphia earlier this year, Roy Disney said, "In recent times, there's been a tendency to refer to [us] as the Disney brand. Branding is something you do to cows. Branding is what you do when there's nothing original about your product."

Ouch. So why is the mere mention of "brand" eliciting, in some circles, the eye-rolling disdain once reserved for such lesser lights as "team-building" and "win-win?"

"It's not so much an anti-brand attitude as it is a 'what has the brand done for my business lately?' mindset," says John Dodds, global director of marketing communications for Air Products, a leading global supplier of gases, chemicals and equipment. "It's an eternal pendulum between the need for product and business differentiation in its broadest sense and the need to maintain a corporate reputation. In an uncertain economy the inclination is to shorter term focus and a more tactical communications approach prevails."

"My experience with senior executives here has convinced me that 'brand' is much too complex a topic to be covered with one word," adds Bill Stoessel, global brand manager for Medtronic, one of the world's leading medical technology companies.

"I remember hearing that Eskimos have 20 or more words for 'snow'. I try to be much more specific and definitive in my discussions and use fewer confusing terms to achieve the same result. In the course of one branding conversation we might talk about our company logo, product names, customer perceptions, share of mind, product equity, perceived value and on and on. 'Brand' tends to be a catch-all term that doesn't work well among executives, because they all bring their own definition to the table," continues Stoessel.

"Brand" isn't a bad word, but the practice of "branding" has drifted so far from its original intent -- to build a meaningful and enduring relationship with each customer -- that the diminution and dilution of "brand" in the minds of many is part of an important culture-shift that is returning marketers' attention to where it belonged all along: on the customer.

"Professional services businesses are very aware these days that people are the most critical ingredient of the brand mix, that people are the brand," says David Redhill, chief marketing officer at Deloitte. "There is awareness that while a consistent visual system, messages and communications are all important, if these components don't align with the actual service experience, you are wasting your time."

"Buyers today are too marketing literate to believe advertising or PR messages at face value. They judge for themselves whether brands are everything they say they are," continues Redhill. "As a result, service businesses are working much harder to ensure that employees can fulfill the brand promises being made on their behalf. There's a lot more investment in internal education and training, and in CRM processes and systems, to ensure that the reality delivered by people lives up to the brand promise."

The right touch

So what can companies do to live up to their brand promises and improve their customers' experiences?

A disciplined, organisation-wide emphasis on customer experience is not a cure-all, but in practice it has broad applicability and produces tangible results across industries, products and services.

Make sure that employees -- your internal customers -- understand the brand promise and how to align their behaviours to support it.

Manage the customer experience from the ground up. Identify, analyse and evaluate every customer interaction -- or touch point -- on whether it supports the unique qualities and attributes of your company, products or services.

Ask the right questions. Is the communication at your key touch points clear, credible and relevant to your customers? Is the interaction with customers efficient, effective and valuable?

A touch-point analysis quantifies the impact and influence of your company's customer interactions, enabling you to prioritise your efforts and identify where and when to allocate your resources more efficiently for greater impact.

By evaluating, nurturing and investing in your company's key touch points, your branding and marketing strategies won't be idle words on a page; they'll spring to life and resonate with your customers, employees, investors and influencers.

Ultimately, by aligning your touch points to a well-crafted brand strategy you'll generate tremendous momentum for building customer affinity, meaningful brand differentiation, employee enthusiasm and a sense of conviction and purpose.

And, as a bonus, you'll help rescue "brand" from the Buzzword Hall of Shame and restore its good name as a legitimate, pragmatic and important component to building valuable, enduring customer experiences.

Linda Cornelius is managing director of Siegel & Gale's New York office. She can be contacted here.

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