Getting Started: 3 Inputs to Building a Brand Identity

September 3, 2010

In my most recent post, I kicked off a multi-post series on a step by step approach to building a brand identity.  The introductory post focused on why an organization might consider pursuing a process to build or revisit its brand identity and gave some examples of how this can be done.  This post focuses on the inputs to starting the brand identity development process.

Input #1:  People

Most brand development processes are officially kicked off with one or a series of face to face meetings.  The most important input into the process is the people who participate in these meetings.  All functional areas of the organization that have any influence on the brand should be represented.

For example, in a business, not only would the brand management/marketing team (including the market research team if applicable) be represented in the session, but product development/R&D, sales, customer service, and operations should also have representation, at the very least.  Any area that has an impact on how the brand experience is delivered to the target customers or any area that has regular contact with the target customers should be included.  For these reasons, many organizations also include outside agency and strategic alliance partners in their sessions.

For a not for profit organization, a selection of board members, volunteers, customer facing staff, strategic alliance partners and donors should be participants in the process.

There is no specific number of participants who should be involved in the process, however I prefer to work with groups ranging in size from 8 to 20 people.  Fewer than 8 can make brainstorming difficult.  More than 20 typically results in not everyone having an opportunity to share his/her perspectives in the session.

Input #2:  Customer Insights

While having the perspective of the people who influence the delivery of the brand experience is critical in a successful brand identity development process, it is actually more critical that the participants have an accurate understanding of the target customer.  After all, the American Marketing Association defines a brand as an “asset that resides in the mind of the target customer”.  For this reason, it is important to have individuals who are customer-facing to be participants in the process.  If possible, I also recommend that the organization conduct customer research in advance of the session and distribute its findings to all of the participants in advance so that everyone has some understanding of who the target customer is and his/her needs and perspectives.  For some organizations that regularly conduct research, this may just mean assembling and distributing recent research reports.  For others who do not have this information readily available, this might require fielding some quick surveys or hosting some interviews or focus groups with customers.  One of my previous posts provides some questions to consider including in such research.

Input #3:  Clear Objectives of the Process

As the people are identified to participate in the process and given the appropriate background on who the target customers are, they should also be given details on the specific objectives of the process.  More specifically, they should be briefed on the reasons why the organization has decided to focus on developing a brand identity, the specific objectives and goals it hopes to achieve as a result of developing a new brand identity, and how achieving these goals will impact each participant’s role in the organization.  Communicating all of this at the beginning, before the process officially starts is very important because without it, participants can easily be sidetracked from what they are supposed to accomplish once the process begins. A session can become derailed when the overarching objectives are not introduced and then reiterated clearly throughout the process from beginning to end.

As a quick side note on this topic, in some cases, it is not as simple as communicating the goals and objectives to all of the participants and assuming everyone is on board and aligned to them.  Some organizations have to go through an alignment process prior to beginning the brand development process so that the right objectives and goals are identified for the initiative.  This is fine — it is better to hash out and gain final alignment to the objectives prior to starting the session as opposed to discovering in the middle of the process that not everyone is clear as to what they are trying to accomplish.

These three inputs provide a great foundation to kicking off a successful brand identity development process.  The next step is to leverage these inputs and dive into developing each component of the brand.  Stay tuned for the next post that will discuss this in more detail.

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Intro to a Step By Step Approach to Building a Brand Identity

August 10, 2010

In my most recent post, I mentioned that one of my most favorite facets of marketing is market research.  A very close second favorite to market research is building a brand identity — using the understanding an organization has about its target customers to craft a unique and meaningful brand and message.  I love bringing the two puzzle pieces of customer understanding and brand positioning together and making them fit.

This year, out of all of the organizations with which I have worked, I’ve had the pleasure of working with three different organizations (two non-profits and one large private company) to help the brand puzzles fit together.  I’ve done this by facilitating some in depth brand strategy sessions for each organization.  Each strategy session has looked a bit different from the others to meet the specific needs of each organization (for instance I’ve facilitated sessions that have lasted a half day, and a process that consisted of hour long meetings every two weeks for 6 months).  Despite these differences, the key topics and brand components that we have discussed are the same.

For all three brands, each one was well-established in its field, and the youngest brand was over ten years old. While each organization had specific challenges that caused it to revisit its brand identity, there were a few common challenges each faced:

  1. Each brand was struggling to be more relevant and top of mind with its target customers
  2. Within each organization, there was some confusion as to what the brand really stood for
  3. Each organization lacked the language to communicate what the brand was about and what it provided to its target customers (the Brand Promise)

The sessions that I facilitated for each organization resulted in resolving these challenges by analyzing and rebuilding their brands one component at a time.  This process, one in which all of the key internal stakeholders participated, led to the development of a new brand identity for each organization that was fully embraced.

Because I have gotten such great feedback from the organizations for whom I have facilitated this process, I thought it might be useful to document this process over the course of the next few posts — just in case anyone else might find this process helpful in solving an brand identity challenges that their organization faces.

With that in mind, this post is my introduction to the series:  A Step By Step Approach to Building a Brand Identity.  The subsequent posts in this series will cover the following topics:

  • Getting Started:  Assembling the right people and target customer research to leverage in the process
  • Establishing the Guidelines:  Aligning to the objectives of the process
  • Diving Into the Brand:  Building the brand essence, benefits, character, and reasons to believe
  • Pulling It All Together:  Developing the Brand Promise

I hope that you find this new series of posts to be interesting and helpful, and as always, if you have any questions or comments along the way, please let me know.  I’d love to hear from you.


Does your marketing message have “getability”?

July 7, 2010

About two weeks ago, I read Rohit Bhargava’s post “How Hanes & Dyson Are Winning By Naming The Problems They Solve” and it really resonated with me.[1] The post highlights two brands that are doing an exceptionally good job of explaining (through naming) the problems that their products solve.  Bhargava comments that this practice helps these brands with their “getability” – or how easy it is for their consumers to understand the problems they solve without a lot of explanation.  Bhargava explains, “When your marketing has getability, it means that it is simple, clear, and memorable.”

I personally began to understand the importance of getability over the course of this past year when I started my strategic brand and marketing consultancy.  It took some time for me to determine how I could simply and clearly explain what it is that I do and the problems that I solve (brand strategy isn’t an easy concept to explain).  For me, part of my challenge in achieving getability was my message, but most of it was identifying and understanding who I really needed to “get” me.  For me, achieving getability relied on focusing on two very specific target customer segments (mid-sized companies with existing marketing departments or creative agencies offering brand strategy services).

Currently, I am working with two clients who are also experiencing challenges with the getability of their marketing.  In both cases, these clients have been able to build their businesses over time, but they realized that they had the untapped potential to grow so much more.  Through my analysis of their marketing and their customers, it became apparent that their biggest barrier to unlocking their growth potential has been the poor getability of their marketing messages.  For several years, both companies have been touting very technical, complicated benefits that the majority of their target customers simply did not understand and therefore could not value.  Neither of these companies effectively articulated the problems that they solved in a language that was simple and clear for their target customers to understand.  Their confusing marketing messages were significantly limiting their growth potential.

Because both of these companies had experienced some success, they did not realize that their marketing getability was an issue.  Their limited success masked a significant marketing message problem.  It was only when each company started talking with their current and potential customers about their experiences with the brand and their interpretation of the marketing messages that the lack of getability was uncovered.

Since the getability of their marketing was not an obvious challenge to either of these companies for so long, I thought it would be worth posing some questions to the rest of us as marketers:

  • Does your marketing have getability?  How do you know if it does or not?
  • Have you recently conducted research (or just asked your customers some pointed questions) to assess your message?
    • Have you conversed with trusted customers and partners to ensure you are explaining the problems that you solve in a meaningful and easy to understand way?
    • How do your customers describe the problems that you solve? Are you using their language to communicate what you do to solve their problems?

It doesn’t require a lengthy research project to answer these questions.  A series of informal interviews can quickly uncover the answers, which may be very surprising, as it was for my two clients.

As we all strive to grow our businesses and improve our marketing, I challenge each of us to really focus on the getability of our marketing messages. Ensuring that our marketing is getable should drive powerful results.


[1] If you don’t already subscribe to the Influential Marketing Blog, I highly recommend it.


How to help your customer really “see” you

June 3, 2010

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a major industry tradeshow for one of my clients.  The purpose of my attendance was to review my client’s overall tradeshow presence versus its competition.  As I surveyed the displays of my client and the other vendors, one particular point of differentiation became very clear to me.  A handful of vendors demonstrated through their displays, messaging, and selling approach that they not only knew who their target customers were, but they also knew how to let their target customers know that their business was specifically focused on meeting their target customers’ unique set of needs.

Most of the other vendors may have known who their target customers were, but they didn’t give their target customers the visual or messaging cues that indicated “We understand your business, and we are specifically here and focused to address your unique needs.”  These vendors may have offered all of the products and services that their customers sought. However without the cues of displaying the products in familiar and applicable environments or without mentioning the specific challenges that their target customers face, the customers might have assumed that the products were not exactly appropriate in meeting their needs.  As a result, they may have not noticed or engaged with the vendors to find out more.

This is a challenge that faces many organizations and brands – in business to business industries, but also in business to consumer and non-profit areas.  It seems that some organizations think that their strategic marketing work is done when they have identified their specific target customer markets.  While identifying key target customers is a critical and important step in marketing and brand-building, it is only half the battle.  The other half is appropriately signaling to your target customers that you understand, serve, and are targeting them.

The keys to successfully signaling to target customers are:

  1. Truly understanding the situations and challenges that they face when they are using your product/service (you can get this understanding through various forms of research)
  2. Reflecting your understanding of their needs and perspectives in all of your customer touch points – your messaging, your product offerings, your website, your tradeshow booth, your customer service processes, your packaging, your physical location, etc.

By understanding that “cues” are meaningful to your target customers and communicating these cues to the customers consistently, your target customers have a better shot of really seeing you and understanding how you fit into their lives.  The more that your customers see how you understand them and are dedicated to them, the more differentiated and persuasive you become to them.

While I know that the point I am making is a relatively basic one – one that we as marketers should already know and be doing, I thought it was worth raising, given my experience at the tradeshow last week.  There were many companies with sophisticated marketing who did not clearly demonstrate their knowledge of who they were targeting.  With that in mind, I suggest we all review how the customer touch points throughout our organizations signal our understanding and focus on our particular target customers.  We might find some opportunities where we can help our customers see us more clearly.


9 Questions Every Brand Should Ask Its Customers Regularly

May 18, 2010

In my experience with organizations of various sizes and types, market research is most commonly used when the organization has a specific question to answer.  The specific question can vary significantly, but some of the more common ones deal with the appeal of a new product idea or the interest in a new positioning or in a new creative marketing message.

While it is absolutely correct to field research to help answer these specific questions, organizations would benefit from performing market research on a more regular, ongoing basis to answer some brand questions repeatedly, over time. This would help to monitor customer perceptions and behaviors consistently — not just when a specific marketing project question arises.  If organizations only complete research when they have specific initiative-based questions, they run the risks of missing shifts in customer perceptions of their brand, failing to spot new trends in how their product/service is being used, or even misdiagnosing who their customers really are.

I should note that many organizations do routinely field customer satisfaction or product/service performance surveys, and while these are very important, this isn’t the type of research to which I am referring.  I am suggesting that organizations also implement a program to regularly understand how customers are thinking about the brand, based on the collection of all of their experiences with the brand over time.

The implementation of ongoing brand research does not have to be complex or expensive.  Some organizations make a significant investment in brand tracking, and it becomes a major initiative. However, for most others, it can be as simple as fielding a few customer focus groups or interviews every six months or even distributing an online survey among their customer base regularly.  The method of research can vary depending on the size of the organization, its customer base, and the category/industry of the organization.  Most importantly this research should be done frequently (at the very least annually), consistently, the results should be reviewed and tracked over time, the organization must be willing to adapt its marketing strategies based on the results, and the questions should focus on the target customers and their brand perceptions.

With all of this in mind, for those of you interested in initiating a brand research program for your organization, I’ve developed a general list of questions for you to incorporate into your research among your target customers. Listening to how your customers respond and tracking how these responses change over time will unearth some significant opportunities for better understanding who your customers are and what motivates them, adjusting your marketing messages to your customers, and strengthening your brand in the minds of your customers.

Here is the list of 9 questions that every organization should consistently ask its customers about its brand:

  1. When you think of the brand (insert brand name here), what are the first words that come to mind?
  2. When and why did you first become a customer of the brand?
  3. Why do you continue to be a customer of the brand?
  4. Who do you consider to be competitors of the brand?
  5. How is the brand different from its competitors (in terms of being both better and worse)?
  6. How is the brand the same as its competitors?
  7. How can the customer experience of the brand be improved?
  8. Do you anticipate that you will be a customer of the brand in the future?
  9. If you were describing the brand to others, what would you say, and would you recommend it?

For those of you who already ask your target customers about their perceptions of your organization’s brand regularly, are their other general questions that you always ask?  Let me know!  I’d like to incorporate them into the list.


The Open Chair

May 4, 2010

This past week, I spent a few days meeting with one of my clients to kick off a new project.  My client had hired me to help them develop an organized marketing strategy for the next 18 months, and our meeting was focused on helping me understand their organization’s overarching objectives and goals, as well as their target customer markets.

While the purpose of the kick off sessions was to give me the proper background and understanding of the direction and challenges facing the company, I knew that the sessions would also be very beneficial to my client.  Many of the key organization leaders participated in the meeting, along with their marketing and sales leaders.   All of them were there to explain their visions of the future and where they needed the organization to focus and grow.  Unfortunately, but realistically, the opportunity to have this type of strategic conversation does not happen frequently in their organization (this is probably the case for many organizations), because the teams are typically too consumed by “fire fighting” and reacting quickly to customer needs or market developments.  It was my presence as an educated but objective outsider who was asking the “who, what, why, and how” questions to understand the background and needs to inform the marketing strategy that got the various team members sharing their plans and rationale. It was my asking these questions that helped the organization uncover some conflicting views as to who were its target customers and realize that perhaps some of the marketing activities that it had been doing for quite some time were not targeted to any of its core customers.  I know that if I hadn’t been asking these questions as an outsider, my client would not have recognized and resolved these critical issues.  My presence helped bring these issues to light.

After the sessions, I thought that it was interesting that an outside perspective helped uncover some strategic issues needing to be addressed, but I did not really think about how this could become a formalized practice.  However, later in the week, I met with a woman who has years of experience in brand management and advertising. In our conversation, she happened to mention that she had just started implementing the “open chair” policy with her current agency — a practice that she had used extensively with other companies over the years.  She explained that the open chair policy was the practice of leaving an “open chair” in key strategic meetings.  This chair could be filled with an external subject matter expert or individual who is not directly involved with the project or issue at hand, but has some experience or perspective that enables him or her to ask thoughtful questions or add ideas to the discussion.  The role of the open chair individual is to provide a different perspective from the rest of the group to help the group come to an optimal decision or resolution.

As my acquaintance explained all of this to me, I realized that I had served as the open chair participant in my client’s discussion earlier in the week, and I recognized the value that this brought to my client.  It got me to thinking that this type of practice could be a very useful tool for all sorts of organizations facing many different issues.  Sometimes the day to day pressures and work load  force teams to make assumptions about what everyone knows, or thinks, or agrees on, and it takes an outsider with a slightly different perspective to question these assumptions.  It is when these assumptions are questioned that significant break-throughs can be made.

Is the open chair policy something that you could try to implement as you face your next decision or challenge?  Is it something you are already doing?  Let me know if you are using it and how it is working.


Defining brand and marketing strategy

April 20, 2010

This past week, I attended my local American Marketing Association chapter monthly event, and I was struck by a very simple explanation on how brand and marketing strategy fit together.  The explanation came from Tony Fannin, President of BE Branded.  I thought that Tony’s explanation would be worth repeating in this post, because I know that there are many smart and successful organizations that struggle with the difference between these two concepts.  This could be because traditionally trained marketers sometimes take understanding these concepts for granted and therefore do not always ensure that their audiences know exactly what they mean when they refer to either concept.  As a result, business leaders and managers who might not be as familiar with these concepts could find them to be vague, confusing, or even perhaps interchangeable.  So for any of you who might fall into one of these two camps and who may not be articulating how brand and marketing strategy fit together as eloquently, clearly, or succinctly as you might like, perhaps this explanation is worth a try:

The marketing strategy is the bridge between what the target customers believe and what the organization wants its brand to stand for.

Now to help give more clarity to this explanation, let me provide a few more details.  First of all, at its core, a brand is what your product/service/organization ultimately stands for or means in the minds of the target customers.  It is comprised of the feelings or perceptions that target customers have when they think of or experience a particular product or service.  Organizations typically want the brand to stand for something in particular in the minds of their target customers.  Meanwhile, the target customers may not have these exact perceptions and feelings in mind when they think of the product or service (unfortunately, this is the case most of the time).  The difference between what an organization wants its target customers to think and what the target customers actually think is a gap. Organizations can create and execute a marketing strategy to minimize the gap.  The marketing strategy is the set of planned actions that the organization undertakes to bring the two points closer together. Typically, these actions address one or more of the following:  the product (or service), the pricing, the placement (distribution or channels), and the promotion (including communication/messaging).  A well executed marketing strategy should help to move the perceptions of the target customers closer to what the organization envisions for the brand.  Additionally, it should also help organization’s idea for the brand become more attainable and believable to its target customers.

So what do you think?  Does this explanation help distinguish between the two concepts?   Let me know!  I’d love to hear if this is helpful or if you have other suggestions.