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.

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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.



Top 6 marketing articles from the last two weeks (3/7-3/21)

March 22, 2010

It has been a little while since I compiled my list of marketing articles and posts that I have found to be particularly insightful. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve read several articles that I really enjoyed, and I thought I would highlight these, just in case you might have missed them (after all, a lot of people are on spring break these days).  I hope you find a few of these useful or interesting.  Enjoy!

CMOs, Go Beyond a PR Plan to Prepare for an Inevitable Product Crisis (Ad Age).  There have obviously been quite a few branding crises these days — between spokespeople losing their respect and credibility to massive product failures and recalls.  This article provides a great reminder of the plan that every brand leader should have in place before a crisis strikes.  The plan should not just have a well-planned PR component, but it must consider and address every touch point that the brand has with its target customers.  The article raises quite a few issues that might not be top of mind in the heat of the moment, but that are absolutely critical to the crisis management process.

Real-Time Brand Management:  Lessons from Virgin America’s Hellish Flight (Harvard Business Review). Continuing from the theme of the first article, this blog post presents a good miniature case study of how Virgin America quickly managed a perception crisis last week.  While this article does not necessarily highlight the plan that Virgin America had in place to mitigate the crisis, it does illustrate some additional things that brands can do routinely before a crisis occurs so that when it does, the brand can be managed in “real time”.

Wal*Mart, Target, Best Buy Named Most Valuable (Retail) Brands (Brandweek).  While the list of the most valuable retail brands is fairly interesting in itself, this article provides some good commentary regarding the strategies that helped brands grow and the strategies that undermined the value of brands.  One unsuccessful strategy mentioned is the “flight to price” strategy.  The analysis of the strategies is applicable to all types of consumer brands — not just retail brands.

Opinion:  Customer Service is Key Strategy (Brandweek).  Joseph Jaffe, the author of this editorial, writes, “During increasingly confusing, cluttered and complex times, what is it that really separates — or differentiates — one company, product, service or brand from another?”  He answers his own question that customer service or “servicing the customer” is the key differentiator for brands and should be the focal point for the marketing department.

How to Write a Mission Statement that Doesn’t Suck (Fast Company).  The author Dan Heath provides an entertaining yet very accurate assessment of how the mission statement development process can fail.  For anyone who has ever participated in developing a mission statement, this article is worth reading just for its humor and insight, if nothing else.  If you are currently developing or revamping your mission statement, this article provides great inspiration for what you should focus on, and what you should avoid.

Shopping Aisles at Cutting Edge of Consumer Research and Tech (Ad Age).  This article provides some interesting examples of what consumer packaged goods companies are doing to study their consumers during the act of shopping for products (from making the shopping list at home to purchasing in the store).  The emphasis on and investment in shopper marketing in the last few years has grown substantially among CPGs and retailers, and it is fascinating to understand some of the insights that have been uncovered.  If you are in the process of considering investing in or building a shopper marketing research program, this article worth reviewing.


Five Questions To Ask Before You Do Focus Groups

March 9, 2010

In the last few months, I have received a lot of requests to moderate customer focus groups for a variety of clients.  I am thrilled to provide the service as customer research is one of my favorite aspects of marketing.  Interestingly, I am not the only one who feels this way.  Many marketers enjoy research, especially qualitative research such as focus groups, for a variety of reasons.  These include:

  • Marketers get to leave the office and their “desk job” for a few days to view the groups
  • Marketers get the opportunity to listen to their customers talk about their brands and products
  • Marketers may receive research results quickly (they are viewing the research real-time)
  • Focus groups can be perceived as a less expensive method of research compared to other types of studies.

Unfortunately, these factors can sometimes lead marketers to “overuse” focus groups and execute them when they aren’t the appropriate tool for answering marketers’ questions.

To help my clients assess if focus groups are the correct method of research for their needs, and to ensure that the research is designed and executed most effectively, I ask my clients a series of questions at the start of each project.  My hope is that these questions are helpful to any marketing or research manager who is seeking customer insights through qualitative research.

  1. Are you trying to count something or are you looking to explore something? If you want a count, then do not do focus groups.  Focus groups are designed to help you understand how your customers think and make decisions.  Focus groups can provide ideas and feedback, but they cannot be used to provide a definite, statistically significant answer.  To take this a step further, often it is assumed that if a focus group contains eight respondents, you have a sample size of eight.  In actuality, due to group dynamics, a group of eight people is only a sample size of one (the group is the unit of measurement).
  2. What decisions will be made with the information from the research? It is very important to know how your information will be used.  For instance, if the information will be used to make a go/no go decision on a significant investment, you may want to consider if an unquantifiable technique is really the right tool.  Additionally, knowing what decisions will be made will guide the questions that must be answered in the research (see #3).
  3. What are the questions that you must answer? There should be about three to six specific questions that the research should be designed to answer.  These are the research objectives.  The marketers and researchers included in the research must be very clear on what these questions are.  If these questions are not specified in advance, it will be sheer luck if the research uncovers the answers.  An additional note:  if in a focus group there are more than six objectives, you likely have too many things you are trying to accomplish (and therefore you run the risk of not accomplishing everything adequately).  If you have more than six objectives, you should consider doing more than one set of focus groups.
  4. What do we think the answers to these questions are? Scientists test hypotheses in their research.  Marketers should do the same.  If you have a hypothesis for the answer to each research question, this will help the moderator turn to probing on why an answer in a focus group might be different from what you hypothesized.  By enabling the moderator to focus probing on why an answer is different, you will get much richer, insightful information from your groups.  With that said, once you form your hypotheses, be mindful to listen objectively to the research.  It can be tempting to selectively listen only for evidence that supports your hypotheses.  Make an effort to listen to and absorb all of the information that your focus groups provide, whether it supports your hypotheses or not.
  5. Who is the target respondent? The usefulness of focus groups is significantly dependent on the respondents who are participating.  If the group does not contain the correct target respondents, the results from the groups can be essentially meaningless.  For any focus group you consider doing, think carefully about who you need in the groups to answer the questions.  Too many times, marketers make the mistake of simply asking for their standard customer demographic target to be present in the groups – but perhaps they need something more, such as current non-category users or lapsed users of the brand.  Think very carefully about the questions you are trying to answer and who are the right people that you need to hear from to answer these questions.  Do not assume that your target respondent is just your target customer demographic.  It is likely that your target respondent is more than just that.

Those are the questions I like to focus on before initiating qualitative research for clients.  I would like to think that many marketers also ask themselves these questions before they start a qualitative project.  However, I think it is good to have this checklist handy for your next piece of research – just to make sure that your research will be as successful and as useful as possible.


6 Lessons Learned from a Year of Crisis

February 23, 2010

Dictionary.com defines the word “crisis” as: a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.

Last week marked the one year anniversary of my personal crisis.  I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I have learned during this turning point, in case any of you out there are considering making a significant change, or if you are at the beginning stages of going through one.

Background

Prior to the last 52 weeks, my higher education and career had gone largely to plan; every step I took from high school to college to my first job to graduate school to my career in brand management was thoughtfully planned and executed.  Then, in February of 2009, I was laid off — taking my career on a very unplanned course.

My immediate reaction to this crisis was a negative one, but I quickly came to embrace it as an opportunity to take my career and life on a whole new trajectory.  I went into business for myself as a branding and marketing consultant — using my experience and skills in understanding customer insights to help others build stronger brands, products, and customer connections.

The Lessons I’ve Learned

Over the course of this year, I’ve found that people are very interested in and almost envious of the decision I made to do things on my own. I know that for many, being an independent consultant sounds liberating and ideal, and sometimes it is.  Sometimes it is far from it. One of the most important factors for me was timing.  In order for me to chart my new course successfully, I had to rely heavily on my previous experience and credibility in brand management, my network of colleagues in the industry, and my own personal maturity to remain dedicated and focused.  For anyone who is curious about the path I have taken, here are the lessons that I have to offer:

  1. Reading has never been so important.  On average, I now spend 2-3 hours a day reading about marketing — the latest marketing news, marketing thought leadership, marketing blogs.  When I worked for other organizations, I didn’t focus on external marketing information like I do now.  It is now my job to be ‘in the know’ about the latest books or the latest technology, and so I spend so much time absorbing the information on a daily basis.
  2. Befriending your competition is key. In the world of freelancers and consultants, your competition is an invaluable source of support, helpful resources, and potential projects.  I have been gratified by the amount of help and information that my direct competitors are willing to share with me.  We realize that we are all better off with comraderie and the opportunity for collaboration than if we operated separately.
  3. Celebrate your successes. In any time of significant adaptation or change, it will take a while to get some momentum behind you. At times, this can feel very frustrating, and it makes all the difference when you recognize the steps forward that you have taken along the way.  Celebrating even your smallest steps forward, and having a group of people who can remind you of these steps can motivate you to keep going.
  4. Develop thick skin. This lesson has taken a while for me to learn. I’ve always been the person who people called back or wanted to talk to when it came to my work.  I never got ‘blown off.’ Suddenly, as I switched gears and had to establish myself in a new identity, at times I was no longer treated with the same regard.  I took this very personally for the first few months, but eventually it got easier as my skin got tougher.  Thick skin gave me the armor to persevere, and this is the key to getting through a crisis.
  5. Developing self discipline is a requirement. Luckily for me, self-discipline has always been a strength.  However, it has been challenged more in the last year than ever before.  It takes an enormous amount of self-discipline to keep pursuing your goal day after day when you aren’t seeing immediate results.  It takes self-discipline to stop doubting yourself when those thoughts inevitably cross your mind.  In my consulting situation, it takes more self-discipline than I realized to power through very long days of work at home alone, when you could so easily be distracted by other things around you.  It also takes self-discipline to finally turn it all off when it is time to focus on your other priorities like your family.
  6. You are the one who is in control. This lesson is particularly ironic, because while it was the #1 reason I chose to forge my own path, many times in the last year, it felt like I was the only one without control.  I was always waiting for someone to get back to me or waiting for someone to accept a proposal.  But then I remembered that I was the one who was in control of how many people I met, how many proposals I submitted, and how I sold myself.  I controlled those things.  Once I came to that realization, I started to make real progress.

I hope that some of these lessons are helpful to anyone who is considering making a change or who is currently going through one.  I imagine that many of these lessons are applicable to all kinds of turning points such as a starting a new role, working for a new organization, or even reporting to a new boss.  If you have any questions about these lessons, or what to discuss further, submit a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.


How to evaluate the Super Bowl ads

February 8, 2010

Every year, during the day after the Super Bowl, there is a lot of chatter about the best and worst ads that debuted during the big game.  If you haven’t had a chance to catch up on the conversation, or if you somehow missed the game Sunday night, AdAge has all of the spots available for your viewing pleasure.  For me, I personally walked away from the TV with the overwhelming sense of having seen two types of dramatic executions over and over again:  violence and men in their underwear.

Despite these two themes, I did have a few favorite ads, however I won’t go so far to say what ads were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of their overall effectiveness.  I don’t really see how I could, given that I am not the target customer for every brand or product that advertised during the Super Bowl.  This is why I find the evaluation of the ads that takes place each year to be a little misleading.  Critics comment on and judge the ads based on what they found to be humorous, moving, or interesting.  However, since the ads are ultimately about persuading a target customer to buy or bond with a brand, isn’t it really only the target customer audience that can accurately evaluate the strength of any given ad?

With all of that said, for those of you who are still hungry to understand which ads were ‘good’ and which were ‘bad’ from this year’s Super Bowl, I present you with a few questions that you can use to help you decide for yourself.   Note as a support to my earlier point:  several of the key questions assume an understanding of and identification with the target customer.  Without this perspective and understanding, an evaluation just isn’t complete.

Questions for evaluating advertising:

  1. Is the story of the ad unique or different?
  2. Does the ad capture and keep the target customer’s attention?
  3. Does the story of the ad focus on the brand’s benefit?
  4. Is the ad meaningful to the target customer?
  5. Is the ad in line with the brand’s character?

So go ahead and think about the ads that you saw, for which you are a target customer.  Which ones were the best?