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.


The next best thing to customer market research…

July 28, 2010

Market research has always been my favorite part of marketing.  The idea of using research to uncover what is in the minds of your target customers — their beliefs, their needs, their ways of thinking — to create better products or stronger messages really excites me.  I’ve always viewed research as the key to solving a complex puzzle of customer needs and a brand’s benefits.

With this perspective, it is probably no surprise that I am often recommending to my clients that they conduct customer research when they are facing marketing challenges or decisions.  Research, when done well, will typically help them find the answers they are seeking.  Most of my clients agree with my recommendation, but budgets or timing tend to get in the way for some clients and prevent the research from taking place.

In those cases, I often help my clients search for the next best source of information and ask, “Well, what do the rest of your employees believe?  What does your employee research tell you?”  And, most of the time, I get a blank stare and a reply something along the lines of “I don’t know.  We’ve never asked them.”

In theory, this response surprises me.  It would seem so easy for organizations to leverage their employees to understand their perspectives on the organization’s brand, products/services, messages, and positioning since the employees work with customers and understand the business.  However, in practice, I can’t say that this is unexpected.  After many years working in marketing for a variety of companies, I don’t think I ever completed or fielded brand market research as an employee.  The fact that conducting employee market research is a rare practice should not imply that it isn’t valid or valuable.  For organizations that are unable to complete customer research to inform their marketing decisions, employee research is the next best option because it can be done very quickly, inexpensively, and it can provide real insights.

Two arguments for not conducting employee market research are:

  1. The employees are biased because they are so close to the business.
  2. The employees may not be honest in the research for fear that their comments will impact their jobs.

However, I believe that the biggest reason why organizations don’t conduct employee research is that they simply do not think of it.  As for the two arguments listed above, they can be address with the following:

  1. While employees do have a unique and perhaps biased perspective, those who deal with customers regularly most likely have a good understand of what customers are thinking and what they need.  This perspective is valuable to understand.
  2. Creating an anonymous or “safe” process to conduct research with employees so that they feel comfortable providing their thoughts does not have to be complex.  Anonymous surveys through online tools such as Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey or the use of external moderators are simple and budget friendly ways to ensure employees feel enabled to share their true thoughts and feelings.

With all of this in mind, I would even recommend that organizations that do conduct customer market research regularly also consider conducting employee research periodically.  The two pieces of research together will yield very powerful findings that will likely lead to better recommendations and decisions overall than if just one form of research was completed.

Employee research is certainly no perfect substitute for customer market research, but it nevertheless is a very important tool that organizations can easily and should employ to help them make better marketing decisions.  Especially in cases where an organization is deciding between employee research or no research at all, the organization should leverage employee research.  In the absence of customer market research, the cost of not leveraging the employees’ perspective will likely exceed the basic costs of conducting the in-house employee research.


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.


Why Should I Believe You? The case for Reasons to Believe.

April 5, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I received my qualitative research moderator certification from the Burke Institute in Cincinnati.  The Burke Institute is a renowned market research education institution, and its qualitative research certification process includes participating in two week-long intensive (and not inexpensive) courses.

While I enjoyed the courses thoroughly, the primary reason I attended the courses was to be able to say that I am a certified focus group moderator.  Prior to attending the certification courses, I had quite a bit of experience moderating focus groups and using the results from focus groups to inform decisions for my brands, but I did not have very much “proof” of my skill sets outside of some client referrals.  I knew that if I wanted to augment the qualitative research part of my business, I needed to provide my prospective clients with some proof or a “reason to believe” that supported my claim that I could deliver objective and insightful research results.  The fact that I am now a certified qualitative research moderator provides my brand stronger credibility that I can deliver the benefits of well-executed qualitative research.

Just as having a set of compelling brand benefits and a brand character are critical components to a well-defined brand, having reasons for your target customers to believe that your brand can deliver its benefits is equally important.  Reasons to believe are facts that provide credibility to your brand as they explain how or why your brand delivers its benefits.  Therefore, every brand benefit should have a corresponding reason to believe to support it.  Additionally, as with all other brand building components, reasons to believe are strongest when they are relevant to the target customer in some way.  Here is where customer research and understanding continue to be a key input into the brand development process.

Aside from providing believability and authenticity to your brand, reasons to believe differentiate your brand from competitors.  Most brands that have similar benefits do not have the same reasons to believe, and even if they do share some proof points, the total package of reasons to believe for each brand is sure to be unique.

With all of this said, I find it intriguing that many organizations fail to focus on or communicate their reasons to believe to their target customers.  Many brands have strong supporting evidence of their benefits such as a dedicated history in the industry or an unmatched emphasis on quality, but they do not communicate it.  Other brands need to invest in creating proof to support their benefits such as utilizing spokespeople or attaining some form of accreditation/endorsement.  In either case, leaders of brands should spend some time thinking through their brand’s reasons to believe and how to effectively communicate them as emphasizing a brand’s reasons to believe will lead to a more credible and differentiated story for selling the brand’s benefits.