Devising a brand new experience

At one time consumers were willing to take brands at face value, but as marketing literacy rises, so is interest in the companies behind the brands. This is radically changing corporate strategy but how are companies meeting the challenge of c

As the year unfolds, which issues will most grab marketers’ attention? Subjects like customer loyalty, database marketing and new media will of course continue fascinating marketers and their agencies. But I believe the oldest issues around – brands and brand strategy – will move centre stage again.

Why? Because of something marketers face every time they attend a focus group. Each one shows how marketing-literate consumers have become. Everyone is talking about it. But no one, so far, has dared go public with their thoughts about its implications. That’s understandable – the rise of marketing literacy pulls the rug from under the brand models they have all been brought up to believe in.

Under the old model it is as though the brand manager were a sort of puppet master, pulling the various strings of the marketing mix to create the illusion that the brand is a personality that exists, in its own right.

You have a product. You give it a name. You invest it with a Unique Selling Proposition. You then position it: give it a price and a specific style of packaging and advertising which, you hope, will surround it with emotional and lifestyle attributes which grab target consumers’ attention and loyalty.

As children, we get immersed in the worlds conjured up by puppet shows. They capture our attention. They set our imaginations alight. But as adults, we become painfully aware of the strings – indeed, the entire artificialness of it all.

Many separate developments are forcing consumers to grow up in their attitudes to the brand “puppet show”. Environmental and other pressure groups make them look behind the brand veil to the actions of the puppet master himself. The consumer and media press continually expose the ins and outs of his string pulling for all the world to see. And sheer volume exposure breeds sophistication.

Some marketers’ response is to deny that what’s happening is significant. Consumers have always been a canny bunch, they argue. And they’re right. Besides, if the puppet master is good enough, even grown-ups are still happy to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the show at face value. Again, they’re quite right.

Nevertheless, literacy is a sort of Rubicon. Once you’ve crossed it you cannot go back. The world has changed. That, if anything, was the main lesson to emerge from the Persil Power saga. Ultimately, the brand itself could not provide the trust or reassurance consumers wanted or needed.

As the debate raged, the question quickly became: who, not what brand, can we trust? It was the people and companies behind the brands – their “real” values and attitudes and not their carefully crafted market research-driven positioning statements – that consumers wanted to know about. Marketing had moved behind its traditional two dimensional “target” brand model into a third dimension.

It is this vast new space that is only now beginning to be explored. Corporate endorsers, such as Virgin, are ignoring traditional brand and category boundaries, defining themselves more by their attitudes instead. Brands are setting themselves up as clubs, such as the Buitoni Club.

Proponents of one-to-one marketing are meanwhile promoting “share of customer” instead of “share of market” as the key test of success. And they ask, what does this mean for brands? Which is the critically important brand – the one which is funnelled through a relationship, or the brand which creates the relationship itself? If it’s the latter, should it perform a specific role, such as helping hand, educator, entertainer?

Service companies are seeking to create their own distinctive “brands of work”. They want their staff to “live the brand”. And in the process they’re finding they need to merge brand management, corporate identity, human resources and internal communications into a beast which still hasn’t a proper name.

There’s more. As globalisation sets in Chris Macrae, of the World Class Branding Network, suggests that USPs will be overtaken by UOPs: brands which act as Unique Organising Propositions. They shape everything about a company, including its personnel policies, cost and organisational structures.

These are just some of the ways marketers are exploring what the Marketing Council calls ‘pan-company’ marketing.

Another approach comes from Adam Lury of HHCL & Partners. He suggests that brands should not be seen as things – as nouns – but as processes which run through everything from their creation and production to their communication and distribution, everything which contributes to the creation of a “unique total brand experience”.

Good retailers have always understood this. That’s why they have been so successful. So has Disney. The next question is “how far in the

Disney scale do you want to go?” Thinking like that, he claims, “totally changes your perspective of marketing”.

Paul Southgate, a partner of design company Wickens Tutt Southgate, meanwhile draws an analogy from psychology to talk of brand “souls”. Children learn to bring their instinctive passions and desires under control as their parents teach them certain values: the dos and don’ts of acceptable behaviour. Adults know how to balance these passions and values to achieve their goals in life.

Likewise, Southgate suggests brands have three sides: the people/passions element; the values/culture element; and the actions/vision element. To date most marketers have concentrated only the latter, “the brand strategy”. But increasingly they are realising that successful companies are those that integrate and balance all three: the enthusiasm and motivations of staff, the organisation’s vision, and brand values. Where they join happily, the brand soul is healthy, he suggests. Where they are in conflict, the brand has a fatal flaw.

We’ve got past the hype of Marlboro Friday and surprise, surprise, brands are still alive. But with the rise of marketing literacy, the world has changed. Over the coming years, the really exciting story will be how brands themselves change in response.

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