Brands to Last: Building a Winning and Enduring Brand

From Coca-Cola to Harley-Davidson, find out how to execute a brand that will thrive over the long haul.
January 31, 2010

You’ve got a great product. Fair price. Solid service. What’s the problem? You need a brand, experts say. “When businesses are trying to move from survive mode to thrive mode in a winter economy, the ones that break from the pack have branding on their side,” says Roy Spence, advertising executive and co-author of the branding manifesto It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business Is Driven By Purpose.

Sounds good, but how do you define your brand? And once you do, so what?

"Until recently, successful brands afforded companies the ability to charge a premium," says Kevin Roberts, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide CEO. “It’s not that brands have been dying, but that they’ve been commoditized,” Roberts says. General Motors and Toyota have largely become interchangeable in many regards, as have Revlon and L’Oreal. Similar products, similar target customer, similar prices.

“The goal is to make your brand irreplaceable, and you do that with emotional connectivity: mystery, sensuality and intimacy,” says Roberts, author of Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands. “You want loyalty beyond reason and loyalty beyond recession. For small-business owners, this is even more vital because they don’t have the purchasing power that large corporations do.”

Spence, GSD&M co-founder and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Idea City, puts it this way: “Every business needs to be in the business of improving customers’ lives.” In this, a brand is what he dubs a “sacred promise.” Walmart promises to save shoppers money. Southwest Airlines promises the freedom to fly.

On the consumer side, iPods are a great example of loyalty beyond reason. All MP3 players offer the same promise of functionality and freedom of movement and choice. Yet iPod is the clear market winner as Apple’s biggest money maker, proudly dominating 73 percent of the market and capable of commanding a premium price. Why? The industry-changing slick design and related advertising, reliable customer service via Apple’s Genius Bars, and white ear buds that are so recognizable that “when you see them on the street, you feel as if you and the owner are part of the same tribe,” Roberts says. “You want to take the iPod to bed with you—it makes you loyal beyond reason and price.”

The emotional quotient of branding is not relegated to consumer goods, however. B2B companies have the opportunity to offer emotional connectivity by way of value and reliability. “It’s very hard for the big guys to offer deep empathy,” Roberts says. Adds Spence: “Everyone sells pretty much the same thing. The ones that stand for something survive.”

In the B2B world, the most important things are offering reliable customer service and close relationships to set a business apart from the rest.

An independent computer repair company, for example, competes with thousands of other small businesses in the same space. A computer repair company, however, that is committed to superior service offers the promise to improve the lives of frustrated computer owners on the brink of hurling their desktop off the roof. This promise, if fulfilled, has the potential to build a long-lasting successful brand—not just a profitable small company.

So how do you go about figuring out the essence of your brand, your promise, your emotional connectivity?
Idea City’s Spence suggests starting out by examining why you—or your father or grandparents—started the business in the first place. What niche did the business fill? What need? And what do you have to offer the market that is unique? “Where your talent and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your purpose,” Spence says.

Spence then suggests taking an informal survey of 10 members of your fan base—five frank and honest employees and five frank and honest customers. Ask them, what are you doing right? What are you doing wrong? Where can you improve? What are you doing better than everyone else?

"You want loyalty beyond reason and loyalty beyond recession."

Many successful brands start with a positioning statement. This will identify the target audience, hone in on competitors, and pinpoint the business’s most compelling benefit. From this, the promise can be formulated. The essence of the promise should be a guarantee that can be delivered now, but is also ambitious. “You can’t make a promise you can’t fulfill—it needs to deal with the moment,” says Stan Richards, principal of Dallas-based The Richards Group advertising firm. “It also has to be aspirational.”

An example of a killer positioning statement is that of The Richards Group client Motel 6:
Target audience: Anyone who is on the road and a budget traveler. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have or if you’re driving a BMW—if you are on the road and on a budget, you are a potential customer,” Richards says.
Competition: Other budget motels including Days Inn, Econo Lodge, Microtel and Super 8.
Compelling benefit: “Always the lowest price of any national chain,” and “always a comfortable place to stay.” These are promises that are both actionable now, but also require planning to make sure they are true in the future.
The sacred promise: Motel 6 offers anyone on the road who is a budget traveler a comfortable place to stay at the lowest price of any national chain.

Establishing the sacred promise is tougher than it may seem, experts agree. But once you’ve gotten it, then the real branding begins.

How do you build a brand that keeps on keeping on?
First, realize a brand is much more than a tagline or elevator pitch. In a general sense, a strong, successful brand will permeate every aspect of the company. “It is everything a company does,” Richards says. “The way employees answer the phone, the way you greet customers, deal with constituents both internally and externally. Everyone in the business is, in effect, making a promise to customers, and everything you do will either enhance or detract from the brand.”

The brand messaging must be consistent throughout all communication—PR, advertising, internal communications—and should be incorporated into every element of employee relations. “The internal audience is very, very important,” Richards says. “The brand should affect the performance of everyone who comes in contact with it.” Training, corporate communications and all business development should focus on this promise. Not only does this drive home the message, but an appropriate promise is inspiring and motivating for the entire company.

The key is to keep the brand alive for the long run. This requires a delicate balance of remaining true to the sacred promise while reinventing the product and messaging to address customers’ ever-evolving needs.

An epic example of brand longevity is Coca-Cola. The company has fulfilled its promise of lighthearted fun for 124 years—with its bottle shape, logo and flavor remaining recognizable for nearly all of that time. Yet this branding powerhouse is constantly inventing new products, most recently Coke Zero with new types of artificial sweeteners, and Diet Coke Plus with vitamin additives.

Innovation is not relegated to product alone, but target markets as well. In 1935 Coca-Cola went Kosher to attract Jewish customers, and today the beverage is being peddled in developing countries that have booming populations with growing disposable incomes, like India and China. Such moves are expected to position the corporation to gross an astonishing $200 billion by 2020.

"Everyone sells pretty much the same thing. The ones that stand for something survive."

The brand is so successful, so ubiquitous, that few realize that the logo and graphics are in fact gently tweaked every three or four years to help retain a significant market edge over competitor Pepsi Co., which has had some of the most innovative advertising and product advancements in consumer products.

“Coca-Cola has combined the past, present and future in a brilliant way,” says Saatchi & Saatchi’s Roberts. “They’ve approached advertising and packaging in a way that it is always happy, always sociable, and always part of the local community.”

These emotional promises, he adds, are what give the beverage maker its edge—not the bubbly black drink. “There is no technology in making a soft drink,” Roberts quips.

Another example of staying current while remaining brand-true: Southwest Airlines’ promise to keep costs down to afford customers the freedom to fly recently required a CEO-level decision to forgo the new industry movement to charge for all checked bags.

“They realized they were leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table, but by not charging, they stayed true to their purpose,” Spence says. “[Southwest executives] decided that they were going to market the heck out of it, get the whole organization behind that decision, and attract new customers in order to stay true to their purpose.”

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