Can brands change the world?

By Mark Di Somma

Can brands change the world

There’s crises and dangers everywhere we look. From ISIS to mass shootings, pandemics to weather events, Greek debt to commodity slumps, the actions and repercussions stream onto our devices in a seemingly endless scroll. In that sense the world we live in has changed little from when I was a child.

We may consume the news differently and the dangers themselves may be different and much more widely covered, but the media thrives on uncertainty and as news consumers we lap it up, just as we always have. Chances are many believe the world feels increasingly uncertain. Depending on their politics, some may even see situations as unresolvable.

So what’s any of this got to do with brands and branding?

Context. It’s about the backdrop against which brands operate and the question of how much brands should acknowledge or react to the dangers and threats that are pasted across our daily news.

Some news affects brands directly of course, both reputationally and at a transactions basis. But beyond that brands have tended to steer clear of the bump and grind of daily news headlines. That’s generally a wise move. Headlines are just that, and the ability of brands to intervene without looking like they are interfering and/or out of their depth is questionable.

Trends on the other hand may move more slowly and more deeply – and here I think there may be opportunities for brands to look to make meaningful responses. A recent McCann Worldgroup study showed that involvement of global brands in large-scale change is an increasing expectation particularly amongst younger consumers: “people want brands to do more than just sell them soap or soda … younger generations place even more faith in the power of global brands to make the world better … 84% of the 30,000 people surveyed across 29 international markets, including India and China, believe brands have the ability to effect more positive change than governments.”

If that faith is real, then it is significant because it suggests that brands are now seen as much more than producers or suppliers. They are expected to act as transformers. In some ways, that’s not surprising. As brands have continued to scale and to assume global profile, their place in consumers’ awareness (if not necessarily their lives) has also increased. Faced with challenges that seem too big to solve, this study implies that consumers are looking instead to entities with the perceived presence and influence to address these macro issues.

The question for brand owners of course is to what extent do they wish to take up this challenge? And to what extent must they? Clearly, consumers are looking for greater security, safety and resolution. How does your brand reassure them that it is doing all it can, and should, without taking on a mandate that will prove commercially crushing?

I don’t think every brand needs to answer the call. But I certainly think there are opportunities for those brands that do to assume a new level of relevance in this changing world. Clearly, some will prefer to abstain and to focus on their business interests only. Your call.

If you do decide that your brand can grow its presence and importance by taking on the issues that people vex over, where do you start? First up – realise that not every change must be huge, and not every change must be a crisis. The critical thing is that any change you do address must be relevant and the change itself must be meaningful. It must address something that the world (which in this context means the people in your markets) cares about, and that, through caring, can fundamentally redefine what your brand is capable of. If you are a beverage company, for example, and you set yourselves the universal challenge of making drinking water more accessible – where will you do that? How? And what do you hope to learn from pursuing this challenge that can invigorate what you do?

In that sense, any such challenge should be treated in much the same way as you would a commercial sponsorship, except that instead of sponsoring an event, you are lending your commercial support to a change for the better in the world. All the criteria that you would normally apply to evaluating such an arrangement should equally apply here.

  • How will you gain visibility?
  • What tangible returns are you looking to achieve?
  • What does your involvement make possible that wouldn’t be possible otherwise and why will consumers value that?
  • What criticism are you likely to generate, and how will you counter that?

A critical difference is that you should position your support of this challenge as paying forward rather than giving back.

Here are eight steps I would follow to getting this right:

1. Decide where your brand can make a change in the world – understanding where you have both expertise and interest is critical to finding the sweet spot between global change and commercial agenda. Poll your customers. Find out the places where they would like to see deep change.

2. Identify not just what the change is but also the extent of the change that you can make – the challenge here is to take on a shift that you can manage and that is still seen as meaningful and ‘urgent’.

3. Expand your business strategy to incorporate these wider goals. What part will these ‘global shifts’ play in what you now aim for as an organisation? How do they change your mandate? How will they affect what you invent, what you improve, where you are, what you are looking to achieve? How will you talk to your investors about this?

4. Sharpen the commercial agenda around this wider aim. How does it change what you strive for, and where you look? What are the commercial opportunities in doing this that you have not seen before? How will these ‘pay for’ the wider aim that you have committed to?

5. Change your story. Adjust the story you tell yourselves and the story you tell others to reflect this new goal. How long will the journey take? Where will it lead (that you can see)? What challenges do you expect to face? Why do you expect to win? What difference will that make?

6. Allocate resources to this operationally. What will you need to train your people to do? How will this affect the pace and scope of your product development? Where will you trial this? What will people stop doing in order to give this time?

7. Report your progress. So often organisations announce their intention to deliver change and then fail to report, in meaningful and interesting ways, on the extent and speed of the change they have achieved and what difference it has made.

8. Don’t treat this like just another project. Changing the world is a long term and substantial commitment. It’s not something you can just start and stop. There may or may not be an end date – and you need to be very clear about that with yourselves, with your people and with your customers. If you are going to place the project within a timeframe, be very clear about what that timeframe is, why you have chosen it, the difference you expect to make in that time and why you believe there is an end date.

Photo of “blue world” taken by Robert Couse-Baker, sourced from Flickr


The different ways brands need to talk

By Mark Di Somma

The different ways brands need to talk

What have you got to say for yourself? How and when should a brand take a stand? And if you do, should you go hard or go soft?

Soft. Taking a stand this way is about clearly and simply stating the things that you cherish and value as a brand, in such a way that consumers have clear line of sight between what you say, what you offer, how you act and what you value. It’s positive. It’s connective. It’s constructive. It’s honest. It shows the strengths of your beliefs. Specifically, it explains your worldview. We do this because … Or we don’t do this because … It’s not emphatically saying we’re right or wrong. It puts opinions on the record and asks the consumer to sign up if they want to. It proves consistency.

Hard. What polarising brands do. They set out to set up sides and they do that by deliberately upsetting people, by getting under people’s skin, by provoking the response they want. Often they court publicity by working people’s biases – sometimes in a fun way, sometimes in a not so healthy way. They poke the finger. They call others out and say they’re wrong. They accuse. They piss people off. It proves passion.

Both approaches work, but interestingly they work for consumers in different ways at different times. Because there are times and things we want our brands to be hard about, and times when we’d just like to softly know what they’re thinking. If we have passionate views of our own for example, we often side with brands that loudly articulate a similar viewpoint. That’s because we identify with the view they are expressing. It concurs with our own. We enjoy hearing them shout the odds. We egg them on.

On the other hand, there are times we just don’t want to hear too much about what a brand thinks. Providing they have a view that seems consistent with who they are, that’s enough. Often we feel like this about things that don’t really matter to us, or at least most of the time pass beneath or around our radar.

Brands need viewpoints. But they also need judgment. They need to know when it’s important to their consumers that they get on the soapbox, and when it is best to just have an opinion for those who are motivated enough to look.

The same concern can call for very different stances from different industries. If you make toys, I’m very interested in your views on child labour, particularly if your products are made in some parts of the world. If you’re an accounting practice, I might still like to know what you think but, because it’s less directly relevant to what I buy from you, it might be less important to me to know what you’re doing about it.

Relevance fuels reaction. And expectation.

So if you do have a viewpoint that you hold to, and articulate loudly, you need to show your consumers why you’ve made it your business to get so hot under the collar about it. You need to join the dots for them.

Markets are noisy. Everyone says you need to get consumers’ attention. They’re wrong. You need to get and hold consumers’ commitment. And sometimes the best way to do that is to shout what you think from the rooftops. And sometimes you just need to show you’re true to your word, and stop there and listen.

Just like in any relationship. Both sides need to talk. Sometimes loudly. Sometimes quietly. They just don’t need to talk in the same way all the time. Or else they switch off.

Photo of “As evening falls”, taken by Ken Bosma, sourced from Flickr


Introducing experiences to on-demand brands

By Mark Di Somma

The era of on-demand brands

The sharing economy is substantial. Uber’s valuation just hit $50 billion. Airbnb is valued at around $20 billion. And Entrepreneur believes the sharing economy’s size in five key sectors will reach 335 billion by 2025. As this article explains, “The catalyst behind the sharing phenomenon are technology platforms—big data and mobile—allowing consumers to share anything, anywhere, and anytime at an affordable price. Sharing is ubiquitous today.”

Fascinating then to read Ana Andjelic’s piece on how the sharing economy is also influencing how luxury consumers think about what they bother to buy and what they choose instead to borrow. The attraction? As Andjelic points out, “The experience is going to be different each time, and that kind of uniqueness and individuality is exactly what the next generation of affluents is looking for.”

So the push is on to access shifting and new experiences owned by others. This is “the luxury of sharing … Its emerging business models and revenue streams will revolve around offering products-on-demand as a service (vs. just selling them), partnerships and tie-ups, motivating a marketplace and new service value-adds.”

At first glance, this simply looks like the collaborative economy model taken upscale – until you consider that element of experience. That’s not something the sharing economy’s champion brands have taken much notice of historically as they have sought to change the channel and introduce new bases for pricing.

Until now the focus has been on efficiency and the use of digital platforms to transform asset use. According to Marc de Jong and Menno van Dijk, “digital technology, by increasing transparency and reducing search and transaction costs, is enabling new and better value-creating models of collaborative consumption. As a result, ownership may become an inferior way to access key assets, increasingly replaced by flexible win-win commercial arrangements with partners …”

The need to blend experience into the collaborative equation is a fundamental challenge. As Blake Morgan points out, “Creating a compelling customer experience takes a concerted effort. It demands leadership, time, resources and process. … When you get in someone’s car, hire them to do your grocery shopping or stay in their house you are invited into their world–their experience … What is exciting about the sharing economy is its ability to create jobs … It has brought unprecedented convenience … It creates reductions in waste. But there is much work to be done.”

Right now, experiences in the collaborative economy can differ wildly. Some would even say that’s part of the charm of choosing a disruptive player. And while there are some things that obviously can’t be shared (consumables) and some that probably won’t be (everyday technology), beyond that the opportunity to crowd-source or open-source much of what is currently bought permanently seems a tantalising prospect. The challenge will be to wrap an experience around it that is inspiring and exciting not just affordable.

As the collaborative players continue to achieve substantial valuation and scale, I think they have a lot more work to do to get their CX (customer experience) into competitive working order.

What are you selling when people don’t want to buy? What’s the experience of that? And what could it be?

The conventional asset rental market offers little inspiration. Currently, experiences there are pretty dry. One car rental company experience today feels very much like another. If you hire a photocopier for your office or you choose to rent space to keep your things in, the experience of doing so is again indistinguishable. If you hire power tools from one place, it’s exactly the same as getting them from another. And that’s because most companies that rent today are still focused on the availability and delivery of what is being rented rather than seeking to make the experience of renting better and more compelling than choosing to buy. Where there are options for a better experience these tend to revolve around changing the model you rent rather than adding to or upgrading the experience you can have.

There’s a three-way situation here that begs resolution it seems to me. Firstly, digital is redefining how people think about assets. So there’s a new value proposition emerging rapidly. Secondly, incumbent brands can learn from the agility of the new, on-demand brands and their ability to zero in on new ways of meeting customer needs. That marks a change in pace and flexibility. Thirdly, on-demand brands need to gain the consistency and discipline that their larger counterparts have acquired. That’s about reliability and mainstream trust.

If I was an incumbent mainstream brand right now, faced with competition from the collaborative economy, I’d be pressing home how good ownership really feels and why it matters. At the same time, I’d be looking for ways to diversify my offerings to enable a range of ownership stakes ranging from passing to permanent. Finally, I’d be looking to work with allies in the collaborative economy to re-set and disrupt the experiences the brand could deliver.

Some brands are starting to work together to deliver on-demand experiences that neither party could achieve on their own. So a brand like Virgin for example is collaborating with an on-demand brand like Taxi-to to deliver experiences that add value for the customer and are, in themselves, more connected and connective for both brands’ customers. That notion of experience aggregation has been missing from both the mainstream and the collaborative markets. But initiatives like these, whilst important, don’t actually answer the question above. They add more functionality. They still don’t deliver the joy of a great experience. They don’t add to the attractiveness of on-demand in an emotional sense.

I do love the change of question that all this generates though: from “what experience should our brand always deliver?” to “what experience will our customer want [this time], and who can we work with to make that happen?”

Photo of “Taxi Story” taken by Will, sourced from Flickr

Three signals of brand price

By Mark Di Somma

Three signals of brand price

Brands sent powerful messages through how they price. Price can be influential in portraying a brand as affordable and ‘on the side of the customer’, or exclusive and just for the few. It can generate responses ranging from the thrill of a bargain to the indignation of a price tag that seems far too steep.

As Martin Bishop explained here, the pricing mechanisms that generate those emotions are increasingly varied, ranging from the ‘lock-them-in’ attraction of unbundled fares for those lured by what it says on the tag to the dynamic pricing of hotels and Uber that re-sets worth based on current demand.

Economists tend to view pricing as an expression of supply and demand, with scarcity increasing price and over-supply pushing prices down. Whilst those dynamics are true for commodities, they don’t always apply to brands. And that’s because brands look beyond market logistics for proof of value. They draw on powerful attributes like perception, aesthetic and story to move the brand’s price beyond what the market would otherwise ask. In fact, through its choice of pricing, a brand sends three important signals to its target markets.

Access – price makes a product or service rare or plentiful, regardless of the actual production cost. That, in turn, decides who even looks and who doesn’t.

In keeping with its luxury technology status, Apple prices its products high. In so doing, it not only confines its buyers to those who are passionate about the brand, it also reinforces that Apple products are not for everyone. Walmart does the opposite. By dropping its prices to the point where it now matches online retailers, the brand reinforces the value of buying physically, directly addressing the showrooming issues that plague retailers elsewhere. The clear intention is to lift foot traffic. In this context, price lays out the welcome mat.

Confidence – a brand shows its hand through its price. If it prices high, it tells the market that it backs itself to deliver greater perceived value and that it intends to depend on that superiority to achieve a sustainable premium. Premium priced brands believe in the quality and rarity of what they do, validating their pricing through perceptions of exclusivity and strong storylines built around history, craft and luxury.

If a brand prices low, it telegraphs a belief that it can depend on volume to offset smaller margins and maybe that it will squeeze its supply chain for every ounce of efficiency it can find. Low priced brands believe in their ability to generate mass interest.

If it prices dynamically, then a brand is indicating that it will price where it has to in order to achieve its targets. That requires high confidence in the ability of the business to read the market and respond with unwavering accuracy. And if it prices in an unbundled way, then the brand does not see the core service as its core source of margin and will aggressively up- and cross-sell to recoup what it has ‘given away’ with its asking price. Such a brand believes that its add-ons are either necessary and/or attractive enough to deliver targeted profits.

Worth – a brand talks powerfully to the image and priorities of consumers through its pricing. Those schemas help a buyer decide whether a given item on a given day in a given situation is worth it. For some that will be about what they can save; for others what they can get; for still others, what they will feel and remember.

As I pointed out here, “And no-one will do this uniformly … Depending on what’s important to us, we’ll shift between budget, standard and luxury in most of our purchases. That makes understanding what we are getting for our money even more important. The key point for brands is that they need to make it very clear to their customers what the trade-offs are. Most don’t. They don’t carry storylines that explain why consumers are paying what they’re paying and why they’re getting what they pay for.”

When you frame pricing through the lens of the three signals, it shifts the function of pricing considerably. Price becomes a symbol for who you want to include, what you back yourselves to deliver and what you want buyers to feel. Pricing in other words is reflective of the wider business strategy, not just the financials. It expresses where you want to be in a market and therefore who you intend to compete against and on what basis. It puts a value on what you sell for the whole world to see. To me, it is the very point of branding.

Photo of “Self-Portrait E”, taken by Steve Snodgrass, sourced from Flickr

Balancing energy and focus in your organizational culture

By Mark Di Somma

Balancing energy and focus in your organizational culture

In this post from some time back I talked about the difference between brand energy and brand focus. I discussed how marketers often put the emphasis on spend (energy) and hope it ties to an outcome. I contrasted this with marketers who begin with the outcome they want (focus) and apportion an appropriate level of energy to achieve it. Above all, I emphasised the need for balance between these two forces.

The recent kerfuffle over Amazon’s culture is a reminder of what can happen when things get out of kilter. If the Amazon report is even remotely correct, the balance between energy and focus within their culture is not working. But here perhaps the dynamics have swung too much in favour of the outcomes. In focusing on customer needs above all else and the need to deliver everything at highly competitive prices and within cut-throat timeframes, Amazon seem to have required their workforce to deliver an overwhelming amount of the energy needed to make that happen. The result has been abject misery.

Sadly, in too many professions today, we continue to celebrate attritional cultures as hardworking when we should be focusing on the human cost of choosing to pursue priorities that require people to suffer. I’ve always loved the ethos of SouthWest Airlines for that reason: ‘customers come second [to our own people], because we can always replace them’.

Photo of “Amazon Fresh” taken by Atomic Taco, sourced from Flickr


Make your brand useful before you make it amazing

By Mark Di Somma

Make your brand useful before you make it amazing

It’s tempting to believe that every brand must be vastly different and that every opportunity to push the boundaries should be taken if the brand is to win. But is there a case for normality that we’re missing here? Should, as Jay Bauer has suggested, brands stop trying to be amazing and just get on with being useful?

There’s a certain power in being mundane – in the sense that an everyday brand is exactly that. It has habit and predictability built into its very being. And as Riley Gibson points out, there’s a proof factor in that regularity that so many brands overlook in their bid to find the next big bang. He cites two great examples. The first, based on work that Professor Laura Kornish has done on consumer interactions, shows that “Sometimes it’s far more valuable to find patterns in what people are requesting than to find that one, big *I never thought of that* idea.” The second, based on studying how teens see their TV and internet usage, showed that “Sometimes, products are far ahead of their time because they assume a level of comfort that isn’t yet there in the consumer. That’s where the insights of the collective can be used to help us question everything.”

In both cases, the brands in question risked missing the small opportunities in their bid to find the great leap forward. What regularity offers is enough recurring events to form patterns and discover a moment for inflection that consumers may recognise but not necessarily know how to get past.

The learning here: that brands looking to improve their offering should first look to improve how and when the product is used and how else and where else it could be used. Easily. Quick win changes that may seem mundane, even unnecessary, to your brand’s technical and product people can add up to important improvements for consumers.

We tend to think of mundane as an alternative to amazing, but as Paul Allen reminds us, they are actually a continuum, “At some stage in the life cycle of every great invention or innovation it will become an expectation … Truly significant innovations even after a short time will appear to be invisible”. Amazing, in other words, is relative, time-bound and subjective.

Useful works because it’s shippable, immediate and practical. Building on something that people know and feel comfortable with is also easier and faster than asking them to learn or accept something new. Buyers know what to do with improvements. The groundbreaking is less predictable. It might fly or stall or fail – which is a lot to bet the brand on. To me, there’s no one formula for success. My key take-out from Bauer’s point is that brands must above all else remain grounded: focused on what their customers want and not absorbed in their own cleverness. That same discipline should apply to brand strategy. The secret to brand success lies in perceiving when to change and how much to change.

As Scott Berkun has so astutely observed, “The idea of an innovation portfolio, where a range of risk is assumed across multiple ideas, is more honest.” His thought suggests to me that rather than framing useful and amazing as options, brands should look to pursue a range of improvements simultaneously. The majority of those improvements should be useful and based on customer feedback. Some should be amazing. They may or may not eventuate. And the rest? Quite possibly the rest should be meaningful – more than useful, relevant, interesting but less than completely-out-there.

Photo of “Walking on the street”, taken by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes, sourced from Flickr

The brand agency positioning dilemma

By Mark Di Somma

The brand agency positioning dilemma

A recent conversation with a client looking for an ad agency was a reminder of just how little of its own dog food the industry eats. Her assertion that “they all look the same and say the same things” highlighted just how difficult brand differentiation is. It’s so hard in fact that even those who claim to do it for a living struggle to do it for themselves.

Marketers come to ad agencies for what they hope will be clear brand strategy, distinctive brand positioning and brilliant storytelling. Ad agencies should be the living proof of what is possible, and the work they do to position their own agencies should be the exemplars – and yet many seem, on review, to display an underwhelming ability to position their own agency brands in ways that make the choices clear and valuable for clients.

It’s not about the work – Visit umpteen traditional and digital agency websites and the first thing you’ll see is a plethora of projects, with Cannes winnings and other awards displayed proudly. The work is the product for agencies. Get that. The awards are the certificates of excellence. Get that too. But when everyone claims to do great work, when everyone wins awards (one year or another) and/or when you can’t see the relevance of any of the work to what you need, it fails as a differentiating factor.

It’s not about the people – Advertising, like all professional services, is a knowledge sector. It’s powered by people, and a great number of those people are very, very good at what they do. So having great people, or even a large number of people, is unlikely to transform your agency into the go-to – because there are thousands of great teams globally. Industry insiders get very excited about who is where and what they’ve done. To everyone else, it’s a hygiene factor. Again, marketers expect top flight agencies to have top flight people. It’s important for marketers to know who they are going to work with, obviously – but is it a compelling reason to prefer? Probably not unless they know the industry from the inside very well indeed. (They also know that the chances of them ever working directly with the creative ‘stars’ are close to zero unless they have a very, very large account.)

It’s not about the process – The methodology is the methodology. It’s how the agency gets you to the end point. It should be robust and measurable. But is it a point of difference? Absolutely not. Because, again, most agencies have robust and proven methodologies. It’s not a secret sauce anymore. It’s expected.

It’s not about the global network – Another proof point that fails to fire as a point of difference. If you’re a mega-agency, then your network is likely to be matched by the number and spread of offices of all your major competitors. And being part of one acronym conglomerate, again, means very little in terms of preference apart from the affiliation that a corporate may have to a particular advertising group. Everyone sees through the “we collaborate closely” fairy-tale. Once again, global marketers expect their agencies to be global. That’s not a point of difference in an industry that is increasingly globally scaled.

Another interesting point to note. None of these positioning pillars is emotional in terms of its effect on a prospect. Agencies tell their clients time and again that functionalism is dead as a value proposition, and that they are master storytellers, and yet they themselves resort to the very same types of proof points and they wrap them in a very pragmatic framework. It’s not that the work isn’t inspiring or that the people aren’t interesting or that the process and reach aren’t impressive, it’s that in and of themselves they are not competitive reasons to prefer. When one agency’s excellence is matched by another’s, excellence is normal.

Out there in agency world, there’s a lot of talk about dwindling fees and disloyal clients, about work being taken in-house and the convergence of the sector. But if the agencies that make these complaints were assessing another industry, they would read the symptoms for what they are: classic signs of a sector that is commoditising because it cannot express in compelling terms the value it provides. Ex-agency people will probably read the situation slightly more bitterly: the love for creative that built the legendary agencies and that clients embraced has been swapped for a passion for billings as the industry corporatizes, the numbers people take over and marketers lose their imagination and courage.

The Right Brain Studio sums up the situation: “Much of the fault is squarely on the agencies as the business merged its way into a jumbled mess of virtually interchangeable, commodity-like entities lacking any true brand identity. But the targets of the ad agencies, the clients, are also to blame. They keep looking for ways to cut agency compensation, which inevitably leads to diminished service. More importantly, they don’t want to be challenged.”

Tim Williams blames the agency-seekers for not understanding what they’re buying. “If procurement and marketing professionals adopted the view that they’re purchasing desired results for their company, they might be inclined to actually pay their agency partners more, not less … The right agency partners, compensated in the right way, can create tremendous brand value for their clients.”

He’s absolutely right – but again, presented with this situation and such an argument, an agency with any strategic bent would advise a client in any other industry that it is not the role of the customer to set the value equation. It is the role of the brand to tell a wonderful story with a powerful power of view that makes the case that William refers to in a powerful, visceral and distinctive way. If Volvo can make a steering system compelling (nice backstory on that here incidentally), surely a company that is packed with ideas can find a way to demonstrate its own magic.

If agencies want to change the way they are valued it’s time, I feel, for them to start asking themselves some very different questions, posed from the point of view of those doing the hiring:

  1. Since you are in the business of ideas, what is your most powerful idea for yourselves? Why should we value it?
  2. How can you change our world? What will you bring out in us that no-one else can?
  3. What can I tell my executive team about what you’ll achieve that will truly excite them?
  4. How will my team feel when we work with you – and how do you help us feel that way? (Why is that different from how I’ll feel working with anyone else?)
  5. Why do you get the work you do – and what work do you not do? How do you approach that work and how will you apply that philosophy to our work?
  6. What qualities do you look for in the people you hire that make it possible for you to work that way?
  7. What’s the most palpable result you have achieved for a client this year? Why did that happen – and how did your participation secure that? What pressures did you overcome to make that happen? How will you apply the learnings from that to us?
  8. What’s the one thing you are best at? And when? How have you focused your energies to achieve that?
  9. What should we most trust you with? (And why should we trust you with that more than we should trust others?)

Build out those stories. Share them in transfixing ways. Eat up.

Photo of “lost generation”, taken by brian Donovan, sourced from Flickr

Taking on the challenger brands

By Mark Di Somma

Taking on the challenger brands

Recently Budweiser has been copping flak for its continuing aggressive stance against craft beers. Social media reaction at least seems to be that this is an unfair fight and that the big corporate should not be competing in this way. I’m a long-time advocate of challenger brand strategy. I’m of the view that if you can goad the incumbent into a fight and portray your brand as the much smaller player with principles, then it’s game-on. But what if you’re on the other side of the counter? If you’re a major brand and you’re being hounded by an upstart smaller player, how can you respond without drawing flak or encouraging buyers to support the underdog-that-dared?

Start by recognising the strengths that you have to play with: an established place in the market; the reach that comes with your networks; the reserves to play the long game; and the resources to at least match, and at best overpower, anything that others may throw at you. Chances are you also have history (and therefore track record) on your side and hopefully that history proves your commitment, experience and expertise. Those are a lot of attributes to work with. The key is to use them carefully.

If you don’t want to take a direct approach in response to what you are being challenged on because you are concerned, probably quite rightly, that it will play straight into the hands of those throwing stones, here are four oblique but highly effective ways to minimise the effectiveness of the insurgent.

Counter-offer rather than counter-attack – In the short term, go to market with a great offer that simply makes choosing you so much more attractive. In the longer term, take the opportunity to discreetly re-shape your positioning so that you are less vulnerable to the position that the challenger is taking. Be careful in both cases not to make what you are doing appear as a response to what the challenger is claiming or a competitive strike.

Congratulate your customers – Mount a charm offensive. Be humble and grateful. Acknowledge. Remind the market just how popular you are as the leader and what that means in terms of what you deliver every day. Position this as a key benefit for your customers that the challenger brand will simply be unable to match. This approach is an excellent way to first recognise and then galvanise those who continue to be loyal to you. It’s also a quiet but effective way of using the pressures of scale and footprint to remind your distributors of why they should continue to prioritise you and not chase the sector’s latest bright shiny object.

Show another side to your character – Do something unexpected, something that reveals a different side to your personality. If you’ve always been a serious brand, do something that introduces a notion of levity. If you’ve always been light-hearted, maybe flash your serious side. Too many incumbents become vulnerable because they are unwilling or unable to demonstrate any personality, and yet humanity is exactly what people are looking for.

Initiate – Do something in the market for which your opponents have no answer. But, again, don’t do it to spite them, do it to win back the affiliation and loyalty of the wider community. If you are being challenged on your lack of innovation or your perceived complacency, put an initiative in play that significantly resets expectations in the sector. If you are seen as unfeeling or as trading on your dominant market position, sponsor a change or a partnership that addresses concerns or issues in the sector. If you are being challenged on pricing structures, introduce a new way of pricing what you do that doesn’t compete directly with the challenger but offers an honest and compelling alternative to the new rules they are trying to set.

The tendency of all leaders is to take competition personally and to attack it directly. There are times when that strategy is right. But there are other times, particularly when those challenging you are so much smaller, that reacting this way will simply make you look like Goliath. Remember, a successful challenger is actually doing you a favour. They are reminding you that the market is looking for options, new ways of thinking, different game-plans than the one you’ve had in place for so long. Take note and take action. But choose your actions very carefully. Answer – don’t just respond.

Photo of “Giant Statue of Ghengis Khan”, taken by Ludovic Hirlimann, sourced from Flickr

Changing brand economics

By Mark Di Somma

Changing brand economics

Consciously or not, many brands are now running a freemium model. They are giving away a lot more than they used to, particularly across social media, just to keep up with the changing competitive landscape. And they are hoping to recoup on that significant content investment when consumers do buy. So has any of this changed the fundamentals of brand economics, or has it merely altered the manner in which brands achieve visibility?

By way of a sanity check, I went back to this paper from some years back to assess what still holds true.

Brands continue to simplify recognition and selection, and to instil trust in a world bulging with options. They continue to offer a simple way for time-poor consumers to filter the choice set. Consumers still buy because they identify with what some brands stand for – although one could argue that the criteria themselves may be shifting, particularly with younger buyers, as ethics becomes an important judging point.

Brands continue to draw on the associations they generate to seek extension and licensing opportunities, and my assessment is that this exploration of brand “green-fields” shows no sign of slowing down as brands look to broaden reach and multiple returns through a single relationship. But we are also seeing major brand portfolio managers like P&G focusing their assets much more specifically within set categories. It will be fascinating to see how these contrasting strategies – intensification and diversification – play out in the years ahead in terms of returns.

Brands continue to build value through emotion – but there are two changes in dynamics here that I think are worth noting. Firstly, the nature of the emotion generated. In a less connected world, brands sought to build emotional connection on a more one-to-one level through reassurances around quality and features. In theory, buyers saw an ad, were convinced and acted. Today, as quality becomes more consistent or at the very least more tiered and defined, brands must look to generate likeability at a highly collective social level as well, and the timeframes within which passions, good or bad, can grow has condensed enormously. These macro-attitudes can significantly affect the trending power of a brand – making it hot or not.

Secondly, while globalisation and technology now see prices flatten more quickly in many sectors, closing the gap between market-first pricing and the rest at faster rates, the power of big brands in terms of critical market influences such as visibility and reach has never been greater. The shift referred to in the paper as “a transformation of the commodity economic model to a branded one” is intensifying and with it comes a fundamental power shift borne of the different value equations of the front-runners and the also-rans.

Both brands and commodities are necessary it could be argued. Brand leaders take the market to new places and therefore keep it interesting, but lower-level participants (the commodities of the sector) add choice, entry opportunities and to some extent price variation and pressure. Here’s the big difference though. As commodities become more plentiful they become less valuable (in response to supply and demand), but as brands become bigger, they become more accessible and influential. That’s because, in the words of Professor Byron Sharp, they increase their “physical and mental availability”. It becomes easier and easier to keep buying them.

So how much is a brand worth today? Something. Is it the 30% of stock market value that Millward Brown has claimed? It may well be. But in reality, I think too many commentators are mixing their metaphors. Brands are driven by emotion and it’s hard to put a price (and a value) on emotions because they can change so quickly.

The valuation that the market puts on a brand and the valuation that a consumer accepts in a brand (through the premium they are prepared to pay) are also vastly different sums. The first is expressed in billions of dollars; the second may be just a few more cents or dollars at a time. And the fact that brand valuations can vary so much perhaps says less about the science of brand values and more about the volatility of the power of brand overall. Brands carry more or less weight on different days in different circumstances for different people. I think the lack of definition around the numbers reflects that.

Ultimately people buy what they buy and pay what they pay for all sorts of reasons. Brands have a key role to play in clarifying choice and defining expectations. But increasingly the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is influencing those perceptions for good or bad – and it’s interesting to think about how this popularist dynamic complements and contrasts with the demand for growth and returns from brand owners. If it’s hard and controversial to value what a brand is worth as an asset, it’s much harder to value what the many moods of the people that make up a market are worth to a brand at any given time.

Instead of evaluating brand economics as a static expression of worth, perhaps we should view them more as tides: tides of value that run high, low or static depending on category, inclination, new product initiatives, reputation, social chatter, competitive activity and so much more. The brands that read and ride the tides will prosper. If brands are indeed as dependent as emotion as we think they are, then the top performing brands will find more astute ways to adjust to the emotions of consumers – capitalising and defending as the moods dictate.

That to me is why the freemium model is so relevant. It’s not actually about selling or giving away. The investment is not in the content itself, but in what the content makes possible (which is also where I think a lot of content strategies get it wrong incidentally). Connection through valued content, and the conversations and interactions that sparks, is one more way for brands to read and ride the tides: it helps them see and trace something of what they are worth to consumers on any given day. Will that mean more dynamic pricing based on social sentiment across a wider range of sectors in the years ahead? I’d say – almost inevitably.

Photo of “Low tide at Staithes”, taken by Paul, sourced from Flickr


20 reasons people hate brands

By Mark Di Somma

Brand awareness







When I ask people “Which brands do you hate, and why?”, the names and the reasons for disliking said brand come back thick and fast:

1.   Stuff no-one needs
2.   Adds nothing
3.   Costs too much
4.   Talks too much
5.   Think they matter but don’t
6.   Complicates everything
7.   Superficial
8.   Cowboys
9.   Soul-less
10. Clueless
11. Ruthless
12. Ugly
13. Greedy
14. Difficult
15. Bullies
16. Manipulators
17. Bureaucratic
18. Uncool
19. Dinosaurs
20. Liars

Press a little deeper though and you can find that the person with such strong opinions has never bought the brand or had an experience with the brand they “hate”. They haven’t met the people, they may not even have been to a store or tried the brand out. Not once. They may know nothing about the company behind the brand. And they may not want to know.

They feel the way they do, I’m guessing, because others feel that way or because they feel they should feel that way.

Such is the power of brand awareness. We feel we know brands even when we don’t.

Photo of “Not long now”, taken by Ben Smith, sourced from Flickr



Brand participation: Not everyone is in the market at once

By Mark Di Somma

Brand participation
It’s tempting to think of consumers in binary terms in relation to the brands you are responsible for: in, or out; buying, or not buying; loyal, or not loyal. But for many brands, the status of an individual can be more complex. At any given point in time, people can take on other roles in relation to your brand, and in relation to your competitors’ brands, that nevertheless have a direct influence on your competitiveness.

Supporter – They can be an open and unapologetic endorser of what you do, amongst their friends, on social media, online. Whether they buy from you, and how often they buy from you, in no way changes their status as critically valuable endorsers of your brand through word of mouth. They may support you because of what you stand for, what you make, how they see you, what you sponsor, any number of reasons … and that support may or may not be visible to you through social monitoring.

Keeping your supporters onside and engaged with who you are is fundamental to your brand’s reputational health. It’s important that you acknowledge them collectively and that you openly and generously credit and thank them as a group when they rush to support what you have done or rally to defend a change you have made.

Enemy – The counter-balance to your supporters is the community that, for whatever reason, you rub up the wrong way. They may disagree with your right to exist, what you make, how you operate, the influence you have … and they are often vociferous and persistent in their attacks. You’re never going to win much of this group over in my view and for that reason your consideration of what they say needs to be carefully worked through.

I think there are three aspects to this: take note of the reasonable criticism, and use it to make changes to how you work and what you stand for; disregard the radical criticism altogether and refuse to engage with it or be influenced by it; and finally draw on what is being said about you by these critics to more clearly define who you are and who you are not, what you believe and what you yourselves disagree with.

Spectator – On most days, large swathes of the market are not engaged with you at all. They may see you through your social and paid presences, they may read an article about you through their favourite news source, even stop to look in your window – but for the most part, you’re nowhere near their front of mind and so their awareness of you, and their response to you, is parked. Unless they see or hear something that stimulates them to shift that view, one way or the other, the easiest thing for them is to filter you and the many other thousands of messages they deem irrelevant out of their consciousness.

Many marketers see these people as convertible. They’re not, because until they need to consider you, they won’t. The critical action with this group is what I call non-active interest. You want them to know you and to recognise you, at best, and not to dismiss you at worst. You want to be part of their lifestyle, without necessarily being part of their life (yet). Sam Noble refers to the brands that can pull this off as “participation brands”. He writes, “Making the leap from being another credible choice in a category to being a visible and vibrant participant in the flow of modern lifestyles is certainly challenging. It requires finding valuable and interesting ways to both satisfy the needs and stimulate the desires of increasingly unreasonable consumers. It requires taking a nuanced approach depending on the specific context of the market. It may also require polarising opinion to be distinctive enough to really cut through.”

There. But not too there.

Reviewer – Increasingly, your brand is subject to the whims and personal opinions of those who have experienced what you offer and have then shared with others. The advantages and dangers of review sites like TripAdvisor are well canvassed and do not need to be gone into here, but they are a reminder to all brand managers that the ‘objective’ opinion of others, alongside the pros and cons of supporters and detractors, hold significant sway in some sectors.

You can’t and shouldn’t attempt to dissuade, silence or punish those who have experienced your brand and found it wanting, but neither should you go to the other extreme of only quoting those you agree with. Recognising the influence they have on traveller choices, some of the hotel brands do a very good job of monitoring and responding to reviewers. Timeliness, rules of engagement, courtesy and a gentle sense of humour will all serve you well in these forums.

Within the domains that you are responsible for, specifically your blog and social media accounts, I’m of the view that the right of others to have an opinion is equalled by your right to share or not to share that opinion on your real estate. A clear, simple and actionable editorial policy is vital.

Every marketer dreams of making their brand the centre of everyone’s attention. But I think the greatest, and most consistent, challenge brands face today is what they do in the huge spaces of time when most people display little or no interest at all. Who you involve, who you ignore, who you nod to and how you are talked about by others between purchases will influence and sometimes decide the context within which you then must convince. The key to success is mastering the times when most people really don’t seem to care.

Photo of “spectator” taken by istolethetv, sourced from Flickr

The airbrushed brand is dying

By Mark Di Somma

The airbrushed brand is dying

The aspiration drive that has dominated how marketers think and what they strive to achieve in building a brand’s mythology is increasingly being seen by consumers as unattainable and fake. Buyers are drawing a line under what they perceive to be airbrushed brands. And the push-back is manifest in everything from the acceptance of imperfect food to the increased use of plus-size models on fashion house runways.

The success of the Dove campaigns and brands like Aerie point to just how aware female consumers are of what they see as ridiculous perfectionism. Buyers’ response – to endorse and buy brands that portray women in a (more) realistic way. This trend, powered initially by millennials but gaining wider market acceptance, points to a clear opportunity to introduce a refreshing reality. Among the findings in a 2014 JWT study, people increasingly value things that aren’t machine-made, they find beauty in people’s flaws and they believe those flaws make them authentic.

As Brad Hanna observed here, “Mega brands that pump out product on a mass production line feel over-engineered and over-proce[ss]ed … Imperfections are the next chapter in the transparency movement brands must adhere to in order to connect with their consumers and establish trust and credibility … Honesty has become the new standard, whether actual honesty or simply perceived honesty.”

If you’re an editor or a retoucher, don’t panic. There’s no suggestion that consumers want everything en flagrante. But what they do seem to be saying, and what brands must increasingly get their heads around, is that they don’t want more wallpaper, more stock images, more idealistic cameos or clichéd close-ups. They want characters that are human, products that feel more individualised and messages that speak more directly and more honestly. I agree with Kelli Law, that “The days of hyper-polished singular messages are giving way to brands that understand the importance of showing their rough edges to lend humanity to their company.”

Less spin. More sin. Or at least more ways of being and talking and interacting that people relate to as closer to, and more reflective of, their worlds – specifically in those areas of our lives where imperfect is charming.

There are exceptions of course, and they are important because they illustrate a fascinating dichotomy. No-one wants their technology brands to be less than wonderful. Travellers still want first class and five star to feel, and to be positioned as, an (unusual) experiential treat. No-one wants their luxury brands to be too accessible or for their favourite celebrity chef’s restaurant to start serving meals they could have cooked themselves. But consumers do want their everyday brands to feel much more everyday, to be more reflective of their reality.

In one sense, this is democratisation – a push by brands towards an increased sense of common ground and purpose between them and the people who buy from them. Nothing wrong with that. Inclusion and diversity are burgeoning social factors. But I also think the push against airbrushed is simpler and in some ways more aesthetic than that. The interest is in things that are interesting – and unpredictably so. And in a world where we have access to so many visual cues, it makes sense for brands to push their boundaries in the bid to include and celebrate people and situations that have been overlooked, or just plain denied, for too long.

A world of stories is tiring of the same old stories and scenarios. I’m stimulated by that – by the need to look beyond the perfectly lit shot for ideas and messages that are intriguing because people really identify with them. Are we at a point where this is commonplace? No. But we have passed the point where perfection is the only option. Human is in. The real challenge for brands going forward I believe will be in how they stay that human and that interesting without resorting to novelty. How honest are they prepared to be? How truthful can they afford to be – and not be? To what extent do consumers want to see what they already know – or are they just saying that? Let’s wait and see.

Photo of “Red Apple Bio Natural” taken by Emilian Robert Vicol, sourced from Flickr

Building compassionate brands

By Mark Di Somma

Building a compassionate brand

In a recent address at Cannes, Monica Lewinsky made a plea for brands to play a more direct role in building a compassionate society: one where the power of social media to generate shame and humiliation (and gain money by doing so) was eschewed in favour of an environment that collectively supported and inspired individuals and their actions.

“Building a more compassionate society is going to be a bilateral exercise between individuals and the brands that represent their aspirations, their values and their truths,” said Lewinsky. “People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return.”

It’s a nice idea and not a new one. As I recall, Scott Bedbury talked about it in his book “A New Brand World” almost 15 years ago. Part of the difficulty it seems to me is that, like all terms, compassion means different things to different people. Compassion may be defined in terms like care, kindness and humanity, but those principles can be expressed in very different ways and through many and varied actions. Many would see compassion as it pertains to commerce as being ethically focused: issues like traceability, supply chain ethics, environmental impact and the like. Others may see compassion more in terms of community involvement – and therefore corporate philanthropy, sponsorship or grass-roots support. Lewinsky’s specific focus in her address was the need for brands to behave and endorse responsibly on social media.

So how do you build a compassionate brand and what role should a brand set for itself in so doing?

It’s at this point that I draw a distinction between purpose and ambition. Purpose, I believe, is about the greatest goal you have for your business and for your employees. Ambition focuses on the global impact you will have as a brand, or a collection of brands, and why you have chosen to make it your business to pursue such a goal. It’s about using your place in the world to change the world and therefore to embrace or address the ‘universal’ issues that affect your brands.

There may be brands that set themselves the goal of having a compassionate culture. But Lewinsky’s plea is for something bigger still – an intervention by brands in the way things are done to make the world a more compassionate place. One could well argue that a compassionate culture is a pre-requisite to the pursuit of a compassionate business and a compassionate world, but these are also potentially separate initiatives.

Some will argue that such goals are not the role of business at all. But in a recent article in WARC, Unilever CEO Paul Polan is quoted as saying that brands that respond sensitively and proactively at a macro level to the changes of a volatile world are in fact delivering stronger and faster growth for their investors – so the business case is not just about increasing consumer empathy through being “compassionate in return”, to quote Lewinsky, it’s actually about being compassionate for return as well. The opportunity, as brands like Patagonia have shown, is that consumers respond well to opinion leaders who they see as taking initiatives in areas that feel too big for them as individuals.

The key question for brands looking to sincerely differentiate themselves through their intentions is to ask: Where are we in a position to make the greatest difference? Part of the problem is that brands have not approached their ability to deliver positive impact with enough discipline. The focus historically has been on how much is being done rather than how well it is being done and the difference it is actually delivering.

Unilever addressed that by recognising that it had two critical impact points: its supply chain, through the sheer weight of materials and resources that it oversaw; and the household, through its presence across the world. With Project Sunlight, it set out to address both – and to tie endorsement of those actions back to purchase of its products.

Compassion would work as an ambition because it brings humanity and individual relevance to the impossibly huge. It’s a potentially powerful approach in sectors where people are important and real care is missing. And it makes for an absorbing challenge doesn’t it? – how to build, develop, lead and grow a business that is globally competitive and yet distinguishable by its empathy and humanity. It’s challenging I think because we continue to confuse competition with aggression and gentleness with weakness. Marketers are actually afraid of developing brands that are as real and as sensitive as consumers would like them to be. And yet Unilever has shown that those who are prepared to pursue business practices that acknowledge humanity (and even vulnerability) are so much more interesting to those who buy.

If Lewinsky’s call excites you – and I happen to find it a very exciting call – here’s a simple question for the next time you’re in a strategy session working through how to differentiate your brand from the myriad of look-alikes and price-cutters that surround you: How, when and where could we be kinder – to ourselves (culture), for our business and our consumers (purpose) and in the world (ambition) – and what differences could that make for all of us?

Photo of “We’re still here”, taken by Katie Tegtmeyer, sourced from Flickr

Brands and history

By Mark Di Somma

Brands and history

Everyone loves a good story, and the critical strength of heritage brands is that they have such stories in abundance. Little wonder then that as American consumer confidence starts to look up, the brands that remind consumers of what they have, where they are and where they’ve come from are doing well. It’s a timely reminder of just how much the story of a brand links to the narrative that buyers run in their own minds of the lives they lead and the lives they would lead if they could.

While we often think of heritage brands as one genre, they exist in a range of sub-categories with different emphases and visual treatments. Natural heritage branding for example is all about ruggedness, generational history and of course the great outdoors. Contemporary heritage brands take some of their cues from what has been but place the marques firmly in today, interweaving old references with bold contemporary visual themes to deliver brands that are both respectful and immediate. Craft heritage brands tell a deep artisan story – slower, older, more patient, perfectionist.

Heritage brands, it strikes me, are brands centred on legend and mythology. They deliver because they carefully work their history to link buyers to an often romantic view of the world as it was or as we would have liked it to have been. There’s an authenticity and a simplicity of spirit that consumers find intriguing and beguiling, in a world where today everything seems so rushed and artificial.

The biggest learning for storytellers from these brands is that they pace their stories, and more specifically, the recounting of their histories to the ‘speed’ of the brand’s appeal. Heritage is a slow moving story. It requires constancy first to give the brand authenticity, and adaptation second to stay current with the changing aesthetic and priorities of buyers. A Timberland boot is not as much about this year’s colours as it is about continuing the Timberland legacy. The appeal of the brand lies in the careful selection of what is spoken of, and what is not, of what doesn’t change and what does.

That’s not an easy thing to get right. Most brands that go the distance have a complex and nuanced relationship with their past. Some, like Chanel, have triumphed. Others have lived in the yester-year, competed in that mindset and paid the price. Others still have abandoned their legacy altogether only to find themselves in no-brands-land.

Richard Becker has a nice perspective on the options facing brands in terms of how they sustain their appeal over time. He talks about three choices: brands can change their relationship with their customers to keep pace with the changing needs of those buyers as they mature (the constant relationship); or they can focus on a specific demographic and top it up with new customers as people leave or opt for new choices (the constant lifestyle); or they can look to define and consequently develop new relationships with new customers (the evolving icon). My takeout for heritage brands, using Becker’s framework, is that the really strong storytellers focus on a specific nostalgic ideal and draw people closer to that whilst at the same time continuing to position themselves as relevant to society today and consumers’ changing needs.

It’s strange but true that a brand’s history has the potential to be a source of inspiration, distraction, or destruction. As someone who loves the discipline of history itself, I think too many people fall into the trap of thinking of their chronology as what they have done. But history is the study of sequences – causes and consequences, not just events. Therefore the questions that brands looking to draw on their history need to be asking should be ones that, ironically, look to the future: what have we learnt along the way (that we didn’t expect)?; what happened when we did and didn’t learn?; and how can we draw on what happened to prepare us (as best we can) for whatever may lie ahead?

It’s one thing for a brand to have a heritage – but what really counts is what you do with it and how you talk about it, amongst yourselves and with your buyers.

Photo of “Timberland Boot in a Knot”, taken by, sourced from Flickr

Time to share

Got a brand issueMaybe you have a brand issue you’re grappling with, or there’s an idea around brands/branding that you’d like a viewpoint on. If so, please email me at mark [at] I’ll pick my favourites and respond right here so we can all share. Let me know …

Photo of “listen” taken by Tim Pierce, sourced from Flickr

10 reasons why rebrands fail

By Mark Di Somma

10 reasons why rebrands fail

As this article in Entrepreneur reminds us, plenty of brands try to re-set the market’s understanding of their brand and are well and truly spanked for doing so. If rebranding is the hot topic of conversation at your place right now, here’s 10 reasons to leave things as they are:

  1. You don’t need to change – yes, I know it seems obvious … but it needs saying, because there are still brands that rebrand for reasons that escape everyone who missed the slidedeck. In many cases, the decision is taken not because the brand needs to change but because there’s been a change in role or people internally are bored with the brand they are responsible for. Neither reason flies with consumers of course – and they quickly voice a view for things to revert to how they were.
  2. You’re guessing what change is needed – too many brands come to believe that any change signals refreshment and therefore any change will do. So they make changes to their brand that mean something to them or that they feel comfortable with, or that the agency has talked them into, but that are neither as significant nor as interesting as the brand itself believes they will be. The fact is that unless you are rebranding for a reason and to achieve a specific goal, change for its own sake achieves nothing good.
  3. The strategy is wrong – a rebrand that misreads the market can do a lot of damage. Read the assumptions and market analysis around your rebrand carefully. Ask for proof, look carefully at the opportunities, evaluate the need for change (and the nature of the change required) from the point of view of the consumer. Working with the right consulting or agency partner is vital. You need them to be objective, well versed in your sector dynamics and committed to getting you results not just taking you through their process. As Galen DeYoung points out here, “Marketers and corporate executives get consumed with what they would ultimately like the company to be versus the position it can reasonably attain in the marketplace at the present time: i.e., the next permissible step in the company’s evolution.” I love that word ‘permissible’. It’s a potent reminder that the power to change the brand rests with different people than those who must accept the new brand.
  4. People will be confused – if you change the signals that people look for in terms of recognising your brand, you can quickly confuse the visual cues. This is particularly true in environments like packaged goods where consumers are paying scant attention. If they don’t see the brand they recognise, they will quickly opt for another they do. For that reason, make sure your rebrand retains at least some of what people know to ensure they still understand who you are.
  5. The change is ugly – difficult to judge if you’re the one leading the rebrand, but a little research will soon tell you if people think you’ve got it wrong. As marketers, it’s tempting to think that aesthetic judgment rests with us. In point of fact, consumers are much more visually aware than we give them credit for, and it’s their eyes and wallets that will decide success. Tropicana got on the wrong side of customers and were quickly told so.
  6. You’re changing too late – if your brand is already in decline, then a rebrand is not a panacea, and it’s unlikely to be enough on its own, particularly if the brand has been in decline for some time. Unless the rebrand is the visual symbol of much wider and deeper shifts that have taken place within the business, chances are you will not have done enough to arrest the downfall. Don’t get drawn into believing either that a rebrand will buy you time while you make other changes. I’ve heard that reason given a number of times but I’ve never actually seen it work.
  7. You’re changing for the wrong reasons – don’t rebrand to cover your tracks, to revise your history or to encourage people to forget. A number of companies have tried to do this, but the changes of you removing all traces of who you were or what you did are almost nil. Unless the change in name and brand comes with a significant shift in the manner (and often the leadership) of the business, all you are really doing is rebadging.
  8. The change is meaningless – if you say you’ve changed and hail what you’ve done as a rebrand when, as far as consumers are concerned, there is little visible or tangible difference, then the rebrand itself comes to mean nothing and therefore holds no value. In 2008, Pepsi undertook a massive global rebrand that cost over a billion dollars but meant next to nothing to consumers.
  9. No-one is going to come with you – if you change your brand but don’t take your people with you, you will inevitably strand your brand. Rebranding the business takes huge energy and commitment. It will bring significant upheaval to the organisation and test the patience and resolve of even the most focused. It will invite the scepticism of sector critics and the probing questions of investors and analysts. For that reason, if the senior team isn’t right behind what is happening and if teams are not on-board with what is changing and why, the chances of failure increase significantly. You need to ensure your strategy and culture are aligned with what is happening creatively, because otherwise you’re going to end up short-selling the opportunity somewhere. Brad VanAuken gives some good leads on how to start this process here.
  10. You’re just going to join the long queue – if your rebrand simply makes your brand look and behave more like that of all your competitors, then you are on a hiding to nothing – and by nothing I mean invisibility. Brands need to be recognisable and to an extent that means they need to give hints as to the sector they are in, but when those changes are so generic that the brand ends up looking and acting like just another participant, the brand has in effect dug itself into a very expensive hole. If your rebrand does not deliver you significant and meaningful differentiation, it is useless.

None of this is to suggest that your brand shouldn’t change. In fact, quite the opposite. Every brand should look to refresh and update what it looks like, how it behaves, where it participates and what it offers. In the iterative economy, such changes need to take place regularly in order for brands to maintain their competitiveness. Lego is a classic example of a brand that continues to successfully evolve. But the decision to rebrand is a lot bigger, more involved and more risky than ongoing refreshment. You should only seriously look at such a radical step if the story that your brand has told is no longer valuable, if the goals for the change are very clear and if the rebrand itself is accompanied by significant changes across the business and the culture that put you in a position of unprecedented advantage.

Photo of “In Pieces”, taken by Dusk Photography, sourced from Flickr



4 reasons to change your brand outside-in

By Mark Di Somma

4 reasons to change your brand outside-inOutside-in change is prompted by shifts beyond the immediate control of the brand. Those prompts could be competitive, reputational or sectoral. They could manifest in symptoms as varied as a drop in credibility, a slump in market share or a shift in profitability within a sector as a whole. Whatever the signal, these declines prompt a brand to make sometimes radical changes in a quest to re-set how it is valued by consumers and respected by rivals.

One or more of four outs- usually apply:

You have been outpaced – you’re not keeping with up the changes in consumer buying patterns, expectations and/or attitudes. You need to shorten your reaction and/or development times or risk being left behind.

You have been outsmarted – your competitors have done something clever – an innovation or an improvement – that has completely changed how they compete. Consumers have welcomed the change. Now you must react.

You have been outshone – someone else has stolen the eye of buyers, and they’ve shifted their attention and their wallets. Chances are your profile and/or your story, or rather the lack of them, are to blame. You need to find new ways to be interesting or risk further relegation.

You have outraged – you did something stupid or failed to do something right, and now people are not happy with you. You need to do two things simultaneously: arrest the public damage; and address the internal controls that allowed whatever happened to happen.

In any of these circumstances, the brand is primarily looking for ways to stem losses and then to regroup and counter-attack. Both steps are important.

It’s critical to understand how you got into the position you are in. The overarching question is brutally direct, but critically important: “Why and where have we failed?” Management generally squirm at history lessons I’ve found – afraid they’ll turn into a witch-hunt – but unless the reasons for your decline are known and the pace of decline understood, it’s very difficult to know what to address in the marketplace and the speed at which that change must occur. If you don’t know, you will find yourselves simply throwing tactics at your competitors in increasingly desperate attempts to slow the damage.

Sometimes, just ceasing the behaviours that have been damaging your brand will make a big difference. One thing’s for certain – you can’t begin to direct a new future until and unless you have addressed what’s wrong right now.

Critical to getting the counter-attack right is a very clear assessment of what the new “right” should look like. Unless a brand sets clear goals for its reactions, it is in danger of reacting almost for the sake of it, or seeking to get back to a psychological state of normalcy that still may not be competitive. As Thomson Dawson identifies here, the focus should be on establishing a redefined level of value.

If you have been outpaced, you probably need to extensively review and rethink your ‘go-to-market’. Alongside all the operational implications of that are key brand positioning questions such as: “Where is our next market? How do we get there (faster)? And what do we get there with – in order to do so at the speed required?”

If you have been outsmarted, alongside a review of your strategy and your new product development, you probably need to be asking, “What sort of competencies do we need in our brand team that we don’t have (enough of) right now?, What response will we deliver to what our competitors have done? And how can we change how we work to outsmart our competitors going forward?”

If you have been outshone, there’s a clear need to look at your messaging and the delivery of your communications. Maybe your value proposition is not distinctive enough. Maybe you have missed key motivations. Maybe you’ve just been too conservative in your approach. Key questions to be asking, “How should we change our story? What idea can we champion? Who do we work with, and how do we do so, to bring our messages to life in fantastic ways.”

If you have outraged, there’s three questions that should be front of mind, “Where’s the road back, where does it lead to and who will lead us down that road?”

The key objective of outside-in change is to re-assert the position of the brand in the marketplace by markedly moving current or emerging perceptions. In the words of Jim Stengel, you are looking to “get the outside world to have a different conversation” about you. But that can’t happen through conversation alone. As Dawson observes, perceptions change through different experiences not through new communications. And that’s where the “in” part of outside-in matters: “You can’t begin the journey of changing outside perceptions without internal clarity, confidence and consensus on what defines your brand’s value proposition and why it will continue [to matter] to people.”

In another post, I’ll look at the dynamics of inside-out prompts, why they are different, how they are best managed and where they can potentially lead.

Photo of “176 [cumulonimbus]” taken by Evan Blaser, sourced from Flickr

Updated post: Refreshing your brand promise

Refreshing your brand promiseUpdated (alright,completely rewrote) one of my older posts today about the need for brand managers to think about at least refreshing their brand promise if they haven’t got sign off to do a complete repositioning. It seems a practical solution to me in the light of the pressure so many face to keep their brands current. Think about how much you could change if you were able to redefine what customers expected. The next era of evolution?

Keeping your brand successful

By Mark Di Somma

Keeping your brand successfulWell, the IPO for Fitbit got off to a flying start, but will it last? Can the company continue to grow at anything like the rate it has? Here’s the good news. This certainly looks like a market on the march. According to the Guardian, 16 million fitness trackers were sold globally last year, with just under 34 million expected to ship this year and 56 million in 2018. So, on the face of it, plenty of organic growth. But while noting that the company’s launch on the New York Stock Exchange is one of the biggest IPOs of the year and that the company is profitable, The Economist believes the company faces an uphill race.

They’re not the only ones. In fact, a number of articles on the company’s future performance, including this one, raise questions. The thing is that at least some of those questions apply not just to Fitbit but to all sorts of brands, particularly those doing well at the moment.

So if your brand is on a tear, here’s some things you might want to ask themselves.

What’s the next success? Fitbit has certainly grown strongly and the uptake of tracking wearables has been significant, but with suggestions that one-third or more consumers abandon their devices, customer acquisition won’t keep the numbers up forever.

Querying whether Fitbit will go the same way as the Palm Pilot, Vauhini Vara asks if the big players like Apple will simply take over. In the same article though, she notes that GoPro is managing to hold its own after IPO, with its cameras continuing to be popular and the company announcing plans to develop drones and virtual reality capabilities.

At some stage, Fitbit is going to have to find ways to lower the drop-off (if indeed it is anything like that high) or broaden its offering. Perhaps, that’s the challenge of marketing a product that seeks to change habits. In time, a high number of people will revert to what they used to do. But broader than that, it’s symptomatic of a world where the timeframe from hit to has-been continues to contract.

Question: What’s your brand planned for next? How will you capitalise on what works? Why will that feel like a natural extension of the relationship that your customers already have with you?

Answer: Your purpose should provide clear guidelines for future development. By thinking of itself as an adventure company and not a camera company, for example, GoPro has extended its development license considerably. It can literally look for new ways to give people experiences they haven’t had or never thought they could have/share.

How do you turn know into yes? I really liked Sonny Vu’s point about Fitbit’s “use case” – what do you do with the information from the Fitbit once you have it? For trackers to work, he has said, they need to shift from nice to have to need to have. Right now, they lack that urgency for consumers in his view. In a world of data, you can’t just collect information, you need to provide or invent exciting ways for people to make use of it. “This creates tremendous pressure for Fitbit to innovate beyond simply tracking steps and sleep, particularly as the Apple Watch, with rich functionality, begins to dominate the smartwatch category.”

Question: What will you help your consumers understand? How will that knowledge help them continue their brand journey with you?

Answer: Brands that provide consumers with information will need to find ways to keep that information interesting if they are to avoid the “use-by” trap. One question I would be asking – what could that knowledge unlock? Beyond just new data, what new journey/experience could it encourage buyers to take with your brand?

Where’s the bridge? The future may lie not so much in what you offer as what you connect to. As Vara points out, Facebook and Instagram have proven that once consumers allocate a specific provider for a type of content, they are reluctant to abandon it. These brands also benefit from “the network effect: the more users that a given social network connects, the more useful it becomes”. So “GoPro and Fitbit, whose appeal has as much to do with the material they help store and share as with the devices themselves, might have the best chance at staying in business if they think of themselves not as hardware companies but as providers of services that let people manage and share their content.”

Question: How can consumers remember their experiences with your brand?

Answer: Inevitably, brands will need to secure themselves to a community in order to continue to prosper. GoPro is looking to do that by becoming a safe-house for people’s adventurous footage. They are literally synching their product with people’s memories in a unique environment that celebrates personal achievement. Building such a network encourages recurrent use amongst consumers and builds social bonds with the brand.

Five observations to close –

  1. Brands must balance critical mass with competitive intensity. You want enough participants in a market for it to be viable and attract attention, but not so many that price pressure and convergence will send margins south. (Which is worse – Apple enters your market, or Apple doesn’t enter your market?)
  2. Unless the market can agree on a finite number of operating systems, it will be difficult for consumers to keep growing their involvement. One of the issues with the wearables sector is that there have been so many devices that wouldn’t talk to each other. Apps will resolve that – but they also open the market to other players.
  3. You must grow what you have to the greatest extent possible, whilst knowing that in itself that will probably not be enough. At some point, there normally won’t be enough organic growth to just do more of what you’ve done.
  4. People want data that is specific to them, but then they may want to be able to take that data and apply it elsewhere in their lives. The irony of privacy is that everyone wants to keep their information to themselves and at the same time use it as broadly as possible.
  5. Today, everyone’s a publisher. Building memory and community into what you offer could change the dynamics. People want content that is specific to them (because they created it) so that they can then share it with others. Offering them ways to do that, that add value to the content they have made, keeps them within your brand’s ecosystem. Without it, people’s interest in sharing will mean your brand feeds someone else’s network effect.

Photo of “Run” taken by Hernan Pinera, sourced from Flickr


Brand resurrection. Reviving a dying brand

By Mark Di Somma

Brand resurrectionI admit it – I called them for dead. I thought Blackberry were gone. I think a lot of us did. But if this article in AdAge is more than just hype on the part of the company and its ad agency, perhaps that call was premature. I am still cautious about whether Blackberry are growing or simply not fading, but the great news for brands that seem to be in a death spiral is that you can pull out, or at least halt the decline, if you’re prepared to make the changes needed. So what are Blackberry doing that others could learn from?

First of all – they shifted back to the audience they know and where they built their reputation. Refocusing on B2B from the trendy, shiny-object world of consumer tech is a drive back to the industry they know and that they are known in. The fish is back in the water. Re-identifying, re-finding and then re-engaging with the audience you have strayed from is fundamental.

Secondly – they worked the psychographics of that audience hard. Knowing that business is a serious matter, Blackberry have positioned their brand as a serious business tool with cornerstone strengths in security and privacy. In so doing, they’ve looked to de-risk the decision to stay with/return to their technology. Having re-engaged the people who used to love your brand, it’s critical to identify how their mindsets and priorities have changed in the interim. Fortunately for Blackberry, the needs for security and privacy have only increased in that time.

Thirdly – they shifted their leadership team, presumably to ensure that the actions of the business would better mirror the assertions of the brand in terms of customer-centricity. Obvious, yes – but worth remembering that brand alone won’t save a brand.

Single tactics don’t get you out of jail. The key to reviving a falling brand is to identify the key motivation(s) that is/are dragging you down, and then to implement a range of approaches that see you addressing that across a number of fronts. In this post from a couple of years ago, for example, I suggested that the more multipliers you can employ simultaneously, the greater the chances that you can resurrect your brand. So, for example:

In a market, where your brand has been painted into a corner – I might look to use these three approaches:

Think of the product in new ways X Change what it looks like X Distribute it in different ways

Or if the market you’ve traditionally targeted is treating your brand like a commodity and threatening to start a price war, I might combine these four:

Redefine who you want to be a brand to X Package it in different ways X Price point it in different ways X Wrap a different story around it

The average lifespan of a brand has declined rapidly in recent decades, so this situation is one that every brand will likely face at some point. The brands that will fight their way back are those that put their customers before their egos, admit things are working and look for the opportunities to re-engage. The brands that will disappear will be those that carry on doing what they are comfortable with in the mistaken belief that somehow the market will change its mind, or those that chase a rabbit down a hole in the belief that the bunny is big enough for everyone. The good news for Blackberry is they saw, and called, the wrong chase. Will that be enough to get them out of the hole? Time, and returns, will tell.

Photo of “Resurrection” taken by fady habib, sourced from Flickr

5+ strategies for brand growth

By Mark Di Somma

5+ strategies for brand growthAs John Hagel has observed, the middle market is dying as market dynamics radicalise. At one end, the sectors that are scaling continue to expand footprint and influence; at the other, the long tail stretches further as the market fragments into more and more bit players fighting for a percentum of market share. This dissolution of the middle ground as a viable competitive position leaves most brands with five growth options in my opinion: three are about growing bigger; two suggest growing smaller (but heightening profit as you do so).

Here’s how I map the options:

Global – Focuses on achieving presence and familiarity on a world stage. In my presentation on this at The Un-Conference, I discussed how Heineken set their sights on being a world player right from the start. This was all the more disruptive because beer is a notoriously localised product. Heineken’s master stroke has been to build everything they do around this world view and to associate themselves with events and campaigns that heighten their global connections.

National/local – Global brands may have high awareness but the reality is that local brands are growing at twice the rate of global brands in many parts of the world and they continue to account for the majority of shoppers’ purchase decisions across all regions – particularly Asia. Far from copying the strategies of global rivals, these brands are using their proximity to the market to engage consumers and build loyalty. Their growth strategies are underpinned by accents on accessibility and habit. They grow by quickly identifying and accurately responding to local requirements, be they new flavours or marketing campaigns with a local slant.

Challenger – A powerful strategy to break out of the middle market for those in the dreaded 4, 5 and 6 positions. Challenger brands are like the people leaning out the windows yelling into the rain in the film Network. Their sentiment: “We’re mad as hell and we just can’t take it anymore”. Their contempt is for the restrictions and the norms that confine how sectors behave. These are brands built on personality and purpose.

Niche – As the world moves back to authentic and particularly artisan, there’s opportunities for brands that demonstrate particular attention to detail or that deliberately self-limit their scope in order to do one thing very well. Niche brands are about perspective and expertise. They manifest in two key forms in my view: craftsmanship brands; and ingredient brands.

Cult – Some brands choose to operate under the radar. These brands are found rather than marketed, and they deliberately look to set themselves apart from the mainstream. As a result, they develop passionate fan bases but remain largely unknown. Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce, for example, has no Facebook page or Twitter account and hasn’t updated its website since 2004, yet last year sold around 20 million bottles of product. Cult brands are about exclusivity and integrity. In the case of Sriracha, they have been name-checked on The Simpsons, spotted on the International Space Station and even had a film made about them.

So five options, five choices, right? Not necessarily. This is where it gets really interesting. In his book Building Strong Brands, David Aaker talks about the need for marketers to move beyond the management of brands to the management of brand systems. Increasingly those systems incorporate elements of several of these approaches as brands mix scale with intimacy to rebalance their portfolios and broaden their appeal. Burberry for example now have sub-labels that run all the way from accessible to exclusive. Vespa – the idiosyncratic motorbike – is pushing into India, the largest vehicle market in the world. Ben & Jerrys are part of Unilever and yet they still behave like a rebel. All of these strategies are shifting and mixing the mechanisms. But the mechanisms are exactly that – ultimately, the key to competitiveness is understanding the goals you have set and the mindset your brand will need to push forward in the face of ramping pressure.

Brand strategist Allan Finkelman sees the strategy options another way. He distinguishes the global, national/local and niche approaches as audience specific, and challenger and cult as strategic approaches. And, he suggests, that we should add leader to the approaches sub-category. Global, national and niche brands will take a leader position or a challenger position, or they may seek to be a much rarer cult brand and make their own rules.

Such debate over how brands should find their way forward is healthy. Divergence of opinion is what makes brand strategy so interesting. Whatever you believe and whichever way you go, I believe you still need to be clear on eight things:

  • Why you compete
  • How and where you want to compete
  • Who you want to bring with you
  • Where the engagement opportunities lie
  • The nature of the relationship that makes you money
  • Your long and short stories
  • The enemy (even if you’re the incumbent)
  • Why, when and how you will change proactively

Photo of “high-five” taken by Martin Fisch, sourced from Flickr



Purpose questions for entrepreneurs

I talk with Jeffrey Charles about the role of purpose for entrepreneurs in an article for Small Business Trends. Hope you enjoy.

Follow the brand insights

By Mark Di Somma

Follow the brand insightsAt his presentation at The Un-Conference, Chris Wren included this deceptively simple observation: “Follow the insights,” he suggested, “Wherever they may lead”. I was struck immediately by the extent to which brands don’t. Too often it seems research functions as something of a confirmation bias – reinforcing beliefs that are already deeply held.

Wren’s challenge to delegates to take the path of greatest insight rather than the one of least resistance was a reminder to every brand strategist and manager in the room that customer-centricity is not always convenient or personally intuitive. In fact, it may require us to pursue paths and approaches that fight with everything we think we know, want to know or believe we have been told.

“Data and research are only powerful if they are acted upon … Even if it seems crazy.” In the Western Union case study that he gave to support his point, Chris explained that while money may have seemed the obvious point of connection, in reality that was not what really connected Western Union consumers with their homeland at all. Money was the transactional basis, but not the emotional basis for the relationship. What motivated those customers was what was going on at home and what they really missed was food – not just any food or even the food of their country, but specifically a home-cooked meal. So Western Union set out to celebrate the things that their customers yearned for most by preparing and serving them their favourite dishes.

“When you are away from your home you long for those things that connect you to your culture, and nothing is more fundamental than the family dinner table,” says Diane Scott, CMO of Western Union. “Through the #WUHomeCooked campaign, Western Union is continuing to get to know our customers on a personal level, and connect them with their families back home to demonstrate our gratitude for all they do.”

So here we have a company in the money transfer business exploring motives that, on the face of them, seem well removed from the business at hand: loneliness; isolation; homesickness; familiarity; nostalgia; gratitude. And yet, framed in the terms that Scott expresses them above, they make complete sense. Retrospectively. For a team working through these insights at the time though, I can well imagine that at some point they must have wondered whether they were on the verge of uncovering a human gem or in real danger of going off-course. Kudos for making the right call.

Those of us who have followed a 5Y approach to discovering motivation will know that the insight uncovered at the first “Why?” can be a very long way indeed from the understanding that one has arrived at by the fifth “Why?”. The temptation as we work to increasingly curtailed timeframes is to shortcut the process: to take the first answer or the most apparent insight and build everything on that – when in reality, that insight may only be an expression of the truly human driver. If we succumb to this temptation, we risk short-changing our communications (and customers) emotionally.

But equally, the secret to having what Annette Gleneicki neatly describes as a “sixth sense” around customers is knowing when you have reached an intuitive point in your pursuit of an insight that is refreshingly perceptive and, at the same time, delightfully workable. Pursuing an insight beyond that point risks over-shooting the framework that consumers recognise and respond to. So knowing when to stop is just as important as knowing when to continue.

Here’s the thing. If it’s hard to explain the value of marketing when it’s rational, imagine the challenge of explaining what you’re planning to those around and above you when it’s irrational – or at least not obvious. Ironically, marketing at its most powerful, at the point where it is an expression of everything that insight has guided it to, can also be the most difficult to explain.

Photo of “Pinheads” taken by Martin Fisch, sourced from Flickr


Putting truth back into your brand

By Mark Di Somma

Putting truth back into your brand

So you’ve looked long and hard at how your brand is managed, and it’s clear that the truth has been allowed to slip. If you no longer want to be managing a deceitful brand, how do you find a way back?

Start by setting new rules. Articulate “new rules of brand” that set out in a clear manifesto form what you will do and won’t do going forward. If necessary, revisit the values and behaviours that have condoned how your brand has been managed in the past.

Look for quick wins. What are the immediate things that you can do to turn around how your brand is managed? If you’re making claims you can’t back up, for example, either alter the claims to make them realistic or seek further substantiation. Quick wins do two things. They establish momentum, and they signal that you are serious about the changing of the guard.

Change what you reward. Oftentimes, brands are managed in ways that directly mirror the priorities and attitudes that are prized internally. By shifting the emphasis to integrity for example (not just what happens, but how), you can motivate people to rethink the actions they will accept from themselves and from those around them.

Monitor/feed back results. Your team need to see that these changes are worth pursuing. Establish clear metrics to monitor the moral health of your brand and loop everyone in on the results.

Take your commitments public. You don’t have to talk about why you’ve changed or what was wrong, but by going public with what you will accept from now on, you can make the culture accountable not just aware.

Hold your competitors accountable to new standards. If the ways you were working are widespread across your industry, get your own house in order and then call out your competitors. Make it clear why the ways that were cannot be the ways going forward. Take the moral high ground.

This level and scope of change is never easy – but far better you undertake such change whilst you are in control and away from the public gaze. Otherwise there’s a very good chance you will find yourself trying to make these repairs under the unerring scrutiny of the media and with your trust status in serious review.

Photo of “pour” taken by jenny downing, sourced from Flickr

Are corporate brands dead?

By Mark Di Somma

Are corporate brands deadRecently Jan Rijkenberg raised some interesting points in an article (thanks Jeremy) in which he questioned the importance, indeed the relevance, of underpinning individual brands with the identities of their corporate owners. It does brands no favours, he suggests, to collectivise them as part of the bigger entity. In so doing, he maintains, they lose their individuality and therefore their specific appeal. It’s a well-argued and reasonable case that cautions against big picture corporate brands overshadowing their assets and diluting their valuable personalities to fit with a bigger body’s self-aggrandising agenda.

Personally, I can see a case for corporate brands – but I think their roles are specific, and that there are clear responsibilities that come with running a diversified portfolio. I also believe that, too often, Rijkenberg is absolutely right.

So, let’s start with when an owner’s brand might be useful. I agree with Rijkenberg that there are specific activities that are much more suited to the corporate brand than the individual marques.

  • The investor brand – if the company is publicly listed, then that entity needs to be speaking in a branded and clear way to investors and the markets. It must explain not only who the brands are but also how they have collectively performed. By allocating this responsibility to the owner rather than the individual brands, the corporate entity is able to talk to the investment market about the same entity they have invested in. Receiving reports from the individual brands would be neither practical nor legal. So, if you are a large beverages company for example, and you are publicly listed, it makes sense to feed back to the markets on how the portfolio as a whole has performed.
  • Corporate social responsibility – for the same reason it makes sense for the whole entity to discuss the programmes it is running at a brand level and a wider corporate level. This enables the efforts of each brand to be seen in a wider context.
  • Internal – the people responsible for managing the brands within a corporate structure should be accountable to the same rules and behaviours as each other and the rest of the organisation. So it also makes sense for example that, in an employer brand sense, a large corporate would want to talk about its collective values and behaviours. We could debate for some time as to whether in many cases these amount to little more than platitudes, but there’s no denying that this too is a corporate-level responsibility and therefore should be linked to that brand.

None of this is contentious. Where it becomes more knotty is when organisations look to overtly extend the ownership of the corporate entity into the brands themselves – as Unilever and P&G have done in recent years for example. From a corporate investor point of view, this makes sense because it provides a clear portfolio footprint. Consumers can see which brands are part of which entity and the hope of the marketers is that the goodwill will halo to the corporate brand, and vice versa.

The issue though soon becomes one of priority. Which is more important? – the brand and what it stands for, or the corporate and what it stands for? And when the two conflict, who has right of way? The brand – because that’s where the relationships are. Or the corporate – because (they would argue anyway) that’s where the governance and the wider reputation is housed. My reading of Rijkenberg’s concern is that if you subjugate the individual brands to the corporate branding (by featuring it so prominently), you risk homogenising the assets into a bland corporate soup where their personalities give way to what HQ feels happy with rather than what customers love. The danger is that you turn your products into corporate billboards and in so doing transform them from powerful and trusted assets in their own right to small pieces of corporate real estate.

These arguments have much going for them. I worked for years on a major company that got no mention at brand level, despite several attempts to introduce the idea, because time and again the research showed that any such revelation would send consumers packing. It wasn’t that the corporate entity was seen in any bad light. It was just that consumers were extremely clear in their own minds about where the relationship lay and with whom.

Here’s another complication. If you do decide to tie the brands closely to the corporate, then you need to reconcile contradictions in the wider portfolio. If you don’t, you risk impacts on your corporate reputation – or at the very least you muddy the waters around what you actually stand for. This is the responsibility associated with running a portfolio that I alluded to earlier. In a well articulated and thorough appraisal of the Dove campaign, Angela Celebre & Ashley Waggoner Denton make this great point about the relationship between what the brand espouses and what other brands in the wider portfolio espouse. “Dove’s parent company is Unilever, which is also the parent company of Axe and Fair & Lovely. These brands promote messages that are in direct contradiction to the message that Dove is attempting to promote, which is positive body image”.

It’s a perfect example of how brands can work in isolation of each other from a personality/values point of view (and how they are often managed that way). However, linking them together inside a corporate portfolio quickly draws attention to the contradictions. In fact, I believe that if you are going to link brands to the corporate owner then you can only do it if you’re truly prepared to align all your brands to a consistent ethos. But – and this is Rijkenberg’s point – the challenge is to do that in a way that still keeps the brands interesting. Having Axe and Dove in the same branded portfolio, it could be argued, doesn’t make sense ethically. So which one goes? And what does having them together in the same portfolio say about Unilever’s commitment to its purpose? But if you do sell one off to get the ethical alignment, and it’s a market leader and highly profitable, how do you justify that to shareholders? As I say, things get knotty …

However, I do think there are times when uniting brands under a strong corporate brand is worth considering. If the brands are new or if they are underpowered in a highly competitive market, tying them back to the corporate brand can give them kudos and authority they might not otherwise receive. Equally, as David Aaker points out, “A corporate brand can be a powerful … endorser because it is uniquely suited to capture the organization’s heritage, assets and skills, people, values, citizenship, and performance. While competitive products may be similar, organizations rarely are. A Corporate brand is thus a potential source of differentiation as long as it stands for something meaningful and positive.”

And that’s the critical point isn’t it? If your corporate brand stands for nothing, if it doesn’t represent a viewpoint, a powerful perception and/or a clear story, then its presence is superfluous. Wallpaper. On the other hand, if its presence adds to the brand it is paired with (as Marriott does for example when it is paired with Courtyard) each adds to the credentials of the other. Then it becomes a virtuous circle: the brand is stronger for being part of the corporate; and the corporate is stronger for having that brand in its portfolio.

We shouldn’t write off the corporate brand as an endorsing mechanism. Used properly and responsibly, it can add dimension and kudos to a brand. But doing so requires care, patience, the willingness to build equity in both marques and deep discipline. Some brands can do that. Many can’t – or won’t. So, Jan Rijkenberg – you’re right. But as with all rules, there are some notable exceptions.

Photo of “Corporate Logo Cupcakes” taken by Clever Cupcakes, sourced from Flickr

Are you managing a deceptive brand?

By Mark Di Somma

Managing a deceptive brand

We all want to do best by the brands we work for. We want them to be competitive, to gain share, to win … But in the bid to make that happen, some brands push the boundaries too far. Here are 19 signs your brand has lost sight of the truth.

  1. It doesn’t actually do what you say it does – the claims you’re making wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. They’re optimistic, unproven or simply untrue. Maybe they’ve been part of the in-house lexicon for long enough for people to believe they must be true. But objectively … they amount to assertions that you can’t back up.
  2. The language is vague – your marketing is filled with words that sound impressive, and people think they understand, but that, on inspection, probably don’t mean anything concrete. Real, natural, organic, integrated, market leading … sound familiar?
  3. It’s packed with small print – there’s more exceptions, conditions and qualifiers in your statements than facts. You’re probably banking on no-one reading them, but, if you’re asked about them, you say they’re there to comply with regulation. If you need this much substantiation to make a claim then the claim lacks substance. Find a new value proposition.
  4. You retouch results – things aren’t as they were. Images and ideas have been prettied up, and the process has distorted the realities of what consumers can expect. Maybe you moved a bump on a person. Just as likely you changed a stat, shifted a number or took something way of context. It looks great now, but, just like some beauty treatments, in reality your offer is packed with fillers.
  5. It looks like one thing, but it isn’t – there’s some classic examples of this here together with some eyebrow-raising insights as to how they got them to look that way. This isn’t always bad – it helps things look appetising. But there’s a clear line between optimisation and deception.
  6. You use disguising language – cue the euphemisms, acronyms, jargon, chemical names, wonky technological terms and other double-talk mechanisms that sound like they’re saying something meaningful … and aren’t.
  7. You’re not being honest about where it’s made or how – this pops up a lot in industries with sensitivities around supply chain. There’s every indication at first glance that something has been made in a particular place or that it means a particular standard, only it hasn’t … Perhaps it was assembled at home but in reality it was sourced from elsewhere (in dubious working conditions), or you stated it met a standard, but the standard itself was meaningless.
  8. You’ve made it seem more popular than it is – almost always percentages. “70% of people said or believed or agreed with something”, but only a very small number were in the test group, making the percentage disproportionate to the impression.
  9. You make it more complex than it needs to be – oh, the power of convolution. You’ve made whatever you’re doing seem so complicated that people feel they have no choice but to deal with you.
  10. You provide reassurances that aren’t true – the guarantees that came with the product aren’t real, or if they are, they come with plenty of hoops to jump through first.
  11. You scare people unnecessarily – similar to 10, but this is less about complication and more about consequences that would in reality only happen at an extreme. Comes with words like “If [something] were to occur …” Chances of it doing so? Not high – but you’re confident the consumer doesn’t know that.
  12. You overplay your contribution. You’ve undertaken to do all sorts of things but none of them have made their way into the service level agreement and, if required, not one of them has happened or will happen. There was/is always a reason that made/makes sense to your people, but not necessarily to anyone else.
  13. You’re taking credit for something that you only played a small part in. In the presentation or the case study or the blog post or whatever it was, it seemed you had been heavily involved. The game changer. They key influencer. On closer inspection, you barely made it to the side-lines with a cup of coffee and a donut. (Or else, you played a pivotal role and things didn’t go to plan. Suddenly no mention was to be found anywhere of your involvement.)
  14. You are making direct comparisons that are hollow. You compare what you did/had/made with what someone else did/had/made, but the comparison works in your favour at the expense of the truth.
  15. You’ve overlooked some inconvenient information. You present the facts that worked for you, and leave out, ignore or refute those that don’t.
  16. You say something is yours and it isn’t – or that you were something, and you weren’t. There’s an impression around ownership and right to use that wouldn’t survive scrutiny.
  17. It wasn’t or it doesn’t do what it says on the box – there’s a lovely story about this here. But it doesn’t stop there. Too many brands say they care – when they don’t, or promise to respond quickly – when they have no intention of doing so, or insinuate they have your interests at heart – when they are only thinking about themselves. If you care, hire caring staff and have caring processes. If you don’t, then don’t say you do.
  18. It needs something else to work (that’s never mentioned) – one thing is talked about in isolation but in order for it to do what you claim it does, it needs to be teamed with a whole lot of other stuff. Often, the highlighted product is presented as the hero but won’t actually work on its own. The buyer doesn’t find that out until they look to order. Your sales people call that an upsell.
  19. The suggested price isn’t close to being the real price – similar to 18. You supply the price for one bit, but in reality there are a whole bunch of other things the buyer is going to need and these components collectively blow the price through the roof.

Most brands can justify any behaviour if asked. They have to behave this way to be competitive, or it’s what everyone does, or no-one takes this stuff that seriously anyway … Right now, if some of these practices are ‘standard procedure’ with your brand, you are deceiving people, whether anyone is prepared to admit that or not. There’s degrees of course. But I also think there’s a simple rule. To me, it’s unequivocal: tell your customers the truth you’d expect to hear if you were them. Otherwise you’re not marketing.

Photo of “#3 Deception” taken by thebarrowboy, sourced from Flickr

New brand conversations

By Mark Di Somma

New brand conversationsNice piece on the Adidas campaign (thanks for sharing, Dan Ball) draws attention to the need for brands to shift from talking up their products to talking with their customers about the things that matter to them. In this case Adidas puts Luis Suarez out-front and uses the occasion to start a discussion on people’s reactions to those who are successful with the hashtag #therewillbehaters. As Adidas’ director of global brand strategy, Stefanie Knoren points out, “If you put up [this] hashtag … it is not just enough to talk about new boots. People are expecting a conversation around that with you.”

Increasingly, brands are placing their products and its values and beliefs in the context of a wider discussion. The danger? That the issue overwhelms the product and consumers are more interested in that than what you are trying to ship. Or they’re not interested and give the messages and the product the cold shoulder. The opportunity? To reflect an ethos that people are drawn to, that lifts their esteem of your brand and shifts their inclination in your favour.

It doesn’t always work of course. Ask Starbucks. And at times, it can feel like sensationalism almost for the sake of it. But where the discussion links with, and elaborates on, an aspect of the brand story and/or the brand’s long held stance on a particular matter, this ‘wider conversation’ approach presents an opportunity to extend the platform on which you sell.

So if you do want to engage this way, how do you make sure that the conversation has enough steer to stay on-course without feeling heavy-handed?

1. Understand what they really want to talk about. Know your audience well enough to know the things that interest them. Be very clear why you’re engaging with them, and why they will care.

2. Choose how you want to interact. Chris Wren and I have been talking about the difference between conversations that encourage quick exchange (chat) and those that seek to elicit opinion (comment). Chats are more informal and relaxed, fast-moving and of-the-moment. Comments are more serious, considered, personal and often reflect deep-held beliefs. Don’t invite a chat-like discussion on matters that people are committed to and have strong views on – because the discussion itself can then feel flippant, almost dismissive. Equally, looking for commentary on matters that people have not got much time for can feel like you are exaggerating a situation (for your own gain) or that you are obsessing on something trivial or that you have nothing better to do with your time – or anyone else’s for that matter.

3. Own a point of view. Have an opinion, be clear in your own minds why you believe what you believe and be prepared to share it if you are asked. There’s no point in tying your brand to a subject that you have no connection with because people will quickly see through that. Equally, don’t be aggressive about advocacy of your position. It will just look like you’re lecturing. The most powerful brand conversations spring from a belief/position but are open-minded enough to encourage exchanges that everyone gets something from.

4. Know the destination. Where’s this going? What do you want to see happen as a result of this conversation-starter? And how will you judge success? Clearly Adidas saw an opportunity to tie its brand to discussions around success and envy.

It must be said that not everyone is convinced this is the answer. A number of critics have pointed out that social conversations are nowhere near as effective or as engaging as marketers would like to think they are. Judging success by the numbers, Nate Elliot from Forrester Research went so far as to describe the concept as “delusional” in this article.

I’m a little more forgiving – in the meantime at least – only because I think effective digital exchange between brands and customers is still very much a work in progress. I prefer to see the efforts of Adidas as a symptom rather than a tactic: a welcome sign that more and more marketers are understanding that what they do must take place against a broader backdrop than the paid media systems that have been the norm for so long. These are steps in that direction. And I believe they are good steps.

But is this a tipping point in marketing? Almost certainly not.

Why? because I don’t think it’s radical enough yet. I think the disruptive potential of digital remains untapped. This still feels like an extension of what has been in some ways. And it still feels like we are judging success by old rules.

So, let me posit another possibility for where engagement might go over the longer term. In a world where everything is big, coverage is ubiquitous and noise incessant, perhaps the next thing for brands doesn’t lie in trying to own a big conversation at all. Perhaps it lies in owning a small one, or a discreet one, or a secret one, or a private one. And perhaps success doesn’t lie (or at least shouldn’t be measured) in what gets said or shown or hash-tagged or shouted about from the rooftops, but rather what remains unsaid because the idea has been absorbed and the association quietly made.

As marketers, are we still desperately looking for the wrong thing? Have we assumed that engagement must be as raucous as we are – and that digital must be a continuation of full volume? Perhaps the time is coming when we will need to be more subtle … more personal, rather than just personalised … in what we talk with people about, and what we expect them to show us back.

That would certainly change brand conversations. Dramatically.

20 questions for activist brands

By Mark Di Somma

20 questions for activist brandsAs more brands seek to engage in what Denise Yohn has referred to as the “cultural conversations” of today, they encounter reactions ranging from strong endorsement to cynicism about their motives. Starbucks, for example, hit turbulence with its Race Together campaign. (There’s an excellent analysis of why here.) Levis on the other hand seems to have had an easier ride with its Water<Less campaign. Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This campaign was hailed by many as honest, genuine and utterly in keeping with their beliefs.

As Prof Americus Reed points out in the article, the fundamental difficulty that Starbucks faced was intention vs execution. It’s all very well to have to a good corporate heart, but steering a path through public scepticism is no easy task and doing so in a way that is straight-forward to implement and that fits into consumers’ busy lives has its challenges.

Inevitably, with the decline in trust in business following the Global Financial Crisis, companies have had to work harder than ever to convince consumers and the media that their motives are genuine. Clouding the issue are the brands claiming that they are doing good through their activities. The sheer volume of businesses making these assertions has turned CSR into something of a brandwagon. There’s a lovely piece here by Henk Campher in which he categorises participants into categories ranging from Snake Oil to Activist. In so doing, he draws an interesting distinction between Purpose brands and Activist brands. Purpose brands, he says, want to make the world a better place; Activist brands want the same thing, but with more edge.

Putting in place a campaign that draws attention to a situation within a wider communal or global context requires deep planning that is well aligned to brand strategy, ties directly to proof elsewhere and extends well beyond the planned life of the campaign itself. Whether you’re a purpose brand looking to make a stance or an activist brand looking to achieve more change, here’s my checklist to make sure you achieve your aims as an “opinionated brand” and stay on the right side of consumers:

  1. Why should your brand want to save the world? (And how do you define the world for the purposes of your brand anyway?)
  2. What are you fighting, and how entrenched is it?
  3. Where’s the connection between what you aspire to achieve and what your brand does (and therefore, what mandate, if any, do you have?)
  4. What exactly do you wish to see happen?
  5. Who will join you in the bid to make it happen?
  6. Who will refuse to trust you – and why?
  7. What’s the likely reaction overall – and how prepared are you for that?
  8. What will you do if you don’t get that reaction?
  9. Do your current behaviours fit with what you’re looking to achieve?
  10. Does your history align with your intentions? What have you said/done in the past to prove you’re sincere?
  11. How are you going to make this happen? – through whom? With what? Over what period of time?
  12. What are you doing alongside this via your CSR or business strategies to complement your stance?
  13. What are you not doing via your CSR or business strategies that could lead people to believe you’re not sincere?
  14. What other brands are also advocating for change in this space?
  15. Why are your actions different – and therefore what part of the conversation can you own?
  16. How motivated are your consumers to see this change?
  17. Where are your people in all of this? What does your (new) purpose do for them that you haven’t been able to do before?
  18. Where’s this going? – how will your brand emerge stronger for pursuing this?
  19. Where’s the proof that you’ve made or will make a difference? (And will that proof stand up to scrutiny?)
  20. How and when will you judge success? What’s your end point? And then what will you do?

Photo of “Any Questions?”, taken by Matthias Ripp, sourced from Flickr


Speaking at The Un-Conference

The Un-Conference 2015Back in Florida in a few days to speak at this year’s Un-Conference at the Versace Mansion in South Beach alongside Derrick Daye, Gerard Gibbons, Brad VanAuken, Pete Canalichio, Chris Wren, Hilton Barbour and Ashley Konson. This year’s theme is brand leadership, something we’re all thriving for. And with a line-up like this, expect plenty of opinions. Should be fun. If you haven’t booked yet, there may still be places left.

Pacing your brand revolution

By Mark Di Somma

Pacing your brand revolutionJust as brands reflect the business they are part of, so they must systemically modify how they operate to reflect technological and systemic changes in the business.

In a paper on The Digitisation of Everything, E&Y expound a business evolution model to change an organisation’s digital capabilities. As a first step, they suggest, businesses need to use digital technology to improve current manual systems. Then they can introduce ways of working that are only achievable using digital platforms. Finally, they can push out to new business and participation models that fundamentally redefine how the business interacts and engages with consumers.

All of these changes have implications for brand.

I’m sometimes asked by senior managers when they should change their brand DNA: before or after they have made changes to the business? I don’t have a definitive answer. There’s a good case to be made for the fact that businesses should re-organise and solidify their infrastructure before changing their brand. That way the business has everything it needs in place to fulfil new expectations before they are promised. On the other hand, it can also be argued that changing the brand first so that it projects the future of the organisation defines the direction for the business and acts as a beacon for business changes.

First, some good news for marketers. Before you make any changes to the business: there are things you can do to make important changes to the brand. You can rewrite your story for example to give yourselves a future narrative and you can make changes to your purpose and to your commitment to wider social change. These three measures will ensure that your brand has a clear direction forward, that the moral compass for the journey is also set and that you have identified specific elements of the community that you wish to engage with.

A B2B brand might rewrite its strategy as a story that it shares with staff, it might set itself an ambition or purpose that really challenges what the business will achieve into the future and it may work through how it will work in a responsible and socially conscious manner to achieve its goals. Putting these elements in place before changing the business changes will enable you to constantly compare the changes you are making as an organisation with the objectives and story you are telling (and want to tell) as a brand.

As you digitally enhance your traditional business models to make manual services more responsive and to shift your products and services to new platforms and payment models, you should be positioning yourselves as a more customer-focused brand. This is your first real opportunity to shift from a generic offer to one that feels so much more tailored than your competitors. This will fundamentally shift your engagement opportunities – physically and emotionally. Offer buyers more streamlined processes (including self serve) and more personalised experiences. Recognition and loyalty initiatives are key opportunities for B2C brands, particularly on digital platforms.

As you introduce new digital-only offers to enable consumers to interact with your brand in a host of ways, new channels, such as purchase via Facebook and Apple Pay, can technically redefine how customers do business with you. Making transactions seamless and effortless should help your brand feel as integrated as possible in the lives of buyers. The opportunity here is to inject a new relevance and currency into your relationships by engaging with audiences across broader swathes of lifestyle. That’s why we are seeing brands like Burberry and Amex including music in their content. They want a greater share of consumers’ digital lives. They want to blur the boundary between what people buy from them and what they look to them for.

Once you decide to invent new business models, the opportunities for consumers to participate with you become more surprising and more intriguing. The rise of collaborative economy brands such as Uber and Airbnb for example have not just changed how business is done in historically highly-defined industries, they have also offered opportunities to redefine what people look for. By reframing what a taxi or a hotel is, they have created new types of travellers and brought them together with a new sense of community. At the same time, they have birthed a whole brand category: the challenger intermediary. To compete successfully under a radical business model, you have to be a ‘punk’. You may not be overtly rude, but chances are you’re going to be mighty disrespectful of the status quo. Unless the alternative you have created in the business model is paired with a brand attitude that insists on taking people by surprise and delivering them ongoing surprises, your attitude will soon be matched and your business model copied or plagiarised by the incumbents.

A sobering stat from John Marshall makes the case for why brand change alone won’t be enough. Over the last five years, he says, one in eight brands increased their favourability by just 2 percent a year, and the average brand repositioning results in changes of only 0.5 percent annually after the new message is revealed. “Yet a few brands see bigger leaps,” he points out, “… in looking at the companies whose brands have outperformed, we see a common pattern – the business agenda and brand agenda are truly intertwined. Marketing leadership is playing a role in identifying, catalyzing and accelerating what makes the business truly different, as opposed to thinking (hoping?) that the advertising and messaging agenda alone will move the needle. These leaders think about how their brand can not only communicate their strengths, but also be used to truly energize and accelerate the business.”

And vice versa I would suggest.

Photo of “Eclipse” taken by motjetom, sourced from Flickr


Cutting through as a brand

By Mark Di Somma

Cutting through as a brand

The debacle over the Rob Lowe DirecTV ads and the accuracy of their claims is a reminder of just how much pressure marketers are under to get cut-through. Thing is – where’s the cut off point? How do you decide whether the claims you’re making are justified and how do you know you have pushed the boat out too far? Putting aside the legal considerations (not my space), here are four simple ways to filter what you should and shouldn’t say:

Prove-able – Can you substantiate the claim? This should be obvious, but it’s remarkable how many brands claim to be the market leader or the most advanced or the key influencer when in fact they are nothing of the sort. Their claims are hope or fantasy – and the proof that they are fetching comes in the plethora of small print that accompanies the statements or in the use of qualifying language. It’s disingenuous, for example, to say that over 90% of people think something when your sample size is tiny or to imply that drinking or doing something is going to achieve significant changes to weight or health when the get-out-of-jail disclaimer “Results may vary” is being used in such a way as to really mean ‘You haven’t got a hope in …. of achieving anything like this”.

Interesting – If you’re going to tell consumers something about your brand, tell them something they will be interested in. I’m always surprised at how many brands disappear down a rabbit-hole of self-indulgence or self-justification when it comes to thinking why people will find their stuff fascinating. Rule of thumb – your brand is almost never as exciting to buyers as it is to you. If you’re struggling to make your brand seem interesting, here’s a suggestion. It’s probably not. And the only people who can change that are you. Getting the ad agency to find a way to repaint that particular elephant in the room may prove their artistic and creative skills but can only do damage to the trustworthiness of the brand as a whole.

Symmetrical – A great paper by Suzanne Shu and Kurt Carlson (referenced here) argues that three has a symmetry that marketers would do well to follow. Three sequential claims make sense, for example, while three viewings of an ad is the sweet spot between awareness and boredom. Jamming your marketing with claims in the hope that some will stick simply confuses everyone. Playing the same message endlessly has people reaching for the remote.

Real – In the bid to substantiate difference, brands love to wheel out awards as credentials. I’ve lost count of the number of award-winning cars I’ve seen for example. It almost feels like everyone has won something. The thing is, stating what you’ve won is meaningless, literally, if it doesn’t mean anything to the people you are marketing to. When everyone is “X of the Year”, no-one is. Unless you have a credential that displays acknowledged distinction, the epaulets you are pinning all over your campaign are little more than wallpaper. They are as reassuring as everyone else’s reassurances.

All of this points to an obvious shortfall: the continued absence of compelling value in offerings across so many markets. I really do wish that more brands would spend more time working through what they really have to offer and why consumers would be interested instead of spending up large and faking it in the media. Everyone talks about differentiation and integrity and reputation as if they are givens, but sadly too many still devolve to cheap shots, desperate discounting or mischief when that search becomes too hard or they find that what they have to work with simply doesn’t cut it.

Photo of “Satellite Mind Control”, sourced from Flickr

10 ways to achieve brand leadership

By Mark Di Somma

10 ways to achieve brand leadershipMarketers often talk about being a brand leader as if it is one thing. But there are many different ways that a brand can distinguish itself in a marketplace. The critical decision for brand owners is deciding how you will lead and why that will work.

Scale – The immediately obvious strategy. You build a bigger, more imposing brand than your competitors; one that enables you to heavily influence critical market rules. You use this size and market dominance to become the looked-for brand in your sector across the world. This strategy focuses on footprint and familiarity but of course it takes time, acuity and plenty of capital.

Price – You can develop brands that attract above-market margins because they’re craved. The focus on margin-per-product means you can pursue leadership through returns, so size is actually far less important. You can even be low profile. This strategy focuses on excellence and esteem. You’ll fight the price-cutting imitators though all the way to the bank.

Thinking – You can drive what the market talks about by putting your brand at the epicentre of what gets discussed. Thought leader status will get you attention and coverage which will in turn increase your overall presence and potential influence. Your biggest challenge will be to convert that reach into bankable returns.

Likeability – You can be the brand that everyone would like the others to be and the one whose behaviours, products and attention to detail are quoted as exemplary. You’ll need a powerful and compelling sales funnel to convert all that love into dollars. And public emotion can shift quickly, so whilst this is an enjoyable option it’s not necessarily a bankable one.

Change – You can rock the boat. You can drive shifts in performance, mindset, reach, payment, interest, audiences and/or product. You can be the research-driven brand that everyone looks to for next actions; the brand that never sleeps. Not everything you do will score a home run (perhaps it’s not intended to), but you’ll need at least one shape-shifter hit to make all the prospecting worth it.

Story – You can tell the story that has everyone listening. Similar to leading by thinking, but this approach focuses on involvement. Purpose and journey underpin how you lead. Engagement is how you stay addictive. The trick here is to balance the elements that have people hooked with those that get them paying. Get it right and this is a difficult strategy to counter.

Attitude – You can be the brand that everyone cheers: the people’s champion; the challenger; the dissident. You lead because you act, and those actions and your outspoken views garner reaction from all and sundry. The amplifying effect of all that can be dizzying in terms of social media attention. The challenge, once again, will be to convert the agreement and dissent you generate into money.

Expertise – You are technically better at what you do than everyone around you. A lot of brands like the idea of this, but in reality it’s an extremely difficult way to gain leadership. It’s a crowded approach. It’s difficult to substantiate. It’s even more difficult to maintain. And unless you combine it with strong storytelling, it can be cold and unappealing. In a global market where everyone is good, someone has to be the best – but why you, for what gain and for how long? Those are the key questions to consider if you’re pondering this approach.

Place – You can lead in a specific market or markets. The secret to doing this successfully is ensuring you have the scale your brand requires and telling a story that emphasises the connectedness you have with the area/region in which you operate. The advantage of this approach is that you are competing within an environment that you know, commercially and culturally. This is a highly effective approach for those who want to focus their competitiveness geographically rather than casting their net far and wide.

Culture – You can build the leading brand in your sector from the inside-out. This is all about developing the most high-performing organisation possible. Two things are critical – how you measure that, and how you expound on your achievement-focused approach in the marketplace. High performing cultures are efficient, talent-focused and tight. They have a powerful sense of their potential and the opportunities. The challenge is to ensure that the energy turns outward so that people encourage each other to achieve the most competitive whole.

Ultimately, how you lead as a brand is decided by what, where and why you compete as a brand. Every brand leader will incorporate several of these elements in their leadership blend: the differences are in how and to what effect – particularly for character. Large or liked? Storied or placed? Profitable or purposeful? These critical decisions about priorities will significantly influence how you compete and how and where you present yourselves across the world.

Photo of “one world” taken by Kai Schreiber, sourced from Flickr

Why context is crucial before changing your brand

By Mark Di Somma and Hilton Barbour

Why context is crucial before changing your brandIt’s tempting to see a struggling brand or business as one mass of people, and to believe that underperformance is spread evenly across the organisation. That’s seldom the case.

Often there are organisational bright spots (teams that inspire or could inspire those around them) and there are other parts where things are not good. Usual points of tension? Frontline and middle management. Frontline – because they feel unsupported and under huge pressure to achieve goals. Middle management – because they’re classically sandwiched between the upward pressure from the teams they’re leading and the downward pressure of the goals and objectives set by the executive teams.

Often when executives try to address that underperformance through a change initiative, the impulse is to throw a collective net over everyone. That seldom works and is often an inefficient knee-jerk response. Particularly if the current culture of the organisation isn’t taken into consideration.

In this piece in Forbes, Steve Denning explains why. An organisation’s culture he says is “an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions. The elements fit together as an mutually reinforcing system and combine to prevent any attempt to change it. That’s why single-fix changes … may appear to make progress for a while, but eventually the interlocking elements of the organizational culture take over and the change is inexorably drawn back into the existing organizational culture.”

That isn’t to suggest that change will inevitably fail when it’s introduced to an existing culture. It does mean that executives need to be more mindful – and nuanced – when introducing change initiatives.

Denning’s suggestion? A three tier programme of leadership tools (including story), management tools and compliance tools for those who need more of a “nudge” to tow the line. The key problem he identifies is one of approach. Organisations over-emphasise compliance and story but fail to put in place the management tools that will make change happen. That’s why of course middle managers have such resentment for change programmes – because they have nothing to work with, but huge expectations to work to.

We don’t disagree. But, we believe, there’s a step that precedes the answer. Finding the real problem. Not the problem as it appears to those in charge – but the real problem in the marketplace. In today’s service focused economy, you can’t deal with what you must do yourselves unless it’s grounded in what you’re not doing for others.

That’s the critical context setting that change initiatives must have: less of an instinctive focus on what is changing and a more critical focus on why change is necessary.

Chances are that the problem can be summarised in one of six statements – and ideally only one.
1. We’re too slow to keep pace with our competitors
2. We’ve made a big mistake
3. We’re in the wrong business because everything’s changed around us
4. We lack judgment
5. We don’t communicate well
6. We act badly

It’s critical to state a problem this simply. It’s also revealing, because it goes directly to the shortfall that should be the focus of changes in strategy. Anything less is going to be a rearrangement of the deckchairs.

That’s why we often talk in terms of “burning platforms” for change. And if the change you’re seeking is large and complex, you better have a “burning platform” if you’re going to have any hope of galvanizing an organisation.

Case in point, a business that is not responsive enough, for example, should be aiming to re-energise how it works – faster, in a more agile manner, with greater customer-centricity. If Professor James Heskett is right, and effective cultures account for 20 – 30 percent of the differential in corporate performance compared to “culturally unremarkable” competitors, then changes should be outcome-driven and outcome-judged. And so many changes aren’t.

Too often the context and imperative for change isn’t stated explicitly and simply so that all employees get “why” change is needed. Change for change sake is whimsical not strategic. And when you’re trying to instil new behaviours and challenge the status quo within your organisation, whimsical doesn’t stand a chance.

As an executive your role is to lead, often through periods of great change – but you can’t do that without giving your followers context first.

Hilton BarbourCo-authored with Hilton Barbour, Freelance Strategist & Marketing Provocateur. Hilton has led global assignments ranging from Coca-Cola, IBM, Motorola and Enron to Ernst & Young and Nokia. Working as a freelance strategist allows him to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about business, people and trends. An avid blogger, Hilton’s personal mantra is “Question Everything”. Follow him at @ZimHilton.

Photo of “Sculpture in Context 2010 At The Botanic Gardens (ref:87), taken by William Murphy, sourced from Flickr


The fast and slow pace of brands

By Mark Di Somma

The fast and slow pace of brandsIn a market filled with possibilities, there is power and focus in constraint. I pressed this point home recently in a discussion on why brands can’t just continue to add to their visual language. The argument I was getting – we need an extended palette to show the diversity of what we do and to prevent our brand looking monochromatic. My view – that adding layer upon layer of visual language to a brand doesn’t free up anything. On the contrary, it adds complexity that make no sense to buyers and that end up looking confused in the shopping aisle.

There’s always a reason to add more detail for those who want to find one: “we need to tell people this”; or “that snippet is interesting”; or “they won’t know what to do if we don’t explain this in detail”. But marketing is not about an outpouring of information, at least not for the sake of it. Marketing is about clarity and simplicity and giving people reasons to engage. Cluttered brand language systems are not clear to anyone beyond those who designed them. The consistency of brands, and the discipline that requires, is what gives them their power and equity.

Marketers struggle sometimes to pace brands to the speeds of consumers. There’s a tendency to believe that everything must change, change, change – and that brands that aren’t always adding or shifting will lose attention. All the talk of innovation and customer impatience fuels that. The reality is something different. Buyers need brands to be familiar and interesting, not one or the other.

In an address at an Evernote conference last year, Stewart Brand made these observations about societal change that are equally relevant, albeit within much shorter timeframes, for those contemplating changes to brands. Society, he says, moves and changes at different speeds and those layered paces of change are healthy: “the fast parts learn; the slow parts remember. The fast parts suppose things; slow parts dispose things and keeps things that are important. The fast is discontinuous (moves in quick cycles); the slow is continuous. The fast and small instruct the slow and big with accrued innovation and occasional revolutions. At the same time … the slow and big parts control the fast and small with constraints and with constancy.”

That mix of change and memory is a wonderful articulation of the power of pace, and a reminder to all of us that we need to carefully and patiently manage the two-speed nature of the assets we work with. Brands that don’t adapt die. The attrition rates prove that. But brands that change too quickly out-pace consumers’ ability to re-learn. Working within finite resources keeps brands focused. It keeps palettes within recognisable and manageable boundaries. It keeps language within a certain tone. It ensures that the strategies driving the brand don’t become distracted or diluted. It keeps brand ranges and extensions within confines that make sense.

The challenge for most brands is not in piling on layer upon layer of change and ideas. It is in moving at the right paces at the right times in ways that take people with you. The impact of telling is utterly blunted if it is not paired with the judgment of timing.

Photo of “Detail” taken by Yann Gar, sourced from Flickr

The future for iconic brands

By Mark Di Somma

The future for iconic brands

Familiarity is something every marketer craves for their brand. They want the marque they are responsible for to be known, asked for, a household name. But does icon status in and of itself guarantee anything anymore?

In 2013, I examined how companies were able to create iconic advertising. Recently, in an article on the proposed Heinz-Kraft merger, Teresa Lindeman observed that the centre aisles of grocery stores were the epicentre of innovation a century ago, and that many of the resulting products, from these two companies, went on to achieve that coveted icon status. Processed cheese, condiments, Planters, Miracle Whip, ketchup … Household names indeed. But as Don Stuart points out, products like these may be seen as icons but that status alone doesn’t necessarily drive sales. “You remember them fondly. But they may not be part of your regular routine.” After all, “Millennials don’t necessarily put Miracle Whip on every sandwich, keep a jar of Planters peanuts in the cabinet or cook Oscar Mayer hot dogs and dump some Heinz ketchup on them.”

When these two companies come together to form the third-largest food and beverage company in North America, will growth spring from expanding the footprint of the collective brand footprint or shrinking the cost base? I’m reminded of the observation that if you were to cross-breed a blue whale and an elephant, you wouldn’t end up with a sports car. There’s no indication that bringing big things together results in a new thing that is sleeker or goes faster. Equally, bringing iconic brands together in a super-portfolio does not automatically upgrade the relevance of the brands involved. It simply groups what is already familiar in ways that appeal to shareholders but may or may not work for consumers.

That’s the danger of familiarity, or rather over-familiarity, at a time when attention spans are shorter than they have ever been. What people recognise and what they are drawn to are not one and the same thing. Icons can quickly become statues – big, imposing but lacking any sense of life. In order for this behemoth to flourish, presence alone will not be enough. The new business will need to leverage their new-found scale to re-shape the nature and direction of the middle aisle once again. And they will be doing so at a time when, according to CNBC, consumers are moving away from processed foods. The industry, that has been long very safe and predictable, is now experiencing unsettling breakdowns in barriers to entry.

If we follow Auro Trini Castelli’s suggestion, the new company will need to do six things to retain its brands’ iconic status:

1. Align purpose, presence and values – they will need to frame their offering in terms that are fresh, relevant and that align directly with the things they hold dear. Size alone doesn’t make you iconic in a world where scale is the norm. To remain iconic, the new company will need an idea of equal size and distinction around which to congregate everything that they offer across the world. And to do that effectively, they will, as Hilton Barbour points out here, need to align the new culture around a vitalising sense of purpose. Or wither.

2. Identify places to gather – they will need to reinvigorate the centre aisle as a place of interest. To do that, they will probably need to redefine the social significance of an area that is traditionally not particularly inviting and that most of us rush through in our bid to get back to work or home. At the same time, they will need to find ways to counter the calls to gather (competing) food elsewhere.

3. Create new habits – they may need to reformat what they offer to keep pace with a world that has shifting food priorities. That doesn’t necessarily mean a revolution. It may mean rethinking how the foods and beverages they offer are prepared or positioned, or those products may need to be aligned around changing behaviours that appeal to a broader audience than traditional Kraft and Heinz buyers.

4. Revisit their iconography – it may well be that, given all of the above, the brand identities themselves need to be tweaked to re-symbolise what the new company stands for. Many brands that consumers would regard as steady and unchanging have in fact altered and honed their visual presentation over time.
Icons may depend on their history but they also rely on freshness to keep catching the eye of consumers.

5. Re-iterate their relevance – education is critical to articulating what an iconic brand can mean for today’s generations. To capitalise on their iconic status, the brands will need to position themselves in new ways to buyers, through re-thought serving options, new target markets and new ways of being seen that makes the decision to choose a Heinz or Kraft brand exciting and not just reliable.

6. State who and what they love and what they don’t – in line with everything above, these brands are going to have to be much more vocal about what they stand for and champion, and the things that they regard as their enemies. Castelli gives the great example in the article of how Lego has championed imagination, creativity and play and chosen to make enemies of glue and permanence.

Will Kraft and Heinz pursue this iconic strategy after the dust has settled? I have no way of knowing. But it is a great example, of why iconic brands should never rest on their laurels and why restructuring in efficiencies alone may work for the bottom line but will not correspondingly improve brand equity. In the world of brand, if you’re not a living icon, you’re a dying one. The brands of Kraft and Heinz will need to continue to evolve and to improve if they are to make the most of the recognition and familiarity they have earned, and that shareholders have paid billions for. One investment may actually require another if it is to work to its potential.

Photo of “lion statue” taken by Ulbrecht Hopper ( sourced from Flickr

Synchronising the speed of your brand

By Mark Di Somma

Synchronising the speed of your brand

How fast do you want to grow? Even the question is loaded. At a time when rapid seems to be the only desirable speed for everything, it’s easy to believe that foot-to-the-floor is the only pace in town.

Certainly much of what we read would have us thinking so. Take this Hubspot post for example on 11 companies that have all grown their awareness as quick as lightning. Uniqlo did it by partnering; Dropbox through sharing; Hubspot themselves through their Website Grader. Hats off to each of them. But let me proffer an alternative equation – one that looks to align three line-speeds that have tended to operate independently of each other.

From all the work I’ve done with internal cultures, with marketing goods and services and in communicating with investors, one key learning has emerged: when companies separate the operating speeds of their culture, their product lines and their investors, things quickly get confused. Fast cultures with slow times-to-market rapidly become impatient with those they see as responsible for not marketing and distributing quickly enough. Slow cultures with fast times-to-market struggle to keep up. As a result, errors and short cuts creep in as people try to meet demand. Brands that take their time to build a market may also find themselves at odds with impatient investors wanting faster returns on their investments. Throw social media messages and their metrics into the mix and it’s easy to see why everyone can become confused as to where the brand is at.

The problem: pace. The speed that the company works at, the speed it trades at and the speed that it reports and returns at are off-kilter. To help reconcile the needs of the three groups, brands need to synchronise their brand speeds, and in so doing set clear expectations to all involved as to why the tempo has been set at that rate.

Here are three examples:

Considered: Some brands need to be deliberate in how they grow. Brands moving into bold new territories, those expanding into unfamiliar territories and those emerging from crisis need to ensure that each step is carefully and thoroughly planned.

These brands need to ensure that their cultures are calm, clear and determined, that their product releases are measured, confidently launched and deeply supported, and that their investors know to be patient and to expect less growth than they might be getting elsewhere, for now at least.

Because this pace of work is so dependent on belief and trust, a company’s leadership makes or breaks the considered approach. Strong leaders will run the key messages and ride the rollercoasters to get their companies through these trying times. Those who are less resilient will give in to the urge to go faster sooner, sometimes with disastrous results.

Responsive: Brands in dynamic environments and under pressure from proactive rivals need to work in a state of high awareness. Their unrelenting quest must be to ensure that their cultures are energised, their products highly competitive and their investors sensitive to the capital fluctuations that a sustained presence in such marketplaces requires. These brands will need to keep their people motivated and well supported, match their rivals in some parts of the market and outpace them in others, and deliver dividends that meet market guidance wherever possible.

Purpose and brand valuation are critical conversations in these environments. Internally, the brand will need to motivate people with ideas that reach beyond results, and that generate a culture with purpose where staff are motivated to deliver at a sustained pace. Product investment will need to balance current needs, future requirements and the propping up or letting go of weaker brand performers. Meanwhile the messages to investors will need to use effective brand valuation models to show not just what the brand is worth now, but how the current strategies will inject further value within set timeframes. Without wanting to get into the politics of brand valuation models, Joanna Seddon makes some excellent points in this paper on revisiting the brand valuation process to make it more investment-friendly.

Immediate: Fast growing brands demand a lot of everyone, but their energy and rate of growth are also significant motivators. These brands will need to maintain something of a “start-up” culture, move rapidly to acquire footprint and awareness, and in doing so, will often work through a lot of capital. Much of the focus for staff, products and investors alike is on what’s ahead, meaning that often the three groups are aligned in their hopes and expectations. These are exciting times, but at some point, growth will slow and the challenge for leaders will be to steer staff and investors into a new stage of expansion that is either more responsive or considered.

Just as markets move up and down, so the pace of brands can shift in response to a range of stimuli. Rather than treating culture, product and investors as different aspects of the business and having separate conversations about each, brands should in my view look to integrate messages more clearly and address the wider and interdependent ways in which brands need to work today.

People inside the organisation should be more aware of what investors expect and why. Marketing, distribution and supply functions should align with what the culture is best capable of delivering. And investors should be aware of why the brand needs to slow down/speed up and what that means for them. Talking up one aspect whilst hoping that the others will catch up is not the basis for healthy growth. On the contrary, it’s sowing the seeds for all-round disappointment and frustration.

Photo of “SLOW” taken by Steven Depolo, sourced from Flickr



Brand experiences as coincidences

By Mark Di Somma

Brand experiences as coincidences

Marketers can be surprisingly heavy-handed. The temptation, especially with big brands, is to thunder out answers that let customers know, in unequivocal terms, that they have been recognised. Think about the almost coarse way in which airlines greet their frequent fliers – with a bunch of features dressed up as privileges and a tiered recognition system that allocates them a colour.

It’s almost as if brands can’t help themselves. Informed by the mountains of data they have collected, many seem compelled to flash this knowledge under the noses of buyers, and to deliver “experiences” that are framed around that knowledge. Even customer-centric organisations like Amazon let you know what they know. So does Google. So does Facebook. In the cases of Google and Facebook, the ad placements are so blatant that everyone with an ounce of awareness recognises that what they are being served up is no coincidence.

And that’s my point. Perhaps brands should be a little more circumspect in how they frame what people get. Not to be deceitful or opaque – but because happenstance is a powerful motivation for anyone. Coincidence turns the everyday into the extraordinary. And that sense of surprise – that unexpected but fulfilling encounter – is an opportunity too often missed it seems to me.

The experiences we remember as consumers are not the manufactured moments that everyone else got too. The times we remember are the ones that were special to us, that seemed to arrive with perfect singularity and that transformed something that was otherwise uneventful into an instance that we love to replay – even years later. In a world where so much is expected and too little is spontaneous, perhaps it’s time brands found ways to design for surprise.

The urgency for this rethink shouldn’t be underplayed. The Customers 2020 Report is predicting that by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key point of competitive advantage for brands. Customers will dictate the experiences that they want, and they will want those experiences to be more personal, faster to the point of proactive and anticipatory, and across the many platforms they feel comfortable using. To respond effectively, companies will need to source all the market intelligence they can gather in order to know the people they deal with better. But knowledge alone won’t be enough.

Nor will innovation. In this article on why, Patrick Newbery describes the need for a new playbook: one where experiences are designed around the brand’s values; that recognise the different behaviours and priorities of people at different buying points; and that present the brand in ways that add new meaning to the perceptions customers already have of the brands they interact with.

The coincidental opportunity it seems to me lies at the nexus of these ideas: knowing as much as possible, and at the same time, orchestrating things based on that deep pool of knowledge that just seem to happen, as if by magic, for consumers.

The designer Dries van Noten once described coincidence as the convergence of different ideas. To me, that’s exactly how brand experiences should be fashioned – they should bring together something that someone did expect with something they didn’t in ways that expand and elaborate the brand and make it more interesting. Disney do that through a combination of people, absolute commitment to their core promise, listening to guests, putting those guests in control of the experiences they have, and technology.

Brand coincidences can occur as extended offers, astute additions, perfectly timed gestures that (happen to) correspond with what people didn’t realise, or were just realising, they wanted right about now. Big data makes that possible. But deft touch makes that magical. And it’s that feather light control of the serendipitous, delivered with discretion and perfect timing, that brands need to get much better at.

As a brand you know so much. But the real challenge in transforming that into moments that are unforgettable stems from a different question altogether: where are the quiet little delights that prove the brand and happen to make experiences truly personal?

Photo of “Converging Traffic” taken by H. Michael Miley, sourced from Flickr


How should your brand support your sales team?

By Mark Di Somma

How should your brand support your sales team

While there has been plenty of discussion around how marketing and sales teams should play well together, the onus on brand owners to proactively support people in the field seems to have attracted less attention. Customers, of course, make no distinctions between which parts of the organisation they are dealing with at any one time. In that sense, brand is sales: a brand is only as good as its ability to attract, convert and retain fickle buyers.

So, could brand managers be doing more to help sales and frontline teams? Here are four ways that these historically distinct teams can get more done together.

Build a brand that people want to meet. Salespeople are going to struggle to get appointments if they represent a brand no-one wants to know. Likeability is absolutely a brand responsibility. By creating a brand that is insightful, honed, intriguing and trusted, brand teams can directly help open the door for sales. The more inclined buyers are to want to know more, the more likely they are, obviously, to take a call or a meeting, ask for a demo or search a site. The real power of perception lies in what it enables, and brand owners should be judging their effectiveness on that basis. The responsibility for brand people couldn’t be more clear-cut: build an interesting brand that is a pleasure to sell and represent.

Create environments where people come to you. So often, marketers expect sales teams to be the bridgers and closers. They expect them to take what has been prepared out into the world and to bring back new business. That’s a very one-sided view of marketing – because, in reality, brand owners should be intimately involved in the development of communications campaigns and branded environments, online and off-, that invite customers in and make them feel welcome. The role of sales is to drive and close decisions in favour of the brand. The role of brand is to help those decisions feel valuable.

Weave the brand through everything you do. The brand and what it represents should be the benchmark for all customer-facing behaviour, and sales teams are no exception to this. But if the things they are rewarded for are off-skew with the brand’s values and priorities, then brand and sales will continually be at odds. For that reason, be very careful that what you encourage, recognise and incentivise in your sales team is in keeping with who you say you are and what you say you prioritise. Compassionate brands don’t reward greed. Exciting brands don’t accept complacency. Innovative brands want more on their frontline than order takers. Too many companies have sales cultures, marketing cultures and corporate cultures that are conflicted. Each carries an impression of what the brand is and what the brand encourages into their work and out into the world. As a result, brand encounters can be confusing, even contradictory, for buyers making decisions across different channels. No brand should be confusing. It dissipates meaning and energy. Getting everyone to understand the brand and to apply it specifically to what is required of them takes investment, time and clarity. Money well spent.

Make the whole of the frontline the heroes. The sales teams are not servants of the brand, or the marketing team for that matter. So often brands see their frontline people in functional terms, rather than empowering them to be, and positioning them as, the implementers, the solution finders, the people who actually vitalise the brand. In not positioning their frontline teams – from sales to contact centres to technical support – as brand heroes, they open gaps between what the brand promises and what it can deliver and miss significant opportunities to test the alignment and effectiveness of theory and practice.

John Levasseur talks about the need for brands to be both orchestrated and organic: organised; and flexible. Frontline teams, he says, have a critical role to play in keeping brands real and connected with the true market. “When marketers spend time listening to customers or are out on the floor with sales staff, they always walk away with “aha” moments that connect the brand research and data with their experience with customers.” These experiences, he says, help connect the orchestrated brand that marketers oversee and curate with the organic brand that front-line teams work with.

Three thoughts to close:
1. Structures are less important than results – ultimately there is no frontline and back-office in a business. Brands live or die on their abilities to engage, interact and sell.
2. Your brand is only as good as what you deliver – if your frontline teams, including your sales teams, are selling without a clear understanding of why they should be proud, you have effectively reduced motivation and consistency to serendipity.
3. Insights close gaps – unless strategists and deliverers are in alignment and have feedback and insight mechanisms that enable continuous improvement, there is always the risk that the brand on paper and the brand in reality will be at odds.

Photo of “The Help”, taken by Marina del Castell, sourced from Flickr

How do you measure brand potential?

By Mark Di Somma

How do you measure brand potential

Whilst the measures for evaluating what a brand is worth are well established, those for quantifying a brand’s potential seem less so. In general, brands are valued on their residual equity (what they are associated with and the depth and competitiveness of that association), their competitive performance and how much they are assessed to be worth.

Those metrics provide a snapshot of what the brand is worth now – and, with tracking, it is possible to spot trends over time – but they do not necessarily work to quantify the potential for a brand looking ahead. These are the measures I use to assess where a brand could go, and whether there is a business case for further investment.

How franchisable is the brand association? Brands generate value through the emotions they stir in consumers. There is some debate as to how we should treat the various aspects of brand association (as one thing or as a series of elements) but overall emotion is a lynchpin of a brand’s ability to compete. The question I like to ask is – where could the brand go on that emotion? What’s the feeling worth – and where?

Nike used the concepts of athleticism and democracy (Just do it) to expand their business into a powerful sports and lifestyle brand. And the emotion was so lucrative because it was universal. There were no impediments culturally to the acceptance of those ideals anywhere. Where could the associations that are the cornerstones of your brand take the brand and how big is the market for that? More importantly, is that aspirational market just bigger or is it actually more valuable?

How much is the brand talked about? Brands need to be buzzworthy, but there also needs to be correlation between awareness and return, and that equation often gets missed. The metrics of visits and likes are secondary to the overall favourability that the brand attracts (especially in sectors where reviews are highly influential) and to intensity of the ownership that consumers have for the brand. The critical translation though is how that talk and awareness at the open end of the sales funnel translates to conversion and profit.

In the light of this, it’s important to assess the talkability of your plans. Why will what’s being planned be exciting to consumers? How and why will they pick up the news and share it? Why will they want to be part of it? (rather than just how is the company going to promote it?) Who will the brand reach that it doesn’t reach now? And how will that change the conversation for the better and to your advantage?

Where is the brand seen? Who wants to be seen with your brand, and what are they prepared to pay for that? It’s easy to be flattered when a huge distributor bats their eyelids at you and says they would like to stock you – but if they are only prepared to do so at prices that work for them, you have gained reach at the expense of return. And if they are a volume operator, then the conversation you are going to have with them is always going to pivot around efficiencies. On the other hand, if your brand is too closely held, that may limit your ability to expand your customer base.

The important question here is – where would you like to be seen, and do their plans correlate with yours in terms of growth and desired perceptions? I always look for distribution arrangements where the parties have similar ambitions and paces of change. Can you go with them as they expand or will you be left behind?

How will the brand perform? At one level this is about the numbers everyone talks about already – market share, top-line sales, return on capital … but the fundamental questions in assessing the potential of brand performance are more comparative. They focus on what has fuelled the brand’s performance up until now and the conclusions that can be drawn for how it will perform in the months ahead.

There are two critical questions. The first: to what extent does the company’s performance exceed organic growth? If your company has grown at the same rate as everyone around it, then it has met the market – but that’s all it has done. You have succeeded through presence and participation rather than through the strength of your brand, because a strong brand should exceed what the market naturally delivers.

Second question: to what extent has your brand resisted market dynamics? Every brand commoditises in value over time – as technology changes, competitors react and new ideas take hold. The extent to which your brand can resist the downward spiral is a strong indicator of the performance of your brand. Does your brand enable you to successfully maintain pricing that exceeds the market average? If the only way you could grow was to downgrade your price, then your brand is not an above-market performer. If you grew and keep prices steady at a time when everyone else lost margin, then your brand has above-market strength and that augurs well for future performance.

How intensely is your brand owned by consumers? Brands love or die on their ability to become habits in consumers’ lives. A critical assessment for me in quantifying potential is how embedded the brand is now in the lives of those who loyally buy and the level of capacity for that to expand. This question links with the one about brand association: it’s about evaluating your brand’s ability to grab a greater portion of what Millward Brown describes as “share of life” and the speed at which you can realise and maintain that at the expense of your competitors.

I often ask a very simple question – how much of their time do you want? Simple it may be, but this line of enquiry goes to the heart of your potential to grow as a brand. Will they spend more time with what you offer now (if so, why?) or will you introduce new lines to grab more of their attention? What will they pay for those, why will they choose to do so and how will those new product lines redefine you as a brand?

How intensely is your brand owned by your own people? (HT Hilton Barbour) Every brand is only as strong as the people that believe in it and drive it from the inside out. If your own people are not evangelists for your brand, then chances are your organisation will lack initiative and momentum. A powerful purpose, clear values, a suggestion-focused culture, a market leadership mentality and an environment that promotes teamwork and rewards participation and results – these are the five makers of brand potential from the inside-out.


It’s easy to simply throw “targets” at a brand and hope they stick. A more thorough assessment of your brand’s potential for growth may not be as exciting from a presentation point of view, but from a resources point of view, it will enable you to direct budgets more succinctly and effectively at brands with substantiated performance. When the business strategy is overlaid, clear priorities for where you should be expending energy, effort, money and comms should emerge.

Photo of “Measure a thousand times, cut once”, taken by Sonny Abesamis, sourced from Flickr


6 ways to keep your lead as a brand

By Mark Di Somma

6 ways to keep your lead as a brand

Everyone talks about growth and for the need to become a market leader. But once you’ve become the number one player, then what? What do you do after that to retain the lead you’ve worked so hard to get and that has now made you the target of everyone else’s aspirations?

More of the same is not a strong enough answer. Eventually, your competitors will catch you up, and others will see your success and look for ways to move in and capitalise. Here are six ways that you can proactively work to advance the gains you have made.

1. Change the rules in your favour. As the dominant market player, you have a major influence over the dynamics of the sector. Shifting the way the sector competes and/or the very nature of the product itself changes the ground for all. It forces your competitors to find new ways of doing what they know, pushing them onto the back foot and into reactive mode. By changing what’s delivered, what’s mattered, even what’s possible, you fundamentally rewrite the rules for everybody. The difference is you are the one with the playbook. Others are forced to wait and see what you do next or to guess where the game is going.

2. Expand your influence. In this article, Philip Kotler quotes Jack Welch who challenged his people to redefine the market to one in which your company has a share of no more than 10%. His examples include Coca Cola, which sought to define itself as a beverage company rather than a soft drink company, and Taco Bell, which saw opportunities to expand its footprint from in-store to everywhere. Whilst we could debate whether either company has acted on those realisations to anything like their potential, that doesn’t mean that the expansion strategy itself is not valid, particularly where related markets have weak players that will make gaining a foothold relatively easy. Changing the market space within which you work brings you capacity for expansion and stops you stalling as the biggest fish in the pond (where growth is limited to how quickly you can organically grow the market you already dominate).

3. Build new relationships. Leaders like other leaders. If your brand dominates a market, are there bridges you can build with other non-competing brands that will benefit both parties. Those relationships could be in the form of joint ventures, partnerships or sponsorships. While insurance companies, quick service restaurants, autos, telcos, hospitals and beer all sponsor NFL teams to various degrees, 100% of NFL properties report having Gatorade as a sponsor. By tying themselves so closely to the billion dollar industry of professional football, Gatorade have taken their profile out of the fridge and onto the field. They have literally made themselves part of a very big game.

The other option of course is acquisition. By buying up smaller brands, market leaders can reduce the level of opposition and directly increase their share of the market. Nike’s acquisition of Umbro has “extended its position as the biggest football Company in the world”.

4. Find new enemies. If you’ve fought off your competitors, maybe the next option to consider is a bigger fight than any you’ve been associated with to date. 90% of Americans are more likely to trust brands that back social causes. By aligning your brand with a bigger idea than what you offer right now, you change the parameters for your social impact and in so doing you attract consumers who previously may never have considered you. A word of caution – any cause won’t do. You need to pick a fight with an enemy that others have not engaged with and that your brand is deeply qualified to attack and expand upon. So it must be an enemy that aligns with your values and reputation.

5. Close the system – If you lead the market, the most effective thing you can do is to increase the dependence that consumers have on your product lines. How do you do that and retain profitability? Follow Apple’s lead – and nurture the ecosystem. While Apple is open at a notional level to competing products, the genius of the Apple system is that it works at its optimum when Apple products are used in concert. Apple grows the dependence on (and the profitability of) its product lines by how they work together, not just separately. Having released the music player, Apple closed the loop by offering the music. Seamless hand over from one device to the other justifies having both. The Watch works best with the iPhone. The secret is benefits. The more you own, the more you get.

6. Open new markets – By opening up new channels and new geographies, market leaders in one region can expand their market penetration and their global reach. Nike still has a strong dependence on its retail partners, for example, but over the next five years plans to open up to 300 Nike-branded stores worldwide.

The harder prediction is the formation of new markets by identifying and marketing new needs that appeal to consumers sense of “want to have”. Apple invented the need for the tablet. De Beers transformed the diamond into a symbol of love. Starbucks invented the “third place”. All worked because they delivered something consumers craved once they saw and understood it.

Market leadership is often a brand’s worst enemy because it turns them from an initiator into a defender. By retaining that sense of hunger however and using their market position to their advantage, leading brands can continue to chart a powerful and independent course over which they retain strong ownership.

Photo of “Follow the Leader!” taken by Vinoth Chandar, sourced from Flickr

The role of brand in assessing business health

By Mark Di Somma

The role of brand in assessing business health

Brand will tell you a lot if you let it. How you brand, what you brand, where you’re found, who buys you and how often … these and many more questions are all things that competitive businesses ask themselves on a regular basis. I see brand as a highly effective lens for assessing the relevance and competitiveness of a company.

Here are 10 ways that you can use “brand” to reveal what your business may need to change or capitalise on:

1. Margin – are you making a rate of return that’s above what the market delivers by default? If not, there’s a good chance that your brand has or is in the process of downgrading to “commodity” status. You need to take action to change how you are valued and/or who you are more highly valued by.

2. Competitiveness – if you’re losing market share and/or you need to sacrifice margin to maintain volume (meaning your bottom line returns are decreasing), then your brand is not maintaining competitiveness. That could be because you have been eclipsed by others, the market itself has shrunk or you are not the brand you once were. You need to double down on your marketing to re-lift your profile or reposition your brand so that it is seen as part of a rising/more relevant sector.

3. Currency – one of the reasons that you may be losing competitiveness is that consumers see your business as past its best-by date. You need to find new ways to re-assert your currency by revamping your product lines and/or introducing new thinking into your offerings to make them exciting and interesting. That probably requires you to retool your product development and bring-to-market processes.

4. Distribution – how you are found and where you are found influences everything from price expectations to ease of access. If your volumes are stalled, take a good hard look at where you are outlet-ed and how efficient your value chain is in getting your goods there at a price and in a timeframe that works for you. Remember – you’re often up against one click and (free) overnight shipping online. How quick are you?

5. Capacity – if you’re running excess inventory, how carefully have you calibrated your production and your promotion systems? It’s damaging to generate demand you can’t meet and wasteful to do the opposite. Sales, marketing and operations need to be tightly co-ordinated if you are to make, market and close with minimal waste and delay.

6. Behaviours – purposeful brands understand the value of behaving in ways that are ethical and consistent. If your culture isn’t aligned on what it deems acceptable and the behaviours that it condones and rewards then you probably need to examine the values and purpose that lie at the heart of what you should be about. If these are undefined or outdated, your people could be doing your brand and your business serious reputational damage. You need to set out clear rules for what is on-brand and what is on.

7. Service – every business should deliver customer experiences that align directly with what they wish to stand for. If your marketing and your service standards are out of alignment – if you promise more than you deliver – then you are putting customer retention and loyalty at risk on a daily basis. If your returning customers numbers are below target, use a mystery shopper service or survey to find out where the shortcomings are. Focus your training on fixing those areas as quickly as possible. Define the branded customer experience that you want your customers to have and train your people to that level. To ensure that service is more than just a formula, make sure to include a mix of fixed and flexible elements, so that every service experience is predictable but also endearingly personal.

8. Loyalty – loyalty is no longer about stopping people from leaving, it’s about proactively keeping them inclined towards your brand at the expense of a competitor. Often, no-one knows better than staff the simple things you could be doing to move the business forward and to be more outgoing. Every business should be asking every employee on a daily basis “What can we do better to keep our customers excited?” That simple question is how you lock in and drive a suggestion culture.

9. Leadership – brands should always look to lead because the whole point of being a brand is to be distinctive. If you’re not breaking with the pack, you’ll always be absorbed by them. Why and how you are seen to lead is a question that pre-occupies marketers, but should also be high on the agendas of managers across the business. Without thought leadership, you will lack authority and/or foresight. Without product leadership, you will always be in catch-up mode. You lead or you lag – and your brands are tangible proof of how the market sees you and whether you are out in front. If you cannot point to clear areas of your business where you exhibit leadership, and there is no awareness that things must change, then the leadership of your business and/or the willingness of investors to contribute vital capital needs to be called into question. Frankly, managers in this situation either lack the skills and ambition or the resources and teams to put the business ahead. You can’t lead at everything, but you must lead at some things and those things must be things that really matter to your customers.

10. Visibility – if you’re not seen, you’re unseen. If you’re not being discussed, then you are being ignored. The brutality of profile is that there is no middle ground. You either have it with your brands or you don’t. Awareness doesn’t always translate to profits, but for all mainstream brands, lack of awareness is a death-knell. What people see and how they see you are obvious brand issues, but they are also a reminder to the technicians in the business that excellence that is not seen is not acknowledged.

Brands are not just present in the business for the marketing department. Your brands are the sum total of everything about your business. Therefore, nothing about the brands you market exists or should be assessed in isolation. They reflect your strengths and weaknesses, your abilities and ambitions – and their performance functions as a talisman for how well the business as a whole is competing and changing.

Photo of “stethoscope” taken by Dr Farouk, sourced from Flickr

Building the most likeable brand structure

By Mark Di Somma

Building the most likeable brand structure

Whilst much has been written about when you should revisit your brand architecture and the things you should consider in doing so, often the conversations around how to structure brands seem to centre on hierarchical concerns. “What do we have?” “How do we need to group it?” “How many levels?” “Is it consistent?”

They’re great questions. There is certainly a case for seeing brand architectures in functional and logical terms. I contend though that a brand’s architecture really exists to make sense for customers, not the brand owner. And that sense is not just rational. Here’s a nice observation: “your brand architecture should uncover the specific emotions around which you might build your brand.” In other words, your brand should be collected and organised in ways that appeal to your buyers’ emotive needs and how they want to feel about you. So what are you doing, as you remodel how your brands co-exist, to ensure that the structure is working to maximise relationships?

Here are three things to consider:

Who do customers want to interact with? As I said earlier, brand owners often arrange their brands in ways that work for them and that suit their organisational resourcing. If they think about what the consumer wants at all, they do so in the context of what the brand itself feels comfortable delivering or who it feels comfortable being.

Different brand structures put the emphasis of the relationship in very different places for consumers. A power brand, for example, pivots its appeal around a star and all the heritage, reassurance, familiarity, one point of call and/or kudos that such a single point of light delivers. A house of brands is made up of many brands but, ironically, is often just as singular in its approach to relationships – with consumers dealing with a brand in that house for a reason. Endorsement brands bring quality and standing to a brand for which consumers can need that level of reassurance.

In each case, brand managers must think through very carefully why they are choosing to position each brand as they do and how that will positively and competitively influence the perceptions of buyers. Not every brand can be the brightest star in its sector galaxy. Sometimes consumers want to work with a brand that feels very specific and/or a little less exhibitionist. In placing a brand in an architecture, does it make it as appealing as possible?

Is this as convenient as it should be? Brand architecture is often discussed in the context of access to market. By structuring their brand portfolios in different ways, brand owners can pursue distribution systems that mirror their architectures. Power brands, for example, can be offered within proprietary digital and physical environments; a house of brands enables brands to be offered in many different places at different price points, maximizing reach and perceived options.

But if a brand structure is to really work to its potential, then brand owners need to approach their architecture from the point of view of access for market – and that access may be different depending on where that market is and how consumers feel comfortable shopping. I’m not convinced that the one-system-fits-all approach of organising brand architectures globally is always right. Instead, brand owners may want to organise their brands around the habits of shoppers rather than vice versa – meaning they may want to present brands in ways that align with specific habits and cultural mores in some markets and in different ways in others.

The key consideration here is whether the brands have been structured and distributed in ways that those buying feel most comfortable with. In a digital environment, for example, consumers may not want to have to choose between lots of different brands in one place – preferring to have a focused platform with a single offer. Or they may want to see the brand in a context like Amazon. Or even a combination of the two. As distribution systems diversify and become more flexible and mobile, brands will need to be much more open-minded about how their offerings are structured.

What’s the strongest context? Different brand structures place individual brands in different contexts – from hero all the way through to contributor. Often brand owners structure their architectures simply to accommodate all their offerings but overlook the potential for value gain/loss in having the brands together in that structure.

I suggest you give careful consideration to this. What is the cumulative effect of structuring those brands in that way, and why is that an effective strategy in the light of what competitors are doing and consumers are demanding? Is your structure the clearest and strongest explanation overall that you can give of your presence in the market? Is that arrangement how you will achieve the greatest levels of likeability for all the brands?

Photo of “Scaffolding supports”, taken by Chris RubberDragon, sourced from Flickr

6 sure signs of a truly trusted brand

By Mark Di Somma

6 sure signs of a truly trusted brand

It’s the thing that every brand craves – to be an unquestioned part of its customers’ lives. But how do you know you’ve become a truly trusted brand? Here are six ways to evaluate whether your brand is winning over today’s highly aware and cynical consumers:

You’re believed: Obvious, right? Absolutely – but rare. Consumers continue to look sideways at most of the stuff that is marketed to them. By contrast, trusted brands are seen as genuine, sincere, “one of us”. As a result, they effectively act as an ally in someone’s life and the part they play is not questioned – or at least it hasn’t been until recently. According to Prof. Steven Van Belleghem, “top brands are no longer able to retain their status as market leaders for such long periods … consumers are prepared to commit to up to five brands as long as they believe the brand adds value to their lives or society in general … a certain brand paradox exists in the world today where people will wholeheartedly buy into specific brands, while putting less trust in brands in general at the same time.”

The half-life of brand trust is in decline overall. The brands that have consumers’ trust need to fight harder than ever to keep it.

You’re included: Trusted brands are supported as much for what they stand for as what they sell. Whilst I have consistently questioned the commercial conversion of Likes for brands, it is interesting to look at why people follow brands on Facebook in the first place: According to MediaPost, “Fans choose to Like brands in key consumer categories predominantly to fulfill emotional, expression and relationship desires … the single biggest reason (49%) brand Fans in our study report becoming a Fan is “to support the brand I like … Other key reasons for becoming a Fan of a brand include: “to share my personal good experiences” (31%); “to share my interests / lifestyle with others” (27%); and “seeing my friends are already a Fan or Liked” (20%)”

People trust brands that feel most like them. The “us=them” relationship adds to the perceptions of empathy, like-mindedness and shared beliefs and ideals.

You’re pursued: When you have customers beating down the door to know what you’re going to release next, as a brand like Jordan does, then you know your brand is absolutely trusted for its taste and currency. What you offer has become far more to people than something they buy. It has become something that they are proud to own.

People trust and seek out a perspective that excites them – aesthetic or philosophical.

You’re forgiven: With today’s long and complicated supply lines, brands are susceptible to scandals around contamination, lax standards or traceability. From fashion houses not looking after the welfare of workers to accusations of horse meat in food products, the days of getting away with it can largely be seen as over. Faced with a crisis of confidence, trusted brands retain the loyalty of consumers when they act swiftly, decisively and sincerely to address not just the reality but also the perception of the mistake. Back in 1990, when several bottles of Perrier were discovered to have traces of a carcinogenic, the company made a voluntary global recall. That response, and Perrier’s good name, reassured consumers that they could continue to rely on the water brand to do the right thing.

People are more inclined to trust brands that are disarmingly open.

You’re valued: My own theory is that price becomes a talking point for brands that aren’t fully trusted. If your brand is no longer accepted as delivering exceptional value, then consumers will in time relegate it to commodity status and value it accordingly. The sign that you are truly trusted in my view is when price is not a key part of the conversation.

People are more inclined to pay the asking price for brands they don’t have to ask about.

You’re copied: This may seem a strange inclusion – but it’s a sign that your brand is seen as go-to and/or that your ideas are highly attractive when your competitors seek to emulate what you are doing. If your brand is beset by imitators take it as a sign that they, and others, clearly trust your judgment. The advantage you have, and the most powerful counter-strategy you can draw on, is that they can’t read your mind. Samsung has gained huge market share in the smartphone market, but, in a strange way, their doing so has also reinforced Apple’s desirability and pre-eminence in the category and that’s clear in the resurgence of sales following the release of the iPhone 6.

People trust leaders.

If your brand enjoys high-trust status with customers, congratulations. But, as Van Belleghem reminds us, there is no opportunity here to rest on your laurels. With that in mind, 9 questions to keep asking to stay truly trusted:

  1. What are your retention rates showing? Are your earnings-per-customer rising or falling?
  2. What’s the tone of the media coverage you get? Admiring or concerned?
  3. What’s the mood in social media? How do your customers and others talk about you?
  4. What’s the take-up on your new product releases? Unquestioning or reluctant?
  5. How often do people cite you as a positive example to others? How often do they compare you, in good ways, to your competitors?
  6. What are the review sites saying about you?
  7. How well and how quickly did you recover from your last crisis?
  8. Are you getting the price you want for what you do?
  9. What do others see in you that they try to copy? How are you continuing to capitalise on that advantage to reassure your customers?

Photo of “consumer confidence” taken by Chris and Karen Highland, sourced from Flickr

Brand trust – and its role in brand differentiation

By Mark Di Somma

Brand trust and its role in brand differentiation
Brand trust resides in different places in different markets. The location and nature of that trust should directly influence how you compete.

Category – in highly regarded categories, such as the NGO sector, most if not all brands are trusted and seen as reputable. It’s hard to gain distinction in such circumstances because all/the vast majority of participants are viewed as ethical, and therefore there is little or no reputational distinction. Equally, if you are part of a sector with a bad reputation, it’s very hard to break away from the overwhelming stigma that membership in that category brings with it. In some markets, you are still pushing stuff uphill if you seriously believe you can be a trusted financial institution.

If you wish to put distance between yourself and others in a category where everyone/no-one is trusted, you have two opportunities: the first is to look for ways to disrupt the category (relatively easy in categories that are renowned for being slow, conservative or arrogant); the alternative is that you position and compete in a manner that is closer to the dynamics of a different (and often unrelated) category. Interesting things can happen when you apply the rules of one part of the market to another.

Product – in markets where one or more brands are seen as the leaders because of the products they offer, the products themselves are often viewed as interchangeable from a trust perspective. To counter this, some brands have looked to build strong and integrated ecosystems around their offerings that ensure they (only) work best when they are used together. Nevertheless, maintaining loyalty in such competitive environments is difficult. Players often get pulled into upgrade, feature or price wars in increasingly desperate attempts to out-pace and under-price their competitors. Such squabbles use up immense energy and resources and frequently do little to shift the dial in terms of overall reputation or loyalty. Inevitably, the other player(s) catch(es) up, and the cycle starts again.

In a product-vs-product environment, story is critical to differentiation. You need to be able to link your product to an idea that consumers consider every bit as important and as intriguing as the product itself – and that idea also needs to drive the innovation programme in terms of what, where and why you choose to introduce new thinking. In these circumstances, trust is generated through affinity: through the articulation of attitudes and priorities that make the product an endorsement of a wider and stronger belief system. Pulling consumers into that system and working with them to advance product lines is a great way to leverage and accentuate a shared passion/commitment.

Lego epitomises the way that smart brands are staying close to the spirit of what binds them to their consumers. Children trust Lego to be playful, even in a digital age. As this Fast Company article observed, “Lego doesn’t see technology as a looming wave to ride at all costs: As this generation of children loses the distinction between physical and digital play, Lego has learned that preserving the spirit of building will keep their toys in kids’ hands.”

Masterbrand – Sometimes category choice and product development are subsets of an even stronger idea – the trust that consumers have in the company behind the offering. Unilever and P&G have been able to diversify their portfolios on the strength of the endorsement the masterbrand brings to the offering. In the most successful cases – across areas such as fashion, luxury, retail, technology – the reputation of the super-manufacturer adds reassurance, familiarity and (often) premium. But faith cuts both ways. It can work for masterbrands – and against them. While much has been made of disastrous brand extensions and diversifications, focus can also hamper competitiveness as Mark Ritson observed. Brands that choose to believe that trust is static and therefore they do not need to evolve as rapidly as those around them can find themselves wrong-footed by shifting consumer trust.

The trouble I believe is that, in the case of masterbrands, strategists often ask the wrong question. The query “What do consumers trust our brand to deliver?” is the wrong one because it inevitably yields a business-as-usual response. The real question to my mind is, “What should consumers trust our brand to be?” In the case of Coke, consumers may trust the brand to continue to deliver sugar drinks, but they should be able to trust Coke to deliver increasingly healthy responses to the obesity epidemic. Writes Ritson, “In Coca-Cola’s case, a mind-bending 75% of its global sales still come from carbonated soft drinks despite the writing clearly being on the wall for this floundering category.”

Where consumers put their trust and what they trust to happen as a result of believing are critical identifications if you want to forge a distinctive and competitive position in a market. My advice? Start with what people believe in you for, and look to put distance between your brand and others through that belief: “They can trust us to be more _____ than anyone else they know.” Now – make sure you are.

Photo of “James, I think your cover’s blown”, taken by Ludovic Bertron, sourced from Flickr


8 ways to build a more valuable brand this year

By Mark Di Somma

8 ways to build a more valuable brand

We talk a lot about the pressures on brands to perform and about the difficulties of staying competitive in huge and rapidly changing markets. Nevertheless, global brands experienced a 12 percent increase in value in 2014 – and there are powerful lessons for all those responsible for brands in how they did that. If demand generation is part of your role, here are eight things that you can be doing in 2015 to retain reputation, stem decline and make the most of upswings in economies and consumer preferences.

1. Be part of a rising categoryAccording to Millward Brown, the top 10 apparel brands, for example, grew by 29% last year. If you have brands in this or another of the rapidly growing sectors, that’s a clear prompt to be investing to meet what is clearly increasing interest. If you don’t yet have brands in one of the rising categories, are there ways that you can naturally (and quickly) extend your brand into these burgeoning categories through acquisition, partnership, licensing and/or co-branding?

2. Be part of a resurgent economy – If your brand is spread across diverse regions, it makes sense to focus on those areas of the world where there is inherent economic growth driven by rising consumer confidence. To ride the wave, look for ways to get a foothold through an agency arrangement or work with an established player to increase their stock range. Also introduce premium lines to take advance of rising aspirations.

3. Tackle social issues – A number of sectors are fighting reputational issues at the moment. Brands in areas like fast food and soft drinks need to directly address their social impacts or risk being disrupted by healthy challengers. Equally brands with potential ethical issues – environmental, social, health-related, behaviour based or that involve processes that people feel strongly about such as animal cruelty – are going to need to show that they are actively minimising the downsides of what they do. Addressing reputational issues won’t necessarily mean growth, but it will help arrest declining sales.

4. Increase “share of life” (Millward Brown’s phrase) not just share of market by integrating and extending ecosystems. Apple are the masters of this approach, closing loops between product and content in order to retain control and to encourage consumers to stay and shop within their universe. By diversifying into new areas of interest and maximising brand equity as they do so, brands can look for smart ways to be more involved in every person’s every day. As Nigel Hollis observes, “. Apple spans our needs for entertainment, music and productivity. Amazon fulfills our need for convenience with effortless one-click shopping and relevant purchase recommendations for stuff we never knew we wanted. Nike, with its Nike+ Fuelband, has transformed itself from a mere apparel brand to a companion and coach for runners.” They do this through that they offer and what they socialise.

5. Be more convenient – By deftly and increasingly merging digital and physical interactions. Seamless experiences also cut the friction that slows down sales and/or distracts consumers into going elsewhere, particularly as digital tools play an increasingly important role in consumer journeys. According to McKinsey, “Digitization is steadily becoming the main pathway for consumer journeys. The number of digital touchpoints is increasing by 20 percent annually as more offline consumers shift to digital tools and younger, digitally oriented consumers enter the ranks of buyers … [But] The greater number of touchpoints before purchase increases the odds a consumer will encounter a deal breaker along the digital highway.”

6. Personalise and localise – By bringing brands back to a vicinity that people know and turning up the sense of individualism, even the biggest brands in the world can find ways to make themselves much more immediate to consumers. This doesn’t have to be high-tech. Coke’s simple and highly effective named labels, part of its hugely successful Share a Coke campaign, showed how enhancing the sense of high-touch could transform people’s sense of ownership. Global brewers have also found that introducing niche, craft products tailored to individual markets and tastes has allowed them to tell a counter-story to their many micro-challengers. Sometimes the biggest thing you can do as a global brand in a specific market is to act small.

7. Beautify – Fashion never sleeps. We live in a highly visualised world where our eyes are used to a rapidly changing aesthetic. Continue to review and adjust the design and style of your products and your advertising so that your brand feels “now”. This is hard, but not impossible, for brands with long lead times – but it is also relative, and chances are your competitors face the same logistical issues that you do. By continually checking the appeal of what you offer, you can introduce your brand to new segments – as Heineken did, when they added a longer neck to appeal to younger drinkers – and resist the downward pricing pressure that inevitably accompanies products that feel “tired”.

8. Break the boring – Find simple, simple ways to make life more interesting. People feel time-poor but simultaneously they are bound by habit, ritual, expectation and what technology allows them to do. Simple things like all-you-can-eat upgrades on phone plans enable consumers to work with what they know but derive greater value and pleasure from doing so. All of these initiatives will, if they are successful, be matched. The secret is to bring them to market alongside a personality that people engage with, look to, and champion.

Photo of “Ski jumper” taken by uwdigitalcollections, sourced from Flickr


Is brand differentiation still possible?

By Mark Di Somma

Is brand differentiation still possible

Short answer – yes it is, but not in the way it was.

I haven’t met a brand manager yet who didn’t tell me that they had a differentiated product. I’m not surprised. It’s part of the job description of any brand owner to be marketing something that is disruptive, market-changing, blue-ocean, category-killing … 15 years on from when I first suggested “parity is the real pariah”, every brand’s still talking up difference – but consumers are increasingly hard pressed to see any.

In some ways, marketers only have themselves to blame. Enthused by the need to be so very different from everyone else, marketers seem to have searched, then compromised and finally settled for nit-picking their way to a self-appointed category-of-one. Is it time to call time? Perhaps if more brands admitted that the chances of them redefining the universe at a product or service level were nil, they could focus more on the things that do matter.

We’ve been drawn into the innovation myth – the belief that brands can invent their way to market dominance. Most brands will never do that. At best, “innovation” (which would better be described across the majority of the market as improvement) will keep them on a par with those around them. At worst, it will lure them into risking massive resources for a difference they will never make.

So let’s talk about a shift of focus: from big picture, broad brush disruptive market plays to a new era of specific, individualised small plays. In the new world of the quantified self and the emerging Internet Of Everything, brand differentiation today is really about what a brand does for “me” not how it revolutionises whole swathes of a sector.

Will Novosedlik posted this timely reminder recently: “We’re not in the land of Trout and Ries anymore, folks. We are in a networked economy characterized by constant technological disruption, channel proliferation and fragmentation, overpopulated categories and far fewer opportunities for differentiation. Far more empowered and influential customers are forcing a shift from customer acquisition to customer retention and from messaging to experience. They don’t want to listen to brands; they wants brands to listen to them.”

Take that one step further. Not just listen – cater. They want their brands to come closer and act as an extension of their extending world. In a recent McKinsey interview with Ola Källenius, the global head of marketing at Daimler AG talked about how the luxury car maker was forging a new type of customer experience through “Mercedes me”. It seamlessly integrates what Daimler AG know universally about their cars with what each driver experiences, through a single Mercedes ID that links a driver’s smartphone with their car and the manufacturer.

This combination of big data and little data (the view that each individual forges of themselves through their habits and their social and brand choices) will in my view redefine how customers find difference across brands. Differentiation won’t be about one big thing anymore. Increasingly, it must be about a personalized configuration of ideas that click with people’s worldviews.

According to Nigel Hollis, consumers don’t see difference, but they will find it. “On average, the proportion of people willing to endorse any brand as “different from other brands of (a specific category)” is low. But perceived differentiation is only important once buyers believe that a brand is acceptable — that is, that it meets their basic needs and is an acceptable choice.”

And that’s the new confluence – to advocate a view of the world that consumers are drawn to, believe in and find “acceptable” (a concept I have previously referred to as a Unique Brand Perspective) coupled with smart and individually specific ways of connecting, increasingly through devices, that consumers find intriguing, rewarding and inspiring. Universal and personal.

Let’s stop looking for big-bang difference on the shelf because for most brands I don’t think that’s where competitiveness is going to be found going forward. And stop bragging about how great you art. Most big brands can do campaigns. There’s no differentiation there. Chances are no-one’s listening anyway. Instead:

  • Break with a simple tradition in the sector. The simpler, the better.
  • Import something simple from another sector. Again, the simpler, the better.
  • Leverage how people want to make decisions – don’t fight with it (by asking them to make decisions in ways that feel foreign to them)
  • Help consumers navigate the massive choice set that confronts them, rather than adding to the clutter with more and more information
  • Stand for something in the world that makes sense, makes headlines and aligns with what you make, not because it’s sensationalist but because enough people want to see the same change happen. (Nice piece on this by Kathy Oneto here)
  • Make everything a consumer touches endorsing of why they should seek you out more – and do that through being in touch with them, not through generalising about them

Put your money into those things, I suggest. There’s plenty there to be getting on with.

Photo of “moss park ride parking lot” taken by hobvias sudoneighm, sourced from Flickr

Balancing brand behaviours

By Mark Di Somma

Balancing brand behaviours

Your word is your brand. Or rather, if the words aren’t right and your consumers depend on them for vital information, your brand will quickly find itself in the crosshairs of regulators, activist groups and annoyed consumers. The recent case concerning the contents of herbal supplements is more than an argument over percentages; at its core lies a simple question that underpins consumer trust.

Does it do/have what it says on the box?

You can see this as a labelling issue – particularly where food is concerned. Even that soon evolves into an argument about detail, consumer knowledge and mandatory disclosure. It doesn’t change the fact though that consumers expect to get what they pay for and there are brands that continue, wittingly or unwittingly, to short-change them. The halo effect of these actions carries through to everyone else in the sector.

As Walker Smith observed last year in this piece, “Trust is a third rail for every kind of business or brand. It is an intangible requisite for staying in business of which companies dare not speak. As soon as you ask for it, you lose it. If trust cannot be taken for granted in the everyday course of business, if trust is not beyond question, then customers immediately jump to the conclusion that something is out of sorts.”

I suspect that, for some, the reason “something is out of sorts” is because two very simple words are being confused: earn; and earnings. In the bid to tell the market what they are making revenue-wise, brands sometimes overlook what they should be building reputation-wise. To earn takes time, effort, integrity and the willingness to forge. Earnings are now, today, what it says on the press release. Central to this is the ongoing tension, identified by Steve Denning in this article, between the “real market” (the world of real transactions) and the expectations market (the world in which investors form and articulate expectations of how companies should perform).

Which leads to a dilemma that to my mind remains unresolved. Whose trust should brands value most – the trust of the consumer; or the trust of the market?

That tension almost invites bad behaviour. It incentivises some to take shortcuts, overlook requirements, dilute formulations … to deliver the efficiencies required to make their numbers whilst calmly reassuring consumers that everything is as it should be. As Steve Denning observes, “The proponents of shareholder value maximization and stock-based executive compensation hoped that their theories would focus executives on improving the real performance of their companies and thus increasing shareholder value over time. Yet, precisely the opposite occurred. In the period of shareholder capitalism since 1976, executive compensation has exploded while corporate performance has declined.”

The irony here is that brands flourish on margin but wilt on greed. Once a brand reaches that critical point where its profitability has hit its ethical maximum (it is still behaving in ways that it can be proud of whilst gaining the highest level of return it can in that environment), any point beyond that is one of rising reputational risk. And as the bad behaviours mount, so does the potential fallout in terms of impacts on brand trust once those behaviours are uncovered.

I don’t know why the makers of the various supplements chose to make the decisions they did, but the companies involved are now going to have to work very hard indeed to rebuild consumer confidence. Did they think they could just get away with it? Did they squeeze their supply chains too hard? Did they really not know? Is this an isolated incident or symptomatic of something wider? Perhaps we’ll find out in the fullness of time.

There seems to be increasing awareness that the interests of investors have been allowed to overly influence the pressures on companies and senior decision makers. But if managements are going to responsibly manage their assets (including their brands), at some stage, they will need to frame what they do in terms that markets hate: limits. And by that, I mean agreed boundaries that govern what will be built and what will be earned. And – not or.

That’s not about market restrictions. It’s about overall prudence and balanced gains: brands behaving well; consumers getting what they expect; investors receiving the dividends they expected from guidance.

Photo of “Medicine Drug Pills on Plate”, taken by, sourced from Flickr

Brand energy versus brand focus

By Mark Di Somma

energy versus focus

Brands require huge levels of energy. They need to be promoted, they need to be maintained, they need to be serviced … just to keep them going. And that can lead some to believe that that is all they need. Surely, if you invest enough energy in this brand, it will succeed.

You see this in those interesting exchanges which begin, “We’re going to spend this … and we want to achieve this”.

I would argue that the emphasis needs to be reversed, “To achieve this, we’re going to have to spend this …”.

There are some important distinctions in the order of these statements. The first emphasises the spend (energy) and ties it, hopefully, to an outcome. The second statement begins with the outcome and attributes a required level of energy to achieve it.

A lot of marketers put their hope in the first approach.  They spend up and wait for the tide to come in. It’s a little like saying that you’ll put a certain motor in a car and aim for it to reach a certain speed. It may work. It may not.

The other approach is much more mechanical. Start with the outcome, and then determine the level of energy required to achieve it, both in ideas and spend. But it’s an approach that makes marketers and their agencies sweat because firstly they need to be able to quantify the achievement and secondly, the emphasis is on actions and results rather than impressions. This approach shifts the focus – from “what shall be spent and where?” to “why should that amount (or more) be spent?”

For the most part, the business model of communications agencies is not geared up to make that shift. Their ROI champions the power of ideas and the excitement those ideas generate. A great idea requires energy to make it work. And when you agree, they’ve made their money.

But – and it’s an important but – awareness or even excitement is a means to a return not a result in itself. Something works when the right level of energy is applied to it. Too much – and you’ve over-invested. Too little – and you’ve undercooked. Until you balance energy and focus, the ROI that is least likely to be made is the one you as a marketer will be judged on.

Photo of “Focus” taken by Keith Ellwood, sourced from Flickr



Refreshing your brand promise

By Mark Di Somma

Refreshing your brand promiseGreat products sell themselves. No they don’t. But equally, people don’t just buy brands because they’re brands either. Familiarity matters, but for the most part today’s customers are far too sophisticated to buy just anything with a nice or familiar name attached to it. Or rather to keep buying it without question.

A brand by itself doesn’t guarantee you anything.

Sometimes companies with brands that were once iconic forget that. They somehow believe that because the branding process can add margin, all brands must equal margin and presence must equal profit. Wrong. So wrong. Brands will only bring margin when everything else is right.

Right itself seems pretty straightforward. Make a really interesting promise. Deliver on it in really interesting ways. Do that, and the circle is seamless. Get it wrong and the circle is vicious.

When you don’t pay attention to the detail of your brand, there are consequences. The brand itself starts to breaks down. It degrades. To a name. And instead of a brand portfolio, all you’re really left with is a list masquerading as an asset base.

Making that list longer or wider doesn’t add to its value. It doesn’t mean you have diversified. It’s not a segmentation strategy. It just adds complexity, cost and confusion to what is now a catalogue.

So what else can a brand do? Strategists tend to think of the other tools in the brand boosting toolbox in terms of repositioning or revamping the look and feel. But a question I’ve been pondering on for some time now is, “Could just the promise change?” If neither brands nor products can afford to remain static, it would make sense that promises can’t either. And yet the concept of re-promising (by itself and not necessarily accompanied by a fundamental shift in the brand positioning) doesn’t seem to come up that often in strategy conversations.

Maybe that’s the real lead-off question for brands looking to iterate effectively today. And it’s not about changing the promise for the sake of it. To work your brand will need to promise buyers something consumers will pay more for, or more often for, or both. (Coke did it beautifully with the shift from refreshment to happiness.) Because that’s the other simple human truth at play here of course: one that affects brands, products and promises alike. If you don’t give people valid reasons to pay more, they won’t.

Photo of “The Drink” taken by Isengardt, sourced from Flickr

This post is an update and extension of some thinking first published January 20, 2011.