In “The Unexpected Universe” naturalist Loren Eisley tells of coming upon a spider in a forest spinning the sticky spokes of the web that extend her senses out into the world. Just so, brand planners need to find ways of extending their senses far beyond what can be directly perceived by their ears and eyes. Like the spider, brand planners sit in the middle of a complex web, listening, watching, waiting.
At the heart of brand building is the search for more meaningful ways to connect with customers or end consumers. Getting good at connecting with consumers and building strong and relevant brands requires an end consumer orientation regarding how you frame problems and ask questions. The brand planner needs to become the in-house consumer advocate, always taking the consumer perspective in evaluating all aspects of brand performance.
In my years of building the Nike, Starbucks and NBC Entertainment brands I discovered ten principles that proved helpful in the brand planning process.
1. Be Analytical
Annually tear down internal strengths and weaknesses in regards to how you are approaching the marketing process. What has worked? What has failed? What needs to change? There are often tacit assumptions (hidden but operative) about the way things should be done. Have the important hidden assumptions been exposed and scrutinized? Are we more concerned with being efficient than effective? As we look outward at the marketplace where are the emerging opportunities? Where are the threats coming from? Have realistic scenarios been generated that factor in the forces that are changing our business model and marketing effectiveness?
2. Be Mindful
Where is the emotional high ground in this category? Are we anywhere near it?
Do we really understand the consumption moment when it’s “as good as it gets”?
What situations, settings, moods, and feelings really define this high ground?
Be mindful of the deep insights around dream states. These can suggest unique brand points of view for connecting with the emotional high ground.
3. Be Curious
How can we more favorably alter our value proposition?
How can we enhance the brand persona/image? How can we generate buzz?
How can we take the high ground?
What passes for breakthrough advertising today in our category? Across categories?
What past positioning approaches have broken through? Does any of this past work contain deep insights that can be reinterpreted in a new light today?
4. Be Observant
Are any competitors more favorably positioned with groups that matter to us?
Who are we appealing to? How are these consumer groups defining our brand?
Do channel partners present our brand in it’s best light?
Is our storytelling in touch with the zeitgeist (spirit of the times)?
How do our views differ from the views of the people we’re trying to reach?
5. Be Human
All brand impressions work to build image. Do we project a human face? Are we seen as a good citizen? A company that cares? Does the brand seem to have a conscience? Are there warm human attributes and connection points in our story? Part of becoming more human as a brand involves understanding how to strengthen the connection in our customer relationship. In our messaging are we selling functional benefits, emotional benefits, values or personality? Which of these positioning choices are most salient, resonant and relevant – from an end consumer perspective?
6. Be Imaginative
Crafting a brand vision requires going beyond the logical into the imaginative. Creative teams tasked with envisioning the future need the freedom to take imaginative leaps. The essence of this kind of creativity is in seeing new connections between things where no apparent relationship existed before.
To expand the brand concept – expand the ways of looking and thinking about new brand opportunities. In early stages idea generation workshops can be productive. Special rules apply for getting the most out of ideation workshops. Rules like: get offsite, have some fun, think like a kid, relax old rules, keep the group small, invite a range of creative thinkers, use creative exercises and pre-planned stimulus to generate lots of ideas, no killing of ideas during ideation. Screen the ideas later for those with most potential, build and bulge on these ideas. Put them through a rigorous new business development filter.
There is an art to getting the ground fertile for really great concept generation workshops. Learn the art, create great group dynamics….push the edges of thinking. If there is a dearth of really great ideas bring in ideation experts. Explore how to add more meaning to your brand. What kinds of new stories, images and myths would add a great chapter to your brand history? What kinds of new products and services would connect with the brand essence? Can your brand presentation be elevated to the next level? Explore ways to layer on qualities that will add to your products perceived value. Imagine how to better connect with important consumer subcultures or activities.
7. Look For Integration Possibilities
Can communications be improved in regards to tying together brand equities, celebrity equities, and brand positioning themes? What creative ways are there to extend branding activity working with co-brands or creative partners?
8. Be The Storyteller
At the highest level brand planners are concerned with storytelling excellence. Is our approach to storytelling breaking through? How can we make our stories arresting, relevant and resonant so that they build better brand affinity?
9. Be Realistic
No brand or product is at the center of how consumers live their lives. Yet this assumption is often made in consumer research projects where a narrow set of options are presented for exploration and validation. Realistic context for understanding the consumer’s involvement and interest in the category is a prerequisite for effective brand planning.
10. Be Patient
Movement in brand image in very mature categories can be glacial in nature – taking years to accurately measure shifts in feelings towards the brand. A continuous stream of breakthrough advertising can accelerate the shift in feelings, if it’s creating cultural buzz then affinity and image measures can move in months or quarters.
If the original insight that connects the brand with the consumer is unique, favorable and strong and that insight is driving your communications then fast improvements in brand strength can be expected. A brand strength monitor with sensitive brand image descriptors is the best way to track a brands positioning efforts over time.