The daily grind of marketing can push branding into the back seat. Marketers want more phone calls, more web hits, more floor traffic. But if the experience of that potential new customer doesn’t meet expectations, the best advertising in the world can’t make up for a brand promise that isn’t delivered. Yes, the brand underlies the marketing, but it is also delivered more broadly than the media plan, the fall promotion, or the big trade show in Vegas.
This is where many marketers lose sight. And why wouldn’t they? In the past, branding and advertising were nearly the same idea. The brand was mostly about the idea of the product and even then it was often considered only the province of consumer packaged goods. (I remember a business-to-business client years ago saying “we’re not a brand like, say, a tube of toothpaste.”) Nobody worried about things like customer relationship management or brand experience.
But as more savvy marketers began to see that brand extended beyond the logo, the slogan and the package design, brands began to be managed in many ways that couldn’t be addressed by added media weight and end-of-the month discounts.
The next time you’re at the mall, stand in front of the Apple store for a few minutes and count the ways they express their brand as fresh, innovative and human. The stores are visually dynamic, yet uncluttered (except by the dozens of customers that are typically drooling over the latest i-Something). Their personnel are wearing simple t-shirts and Apple IDs that look like an iPod. In the back there’s a “Genius Bar” that is giving advice and solving problems for previous purchasers of their products. There isn’t a cash register or checkout anywhere to be seen.
Apple has used slogans like “Think different” and “The computer for the rest of us” over the years. But they know the difference between their messages and really delivering it in a retail environment. And that’s branding.
Before Bank of America bought MBNA, they had a singular focus on customer service that they expected, demanded really, their employees adopt for themselves no matter what their job description. Above doorways throughout their buildings was written, “Think of yourself as the customer.” Pretty basic stuff. But look a little further and you would have noticed the computer kiosks placed at high traffic areas in the halls where anyone could (and did) check the current call center statistics in real time: average call length, wait time, satisfaction percentage. That’s getting better. ??
But the real brand hammer was the policy that every single employee was required to spend four hours a month listening to customer service calls, grading them and making notes for improvements. Every. Single. Employee. No exceptions. The penalty for missing even one hour in a month? Not eligible for promotion for two years. Needless to say, nobody missed, and MBNA’s focus on the customer was exceptional in ways that helped them maintain higher-than-average profitability in the industry. Branding!
On a far more local level, a Realtor® friend of mine was building a new firm from the ground up. He kept a very simple promise on his voice mail: “Leave a message and I will return your call today,” he said, with added emphasis on “will” and “today.” And he did, every time. You can promise great service and hustle (and just how important is that in the competitive world of real estate?), or you can demonstrate it to your clients and your employees with a statement like that. Promises made, promises kept. Simple, free, effective branding.
Of course it can work the other way as well. Companies claim to be “leading edge,” but the most recent news on their “What’s new” page is 18 months old. Or they claim to be innovative, but their lobby hasn’t been remodeled in 20 years. Or they claim to be a “family values” business, but their employees can be overheard griping about the boss. (Wait a minute, that does sound a little like my family.) And now with the Wild West called social media, carefully built brand strategy meets random chit-chat head-on. Anything can happen. Brands are still figuring out how to make it work for them and not against.
This is not to demean the value of advertising and promotion, but instead to remind us of the value of expressing the brand and delivering the promise in every way possible. Many of these brand experiences are more about commitment to a simple promise than they are about dollars and discounts. That’s what makes getting brand right so valuable to the overall marketing effort — and often the best return on your marketing dollar.