This classic column is included in our book Building Blocks for your Brand. The book focuses on core concepts of branding (such as brand positioning and brand awareness) that apply to brands of all kinds. It includes our original published articles that have been featured in regional business journals, magazines, and international marketing publications.
In Theory, Yes. In Reality, No. Three Half-Truths About Brands and Branding discusses the concept of brand positioning and other brand strategies with examples from companies like Coke, Pepsi, and Ben and Jerry’s.
Your brand can be anything you want it to be. In theory, if you can conceive a brand you should be able to build it, right? Probably not. Two major factors will be at work. First, let’s say you want to be the most innovative brand in the category. Is there already a perceived innovation leader? Are they well established? If so, it will be a tremendous uphill climb. And, that’s if you can really do it, which is major factor number two. Too many fledgling brands really can’t live up to their own ideals, sometimes because they set them so high. Markets function as dispassionate arbiters, operating on the basic principle of positioning, which is that there is only one product or brand that can really own a space in the consumer’s mind.
Trying to be the second-best innovator, or “just-as-cool-as the-leader” won’t work. Put another way, the world doesn’t need your brand unless it’s different. On the other hand, many successful brands can demonstrate a sort of brand DNA that was with them from the start. It wasn’t a case of being whatever they wanted to be, it was more a case of being what was an authentic part of their worldview that they had a true passion to deliver. Virgin and Ben and Jerry’s are great examples of brands that carved out new space in their markets, yet succeeded by being true to themselves and building a brand that people love.
A brand is worth only as much as the premium someone is willing to pay for the cheapest alternative. Compared to what is part of the problem. Coke is one of the most valuable brands on the planet (second only to Apple and Google, according to Interbrand’s annual valuations) and rated as a far more valuable brand than Pepsi. Yet, they sell for about the same price in most venues. Coke certainly costs far more than private-label soft drinks. But here’s a key factor: Coke dominates distribution. Coke is in more vending machines, restaurants, convenience stores and even more countries than Pepsi. Coke so dominates the category that when customers order “a Coke,” servers have to ask, “Is Pepsi, OK?” if they don’t have it. So, Coke’s brand value goes far past the small premium it can charge over Pepsi. Pepsi claims that when the two brands are side-by-side in the supermarket, at the same price, that the battle is very close, and it is. But Coke’s distribution edge is all about the value of their brand to the restaurant or retailer, who figures they will be most profitable by choosing Coke. In this case, the restaurants and retailers are making the brand choice for their customers, but I have yet to hear the phrase, “Is Coke OK?” (It’s doing just fine, thank you.)
A brand is really just the sum of all its products’ features and benefits. While every brand must have tangible aspects to their products, like plenty of cup holders and a gas-mileage rating for cars, it’s never that simple. (If it were, most marketing departments could be cut in half.) This is a popular misconception in the business-to-business world, especially in technical services like engineering. And, obviously, if you’re going to hire a firm to design a bridge, they had better be good at it. But the reality is, there are countless firms that can design a bridge and can show you a portfolio full of bridge projects they’ve designed in the past, including ones like the one you’re looking for. So how do you choose? Invariably, there will be an emotional component to even the most technical buying decision. One bridge design firm will make a better presentation than the others. Or one will have a reputation for being difficult to work with that could sway the decision. Or one may have a famous designer. Better yet, maybe you have worked successfully with one of these firms already. These highly intangible elements build that elusive concept of trust that all brands seek to earn from their customers. Cup holders and miles-per-gallon matter, but product features are only the beginning. Still not sure? Ask Dell (or Lenovo, or Samsung) what it’s like to compete with Apple in the PC and tablet market. The product specs can be fairly similar on paper, but Apple far outsells all of them and is far more profitable, in part because their brand is simply much stronger.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.