For insight on how to build a brand think of collectibles. Why is the Honus Wagner baseball card, or even an item as simple as a game-worn jersey, so valuable? A misprinted stamp can have lasting investment value, and there are even passing fads like the Beanie Babies craze in the 1990s that can spark a price war.
Brands operate on a similar emotional track as collectibles. A company may be able to list countless rational features about the quality and performance of their products or services. But the brand of that company will be based on an emotional connection. A first step to this is that all strong brands appeal to their customers’ self-esteem. That is, people buy brands (or support organizations) that make them feel better about themselves. People take their kids to Disney partly because it makes them feel like a good parent. They choose FedEx because it makes them feel like a smart businessperson. They donate to the United Way because it makes them feel altruistic.
This is why a tagline like “Providing cost-effective solutions” falls flat. Imagine if Nike had used the slogan, “Helping you exercise for better health.” Instead, their iconic tagline challenged their customers to find their inner athlete and feel better about themselves for getting off the couch and working out.
But self-esteem is just the beginning, because strong brands also build a story that is emotionally compelling. Which brings us back to Honus Wagner. His baseball card from 1909 is one of the most valuable pieces of sports memorabilia. But why? What’s the story? First of all, it was one of the first collectible sets of cards made and Wagner was one of the first big stars of the game, still considered perhaps the best shortstop of all time. But the narrative gets more interesting because, despite smoking’s popularity at the time, Wagner was reportedly anti-smoking. The company issuing the cards was actually a tobacco company that was including the cards as a promotion. When Wagner publicly objected to the use of his image to promote tobacco, the company ceased using it, making the card all the more rare. The purchaser of a Honus Wagner card is buying into the history of a great game and this backstory of a legendary player.
The same emotional content is assigned to a famous football player’s actual jersey. It will have some value above a replica. But if it was worn in a game, it will have even more value. And, if the player set a record or won the Super Bowl wearing that jersey, it will skyrocket in value.
The story helps build and cement the emotional value in a collectible and in a brand. For a brand, the story can be completely authentic, such as the secret formula for Coke that is locked in a vault in Atlanta, or it can be entirely fabricated, as it is with Marlboro, which has absolutely no roots in the American West and was originally marketed as a cigarette for women. Fans of a brand don’t have to pay millions to have a sip of their favorite cola or to light up a preferred cigarette. But they do pay more than they would for a lesser or no-name brand.
That said, it’s important to note that not just any story will do. Brand stories are stronger when they are unique and possibly attached to a well-known historical event. BMW’s early history as a manufacturer of aircraft engines (their logo still depicts a spinning propeller) that were used in military planes is a good example of this. The sales of Pampers skyrocketed after they introduced a cause-related promotion to supply one vaccine to a third-world child for every package of Pampers that was sold. The diapers didn’t change, but the story behind them did. And that made all the difference.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal, the Reading Eagle and Lehigh Valley Business.