Headline | March 24, 2017

A Meaningful Brand is Everything

pexels-photo-48721 (2)We’ve just released the latest wave of findings from our group’s Meaningful Brands study, and as before, it’s prompted me to think about what a brand is and what brand management does for commercial organisations. As you may know, we have a particular perspective on this subject and have been tracking what we believe to be the UK’s most meaningful brands for the last eight years.

Our view is consciously different to established approaches to branding and brand evaluation and I’ve come to understand why it’s fundamentally more valuable than other ‘counts’ of brand value. I am hugely generalising here, but ‘traditional’ approaches to brand value and strategic brand management have been based on three things:

Firstly, that building a brand is somehow a separate thing to the products and services that it’s attached to, to the extent that a brand can be pulled apart and given its own value on a balance sheet. This approach is still around. Last year Forbes ranked Apple as the world’s most valuable brand, and reckoned its brand is worth $154.1bn. But how do you separate the Apple brand from its products and experiences, and what value would the brand have without the iPhone, iTunes or iOS? Brands can’t be separated from their services and products. Customers certainly don’t separate them.

Secondly, that it’s possible to assess brand strength by rating customer commitment to a brand from ‘aware’, to ‘attached’ or ‘committed’. This borrows from the language of relationships: that, like our friends, the more familiar we become with a brand, the more likely we are to commit to it. The word ‘love’ has even been used. This is fantastical thinking. People don’t have relationships with brands like they do with people. They’re mostly not committed, and rarely in love. If a better option comes along, they’re often happy to switch.

Thirdly, and I suspect (well, hope) that this kind of thinking is largely redundant, but a lot of classic brand-building was based on defining a brand identity which can somehow be transmitted out to customers through marketing. This is the world of brand pyramids, keys, onions and parthenons. They’re usually cooked up in a meeting room by people like me, with no customers in sight, and with no validation. Indeed I’m not sure they could be validated since they’re often so far away from how customers experience or talk about brands. It would make our lives easier, but we’re not mind-shapers. We can’t take a perfectly formed brand identity map and make people somehow believe it to be true through marketing communication.

These are seductive premises for building a brand. They assume that we’re perfectly in control of our own destiny and every person out there is potentially an admirer of our brand, waiting to be converted to a committed customer, through the acts of marketing alone. Meaningful Brands starts with a fundamentally different premise, which is whether people would care if you didn’t exist tomorrow by assessing how you add to people’s quality of life. It starts with customer expectation, not a brand ideal. It’s customer-in, not brand-out.

I still absolutely believe in the value of brand planning and the value of brands, but we need to look at it through the lens of how customers actually see us, not ideal-state thinking on how we want them to think about us. Being ‘meaningful’ isn’t about being ‘good’, but about a presence and a delivery of products and experiences that people believe add to their lives. It’s the sum of experiences and outcomes that a brand delivers, relative to customer expectations – which of course morph and change over time. So, it literally is everything.

Being meaningful isn’t a nice-to-have, a bit you can get round to once you’ve developed your products, services, pricing or customer experience. It’s a way to build sustainable commercial advantage. Meaningful brands have higher purchase intent, drive re-purchase, command price premiums, attract a higher share of spend and outperform the stock market.

But it does pose the question: how do you build a meaningful brand (if it really is the accumulation of everything a brand does) if you work in a marketing team or department? In large organisations product, service and customer experience are difficult to change or influence. This doesn’t mean marketing doesn’t have a valuable role to play. Broadly speaking, I think there are two critical things that we do.

Firstly, we make sure that brands take the best of their products and services and connect them to personal outcomes. This is what advertising at its best does, by translating functional attributes into meaningful benefits. And I don’t mean the kind of higher order emotional deliverance often to be found at the centre of a brand onion, but outcomes that are tangible to customers.

Secondly, we should be the guardians of customer expectation in an organisation, by spearheading a ‘customer-in’ perspective in a business, shaping how products and experiences are designed and delivered in the long-term. Customer expectations continually change, because their reference points change. They are shaped not just by direct competition, but by experiences people have with all the other meaningful brands in their lives. We should lead on taking a wide view of what’s required to meet, or even shape, what customers expect.

Building a meaningful brand is at the heart of building a meaningful business, and we have a central role to play in leading within businesses, and with customers. It’s not just a part of our job, it’s everything we do.

Mark Holden, Head of Strategy, Arena Media