Companies like McDonalds, Apple and Google have transcended brand icon status – they’ve become lovemarks. So how does a brand become so widely recognized and adored around the world, and how can we as marketers and business owners achieve similar success?
Before I attempt to answer to that question, let’s first take a step back and define exactly what a brand is.
Let's talk about brands
When you hear the words “golden arches,” do you think of Heaven, or the world’s largest chain of hamburger restaurants?
What about the word “apple?” Does it make you crave a juicy red delicious, or does it bring to mind that little computer company out in Cupertino?
Better yet, when you have a question about something, what do you do to find the answer? Do you seek advice of a parent or friend, or do you simply “Google it?”
What is a brand?
The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a name, term, sign, symbol or design – or a combination of those elements –intended to identify the goods and services of one seller – or group of sellers – and to differentiate those goods and services from those of other sellers.
That’s a great definition if you’re studying for your intro to marketing test, but, in my opinion, it completely misses the mark in defining a brand in real-world terms.
Let’s try another…
According to Entrepreneur.com, a brand is the promise you make to your customers. It tells them what they can expect from your products or services, and it differentiates you from your competitors.
Much better! To me, the most important part of that definition is the beginning:
"A brand is the promise you make to your customers."
By defining a brand as an intangible – a promise – this definition illustrates that a brand is more than a series of visual elements – it’s a bond between a company and its customers.
This is especially important because a bond indicates two-way communication and mutual benefit. Conversely, a clever name or flashy logo is merely a one-sided, cleverly masked sales pitch if people don’t trust that the company behind it will live up to their promises.
Now that we’ve defined what a brand is and does, let’s talk about what it takes to create one that customers can’t get enough of.
What are the keys to developing brands people love?
If you want to build an iconic brand with a cult following, there are a few key things you need to do:
1. Have a purpose, and never deviate from it.
Imagine that I just walked into your office and asked you point blank, “What’s the purpose of your company – why do you do what you do?”
How would you answer?
If you have to think about it for even one second, you have a problem. After all, how can you earn the trust and adoration of the public if they – and you – don’t know what you stand for?
People need to know what you’re all about before they decide whether or not they’re willing to stand behind you. Take Toms shoes, for example. Toms pioneered socially conscious enterprise, and paved the road on which a cadre of altruistic entrepreneurs have since built thriving businesses that improve people’s lives as they make money.
Personally, my purpose for starting Forward Digital was to combat the stigma that digital marketers are nothing more than smooth talking, modern day snake oil salesmen. I have dedicated my business, my career and my reputation to providing incredible value through hustle, intelligence, results and, most importantly, unparalleled customer service.
Key takeaway: Once you’ve identified your purpose, make sure it’s engrained into everything you do.
2. Stay consistent.
Once you’ve earned customers, the surest way to keep them is to deliver a consistent experience every time they interact with your brand. And I’m not just talking about how you and your employees treat them, or how reliable your products are. No, creating exceptional customer experiences is about creating a pleasurable, consistent experience at every touch point between your customers and your brand.
That means you’d better pay damn close attention to every detail of your business: the way your customers are greeted; the way your stores look; the quality of your products; the way those products look when customers open the box; the way your employees dress; the imagery and messaging you use in your marketing – the list is seemingly endless.
Key takeaway: Every touch point matters.
Don’t believe me? Let’s try a little exercise. I want you to think about your favorite high-end restaurant; a fairly pricey place that you visit on a regular basis. Now, list every entrée you’ve had there.
How many did you come up with?
Foodies aside, I’d be willing to bet that most of you listed three or fewer entrées. Why? Because humans are creatures of habit, and we value security over uncertainty. After all, why risk ordering an unsatisfying dish in the name of “branching out” when you know the New York Strip is a sure thing?
But it’s not just the consistency and quality of the food that keeps you going back, is it? No, you also go there because of the unique atmosphere; the exotic flowers they carefully place on each table; the way the staff smiles at you and attends to your every need; they way the manager drops by and addresses you by name; the way the cocktails are prepared; the showmanship with which the wine is retrieved, uncorked and poured; the way you salivate every time a fresh plate of food passes; and, last, but certainly not least, the amount of value you feel you’ve received as you pay your sizable bill.
Every one of the details I just mentioned – as well as all those I didn’t – shape your experience as a customer. Now, I want you to consider how you’d feel if one or more of those details were overlooked the next few times you went in. Chances are, it wouldn’t remain your favorite place for long.
The same is true for every brand. That’s why it’s imperative that you deliver a consistently great experience to each and every customer you serve.
3. Be amazing at customer service.
I grouped customer service behind consistency because, to me, the two go hand-in-hand. The truth is, mistakes are inevitable in business – it’s how you handle yourself when things don’t go as planned that can make or break your brand. Case and point: Zappos.
Zappos turned the world of online commerce on its head when it announced that its customers would never pay for standard shipping, even for returns made up to a year after purchase. Skeptics argued the move would ruin the business, but it did the exact opposite. In fact, offering free standard two-way shipping turned out to be one of the most brilliant business decisions in history, propelling Zappos to customer service stardom.
So why was free shipping so impactful for Zappos? By eliminating shipping charges, Zappos crushed a major cost barrier – the added burden of shipping and handling fees, which aren’t added to in-store purchases – as well as a major inconvenience barrier – the fear of making the wrong decision and having to foot the bill to return your purchase.
Even so, other online retailers frequently offer free shipping as a purchase incentive. How is that any different than what Zappos did? More than saving them money, offering free two-way standard shipping showed Zappos’ customers that the company truly cares about them. And that’s more valuable than any discount or promotion will ever be.
Key takeaway: Sales and promotions elicit impulse purchases, but offer little to no value in terms of brand loyalty. Amazing customer service fosters long-term loyalty because it shows your customers that you truly care about them - that's something money can't buy.
It’s no wonder, then, that Zappos’ core value is to “Deliver WOW Through Service.” Want to kick ass at customer service? Emulate Zappos.
4. Stay enthusiastic.
Are you ready to elevate your brand to lovemark status? Awesome! It feels amazing being so committed to something, doesn’t it? On that note, take out a piece of paper – or open up a Word document – and write down how you feel about your brand and its future potential. Then, save or stash your notes somewhere safe, but accessible.
When challenges arise over the coming months and years, use those notes as a reminder of why it’s worth powering through. This is crucial because, in addition to the factors listed above, passion, enthusiasm and positive energy from company leaders – as well as company staff – can keep a brand on course during times of adversity, which is imperative to long-term success.
Key takeaway: When times get tough, enthusiasm will help you through it.
One final piece of advice
My final recommendation is this: Accept that you can’t control everything. There’s going to come a point in time when, despite your best efforts, control of your brand’s image and perception is going to shift to the public. It’s unavoidable.
Key takeaway: You don’t control your brand – your customers do.
Embrace this fact, and the sky’s the limit. Fight it, and you’ll become more powerless than ever. I’ll close with two quick examples to illustrate this final point:
For many years, Taco Bell has been the butt of many fast food jokes. The company has long been scrutinized for its apparent disregard for sound nutrition, as well as its alleged use of low quality, highly questionable ground beef.
In recent years, however, “The Bell” has been thinking outside the bun in its marketing efforts, using social media to listen to and amplify the collective voice of its customers. They’ve also responded to consumer demand by adding more fresh, or “fresco,” options to their menu. As a result, the Taco Bell brand has out-shined its naysayers, and has amassed millions of loyal followers across its social media presences.
Oh, and they were also named Ad Age's Marketer of the Year.
Despite recent reports that the company’s sales are in decline as the hysteria surrounding its Doritos Locos tacos has dissolved, Taco Bell has held its own over the past few years, which have been nothing short of tumultuous for the fast food sector.
Abercrombie & Fitch
Ah, A&F – it’s nearly impossible to speak the name without feeling as if my nasal passages have suddenly been pumped full of Fierce cologne. How’s that for branding?!
All jokes aside, Abercrombie & Fitch is the poster child for how badly things can go when companies act as though they’re in control of their brand. Things really hit the fan for the teen retailer when a retail analyst published a report including remarks A&F CEO Mike Jeffries made in a 2006 article. The crux of those remarks was this: Abercrombie & Fitch is only for thin, “cool” kids.
The backlash was both immediate and widespread. Ellen DeGeneres criticized the company on her show, and angry teens and parents took to social media to express their disappointment for the brand.
It was one blogger, however, who made it clear to Abercrombie & Fitch that their brand was well beyond their control. She published this parody ad, which quickly went viral.
As a result of the rampant scrutiny, Jeffries made a public statement of apology, stating he “sincerely [regretted] that [his] choice of words was interpreted in a manner that caused offense.”
The company then released a statement saying it had met with the CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association and members of America the Beautiful Teen Empowerment Series. At that point, though, the damage had been done.
Had A&F owned up to the criticism from the outset and showed consumers that it truly cared about its customers – regardless of their physique or social status – things might have turned out differently. However, because A&F was foolish enough to believe it controlled its own brand destiny, the retail giant could only sit back and watch as the public tore it apart.
(Full disclosure: I worked at A&F for a short stint in college. I can tell you firsthand that it was a horribly judgmental, discriminatory place to work.)
What’s your take?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what you’ve just read, as well as the topic of branding in general. Leave a comment – I value your feedback!
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