Creating a brand in the 21st century

Today has started off well. Last night, you slept like a log and, when you pulled open the curtains this morning, the sun streamed pleasantly into your bedroom. As you enjoy your coffee, you download today’s newspaper on your tablet. Straightaway, a headline on the front page grabs your eye: “Google announces its closure!”.

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image: artchandising

What face would have you pulled had this -completely fictitious- news story been true? What would you have felt?
If your overriding feeling in the face of such news was that somehow things were going to be worse from that point onwards, Google now forms part of your life.

Now change one aspect of the news story. Instead of Google, imagine the article was about your company. Would your customers feel the same way?

If the answer is yes, congratulations! But if the answer in no, it means that they can do without your brand.

What is all this brand stuff about?

When we talk about brands, there are almost as many different definitions as there are articles on the topic. Some of these are along the lines of Jerry McLaughlin’s proposal (2011): “what a customer thinks of when they hear the brand name”.

I feel reasonably comfortable with this approach, although, as I have stated in other articles, we know that we make the vast majority of decisions subconsciously using the ultra-fast limbic system, and we later dress the decision up with reasons and justifications. Therefore, rather than “what we think of when we hear the brand name”, we should say “what we feel when we hear the brand name”.

Lots of writers develop ideas along the same lines, such as Marty Neumeier in his book ‘The Brand Gap (2005)’: “‘Brand’ is the gut feeling people have about your product, service or company”. This very widespread approach focuses the issue on the emotions that a company, product or service generates in its customers.

In our hyper-connected society in which our saturation with stimuli is matched only by our attention deficit, emotion is the key resource to ensure that a product (or service) gets noticed. When something triggers an emotion, our attention is activated and, as such, it becomes visible, and perhaps later something we may buy.

Is triggering emotions enough?

However, is stimulating customers’ emotions enough to make them buy our product repeatedly?

The answer is obviously not. An emotion has a short-term effect on the body. In contrast, customer loyalty requires long-term energy.

For this reason, I find the proposal of Iglesias and Alfaro (2009) more accurate when they say that a brand is a “set of values, sensations, emotions and experiences that have value insofar as they have a meaning that is relevant to the customers”.

I would probably tweak this definition a little. A powerful brand, rather than having “meaning”, can convey a particular “feeling” at certain moments of the customers’ lives.

Nevertheless, the best aspect of Iglesias and Alfaro’s contribution is that the different elements it mentions pave the way to transform a fleeting emotion into feelings, which, by nature, last longer. A purely emotional brand would be a brand with little scope.

Are values enough to create feelings?

Iglesias and Alfaro introduce the idea of the meaning being “relevant” to the customers. In my opinion, this aspect is key.
There are two methods by which a meaning can be relevant, which ideally should be combined:

  • (A) Sharing really significant human values with customers, which are expressed through different media. For instance, ranging from traditional television channels, on to social media (what an impact this has in terms of persuading a customer to say good things about a brand!), right through to the most influential medium, according to Amancio Ortega, the founder of Inditex: “The store is the most powerful medium for creating a brand”. His statement is technically very accurate, because a message perceived through various senses simultaneously is more persuasive. Neuroscience tells us that experiences are more convincing and memorable than a PowerPoint presentation.
  • (B) Providing a solution that really makes their life better. The second approach for making a brand really relevant is for it to be associated to a solution or, in other words, a product or service that really improves the customer’s life in some respect.
    The Google brand is so powerful because it helps you avoid getting lost in an unfamiliar city, because it lets you find valid information in an instant, etc. The Google brand is extremely relevant, despite its logo changing constantly (What a contradiction for classical textbooks on Corporate Visual Identity!).

Creating a brand in the 21st Century is not so much a matter of corporate colours, a witty slogan or even advertisements to trigger occasional emotions, but rather tuning into your customers’ lifestyle and ensuring that the solution that bears the brand name truly enhances their quality of life.

To sum up, creating a brand today requires three essential elements: awakening the emotions required for them to pay attention, creating lasting feelings by sharing deep-rooted values and designing solutions that improve customers’ lives.
This gives rise to the three roles of marketing professionals in the 21st Century: a philosopher contemplating their customers’ lives, an engineer of solutions and a scriptwriter creating a movie of emotions and feelings.

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Bibliography

  • Iglesias, O. & Alfaro, M. (2009) “La marca y la gestión de las emociones” in Harvard Deusto, Nᵒ 90.
  • McLaughlin, J. (2011) “What is a brand, anyway?” in Forbes, 21st December
  • Neumeier, M. (2005) The brand gap. Berkeley: New Riders.

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Lluis Martinez-Ribes

Source: Código 84, number 187

May 2015

What is a name?

Do you know of any company that explicitly states that it pays no attention to its customers? It seems ridiculous to ignore the match referee: the current or potential customer.

It would de hard to find any company that admits that it is not customer-centric and most of them truly believe that they are. However, if we look closely, we see that many of them are really focused on their products or internal process (factories, logistics, etc.). They do not take the customer into account as an individual, with their own profile and contexts. In other words, their relation with the customer is transactional, as if a sale were a case of “I’ll swap you these quality molecules for money.”

How to make a company customer-centric

Many mindful directors undertake actions to make sure that the customer comes first in their company. One extremely interesting method of doing so is to calculate the Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV) or, to put it another way, the value in monetary terms of each customer in the long term if the continue buying as they have done to date (see my article ‘Data-driven retail’).This greatly helps us develop an understanding of the impact of decisions on customers.

Now, however, I would like to propose another method: changing the vocabulary that we use.

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image: artchandising

According the Jean Berko Gleason, an expert in socio-linguistics, the words that we use are immensely powerful in terms of shaping how we see things. He refers to this phenomenon as “framing” (De Waal, 2011). The act of choosing a particular world to name a certain thing clearly affects how we perceive it.

Science has demonstrated that the words that we use have a direct and immediate impact on our emotional response and the way in which our brains react (Meacham, 2013). Recent research shows that the different words that we use activate different areas of the brain and end up influencing our behaviour in distinct ways (Sammarco, 2014).

The idea that the way we perceive the world is highly influenced by the concepts (words) that we use is far from new. In fact, throughout the 20th Century, this idea grabbed the interest of many scientists (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). The most notable of these was Thomas Kuhn (1970) who believed that “what people see depends both on what they look at and on what their previous visual-conceptual experience has taught them to see”. When we change the way we refer to things, we change how we think, and this modifies how we interpret reality and, in the end, how we act.

Taking advantage of science

To emphasize the importance of the customers’ voice, we have to introduce a vocabulary in which they are the protagonists. A change in the language we use can help us to gain a better understanding of our customers (Ehman).

If our vocabulary regularly talks about statistics, ratios and numbers of orders, our activity will tend to be transactional. If we add different facets regarding our customers to our control panels, we will have a far greater chance of becoming part of our customers’ lives.

For instance, it you went to a dentist, think how you would feel if you saw the appointment schedule (see the image above) depending on the different names used in the column showing the people who will be coming.

Let’s look at another example. If I talk about “the Internet of things”, what ideas come to mind? Probably devices connected via the Internet. However, if I say “I can change the colour of the lights in my house from work using my telephone”, you would probably smile, picturing somebody empowered.

In both cases, we are talking about the same thing, but the perception is very different. The terms used can change the understanding of something new and make it more client-centric.

Speaking in a different way is practical

Obviously, changing the vocabulary that we use does not instantly mean that the customer has become the focus of the company nor that the processes automatically change. It takes time. Our ideas flow with their own momentum, based on certain mindsets that we have inherited and use non-consciously.

In order to change our habits in terms of thinking (and taking action), we have to identify them and bring them into our consciousness. As soon as we are able to create a different habit, the mind, as it is can be molded, is reinforced and customer-centricity is achieved. It is well worth the effort.

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Bibliography

  • De Waal, M. (2011) “Jean Berko Gleason on how words influence thought”. Daily Maverick, 26th October.
  • Meacham, M (2013) “How words affect our brains”. Talent Development, 11th July.
  • Sammarco, G (2014) “El futuro de tu cerebro está en tus palabras”. Semana económica, 21st November.
  • Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
  • Kuhn, T. (1970) The structure of scientific revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Ehman, L. “Create a customer-centric vocabulary”. Selling Power.

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Lluis Martinez-Ribes

Source: Código 84, number 186

April 2015