Mention the word "branding" to the CEO or chief lieutenant in your marketing department and it might conjure up feelings of frustration or fatigue.
And this isn't necessarily surprising when you consider that the word "branding" has been over-discussed, beaten to death and at times even cursed, especially in those cases where a company travels down the path to brand or rebrand itself to an inconclusive end.
The primary reason many brand-development initiatives fail is somewhat easy to explain: Too many companies approach brand development in strikingly similar ways and consequently flounder in puddles of modest results. Read on.
'We Need to Rebrand Ourselves!'
When sales are down, when more competitors encroach our territories, or when customers pick up on the scent of a competitor's secret sauce, countermeasures are typically launched in the spirit of retaining those customers and disarming immediate threats.
The marketing department is usually called in by the CEO to launch the best campaign in the company's history to shove competitors aside with brilliant messaging and spectacular creative. A highly tactical maneuver.
The more strategic maneuver usually involves pulling the brand into the garage for a much-needed perceived overhaul. And it usually starts with research to gauge customer and non-customer perceptions of the brand, identifying buying motivators, uncovering buying criteria and discovering through creative questioning how the brand could be a better value in the spirit of building loyalty and winning new contracts.
Once this intelligence is acquired, the president or CEO calls a meeting to go over the results and subsequently starts a movement from the top down to change and adapt to what customers want and are asking for -- a perfectly logical next step.
Next? Marketing is instructed to change messaging across all marketing, public relations and digital communication channels to ensure that everyone knows that the company is customer-centric and is prepared to meet and exceed customer expectations in product quality and service delivery.
And this is usually where branding ends.
Outside-in Brand Development
But there is something missing. A critical element is overlooked, and one on which the most powerful brands are built -- unearthing evidence of distinction.
What you just read is the definition of outside-in brand development. Not only does it represent one of the more common approaches to brand development, it also is the most flawed.
And the reason is because when competing companies subscribe to the outside-in approach to brand development, they acquire similar intelligence and each strives to conform to the needs and wants of customers.
It's the reason that so many companies make similar claims about themselves lacking any evidence of distinction. It's a losing proposition every time, and marketing loses its impact.
Five Steps for Successful Branding
A successful brand-development process requires five critical steps -- steps that guarantee an outcome and that ensure success.
1. Internal brand discovery. The purpose of this most important step is to answer the four most important questions of brand development: Who are you? How are you different? Why do you exist? What are you capable of becoming?
This intelligence cannot be found on the outside and its outcome naturally leads to claims of distinction. Each claim must be supported with evidence. Why? It's because any company can make any claim it wants (and many do), but few back their claims with facts. Yours must.
2. External brand assessment. This is the research phase addressed earlier. It is a critical component to brand development, but cannot be the only consideration. Focusing on the external leads brands into "me too" categories. Overlapping the internal brand discovery with the external brand assessment is where true brand identification is uncovered.
3. Creating distinctive brand statements. Not to be confused with mission or purpose statements, brand statements define the "who," the "how" and the "why." Not the "what." Brand statements separate you from your competitors and make you a leader in your category.
4. Internal brand adoption. Once the brand is defined, strategies must be created to ensure everyone within the organization buys into the brand, believes in the brand, lives the brand and delivers brand expectations throughout all touchpoints. The internal adoption must be a success before the new brand can be promoted externally through marketing and public relations.
5. Operationalize the brand. A strategic integrated marketing communications plan is developed in this stage to promote the new/enhanced brand to customers, vendors, channel partners, the supply chain community and other business partners.
Other steps involve adaptation when going into other markets and building a brand-architecture model for those companies struggling with the "house of brands or branded house" syndrome. Answers to these questions start with diving into a company's business strategy.
It's the inside-out brand-development approach, and the only approach that guarantees success.
Scott Seroka is a principal and certified brand strategist of Seroka, a brand-development and strategic-communications firm specializing in the health care, manufacturing and mortgage industries.