I was concerned at a recent retail marketing workshop to hear the way retail experts are dealing with the idea of the brand. In many ways it was as if we had stepped back into the nineties, where “brand” was considered a part-time distraction for people working in the marketing department: a luxury that could be afforded only when everything else is working perfectly; a distraction that must not be allowed to interfere with more important and immediate marketing activities (such as communications and, bringing it up to date, more significant and meaningful initiatives such as mobile and social media).
I asked the panel why they had paid such short shrift to brand, and instead of being summarily shut-down by the correct answer (which should have been: “As everybody knows, brand is so fundamental to everything that happens in retail organizations that we did not see any point in revisiting it here and now! Fool!”) I heard that brand is not affordable now, the economy being what it is, and that the focus has to be on competitive threats, tactical programs and marketing innovation. Good grief!
Which prompted me to revisit the fundamentals of retail brand strategy, largely by itemizing what the brand is not.
1. The brand is not a substance that is stored in a “well of goodwill” to be drawn down on in times of trouble and replenished in good times; to be stored and meted out at the will of the technicians in the marketing department. In this scenario, this murky, magic elixir is supposed to medicate the public and manage their allegiance to the retailer. But, the proponents of this theory remind us, when times are tough, smart retailers dispense with this elixir entirely and do the right thing: discount, coupon and mobilize customers into the store.
2. The brand is not an appendage that is tacked on from time to time, but never fully integrated. We know it’s there because we are convinced that at some point it’s going to burst and will need to be excised. But for the most part we ignore it. This is the strategy adopted by large retail organizations that have successfully organized all departments into neat silos and sub-silos. The marketing department is itself silo-ed into sub-silos which include product managers, category managers, marcom managers and…brand managers. Brand managers (in retail companies) “champion” the brand, meaning, as far as anybody can tell, gently reminding the other silos from time to time, that there is a brand and that it ought not be forgotten. Because the marketing department is, in effect, a collection of silos, the attention given the brand is limited and the budget is even more limited.
3. The brand is not an “idea” that permeates through the organization (until a better idea comes along). This approach, often encouraged by advertising agencies and supported by operations people (who think of the marketing department as”incredibly creative people”), confuses branding with advertising and “engaging with the customer” with “making a really cool ad.” These ideas, the best of which have “legs”, can start anywhere – web, facebook, mobile – and then reappear with astounding frequency, in other channels. Generally the organization loses interest in the idea after about six weeks, and the only place it is then seen is coming out of the HR department where a task force is making an honest attempt to integrate it into “everything we do as a company.”
4. The brand is not an option. Like it or not, customers see and deal with any organization as a “brand” – that is, based on any number of factors they form a judgement, or opinion, about the company and it’s products; and this opinion determines how they will interact with the company in the future. Some brands, Abercrombie and Fitch or Ritz Carlton Hotels, for instance, are highly developed, micro-managed expressions of the organization essence. In order to make this happen the organization is driven by brand-discipline, meted out from the very top down, ultimately becoming engrained and habitual. Other brands, such as Costco, are the natural result of a singular approach to the business that, from the get-go is the responsibility of every single person in the organization. While not visibly brand-cue driven, the ultimate brand, in the mind of customer (or should I say members) is equally strong. Nobody who has ever heard of Abercrombie and Fitch, Ritz Carlton Hotels or Costco has any doubt what the business stands for, what to expect, and a firm idea of whether, and under what circumstances, they want to do business with them.
More helpfully, though, let’s take a quick look at what the brand is: practically speaking, the brand is the name or mark by which people recognize the source of something. From a strategic point of view, what we call “brand” refers to the meaning that is inherent in the name or mark – when all is said and done, it is the judgement that people make about the product which determines how they choose to interact with the company: do business with it, tell friends about it, write reviews, tweet or throw darts.
Because this judgement is holistic – that is, it’s based on the totality of interactions with the communications, products and people associated with the brand name or mark – it is necessarily experiential rather than strictly rational or emotional. The ethereal brand, then, is the totality of experience; and the experience, being the totality of interaction, can be seen as the amalgamated effect of everything the company does. The experience is, to put it succinctly, the business.
In other words, the brand is the experience is the business, as demonstrated by the Protean Brand Circle:
The proof of which can be seen in great brands, such as Target, Nike, Harley Davidson and nascent great brands such as Joe Fresh and Lulu Lemon, where the business, experience and brand really are consistently the same.