brand communications

How to manage the brand perception-gap.

Brands are about perceptions rather than reality, because they are primarily concerned with emotion more than logic.

Perceptions and attributions may be constructed from early experiences of a brand or by received information. Often, that information is also emotionally constructed. It may have been channelled through peer groups, respected friends or colleagues, or sympathetic media.

Large brands may spend a great deal of resource trying to understand perceptions in the hope of being able to correct any gaps between perception and ‘reality’. Modifying such perception gaps may be a near impossible task as attributions people have constructed themselves are often not accessible to logical argument – they may require significant rebuilding of the brand’s emotional capital.

Changing perceptions can be a long and difficult process – often outside the scope of small brands.

All may not be as it seems.

A key word however is ‘understanding’. Perceptions do not always have to be changed, but they must be understood.

One of the most important perception gaps for small and medium enterprises is that between internal and external perceptions.

Smaller businesses tend to be driven by small close-knit teams with a shared vision of what their business is all about. They are very close to their product or service and have a deep understanding of its operation. However, there may be a significant gap between that and the benefits customers perceive in dealing with the organisation.

The company may believe its key strength lies in the range of products and services – customers may put quality of service top of their list.

A business may see its pricing as a vital advantage – for clients it may be same-day delivery.

Customers may relate to the image of a charismatic CEO while the business believes they success depends upon innovative solutions.

It’s easy to see that this perception gap can lead to businesses devoting costly resource on developing and promoting the wrong dimensions of their brand. Conversely, identifying and building on strengths as perceived by clients can be an effective and rewarding action.

Dealing with the gap

So, how do we identify the perception gap? The answer is relatively simple.

First clarify within the organisation what is seen as the major brand strengths and reasons why clients should make their choices.

Next determine what are the strengths as perceived by customers and other stakeholders. How do we do that? Simple – just ask them – surprisingly, people will usually just tell you.

A very simple device is the customer service survey. Ask questions designed to probe people’s views of the company and services. These could include a list of adjectives with the question: ‘Whch of these best describes ABC?’ Similarly, a list of benefits – price, range, customer service, reliability, track record etc. – asking the client to rank them in order of importance.

Ask a range of questions and keep as many as possible quantitative – i.e. score 1 – 10 or rank these qualities. This allows you to measure answers from a number of respondents. Eep the qualitative questions, ‘What do you think…’ To a minimum.

Your last task is to compare the customers’ perception with the company’s. There may be some obvious gaps that need addressing or some small adjustments. Remember, it’s more effective and easier to adjust your brand communications to be in tune with customer perceptions.

Three great brand tools come together.

3 great ideasImportant disciplines combine in a powerful branding approach.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing that familiar techniques and technologies can be sparked by a catalyst arriving at the right moment. Not only does the time have to be technically right, but the intellectual and cultural environment needs to be open to the opportunities.

The three branding disciplines I’m thinking about are semiotics, grounded theory and big data.

Semiotics

Semiotics provides us with an approach based upon cultural and societal meanings and the signs and signifiers that point to them. Currently there is a movement to understand emotional significance rather than declarative knowledge about brands and how deeper meanings are embedded in the brand narrative.

A semiotic approach to branding and brand development needs an analytic understanding of the cultural environment that a brand and its consumers inhabit. We need to discern the history, myths, metaphors and symbols that shape the consumers’ world and behaviour.

The major challenge has been the difficulty in finding our way into the data. As much of the meaning is unconscious, traditional research using primary survey techniques is not effective. Asking for views and opinions is of little value as people won’t or can’t answer truthfully – this is not because they want to mislead, but they honestly can’t access those deeper meaning.

Grounded Theory

This is where grounded theory comes in. Grounded theory is a very different qualitative approach. Rather than beginning with a series of questions we are looking for answers to, we approach the data without a theory. It is an ethnographic approach collating all the data we can from the environment. This may include published information, commentary from the media surrounding the subject, observation of the environment and practices, visual images, perhaps video, film and advertising, historical data, songs – in fact the whole cultural tapestry.

What the practitioner is looking for are patterns – recurrences of structures across a wide range of data. There is no pre-conceived theory but we are looking for codes and meanings that are emergent from the data.

As you can imagine, sourcing and amassing the masses of data necessary and then applying meaningful analysis can be a daunting and very labour-intensive task. This was the case in the past, but now we have the final piece in the jigsaw – big data.

Big Data

It is now possible to access amazing volumes of data from a mass of sources – textual, visual and auditory. Equally importantly there are now the analytical tools to process and understand the data – to look for those illusive and emergent codes and recurrences. One of the significant advantages of ‘big-data’ is its cultural richness.

Bringing together these three threads provides us with an approach to branding which allows us access to deep emotional understanding. We can get to grips with the deep meanings that drive the human essence of markets.

Top tips for international branding.

Building brands in your own market takes time, application and sheer hard work.

The world today is a small place – brands have to exist and work on a much bigger stage. This may appear a daunting prospect, but there are a few simple things that it’s critical to get right. Once these are addressed export branding becomes a much more manageable activity.

The fundamental point to remember is that every market is different. Not just the far-flung and exotic markets, but even those closer to home with whom you may perhaps share a common language. The underlying variable is culture. Cultural norms, values, narratives and mythologies go to make up what a market actually is.

The more time you devote to understanding these subtleties the more successful you are likely to be. Peoples’ main attachment to brands and key influencer of choice is emotion. The semiotics of your brand is bound up in shared emotional and cultural values. In turn these are manifest in language, symbols, colours and the whole catalogue of brand communications.

What’s the value of a brand? Not a lot say Amazon.

Amazon-logo-700x433I’ve written a lot about brand valuation and how many businesses under-value their brands. Now one of the most powerful brands, Amazon, claim their brand isn’t worth that much.

One issue with brand value is its contentious status so far as balance sheets are concerned. Although a good deal of work has been done to standardise brand valuation in accounting practices, it usually only becomes manifest on sale, acquisition or transfer. This is just where Amazon came unstuck and found itself in the US Tax Court.

There has been a good deal of discussion concerning international corporate giants using subsidiaries overseas to make the most effective use of favourable tax environments. Like Starbucks and Google, Amazon followed a well-worn path to Europe – Luxembourg to be precise. So far so good.

Obviously the Amazon brand was important as the parent company transferred some of the associated intellectual property to the subsidiary for a fee.  However, in the view of the IRS, the fee was not enough. Amazon undervalued their own brand!

Why would they do this? Simply to reduce their tax bill in the US choosing a move favourable regime in Europe.

The details are now the meat of argument for the tax lawyers. For brand specialists and marketers it presents some important issues. The trial should aid the clarification and status of brand valuation. Moreover, it should help identify the position of a brand and its associated intellectual properties as corporate assets.

If Amazon succeeds in defending its own low valuation, it would be interesting to see how it would argue reversing that position should it wish to sell.

This case will be watched with interest, not by just accountants and tax lawyers but also by brand owners and marketers.

Why colour is so important for brand and corporate identities.

Of all the elements of an identity, logo, symbols, typography, colour etc., it is colour which has perhaps the most fundamental impact.

One of the principle functions of an identity is to unite people of a common purpose. It creates a coherent banner for people within an organisation to gather. It identifies the entity to others and distinguishes it. It may separate or recruit.

The reason colour performs such a powerful role is that it is so deeply, culturally embedded in human society.

In a primitive society, our basic unit was the family – this perhaps extended to the clan or tribe.  When meeting a strange individual it was vital to know if they were a member of your tribe – it could be a matter of life or death.

As groups became bigger – from coalitions of tribes up to the first stirrings of nations – recognition of identity became increasingly vital.

The first manifestations involved security, combat and military recognition. You wanted your comrades to know who they were fighting, to express to your enemies and friends who you were before decisions on conflict were made.

Changing_of_the_Guard,_Buckingham_PalaceLong before literacy had spread, colour was a simple indicator – warpaint, bands of coloured material, even coloured plants or flowers, all became group symbols.  As societies became more complex it was till colour that was a primary differentiator. Coloured flags and primitive uniforms were adopted and developed throughout military organisations as demonstrations of national and group identity.

We had ‘redcoats’, the ‘blue and grey’; these terms still pervade our language to identify organisations, the ‘boys in blue’, ‘red devils’, the ‘red army’, ‘green party’, etc.

Sports teams were quick to adopt ‘team colours’ as were street gangs.

Colour is so engrained in our cultural narrative that it’s hardly surprising that it’s so powerful a component of commercial, organisational and brand identities. If I mention a major brand, it is fairly certain that you will be able to visualise its corporate colours even if you may have to think hard about its logo or symbol – Coca Cola, Virgin, Caterpillar, McDonalds, Pepsi, Starbucks, Facebook etc.

Once we understand the vital role colour plays, that is almost hard-wired into our societies, then we can appreciate the importance of brand and corporate colours, and why we change and tamper with that element at our peril.

Do I know you? How brands use your expectations to open you up.

The Rolls RazorWhenever you encounter a familiar brand your expectations are triggered, based upon your past experience. Your subsequent encounter is not fresh and objective but is directed by your previous understanding. Two levels of processing are involved here – ‘bottom up’ processing, the product of this individual episode and the information the brand is communicating, and ‘top-down’ processing based upon your expectations and prior experience. This latter processing operates at an emotional level and is all the more powerful for that.

This top-down processing need  not be based upon direct experience – it can be hi-jacked by similar, if inaccurate memories.  Unscrupulous brand owners use such tactics as using similar sounding names, colour schemes or logos to those of famous brands – those this is merely passing off and rarely lasts beyond the first purchase. Then it is replaced by disappointment and anger.

However, a legitimate and useful tactics for new brands is often to adopt a brand name that ‘sounds right’ – something that triggers expectations at a deeper level and predisposes the acceptance of the ‘bottom-up’ experience.

National characteristics are quite often a start for this. Lagers may choose a Scandinavian sounding name for example. It is a short cut to priming our presumptions. Many mens’ toiletries brands string together a pair of upper-class English sounding names – ‘Mountjoy and French’ or ‘Fairfax and Jarvis’. Fashion brands take a quick shortcut by selecting an Italian, French or British name, depending upon their selected brand positioning.

The name sounds like something we know – something we can understand and our memory brings a whole host of assumptions. A teacher friend of mine had great problems choosing names for her children, because so many names brought a lot of emotional baggage from experiences with children she had taught at some time.

This is fairly basic stuff, and not particularly sophisticated, the important point is to understand what is happening in the mind of the customer. In whatever experiential situation we find ourselves the mind tries to make sense of it. We never truly come with a blank slate. Cognitive processing is powerfully directed by what we expect to experience as much as inputs from the situation.

Brand communication must understand and utilise these fast first impressions and emotions incorporated in them. By the time the declarative knowledge has been imparted, processed and absorbed, the internal emotional expectations are deeply impressed.

What Darwin can teach us about branding.

DarwinMention ‘Darwin’ and ‘Branding’ in the same sentence and people immediately jump to the conclusion we are talking about that (usually misunderstood) concept of ‘Survival of the fittest.’

The root of the Darwinian view of evolution was far more fundamental and can provide a valuable perspective when looking at brands and how they too evolve. It was a bottom-up rather than a top-down concept. Instead of lifeforms evolving according to some pre-conceived plan, Darwin proposed that their development was the result of small changes and mutations – some were successful and led to the prospering of the organism – others, which failed to improve outcomes were bred out by natural selection.

With brands we sometimes overestimate the importance of control and brand-management. A good deal of what makes brands special comes out of natural evolution – doing small things very well, keeping and building upon the successful and eliminating anything which does not contribute to the viability of the brand.

It is the tiny details that matter. Small product benefits, notable customer service actions, minute points where expectations are exceeded.

Changes do not happen in isolation, they are relative to the environment. We talk about organisms evolving and adapting to their environment – brands must do the same. Change is constant.

Many of the great brands we all admire existed long before the heavy hand of brand management was there to direct them – and they evolved and adapted as clever and able people in all parts of the organisation did their jobs very well, getting better in small ways all the time. We have also noted the dinosaurs who failed or were unable to adapt to the changing environment.

If there is a lesson to be learned it is that concentrating on the details of the small things that brand does – and doing them well – improving the basics is vital. Allow the brand to change as the needs of customers evolve and develop, and apply only a light touch to the steering of management.

Brands must have walls, windows and doors

Walls, Windows andLet’s think of a brand as a fine building with walls, windows and doors.  These are the essential and useful features of any building. Properly constructed and used a building is sound, welcoming and vibrant, but care must be taken in the use of those same features to ensure that it doesn’t become a fortress, or worse, a prison.

WALLS

A brand’s walls define what it is, its scope and boundaries. Walls people understand a brand in terms of what it does and what it doesn’t do. This clarity is as important for those working on the brand  as it is for the public outside. As well as separating the brand, walls also connect – they are the touch points where the public contact the brand.

The danger is that walls can become fortifications. The brand can feel too safe and secure behind them and avoid contact with the challenging world outside. The walls can grow too high and the brand can no longer see out and understand what is happening outside.

WINDOWS

Fortunately brands also have windows. Through the windows the public can see into the brand and understand it. These are the communications conduits – advertising, press and public relations, digital and social media windows. It’s through these windows that the brand can speak, shout, wave and smile.

Windows work both ways – not only should the world be able to look in on the brand, but the brand can observe, understand and take note of the world it inhabits. These are the windows of customer service, and research – where the brand watches and listens.

Brands can choose how big to make their windows and how many. Plenty of big windows shed a lot of light into the brand and not all brand stewards like this. When problems occur its all to easy to start drawing the curtains.

But windows are useful for communication – you can see, show and demonstrate, but there is always that pane of glass between the brand and the public. To genuinely engage we need doors.

DOORS

Doors are where people actively connect with the brand. They are the points where the public purchases products and services, where the become emotionally involved. These are the gateways where the brand comes forth and meets its people – but more importantly, where it allows the world in – not just to observe but to connect. Doorways are where we place our welcome mats.

All three elements are equally important for a sound and effective brand:

Walls define the purpose, borders and remit of the brand, showing both public and staff where the brand stands.

Windows are vital for communications – transparency is the key.

Doors are where the public and the brand meet – not where people are locked out.

Subliminal branding back in the spotlight?

SUBLIMINAL BRANDINGCan recent studies with subliminal branding be of practical use for today’s brands? I would suggest a very cautious, ‘yes’. Not that we should all rush out and start hiding messages in our communications collateral, just that we should better understand the things most of us do naturally.

Some of you may remember Vance Packard’s ‘The Hidden Persuaders‘ published back in 1957. It caused quite a stir then, though many of its findings have since been questioned and a few discredited. However, recent experiments have suggested that brands can influence customers at an unconscious level. Roger Dooley has an interesting overview of some of the studies on Forbes.

Despite the popular ballyhoo, the underlying concept is not surprising. Some studies with patients suffering from prosopagnosia (an inability to recognise faces) suggested that even when they could not recognise a familiar face, there was low-level brain activity, but insufficient to trigger the neural transmitters to send a signal of recognition.

For years, brand communicators have known that it is important to keep your message and brand imagery in the public’s eye as much as possible, and across as many channels and modalities as you can. These recent findings simply underline the fact that this time-proven strategy works at both conscious and subconscious level.

Will the co-op’s problems lead to long term brand damage?

Co-op bank sign

Sadly, we have seen it all before, commercial blunders and personal… well, shall we say, misjudgments. Usually brands are stronger than people imagine and can come out of such mire with little more than a few bruises to the ego and a little embarrassment. The public understand that the brand is not embodied in an individual – in most cases.

tripodalcultureSometimes however, the damage can go much deeper. The danger is when the brand’s core values are threatened.

A brand’s culture is very much like any other culture, it is tripodal – at its heart are its core values and beliefs, around that are its actions, how it interacts with the world, and finally its products, the physical manifestations of the brand in terms of tangible artefacts and goods. Any one of these elements may be vulnerable to damage through the actions of individuals or groups. We have seen some spectacular examples over recent years. But usually the brand may survive so long as the core – the beliefs and values are not damaged.

The question for the poor old co-op bank is, are its values at risk?

I think it is a close call. One differentiator that separated the brand from other banks, and helped see it through the stormy waters of the banking crisis, was its ethical dimension. Although it may have been viewed as staid and perhaps parochial, it relied upon the heritage of the co-operative movement, distanced from the pure profit motive. It often took ethical stances in terms of investments structured its accounts and products accordingly. This a distinction which must have appealed to many customers whose values it reflected.

Are business ethics distinct from personal ethics? Does business probity stand separately from moral laxity in the bank’s officers?

I’m sure the brand has not suffered terminal damage, but it has been hit in a very sensitive spot, its valuable point of differentiation will take a good deal of reclamation.