brand personality

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.

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.

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.

Favourite Brands – Virgin

There are lots of reviews of top brands… rankings, awards and well-researched analysis. If you want some more scientific insight, where better to look than Superbrands.

However, I like to occasionally indulge myself in looking at my own favourite brands – in a non-scientific and wholly subjective manner. My justification for this is my belief in the power of the emotional dimension of branding. This is not as open to scientific analysis though its manifestations may be quantified.

virgin logoMy choice for this piece is Virgin. I begin my working life when Virgin was still a baby brand and watched it grow up. For me it is an ideal example of consistent, emotional brand values.

It is hard to put your finger on the spirit which runs throughout the brand and engages with the public. It has much of the zeitgeist of the 70’s – slightly hippy and irreverent, perhaps it strikes a chord with those who have grown up with the brand. It is difficult to believe the same emotional theme could run throughout a business story that began with record stores and diversified and transformed through air travel, railways, new media and telecoms, financial services and now… space travel?

A key dimension has almost certainly been people. It’s glib to use terms like ‘brand ambassadors’ and I’m not sure that it is useful. It suggests that staff have another, special role. In truth the people are just doing their jobs, but the way they go about them embodies the brand spirit.

Another factor is probably the structure. A lot of what Virgin does runs contrary to accepted business wisdom. When Richard Branson took the business back into private ownership it ensured it had the flexibility to do things its own way. As regular plc, with a board with shareholders to answer to, it’s possible that business would never have moved into such seemingly unconnected arenas. Had it stuck to the record business it might have gone the way of HMV.

That’s why I’m nominating Virgin as one of my top brands – it has done things it’s own way – and understands that the value of the brand transcends the standard business models. It has maintained the emotional core, consistently over half a century, still with the cockyness of a bright teenager.

The seven pillars of export branding

sevenpillarsAt its core, all branding is the same – however, when a brand moves into the international arena, there are some critical dimensions that must be considered.

1. Language

This may seem obvious, but does your brand name translate into your target languages? Even proper names may have an unintended meaning. Don’t just think of the spelling – when pronounced, even seemingly harmless words may have unintended meanings.

Do you use descriptive words in your brand such as, ‘Norfolk Car Parts’ or ‘Budget Printing’? Will these words be meaningful in your selected markets.

You may not need to change a brand name, but it may help to emphasise just part of your title.

Also consider any statements or strap-lines that form part of your corporate signature; these may need adapting in translation.

2. Culture

While language may be easy to check, culture is rather more subtle, and potentially a bigger trap. There is no quick fix. You need to do your research and immerse yourself as far as possible in the culture of your market.  Look at the media, both online and offline; look at your competitors.

Best of all, expose your brand to nationals of your target markets. Discuss your ambitions. Use your partners in-market; agents, distributors etc. Talk to embassy staff.

You’ll soon appreciate how culture impacts upon many of the other dimensions of your branding activity.

3. Brand Story

Is your brand narrative relevant to your target market? Things that may seem unimportant at home may be leveraged to advantage internationally. While your location may have little relevance to home customers, it may be a strong plus abroad. Consider the cultural context: for example, history of a family business may be very important in certain markets.

4. Competitive positioning

The perception of your brand position relative to your competitors from market to market. Be aware and be sensitive, you can often use this to your advantage. Don’t assume that your positioning will be the same as it is at home.

5. Core Values

Your core values are what makes your brand what it is. They should be strong and consistent wherever you do business. You must be clear about them and communicate them to all you work with – your staff, your partners in market, your customers and supply chain. Don’t tinker with them, but just be aware that certain values may be more important in some markets more than others.

6. IPR

Intellectual property rights – consider them all; brand names, trademarks, patents, designs, copyright etc.

Legal protection may be difficult or costly across export markets, but you must give them consideration. It is important to give your brand all the protection you can apply or afford. It is equally important to make sure you don’t infringe the IPR of others.

Remember, a strong brand can often be the best protection you can get – be first to market, establish a strong presence and leave potential copyists playing catch-up.

7. Visual communications.

Though language is important, visual and non-verbal communications have an equally powerful part to play. When you see the ‘golden arches’ of Macdonalds, or the Apple symbol, you don’t need the name. Strong visual symbolism can be a means of transcending language difficulties.

Consider the elements of your corporate identity, symbols, colours, typography. Maintain rigid visual standards.

It’s important to look at the cultural context of your visual elements. What semantic connotations do your colours have? In many cultures colours are far more important, and signify different states.

Can the Barclays’ brand change cultural values by changing structures?

Barclays logoBarclays’ new CEO Antony Jenkins, is undertaking an admirable strategic overhaul of the way the brand does business and hopefully in its longterm public perception.

He talks about changing culture and practices – practices are fairly straightforward, pragmatic things to change. Little wonder that systems-based organisations begin there. You can plan, implement, monitor and measure. To what extent changes to practices affect culture is far more difficult to assess. Tackling corporate and brand cultures head-on is far more difficult.

Cultural changes do not necessarily follow changes in practice – where practices are pragmatic, cultures are emotional.

A few years ago I worked on a project for a major high street bank (not a brand job), and the management proudly explained the measures they had put in place to become a ‘real customer-focused organisation.’ However, when talking to staff it did not need in-depth discourse analysis to show that the new systems had not had a major impact upon culture. New customers were described in bulk as ‘feed stock’, and when asked to explain their jobs, many people would begin with: ‘Suppose Mrs Miggins needs a… ‘

I wish Anthony Jenkins well. Full marks for recognising the seriousness of the issue. I shall watch with interest however the way the organisation deals with the emotional dimensions of cultural values and the measures put in place to assess them.

Brand quirks are good for you.

A brand quirk is a feature or attribute that does nothing to enhance the performance of the product or service, but provides a unique point of differentiation.

QQIn areas where the delivery may be considered a commodity, differentiation is at a premium. This is where the value or a ‘quirk’ may be really telling  – it ups the ‘Quirk Quotient’.

Some of the most notable examples appear in the confectionery or countline sectors. There are very few real differentiators between chocolate bars, few notable differences you can make. The most we can manipulate are marginal variations around a few popular themes.

Consider the shape of the ‘Toblerone’ bar. It has no effect on the taste of the product, provides no enhancement in itself – but it is a quirk or huge value in brand identity and differentiation.

The round Smarties tube is another quirk. It provides no tangible benefit. In fact, I heard a well-reasoned argument from a packaging specialist that a rectangular tube makes far more sense, providing better space occupancy in transit. I understand it was even tried once, but for the public, the round tube is part of the Smartie offer.

The hole in a Polo mint or a Lifesaver has no flavour enhancing property – it is a quirk – but of inestimable brand value.

Quirks are as important as brand assets as are brand names, logos, colour schemes and all the other identity collateral.

Though we understand their value, quirks are among the most difficult things to create successfully. They are often serendipitous, springing from creative irrelevancies and often coming from unlikely quarters within the organisation.

Consciously creating a valuable quirk is as difficult as creating a video that is ‘guaranteed’ to go viral.

If you have a brand that is clearly differentiated in terms of the benefits it delivers, you should concentrate on communicating them. If not, a quirk may help. There is no handbook to creating a killer quirk, but I suspect that the necessary conditions include an organisation that loves and believes in its product or service, that creates a truly innovative environment and has people with a sense of fun and playfulness.

What will do the Google brand most damage – profit slump or communications bungling?

Google logoShare trading in Google was suspended for a while when its third-quarter results were published early by mistake.

The results revealed a 20% profit slump, but what was the biggest potential long-term damage to the brand – the figures or the bungling?

Business results matter, but all companies have ups and downs. Many traditional media companies have suffered reversals in the face of changing markets – areas where Google has benefitted in the past. CEO’s present to the analysts, explain the figures, make their future forecasts, and get on with job.

Share prices suffer for the company (Google was down 9% when shares were suspended) – but that is a business fact. Investors will take a long view of performance and projections and move on. It is a pragmatic decision.

Brand damage is another thing – it is an emotional dimension. We don’t have quantitative measures such as share prices, though all are interlinked. Crucially, the brand is more likely to be damaged by the apparent bumbling and fundamental errors in releasing the results early.

The Google brand has ridden quite high, displaying sound judgement and competence, where other internet brands have skidded from error to error.

The general public is often unconcerned with corporate performance so long as the brand is comfortably between the extremes of insolvency and excess profits.  PR disasters are likely to inflict more lasting dents.

This blip for Google is unlikely to be an enduring or terminal issue. It should be a warning to all of us however not to take eyes off the details of process, especially in corporate communications, however big and successful we grow.

Virgin rail behaving true to brand values.

We have all noted the recent farce with the government back-pedalling rapidly over the franchise process – probably with a mixture of incredulity and eye-rolling.

Aside from the political issues and outcomes, I was quite heartened with how the Virgin brand comes out of this. Whether you consider it creditable or not, the brand acted true to its values. Much of the personification of those values is embodied in Mr Branson, and the way he goes about his business. But in this instance he and the brand acted in a way we would have expected.

I’m not getting into an argument over whether it was right or wrong – just that the brand behaved authentically.

If we look at the long brand narrative, from selling imported vinyl, to taking on the high street, launching airlines and digging in its toes against BA, it has always behaved in character.

I suggest this little chapter will not reflect badly on the company. One thing the public likes from its brands is consistency, and Virgin certainly seems to demonstrate that trait.