emotional attachment

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.

Tesco and five kinds of brand damage.

Financial, sales-revenue and profit reversals usually correlate with brand damage, though not necessarily to a serious extent. The public is often sympathetic to market conditions and we have seen many retailers struggling through, without permanent brand damage.

Tesco_signHowever some forms of damage can be more serious and enduring, and recently we have seen poor Tesco stumble from one hole to another. Sales revenue damage was compounded by mishandling possibly questionable management activities.

It’s probably a good time to consider the five major categories of brand damage in the light of the benighted retailer’s problems.

1. Market environment damage

Sometimes no blame can be attached to the organisation for issues beyond its control. Particularly political and legislative changes can impact business and the brand and the company may be trapped in negative activity,

Cultural and technological issues can also have damaging impacts. However, it can be argued that a well-managed brand should be constantly monitoring the market environment to remain in touch and relevant.

2. Accidents, incidents and events

Traffic police often say ‘There are no accidents, only incidents’ – the inference being that all accidents are avoidable. Events can be seriously and often terminally damaging.

We can look at the brand damage following in the wake of BP’s catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, or Toyota’s string of recalls. These ‘events’ are rarely blameless and damage is inevitable – the distinguishing feature is how a brand faces up to such a catastrophe. Openness, acceptance and swift responses can do much to restore a brand’s reputation where denial, obfuscation and attempts to cover up will only compound the problem.

3. Neglect, complacency and hubris

This kind of brand damage often follows a period of undoubted success. It is where a brand sits back, assumes that it has arrived at its place in the sun and believes it has a right to its position. This often leads to the previous form of brand damage as complacency dulls the belief that ‘something might go wrong’.

In the Tesco example, for decades the business was hardworking and innovative – a pioneer of online shopping, exploiting multi-channel trading and pushing the boundaries of a food market retailer. Did it grow fat, lazy and complacent? It has been suggested that part of the malaise was not being sufficiently sensitive to economic and market changes, and lack of clarity in its brand positioning – leading to shrinking market share.

In such a case, there is often an emotional disconnection – a complacent brand, like a complacent person, stops reaching out and the important emotional bond with the audience is damaged.

4. Incompetence and mishandling

It goes without saying that incompetence in brand management will be penalised. Well-meaning fumbling may not be taken too seriously if the brand has sound core values, however.

Mishandling is often the product of misunderstanding what is important. We have already looked at damage due to events and incidents. These are typical areas where a strong hand on the tiller is required to handle the aftermath.

We have recently seen the tragic events surrounding the Virgin spacecraft test-flight – we also witnessed the exemplary way Richard Branson responded. A stark comparison with Tesco’s response to falling figures.

5. Malpractice, malfeasance and dishonesty

This type of serious brand damage is the result of the actions of individuals or groups within a business. It may be rogue elements or it may be with the approval and complicity of management. We have seen examples of corrupt individuals in the financial sector – here swift action from the board can go some way to mitigate the potential damage. In other cases is may be institutional malpractice – here brand damage can spread beyond individual organisations to whole sectors.

Sometimes this can strike at the very core values of a brand and the damage may be terminal. The example which springs to mind is that of Anderson Consulting and the Enron scandal. The implied brand value of probity was brought into question and the result was the demise of a brand.

We wait to see if this type of damage was involved in the Tesco episode. If so, we can expect a costly and crippling degree of brand pain. Perhaps for a grocery retailer corporate rectitude is not a core value, but we can be sure other brands will be queueing up to fill the moral void.

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.

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 Dr Martens sale unleash a brand giant?

Dr Martens LogoIt looks as though the Dr Martens brand is set for sale to Permira, the organisation behind the Hugo Boss brand amongst others. I’m sure this can only be good news.

Compared to other fashion brands Dr Martens has always seemed to lag behind in its ability to extend and exploit the brand capital. Yet I’ve always felt there was enormous potential for a brand that has much more emotional legacy than simply that of a fashion label. Though it has immediate linkage to the skinhead era for those who lived through it, it went far beyond and had the power to re-engage with decades of subsequent cultures – both youth and older buyers who had the brand deeply embedded.

In terms of footwear styling, the owners managed to cleverly maintain the fundamental styles while responding to changing fashion cycles.

Perhaps the rather tentative forays into brand extension may lie the historic strength in footwear. The brand owners, the Griggs family, have footwear in their DNA. Boot and shoemakers based in the ‘shoe-capital’ of Northampton, they followed the line of playing to their core competences – the cobblers stuck to their lasts.

Now with new owners without such a strong but narrow legacy, the potential of this sleeping brand-giant may be released.

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.

Know what you are about – brand lessons from Polaroid

Polaroid_logo_Polaroid – the ‘instant picture’ company, had an amazing USP. They had a patented process that guaranteed them a unique place in the photographic market place. Polaroid Land cameras (named after the inventor and founder, Edwin Land) were the embodiment of an iconic brand from the 1950’s through to 2004.

The unstoppable march of digital photography has proved catastrophic for many of the trusted names brands previously dominant in the sector. Camera brands such as Canon and Nikon easily made the transition. Others, especially those who saw their future in terms of traditional film, such as Kodak, had potentially much more serious problems.

The core differentiator that Polaroid enjoyed was the ‘instant’ picture – digital imagery swept that away at a stroke. However, the Polaroid brand is strong, with a unique legacy and a strong attachment to generations of happy snappers and professionals. There seems to have been a realization that the brand was a much more important asset than a now obsolescent technology. The brand moved ahead.

Polaroid loomed large on my horizon once more when I was reviewing a range of new sports, digital, video cameras under the eponymous brand. It gave me cause to reflect that where Kodak had floundered, Polaroid gained a new lease of life. Kodak seems to have mistakenly thought it was in the film business – where in fact, the brand was all about imagery through whatever means. Polaroid stopped thinking of themselves as an ‘instant image’ brand and developed as a wider imaging brand. All the currency of their legacy continued to support a new offering.

As all photographers know the difference between doing something good and something great, may simply mean changing your viewpoint slightly.

How to make them love your brand – the emotional dimension of branding.

heartIt’s generally accepted that we engage with brands and make choices on two levels: the pragmatic or declarative level and the emotional level. But the importance of the emotional level is often underestimated.

Our primary processing of any experience (including a brand experience) is at a visceral level, often described as pre-wired and subconscious; next we process at a behavioural level – how it functions and our own interaction. Thirdly, we consider it at a reflective level – how it makes us feel and in terms of our broader life experiences. (After Don Norman)

These early stages of experience fall into the category of passive involvement processing (PIP). We don’t consciously process, we feel.

Later stages of brand choice use active involvement processing (AIP), where we consider and weigh alternatives and make what we believe are rational, objective decisions. The truth is that we have probably made our emotional choices already using PIP and are now only justifying those decisions.

Much of the work done with brands is done at the rational level because this is most amenable to communications and persuasion. Facts and information can be communicated with the object of influencing rational choice using the subject’s pragmatic AIP. However, by this stage decisions, prejudices and choices are likely to be already deeply embedded.

So, how do we appeal at that passive emotional level?

It is not easy, but understanding those primitive emotions may help point the way. Early man liked people like himself. There is a functional advantage to this, your own family group and tribe represent safety in a potentially violent world. Approaching strangers could be a risky activity – so he would seek out those he knew, those who looked like him, sounded like him and smelled like him. He wanted to feel comfortable with those who shared his values.

Our brand choice is similarly driven – we choose brands with which we feel comfortable, which match our values and our lifestyle. The key word for the brand steward is ‘empathy’. It is important to be in touch with the emotional forces at work in the audience. No at a shallow level that can be talked to, but at deep level that can be felt.

It needs a real understanding of the person the brand wants to share with – understanding their values, desires and fears. The brand steward must seek to build an holistic picture of the subject and also of the brand. The objective is to analyse the touch points, where must the brand values be perfectly in tune with those of the audience – empathy.

Fundamentals.

1. Get to really understand your audiences emotional needs. Marketers are good at understanding and satisfying physical needs, but for your brand to touch people you need to  recognise their deeper emotions, desires, aspirations, needs and fears. Use archetypes, create lifestyle boards – anything to help your insight.

2. Analyse your brand values. Be honest. It’s easy to pay lip-service to all the values we believe we should have – but what are the core values that we hold true? Better still, ask others – clients, suppliers, friends – a quick survey will be priceless.

3. Match up the touch points – this is where you can build.

4. Don’t force it. Sometimes there are circles you just cannot square. For example, perhaps customers are small independent retailers who are uncomfortable with and scared of big suppliers. If you are a large organization, don’t try to fake it. Either look for other emotional convergence that you can build on or admit that perhaps you are trying to connect with the wrong audience. Or maybe you need to restructure. The point about emotion is it’s deep and visceral – and above all, must be honest.