If You Don't Control Your Brand, Others Will

Why Promise-Based Branding Matters

By George Stephan

Managing Partner, Stephan Partners

If your company is having problems retaining or acquiring new customers, you should ask yourself, "Do we control our brand?" You might say, "Of course we control our brand. We have a logo, a tagline, a mission statement and a website – plus we run ads, send out direct mail, email … you name it."

But that doesn't necessarily mean you control your brand. Because your brand isn't what you say it is; your brand is what the public says it is. If your audience's perception of your brand isn't what you want it to be (and, more important, what you need it to be) ... then you don’t control your brand.

Want proof? Think of some of your competitors. What are the first words that pop into your head? It might be "expensive but worth it." It might be "attractive but not reliable." It might be "old-fashioned, not cool." And if your descriptions are pretty much what others say, guess what – that’s how those products are perceived and branded. In the same way, whatever the public thinks of your product right now ... that's exactly what your brand is.

So how do you get control of your brand? Start by understanding your brand this way.

A brand is a promise

A brand is not a logo or a tagline (although it may include these). A brand is not a mission statement, a website or an ad (although it may be expressed in these). A brand is a promise your product or service can keep ... a benefit to customers and prospects that is understandable, believable, delivers superior value and differentiates you from the competition. Whatever your current branding efforts are intending to do, they are perceived by

your audience as making a promise. And if that promise is not what you want to communicate, then you're in trouble.

So consider doing research with your customers and prospects to find out what they think: what your brand really is, what people perceive of you as promising.

And discover if you're standing out … in the way you want.


Avoid the commodity trap

Ask Seth Godin, business guru and bestselling author of The Purple Cow: "You're either a purple cow or you're not. You're either remarkable or invisible. Make your choice." Brands like Starbucks, Google, HBO, JetBlue and Amazon are so remarkable that customers seek them out. Products and services without a remarkable brand promise risk becoming a brown cow, a cow like every other cow ... a commodity.

To avoid the commodity trap, try to have "only" in your promise. Here are some that have gotten a lot of mileage: 

"Volvo. For life."   Only Volvo promises you the safest ride.

"Volvo. For life." Only Volvo promises you the safest ride.

"  UBS. You & Us."   Only UBS promises global reach and individual attention.

"UBS. You & Us." Only UBS promises global reach and individual attention.

"BMW. The ultimate driving machine."   Only BMW promises you the ultimate driving experience.

"BMW. The ultimate driving machine." Only BMW promises you the ultimate driving experience.

To really differentiate yourself, try to own the "next big thing" – the emerging benefit that resonates with your customers. Fifty years ago car makers were afraid to talk about safety. But Volvo realized that the culture was changing, that drivers wanted safety and wanted to hear about it. Volvo was the first car company to promise safety – and it has grown on that promise.  

A brand builds a better bottom line

What does promise-based branding do for your product? The first thing it does is build an emotional connection between your product and your customers. By saying this is what your product promises, it says this is who your customers are. It reinforces your customers’ self-image. Volvo: "I am someone who keeps my family safe." MINI: "I am someone who wants a car that’s always up for some fun." What flows from this promise? Better acquisition and retention of customers. Better ROI. And a better bottom line.

How to develop a brand

Start with a brand-promise assessment. From interviews with your internal and external audiences, and from a competitive review of the companies that keep you up at night, you learn three things: What customers want. What benefits your product delivers but may not promise. What other products don’t promise. Where these three circles intersect – that sweet spot – can be your brand promise.  

Where do you deliver your promise

You deliver your brand promise at every point of contact with your customers. Start with internal communications to your staff. So everyone knows and internalizes your promise, and becomes an ambassador for your product or service. Think of how Obama won. Millions of his supporters internalized his promise of "Change we can believe in." When these supporters talked with their friends, family and co-workers they stayed "on message" and told people that’s why you should vote for Obama. In fact, to make sure everyone in your company gets the consistent message (your promise); you might train one of your staff to become your CMO: Chief Messaging Officer. Then you can extend your promise into your website and digital communications, offline advertising, collateral materials, social media, events and public relations.

Prepare to be challenged

Of course, you may hear objections.  

1. "It sounds costly"

No, promise-based branding makes you money. Consider a store brand and, right next to it on the shelf, a national brand of that product. Often, the store brand has the exact same formula – and is even made by the same manufacturer – as the national brand. Yet the national brand is priced higher. And people pay that price. What are they paying for? The value of the brand.

Ralph Lauren’s paint at $26.95 has the exact same formula as Home Depot’s at $9.94!

And how’s this for value: Financial World has calculated that the Coca-Cola brand is worth $72.5 billion. In other words, if the company lost all its factories, employees and distributors (all its physical, human and intellectual capital – even its secret formula), the owner of the Coca-Cola brand could go to any bank in the world and borrow money to rebuild the company.

2. "It sounds limiting"

Some people will say, "When we talk to a prospect, we have to change our pitch depending on who the prospect is – his or her demographics, psychographics, etc." But trying to be all things to all people results in confusion and a loss of identity. On the other hand, you do want to talk to as many prospects as possible.

Here are some solutions:

Apple said, "Think different." This differentiated Apple from IBM, implying IBM thought conventionally. Yet this promise – "Using Apple helps you think different" – appeals to nearly everyone. Who wants to think conventionally?

BMW calls itself "The ultimate driving machine." This differentiates BMW from all other luxury cars, implying others may be fine to look at but don’t drive as well. Yet this promise – "You get to drive the ultimate driving machine" – appeals to all affluent people who consider themselves serious drivers. And most affluent people do.

Nike says, "Just do it." This differentiates Nike from all other running shoe and apparel companies, implying others don’t help you do it. Yet this promise – "Doing it is easy, just wear this" – appeals to everyone who wants to be active but has been stymied by excuses (a lot of people!).

3. "Now is not a good time"

No, it’s the perfect time. Now that many people have less money, they are looking at other solutions and other brands, breaking out of their old spending habits. They are up for grabs. Here’s food for thought, reported by James Surowiecki in The New Yorker, April 20, 2009: 

"In the 1920s, Kellogg and Post dominated the market for packaged cereal. When the Depression hit, Post did the predictable thing: it reined in expenses and cut back on advertising. But Kellogg doubled its ad budget. By 1933, Kellogg’s profits had risen almost 30 percent and it had become what remains the industry’s dominant player. Numerous studies have shown that companies that keep spending on advertising during recessions do significantly better than those which make big cuts."

But remember: before you spend on advertising, make sure you have a brand – a promise – to spend behind.  

Take control

Branding based on a great promise helps your company today and positions it for tomorrow. Promise-based branding accelerates customer acquisition and retention, and extends their lifetime value. If you don’t take control of branding by making a great promise, your audience will continue to brand you in ways you may not want – and to that extent your future will be out of your hands and in the control of others.

About Stephan Partners

George Stephan is Managing Partner of Stephan Partners, a branding and digital marketing company based in NYC. Our branding campaigns help companies today and position them for tomorrow. Our digital marketing execution delivers customer engagement, sales and ROI.

For additional information, visit www.stephanpartners.com or contact George Stephan at 917-848-7972.