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"Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.”
While he might have said it somewhat bluntly, the words of former ad executive David Ogilvy certainly ring true.
In its purest form and narrowest dictionary-like definition, the goal of branding is to make a product or a business look distinct from its competition, and provide it with a competitive edge that can translate into a whole lot of dollars and cents. This is why for decades, and some might argue centuries, people have been on a quest to find a single magic formula, the branding ‘Holy Grail’ that encapsulates the ingredients of an ultimate and successful branding equation.
While branding has historically been linked to consumer goods and corporations — just think Pepsi, Sony, IBM, Crest, or any of the brands you see plastered on thousands of chaotically placed billboards across Lebanon — in today’s media-crazed society, branding has extended to the realm of people. David Beckham, Madonna, Martha Stewart, and our very own Haifa Wehbe are a few examples of individuals turned brands.
If you ask a man on the street what first comes to mind when hearing the name Che Guevara, chances are his answer will be “revolutionary.” If you ask a lady what word best describes a Louis Vuitton bag, you will most probably hear her say “luxury.” This, in essence, is what branding is all about: creating a unique identity that people associate with a company, product or person.
The challenge is to create a brand that stands out from the crowd and conveys positive attributes that people can recognize and instinctively identify as the brand’s own. This is a trademark of successful brands and a building block for establishing brand value.
Companies that invest in building their brand stand to reap the benefits, which in the case of Coca-Cola for example, exceed $66 billion in brand value (according to Interbrand’s 2008 ranking) or in the cases of Kleenex and Vaseline, enjoy the luxury of becoming a generic noun for certain categories of products.
That said, establishing strong brand value requires deploying a holistic brand strategy characterized by a number of key success factors. While inventing a new type of product can go a long way toward establishing a successful brand (e.g. Hoover or Nescafé), most brands are less fortunate and need to heavily invest resources and effort to reach the desired brand value.
Many companies realize that the key to establishing a successful brand is creating awareness and wide-reaching recognition of their brand name. This, however, leaves some way to go on the journey to creating brand equity and value.
The company needs to define a clear vision of what it hopes to represent for customers. It must aspire to a position that is unique and distinctive, a position that reflects the company’s DNA and is specific to its culture. It must then work to ensure the target customers share its view of the brand. For example, if a person wants to feel prestigious, he will most likely buy a Mercedes; if he wants to feel rebellious he will hop on a Harley-Davidson, and if he feels like partying every night until six in the morning, he will probably spend his next vacation in Ibiza.
All such successful brands also have in common one universal element: not only have they cultivated an image or experience that is associated with their brand, but they were able to deliver a product or service that holds true to their brand promise. It is not enough for a company to say it is environmentally-conscious or to spend large sums of money on environment-related corporate social responsibility activities. In order to be perceived as eco-friendly, a brand has to live and breathe its ethos.
A prerequisite for a brand’s success is that it first be lived and experienced internally. A company’s employees should become ambassadors of the brand, mirroring its characteristics and positioning it accordingly.
This is why companies with successful brands emphasize internal communication and institute brand induction programs. All employees are introduced to the brand and its values and asked to live the brand experience. Walt Disney is a prime example. The company’s programs aim to ensure all Disney employees buy into and embody Walt Disney’s brand attributes in their everyday lives.
Another pivotal success factor in building brand value is to reflect its positioning and experience through its communication. All the messages a company conveys to its stakeholders should focus on cementing its brand attributes and values. A company can cement its message in mainstream advertising, public relations activities, product placement, brand endorsement, and even through the visual manifestation of the brand, including name, logo, colors and graphics — all of which incorporate its corporate identity.
Creating a brand experience therefore requires the meticulous effort of ensuring consistency in corporate identity, in all of its applications and across all areas. Air France, for example, decided in the 1990s to position itself as a luxurious and refined airline. The company then translated this idea into a brand that embodied the ‘French way of life’. The airline succeeded by creating a unique language and set of symbols, including a lofty design for its lounges, a distinctive style for its attendants’ uniforms, and even landing and takeoff music that expressed that same sense of refinement and luxury. Consistency was also demonstrated throughout its advertising campaigns, which invariably highlighted its positioning though elegant themes, graphics and colors.
Only when a company adopts a branding strategy that combines all of these elements, can it effectively build brand value.
In this part of the world, companies are realizing the need to invest in their brands. A number of them have secured an entry level ticket to the privileged club of brand success stories, knowing that they still have some way to go before asserting their full membership status.
But for other companies, the results have been far from perfect. This is often due to a strategic failure by companies that focus extensively on creating name awareness and recognition. For those who went the extra step and established their aspired image and positioning of the brand, many missed out on living or delivering on their brand promise. While such a short-sighted approach transcends sectors and industries, it is especially characteristic of the real estate and property development market. Huge investments ensured every person across the region could recognize the names of the big industry players. Yet few people have a clear, positive image of what each company represents, nor can they distinguish between one and the other.
In other cases, the failure to successfully create brand equity lies in overlooking the importance of cultural adaptation. A company’s brand identity, from its positioning and value system to its name and logo, should be relevant to its own markets and in line with the expectations of its customers. You can learn from the successes and mistakes of global companies’ branding strategies, but these lessons are only valuable if adapted to the company’s own culture and environment.
Another strategy that inherently stands in the way of any success is the reliance on so-called ‘copycat’ strategies in trying to build brands. This seems to even extend to the branding of artists. Simply flip through TV channels on any given day, and you are bound to come across a singer that has undergone all possible cosmetic surgeries to look like another more famous one. Imitation is the name of the game there, and in branding, that’s a losing game.
There is no magic, uniform formula for branding. Regional companies should first and foremost change their skeptical view of investing in their brands and start addressing branding as a top priority. It is only through harnessing communication that their brands can truly reflect soul and substance, and move away from the prevalent skin-deep approach to branding.
Brands should have a clear message and stand for distinctive attributes that should be communicated to stakeholders, reflected across all corporate identity applications and embodied by everyone within the organization, from the chairman to the newest intern.
“In a fast-paced world, today’s popular brand could be tomorrow’s trivia question,” former PepsiCo Chairman Wayne Calloway once said. If a company is keen to avoid such a doom scenario, it is better start thinking of properly building and sustaining its brand.
Rany Kassab & Ramsay G. Najjar