With the global financial downturn impacting on all markets, everyday business challenges have become compounded by reduced customer spending power, budget constraints and more cautious investor confidence. Companies may be turning to downsizing, or outsourcing to meet these challenges yet their biggest asset — their brand — cannot be approached in the same way. True, they can choose to stop spending on their brand, but in a time of crisis, there is actually no better time to leverage their brand assets to produce greater value.
Not just a name
First, it is important to understand what exactly is a brand. With branding still a fledgling topic in terms of awareness among local businesses, many mistakenly believe it means having a strong name in the market. Companies in Lebanon often think, “I have a famous name and it is selling well so this is a brand.” But often it’s selling because there is no real competition, or the product or service is cheap. When a serious competitor appears, they lose market share. In fact, a brand is a total experience: it’s the name plus the logo plus the brand promise and the delivery of that promise — brand equals trust.
Winners and losers
Competition can quickly sort the winning brands from the losers, but a crisis is another force to reckon with. In an economic downturn, consumer spending falls and purchasing shifts away from those brands which lack a strong bond with their customers. Many Gulf real estate developers have already learned this lesson, having spent lavishly on logos and communications but overlooking the need to bond with consumers. Thus, at the first sign of economic pressure, they began to suffer as investors sold their shares.
The new market reality is that consumers are not only spending less, they are re-examining every single purchasing decision. One global trend also emerging in Lebanon is for strong brands to reach out to consumers in a way that takes advantage of the economic climate but avoids diluting the brand value. These brands are opening new stores, often referred to as outlets, where customers have access to discounted luxury goods. This drives sales for the known brand but by using an alternative name for the outlet, it avoids diminishing the perception of the brand.
This trend is a prime example of well-positioned brands creating value by driving demand. What all successful brands require is a deep understanding of brand mechanics, how their brands influence customer behavior and choice. Understanding the process of brand value creation is vital not only to drive demand but also to improve decision-making and budget spending.
Digging for value
A successful brand strategy consists of determining the brand essence — which is what the brand stands for — and the brand promise, which is what the customer expects to be delivered when they buy the product or service. The branding process starts with an internal brand audit. Working with the company’s management, the audit sets out to discover the core strengths and fundamentals of the brand, what makes it unique and how it reached its current status. Once this is identified, strategies are devised around the brand foundations.
The corporate strategy starts with a vision, a mission, a set of beliefs and the corporate attitude or personality of the company. Once these are set they should first be shared and believed by all employees working in the company so they can deliver in their daily work.
But branding doesn’t stop there; brand management is essential for it to be effective. If you have a car, you change the oil, maintain and clean it so that it always performs. A brand is the same; you manage its image, its performance, and you keep on improving the service or product formula, so that it consistently delivers on its promise.
Sending the right message
All of these are essential before a company should think about advertising. Companies suffering from ineffective advertising shouldn’t blame the ad agency but look internally and see if they have a clear message, brand promise, employee and customer satisfaction. Only once these are really well covered should they consider advertising.
So, in times of crisis, instead of focusing purely on where and how to cut costs, companies should use the period of uncertainty to look at their brand value and strategy, look internally and question everything they have been doing: At the brand level, are your customer touch points well structured? Are your employees motivated and happy? Do they believe in your brand and your company? Then look outward at the customer: are they having a positive experience with your brand? What should you improve?
With companies increasingly focused on the bottom line, the good news is that branding drives up the brand value; the more positive a connection with customers, the more customers will remain attached to the brand and be prepared to spend money on it. Many companies may be looking to outside investors to inject funds into their business, and with a good brand strategy, they can sell at a premium. Even for companies not looking for outside investment, branding done correctly is one way to ensure that once the crisis eases, not only will they still be standing but they will also be among the first to reap the rewards.
JOE AYOUB is CEO of BrandCell