Branding: Part 1 of 3
What is it that enables product experiences to blend well in a customer's mind? Every experience a customer has with a product can influence her brand impression.
Imagine the relationship a loyal customer has with a hotel chain. The experiences that form that customer's brand impression can come from hundreds of places within the company - from the many different hotels she stays in and from many different employees at those hotels, the telephone reservation center, the chain's web site, the ads she sees, and the mail the chain sends her.
The concept of Brand Harmony says that her brand impression will be strong if these experiences are mutually reinforcing, creating a blend that has a palpable, distinct character. Conversely, her brand impression will be weakened if she has experiences with the product that don't reinforce each other, creating a muddled dissonance.
So... how does a company create an experience of Brand Harmony for its customers? How can these distinct messages, reaching customers from all quarters, blend elegantly in a way that enables the customer to say, "I get it... I know what this product can do for me?" Is it coincidence? Is it luck? Is it the most incredible feat of company-wide group improvisation imaginable?
The only way messages - tens, hundreds or thousands of them - have any chance of blending harmoniously in a customer's mind is if those messages share something in common, something that enables them to resonate with each other, something that allows them to be stitched together into a sensible whole in the customer's mind.
What is that "something" that makes it possible for all of these varied experiences to be mutually reinforcing and blend into a clear brand impression?
I believe in "brand essence," the shared soul of the brand, the spark of which is lit in every experience a customer has of a product. It is as if each expression of a product that the customer experiences could trace its genealogy to a common ancestor, the brand essence, which gives each experience a character that can resonate with all others.
Think of the way DNA works in your body. Each and every one your trillion+ cells contain in its DNA the complete instruction set for your entire being. Even the cells in your eyelashes contain your complete DNA code, but are programmed to express only the DNA instructions that make eyelashes, while the walls of your blood vessels express only the portion of the DNA that enables them to perform their function, and so on, for your entire body. As you grow into a whole person, these trillion cells work in harmony to create the complete you. The parts fit together beautifully - optic nerves connect to retinas, aortas connect to auricles, the hairline stops just above the ear. Your body "makes sense," and its cells all fit together beautifully, because each of these cells derive their essence from a common source, the DNA that they all share.
DNA is similar with a product that creates strong brand harmony: Experiences that customers have with a product, whether they be in the form of using the product, interacting with front line employees, or exposures to marketing communications, have a greater chance of blending harmoniously if they are each a reflection of a common brand idea.
Brand essence is the underlying "it-ness" of the brand, the source of all that the brand is, does and delivers. It is woven into every expression of a product which the customer experiences, making it possible for her to create a composite impression of the brand that is sensible. Brand essence is not a tagline or a logo - those are nothing but expressions of the brand essence, as are ads, product features or the smile of a front line employee. Brand essence is the rich, multi-dimensional character of the brand, the genetic code from which an entire story can be woven.
For one gourmet food shop, the essence of the brand may be that its proprietors' expertise will help you create memorable entertainment experiences. For another, it may be that it provides you with the best selection of foods and cooking tools from around the world. For amazon.com, the brand essence is based on the idea of unparalleled breadth of selection.
All activities that impact customers should be driven by the underlying meaning of the brand essence. But, like the cells in your body, each product expression does not need to express the entire story of the brand. Every interaction between a customer and a product plays a particular role in telling a piece of the story, perfectly complementing the others, much like the way a nose and mouth fit perfectly, one on top of the other, helping to create the whole picture.
For example, the employee at the front desk of a hotel may not use the same language or perform a task that is specifically described in the company's advertising, but, if the brand harmony is strong, the front desk clerk's actions will reinforce the message you saw in the ad. How can this happen? Only if a common source - the brand essence - served as the guiding principle in the creation of the ads and also in the training of the front desk clerk.
Pay attention to the companies you do business with, when buying things for your personal life or for business. Can you discern a brand essence weaving through all interactions, the way a strong theme weaves through a novel's plot line?
How do you compare?
Now, consider your company. Is there a strong brand essence that ties together all interactions customers have with you? Can the people within the company describe what that brand essence is?
Imagine a customer raving about your company to a friend. The friend
says, "Tell me in one sentence why you like doing business with
them so much." Your customer says one sentence, and the friend
responds by saying, "Wow. Now I understand why you are so loyal
to them." What is that one sentence?
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