Don’t Treat Branding as an Afterthought

branding exercise with sticky notes and more on a wall

Brands&People | unsplash

A large part of my career has involved pivoting between product management, product marketing and solution marketing. I spent nearly two years out of work after my second startup had failed in 2000. During my job search, I kept noticing Silicon Valley organizations cobble together multiple jobs under one title. One that came up frequently was product marketing jobs asking for brand builders. 

Now I had hired a branding company to name my largest startup, but had no idea myself how to build a brand. Desperate for an answer, I bought David Aaker’s 1991 book, “Managing Brand Equity.” It explained the value of a brand, and recommended marketers do five things to help build one:

  1. Treat the customer right.
  2. Stay close to the customer.
  3. Measure and manage customer satisfaction.
  4. Create switching costs.
  5. Provide unexpected extras.

Aaker’s book provided the answer I needed for my next job interview, but I knew there was more to positioning and branding. A new book published this week reminded me of my quest for branding and positioning knowledge all those years ago: Kimberly Whitler’s “Positioning for Advantage: Techniques and Strategies to Grow Brand Value.”

How Marketers Create Competitive Advantage

Whitler is the Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Profess of Business Administration at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She argues marketers should focus on creating sustainable advantage for their businesses. Advantage is created “by combining the firm’s resources with insight-generated marketing intelligence (information on competitors and consumers) and direction from firm level strategic marketing choices about where a brand should play or its desired position.” Effective marketing plans should therefore define how to win, choices and decisions regarding resource allocations, organizational structure design, strategic partners and go-to-market activities.

The outcome from this effort should in theory be superior marketing strategies and plans. These should deliver a perceptual advantage (in the hearts and minds of customers) which translates into a brand equity advantage and ultimately drives business growth. As Whitler sees it, the business outcome is a vision of how to win given an organization’s competitors.

The Positioning Concept

The problem, according to Whitler, is entrepreneurs spend so much time learning how to create new products and not enough learning how to create a brand. I agree. Most startups in Silicon Valley focus on selling products and product features prior to their Series C or D funding. This approach puts all the focus on “the development of a new product, fails to connect the value of the benefits that the product creates to the market for the solution. When leaders focus on the developing a product, it’s possible that there won’t be a real consumer (customer) need.”

For these organizations a gap exists in how they create, test and perfect the core positioning of the brand. Whitler argues positioning should be done first. And because this is rarely the case, 90% of new products fail. The “problem is few are taught to understand why it’s important to use a rigorous process to define the strategic positioning and that all decisions — from the product to brand design to the choices of commercialization strategies and tactics” come from a company’s strategic positioning.

Whitler’s proposed solution is for organizations to adopt a positioning concept. Leaders can then create, test and perfect ideas upon which brands and new products are created and then launched.

The positioning concept specifically identifies the customers’ problem, the solution the brand is designed to provide, and the proof that the brand can deliver. It essentially summarizes why a brand exists. To be effective, problem statements should be in the customers words and state the customer problem in simple language. The solutions statements should connect the solution to the customer problem statements. And finally, supporting statements should provide the granularity around how a new product works to solve the customer problem. Whitler argues it is important to create a process deliberately comparing ideas that are generated against established criteria. This ensures a product has the best chance of success.

Related Article: What Brand Marketers Can Learn From Personal Brands

Crafting a Brand Essence Statement

A marketing strategy, Whitler claims, should at its core be about identifying a position in the marketplace that provides the greatest opportunity to create value for a chosen customer target. Over time, successful brands come to stand for something as well — these establish meaning, feeling and emotions that capture the hearts and minds of their customers.

Marketers have had a hard time determining what the brand essence should be, argues Whitler. She calls the process both art and science. A brand is a distinguishing name/symbol intended to identify goods and services and differentiate the company from competitors. Given this, a brand essence statement (BES) is a document, picture, video or other communication vehicle that captures the intrinsic nature and indispensable qualities that make a brand unique, compelling and meaningful to a target.

Whitler stresses a BES is more than a messaging document. It should precede the design of a product, to guide the decision on which product to create. It serves as a beacon that summarizes the brand’s unique positioning in the marketplace. As a goal, the BES serves as the brand image that marketing is working to develop and, therefore, should be used as a filter to think through brand decisions.

In terms of timing, a BES should be created after determining segmentation, target definition and positioning concepts. It should consist of four components:

  1. Foundation (brand values and brand personality).
  2. Impact (the impacts the brand will provide customers rationally and emotionally).
  3. Support (the reasons to believe).
  4. Brand essence (what is the summary statement of what the brand can do for the target customer).

Whitler cautions marketers to watch for gaps where the promise and behavior do not align in this process. A key idea I really like is a brand must be authentic, and this includes people decisions. “Authenticity and veracity are mechanisms thru which brands create trust.” To make things right, Whitler says marketers need to serve brands and consumers, and not the other way around.

Related Article: Forget VoC. Where Is Your Brand’s Voice?

Communicate Your Vision With Strategy Maps

Once an organization has built its BES, the next step is to communicate its desired position to the broader organization in a way that is clear, aligned and committed to delivery. Strategy maps are a great tool to do this. They are a visual, fast and easy way to share an overview of the corporation, its brands and its competition.

Whitler believes CMOs should lead this effort because they sit at the intersection of the external marketplace and the internal functions of the C-Suite. She suggests CMOS create four strategy maps: 1) Brand portfolio and resource management; 2) Consumer perspectives and preferences; 3) Competitive market dynamics; and 4) Strategy maps (the process).

Strategic Marketing Plan

To a large extent, Whitler builds upon the work of Derek Abell’s “Strategic Marketing Planning.” Abell defined a three-cycle enterprise planning approach:

  1. Develop alternative long-range business definitions and missions.
  2. Develop long-range functional strategies.
  3. Develop one-year plans and budgets.

Like Abell, Whitler believes the strategic marketing plan flows from the corporate plan to assure that all departments are aligned with the firm’s overall strategic plan. Whitler is clear that converting marketing strategy into plans that can achieve a vision is more difficult than devising an effective strategy. Without question, a strategic plan represents a set of choices that direct and focus activity to achieve corporate goals.

In terms of structure, Whitler suggests a strategic marketing plan include the following: visions, objectives, strategies, tactics and measures. To be effective, it should be a stand-alone document that reflects ruthless choice making and not be created in isolation.

The Creative Brief: A Blueprint for Marketing Activities

With agreement on the BES and strategic plan, a creative brief aims to strategically communicate key information about a specific project. It provides creatives a guide or blueprint to inform any marketing activity, such as advertisements, store design, brand communications, website, events, logo design and IT projects. As someone who often works with IT organizations, the last point was interesting to me.

Whitler asserts “it is better for clients to write the creative brief because they have more knowledge on the target consumer, the brand, and the business objectives.” In terms of specific writing tasks, they include:

  1. Project assignment.
  2. The situation.
  3. Objectives and success criteria.
  4. Customer insights.
  5. Communications strategy.
  6. Execution guidelines.
  7. Details and approvals.

Marketing Technology Blueprint

CMOs are spending billions in technology to modernize marketing with the aim of discovering, engaging, creating and delighting customers. The question for CMOs and CIOs to answer together is how can they leverage technology to create superior value to customers? A martech blueprint is used to evaluate, inform and support marketing technology investments across an entire organization.

Typically, the blueprint is a diagram or visual, created with an enterprise architect, that illustrates how technologies connect and worked with each other to drive marketing processes. A martech blueprint should answer the following questions: 1) vision for customer experience and journey; 2) desired state of marketing technology guide the buyer journey; 3) What is in place and left to add; 4) Are we using what we have; 5) Have we integrated what we have: 6) Are there duplications and unnecessary capabilities; and 7) The roadmap for data flow, marketing capabilities and customer experiences.

Brand Measurement

Measurements are core elements of how every organization should run itself. In marketing organizations, Whitler says measurement should guide marketing strategy; access in-marketing process; access extendability of a brand; evaluate the effectiveness of decision; track brand strength against competitors; and assign financial value of the brand. Key areas of consistent measurement across brands should include consumer knowledge, consumer perception; consume behavior; and financial valuation.

Parting Thoughts on the Book

Whether you are a B2C or B2B marketer, the principles of Whitler’s book should be foundational to your marketing plan. Marketing organizations need to do their homework. And while the book does not explicitly consider digital adjuncts to products or the need for digital speed, the same principals apply. I would not have received dollar one of venture capital for my startups if I hadn’t done my homework. And every time I learned something new about a customer and their problems, it would be like entering a room and finding everything changed. Given this, it is smart to follow Whitler’s guidance, regardless of business type.

Myles Suer, according to LeadTail, is the No. 1 leading influencer of CIOs. Myles is director of solutions marketing at Alation and he’s also the facilitator for the #CIOChat.

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