Brands are easier said than done

There’s a yawning chasm between brand theory and brand practice

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As marketers we come close to taking brands for granted. But while many would say they now get the theory, the practice of brand-building is not as simple as they might like to believe.

When I first became a brand strategist many years ago the discipline was still young. There were amazing people doing work to build the structures and formalities of the craft. It felt very much like an industry in progress. Today, the business and marketing press are packed with consultants and decision makers who profess familiarity with everything required to build powerful brands – and yet on closer inspection, the numbers of truly successful brands remains low. So, given what we know now, why is it still so difficult to create high-performing brands?

Five gaps between brand theory and practice

Here are five instances of where the gap between the theory and the practice remains persistently high.

  1. Differentiation – the buzzword of branding is seeded across almost every marketing conversation, and yet think about the number of brands that are significantly different from those around them. Yes – small. Nigel Hollis has previously identified that consumers see most brands as similar or swappable, and that less than 25% of brands are seen by shoppers as distinctive. The embrace of parity is much stronger and more pervasive than we recognise. Different for you is very different from different from them. Too many brands confuse new ways of working and improvements with ideas that spark consumers’ imagination. As Hollis explains here: “Marketers need to strive to make their brands both different and distinctive: different in order to justify a price premium over close alternatives, distinctive in order to trigger pre-existing, positive feelings during search or shopping. The two qualities are both highly desirable but, sadly, most brands are lacking in both.”
  2. Purpose – it’s noble to want to change the world, and it’s gratifying to see purpose making an appearance in executive slide-decks as an opportunity for brands to strive for inspiring goals. Yet many brands struggle to turn the articulation into the focused pursuit of an ethos and accompanying actions that significantly change how they play and what they play for. So there’s a very real danger that purpose becomes the thing brands congratulate themselves on striving for, but that amounts to little more than a conversation behind closed doors. A lot of brands would see themselves as purposeful, but applying it with gusto and insight to the brand’s day to day running – in other words, bringing it off the page – is much, much harder. When Edelman’s 2016 Earned Brand Study asked 13,000 consumers in 13 different countries to rate their relationships with brands across 18 market categories, brands worldwide scored 38 out of a possible 100 points on average. Of the seven metrics measured, companies scored lowest on listening openly, telling memorable stories and acting with purpose.
  3. Value – brand strategists are quick to identify brand as a way to build products and ideas into measurable assets and yet, as Mark Ritson has identified, no-one seems to be able to agree on what that value is, how it should be calculated, and what should and should not be included in the assessment of that value. So while all the brand finance companies can eloquently defend why they calculate what they do, the fact remains that brands are built to have value but no-one can agree what that value is, and most marketers seem completely unsure how to use that value as the basis for strategy. Brand equity is another one of those terms that is part of the lexicon, but the definitions of what it is, how it builds, why it works and what brands can look to it to deliver are vague at best.
  4. Price – in theory, the point of having a brand is to achieve a price premium against the default pricing of the category, and yet so many brands I work with have not consciously crafted their brands to emotionally address and counter-act the dynamics that are driving down price. Too often, brand and pricing still feel like separated conversations. In too many sectors, marketers are not consciously developing brands to deliver a price point that addresses a price gap. Instead, they quickly succumb to the temptation to deliver high-end, look-alike brand signals (through mechanisms like design) that they then price to the market norm. No wonder, the world is awash with look-alike, price-alike brands that just blend. In a world where consumers just expect everything, marketers and strategists continue to struggle to find competitive ways to frame expectations by saying “No, not for that price.”
  5. Growth – we often talk about growth as though it is a natural outcome from building a strong brand. But, as Christopher Zook has pointed out, 90% of companies fail to hit even modest growth targets over 10 years. Brand strategists still presume that the brands they work on will enter the market and thrive. But failure rates for new product development are high, and Zook’s observations about growth suggest that there is still plenty of work to be done to build and deliver brands that will continue to defy the pull of failure. Indeed, there is still plenty of work to do to explain how brands will make the impact and the profitability expected of them over their lifetime – and indeed, what that likely lifetime is.

I absolutely believe that brand development done well can, indeed must, deliver significant, measurable change. But there’s also no denying that brand strategy is falling short on too many occasions because brands are not prepared, or don’t have the time or resources, to focus on what success will require. We’ve come a long way – but make no mistake, there is still a lot we have to learn and to apply if more brands are to achieve what many of us see as their potential.

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title 5 Gaps Between Brand Strategy Theory And Practice.

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