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Brand Warfare: Ten Rules for Building the Killer Brand

Twenty or 30 years ago, big brands ruled business: CBS, NBC, and ABC controlled television; Sears dominated retailing to the middle class. AT&T owned telecom, and the U.S. Postal Service owned the mail delivery business.

Three very important events intervened. First, consumers’ attitudes changed. Everything from Vietnam to Watergate to the Exxon Valdez disaster taught consumers that big institutions were not to be trusted.

Second, it now costs a fraction of what it once did to launch a new brand. Jeff Bezos got off the ground with $300,000 of his parents’ retirement savings. Technology has made it easier than ever for upstart companies to get onto the field.

Third, thanks to the Internet, consumers are no longer limited to what their local retailers are willing to stock. No matter what the consumer is searching for, a half-hour of online comparison shopping will turn him or her into a walking, talking Consumer Reports.

The impact of this triumvirate can be summed up by the first rule of brand warfare:

1. It’s the Brand, Stupid
How do you compete, then, in a world in which consumers have infinite knowledge and choice? Segue to rule No. 2.

2. Consumers Need Good Brands as Much as Good Brands Need Them
A lot of people think they don’t pay attention to brands. I like to ask these “brand-immune” types to imagine they need to buy a washing machine, a car, or maybe underwear. Then I ask them what they would buy and how they’d choose it. Almost infallibly, I hear a big brand name, followed by the statement of belief that the brand makes a good product.

Ultimately, people not only prefer good brands to weak ones, they actually need them. The more brands consumers have to choose from, the more they need to cling to one good brand. The plethora of choice otherwise leads to exhaustion.

Good brands do three highly significant things for stressed-out consumers: They save time. They project the right message. They provide an identity.

3. A Great Message Is Like a Bucking Bronco-Once You’re On, Don’t Let Go
The best brands, like the most interesting people, have a keen sense of self. You have to understand what your brand means not only within your offices, but out in the world, where the consumers are.

How aware are people of your brand? What is your brand known for? Is it about trust? Price? Diligence? Thoroughness? What is it about? What do people dislike about your brand? In fact, what do people dislike about your industry? What about the people who distribute your brand? How do consumers feel about them?

Once you’ve figured it out, stick with it. Ultimately, a strong brand message is like a bucking bronco. It’s not going to stand still for a second-it has to change with the times and the competition-but once you’ve managed to get on top of it, you don’t want to let go. Hang on and ride that message to the applause of the crowd as long and as stylishly as you can.

4. If You Want Great Advertising, Fight for It
Today’s consumers are almost immune to commercial messages. Only the most distinctive advertising gets through to them. Unfortunately, most advertising is a series of personality-free clichés.

Advertising is the most artistic of all corporate endeavors. The best thing you can do is establish the conditions that allow for greatness. For the brand builder, that means, first, understand what your brand stands for and convey it to the creative people who will write and design your advertising. And then, give them the freedom to express it.

The most common thing clients do to destroy their own advertising is to allow little minds to improve it. A lot of people who know nothing somehow feel completely qualified to override the ideas of people who spend their lives writing, designing, casting, and directing advertising.

Want memorable advertising? Be a great client. Don’t interfere unnecessarily, and don’t let anyone else interfere. Protect the creatives, and you’ll soon have the best copywriters and art directors in the world clamoring to work for you, and great work will follow.

5. When It Comes to Sponsorships, a Sucker’s Born Every 30 Seconds
Sponsorships bring your consumers something they might not have otherwise seen: a sporting event, a concert, the performance of an athlete. The transfer of emotion from an event or person to the sponsor is often called a “halo effect,” and many big and powerful brands got that way because they managed to snag such halos.

However, sponsorships are essentially risky. The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that the event organizers, television network, or celebrities involved have the same aims and interests you do. In fact, their goals may be diametrically opposed to yours. The potential halo effect is also a potential horn effect.

The first step is to make sure you’re getting in for the right reasons. Many-maybe even most-sponsors don’t. Second, make sure that when you give away your marketing dollars you demand some influence in return. Down the road, because of scandal or over-commercialization, you may find yourself having to protect not just your brand, but also the event itself-and you want to have the power to do that.

6. Don’t Confuse Sponsorship with a Spectator Sport
It’s important to remember that all sponsorships are not created equal. In pro sports these days, you have to work hard to achieve a halo effect-though it is achievable. Philanthropic events, events that combine sports and charity, local events, concerts, ballets, and plays are also good ways to boost your brand. You may reach fewer people than you would with a pro sports event, but you may affect those people you do reach more deeply, for a fraction of the money.

If you expect to come into an event, plunk down your millions, run your commercials, and then leave, your sponsorship will have all the longevity of a potato chip in a fire. The key to getting consumers to make the connection between your sponsorship and your brand is to market it in every way and all the time, during the off-season as well as on.

Event marketing is not a gentle game. The rules are tough: Choose only those properties that add luster to your brand, negotiate aggressively to protect the value of the sponsorship, use it to create a consistent marketing platform, make sure it gives you a real return, and say sayonara if it doesn’t.

7. Don’t Allow Scandal to Destroy in 30 Days a Brand that Took 100 Years to Build
If the two most certain things in life are death and taxes, the two in business are competition and scandal. A big brand is a double-edged sword. Popularity can help you survive a scandal, but it can also make you a lightning rod for infamy.

It’s much less painful to inoculate your company against scandal in good times than it is to try and find a cure during an onslaught of bad publicity. If you’ve built up goodwill through your brand-building efforts you will at least have some insulation when scandal comes-and it will come. All those people who make a living watching corporations-Wall Street analysts, the press, regulators, etc.-may criticize you, but they will at least give you an opportunity to correct the situation.

On the other hand, if there’s been suspicious behavior all along-or simply coldness and neglect-the same indiscretion may be unforgivable. Take Perrier. When scientists found traces of benzene-a known carcinogen-in Perrier water in early 1990, Perrier initially insisted the problem was isolated to North America. When laboratory tests in several European countries found benzene in the Perrier there, European customers were outraged that Perrier had attempted to pull the wool over their eyes. As of early 2000, the brand’s revenue was still 40 percent below 1989 levels.

Don’t ever stall. When you’re wrong, admit it and make amends. When you’re not, prove it and move on.

8. Make Your Distributors Slaves to Your Brand
Any Old World brand builder who takes comfort from the dot-com shakeout and thinks he or she won’t have to compete with lightning-quick Internet companies or strive to create consumer-friendly distribution is dreaming.

Some of the superstore brands are clearly destined for a fall. They may have big selections and good prices, but entering one of their outlets is like entering the Twilight Zone. The stores are often extraordinarily messy. The clerks tend to be scarce. Finally, they seem short of cashiers, so it takes forever to escape the place.

At John Hancock, we decided by the early 1990s that it made no sense to deny people the ability to shop the way they wanted. We had been doing nearly all our business through our own insurance agents. We began offering Hancock’s products through banks, insurance brokers, stockbrokers, and financial planners. We sold directly over the phone and the Internet. The change was radical. In 1991, 5,000 agents sold our products. Last year, 66,000 financial professionals of all shapes and stripes did.

It’s not hard to come up with a smart distribution strategy. First, sell your products in the ways that your target audience wants to shop; and second, communicate so compellingly to consumers that you make your distributors slaves to your brand.

9. Use Your Brand to Lead Your People to the Promised Land
More than anything else, your identity in the world is determined by what you accomplish. This means the most significant brand any of us bears may well be the brand of the company we work for. That’s why the first question at any cocktail party is always “What do you do?” Being able to answer with a degree of pride is much more important than most people will admit.

Job seekers aren’t stupid; they’re drawn to the best brands for a number of reasons. One factor is, naturally, status. People are impressed when you say you work for a market leader. Then, too, since these companies are able to hire the best talent in the marketplace, they tend to be very dynamic places, full of new ideas. These brand names work magic on a résumé.

It’s not just the best employees who are drawn to the best brands, but the best distributors as well. Moreover, the best vendors of all sorts will strive to win your business, because they know your brand will enhance their reputation.

It’s important to recognize that the things you do out in front of the curtain-advertising, sponsorships, public relations-register backstage as well. The best brand-building efforts are a form of leadership; they show your internal audiences where you want them to go. You can give yourself a ferocious advantage in the marketplace if you make sure that while you’re playing the Pied Piper to consumers, you’re also using your brand to lead your people to the Promised Land.

10. Ultimately, Brand Is the CEO’s Responsibility-And Everyone Else’s, Too
A brand is more than just advertising and marketing. It is nothing less than everything everyone thinks of when they see your logo or hear your name.

That’s why companies that relegate brand development to isolated departments are often unsuccessful. They fail to consider that their brands can be profoundly affected by extensions, acquisitions, distribution, product development, customer service, quality control, etc.-in other words, everything it takes to make a business successful.

CEOs who don’t think of themselves as caretakers of their brands tend to make crucial mistakes. The Firestone tire debacle of 2000 offers a perfect example of a brand severely damaged by the decisions of employees who probably didn’t consider it their job to worry about the brand. According to the New York Times, Firestone’s financial people knew about the rising number of claims on certain tire models two years before the company finally recalled them. And over the years, the company’s lawyers dealt with a stream of 1,500 legal claims surrounding the problematic tires. Yet, somehow, no one seems to have informed the safety experts. If all that is true, the culture of the company was obviously not attuned to the one thing most likely to sink the brand, a perception that Firestone products were unsafe.

Company culture is transformed when a CEO sets the focus on brand. Suddenly, everybody up and down the line becomes a brand expert. The cumulative result can be a truly powerful advantage in the marketplace: 1,000 or 10,000 people, each adding value to the brand every day.

This only happens when everybody from design to shipping becomes an expert on the care and feeding of the brand. And that only happens when the CEO convinces them that no matter what they do, the brand is the most important part of the job.

From Brand Warfare by David D’Alessandro, president and CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, and co-author Michelle Owens. Reprinted by permission of the McGraw-Hill Companies ( Copyright © 2001 by David D’Alessandro.


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