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Three Ways Brands Can “Think Different”
“It’s a very noisy world and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember about us much–no company is. And we have to be really clear on what we want [consumers] to know about us…Even a great brand needs investment if it’s going to retain its relevance and vitality.”
Steve Jobs, Discussing the “Think Different” ad campaign, September 30, 1997 (via Hollywood Reporter)
The world’s top brands seem to have lives of their own. Memorable, impactful, and loved, the Apples, Coca-Colas, and Oreos of the world need little fanfare or introduction – in a matter of seconds, something as simple as a logo can cut through noisy markets and evoke strong emotional responses.
At first glance, consumer giants make brand management look easy. To the casual observer, it seems as though the world’s most loved companies have somehow cracked a secret code to timelessness, longevity, and top-of-mind recognition. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll see that the world’s most successful brand identities aren’t as everlasting as they seem.
Coca-Cola, for instance, evolved from a ‘health aid’ to ‘happiness-maker’ over the span of 128 years. Entering the marketing as a ‘cure-all’ tonic, the drink evolved into an alcohol substitute during the prohibition era. In the ‘70s, Coke became a shared experience, and in the ‘80s, the brand took over the diet soda market.
Retail giant Gap followed a similar evolutionary process–husband and wife founders Donald Fisher and Doris F. Fisher established the brand in 1969 to tackle the challenge of finding jeans that fit. Initially stocking its first store with a wide selection of Levis, the company decided to manufacture its own line of clothing, which defined a new standard of ‘American cool’ in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It wasn’t until 1988 that Gap launched its iconic logo, and almost 30 years later, the brand is internationally known as the ‘creator of specialty retail’ and instantly recognizable.
What the most timeless brands share in common is agility – the ability to build themselves into ‘in-the-moment’ trends. This trait is often present through a series of micro-decisions and continued evolutionary process. That’s why the world’s top brands are building upon the following fresh ideas, today.
1. Total-Market Marketing Models
In 2011, Walmart made headlines after announcing a decision to eliminate its ‘multicultural marketing team,’ and instead, make multi-cultural marketing a priority for every employee at the company. Over the last few years, marketers have followed Walmart’s footsteps by eliminating their own multi-cultural marketing efforts and giving a name to this new approach – ’Total Market.’
The new lexicon is a direct response to the rapid growth of Hispanic, Asian, African-American, and other ethnic populations within the United States. Rather than catering to these groups individually – in other words, appealing to ‘differences’ – brands managers are pinpointing commonalities, universal values, and messaging that targets its customer base as ‘one’ rather than ‘many’ different people.
For Toyota, this mindset has inspired the creation of a program called T2, which aims to unify messaging, increase the brand’s media impact, leverage combined creativity and cultural sensibilities through focused agency teams, and connect with consumers in the ‘right’ way.
As a key initiative, Toyota has integrated its previously disparate, multi-cultural operations. Toyota’s agencies — Saatchi & Saatchi LA, Burrell Communications, Conill, InterTrend Communications and Zenith Optimedi — are operating as equals in collaborating on “one brief, one set of directions, and one target.”
The goal of the ‘Total Market’ approach is to create one marketing program designed to reach all consumers across general and ethnic markets. By focusing on universal values and points of connection, industry leaders can gain efficiencies while incorporating diversity into their brand stories.
2. Lean Branding
Coined by entrepreneur, author, and design strategist Laura Busche, the term ‘Lean Branding’ refers to the idea of building “a minimal set of brand ingredients that are viable in the marketplace: brand story, brand symbols, and brand strategies.”
The idea is a branch off Eric Ries’s Lean Startup, which presents frameworks for companies of all sizes to minimize risks, improve efficiencies, and iterate quickly. By Ries’s definition, a ‘startup’ can also include innovation teams—or informal initiatives — within large, complex organizations. While Lean Branding, as an idea, is designed for startups, the principles are also applicable to mature organizations.
One of the biggest challenges that brand managers face is the ability to bring big ideas to market, quickly. That’s where ‘Lean Branding’ and ‘Lean Startup’ principles come in, by teaching organizations how to test product and marketing and concepts in stages rather than ‘big’ releases. The idea is that startups and large organizations can spend more time learning and iterating to avoid the potential pitfalls of a seven-figure mistake and unquantifiable branding nightmare (like Gap’s logo redesign misfire from 2010).
Whether implicitly, explicitly, or coincidentally following the principles of Lean Startup and Lean Branding, brand managers are finding new ways to operate like startups. Consider the case of Kimberly-Clark, for instance, which is “overcoming the limitations of its size to keep pace with the market.”
To operate more like a startup, the brand has implemented a process called “The KC Challenge,” which a CES event that modeled off ABC’s hit show Shark Tank. In the last two years, Kimberly-Clark has worked with dozens of startups to learn more about their processes.
“Instead of activating based on its organizational capabilities, the company has now learned how to do activations based on its brands and the message it wants to convey to its consumers about those brands,” writes Tanya Dua for Digiday. “This simple shift in thinking has helped the company to understand its individual brands’ stories better, which has in turn helped it to target customers more accurately.”
As Gabe Mattingly, head of ecommerce at Kimberly-Clark points out — the pace of change today is the slowest that brand managers will likely see for the rest of their careers. And that’s good news.
3. Transparent Markets
One of the biggest challenges in marketing is that consumers don’t trust advertising or media. According to a recent survey from 4A, only 4 percent of Americans “think the marketing industry behaves with integrity, and nearly half of consumers surveyed say they don’t trust any news source.” Winning brands are ones that prioritize transparency in their core brand strategies.
“In a transparent market, products and services are increasingly quantified and compared on a multitude of parameters,” writes Thomas Kolster, founder of the Goodvertising Agency for The Guardian. “Price and quality no longer stand alone; social environmental, health and other value-added factors are put into play from the supermarket shelves to the global stock exchanges.”
Now more than ever before, transparency is a must for brand management. That’s why, in 2013, Richard Branson — alongside more than a dozen business leaders — joined forces to launch the B Team, a thinktank for creating a more transparent market and level playing field. Today, the B Team includes global leaders like Unilever CEO Paul Polman, Tata Group Chairman Emeritus Rajan Tata, Toms founder Blake Mycoskie, and Huffington Post Media Group president Arianna Huffington.
What matters most, however, is how established and emerging brand leaders are translating these ideas into action.
One rising role model to follow is Sprig, a 16-month old food delivery startup that promises its customers full transparency into its ingredient selection and cooking process. Citing a mission to enhance the taste and quality of foods naturally — rather than by indiscriminately adding butter, salt, oil, and sugar — Sprig’s value proposition has helped the company build a strong customer base and raise a $45 million Series B funding round.
The most valuable ideas in brand management come directly from a company’s customer base. The brands that listen to their audience’s needs, concerns, and values will be the ones that come out ahead. What’s new and fresh is actually what’s right in front of you.