The Secret to Building a Strong Brand: Conquer Your Brand Envy

August 31, 2020
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Caitlin Neyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships at ChangeUp, shares why staying grounded in brand strategy, identity, and experience are the secret to success – even in the COVID-era.

At the beginning of a new client engagement, there are questions we pose to better understand our partners, their challenges, and what success means to them. Discussing admired brands is a natural topic, and it’s easy for the client to rattle off a list. Inevitably, almost every client, regardless of their industry, has predictable responses: “Apple, Amazon, Tesla, Nike, and Target.” Not surprising, right? Who wouldn’t want to have these companies’ level of success? What makes these brands so enviable, and how did they reach their wannabe status?

Hold on. We’re amid a global pandemic. Is now really the time to talk about ‘brand’?

More than ever – yes. It may seem indulgent to focus on brand when the immediate unknowns of tomorrow are a constant weight. However, a crisis can bring clarity if you’re willing to look up and see the silver lining. COVID-19 has been a shock to the system, bringing into stark relief the differences between brands.  It has caused consumers to re-evaluate where they shop and what brands they buy. The behavioral changes and shifted mindset people have adopted will sustain, and companies must respond. Successful brands can no longer be static constructs of the past. They must be a living entity, adapting and evolving – or risk extinction.

17% of companies don’t survive a recession.

Harvard Business Review

According to the Harvard Business Review, 17% of companies don’t survive a recession. Today the world is in a full-tilt sprint of uncertainty, but those that prepare for a marathon will finish the race on top. The impulse is to go all-in on a defensive, survive-another-day plan of attack. But history has proven that wars are won in the general’s tent. This point in time provides a chance to take stock and make meaningful adjustments. Immediate actions are required, but looking at long-term goals will result in a stronger future for your brand.

Brands that are Often the Subject of Brand Envy:

It’s very easy to envy Apple, Amazon, Tesla, Nike, and Target and think that they have never struggled.  However, they have overcome monumental challenges:

  • 1984 – Nike’s earnings declined 29% – the first decline in 10 years
  • ‘80s-‘90s – Apple’s visionary leaves the company and with him went their sales
  • 1999 – Amazon laid off 15% of its workforce as a result of the dot-com crash
  • 2015 – Target abandoned its Canada plan to the tune of a $7 billion loss
  • 2018 – Tesla missed quotas. Quarterly production was less than half of what it had forecast it could make in one week

Facing adversity, each of these companies could have accepted their potential fate and became forgettable brands or set out on a future bankruptcy buy-out path. Instead, they pushed forward towards success by believing in what their brands stood for and doubling-down.

Keys to Building a Strong Brand

These strong brands have continued their upward trajectory by staying grounded in three brand basics:

Brand Strategy is not a campaign

COVID-response ads that have run during the last six months have resulted in nothing more than “get well soon” greeting cards for society. In a rush of panic, brands turned to their AORs, looking for a lifeboat ‘strategy.’ The result? So many nearly identical, bland, cliché commercials that a compilation has emerged. Agencies, and often brands themselves, throw around the word ‘strategy’ when what they really mean is a short-term communication idea or tactic. As a result, ‘Brand Strategy,’ an inherently critical element, has become misused and its importance extremely diluted.

Brand Strategy should be a commitment

If you’ve completed a Brand Strategy initiative and it didn’t fundamentally change the way you’re doing things, it was not a strategy. Strategy is not a feel-good framework. It is a daily commitment to your “why”. It’s why you exist, why people should believe, and why you make the decisions you do. The backbone to each powerful brand on every client’s ‘envy list’ is a clear, comprehensive Brand Strategy that motivates and permeates everything they do. Without their Strategy, every other admirable execution (product, campaign, store, etc.) wouldn’t stand up.

Not unlike Brand Strategy, Brand Identity is an often misunderstood and misused concept. It bears repeating that Identity is not just a logo – nor is it an overnight process or a quick fix. So often, brands in the throes of a challenging time look to a new mark as a magic pill to solve all of their problems or an attempt to fool customers into thinking meaningful change has occurred (see Sears). The result is a trigger for cynicism and disappointment versus a celebration of real change.

Brand Identity should be a dialogue

Just as a person’s voice fluctuates in conversation and their wardrobe changes as trends evolve, the same should be the case for a brand’s Identity. Traditionally, Identity Design was used to ensure a consistent brand presentation, but design’s role has evolved. In today’s environment of shorter attention spans, relentless consistency can seem stale. Identity needs to be less about strict, rule-laden visual guidelines and more a suite of ever-evolving creative assets used to create continuous conversation and connection.

Brand Experience is not a store, website, or app

Often as siloed within the organization as they seem in real life, touchpoints are mistakenly thought of as just that – points. Consumers don’t think about journey maps or individual engagements. Instead, they sum it all up into their personal Experience with a brand. Focusing on each moment as singular elements or expressions misses the bigger picture and fails to tell the whole story.

Brand Experience should be a bridge

In its essence, an Experience is an emotional, physical, and mental reaction to the moment. As time is linear, consider each of these moments as a series that leads and connects to the next within a brand’s world. The moments themselves and how they come to life should be the manifestation of the brand’s Strategy, clearly and consistently answering “why?”

Instead of wistfully hoping, praising, and wanting for others’ successes, now is the time to reset, reconsider, and realign on all aspects of your brand to set up long-term success in a permanently altered world.

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