Does Your Brand Speak Truth?

April 4, 2006

Does your brand have what it takes to be honest in a highly competitive market? More importantly, can a brand ever afford to be less than honest when telling what, of necessity, must be a compelling story?

 

Does your brand have what it takes to be honest in a highly competitive market? More importantly, can a brand ever afford to be less than honest when telling what, of necessity, must be a compelling story? As successful branding strategists, here’s our definition of what a brand is: your brand represents your responsibility to consistently deliver what the brand uniquely expresses and promises-every time it’s engaged. To define our key terms:

Responsibility: Just like it says, you’re pledging to fulfill your end of the bargain: what consumers need and want from your brand. They’ll buy, and your brand will deliver. That means that you have a responsibility to your brand and ultimately to that brand’s loyal consumers.

Consistently: It’s not good enough to come through with your promise on occasion. Every time you’re engaged (i.e., purchased, called upon, relied upon, turned to), your promise must be fulfilled.

Uniquely: Even if you are marketing a true commodity, there has to be a point of differentiation in what your product or product portfolio brings to the table. Smart marketers know that, yes, even a bulk ingredient that has been differentiated has a brand advantage over its competitors, who may be stuck in a commodity mind-set.

So that is the defined reality of a brand. But how and where does truth enter the picture? While marketers and advertisers have often been portrayed as natural-born liars, the reality is that successful marketers speak the truth through emotionally engaging storytelling, and that it is usually the customers or consumers who end up lying to themselves on some level.

CONSUMERS: LYING TO THEMSELVES

That’s right, it’s precisely because customers demand to hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe that marketers end up taking the rap.

Why else, as Seth Godin points out in his book, All Marketers Are Liars, do consumers think that the $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is really $44,000 better than the VW Touareg, which is “virtually the same vehicle, made in the same factory.” He goes on to ask why consumers pay extra for eggs marketed as antibiotic-free when nearly all egg-laying chickens are raised without antibiotics-even the kind of chickens that lay cheap eggs.

Folgers’ (Cincinnati) coffee was touted as being “mountain grown-the richest, most aromatic kind” of coffee-when anyone who bothers to investigate would find that coffee beans only grow in mountainous terrain. So in essence, all coffee is mountain grown.But research had shown that people wanted to feel special (an emotional driver) and that they believed that a coffee that was perceived as better would help them feel better-and that they didn’t mind crossing the price-point line.

People believe what they need to believe. So it’s our job to tell them a story about the brand that shows how we hear their need, and how the brand will satisfy that need.Folgers told the truth: Their coffee was mountain grown. Consumers made the other assumptions all by themselves.

THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES

Often enough, however, marketers refuse to hear truth, and begin a cycle of untruth before a product ever gets to market.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories of companies that ignore clear warnings about consistently negative feedback from consumer research. Despite numerous attempts on the part of their agencies, branding consultants, and research partners to help them focus on correcting this core problem, in their rush to get to market they choose to ignore the warning signs and launch full-speed ahead.

You know where this is going. Once these brands get presented to consumers, it’s all over. Consumers can convince themselves of much that isn’t true in order to feel better about themselves, but in the case of food and beverage products, taste buds don’t lie.

BE MARKET DRIVEN

Being truly market driven means relying on the truth of consumer needs. As in any marketing scenario, branding for nutritional products and nutraceuticals is at its most effective when market driven. This is when trends and other telling signs from “the street” direct smart marketers where to focus their developmental efforts. Therefore, the bottom line ultimately becomes how well marketers can connect with consumers to determine true needs, respond to grassroots demand, and build relationships that will last. This needs to occur within the framework of a fairly complex scenario, complete with regulatory considerations and label claims, combined with the need to compete in a crowded, sophisticated marketplace. Of course, consumers are smarter and better educated than ever, with a world of data, news, and opinion at their fingertips.

TOO MANY FOOD MARKETERS ARE TECHNOLOGY DRIVEN

Unfortunately, too many food marketers mistakenly start the work of branding with what they have in hand, whatever technology is available, or brand extensions that can be conveniently forced into being. Driven by the wrong idea, desperately trying to “one up” the competition-and often neglecting to do the necessary efficacy studies and trial work on the product itself-these marketers crowd the shelves and consumers’ minds with too many products that do the same thing or, even worse, products that have too little to do with consumer needs and what they value.

Or, marketing management looks at trends and makes sure that their product is on trend with the message of the hour, or its equivalent, the ingredient of the month. Either way, consumers are not getting what they really want or-more critically-what they believe they really need.

Like ethics in politics, truth in branding should rank high in the scheme of things. Most consumers agree that all they want is to know about a product and what they are getting, and if it’s what they want. Consumers tell us clearly, over and over again (if we listen), what is really important to them, but overly eager marketers can’t save themselves from bringing the product they want to market. And sometimes that leads to confusion and misinformation.

THE TRUTH: AVOIDING CONSUMER CONFUSION

The presentation of benefits and value-message development should be more about clarity than word manipulation. Despite all the information available, and despite the intense volume of messaging (4000 media messages per day per average adult consumer!) consumers are more confused and challenged than ever in trying to determine if what they are buying is what they want and need.

Perhaps the best (or worst) examples of marketing confusion are products brought to market touting multiple benefits. Consumers want to find the key benefit they are looking for; they try earnestly to discern what they need more of in their diets, and they are relieved when they actually find a brand that provides that particular benefit. The other benefits offered are simply confusing.

Consumers want clarity. They need you to provide clear direction as to what your brand stands for, how it meets their real or perceived needs, and where they can find it. They want to know what’s in it for them if they enter into a relationship with your brand. That’s ultimately what makes a profitable brand: long-term, loyal brand relationships. And clarity and truth are key elements to successful brand relationships. Wouldn’t you rather have connected customers who are champions of your brand, advocates who buy into your vision?

STEP ONE: TARGET YOUR AUDIENCE

You can’t reach or even affect the entire universe of consumers, and you wouldn’t want to. Most don’t want or need your product. That is why we insist that there must be a narrow focus on your most desirable target market. Start with the audiences you really need to reach. Know enough about their industry, their market, and business arena so that you can speak their language in a clear, unique voice, using language that really tells them that you know them, their needs, their world.

STEP TWO: GET TO KNOW THAT AUDIENCE

It doesn’t matter who the target market is: housewives, formulation scientists, engineers, teenagers. If you understand their emotional drivers and the specific ways your brand can connect with them to meet their needs, you are going to succeed.

You need to know what consumers are feeling, how their lives are changing, what they need to make their lives whole and their bodies and their family’s bodies work and feel better. And, most of all, you need to know how to make it simple. Get in touch with your audience. Discover their needs, and most importantly, their emotional drivers. What are they really looking for?

We have found that all people-from CEOs to ‘tweens-have the same emotional drivers: need for respect, desire to be accepted, the need to be affirmed, to belong. There are a limited number of drivers, interpreted and manifested in many ways, and some of them are quite subtle. But the process of discovery brings them to light, providing you with the clearest, most accurate insight: what they believe they want and need.

Market research is key to consumer attitude discovery. However, as effective as it is as a tool, it can be the kind of lethal weapon that shoots you in the foot. We like to say that if all market research were infallible, there’d be no business failures. Once you have that magic bullet of insight, you have to know what to do with it, and then communicate in a language that makes sense and allows your target consumer to connect with your brand.

Not all research is created equal. Determine precisely what it is that you want to find out and choose the right research platform to explore. Focus groups, mall and store intercepts, sampling and cup-to-lip, mystery shoppers, on-site observation, surveys, and interviews-all are valid in a given context. You need to design protocols that will give you the appropriate, desired insight and information. Those protocols should ideally contain the right balance of qualitative and quantitative research.

Some advice: do your homework. We always start with a deep and intense discovery phase, because discovery is a primary function of truth. When you turn on the light and illuminate a topic, whether it’s formulation concerns or consumer preferences, you are going to uncover truth. Then it’s up to you to determine how your brand can respond to that truth.

OBSERVATIONAL RESEARCH: THE REAL DEAL

If you really want to see how frustrated consumers can get, spend some time doing observational research at your local grocery market. Even the more sophisticated and educated consumer finds shopping more of a job than a pleasure. Hence the rise of online shopping to $6 billion in sales in December of 2005.

We certainly believe in the value of market research. But nothing takes the place of seeing exactly how consumers respond in their real-time environment, without the artificiality and Hawthorne effect influence of a controlled focus group, intercept, or cup-to-lip sampling experience.

Watch a shopper roll her eyes as she tosses a product into her cart. See how hard customers will search labels, looking for exactly what they know should be in what they want to purchase. Get a real handle on just how long people spend comparing prices and reading ingredients, and how they start to visibly get glazed eyes and numb expressions as they peruse aisles and aisles of your best efforts. That’s what we consider invaluable data!

So given the nature of today’s marketplace, with highly educated and information-laden consumers, how can any intelligent marketer afford to bring a brand to market that is anything but essentially truthful?

STEP THREE: CREATE A BRAND IDENTITY

Of course the next order of business is to create an authentic brand identity, one that reflects your core values, corporate culture, and mission, not just the attributes of the brand.

If you want to brand most effectively, you need to go beyond the concept of a brand as the manifestation of a promise, and realize that when you bring a brand to market you bear a tremendous responsibility-and I don’t mean merely to the stockholders. You have a profound responsibility to your consumers to deliver what you’ve promised: what they seek, what they believe they want, what they need to fulfill a primary need.

Along with dynamic, profitable, and well-established success stories, we enjoy the challenge of working with emerging and troubled brands, in industries that have issues and in markets that have intrinsic challenges. We use research as a tool, not a weapon. We listen to the consumer each and every day, by keeping a pulse on their opinions, remaining in sync with their attitudes, and staying abreast of their behaviors.

We believe that all you need to do is look at where the rest of the world is going to know that consumers are moving ahead of us, and begging us to catch up and make things easier to manage. At the root of all branding success is the essence of what really matters: the truth.

A CASE STUDY

Much of the work we do is proprietary in nature, as the need to repair damaged, unfocused, or weakened brands involves repairing relationships, and that requires a high level of discretion. The work we do is structural-many firms merely give their clients’ brands facelifts.

But fixing broken brands is never merely cosmetic work. We see our job as challenging the issues that surround a brand and its truth. We go beyond the pulse to the heart itself. And that’s because it’s our goal to make sure our clients’ brands aren’t just keeping up-they should be setting the pace, setting the standard in responsibility to customers and consumers.

A case in point is our relationship with one of the world’s leading fragrance developers. This company had a solid reputation as a technically astute provider of quality product, but felt that they weren’t being acknowledged for their creativity.

We discovered that there had been a deliberate strategy of playing down the heritage of the firm, for fear of being further labeled as too technical. As we delved further into the internal and external perceptions of the firm, we determined that the truth was that there was a strong Asian aesthetic tied to that technical heritage, and that’s where we decided to recommend positioning.

The truth showed that there was a profound creative capability behind the brand’s core competence, and it was also true that the industry had a limited perception of the company. The company wanted to be perceived as utilizing, driving, and challenging technology in the development of market-driven, highly creative solutions.

Our strategy was to focus on and celebrate creativity in presenting the company’s new image. A new tagline was developed and featured in image ads that were designed to stand out in trade journals-or I should say, “jump out.” We had silk scarves hand-painted with images inspired by our client’s heritage and featured them in ads to the trade.

Rather than getting lost in the crowd of ads featuring bottles, flowers, and factory shots, these ads announced to the industry that this respected brand was all about creativity. We had 450 of these hand-painted scarves sent out as promotional mailers, used in charity auctions, and generally disseminated as symbolic ambassadors within the industry.

Although the campaign was targeted to the U.S. market, international industry feedback was so positive that we were given the directive to take the campaign global.

For all its beauty, the real reason that our recommendation was so successful was that we focused on truth: the truth of the brand, the truth of our client’s heritage, the truth of the industry’s perceptions of them, and the truth of their core competence and vision of themselves.

Indeed, marketers and their agencies would do well to listen to the words of Emerson, who stated, “The greatest homage we can pay to truth is to use it.”

 

Patricia Fiore is the president and CEO of Fiore Associates (Morristown, NJ), a marketing firm specializing in trend forecasting, brand building, strategic planning, name and image positioning, public relations, and product development.