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Understanding Feelings in
It was a watershed event in my life, a defining moment in my career. A prospective client, a Harvard MBA and a very intelligent man who had built a tremendously successful company, told me something I thought I might never hear.
Admittedly, he is left-brain dominant, which means he relies on the logical, left side of his brain more than the intuitive right side. After all, his company is a leader in information technology, and it thrives in a world where it's rather foreign to consider the mumbo jumbo of advertising and marketing relevant, much less necessary. He had given thoughtful consideration to the whole concept of branding and the role of the irrational in marketing, and concluded in a strictly linear fashion that there was something to it. To my surprise, he confessed less than full comprehension of what it's all about.
Now, this is a man recognized by his peers and associates as smart, just plain smart. He's one of those guys that you can marvel at in actually seeing his brainframe processing. He knows a lot. Including what he doesn't know. So he said, "I don't get it, and that's why I need you. Explain it to me."
This is a request I love and hate. It means I get to share my passion and the wisdom of over twenty-five years at this work. But it means I'll actually have to explain something that's soft, emotion-ridden, and out of context in many business discussions. I actually have to use the word "feelings" and explain how they arise in the right brains of humanbeings. And I'll have to explain another, often more compelling P-to-E ratio—the one that means not price to earnings, but promises to emotions.
Parity Rules and Acceptable Performance
I described to my client how today's marketplace is so crowded that very few people have the time or the inclination to search through claims of product superiority. By now, they've seen it all. Parity rules and acceptable performance is the price of entry. And this is increasingly true in technology markets. Buying decisions are made on promises that transcend products, and promises are rooted in human emotions. It's all about feelings, not figures, and it's all about things that happen in the right brain. It's about vision and creativity in managing the brand and in building trust by keeping your promises. It's looking outward toward your customers, not inwardly toward your engineers. It's trying to find a meaningful difference that will set your brand apart within its category. It's thinking less about what you can make in your factory and more about what your customers want. It's about the lovely fact that people—you and I—rarely behave rationally in our life's choices.
As I went on describing our process for discovering the essence of a brand, he stopped me and joked, "I'm convinced that the cells in my right brain no longer function. On that side, I'm brain-dead. I believe what you're saying, but it's so far from my reality." I quipped back, "No, you're not brain-dead; you're brand dead."
I actually got it for the first time. After years of helping companies build their brands, I'm still baffled by the reality that so many smart business people still don't understand the power of a brand. It's the first time I realized that the one thing that has the most dramatic impact on the success or failure of a modern-day business is also the least understood.
You would think the world's most powerful business-building tool would be on everyone's lips; that every CEO, CFO, and senior corporate manager would know more about brand-building business disciplines than any other issue. But they don't. Most simply don't understand it. Brand building isn't a skill mastered in business school; in fact, it isn't even taught in most business schools. It's not as black-and-white, empirical, or cold-blooded as most want to think about business. Sadly, for many companies, being brand dead is a natural state.
Your Brand Is Your Business
A lot of CEOs think branding is hiring a company to design a logo and a set of standards for using it. It's like they're saying, "Okay, the logo looks the same at the bottom of the ad and on the side of the truck, so we've got a brand. Now we can get on with the real business of the business, which is making stuff, counting the beans, and sticking it to the competition."
Well, of course. You need a consistent use of your name and logo so that you always present the same face to the world. But a name is not a brand and neither is a logo. It's what these symbols mean and the feelings they engender that makes the value of the brand.
I also hear the argument that brands and their equity are the business of the marketing department. But as business writer Harry Beckwith says, "Marketing is not a department. Everyone in your company is responsible for marketing your company" (Beckwith, 1997). Your brand is not part of your business. It is your business. This is so important that I'll say it again. Your brand is not part of your business. It is your business.
Going a step further, your product isn't always your brand, but your entire company and what it stands for is. If Coca-Cola fired all its employees, sold all its real estate, fired its ad agencies, and canceled all its contracts with bottlers, it would still have the equity of the brand. Coke's fixed assets are worth something like $7 billion, but according to one consulting firm, its brand value is worth $84 billion.
How's that for an intangible!
Herbert Baum, president of Campbell's Soup, sums up intangible value when he says, "When you look at our balance sheet, you see right through the cash, accounts receivable, plants and equipment on the asset side, to our brands. Our brands are the real assets we own. Without them we have nothing" (Fombrun, 1996).
Thinking about the value of a brand in terms of its emotional equity—how it makes your customers feel—requires the use of intuition, which makes some execs feel like a fearful fish out of water. It's a lot easier to deal with how many widgets you sell in Kalamazoo than how your worthy Kalamazoo customers feel about you and your widgets. From day to day, it may seem more important to solve something like a pesky production problem than to deal with issues that are, as one grizzled CEO saw it, "touchy-feely horse pies!" When you say to harried execs that, "A brand is like a bridge between you and your customers," they might look at you as though you were a sixties refugee from Haight-Ashbury, wearing a flower in your hair. It's like when George Bush talked about "the vision thing," as though having a vision for America were something sophomoric. If you're faced with persuading such a boss on the wisdom of branding, make sure he first understands that you're not talking about branching out into cow punching. Or on second thought, you can use cow punching as an analogy. Branding your animals sets them apart from all the other animals on the range. Branding your products sets them apart from all the other products in their category.
Middle management is also leery of reinvention, re-engineering, and magic-bullet management schemes, and they might think a sudden, new interest in branding is one of them. I heard recently that The Economist summed up the average worker's attitude toward faddish management schemes-of-the-month with the acronym BOHICA: bend over, here it comes again. But branding isn't a scheme; it's your company's life's blood. Nurturing your brand is no more of a fad than nurturing the relationship you have with your customers. It's no more of a fad than deciding to be the best that you can be in delivering a serious promise and creating the trust that has been the foundation of all business since the flood.
Pressure on the people in the middle of the company pecking order to deliver short-term results is often a gun to the head. Wanting to look good in the eyes of the boss this quarter is a powerful stimulus, and short-term thinking is the biggest enemy of brand building. It's not that the results of brand building take a long time to show. They don't have to. But it does take a great deal of thought and work and investment in what might be unfamiliar territory to a lot of traditionally trained managers, including post graduates with prestigious Ivy League MBAs.
As I have said, brand creation is most comfortable in the largely intuitive side of business that isn't taught in business school. There is no course called Brand Building 101. Northwestern University is often named the best business school in the country. It has taught marketing for 45 years. But it initiated its first-ever brand course in 1997. Branding can't be learned like double-entry bookkeeping, and you can only copy what another company does to a certain extent. Maybe that's why many examples of successful brand building come from passionate maverick leaders, like Phil Knight of Nike, who started 30 years ago by selling waffle-soled shoes to runners out of the trunk of his car when he was still moonlighting as an accounting teacher. As a recent New York Times Magazine article said, "He spoke to them in a language understood only by people who could run a mile in less than five minutes. Now his company slogans are uttered by presidents and schoolchildren the world over. By Nike's own research, the swoosh brand is recognized by 90 percent of Americans, and every man, woman and child in the United States spends an average of $20 a year on the company's products." Another journalist says in the Financial Post, "Disturbing though it may be to contemplate, it's also a testament to the marketing savvy of Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight that a running shoe brand, through its slogans and visual imagery, has fundamentally changed the way North Americans and others around the world think about sport." Even as the company's fortunes appear to be changing, this remains a formidable accomplishment.
While there are a lot of execs who just plain don't get it, there are clearly a few who can teach us all a thing or two about branding. Some are truly inspired; for example, not too many marketing directors have the lyric ability to say things like, "A great brand is a story that's never completely told. A brand is a metaphorical story that's evolving all the time. This connects with something very deep—a fundamental human appreciation of mythology. People have always needed to make sense of things at a higher level. We all want to think that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Companies that manifest that sensibility in their employees and consumers invoke something very powerful."
These are the words of Scott Bedbury in Fast Company magazine. He worked at Nike and Starbucks before becoming a consultant. He shows that a highly successful businessman involved with dynamic, growing, profitable brands can express himself—dare I say it?—with the voice of a philosopher. Business is not cut and dried to people like Scott Bedbury and Phil Knight. It isn't all logic and no emotion. They know the intangibles of a business are actually more important and more valuable than buildings and machinery. They would tell you so in no uncertain terms. And I bet if you asked them, they would say creating and nurturing a brand is as much fun as you can have in business with your clothes on.
While few CEOs are as comfortable with the irrational side of marketing as Scott Bedbury, more and more of them do see the value of building customer loyalty; in fact, a U.S. Conference Board survey of 656 international CEOs pegs "customer loyalty retention" as the issue that is second only to "downward pressure on prices" as a management concern.
Now the important idea that has to attach itself to these concerns is that the customers in whom our CEOs so fervently want to promote loyalty live more by their feelings than their reason. It's simply human, and in that respect, we're all somebody's customer.