Branding: Back to Basics

Branding is the way of the future, even for business-to-business markets. Or so they'll have us believe.

Certainly, brands can be among a company's most valuable assets. Smart companies have realised how important it is to capitalise on their brands. Fortunes have been made, indeed are being made, with brands. When you buy a soda water, for instance, do you first think of the product type or an actual brand?

Nevertheless, I'd be prepared to wager that, in itself, branding is worthless. It matters little that you tout the snazziest looking brands, if behind them you have inferior products and inadequate service, sales & marketing approaches, operational efficiency, etc. To get "brand equity", your brand must be a representation of the bundle of benefits and value that your product or offering brings your customer.

In short, you can't "brand" your way out of a poor proposition or a deficient competitive advantage.

Essentially, branding is about getting your customers to see you or your products as distinctly recognisable and unique. At the same time, competitors are out there doing exactly the same, so it's not enough simply to "be different". For a successful branding - or indeed communication strategy - to work on your customers, you must be different in a "sensible and favourable way", and your brand message must be clearly and uniquely "positioned".

The actual "branding" -- the part of the marketing process that relates to designing and applying symbols or logos to your communication -- is really just one component of the process. I'd even argue that it's not actually at the core of the process.

Not only do competitors' strategies affect how your products are perceived, customers determine what position your company and your product should have in their minds. Sad but true: you can't control the opinion people form about you. People are selective - also about the information to which they are subjected.

In this sense, customers have three "lines of defence": selective exposure, selective attention, and selective memory.

Selective exposure: generally, the customer decides what to read, see or hear. To pass the first line of defence, you have to use the right vehicles of communication. That can be a tricky task - also in business-to-business marketing.

Selective attention: when a customer looks through, say, a magazine, it's far from everything that gets full attention. This means that your message should be composed so that it grabs attention and so that the receiver spends some time on it.

Selective memory: the final line of defence is generally the hardest one to overcome. It's also the most important one. Even if the customer has seen or heard your message, it's not certain that the message is remembered once a purchase is made. Because customers are bombarded with messages, it will take something out of the ordinary for one of these to stand out -- and be positioned favourably against other product / services in the same category.

If you are to be successful with achieving a strong position in customers' consciousness, your message should be clear and above all focussed - whilst also distancing you from your competitors' strengths and weaknesses.

The concept of "positioning" is a popular one in sales and marketing, yet its exact meaning remains unclear. Ask any number of persons, and you'll probably get the same number of definitions of the concept.

The positioning approach that makes most sense is a comparative one. Using this approach, you or your product will be described relative to the target audience, the category of products (or rather needs solved by your product) and the unique benefit offered.

How to approach this? To get a good start, look closely at five key questions:

(1) who is your target group?
(2) what are the three most important reasons for using your type/category of product?
(3) what are the three most compelling reasons for using your particular product?
(4) what are the three strongest arguments for using you as a supplier?
(5) who are your three most important rivals -- and how do you differ from them?

One point is worth bearing in mind. You don't want to confuse your target group. Once you have a positioning programme in place, it's best not to modify it too frequently.

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