Let’s take a leap of faith that brands are like people, and imagine a cocktail party attended by the brands we may interact with every day. Some stand off in a corner by themselves, while others tug at our sleeves and offer a great time. We avoid the ones that look self-absorbed and full of hot air. We want to engage with the brand that has something interesting to say. If they’re also interested in us, and they’re a good listener, then we may have a new friend.
In the “Age of the Customer,” the key question for branding has become: Does your brand have the attributes—the soul—to attract the right audience? Does it tell the right stories in the right way so that the customer is charmed and left wanting more? Is it honest enough to talk about its imperfections? Is it striving to accomplish something that inspires others? These are the new criteria for a relevant brand today.
Unfortunately, CMOs are often more distracted by the promises of marketing tools and technologies. Many have forgotten the importance of the brand as they become absorbed in the growing complexity of assembling an integrated marketing strategy, then implementing it so that it actually works. The drive to show immediate results and a return on investment becomes the next distraction. Then, optimization of the marketing so that it performs even better becomes all-consuming. Soon, marketing begins to resemble the mouse on the wheel: There’s no end in sight and no resources to do anything new.
As CMOs focus on their marketing and technologies, their sales reports and their ROI, they are often, without realizing it, making an expensive mistake. They are dressing up their brands and sending them to the party to stand around with nothing to say. Customers, understandably, befriend the competition.
Most of us are interested in nurturing relationships that help us gain a better understanding of who we are and what our place in the world can and should be. This is what the best, most soulful brands do. They engage with us to help us feel better. They do this by telling stories that help us feel more powerful, more intelligent, more peaceful, more loving—or whatever the brand’s promise is focused around. And today, the brands that people most want to befriend also have the ability to listen. They care what we say. They respond. We feel the brand likes us. We trust them.
In industries where it’s difficult to articulate a clear product advantage—either because the story is highly technical or perhaps because there simply isn’t one—it has never been more important for a brand to represent compelling principles and promises that customers can believe in. Expressing these in a creative way that gets attention and wins the hearts and minds of customers is the cornerstone of successful marketing. How strange, then, that it is so often ignored.
The brands that succeed will win because of the deep connection customers feel. There is tremendous power in that connection. And it’s worth investing in and defending. A customer that finds a brand interesting and attractive will listen to what it has to say. If you manage the relationship properly, customers will prefer to be with you rather than your competition. A customer that feels a personal connection to your brand will drive farther to get what you sell. That customer will pay more, wait longer and, yes, even sacrifice quality to get what they want. You.
In short: A strong brand expression makes customers loyal. When done right, it also reveals that the ongoing frenzy to generate more and more content and better and better marketing technology implementations is less important.
When a brand has a soul, it has an attraction of its own. It has a voice customers want to hear. It has a personality and characteristics that will allow people to forgive, when necessary, while still remaining loyal. When your brand has a soul, your employees are willing to speak for it and defend it. They are proud to be a part of it.
CMOs want to know how to measure these brand benefits. They want to know how to prove that investing in creating a relevant brand will be smarter than buying a new social media tool or a new big data server. It’s hard to sell the CEO and CFO on these investments. It can be even harder to get alignment within the organization on the focus required to define what the company stands for, and, more importantly, what it doesn’t. Most of the measures of success in branding are only available after the investment has been made. We can benchmark the current state of a brand and make assumptions around the potential for improvement based on other brands’ efforts, but it takes real soul—and courage—on the part of a company’s leadership to infuse that personality into the brand they care for.
Yvonne Tocquigny is CEO of Tocquigny.