Marketers talk a lot about the increasing personalization that consumers are looking for in their interactions with brands. At the same time though, we know consumers seek endorsement from others on the good brands to be associated with and those that should be avoided. Interesting dichotomy. If you’re a brand manager, where do you invest your energies – features, experience or reputation?
Answer: all of them. Because they are all related. No brand can afford to introduce ongoing changes and upgrades to its experiences at the direct expense of what it stands for, or vice versa. Instead, the experiences customers receive should be seen as proof points for the wider, evolving perceptions of the brand.
As I pointed out here: “a brand functions as a multiplier. It generates desire and differentiation and motivates buyers to pay more for your products than they might otherwise. Reputation is the sum total of your track record. It is the accumulation of your actions and statements to date. So while you build brands in order to get the most return from them, you protect reputation in order to preserve credibility and trust.” In this context, products are the deliverables that bring the brand to life, and experiences provide emotional connection (hopefully through delight) and proof that the brand is true to its word.
If you want your brand to be seen as more exciting, for example, you must first signal that as a whole through how the brand represents and talks about itself in order to distinguish your re-energized brand from the reputation you may have had and from the reputations of competitors. Then you must link that new sense of energy with how the brand acts and interacts at a personal level with consumers in order to bring the new promise alive. And you must allow time for people to see enough evidence that you have indeed re-energized in order to build your reputation as a brand that is so much more zippy than it used to be.
Too often, brands look to build their reputations and even their brand equity through their products. If you’re a company like Microsoft, that means your reputation as a go-to brand changes dramatically depending on whether the product in play is Windows 7, XP, Vista or Windows 10. Good operating product, stronger brand. But a misfired release quickly regresses all the gains made and the brand itself means less to consumers. As a result, the brand’s reputation is one of volatility.
A key reason for this, I believe, is that Microsoft has failed to articulate a reason to love the brand on an ongoing basis above and beyond the products that it makes and the experiences it delivers. As a result, there is little for a wider social group to adhere to and no forgiveness in the brand equity.
Contrast that with brands like Apple which are highly respected and loved as a brand and whose reputation for independence and beauty is a powerful driver of consumer preference. Not every Apple product has been a huge hit – think iPad 3 – but Apple has continued to triumph because among buyers it’s seen as a brand that does amazing things. It’s a brand with a powerful and sustained social license. Equally brands like Southwest Airlines may not be perfect every time in what they deliver in terms of a travel experience but their consumers are good with that because they know and believe in the brand’s intentions and in the reputation it has generated through what it has done.
That’s not to say that brands with a strong history and a strong sense of self can dish out anything and expect it to be accepted. Even the most loyal customer will tolerate a lot less than they used to. What reputation does do, however, is to give brands more robust recovery time. They may dip in preference when they release a bad product or when the experience of them falls below a certain standard, but they retain sufficient goodwill to bounce back.
That’s because, as this University of Southern California presentation shows, forgiveness is a direct expression of relationship. If a brand has a reputation for good coffee, for example, consumers are more likely to forgive a cold coffee and to stay with the brand – firstly, because they like the brand, secondly because they are more likely to see this instance as an exception (experience) and thirdly because those around them talk about and approve of the brand (reputation). Without these endorsements, I surmise, the consumer might be more likely to seek an alternative.
Given these linkages, here are six ways that you can forge closer connections between your brand, your reputation and your products:
1. Be very clear about what you are trying to do. Explain how your brand wants to make things better and/or what you want to see change for consumers and their worlds.
2. Tell the story of what lies ahead. Prepare people for excitement and challenges.
3. Position your products as expressions of your intention. Frame them functionally as improvements; promote them emotionally as continuations of what the brand seeks and milestones in the brand’s journey.
4. Build your experiences around the intention. Think about how you can deliver experiences that, when consumers share them with their peer group, add to the wider belief in what the brand seeks.
5. Admit failure quickly. Don’t seek to justify. State that you tried something, it didn’t work, that you know that and that you will fix it. Then do.
6. Celebrate successes for the brand community, so that people feel they are contributing to something bigger than them. Congratulate individually and collectively. Thank people for their business. Thank groups of people for the impact they have had. (“We are now …”)
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