It seems simple: Let’s identify the people most likely to desire our brands and talk to them. Let’s see how likely they are to buy our brands when we talk to them one way versus another, and then execute the messaging that tests better. Everywhere. One brand, one voice, one integrated message. If we create a message that no one else can use — and repeat that message — our brand will be the only brand the shopper will want.
Too often, that method takes all the fun out of working on a brand. And I truly don’t believe it works. It’s probably the main reason I chose to focus my career on the shopper. What I love about shopper marketing is that instead of portraying a message, we get to talk to a specific moment and make our brands matter in that very moment.
When considering a brand, at its core, it’s nothing more than a symbol — a reminder of the consumer’s beliefs about a product. While that mnemonic is paramount to us as marketers, our base philosophy of the function of a brand hasn’t changed in 50 years. Brands ladder up to a powerful symbol that gives us an advantage over our competition. Unfortunately, we have become mechanical in how we manage that powerful symbol.
It really feels like common sense: When we talk about brand equity, we are talking about beliefs and memories. We need to remember that both beliefs and memories are emotional in nature. Think about something you believe in strongly. Or think about a childhood memory. How does that thought feel? When talking about beliefs and memories, we inevitably go to a heightened emotional place. Even when talking about beliefs and memories that aren’t all that emotional, the same mechanisms are at work. So, the more we can intensify that emotional response, the more we can make a brand relevant to a potential buyer, and the more we can drive behavior.
That’s why we personify brands, and that’s why the best messaging leads to an emotional benefit.
However, emotion is defined by context. The same message changes meaning and importance depending on the environment in which our message is delivered and how that affects the expectations of our audience. When our leading indicators of brand equity rely on self-reported awareness and intent, without observations of real-world interactions with the brand, we don’t get a read on our brand’s true value in the day-to-day lives of our consumers.
Online, inline, offline … we are only a swipe and a tap away from shopping. Every message we send out is on the verge of a behavior. That message needs to reflect the engagement — the interaction — that the shopper is about to invest in us. And when we are talking to the shopper, we have to remember: What the shopper believes about our brand matters, but what they believe about themselves matters more.
Instead of managing communications, we need to start building brands again. We need to change our view of equity from being the differential advantage to being the context of our conversation. What are the values and personalities that we share with the shopper? We have myriad behavior-based data sources in this “always on” world, and they are incredibly easy to link to psychographic profiles. That, however, requires us to change our approach to insights.
The Role of Insights
The problem with behavior-based insights is there’s just too much data and it’s not easy to aggregate it into one global view. From the top, it’s nearly impossible to identify which sources can be trusted and valuable to our strategy. What’s more, just 10 years ago, we had a fraction of the data available to us today. We’ve barely had a chance to adjust our philosophies and processes to allow for the wealth of knowledge available to us today.
Most marketing organizations still focus their insights on identifying awareness, intent and usage of a demographic group that reflects their current household penetration. But attitude and usage studies and self-reported purchase intent is seldom linked to actual purchase behavior. It’s incomplete; it’s missing the most important part—why we buy.
At a retail or a channel level, the motivation for purchase often conflicts with the total market insights a brand uses. It’s not a paradigm shift that’s needed as much as a new understanding of how to use all the tools in the toolbox. From the top, we need to understand what position we hold in the consumer’s mind. From the bottom, we need to understand the values and the influencers that compel a purchase. That way, we can own our voice and our view in a way that isn’t parroting what we’ve already told them. We can talk to a shopper as an individual, and respect the context of the interaction.
We know the difference between those shopping for “Brand X” at Target versus Kroger. They might be the same people, but in different retail environments they are different shoppers. Their definition of value changes, from “expecting more” to products “for the way I live.” They shift from wanting to discover new and exclusive products to finding simple, personalized experiences. At Target, she feels savvy. At Kroger, she feels understood.
Differentiated brand and category insights that explain those mindsets are essential to making your brand relevant at the point-of-purchase. Speaking to that moment, respecting the experience that the shopper anticipated, and exceeding expectations through your brand’s values, is the best way to increase the brand’s equity. Being able to do that breaks the tie when it matters. All things being equal, a person will spend more for a product that delivers against the values and needs that drove their shopping occasion.
Because insights are so important to me as a creative, I feel compelled to identify what makes a great insight. A great insight takes data and forms it into two key outputs: the deeper understanding that allows us to empathize with our target, and the implication that helps us devise our strategy.
In practice, the stronger a brand’s sense of purpose, the more opportunity we have to be relevant in that moment. I don’t care how well an advertising tagline tests. Shoppers look to brands for consistency of personality, not of message; consistency of values, not of graphics. Having a point-of-view that provides context for our insights allows messaging to adjust to the shopper’s mindset. It is a point of view — a sense of purpose — that is the missing link to creating brands that matter.
Brand is a Culture
It kills me how we in the industry talk about the great examples of brands. No matter what your point is, it seems that using a photo of Apple or Method or Target gives you a “bulletproof argument” for why your philosophy of activation is correct. It quickly devolves into a tactical explanation of the great things a brand can do. We ignore the organizational clarity needed to deliver on those brands, and the freedom that a strong mission gives all the stakeholders capable of enhancing brand equity.
Those three brands come from three companies, each with a powerful sense of purpose.
Apple is a company built on revolution, changing the way we interact with technology and content. People focus on their design aesthetic and miss the main point. For Apple, design is focused on improving functionality — improving the user’s experience. They put out premium products focused on being the best instead of being the biggest. In their innovations, they focus on simplifying our interaction with technology. Their products visually stand out, and from the outside, it is the easiest attribute of their brand to identify. At the same time, their visual appeal wouldn’t matter if the design philosophy behind it didn’t also enhance their approach to the user interface, hardware architecture and even direct-to-consumer retail operations.
The “people against dirty” at Method are a tightly knit group who believe marketing a product is not only fun, but can serve a higher purpose at the same time. Talk about a clean mission: “We’re here to make products that work, for you and the planet.” The values that drive that vision are even cleaner: Clean. Safe. Green. Design. Fragrance. From product development to sales and marketing to operations, that mission and those values define what “good” looks like for the entire organization. It’s a whole lot easier doing your job every day as a marketer when you understand why you’re doing it.
Target is probably the hardest for outsiders to understand. They’ve done a great job innovating their in-store experience in a way that just feels right for their brand. The marketing support that surrounds the company has held up as best-in-class for years.
However, the value of Target’s brand isn’t what they do or how they do it. It’s the why — more specifically, the who — that permeates the entire organization.
Target is 100 percent focused on delivering the needs of the Target guest. Merchants, marketers, store associates and even the finance team all have a clear sense of who the guest is, and how they can improve the guest’s experience. That allows them to set five-year plans in place across multiple departments and business units with the confidence that they’re all moving in the same direction.
For outside vendors, their definition of partnership and collaboration revolves around putting the guest first. The guest isn’t just a shopper; she’s a complex person who is intelligent and demanding and special. For these reasons, a vendor who walks in with “consumer insights” in mind rather than “guest insights” is misunderstanding the values of Target. Most important, that vendor is missing why the shopper chooses Target and how she chooses the brands that go in her basket.
These three examples prove that great brands come from great corporate cultures. From the top, brands need to be organized under a corporate vision and a brand mission that defines and differentiates the portfolio. From the bottom, marketing centers of excellence, sales and merchant organizations, and operations need to be trusted with the responsibility of deciding the best strategies that meet their unique business challenges underneath that brand vision.
Combing insights with brand values and vision will free us to be proactive in addressing the shopper’s fluid mindset and reasons to buy. If we can manage a brand’s profit-and-loss by setting goals instead of objectives — and differentiating the brand’s reasons to be instead of reasons to believe — everyone who supports the brand will have the ability and accountability not only to deliver on the business objectives, but also on the promise of the brand.