Four Building Blocks of a Strong Brand Foundation14 min read
Building a strong brand foundation does not solely help you ensure differentiation in the marketplace but are also energizing the organization and providing guidance for the employees. In this guide, we include four elements of a strong brand. All these elements should be based on research and be aligned with the business decisions outlined in the corporate strategy.
1. Brand Mission, Vision & Values
What is your unifying vision and mission that guides all employees across the company?
2. Brand Architecture
How many brands should you have and how should they be linked?
3. Brand Positioning & Messaging
What does your brand stand for in the marketplace and what supporting messages and themes substantiate this positioning?
4. Brand Expression & Experience
How does your brand look, feel and sound when customers interface with it?
Brand Mission, Vision, and Values (Internal Orientation)
Defining or revisiting your brand’s mission, vision and values should not take place just because you are new in the job or want to make a mark. These concepts are quite crucial to how employees view the company and are often firmly anchored in the spirit of the founder. That being said, sometimes the context or the company itself changes so much, that the whole company needs to reframe and rethink its purpose and role in its customers’ lives. If that is the case, then it is time to revisit some of these brand crown jewels. While there is no formulaic answer on how to define these concepts, there are some clear pitfalls:
- Try to steer away from corporate bullshit-bingo. Use words that real people use to describe & inspire other people.
- Reduce and condense: People tend to drop off once you get beyond 3-4 key points. The same goes for company values. Limit yourself to as few as possible.
- Clearly identify the corporate culture, values, strategy and view of the future by interviewing employees, suppliers, and customers.
- Ensure that the objectives are measurable, the approach is actionable, and the vision is achievable.
- There is much talk about “Purpose”. Our recommendation is that you should not invent a societal purpose if your company is not founded on one and is willing to trade profit for that purpose. Customers and employees see right through empty claims and artificial promises.
Brand architecture, also known as brand portfolio, is a system of structuring brands to ensure optimal value over time:
- From an external perspective: it ensures that target audiences understand the breadth and depth of the value you offer them.
- From an internal perspective: it assigns relative values to different divisions and offerings based on customer associations.
Before you venture into defining your brand proposition and messaging, you need to understand how many brands you should have and how they should be affiliated. This exercise is especially important in companies that have gone on acquisitions sprees where companies bought have been turned into product brands or been kept as stand-alone master brands without any affiliation to the owner. Figuring out how to organize your brand is a complex exercise that requires a meticulous process and strategic thinking.
How many brands do you need?
The branding 101 question is whether you are creating a house of brands or a branded house.
To understand whether you should create multiple, disconnected brands, you should unequivocally answer “yes” to several of the questions below:
Looking at your company outside-in:
- Are there meaningful, distinct, sizable segments that each need a dedicated brand that caters to these segments only?
- Has there been an image-relate crisis related to one of your sectors that is starting to spill over into other sectors as they share the same brand?
- Are different customer segments or pockets of the market severed by dedicated brands or by cross-segment brands?
Looking at your company inside-out:
- The company has two or more autonomous brands (probably former companies) that are located in different parts of the world, with different cost-structures, quality levels, and business models?
- Do you have the resources to build and maintain several, often global, brands?
- Is the current brand equity of a purchased brand so high, that removing it would destroy immense amounts of intangible assets?
For Business-to-consumer companies it could easily be relevant to either chase a mono or multi-brand strategy, but in business-to-business the burden of proof should be on the proponents of a multi-brand strategy – not the other way around
If you need more than one brand, how are these brands organized?
After you understand how many brands you need, you need a clear idea about how they are organized and affiliated. The important notion is to look at this an analytical and strategic viewpoint to understand the scenarios relevant to your company (inspired by David Aaker, modified by Kvadrant):
- Master brands: Creating more than one master brand without any affiliation enables you to create a brand with very distinct and differentiated brand profiles. This exercise is most useful, when you want to address two different parts of the market on the price/quality spectrum, so you avoid negative synergies by affiliating two brands that are very different in strategy, price-point, quality levels and customer experience.
- Sub-brands: Sub-brands are in nature closer to a branded house strategy, in that the master brand most often acts as a key driver. In some cases, both the master brand and sub-brands are considered co-drivers, but the sub-brand is never stronger than the masterbrand. According to Daniel Aaker, the sub-brand adds to or modifies the associations of the master brand. It could have a different personality or value proposition than the master brand but does not have as much latitude as an endorsed brand. A sub-brand can stretch the master brand, allowing it to become relevant in new arenas. A critical element of managing the sub-brand is to understand its driver role. If it is significant, then it could merit some brand-building resources. But if it is minor and mainly plays a descriptive role, then its brand-building budget would be less.
- Endorsed brand: In contrast to sub-brands, endorsed brands are closer to the house of brand architecture. As with a house of brands, endorsed brands has many products and offerings under separate brands, but they are supported by the master brand. The role of the endorser brand is to provide credibility and reassurance that the endorsed brand will live up to its claims. An endorsed brand is not completely independent of the endorser, but it has considerable freedom to develop associations and a brand personality that is different from that of the endorser.
Brand Positioning & Messaging (External Orientation)
Defining your positioning and corresponding messaging is about understanding and synthesizing a lot of moving parts (your company, your competitors, your customers), and distilling these down to the purest essence that captures why your company exists and the difference it makes to your customers. Here are some suggestions for how to optimize the outcome:
- Ask Why, why, why, why to “ladder” the value you are creating and to move beyond the mere features of your product. But don’t go so far up the ladder, that you end up with the head in the sky and become detached from your target group (Note: you probably don’t create world peace).
- Uncovering and distilling your positioning can be a challenging exercise. Therefore, to facilitate this process, you should work with different scenarios or positioning prototypes. These can be used for internal and external testing but also to drive the discussions and help manifest the different scenarios uncovered during the exploration phase.
- Evaluate the aspired positioning in terms of relevance (for customers that is), substance (can you actually deliver on it?) and differentiation (is it different from the competition?).
- Express it as a story with a clear story arch rather than a collection of slide schematics and a list of words that gets full plate in buzzword bingo.
- Connect the dots: the best brand positions rests on a clear idea about how you can draw a clear line down to the products.
Brand expression is about building distinctiveness in the way you think, sound, speak, and look. Here it is important to think in clear codes or visual cues that precisely express the identity of your company. Even though it is tempting to reject the importance of colors, shapes, language, and typography to the bottom-line, these codes are essential building blocks to your brand – also in Business-To-Business. In this context there are some questions to consider:
- What are your key codes and how do they fit together?
- What do you want to express with these codes (innovation, solidity, nordic heritage etc.)
- How do these codes make you stand out compared to competitors?
It is important to say, that it doesn’t matter which labels, frameworks, and schematics you use to describe your brand foundation.
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