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Is your brand going to graduate or be stuck in adolescence?
Too often, the brand is considered in isolation. Joseph Benson
and Bret Kinsella argue for a more holistic approach to brand development, and
include the consequences of branding as part of that
Joseph Benson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a brand strategist with over 25 years of experience designing and implementing
brand and marketing strategies for financial services, higher education, healthcare,
high technology, entertainment and retail clients. As the principal of Benson
Consulting, he is defining brands for Providence College, Montclair State University,
Nicholls State University, Bio-Detek, Apollo Housing Capital, the Enterprise
Bank & Trust Company, Westfield Bank, Suffolk University, and The City College
of New York. Most recently, he was the Vice President of Brand Strategy at Sapient
Bret Kinsella (email@example.com)
has over 13 years of marketing, operations, public relations and strategy development
experience in both the public and private sectors. Mr Kinsella is currently
Vice President of Marketing and Operations for ODIN technologies, the leading
RFID implementation services company, and his company's rapid growth forces
him to confront brand momentum challenges and opportunities every day. Prior
to his current role, Bret served as General Manager of Supply Chain Services
at IT consultancy Sapient, led product and industry marketing at Formation Systems
and served as a strategy consultant at Accenture. He earned his MBA from UCLA
and BS from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
Why is Disney synonymous with such a potent phrase as ‘Family Entertainment’?
Why do Apple’s customers ‘Think Different’? How did Starbucks become that ‘Third
Place’, the gathering spot between work and home?
The most successful brands ‘hold a strong, favorable and unique
position in our minds.’1 But how do they become
pervasive? What differentiates a little known brand from that of BMW which engenders
fierce customer loyalty?
The best brands succeed because they excel at each stage in
their life cycle. They don’t skip steps. Great brands are founded on more than
a compelling promise and innovative marketing communications. The stewards of
these brands recognize that compelling promises and marketing only bring you
to your customers’ doorstep. In order to enter their homes and become integral
parts of their lives you must also excel at delivering positive buying and using
Unfortunately, too much brand literature begins and ends with
the brand definition and marketing communication activities. It is time for
brand and marketing executives to take a holistic view of brand development
and be accountable for the brand’s performance beyond the marketing media.
The five stages of a brand life cycle
So, how do you take a holistic approach to growing a successful brand? Brands
have a life cycle that is best understood in stages. Each stage has both a short
and long-term impact on how customers view your brand. Come up short in any
one area and you will surely face consequences.
The five stages of your brand’s life cycle begin with the
brand definition and then progresses through four distinct customer experiences.
The brand definition
The awareness experience
The buying experience
The using and service experience
The membership experience
Some brands fare better than others at certain stages. Some brands never mature
through the full five-stage life cycle, seemingly stuck in the equivalent of
adolescence or early adulthood.
There are two aspects of the brand life cycle that should
be highlighted at the outset. First, brands live in the minds of their customers.
The implication is that you do not own your brand; you are merely its captain
and steward. Therefore, you should view your brand from the perspective of the
customer’s experience until it is eventually renewed or retired.
Second, although success at each brand life cycle stage varies
widely, every brand that generates even a single customer travels through stages
one to four. By contrast, stage five, the membership experience, is reserved
for brands that generate such intense loyalty that customers actually integrate
them into their personal identities. But long before any membership experience
can exist, brands must create clear definitions that can be embraced by their
primary target customers.
Brand 101: defining the brand ‘We all know that the Disney brand is our most valuable asset. It is the
sum total of our seventy-five years in business, of our reputation, of everything
that we stand for.’—Michael Eisner, Chairman and Chief Executive, Disney
The first step in a brand’s life cycle is its creation. Brands
are not products, nor are they services. Brands represent a promise to fulfil
a customer need. The promise may be utilitarian, such as a clean pressed shirt
from the dry cleaner, or it may be emotional, such as the comfort provided by
Volvo’s commitment to safety.
All of us have experienced when brands have delivered on their
promise…and when they haven’t. But how does a company construct a brand promise?
There are four basic components to defining a brand.
Who: the primary target customer for the product or service.
What: the offering of skills, capabilities or features.
Why: the benefits the brand provides to its customers.
How: the approach utilized for delivering the promise.
Who: the first component describes the primary
target customer and how they buy and experience your products or services. Simply
put, this is the company or individual that will pay you the most for what you
do and how you do it. These are the people who will experience your brand most
directly and intimately. What: the second component defines the product or offering
for your primary target customer and identifies the requirements to meet the
customer’s needs. The offering describes the product or service based on its
unique characteristics and defines the capabilities required to deliver the
promise. Why: the third component describes the two or three
key benefits your primary target customer receives when they utilize your products
or services. When you choose to shop at Staples, you get informed sales support,
a deep and intelligent selection of product choices, a competitive price and,
most importantly, no hassles. When you purchase a Sony DVD player, you expect
it to work when you plug it in and for several years thereafter. The benefit
component clearly articulates what customers receive for their time and money.
It is the value you provide. How: the fourth and final component defines how you
deliver and, equally important, how your customer experiences your brand promise.
In many instances this is the most differentiating aspect of a brand because
it is very difficult to emulate. There are many amusement parks, but Disney
World is unique. From the cleanliness of the parks and hotels, to the décor,
to the designation of every employee as a cast member, Disney World successfully
delivers a differentiated experience that customers value highly. Similarly,
Dell delivers PCs to customers, hassle free, at competitive prices and provides
industry-leading post-sale customer support.
The brand promise describes the client you will serve, your
customer offering and the capabilities required to deliver it, how you execute
it, and the value you provide. The brand promise should be crisp, be understood
universally, and demonstrate an advantage over competing brands. Defining the
brand promise is selected as Brand 101 not because it is easy to doin
fact it may be the most challenging of all of the subsequent brand chaptersbut
because it is what you must do first to be successful.
Once you build a brand promise, you must make your target
customers aware of your existence and of the benefits you can deliver. This
is the point where your brand enters the public domain and will begin its life
in the mind of your customers. Although many people consider this to simply
be marketing communications, it is more accurately viewed as the customer’s
Brand 201: the awareness experience
‘Simplicity is all. Simple logic, simple arguments, simple visual images
… there's nothing long-winded about “Liberté, égalité,
fraternité”.’—Maurice Saatchi: M&C Saatchi
Brands live in the minds of the customer. But how can you
get your brand in there? And, how can you get your primary target customers
to create positive associations with your brand? This is no small task.
Brands obtain awareness in the mind either through the customer’s
brain or through his heart. The brain has many analytical and cognitive filters
designed to determine the veracity, meaning, and relevance of any idea, concept
or brand. Getting into the mind via the brain typically requires knowledge of
the functional benefits of a brand. Is it the right size and colour? Does it
have a service contract? Is it priced fairly? Is it the industry standard?
Getting into the customer’s mind through his heart is a zero
sum game. The customer’s heart either accepts your brand completely or rejects
it completely: everything, or nothing at all. To get into the customer’s mind
via the heart typically requires an appreciation and empathy for the emotional
benefits of the brand. Will it help me sleep better at night? Will it say positive
things about me to others? Does it make me feel accomplished or successful or
Both strategies have the same goal: establish brand awareness
among your primary target customers. There are several methods and channels
available for establishing awareness and we experience them every day. Broadcast
media, print advertising, direct mail, direct email, billboards, store locations,
earned media and direct sales are common tools, although some are better than
others at efficiently targeting customer segments.
So how do you measure brand awareness? The first form of measurement
is known as brand recall. An example of brand recall would be: if I say the
word ‘sneakers’, and you respond with the word ‘Nike’. Recall is a very good
thing for a brand. It means that Nike owns the premier position in your mind
whenever and wherever you think of the type of footwear we know and love as
sneakers. It is the brand against which all other brands in the category are
measured. Nike has an advantage over competing brands.
The second form of measurement is known as brand recognition.
An example of brand recognition would be: If I say the word ‘Sony’, and you
recognize who they are and can name one or more of their products and services.
Brand recognition is also a good thing for a brand. It means
that the name of the brand is in your customer’s mind and that the brand has
created the essential and critical associations of its name to its products
and services. This recognition ensures that Sony will be in the competitive
set when a potential customer is thinking about buying a small, portable CD
player we know and love as a Walkman
So what does awareness mean in the mind of the customer? It
means that they ‘understand’ and desire the brand. It means that the brand appeals
to them both emotionally and intellectually and that they know why they prefer
it over competing brands. Finally, it means that they have adopted and believe
in the promise of the brand—a promise that they understand from advertising,
through word of mouth, and from observing others who have bought and are using
and enjoying the brand.
However, brand awareness is not the end goal. This is where
many brand strategies fall short. They focus on generating interest, but do
not consider how to close the deal and create a paying customer. The goal is
to create awareness and secure a buying commitment and customer relationship.
To successfully complete the customer acquisition, you must follow a compelling
awareness experience with a seamless and fulfilling buying experience.
Brand 301: the buying experience—the first moment of truth
‘A business exists because the consumer is willing to pay you his money.
You run a business to satisfy the consumer. That isn't marketing. That goes
way beyond marketing.’—Peter F. Drucker
People want the brands they buy to reflect the intelligence
and sophistication of their buying decision. Brands function as signs of quality
and assurance. They simplify complex purchasing decisions. They are indicators
of value and price. If you are aware of the brand, then you know its promise
and you understand what needs it will fulfil and how it will make your life
Many factors can impact the brand-buying experience. Is the
product available in the right colour and the right size? Can the store employees
or account managers answer your questions and facilitate or validate your choice?
Is it priced appropriately?
Consumers are multi-channel customers. They expect the buying
experience to be ‘on-brand’ in the retail store, on the Internet, through a
call centre, and with a sales representative. Wherever and whenever they buy
their preferred brand, be it Caterpillar or Polo, they want to have a consistent
and positive buying experience. No surprises.
So, how does a customer experience the buying of a brand?
If you buy a pair of shoes at Wal-mart, you expect to see a long rack of boxes,
no sales assistance, and you anticipate paying a modest price. If you buy shoes
at Nordstroms, you expect to be escorted to an elegant display of the latest
styles, have your shoe size and fit confirmed by an experienced footwear consultant,
and pay a premium price for the brand. You would not pay a premium price for
the same shoe at Wal-mart.
However, shoes are simple and familiar products that require
less technical understanding than a new business software application. You would
not purchase such a complex item at Wal-mart which specializes in stocking proven,
undifferentiated products at low prices. You require a much higher level of
support throughout the buying process provided by either the software developer
or one of its skilled channel partners.
In the buying experience you engage the customer; and she
considers whether the brand promise is worth the cost. It is a moment of truth,
a dividing line that separates prospects from customers. Your brand needs to
excel at moving people from the prospect stage to the using customer stage,
or your brand’s life cycle will be short.
Brand 401: the using and service experience: the other moments of truth
‘Really, at its core, branding is simply marking something and saying, “This
is from me”.’—Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, Global Head of Brand and Product Strategy:
BMW Group, in Interbrand: The Future of Brands
In the using and service experience, brands must deliver on
yet two more moments of truthtwo opportunities to keep the brand promise.
The second moment of truth is the using experience. In the
buying experience a retailer or channel partner can provide support and guidance
ensuring a positive experience, helping the customer through any difficulties
he may encounter. By contrast, there is typically little or no support in the
home or the work environment to ensure that when the customer plugs it in that
it will start and start every time.
We expect the brands we use to provide both functional and
emotional benefits. The functional benefits range from the model, colour and
size ordered, to the durability, stability and performance of the product. If
we ordered the ‘Special Deluxe Model’ we expect an additional set of features
to provide us with extended capability and shelf life. The emotional benefits
we expect from the brand range from safety and confidence to the signals of
quality and prestige that the brand communicates to others. Both products and
services need to be engineered to ensure positive and consistent using experiences.
However, accidents happen. Parts wear out. Services will eventually
miss the mark. Will the company keep the promise of the brand when the customer
dials the call center seeking technical support? Will she have to wait 30 seconds
to speak with a customer service representative or 10 minutes? If the customer
walks into the store with the product but without the original box and sales
receipt, will the company stand behind the brand?
The service experience is the third moment of truth for the
brand. It often has a profound impact on the customer relationship and determines
whether repeat purchases occur and whether word-of-mouth is positive or negative.
Successfully fulfilling expectations in customer service can be as critical
as the using experience and should be anticipated as part of your brand definition
So, now that we have successfully created awareness for the
brand and delivered a positive buying and using experience, how do we further
grow the brand in the minds of our customers?
Brand 501: the membership experience
‘A brand has to feel like a friend.’—Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks,
in Interbrand: The Future of Brands
When brands obtain a certain level of awareness, when everyone
who buys and uses products in a specific category recognizes and can recall
the brand, when customers want to be affiliated with the brandit achieves
a new status. That new status is the membership experience.
The exclusivity and the privileges of membership are valued
by the customer. They recognize the brand as being strong, favorable and unique.
They enjoy shared experiences with other owners of the brand.
Membership status is desired by every brand because it induces
a specific type of customer behaviour. That behaviour is defined as repeat-purchase,
referral-generating, discount-foregoing, premium-paying customers. The customer
goes out of his or her way to purchase the brand even when another more convenient
and competitive brand will meet the same need.
Apple Computer has achieved this status. Starbucks, the Harvard
Business School, Intel, Caterpillar, BMW, Disney, McDonald’s and Wal-mart have
attained this status. The customer is proud to say that they purchase and use
the brand. They display it. It is a source of identification. It is a sign of
quality and a source of comfort. The brand is seen as a best friend and as a
leader in its category.
Even though the brand’s customers are strangers, they create
social occasion around the brand. Harley–Davidson customers tattoo the logo
on their arms and chests. They pay a premium price for a leather jacket with
the Harley name on it. They travel great distances to meet, socialize and travel
with each other.
Some brand users swear that they can jump higher and perform
better when wearing their Nikes than other basketball shoes. Children believe
that the rides at Disney are better than the rides at any other theme park in
the world. And so do their parents.
When brands identify similar attitudes, encourage the expression
of emotion, establish etiquette, create social occasion, and enable individuals
to see the world through like eyes they have created the membership experienceand
it is a privilege for the customer to belong.
There is no unique formula to achieving a membership experience
for your brand. Many luxury brands have achieved this status, but so have several
value brands such as Wal-mart and Dell. However, brands that have achieved membership
experience status do have something in common: all excelled at each of the first
four stages of the membership experience. They defined, communicated, and delivered
a strong brand promise that resonated with target customers. It is clear that
if you fail at the brand definition, the communication, the buying or the using
experience you will not achieve a sustainable membership experience.
There is no stage six
There is something that comes after stage five. This is when a brand loses its
meaning and relevance. When this occurs, the brand steward has two choicesrejuvenate
If you choose rejuvenation, the cycle starts fresh by reinvigorating
the brand promise to realign its meaning and relevance with your customers’
evolving needs. If you decide on retirement, then you harvest the last of the
brand’s equity and invest your resources in other brands.
Both decisions are valid. Both depend on your objectives and
circumstances. But be aware that a choice will have to be made. And often that
choice must be made about brands that never reach stage-five status.
Successful brand stewardship
So what are the lessons of the brand life cycle for brand and marketing executives?
First, for each brand, you should consider up front how it will perform throughout
all of the stages of its life cycle. Careful consideration of each life cycle
stage in the beginning of a brand’s life can help you make critical decisions
about what brand promise you will make and how you will fulfil it.
Second, you need to pay careful attention to how you must
perform in each life cycle stage to support your brand. This provides you with
the opportunity to determine where you will focus your efforts. For example,
you may determine that product durability and usability are the most critical
factors for your success and that your primary target customer does not require
coaching through the buying experience. This would suggest that you emphasize
durability and usability in your awareness building activities and that you
must focus a significant portion of your investment ensuring that the product
lives up to the promise.
By contrast, another product may require more effort to be
placed in training sales people to help customers make complex buying decisions.
The important lesson to remember is that by considering your brand’s entire
life cycle up front, you can understand the critical challenges and moments
of truth it will face and then take proactive steps to ensure they are properly
Third, all brands must anticipate the first four stages of
their life cycle. However, the fifth stage, the membership experience, requires
something more. It requires that you not only excel at each of the first four
stages, but also that you create a reason and a means for your customers to
incorporate it into their personal identities. This is hard to do. But it is
critical to remember that you have no chance to achieve a membership status
unless you are very successful in each preceding stage.
Finally, these lessons can also be applied to existing brands.
By measuring your brand’s success at each of its life cycle stages you can effectively
grade its performance and generate insight into how you can better execute on
Key questions for brand and marketing executives to ask about
What does your brand need to do at each stage of its life cycle to be successful?
Can your company’s capabilities meet all of the requirements to fulfil your
What company capabilities can you leverage to exceed expectations and which
new capabilities need to be developed?
How well are your current brands performing at each stage of their life
At which life cycle stage are you falling short of your brand promise and
how can you fill the gap? •