In 1998 the average U.S. office worker received more than 160 messages a day via e-mail, fax, voice mail and conventional mail. Today the number is even greater! Enter a Safeway supermarket, and today's consumer is faced with over 37,000 different products with distinct SKU's (stock-keeping units.) compared to 8,000 in 1970. Some other examples:
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Whether your company is selling products or services to individual consumers or to businesses, there is a need to get above the "noise." Strong branding is the "simplifier" and the answer to this need.
As we approached the 21st century, consumer and industrial suppliers acknow-ledged this overload. Unilever, a leading manufacturer of consumer health and beauty products, announced a 5-year plan to slash its brand portfolio from 1,600 to 100. A carefully orchestrated effort was put into place to ensure no loss of market share, while "helping" the consumer by eliminating so many choices. Unilever has been successful in its efforts. The program resulted in significantly lower costs in manufacturing, distribution and promotion . . . and ultimately, greater profitability.
Branding builds value. It is a single, clear promise that a company makes and fulfills for its stakeholders. It's what builds customer/member loyalty. In the book "Building Brandwidth," author Sergio Zyman states, "Now people realize that building value is the only way to create lasting valuation. It's value with the end-user first, and valuation set by the NASDAQ analysts later."
The first step in establishing a strong brand preference is to determine how your brand is perceived today. There are several recommended methods for obtaining this information from the end-users. One research methodology is to conduct third party interviews. Your company provides a pre-qualified list to an independent third party market research or marketing communications agency, which conducts the interviews. The report and analysis of the interviews serves as the primary foundation on which to build a brand platform.
A core group within your organization should form the team to work directly with the agency through the "branding process". The team should include corporate management, sales and technical service. It is important to determine the objectives of the survey and to explore the perception of key stakeholders with current brand (image).
Research methodology will provide qualitative information from key stakeholders, including internal and external customers, editors, technologists, and industry analysts. The number of agency conducted in-depth interviews will vary according to the typical number of end-users that would have an opinion about your company's image. In the semiconductor equipment and materials industry the total number of potential end-users may be very small compared to a consumer product such as toothpaste. During the "branding process" for a semiconductor equipment supplier of metrology tools, only 25 in-depth interviews were required to adequately identify the company's current image. Typically the interviewer will begin to hear the same feedback over and over. Completion of the surveys is based on consensus, response rate and quality of results. It is generally recommended that interviews be conducted anonymously and that the interviewee have significant knowledge of, or experience with, your organization.
The agency must work closely with your organization to develop an effective survey format. However, in-house expertise may also be available and lighten your organization's budget commitment. During the development of the brand platform it is important not to bias the information with existing ideas your company may have about the strengths or weaknesses of its current image. A third party agency may be well worth the expense by providing truly independent and unbiased feedback from the stakeholders.
The information collected from the survey is the foundation on which your brand platform will be established. You may find that once all the results are summarized, the information is very much in-sync with your organization's internal perception of itself. I have been directly involved in developing a brand platform where this was the case. There was not much discrepancy between how we believed our customer's perceived us and their actual perceptions, which were detailed in the survey results.
However, it has also been my experience that it is well worth the cost to provide this independent sanity check before launching the "new" corporate brand platform. Additionally the information obtained during the survey about your customers' future needs, the value your company can bring to the industry, and your competitor's perceived advantages, provides great value in establishing an effective brand platform.
The survey will determine existing brand awareness by asking questions such as, "What is your level of familiarity with (the Company)?" Appropriate responses may be 1) Not at all 2) Somewhat or 3) Very. These closed-ended questions can be used to begin the interviewing process and determine the viability of the interviewee. Further and more in-depth questioning would include open-ended questions such as "What are the strengths and weaknesses associated with (the Company)?"
The survey should also determine your company's ability to meet customer requirements. Questions can be used to provide insight into your organization's existing industry perception. Examples of open ended, probing questions are: "What value does (the Company) bring to the industry?" "What do you believe will be (the Company's) biggest hurdle to overcome in delivering this value?" "What are the primary issues in your choice of this type of product?"
Competitive Brand Auditing
During the development of the survey, questions should be asked that assist in determining the competitive landscape. For example: "Who do you consider to be (the Company's) main competitors?" What do you think of (the Company) in relation to these competitors? Answers might be: 1) Not familiar 2) Equal 3) Below or 4) Better
Through evaluation of "soft" research data, such as industry trade publications, websites and competitive literature, one will be able to investigate the promises of the competition. By evaluating this information you may be able to locate "unclaimed" territory, identify points of opportunity and differentiation and develop a strong positioning message with stakeholders. It is essential to provide a clear differentiated message. The value in developing a strong brand will be lost if you haven't given your consumer a compelling reason to buy the product.
Look for Part 2 of this article in the near future where we will discuss
The Branding Process
Defining The Brand Platform