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Building not branding

Marketers must move away from the mantra of 'visibility' and win loyal, repeat customers

Builders working against a sunset backdropIf there is a phenomenon that has energised marketing professionals, it is branding. It has led to multi-million dollar campaigns of some of our most celebrated brands. Branding has even found its way into boardroom deliberations of the voluntary and public sectors.

Organisations have long been persuaded of the potential benefits that a well articulated and consistently communicated branding strategy can bring to customers and shareholders. But those who believe that branding, through the use of various forms of marketing communications, will deliver the magic formula to elevate managerial incompetence into corporate fortunes need to wake up and smell the coffee.

In today's corporate climate, the emphasis and therefore the allocation of scarce organisational resources in this increasingly globalised, competitive environment should not be directed primarily at branding. The priority for our business leaders in the healthcare arena should be brand-building.

Building not branding
This distinction is not semantic. Branding is about the association of unique symbols to identify an organisation or product. Just as cattle ranch-owners used hot metal to inscribe family initials on their livestock for ease of identification and prevention of theft, so organisations today employ unique names, colours, logos and even slogans to identify themselves. Examples include the use of distinctive colours such as the ubiquitous blue of Stryker's No.1 IM Nail campaign. This is branding – albeit at a basic level.

The contemporary use of branding terminology now includes the deployment of various marketing tools such as advertising and PR in a synergistic way to communicate brand identity elements together with the benefits of purchase. This is useful but it should not be confused with what should be the superior organisational mission of brand-building. Brand-building is the process of ensuring and assuring the consistent delivery of the promise made to an organisation's multiple stakeholders. This part an agency cannot deliver for you, for it boils down to how you deploy your assets and resources – your strategy.

In exploring the distinction, there are three fundamental arguments between branding and brand-building. These arguments will help us understand not only the reasons why the emphasis has been on branding but will also clearly demonstrate the superiority of deeply embedded brand-building initiatives over superficial branding activities for the achievement of sustainable competitive advantage.

Visibility v credibility
Many managers seem content with the fact that their brands are easily recognisable. This knowledge massages their ego and feeds their perception of self-importance. Raising visibility using various marketing communications tools is a legitimate objective but its importance is exaggerated. The situation is exacerbated by the huge budgets that brand communication efforts command. Yet these are focused narrowly on brand visibility. Many will argue, though, that what prospective customers do not know about they probably will not buy. This is a fair but fundamentally naïve comment. Brand knowledge does not necessarily stem from the deliberate use of marketing communications. It can also be achieved through unsolicited use of word-of-mouth communications for the advancement or adversity of any organisation. The real questions, therefore, should be: when they know about our brand, will they buy again? Will they endorse our brand to aid the purchase decisions of their friends? 

What the healthcare arena needs to consider is whether it is worthwhile to throw millions at promoting a brand if the product or service has not been effectively configured to deliver the unique perceived benefits that customers want. Often we respond to marketing efforts only to be disappointed when we try to buy or do business with the organisation.

Many of us have bought and continue to do business with organisations that have never explicitly spent money on 'branding'. They have instead focused on building the credibility of their brands by delivering their services or products in such a way that they fit with customer needs. They continue to benefit from the all-important repeat business as well as word-of-mouth referrals. In effect, they have been building their brand. Organisations need to opt for credibility instead of the parochial pursuit of visibility.

The cart before horse
The second argument relates to who leads branding versus who leads brand-building. Agencies play a very important role in the relationship between an organisation and its stakeholders. As they have become more sophisticated, they have been able to push the branding agenda to their clients. Emboldened by the clout of their international affiliations, they have impressed their clients with clever creatives and insightful thinking. They have expounded on the benefits and justified the need for more spend on branding or its sexier relative, rebranding. However, many agencies have failed to question the organisation's ability to deliver on the proposition that is being communicated.

Encouraged by clients' appetite for high visibility, agencies have blazed the trail and assumed leadership of the branding activities. This tendency to outsource cannot be applied to brand-building. It is the very reason you are in business – to deliver a particular product or service the best way you can as consistently as possible. It is therefore too important a responsibility to be handed over to an agency. This process requires responsible leadership from senior management. Providing leadership for brand-building ensures that there is a system-wide commitment to delivering a differentiated proposition to customers and value to shareholders. It is only when we are certain that we are in a position to deliver on the promise that we should then call in the agencies to help us communicate in the most relevant and interesting way. Not before.

Leading from the top
With leadership comes responsibility, which brings us to the third argument. Within organisations, those responsible for branding activities can be identified by their title such as marketing directors, marketing managers, corporate affairs or branding managers. In addition, some aspects of the branding is outsourced to agencies. This elevates the importance of branding, as there is usually someone championing its cause. Nobody, however, seems to be responsible for brand-building. This is not surprising, since organisational units still work in functional inward-looking silos serving their own needs and perpetuating their own self-importance.

Inculcating individual responsibility for the delivery of a superior customer experience in our employees must be a priority for management. This should result in an organisational alignment that encourages employees to accept responsibility for delivering the brand promise and protecting the brand's essence. It has been said that whenever we have an opportunity to engage with customers, we have an opportunity to defend and uphold our brand promise. This is painfully narrow-minded. The responsibility for brand-building extends to all the players in the value chain – the person responsible for sourcing raw materials through production, the call centre operative who handles queries, all the way through to the rep responsible for selling the products. All are contributing to the perceptions that people have of our organisation.

Brand-building should be the primary focus of senior managers, as it involves an organisation-wide inside-out commitment to the delivery of a superior experience to customers. Only then can we be confident about the explicit messages that our brand communications carry. Brand-building, not branding is the necessary condition to corporate success.

In the end, success depends on what you deliver, not what you say. Slogans, colours and logos may deliver short-term, but never long-term, success. Clever communication should be preceded by commitment to delivering your values.

Three-pronged approach
To develop winning brands corporate leaders need to concentrate resources on three fronts. First, you must be able to hire and train the best the people as well as motivate and reward their top performers. People are the ones that help us compete and they deliver our sources of competitive advantage. It is bewildering why we do not pay as much attention to our talented people as we pay to our branding budgets.

When we say an organisation is responsive to the changes in the environment, we are saying that the organisation has responsive people. Aside from first-mover advantage, if the competition is doing better than you, then they have invested more in better people. Remember, the competition is not only for goods and services, it is also for talent. Rarely do  brand slogans show off our people.

Second, invest resources in trying to encourage loyalty among customers. Customer relationship management should be central to decisions on allocation of organisational resources. If you are a business leader, ask yourself whether your customers will stay with you if the competition launches a new molecule. Are you delivering the quality level that you promised? If you are too scared to know what the answer is, then you are probably destroying the value of your brands. Customer acquisition is necessary for business survival and growth, but it is customer retention that generates the returns that helps build a sustainable business. Corporate pharma is littered with organisations that might experience such mass customer migrations. Customer loyalty is about more than ensuring that customers voluntarily choose your brand.

This brings us to the third element – managing brand perceptions. This might come as a surprise, as we have argued against branding. Let us be clear, whether you promote yourself or not, customers will always perceive you in a certain way. It is important that you invest resources in managing your image. This is where branding plays an important role, but only when you have a solid proposition that clearly differentiates you. 

Getting the right people to work in our organisations is still a problem. Some argue that the educational system has not developed students to be ready for the world of work. This is being addressed by the curriculum in some of our tertiary institutions, but recruiters are not absoved from responsibility. We all know someone who has been hired because they are connected and not because they had a passion for the sector or the company. Developing brand champions is not easy. We have to be very clear about whom we want to hire and what we need them for.

Brand-building is an on-going process; we need focus on delivering a proposition consistently over time and better than the competition.

The Authors:
Princewill Omorogiuwa is a marketing and strategy consultant and visiting lecturer at London Metropolitan University and London School of Business and Finance.
Baba Awopetu is European marketing manager for Stryker and a visiting lecturer at the Marketer's Forum.
To comment on this article, please email pme@pmlive.com

22nd January 2009

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