Features, Strategy & Operations

Branding by Another Name: Empathy

RR BrandingBranding, brand choice, brand image, brand story, brand loyalty, brand blah, blah, blah, are popular branding concepts. Brands anchor economies. And depending on the cultural mores of the time, we’ve had a series of so-called original ideas about branding that we were supposed to adopt at a given time. What has changed in recent decades is the precision of branding measurement using sophisticated analytics.

But to make things even more complicated, the brand is in the eye of the beholder. Customers are in the drivers’ seats when it comes to determining brand equity. So here’s the opportunity. Right now, in the middle of the most chaotic and transformational period since the Industrial Revolution, I recently read, and subsequently heard the zeitgeist of branding for our time from author, teacher, consultant, strategist and all-around marketing guru, Bill D’Arienzo, right out of the pages of his newest book: Brand Management Strategies: Luxury & Mass Market. Bill has taken many of the basics of branding and recast them with an inventive new spin.

So it may be back to the future to what branding was supposed to be about in the first place. Sure it was always transactional, but successful branding experts today need to harken to Bill’s thesis. His message: a brand is a relationship; one that has an authentic narrative, reflects the essential nature of the brand with an archetype, and communicates these attributes with feelings. And let’s not forget that a brand, your brand, needs to be carefully managed. He calls on the combination of cultural anthropology and behavioral science to dig into the elements of branding. And it’s not something to dismiss as a lot of smoke and mirrors or New Age pablum. His message is a timely lesson for all students of marketing as well as brand marketers who are living with the challenge of an internet-based inventory of an almost unlimited number of product choices. At the tap of a finger away, the long tail of product offerings is the most disruptive force impacting brand loyalty in today’s fragmented marketplace.

So what’s a marketer to do? According to Bill, we live in an era that should give a voice to the dreamers. He believes marketers need to provide hope and possibility as part of how brands project themselves to their audience. I am known to be an irascible cynic, but based on what’s going on these days, hope, possibility, and dreams sound like a good thing. I’ve ranted for some time now that our business culture has become a tactical, utilitarian transaction, creating, according to Bill, a generation of brand atheists.

Let’s face it, managing one’s brand has never been more important. Our marketplace is under siege. Disintermediated by customers, misunderstood by many, confusing to everyone, some brands have become more transactional and less relational. Bill believes that we need to think differently about the entire process. Changing a brand’s distribution platform isn’t going to solve any problems today. Changing the business model isn’t necessarily going to be effective either. What needs to change is perception, transitioning from tactical and transactional thinking to relational thinking. According to Bill, the big strategic thinkers are in a better position to create brand believers. The shift is from a product mentality to a customer mentality. Do I read “empathy?” The answer, according to Bill: absolutely.

He states that the most basic step in developing a brand story needs to start with the key questions, “What problem do we solve? What dreams and wants do we fulfill?” And to answer honestly, “What business are we in?” The right answer is not the transactional, tactical definition, but rather the emotional quotient. He advocates that brands are not merely products to sell or buy, but rather a solution to a customer’s problem or a fulfillment of his or her dreams. And that applies to all products running the gamut of cleaning products to luxury watches.

The new understanding of branding is based on neuro-psychology, something I have been writing about for years. But now we can quantify the qualitative with sensigraphics (a term Bill coined), psychographics and sociographics. This is the joy and the bane of living in a data-driven analytical commercial culture. We can reduce feelings down to a science.

Bill has developed a matrix that is a smart guideline for all brand leaders, large or artisanal, who are looking to connect with their core customers and develop sustainable relationships.

  1. Authenticity is the genuiness of products and promises made by brands and companies wherein the thing in itself has value beyond its price, because it is “real” and difficult to replicate, leading to high degrees of brand loyalty. Examples: Patagonia, Tom’s Shoes, Apple.
  2. Archetypes are universally held social roles rooted in our biological make-up which frames our expectations regarding types of human behavior (e.g. “Mother,” “Lover,” etc.) making possible iconic, global brands by transcending cultural, linguistic, and historical borders and imbuing brands with Authenticity. Examples: Levi’s customers are “Rebels, ” Louis Vuitton, “Explorers,” T.J Maxx, “Hunters,” and Nordstrom, “Caregivers.”
  3. Brands are defined as promises made by brand managers to a market regarding a product or service, leading to consumer expectations of performance resulting in a mutually beneficial experience and often an emotional relationship, confirmed by consumer engagement and customer loyalty.
  4. Contagion is a psychological phenomena wherein people believe and act upon the notion that places or objects carry the essence of a brand’s or person’s aura which makes the place and/or object previously owned more authentic and thereby of greater value than comparable objects or places. Examples: Louis Vuitton bags made in Paris and Levi’s jeans made in an original Levi’s factory carry more value in customers’ minds that those products made in locations not connected to the brand’s origins.

Not to get too esoteric on you, but the seamless integration of these four principles can help to create a more relational brand, and thus success. Bill explains that uncertainty in the customer’s mind about what a brand stands for leads to lack of performance and trust. Example: Sears.

Here’s another wrinkle. Bill suggests that in the constantly evolving landscape of machine learning and AI, virtual reality will play a role as brands become surrogate companions. I don’t know if that excites me or just plain terrifies me. But it is a profound point.

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So, according to Bill, we need to build our brands more on passion and magic that are “soul-built.” Who has been successful at that? Patagonia. Apple. JetBlue. Amazon. Virgin Airlines. Rolex. Rolls Royce. Starbucks. John Deere. Tesla. Sony. Hermes. Warby Parker. These are brands that customers are irrationally loyal to, who would pay more for the privilege of being part of the brand’s narrative, and benefit from the experiences they provide.

If you participate in the world of commerce, in any role, Bill Darienzo’s book is a must-read.

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