How brands can be first and certain: Gaining an edge in today’s marketplace

January 21, 2014

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Allen Adamson
Chairman, North America,
based in Landor New York

As you prepare to launch your new brand, can you be sure it’s going to be the next big thing? While you hope it will, there is, of course, no certainty. And this is far more true today than at any other time in history. To say the marketplace, across every category, is hypercluttered and hypercompetitive is an understatement. While it will always be true that a successful brand is based on a simple idea that’s different in a way people care about, it’s becoming more difficult to produce that shiny new object, service, app, or whatever it is. Plus, if you do identify something people need and find useful, the folks in the next cubicle are probably on their way to getting their version out the door and onto shelves. 

Just as certainty is not a certainty in today’s marketplace, first-mover advantage has likewise never been more difficult to achieve. Your competition will be introducing the next new iThing while you’re still pondering which color next year’s tablet cover should be.

As if certainty and speed weren’t enough for marketers to grapple with, there is the branding itself. The world is becoming increasingly noisier and inundated with branding touchpoints. Consumers interact with brands and receive branding messages in more ways, places, and means than ever before. To exacerbate the issue, consumers have more control over what they see, hear, do, turn on, and turn off. To make an impression, branding must be powerful enough to break through this clamor.

This growing, multifaceted conundrum for marketers—identifying a new idea and launching it first in a way that gets attention—is a tough assignment. And it’s even more difficult because of the formulaic process most marketers use: building brands via the conveyor belt approach. In this linear approach—which was developed as a manifestation of the traditional manufacturing assembly line (think Ford’s Model T)—one department hands off a piece of the initiative to another. Strategy people come up with an idea and pass it along to researchers who take it into focus groups. Then a couple of positioning statements are given to the creative department, which comes up with ads and colors and logos and such. The direct marketing, public relations, digital and social media experts, customer service script writers, in-store promotional gurus, and so on are asked to come up with their pieces of the equation. Concurrent to this is the client-side stage stepping. Clients do their own research and development, build factories, renovate hotel lobbies or store interiors, and send their sales teams out to the field. Add the inherently hierarchical nature of big companies to the mix and you’ve got an unwieldy situation in terms of getting things out the door and into market before the next guy does.

It’s wise to keep in mind that in today’s pinball marketplace consumers ping from one brand experience to another on their own terms in their own time—it is not a linear interaction. There’s media fragmentation and rampant experiential fragmentation. You have to consider all the implications of your brand building as quickly and as assuredly as possible. Bottom line: Whatever you’ve got to offer had better be good, right out the gate. Speed, certainty, consistency. 

So if the linear process is not the answer, what is?

Develop the brand idea and the branding concurrently

The solution is to move away from linear brand building and embrace a longtime staple of the software business: prototyping, or working on the brand idea and its in-market manifestation at the same time. You simultaneously develop the story you’d like to tell and the best way to tell it. With cross-functional teams working together from the start, determine the points of touch that communicate the brand idea with maximum impact and prove that it is different in a way people will care about. Create a prototype of the product, or the experience, in a way that brings it to life for key decision makers on both the agency and client side of the table.

Building and testing the brand experience via prototyping is not a formulaic process; it encourages the team to identify the optimal way to leverage the brand idea. It could be anything from a breakthrough package design, event, new retail approach, genius bar, pop-up store, or a social media initiative. The operative word is breakthrough. Landor’s executive director of brand strategy Ian Wood explained the downside of the traditional linear process: “There is an inherent disconnect between the strategy and the execution in this approach. Everyone comes at the problem from their own perspective. It’s like the axiom ‘If all you’ve got is a hammer, the problem is always a nail.’ No one can see the whole thing and how it hangs, or should hang, together.”

Build the totality of the brand experience into your upfront thinking

The notion of using this prototype approach for all sorts of brand-building projects is valid because the same general dynamics apply: lots of people, myriad brand experiences, competition, time constraints, and copious public scrutiny and commentary. While not every brand is a touchable or tangible product, the general notion still holds true: Create the most effective proxy brand experience. Here’s an example of a work in process described by Thomas Ordahl, Landor’s global strategy director:

We had a national oil company with gas station franchises countrywide. The challenge we wanted to solve was to create a branded packaged good offering, akin to convenience store offerings, at these franchises. It was to be a grab-and-go selection for a target market of construction guys, tradesmen, blue-and-gray collar workers who wanted to get something good to eat quickly and get back on the job. We were struggling with how to position this, not just the value proposition but also the concept for the product itself. We were strategically circling three ideas. One was to focus on convenience, food that’s easy to eat. Another was the food itself, maybe a unique food offering, like the Slurpee at 7-11 or a signature sandwich. The third was event-driven, focusing on game food, or afternoon snacks.

Our client was also struggling to select one of these three options. So we developed concept prototypes for each, detailing what they would look like and what it would take to bring each concept to market. For the convenience position, we created packages that looked like a bento box; people could quickly pick the items they wanted and put them in the box. For the food concept, we built a model of a regional food truck that would drive around to key locations, and an app that tells where the truck would be. For the third position, we developed an array of event ideas and created the promotional material.

We then studied the analytics around food trends and developed a framework for evaluating each potential concept. Our client understood what we were trying to do. They understood that choosing an identity and positioning wasn’t a matter of choosing purple over pink, but rather diving into what each concept would look like in-market and understanding accompanying timing and financial factors. Two concepts were picked to take into research. Presenting the concepts as prototypes also made them more tangible to participants and easier to evaluate. Convenience came out the winner. Overall, the prototyping was an incredibly valuable process. The client had a good sense of where to make investments, and why. 

Prototyping requires an “all together now” mentality

The prototyping process is like an orchestra working to achieve harmony. Each musician plays his or her own part brilliantly but is dependent on the others for a melodious outcome. In prototyping, creating and assessing branding signals in concert lets you quickly see if a story line makes sense and whether each potential customer experience aligns with that story. Plus, it makes it easier to see which signal is the most compelling. 

Here’s how we’re integrating prototyping into our work at Landor:

  • Identify the brand story first.  We start every prototyping session by getting our strategists, insight team, verbal, visual, and activation teams together in one room to talk about the brand story—to make sure it’s an idea that is as relevantly differentiated as it is simple and focused. (Analogy for anyone who has ever written ad copy, essays, articles, or books: If your headline isn’t sharply focused, your content won’t flow naturally or effectively.)
  • Develop the framework.   After we’ve defined the brand story, we develop two or three alternative ways to frame it. As Thomas Ordahl’s example illustrates, this determines which one offers a more effective consumer brand experience than another.
  • Brainstorm branding signals. We decide on options for specific brand experiences that might bring this story to life, manifestations of the idea in the marketplace and across touchpoints, such as a logo, store design, customer service, online applications, events, advertising, partnership marketing, and so forth. If an idea is not sharply focused, the branding experience will fall flat or feel gratuitous rather than authentic to the brand’s personality.
  • Explore the unexpected. In addition to expected, tried-and-true points of customer touch, we develop new or unexpected points of interaction. How can we touch the consumer in memorable ways, different from the competition? We look for things that didn’t exist before.
  • Craft the actual prototypes.  Once we’ve agreed on a story and a few key ways to convey it, we devise the actual prototypes: either tangible (logos, packaging, store design, website, or Facebook page) or less tangible (customer service script or a reservation desk scenario). These elements can help the client better see a future state, and also help the research team to more accurately assess whether a concept is acceptable.

Advantages of the prototype process 

In a mercurial market you have to work nimbly, collaboratively, and with a great appreciation for how the consumer experiences brands: randomly, but with expectations of a consistency of the brand’s promise. The advantages of prototyping can be incredibly effective:

  • Things happen more expediently on both the agency side and the client side when people have something to react to. Words are a mile wide and an inch deep. Ask a consumer, or a client, what a “friendly, contemporary, innovative” company means and you’ll get as many answers as there are people to ask. But illustrate what you’re talking about and you’ll get a much more constructive, actionable response.
  • Once you have a prototype of your idea, it’s easier to manage the multiple layers of teams on both sides of the decision-making table. You will get a much more definitive response to “I love it” or “I hate it” and why, which will clarify next steps. In the end, this saves both time and money. Simply put, prototyping allows you to cut to the chase. People process information in different ways. When everyone is looking at a prototype, misinterpretation of the concept is lessened. And while more money may be spent upfront, this investment will be mitigated by a process that is more effective and efficient in the long term.
  • Prototyping allows people to better see the future. A prototype helps people understand any business implications more clearly, and more quickly. It enables them to come to terms with what will be required to execute Plan A or Plan B, be they investments in personnel, infrastructure, or financing. Prototyping makes business decisions easier—it means fewer surprises when something hits the market.

Consumers don’t experience the marketplace or the brands with which they interact in a linear fashion, and the process of brand building needs to account for this. We at Landor look at prototyping as a way to achieve more effective and efficient outcomes for our clients. As Ian Wood said in summing up the prototype approach, “Key decisions can be made faster and with a greater degree of certainty earlier in the process, thereby speeding up time to market. Prototyping is the perfect marriage of testing the future without jeopardizing the present.” 

 

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