Growing up in Bangalore in the ’80s, I woke up every Sunday morning with great anticipation of a weekly ritual. It was the day my father would take me on a drive in his olive green Fiat, going all around the Garden City before finally ending up at my favorite neighborhood candy store. Though we passed Cubbon Park, Lal Bagh, Ulsoor Lake, and other great sights, my mind was hooked on the candy store and the juicy, shimmering treats I could choose for my weekly goody bag. My visual instincts and my father’s suggestions led me to a different assortment of candies each time.
Fast-forward 30 years to Mumbai. Now I take my two daughters, aged nine and seven, to our neighborhood candy store on Sundays. Try as I might, I have absolutely no influence on what they choose to buy—they already know which brands they want based on what’s popular at school. At present, they prefer brands like Kinder Joy, which includes a surprise toy in addition to the chocolate candy.
Seen through the lens of a branding professional, these two scenarios sum up the massive shift we’ve seen in the way brands work.
Think of a brand as a wrapped candy.
In the past, what mattered most was the “wrapper”—whether it was the actual packaging or a metaphorical “brand wrapper” encompassing the logo, colors, and key messaging of the brand. Those were the heady days of image building. The Mad Men (and women) of the advertising world would help a brand create an identity, relying on their dazzling talents to help the brand make great promises and seduce consumers in droves. Who cared if the brands actually delivered on any of those promises? The emphasis was on the visual, and enormous amounts of time and money were spent creating the perfect logo, because that was the most important element in the “brand as image” era.
Today, is it sufficient to merely consider “brand as image”?
The answer is a definite no: The candy has been unwrapped.
The internet has opened up an unprecedented level of scrutiny for brands, requiring them to be absolutely transparent in everything they do. This has entirely changed the dynamics of what matters to customers.
Today, the actual candy matters more than ever before. How it tastes, how it was made, where it was made, who made it, what its ingredients are—all of these elements drive consumer choice. And these don’t exist in a vacuum—what people say about the candy is just as important, since digital and social technology have made communication faster than ever before. Corporations and brands have never been as scrutinized as they are at present. All aspects of operations, from sourcing to sales, are under the microscope and any misstep in one part of the chain can have grave consequences on the overall reputation of the company or brand.
Given this shift, does the actual wrapper matter—or not?
Some would say that if the product and experience are superior, then branding is inconsequential. Others would argue that over and above an outstanding product and experience, you still need branding to tell an engaging and relevant story, so that you stand out and stand for something in an increasingly cluttered marketplace.
So which is it?
Yes, the wrapper matters, but experience matters more.
Where a product is available, how it is sold, how easy it is to buy, whether it makes a difference in the customer’s life, what the consumer experience is like—these are all critical ingredients for building a brand.
In light of this, three imperatives emerge.
1. Product is priority
Your core product or offering must be both relevant and differentiated for consumers. How do you ensure this? Start with points of parity, the attributes of your product or service that are necessary for you to compete with rival brands. Ensure that all these attributes are at least on par with your competition. Next, focus on your points of difference. Which aspects of your offering set you apart?
Edgardo Osorio, footwear designer and cofounder of the wildly popular luxury brand Aquazzur, says that a blend of innovation, creativity, and product is what makes a brand. But establishing that trifecta can be difficult. Forest Essentials could have been just another beauty brand inspired by the age-old tradition of Ayurveda. But it isn’t. The company works hard to ensure its products are the purest and most natural. Are you pouring this type of attention into your product?
2. User experience = engagement
In categories like e-commerce, what you sell may not permit great differentiation, but building a strong user experience can set you apart. Think no further than Amazon. If I can buy the Malory Towers series for my daughters on Flipkart or Snapdeal, why do I always turn to Amazon? Because the overall experience of searching, ordering, paying, and delivering is such a breeze with Amazon. And if anything goes wrong, there’s great customer service, 24/7.
But user experience is not just for internet companies. Even companies you might not expect are now focusing on it. PepsiCo, for example, has made design experience a major priority—and has seen stock prices rise as a result.1 What is your user experience like? Does it give you an edge over competitors?
3. The wrapper matters
At all touchpoints where your brand appears, strong presentation makes a huge difference. Aesthetics and visual appeal help brands stand out and make emotional connections with customers. Some brands present themselves so poorly at trade shows, on websites, or on social channels that they actually do a disservice to an otherwise solid product. The wrapper matters—even today.
Case in point: Apple versus Microsoft. In the 1990s, we lived in an era dominated by PCs, with practically no one owning Apple technology. And then the early 2000s struck, and Apple not only launched a new product—the iPod—but also packaged it in an entirely new way, taking what was once a fairly mundane category and turning it into something sleek and well designed. Over the next 10 years Apple took off, and today the company is renowned for the detailed attention it applies to visual appeal across all touchpoints.
The unwrapped candy serves as a useful reminder of today’s brand essentials. Brand managers must look deeply into all elements of their product, considering user experience and presentation holistically across all touchpoints. This is ultimately the difference between my experience and my daughters’ experience at the candy store: While I was considering merely product and packaging, my daughters’ choices of candy were determined by a combination of all three imperatives.
- Adi Ignatius, “How Indra Nooyi turned design thinking into strategy: An interview with PepsiCo’s CEO,” Harvard Business Review (September 2015).
Illustrations by Pavithra Dikshit, Designer, Landor Mumbai.
This piece was originally published as “Building a brand? Know what matters most nowadays” by the Economic Times Brand Equity (13 September 2016).
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