Know thyself – essential soul searching your customers will love you for

If anybody thinks that they genuinely know the key to success in life, the truth is they are either lying or insane. But having a clear indication of who you are, what your goals might be and of course how you choose to present yourself to the world is something that (most) of us have at least a fuzzy idea about before we reach the epoch known as ‘adulthood’.

Unfortunately for marketers, most brands don’t get the luxury of taking three decades to figure out what makes them tick. They have to hit the ground running to stand half a chance at survival.

But as the infinite history of human conflict teaches us, the clearer you are about what you stand for, the more likely you are to find a group of people who might disagree with you.

And here lies the conundrum; in business, a dull existence means a weak brand, but put your head too far above the parapet and you potentially open yourself up for trouble.

But for any brand confusion or inaction is worse than taking a risk. It may sound obvious, but you need to stand for something to attract customers–even if that means perhaps alienating a few people along the way.

Take for instance Nike’s most controversial Olympic ad campaign, aired during the Atlanta Games in 1996. Simply put, Nike were bold in announcing “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.” Was it polarising?  It certainly was.

But rather than being controversial for the sake of it, what Nike were actually demonstrating was clear and bold positioning.

Like many aspirational brands, Nike has built a culture about being unashamedly positive upbeat, and focused on success, appealing to the competitive mentality. This way may have lost them a few followers, but ultimately it has won them the game.

Maybe it wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say. Perhaps in hindsight Nike would think differently. Although my gut instinct says, probably not.

And Nike aren’t alone, think of any really successful consumer brand from Corn Flakes to Coke, and the chances are you can immediately identify what they stand for– whether you agree with it or not.

Despite this, every day I see plenty of brands who haven’t really nailed their business identity before heading to market. And what does this mean? Well, customers feeling confused and voting with their feet in search of a better understood brand that resonates with them and their needs.

But don’t think a snappy slogan and a cute jingle are enough to justify a long-term business plan.

Many brands might have started out strong, but simply lost their way and no longer have any real clue what they’re saying. Clearly Nokia’s woes had their foundations in an inability to innovate, but even at their peak whilst we all carried a Nokia in our pocket did they imply technology, creativity and glamour as much as Apple or even Samsung?

Think about it. If you don’t understand what your brand stands for, any marketing you’re undertaking will be inconsistent and confused. In time, customers will fail to come knocking. And all that money spent will be completely wasted.

Nokia, like Nintendo, MTV and many more challenger brands of the last millennium have failed in the self-awareness stakes. Simply put, they failed to understand, or simply ignored, the fact that branding and being liked by the general public comes down to a lot more than the look of your company logo.

Meanwhile, seemingly from nowhere came companies with a strong narrative to take over the world. OK product is key, but if nobody knows about your product in the first place, you may have the world’s best- but it’s not going to make you a millionaire.

Take the ubiquitous Apple for instance. Trying telling Dell back in 1999 that putting a laptop in a sexy case and doubling the price would make them the biggest company on the planet. You could still hear the echoes of laughter today.

But it’s not just the Steve Jobs factor that describes a good brand narrative; think Heineken, Virgin or HBO. Instantly you understand just what they stand for, and why that should matter to you. And as in the example of Nike, you may not like it, in fact you may be vehemently opposed to it- but at least it makes you feel something!

This may feel like marketing 101, but it’s amazing how many companies define simply having a brand, as an excuse for having a brand that actually truly resonates. How do you feel about Ford compared to Volkswagen for example? Or even Pepsi to Coke?

You just can’t expect to compete in today’s marketplace without a clearly defined purpose. And if you don’t really understand what your brand is about, how can you expect prospective customers to buy into it?

Unfortunately, this is not a question many businesses can answer with any real degree of accuracy.

This need to ensure brands are trusted and well liked has forced many marketers to spend most of their time building brand reputation and relationships to shore up value-based consumer connections.

In my mind this is a backwards journey to make. Marketing without a clear aim of making moiney is clearly just art, so the key is to really understand your prospective client base, instead of trying to second-guess their emotions and decision-making ability.

So what’s the answer? Well unfortunately there is no simple silver bullet. But in today’s culture of sharability and likes, I think the overarching rule should be authenticity and self belief. Spend some time understanding your customers, how do they feel, and importantly what are their needs?

Don’t try and be all things to all people, but create emotional attachments through genuine resonance, not showy graphics or cute stunts. And most of all put your brand’s voice at the heart of everything you do. Every touch point from staff, through to product and customer service should be filtered with your story, and strong enough to stand up to the inevitable scrutiny that will come.

If you genuinely love, trust and admire what your brand stands for, then the chances are someone else will feel the same!

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