Ensuring success in brand transformation
Google, Apple, Nike, Louis Vuitton… just a few of the names on any list of top global brands. These companies demonstrate without question that a brand can drive tangible financial impact and increase value for employees, customers, and shareholders.
Building a strong brand is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end ― a means by which a company is able to drive customer loyalty, sales, profit, and shareholder returns. Executives looking for new avenues of growth or a turnaround in financial performance are often wise to consider a brand transformation as one component of their strategy.
For example, Hilton Hotels & Resorts executed a brand transformation in the face of intensifying competition. In recent years, mid-segment, full-service hotel brands have faced a daunting competitive threat. A so-called focused-service segment has presented a new value proposition: excelling in the execution of the basics while offering complimentary core services, all at a 25 to 50 percent lower price. All full-service brands have sought to stem the loss of guest nights to this disruptive segment. Most have approached the problem operationally, tackling one or two areas to better attract guests.
However, Hilton asked a more fundamental question: In this changing environment, what should we promise our guests and what do we need to do to deliver on that promise?
Hilton is one of the oldest and best-known hotel chains in the world. At many companies, such a strong brand heritage could become a roadblock to innovation, but Hilton’s management set a vision of stepping boldly beyond that heritage. They launched the biggest global research program in the company’s history to support a robust brand-reinvention effort.
The company determined which emotional expectations the Hilton brand could and should try to own ― and how to deliver those expectations. Today, Hilton has a new global brand positioning and strong buy-in from its franchisees.
How to ensure that your brand-transformation effort will succeed? The following are some key rules to keep in mind.
First, the brand can’t live on emotions alone. While emotional resonance is a prerequisite for brand value, it will never be the only critical element. Marketers cannot focus solely on “the creative” ― such as advertising ― to forge an emotional connection on the part of the consumer. Instead, they must firmly link the emotional connection to the underlying product or service attributes and to the customer experience.
Also, the brand can’t be everything to everyone. Any brand-building effort involves significant investment decisions targeted specifically to capture high-priority consumer segments. Managers must make the tough tradeoffs required to keep the brand on target, and reject anything that isn’t “on brand.” As an illustration, if an edgy lingerie company could easily make and sell thermal underwear but the size of the opportunity is relatively small and the connection to the brand’s core emotional values is weak, then choosing not to pursue that opportunity is an appropriate decision.
Second, the brand is not a separate entity. The “brand” cannot be owned solely by the marketing organization and its advertising agency partners but must instead be embedded in the line business. To ensure buy-in and successful execution, brand-related decisions need to be sold to the entire organization ― including the sales force, field operations, and franchisees ― through systematic and consistent internal brand-building. Brand managers are left with a tricky dilemma: how to balance the needs of the many various constituents across the company, over both the short and long term, without compromising the immutable tenets of the brand.
Third, the brand is a moving target. Because technology, consumer needs, and business models evolve at a rapid pace, any brand must continuously adapt its current positioning in order to remain relevant. While consumers’ emotional needs may stay constant, the product attributes underlying them probably will not. Consider a brand in the food category seeking to help mothers feel virtuous about feeding their children. The product attributes required for the brand to deliver on that emotional need might shift from “low fat” to “all natural” to “organic” as consumer trends evolve.
Lastly, the brand balances art and data. Making the right tradeoffs about where to invest and where not to invest requires data from well-designed quantitative market research and economic analysis to answer the following questions: How large and valuable are the different market spaces that the brand might occupy? How many consumers will respond to a particular cluster of emotional needs? What exactly is the relative consumer preference for each specific product attribute or experience? What is the likely profit impact of various potential brand-investment options?
There is one final rule that is worth mentioning. In today’s marketing landscape, the basics of brand management may seem obsolete compared with the latest digital tools and trends. But some things never go out of style. Company executives must reject complacency, rethink old ways of tackling brand issues, and apply a new, more disciplined approach. The result will be a brand-centric transformation that goes well beyond messaging and “the creative” to strengthen every aspect of the business.
Kim Youl-lee is a partner and managing director of The Boston Consulting Group