Consumers love brands because they offer an extra value—that is, one in addition to the core product or service. That value becomes the major motivation for consumers to buy or use the product.
From there, the concept of brand becomes foggy. First of all, what is this value exactly?
We know, for instance, of the ability of a brand to signal belonging to a certain group or status. But there are some who say brands are the objects of love (Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts) or even religion (Young & Rubicam).
Furthermore, how precisely is this value being added and incorporated into the brand? Advertising professionals say it is advertising. Consumers love the ad—so they'll love the brand. Other marketing experts are suggesting that a consistent and total brand experience is the key.
So what's the secret to a successful brand?
Before I answer that question, let's review three common approaches to brand development used by many marketers—with help from their advertising agencies, consultants, branding companies and design firms.
Although widespread, those approaches are not well founded theoretically; and, in my view, they have not yet yielded truly strong brands. The three approaches are the "decoration" approach, the "gluing" approach, and the "Golem" approach (of Prague, London or New York).
The decoration approach sees differentiation as a matter of appearance. "We branded ourselves," say the practitioners, meaning that a special name, logo and look have been created in a seemingly sophisticated development process. "Since they look different from our competitors', consumers conceive of us as different."
This approach is naive. For more credibility, it is usually spliced with elements from the other two approaches.
The "gluing" approach attaches so-called brand values and other desirable associations to the name, the logo and the look from the previous approach. The rationale goes like this: the consumer sees the values she or he holds dear portrayed in our messages and immediately feels that this is a brand that suits him or her. Enthusiasts of the "emotional branding" approach claim that they attach emotions to the brand in virtually the same manner (e.g., stir or model these target emotions in advertising).
In the third approach, the "Golem" approach, marketers seek to create a human-like entity with personality (even charisma) that is capable of having a relationship with the consumers.
These three approaches lead companies astray and cause them to miss the true potential that lies in brands.
But there is another approach. I find it to be much more fruitful and far better substantiated by current psychological and sociological theory and research.
The basic logic for developing a brand with an added value is amazingly similar to the logic of product development. In both cases, we create for a consumer a tool or means to do something that he or she wants to do.
It's important to understand what "wants to do" is. From my perspective, if the consumer wants to uplift/relax/excite/entertain, strengthen a self-image, fantasize about an alternate reality, or any other psychological usage—that is something he or she "wants to do."
Consumers are purposeful when trying to achieve experiential, emotional, psychological, interpersonal and social goals/benefits, just as they are when trying to achieve more tangible goals. Brands with added value are usually means for consumers to achieve such goals. They are instrumental, although this is a psychological or a social instrumentality.
A brand without a convincing usage scenario is actually not a brand. It may appear to be a brand. It might have widely recognized name, logo, visual identity and advertising style, but consumers will not desire it because it is useless.
All the rules of successful innovation in the field of products and services also apply to brands. The precondition for success is providing the consumer with something that he or she desires but cannot have today… because it is just too difficult, too complicated, uncomfortable, boring, too expansive and so on.
According to this approach, brands are not human-like and they do not have a life of their own outside the consumer's mind. They are instruments, simply means to achieve ends.
Emotions cannot be glued to them. They arouse emotions when they are perceived as a source of something beneficial. The positive emotions are direct outcomes of these anticipations. Their various symbolizations (name, logo, font, emblem and so on) have little impact on their own; their importance is mainly as identifiers of sources of already attributed and anticipated benefits.
The act of branding has 10 different meanings, which translate into 10 different ways to create instrumentality or usefulness beyond the tangible benefits of a product/service:
1. Creating a Conceived Linkage to a Tangible Benefit
The most basic level of branding is creating a conceived linkage between the brand name and other identifiers and a tangible benefit (a result in the physical world or an experience). That benefit is provided by the product itself or any component of the marketing mix. Don't dismiss this basic tenet. Successful brands, like Pantene shampoo (which promises to amend the six symptoms of unhealthy hair), work at this level. The added value here is minimal, but important.
2. Forming a Mental Context
A "mental context" is a concept or an organizing principle that allows the consumer to connect unrelated facts (such as the various marketing activities of a company) by guiding intent or by some other common factor. In these cases, the main benefit of the brand to its customers originates in the mental context.
For example: should you stumble into a hotel like the "Hudson" or the "Royalton" in the heart of Manhattan, you are promised pleasure on different levels, but if you know you're in a "Boutique Hotel" your stay becomes a very different experience altogether. The Boutique Hotel is a concept that features differences between various hotels in the same chain—sometimes difference between rooms within the same hotel. This mental context drives you to a quest to find the differences.
3. Directing an Experience
This is essentially a hypnotic effect, in some cases related to placebo. The branding here is the creation of an expectation that allows an experience richer than what the product alone can offer. For instance, Red Bull will make the consumer feel a wave of energy beyond the physical effect of the drink.
4. Creating a Means of Self-Presentation
Here the branding creates a symbol with a meaning that is well known to everybody in a relevant group. It enables the consumer to characterize himself and is used by him for inner communication (to gather motivation for an effort or to strengthen self-image), for interpersonal communication (to create a certain impression) and for public communication (to signal status or affiliation). The Absolut vodka brand became a way for yuppies to signal their yuppie-ness to other yuppies (when the yuppie group was developing).
5. Creating a Means to Deliver a Message
The branding role in this approach is to create a symbol of another kind, its meaning widely known as well. That kind of symbol enables the consumer to make a very specific statement and/or express a very specific emotion. The diamond giant De Beers made the diamond a means of expressing commitment, making the physical fact that a diamond is indestructible a metaphor for the relationship. In September 2003, De Beers started creating a new means to deliver a message, this time targeted at women: the right-hand Ring as a symbol of independence (as apposed to the ring on the left hand, which is often a symbol of commitment).
6. Building a Social/Cultural Authority
The next branding approach is the creation of an authority that the consumers can use as a guide. That guide helps them to understand what's happening around them and informs them which behavioral ways are normative, what will make them happier and so on. Apple proclaimed itself to be such an authority when it offered the personal computer not only as a working tool but also as a device for self-expression and creativity. The brand started a cultural trend of giving a wide variety of means for ordinary people to express their creativity.
7. Creating 'a Long Hand'
The branding creates means for the consumer and empowering him or her to act for noble objectives and high purposes that she can't achieve by herself. The Body Shop made buying a way for contributing to the preservation of the environment and helping people in need all around the globe.
8. Creating an Alter Ego
The brand is a way for the consumer to behave (at least on a fantasy level) in a manner he would like to but doesn't dare, or isn't willing to pay the price for. The provocation of the fashion brand Diesel is made as if "in the name of" the brand customers. They can feel as if they are provocative themselves every time the brand launches one of its outrageous advertising campaigns.
9. Building an Emotional Gym
Opting for our civilized and protected lifestyle, we compromise a lot of our possibilities as humans. We go to the gym to prevent the degeneration of our bodies, which because of our lifestyles don't get to face the challenges they are otherwise capable of confronting. Similarly, we watch movies to exercise emotional skills that aren't legitimate or acceptable in our lifestyles. Brands, like Sicily from Dolce & Gabbana, allow us too to experience such emotional possibilities.
10. Facilitating Fantasies
Similar to the previous one, this branding approach helps the consumer to fantasize an alternative reality. Consumers fantasize about irresistible sex appeal, omnipotence and dominance, importance, success, fatal love, murder and so on. The brand Timberland was designed as a way for consumers to fantasize about courageous adventures against the forces of nature.
* * *
Outlined above are the different kinds of added value. They are the ways in which (1) values are instrumental to the consumer and (2) brands can be destined to become means for them.
Following those 10 approaches will make the difference between masterful creations of brands and amateur imitation.