Branding has grown into far more than a marketing buzzword, as an increasing number of organizations recognize and value their brands as strategic assets that are built through deeds, not merely words or images.

While there has been a noticeable increase in more traditional marketing and communications among product and service companies, the right starting point is a thorough examination of how the brand is being built today. It begins with identifying each point of interaction, or brand “touchpoint,” between the company and its constituents, where the “deeds” of brand building are actually carried out. Here, a company can uncover the various opportunities for its brand to be positively upheld or negatively represented.

Each activity falls within the three touchpoint experience categories: pre-purchase, purchase (or usage), and post-purchase.

Pre-purchase experience touchpoints represent the various ways potential customers interact with a brand prior to deciding to do business with a company. Some typical pre-purchase touchpoints include Web sites, word-of-mouth, direct mail, research, sponsorships, public relations and advertising.

Each pre-purchase touchpoint interaction should be designed to shape perceptions and expectations of the brand as well as heighten brand awareness and drive its relevance, while also helping prospects understand its benefits over competing brands and the value it brings in fulfilling their wants and needs. As the pre-purchase experience for prospective customers is examined, the focus should be on refining those touchpoints that most effectively will drive customers to put the brand into their consideration set.

Purchase (or usage) experience touchpoints are those that move a customer from considering a company's brand to purchasing a product or service and initiating a brand relationship. Examples of purchase touchpoints include direct field sales, physical stores and contact with customer representatives.

The main objective of these points of interaction is to maximize the value that prospects see in offerings and instill confidence that they have made the right decision in choosing the brand. During these interactions, it's critical to instill trust in the minds of prospects by demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that a company's product or service offerings are better than those of the competition.

Post-purchase experience touchpoints come into play after the “sale” and maximize the customer experience. These can include loyalty programs, customer satisfaction surveys and warranty and rebate activities. These touchpoints are frequently under-leveraged or ignored as brand-development opportunities, even though they offer the potential for businesses to drive sustainable and profitable growth. Three goals of post-purchase experience touchpoints are to deliver on the brand promise, meet or exceed customer performance and usage expectations and increase brand loyalty and advocacy.

The long-term benefits of assessing a brand's touchpoints are tremendous. This knowledge can help build a strong, powerful brand that keeps its relevance in the minds of customers. But even more important is how this exercise fully equips an organization to better control the most important interactions customers have with the brand.

Here's what typically emerges as a result of a touchpoint assessment:

  • New Opportunities. Many of the identified touchpoints won't fall in the category of typical “brand-building” activities, but if they're aligned with the company's current brand message, they can instill strong customer preference and loyalty. By demonstrating how they impact customer perceptions, they can be used to give the company a fresh perspective on its brand-building activities. 

  • Control. It's a common misconception that brand development is the sole responsibility of the marketing department; in reality, the responsibility for the development, execution and ongoing maintenance of each touchpoint may fall within several different functional areas of the company. In fact, some touchpoints—word-of-mouth, for example—may seem to be impossible to control altogether. In such instances, analysis of what's driving word-of-mouth exposure may reveal a greater degree of control over this touchpoint than initially thought. 

  • Complexity. Managing all the different points of interaction customers have with a brand is a multifaceted and interdependent responsibility. Unless the business has a brand strategy that's compelling and relevant to guide this complex effort, it's almost impossible to align each touchpoint. Estimating the company's current spending on brand, determining responsibility for each point of interaction and understanding the customer experience are key steps in managing this complex process.

It's a worthwhile exercise to look outside traditional thinking regarding brand development in your industry to consider innovative techniques from other industries. Looking at the strongest brands in a variety of categories can uncover new ideas that will drive competitive differentiation.

The following list is meant to get the creative juices flowing by demonstrating some unique brand-building techniques from a variety of industries; they are examples organized by the three brand touchpoint categories that highlight tactics being used effectively by various companies:

  • Pre-Purchase: The Zippo Car, Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, and Mary Kay Cosmetics' pink Cadillacs. Considered by some as throwbacks and corny, symbolic brand representations can provide unique and bold statements. They can create grassroots awareness while generating substantial press coverage and publicity. What symbolic embodiment of your brand would generate the same buzz or nostalgic attraction as these examples?

  • Purchase: Commerce Bank retail branch approach. In an age of ATMs, online transactions and automated billing, the person-to-person service of a bank branch was going the way of the dinosaur. Yet for many who seek personal guidance and assistance, that transformation has been alienating. Commerce Bank's attempt was to capture the disenfranchised by making retail banking enjoyable again, with friendly personnel, free services (such as coin-counting) and flexible hours. And gaining a foothold on an individual's checking account gave Commerce the ability to cross-sell credit cards, loans and other, more valuable, products and services. 

  • Post-Purchase: Kiehl's word-of-mouth. Despite product packaging that doesn't always work and only three retail locations, Kiehl's has built a fiercely loyal customer base through the quality of its products and its quirky, boutique-like mystique. Kiehl's lab-coated style and exclusive locations have a cult-like following of customers who swear that the products are the best quality that money can buy. And while Kiehl's does not invest in traditional communications, the brand's mystique and heritage have generated tremendous positive publicity. Kiehl's has maintained this distinctive approach despite having been acquired by cosmetics giant L'Oreal in 2000. What are the distinctive, heritage elements of your brand that resonate with customers?

Once all current and potential customer-experience touchpoints have been identified, the next step is to determine which are the most important, and why. Trying to control every touchpoint can be an overwhelming and costly endeavor. However, prioritizing the touchpoints and identifying which have the greatest impact on customers ensure that customers are being spoken to where and when most relevant. Additionally, prioritizing the touchpoints maximizes the use of corporate capital and human resources. Consider the following factors in prioritizing the touchpoints:

  • Value in decision-making. What impact will the touchpoint have on the overall customer decision-making process? 

  • Ability to control. To what extent is the touchpoint within an organization's ability to control?

  • Degree of misalignment. How is the touchpoint diluting or contradicting the brand message, and how quickly must it be aligned? 

  • Achieving business objectives. Does the touchpoint support the underlying business objectives?

Companies across the board are facing numerous challenges that require leadership to take a hard look at how well their brand strategies position them with customers. Competition is fierce and growing and customers are both wary and confused, particularly in the face of largely undifferentiated products, services and messaging.

Businesses that intend to successfully stand out from among the competition would be wise to scrutinize the core of where and how they interact with customers and communicate the essence of their brands. That sort of thoughtful and measured assessment is what will lead to brand investments that are most likely to create powerful results.

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Ray George Ray George is a Director in the New York office of Prophet, a management consultancy that helps clients achieve competitive advantage by creating and implementing integrated business, brand and marketing strategies. Ray can be reached at