As marketers, we want to work to build one of those iconic brands. A brand people love. You know... Apple. A brand that customers would walk across hot shards of iPhone screens to buy. The brand customers simply can't and won't live without.
However, the idea that people love brands and they are hopelessly devoted to them is—brace yourself—false.
I know, heresy... right?
But think about it. What brands do you love? I mean, really love. What product or service category would you absolutely positively not cheat on? In other words, if you love Coke but all the restaurant has is Pepsi, will you still drink a soda? For most people, the answer would be "yes."
In the book How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp makes the compelling case that marketers' perceptions of how sticky brands are is very much overblown. His research shows that if Brand A has, say, 23% market share, that does not mean 23% of people always buy the product and never buy from another brand. Sometimes, they buy another brand. And sometimes, other customers buy Brand A, and it works out that 23% of purchases are of Brand A.
Consider something you buy frequently—maybe the brand of soap you buy. I always buy Dove soap; but it isn't love, it's habit. It works, it's fine. If the company went out of business tomorrow, I'd recover. Think about your favorite beer. (I suspect you have one.) But is it the only beer you ever buy?
If you're lucky, and successful, your brand is like that—popular. Which is awesome in itself.
So how do you let go of the idea that your customers will truly fall in love with your brand and that it will maintain that lofty position, and instead accept the idea that you will achieve some positive (but likely incremental) growth?
The solution isn't about a specific channel or branding tactic; it's about an approach, a change of thinking across your marketing organization.
1. Drop the campaign mindset—branding has no finish line
Incremental growth begins with understanding that you'll never be finished. It's like all the other meaningful relationships in your life: The intention is for them to last a lifetime, and that means they take continual work.
Your brand also needs to keep going. It doesn't mean that branding initiative you launch today will be the right one six months from now, but if the relationship is going well, why would you stop simply because you reached some predetermined campaign endpoint? You have to keep going. Always.
Hey, look at the bright side: job security!
2. Don't be pushy—it's annoying
As I was writing this article, I got an email from a company (one that I don't recall ever giving my email address to) with the all-caps subject line "YOU'VE GOT TO SEE THIS."
Stop telling your customers what they have to do. Stop pushing your products so damn hard. It's annoying.You're annoying. Stop it.
Let's just have a chat and build some rapport—who knows where it might take us?
3. Create a positive relationship by being helpful
Once you've stopped ramming those our-product-is-awesome branding messages down your poor customers' throats, why don't you do something they'll like? Something for them?
As you may have realized in your Real Life, doing something helpful for another person makes them think better of you, makes them like you more, and maybe makes them return the favor some day.
(The bible for this mindset is Jay Baer's Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is About Help Not Hype.)
4. Don't be selfish with the metrics you track
Web traffic? CTR? Social followership?
Yes, they're important numbers to understand. But they can also be vanity metrics.
How important is traffic to your site if you aren't selling subscriptions or advertising against that traffic?
You (presumably) are not a media company, garnering eyeballs and then selling something to the accumulated audience.
5. Keep your distribution channels busy—but not too busy
Whether it's a specific social platform, email, or other marketing channel, activity in it shows you care. If you post to your social network of choice once a month, it's likely the audience is going to forget about you. A quarterly email might be really well done, but I'm willing to bet you'll look up after sending four emails in a year with zero customer growth. Out of sight, out of mind.
On the other hand, four emails a day is too much. Unless, of course, it's not—but that means you are creating a ton of high-quality content. I can handle four emails a day from the New York Times. Not sure I can from a sporting goods company.
Now, when your hard-charging VP of Sales sees this post, he'll probably flip, cuz we have to hit our numbers this quarter! And I know you feel that pressure, too. But your prospects and customers don't really care about your numbers; and, as I said earlier, they don't really care all that much about your brand. You gotta find that right balance between numbers and being top of mind when they reach the inflection point in the buyer's journey.
* * *
More than likely, people's commitment to your brand is ephemeral. They're not thinking about you nearly as much as you think they are, and certainly not as much as you're thinking about your brand, which obviously consumes at least 40 hours a week of your life.
That's OK, because you really can't change the way the human race is hardwired. But, if you're going to be good at your job and move that stubborn marketing needle, you do have to understand reality—and work within it.
The idea of creating a brand that customers will love is, really, something of a fairy tale. But we're big kids now, so let's put the fairy tales aside, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
More Resources on Branding
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