5 Golden Rules of Branding

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We were fortunate to have Vivaldi advisory board member, Prof. Kevin Lane Keller speak to our group on “The Five Golden Rules of Branding … That I Wish More People Knew” in our New York office the other week. We are also very lucky to have Prof. Keller as a member of our advisory board. He is a Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and an international leader in the study of brands, branding, and strategic brand management. He literally wrote the book on brand management, as his textbook on “Strategic Brand Management” is used at all the top business schools to teach on the subject. Prof. Keller has advised some of the world’s most successful brands and we were thrilled to be able to host him at our office and have him share his thoughts from his experiences.

In his presentation, Prof. Keller started by talking about the definition of a strong brand. A strong brand is a promise to customers and a means to set expectations and reduce risk. He went on to enumerate other characteristics of a strong brand. He explained that the power of a brand resides in the minds of its customers and it could go away tomorrow. A strong brand is also more than consumer-facing, it gives direction and purpose to its employees. Unsurprisingly, he reiterated that a strong brand is one of a firm’s most valuable intangible assets.

Prof. Keller then shared on his Five Golden Rules of Branding. Some were surprisingly contrarian to what is popularly espoused:

Rule 1: The customer is not in charge … and companies are more empowered too

While obviously consumers are more empowered, they are not the ones in charge. Consumers already have many other things going on in their lives – they want to spend time on their friends, family, own jobs and not take over the role of being a brand manager for Brand X. Yes, certain consumers will want to be more involved, but the fact of the matter is that it’s only some of the people with some of the brands and even then, only some of the time. Brands shouldn’t forget that technology is empowering companies as much as it is empowering consumers.

Rule 2: Simplify … but don’t oversimplify

One word “brand essences” are very much in vogue, but Prof. Keller warns against such oversimplifying. As he explains, one-word brand essences do not provide enough guard rails. While the intent of such purity of purpose is good and noble, it doesn’t reflect the complexity and offerings of the brand. A better practice would be devloping3-5 unique points-of-difference and establish 2-4 shared points-of-parity. If brevity is the goal, a better alternative is a brand mantra that’s a short 3-to-5 word phrase that captures the irrefutable essence or spirit of the brand.

Rule 3: Storytelling is nice … but great products and services are better

Even more popular in marketing circles today is the use of storytelling. There is no doubt that storytelling is powerful and, to a degree, necessary. However, stories cannot substitute for great products and services. What storytelling can do is pull together various aspects of a brand and provide an appealing brand backdrop. That still does not change the fact that the strongest brands are rooted in product performance. For those who argue it’s hard to differentiate, Prof. Keller warns it could be self-fulfilling. Brands should remember that there are many means of product and service differentiation. Brands need to stay innovative and relevant in product and service development.

Rule 4: There is no silver bullet … mix and match around a brand promise

Brands benefit from a range of marketing activities and the smart ones develop fully integrated channel and communication strategies. A “mix & match” strategy will optimally blend strengths and weaknesses. The strongest brands pull together traditional, mass media communications with online, interactive communications, and without neglecting real-world, experiential communications and manages to harness mobile, interactive communications in one, blended whole that reinforces the promise of the brand.

Rule 5: Too much change or not enough change is deadly … strike the right balance between continuity and change

This rule might be the hardest rule. It is too easy to go towards one side and not change at all and become a Kodak. Alternately, some brands end up yo-yo-ing back and forth too often, like the Gap. You need to manage brands for the long-run and avoid death by a thousand cuts from over-exposing, over-extending, over-modernizing, over-discounting. Brands need to be respected but also grown to reach its potential.

As Prof. Keller concluded, good branding is an art and a science. Success in brand marketing involves achieving balance in all brand planning and execution by being both analytical & systematic and creative & inspired.


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