Some might define a “brand” as “a product or service that sells itself” — if consumers believe in it, they are prepared to purchase it. This is a real-world, working definition of brand… but it’s a bad one too. Bad because it’s inhuman. It presumes that the fundamental basis of commerce is an exchange of things for money, rather than a social experience engendering positive, healthy relationships.
Reality Check: Consumers don’t just buy “things.” They buy an experience — store, location, selection, price vs. prestige, and (most importantly) contact with another human being who seems to know and care about them. In retail banking, this is often the sales associate in a branch, the teller behind the window, or a call center representative.
But most financial marketers don’t train employees to create or manage customer experience. Instead, HR manages “human capital” like a commodity, often doing very little to develop employees ability to nurture customer relationships. That’s why the retail selling floor can feel like no-man’s land to customers, where even lowest expectations aren’t met.
A few years back, Jim Garrity, the visionary Chief Marketing Officer of Wachovia, asked me to create a brief video that would define “brand” for the bank’s internal constituents. For that project, I traveled with a production crew to locations in Georgia, California, Pennsylvania and Texas, where I interviewed seven of the most knowledgeable experts on branding, including:
- Leonard Berry, Distinguished Professor of Marketing, Texas A&M University
- John Costello, EVP of Merchandising & Marketing at The Home Depot; now President of Global Mar- keting and Innovation, Dunkin Brands, and Chairman of the Global Board of Directors, Mobile Marketing Association
- Richard Costello, Manager of Corporate Marketing Communications, General Electric; now founder of MagicEcho
- Robert Lauterborn, James L. Knight Professor of Advertising, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; now President of Lauterborn Associates
- Peter Sealey, Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Co-Director of the Center for Marketing & Technology at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley; now Founder and CEO of the Sausalito Group. Pete was the first CMO of The Coca-Cola Company
- Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing, Emory University.
- Joseph Tripodi, CMO at Master Card International (currently) EVP/CMO at The Coca-Cola Company
Their on-camera, candid interviews — each running about an hour — were unscripted and unrehearsed. After reviewing hours of raw footage, I identified the fundamentals of brand building through people. The resulting video, “You Are The Brand,” was rolled out at a Wachovia brand boot camp and shown at an advertising summit. It outlines a few unified, organizing, mutually reinforcing principles for marketing and training managers alike.
Here’s what the experts had to say — a fresh perspective on branding that unlocks value at the point of sale, where employees serve customers.
What is a brand?
John Costello: In the simplest terms, I think a brand is a promise that delivers on consumer expectations. It says to the consumer, if you do business with me, here’s what you can expect. And I think a brand is more important today that ever. Consumers are overwhelmed by choices, and have more pressure on their time, than ever before, and are bombarded with more forms of communication, than ever before. And a strong brand is one way for you to cut through the clutter and bconnect with consumers.
Peter Sealey: “What is a brand?” is a question that could be answered one of two ways. Short answer is: it’s the commercialized value of the trust between a customer and a company. And probably at the end of the day, that’s the best definition. The more expansive definition is, a brand has a perception, a brand has a meaning in the consumers mind, really composed, I think, of three things:
- First, is the positioning: what the brand promises to the ultimate consumer of that product, or service.
- A brand also has a personality: a brand can be friendly, it can be more austere, it can be reserved, it can be laid back.
- And a brand has an attitude, which is what people think the brand thinks of them.
In essence, a brand is a way to get a handle, or an understanding, of a product or service.
Richard Costello: A brand, as far as I’m concerned, is simply a promise. It’s a promise made to a customer, an end user, about the product or service that is being delivered by the manufacturer, or brand owner. It’s a very simple statement, it’s one that’s understood, and meaningful to the customer.
Robert Lauterborn: I think I’d have a four-word message for anybody: You are the brand! You are the brand! It’s not the advertising, it’s not the signage, it’s not the letterheads, it’s not the flyers, and the posters, and the brochures. You are the brand! And how you behave is the customers’ experience of the brand. And no amount of advertising can overcome that impression.
Who delivers the brand?
Leonard Berry: The fact is, service companies like banks build a brand one customer experience at a time, one service provider at a time. Everyone who’s listening to me and watching me needs to understand that you are the primary brand builder.
Jagdish Sheth: Brand building is actually even more important in a service industry than product industry, because it’s the everyday encounter that we are to manage. Brand building in a services industry, such as a bank, is everybody’s business, but especially the senior management. The senior management makes a commitment and shows that they are also representative of the bank, as are the front line people. This is not a job just for the front line people, but is a job for everybody.
John Costello: I believe that building a brand is everyone’s job, from associates that touch the consumer everyday, up through the CEO. And I think an important first step is every- body understanding just how important they are to building a distinctive brand, and just how important they are to connecting with consumers, and helping consumers understand all dimensions.
Richard Costello: At GE, we have an advantage with all our employees understanding the brand promise, because the brand promise has become almost a part of the DNA of the company. The reason that I say that, it links back to the issue of the consistency over time.
Robert Lauterborn: Well, I think everybody must live the brand. Live the brand, believe the brand, support the brand, understand the catechism that goes along with the brand. In many companies who have been successful over time, people talk about “my brand,” there’s a pride in the institution, and that’s true of Coca Cola of course, it’s true worldwide.
Peter Sealey: And companies with great brands have to embed in their culture and within their employees and associates, that feeling for the brand and understanding of the brand, deeply. Almost below the conscious level. Almost at the subconscious level. At the value level, the psychologists would call it. So a brand culture is, I think, absolutely essential for building a great brand.
Joseph Tripodi: And that’s why it’s critical to be cascading and constantly communicating with your employees, reaching out to the employees in the sense of engaging them to get them to buy in and understand your marketing strategy, get them to understand and buy in to your advertising and communications approach. Get them to understand your over- all brand-in-business building philosophy and model, so that they can find where they link in, into that whole process within the organization. That’s absolutely critical.
John Costello: While advertising was an important part of bringing the message to consumers, I think the real key to the Sears turnaround was re-energizing three hundred thousand associates. Everyone from front line sales clerks, to individuals that worked in logistics, to people that staffed the call centers, through our management team. They all em- braced the vision, the new vision, of a store that was compelling to shop, a place that was a compelling place to work, and a company that would be a compelling place to invest.
What about advertising?
Robert Lauterborn: Advertising is an important part of the mix always, because it’s a constant reminder. When people are only actively involved in dealing with the banks sporadically, unpredictably almost, whereas advertising gives us a constant presence. The other thing that advertising does is, advertising helps to shape the experience. It does not substitute for the experience, but advertising helps to shape the experience.
Joseph Tripodi: Well I guess my philosophy on brand building is that I think too often individuals in organizations get focused on the idea that marketing is advertising, and advertising is marketing. And so I always try to talk about the notion of don’t just talk about brand building but talk about brand-in-business building activities.
Leonard Berry: Is the advertising department important. Is the ad agency important? You bet. You want to create distinctive, distinctive communication that stands apart from other banks, and other companies in general. But if the advertising is inconsistent with the customer’s experience with you, the service provider; if the advertising talks about wonderful or convenient or reliable banking serv- ice, and the customer experiences the opposite, then the customer will believe his or her own experiences and not the advertising.
Does brand equal performance?
Jagdish Sheth: In any company, but especially in services companies, the prerequisite for building a strong brand is execution, execution, execution. It is the operational excellence that matters. I find it very fascinating that it’s possible for creative people to come out with all kinds of exciting brand names. But if you don’t deliver what you promised, or create the promise, you fail miserably. So you may have all the excitement until the brand looks very interesting, exciting, the logo is great, you know, the mascot looks good, but you have to deliver ultimately. So ultimately all that matters is operational excellence.
Richard Costello: I think there are two things that have helped build the G.E. brand more than any other. The first is, we picked a simple compelling, and as it turns out, a pretty generic prom- ise for the brand, almost a hundred years ago. Long before my time, previous marketers figured out, that the promise was, that we’re going to make peoples lives better, particularly in the home where it’s most visible, and most ubiquitous. But the second thing, which is actually more difficult to do, once you’ve found the promise, and the thing which I think has distinguished GE and allowed it to build itself into a very powerful brand, is consistency over time, and across all touch points of the customer.
What lies ahead?
Peter Sealey: I believe, while it’s difficult to operate in this new digital world we’re entering, that brands actually are going to become more important. The trust of a brand, especially as related to financial services, is an impor- tant part of a consumer’s life.
John Costello: I think in many ways, traditional companies may have an advantage in building a relationship with consumers. I think at the end of the day, the Internet is a new channel, a new utility, a new communications medium. And, I think, traditional companies have the ability to build on the framework of all of the relationships that they’ve really maintained with consumers, while embracing the new capabilities of the Internet.
I would say that through this period there’s probably been three lessons that I think have been most important. The first is, really connect with your consumer, understand who that consumer is. The second is, build a strong brand identity and surround that with three hundred and sixty degree marketing to make sure that every element of your marketing mix is consistent, that everything that touches the consumer conveys that consistent brand, brand identity. Whether it’s your television advertising or how you greet consumers when they walk in the door. And last is, to stay flexible. We’re going through a period of unprecedented change, and many of the things that we talk about today, are true today, but may be different a week, a month, or a year from now. So, I think embracing change and staying flexible may in fact be the greatest learning of all.
Robert Lauterborn: One of the things we forget is that people experience brands on three levels.
- They experience a brand on a functional level — what does the brand do , how do they use a brand — but they also experience it on two other levels.
- The emotional level — how does it make them feel.
- And the self expressive level — what do they become as a result of interacting with that brand.
We spend too much of our time thinking about the functional part, what does the brand do: we have this offer, we have this new program, we have this new system, we have this new product. The reality is, there’s almost no leverage there, everybody has the same of those. The difference is how people feel doing business with you, what it is you allow them to become: a smarter customer, a more savvy money handler, whatever that brand essence may be. Those are the areas where there’s true leverage in building a brand.
Watch the Video
You can watch “You Are The Brand” online at YouTube. A second video for the Wachovia Advertising Summit, “Herding Cats,” features Richard Costello talking about the realities of managing a master brand for a large, diverse company. “Herding Cats” is also posted on YouTube.