Friday, December 12, 2008

So, how has your experience been?

As consumers get more savvy and demanding, marketers have no choice but get their customer touch points right..

A few weeks ago, I got a call from my friend’s son. This 16-year old, who was studying in Bishop Cotton School, in Bangalore, was at the forefront of the organising committee of his school and was organising an inter-school competition. “Uncle,” he said, “I would like you to be a judge for one of our competitions. It is called “brand value”, and you have to judge the ads that teams are creating for brands.” I agreed reluctantly, even as I experienced mixed, if somewhat familiar emotions. The first, of course, was a sense of happiness at the fact that even youngsters today are thinking of concepts like brand value and the second was a sense of regret, that like most of the people around me, my young friend was equating branding with advertising. I realised soon that I had actually maligned the young man, because his detailed mail which followed, clarified that the task was that teams had to convert a technology product into a brand (the school is in Bangalore after all), also producing a short advertisement as part of the process. Clearly, I was wrong about my young friend who seems to know more about branding than several people running businesses, and who suffer from a few misconceptions about branding.

A brand is not only its elements

The brand name is often the most important and frequently the most recalled element of a brand. And yet, however important the brand name is in the overall scheme of a brand’s success, a name alone is not a brand. This is not to discount the fact that brands need to be different with everything they do, if they have to stand apart in a crowded and cluttered world, and that includes naming the brand. A name like Pampers that immediately proclaims its offering or a name like Fifty-Fifty from Brittania that offers so much creative scope immediately spring to mind. Another point of difference that brands often use to telling effect is their identity. Today, brands spend considerable time, money and effort on designing their visual identities and that is probably justified as people remember shapes, colours and symbols more than they do words. Not for nothing do people say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. This assumes greater importance in a country like India where every second person you see on the road is likely to be illiterate! People do not have to be aided with the brand name Nike, when they are shown the swoosh as they instantly recall it; so strongly is that brand associated with that visual symbol. But there is more to Nike than the symbol, which leads me to the point I am making that a brand is not merely a logo or an identity. Let me quickly clarify that I am not for an instant suggesting that a strong visual identity is not important for a brand. It gives a brand one more opportunity to differentiate itself from its host of competitors and the myriads of imitators that every brand seems to be confronted with today. Nor can one afford to forget tag lines that some brands have used consistently over the years and appropriated as properties for themselves. One remembers GE’s “We bring good things to life”. But at the risk of sounding repetitive, I must say that a brand is not a mere tag line. It is much more. And what about the packaging? The pack is what the customer is closest to and she decides to either pick it up or give it a miss in the supermarket shelves depending on how attractive it is, and how successfully it stands out from the thousands of other products on the shelf. And yet, despite whatever packaging specialists may tell you, the pack is not the brand.

Advertising makes the world go around

We dream merchants have an exaggerated view of the importance of advertising in building brands and creating consumer preference. While there is no denying the relevance and importance of advertising, it needs to be borne in mind that, as in the examples mentioned earlier, branding encompasses far more than strategic positioning and clever execution. We have enough examples of advertising that has made the consumer sit up and take notice and also open her purse strings. Cola, for instance, has always been a category driven by advertising. Who can forget Pepsi’s advertising targeted at the young and “young at heart”? Some of the greatest advertising campaigns have been for categories such as automobiles, which though not completely advertising driven, still influence the consumer. The Volkswagen “think small” campaign was voted by Advertising Age as the ‘campaign of the last century’. Categories such as, liquor have had their imagery enhanced by advertising, and one can instantly recall the memorable advertising for brands such as Absolut Vodka even if one continues to be a confirmed whisky diehard! But a brand is not only advertising as my young friend in Bishop Cotton knew. To sum up, a brand is not just a name, a logo, colours, a tag line, a positioning statement or an advertising campaign even. Yes, the significant shift in thinking has been the increasing importance of the “brand experience” provided by various consumer touch points, which are making her form impressions about it. As Jack Mackey, Vice- President, Service Management Group, said “You can say what you want about whom you [think] are, but people believe what they experience”. Customer experience! Yes that is the key word today and it must be mentioned that more and more brands are struggling to meet expectations on this front, living as they do in a flattened world that uses outsourcing.So, what’s your experience like?

Poor customer experiences seem to open up feelings, emotions and tongues just the way liquor does. Just imagine these few situations. You have a great image of a company, you think it is a great brand and make the mistake of calling it. You get through after several attempts and are greeted (!) by a brusque and harassed voice, whose tone seems to suggest “why are you disturbing me”? Will you be thinking about their lyrical advertising at that point in time or still feel it is a great brand? You go to a branded apparel outlet to buy a shirt and are met by a surly salesman (who has no intention of selling to you even if you are very keen to buy) and your immediate reaction is to leave the place of your humiliation, without spending a moment thinking of the brand that you had originally wanted. You have checked out the Web site, seen the ads, studied the brochures and go to the car outlet to take a test drive, only to be insulted by the salesman. Would you still want the car? Your bank releases wonderful ads that probably wins every award in town and eulogises its customers and its commitment to it. You go to the bank on a Saturday to get your statement done and the counter clerk glares at you with so much “affection” that you wonder if it is the same bank that has released the ads making you out to be their very reason for being. You and your team work day and night to keep your client happy, you go that extra mile and believe you are part of their team. And yet you overhear an accountant saying this when you follow up for payment — “let them wait for their money”. You admire a corporation enormously and yet when you visit them their reception is manned by a security guard! I once had the good fortune (!) of being greeted with the admirable brand name of Doberman!Experience the key
Many of us handle the easy parts of branding, the look, the feel, the advertising, the Web site, the brochure… This is what is normally referred to as the brand’s identity. Identity is what we send out to the market. That can be controlled by us and usually is. We have brand manuals and guidelines. But what the market takes out or receives, of what we send out, can and often is substantially different. This is because of their own perceptions, expectations and most critically their own experiences with the brand. This is the difficult part for marketers. This calls for a long, hard look at their own offering when it comes to experience and the honesty to accept the truth. This calls for looking at all the aspects that add to experience, whether it is physical, the setting, the functional aspects, the technical aspects and so on. It calls for a change in priorities and increased investment in training and that includes outsourced service providers. A lot of heartburn is caused to consumers by outsourced services who continue to damage the hard earned equity of brands with desperate ease. Today, as consumers get more savvy, more demanding and compare and share experiences, marketers have no choice to get their consumer touch points right. The sooner they do it, the better, for consumers are not going to wait endlessly for them to get their act right.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)