Think of Apple and you’ll recall sleek designs — across the physical products, in their apps and even in Apple stores worldwide. They have Apple geniuses to help you out with tech support, an iconic former chief always in a black turtleneck and jeans, and millions of fans worldwide.
Apple’s strong branding goes beyond earning it a cult following. Other perks of a strong brand include the ability to make better business decisions to increase revenue (because the entire company is on board with the vision) and brand loyalty buys lower costs. A strong brand identity also builds trust and improves brand equity.
How do you build and maintain brand consistency as strong as Apple’s so the brand can grow globally and yet retain its identity in different markets and across diverse customer segments?
Here is where a solid brand strategy helps, and these are the five principles of building one.
#1 Make better business decisions
A good brand strategy defines the position the company takes internally as well as externally. What happens within matters because the outward image of a company is made up of hundreds of internal micro-decisions. If you have a clear brand strategy, what your business will and will not do becomes very clear — not only to the outside world, but within the company. It is then easier for business executives to make decisions that resonate with the brand. These “rules of engagement” set by the brand strategy let employees define their own tasks, projects and actions.
Take DBS, for example. Now that the bank has a digital focus with CEO Piyush Gupta leading the charge, all other departments have a guideline for their work. The marketing department will focus on digital marketing over traditional ads, IT knows to invest in solutions for digital innovation, even bank branches are reducing human interaction in favour of tech — did you know you can now replace a lost debit card using a machine?
All these micro-decisions guided by this narrative ultimately leads to a culture where customers and investors all resonate with the product/service.
#2 Design over visual
Bear in mind that a brand strategy is way more than a good logo, it goes beyond a pretty visual. To have a good brand strategy, you need to use a design thinking approach: Understand what your users want, figure where your problem is, think of an idea/prototype, and test it. Repeat until you have one ready for launch.
Have you heard of the Spaghetti Marshmallow Challenge? In 20 minutes, participants in groups of 3 to 4 try to build a tower using 20 sticks of dry spaghetti with one marshmallow that has to be at the top of the tower. They have the use of one yard of string, and a yard of tape. Guess who regularly tops out such challenges? Kindergarteners. Because they are more willing to try different prototypes whereas business executives tend to think they know what is right and are more risk averse.
So gather your executives today, think about what your market wants, figure out how to answer that need, and test all hypothesis until you have a brand strategy that resonates internally and externally.
#3 Valid foundation
To develop a brand strategy that really connects with your market, you need to have a sound understanding of what people need and how they perceive your offerings. What you offer has to be unique and also believable.
Look at Singapore Press Holdings and think about how you perceive their news offerings. Despite journalists’ best efforts and the good stories that they do put out, the newspapers are met with cynicism because the public believes them to be tightly controlled by the government, often referring to the mainstream media as “154” — it’s rank in the Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
The company’s staple, The Straits Times, clearly has a major disconnect with its market. In February 2018, the paper changed its paywall model from limiting users to 15 free articles per month to labelling some content as premium and hiding those behind a paywall. But in a country as small as Singapore, there are few stories The Straits Times covers that aren’t also reported by its competitors Today and Channel NewsAsia, which are available online for free. The 377A debate, Singhealth hacking, National Day Rally – those are covered by all local outlets, major news are also covered by news wires or regional papers such as The South China Morning Post. Those who want Singapore news, are no longer bound to The Straits Times as they were before.
For the paper to remain competitive, it needs to figure out what the public wants and shift its brand strategy in response – can they convince readers that their content is truly premium, different from what free news sites have, and worth the price? If not, it will have a tough time justifying its $14.90 a month subscription when international papers like The New York Times’ has a paid digital subscription for just US$1/week ($5.50/month).
#4 Developed from within
Rather than engage expensive consultants, a brand strategy should be developed internally. Your employees understand your business and your industry the best. When the strategy comes from within, employees are also more likely to believe and trust in it, giving you the necessary internal buy-in.
People who care about and believe in the brand are motivated to work harder and their loyalty to the company increases, this can also translate into influence in their friends and family. This is huge, because according to a 2015 Nielson Global Trust in Advertising report, 83% of consumers trust the recommendations of friends and family, and 66% trust consumer opinions posted online. Walk into any Lululemon store worldwide and you will see this at play. Lululemon calls its sales floor staff “educators”. Their role is to educate consumers on the products, culture and communities and educators must be passionate about yoga and other fitness activities, with a weekly work-out practice. The job ad says: “Authentic conversations are key to delivering the ultimate guest experience by relaying your experiences with lululemon products to the guest … and the focus is placed on turning a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ whenever possible.”
#5 Constant evolution
Lastly, a brand strategy is never static. Businesses evolve to meet market needs, which are constantly shifting, and strategies must keep pace.
Take a look at fast fashion retailer H&M. Fast fashion used to do so well and H&M has turned into a giant with almost 5,000 stores worldwide. But in recent years, fast fashion has been accused of using unfair and child labour in third world countries, and their materials are derided as cheap. At the same time, recent years see consumers paying more attention to sustainability. Early this year, the H&M said it was sitting on $4.3 billion worth of unsold garments after being rocked by reports of child labour in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia.
What does H&M do? It shifts its strategy. In April 2017, it said it aims to become fully circular by 2030, with an entire assortment made from recycled or durable materials. ‘Circular’ for H&M means fair and equal fashion that is recyclable or incredibly durable.
It is also becoming less cheap. Edited, which collects retail data, found that H&M has been steadily raising its prices over the last three years: Its average price point has gone from $23.90 to $27.04 in Q4 2017. At the same time, its eco line Conscious Collection which uses lyocell, a cellulose fibre that can be recycled and biodegrades, is not priced at a premium compared to the main lines.
This responds to what the market demanded of them: H&M is no longer cheap, it is now sustainable and responsible, but nice enough to not charge you a premium for its sustainable line.
Now that you have these five pointers in mind, go forth and work on a brand strategy that can turn your brand into the next Apple. Remember to always be clear about why and how you are doing things. As Apple founder Steve Jobs said: “Marketing is about values. It’s a complicated and noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So, we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us.”