I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences working in brand strategy consulting over the past 26 years. I’ve seen clients make good branding decisions and others make major branding mistakes, and I often see the same mistakes made over and over again. Here’s a quick summary of the most common branding mistakes I’ve seen, along with some brand-building advice.
1. Not taking the time to develop a brand platform with a compelling brand promise and brand pillars. A brand is a set of perceptions that live in the mind of the customer. If you haven’t even identified what perceptions you want to own with your target audience, how on earth do you expect to build those perceptions? While a brand is a collection of perceptions, branding is actively managing those perceptions. The first step is deciding what those perceptions, known as brand pillars, should be, keeping in mind three criteria: a) they must be meaningful – something that the target customer wants; b) they must be credible – something your brand can own; and c) at least one of them must differentiate your brand from the competition.
2. Not focusing your brand tightly enough. You can’t be all things to all people, and there’s a LOT of noise out there. Branding is often about sacrifice – letting go of the desire to appeal to everyone – and the strongest brands stand for a tightly defined set of perceptions in the mind of the consumer. What do you think of when you think of Volvo? Most say safety. For Maytag, most say dependability. Why? Because Volvo and Maytag have done a great job of clearly and consistently communicating those messages in multiple ways, over decades. Keep your message simple and the chances of owning it are much greater.
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3. Not understanding how to trigger the desired perceptions. Once you know the three or four perceptions you want your brand to own, you need to figure out how to communicate those perceptions. Identifying and applying the sensory signals that trigger the desired perceptions in the mind of the target is key. This ensures that your communications are on brand and on target, thus assuring you that the media dollars you spend have been validated to be building your brand.
4. Not communicating consistently. Whether on purpose (because brand managers are bored with the creative) or accidentally (because they don’t understand the sensory signals that trigger the key brand perceptions), many brands aren’t disciplined enough to consistently communicate in a way that reinforces the desired brand perceptions. A senior executive like the CMO has to truly own the brand and, as the brand steward, must run every element of the brand experience and brand communications through a carefully developed brand filter, designed to evaluate how effectively the brand essence is being communicated. Too often I see clients sacrificing consistent, strategic brand-building for a tactical execution that is way off the mark.
5. Not realizing the importance of brand cascading. It’s a common – and critical – mistake to lose sight of the fact that a big part of a brand is the people behind the brand. If your people don’t know how to live and breathe the brand, how do you expect the brand message to get through to the target audience? Brand cascading sessions – in which employees brainstorm ways they can help bring the brand to life in what they do each day – are critical to strong and consistent brand delivery at all points of contact with the target. These sessions not only serve the purpose of communicating the brand essence to employees, but they also involve the employees and get them thinking creatively about how they can help bring the brand to life in their specific areas. It also helps get everyone, regardless of individual roles, in the mindset of serving as brand ambassadors and not simply as employees.
While most of these branding mistakes seem obvious, it’s amazing how many brands don’t know who they are, try to stand for too many things, fail to evaluate whether the messages they are sending trigger the desired perceptions, communicate inconsistently and don’t involve their employees in the branding process. Avoid these five mistakes and your brand-building efforts will show tremendous returns by generating brand equity that lasts.