The Power of Brand

In our highly connected world, a brand’s quality and reputation matter more than ever. We often talk in terms of advertising rewarding viewers with great humor, emotion, or some similar payoff. In a market driven by social media, the challenge is actually much deeper than that.

In this market, brand reputation travels faster than marketing messages. It’s like a sonic boom, that loud thunder-like crack you might hear at an air show when a plane is traveling so fast the sound waves are compressed into a high-energy shock wave that trails the plane itself. The plane streaks past silently. It’s not until the plane is nearly out of sight that you finally hear the boom.

We’re experiencing the marketing equivalent of a sonic boom; the velocity of personal messages in social networks exceeds the rate of dispersion for thousands of commercial messages. Just as you can’t hear the sonic boom until after the plane’s passed, consumers don’t hear your message until long after their friends, colleagues, or other social connections have already told them about you. It used to be consumers found out how good or bad your product was after they bought. Now, they learn before.

If your brand stinks, it doesn’t much matter what your message is.

Whole Foods Market has been selling organic goods for years. It does it well and has earned huge brand loyalty. That Whole Foods is sometimes more expensive (excepting its house brand) is a reality that would kill a lot of other brands, but it barely dents (and possibly even strengthens) Whole Foods.

Enter Wal-Mart, eager to sell lower-cost organic foods in its superstores. Instead of a welcome, the response was an attack. Could Wal-Mart really sell foods (or anything else) that were produced organically? Could Wal-Mart operate in a way that resulted in sustainable production practices at a local level? No affordable-organic campaign alone will change how consumers think and talk about Wal-Mart. Local, community-based action might, but that would be the brand in operation, not a marketing message. Local action, itself a tangible demonstration of the brand, is something John Mackey and his associates at Whole Foods have practiced for over 35 years.

A couple key insights come from this. First, good products and services are key to building a good brand. Well-done advertising that tugs heartstrings is great entertainment, but, like more tactical marketing messages, consumers talk about brands just like they talk about products and services.

If you’ve got a solid brand, great brand advertising helps drive it. If you’ve got the beginnings of a great brand, brand campaigns can help build it into a powerhouse. But the key is “great brand.”

Second, consumers are connected: they talk among themselves. Marketing campaigns must recognize and leverage this. Talking at consumers doesn’t work. Providing consumers with the tools they need to understand, experience, and spread the word about your brand and your products and services does. The new front for smart online marketers isn’t banner ads or rich media.

Instead, they use the tools that connect consumers and facilitate talk: educational marketing, advergames, campaigns in virtual reality and social spaces, and video mash-ups. Did you see the Vote Different video? Attack ads are now CGM (define) and will no doubt be a huge source of irritation for the power brokers who have more or less controlled the political marketing dialogue until now.

Imagine an entire generation of voters learning about candidates based on what they tell each other. Now that would change things! The same thing is happening to brand communications. You’ve got to get before the boom by connecting customers, playing where they play, and giving them something really special to talk about.

That special something isn’t your marketing campaign, it’s your brand. Hopefully, it doesn’t stink.

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