It has long been accepted that determining the status of a brand goes beyond an organisation’s control. Rather, it is the summation of an individual’s feelings towards its marketing, communications, products and/or services, customer service function, and indeed any aspect of the organisation with which they have direct or indirect contact.
That “a brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company” is, in my opinion, the best definition (articulated by Marty Neumeier) – and it perfectly illustrates the concept of intangibility.
Building something based entirely on what other people think of it is clearly challenging. It requires an ability to pre-empt reactions and responses to everything the organisation does; from a new product launch or advertising campaign, through to the customer service process and employment practices. Any point at which it connects with an individual elicits a reaction of some sort in that person – positive, negative, neutral or indifferent – and shapes their overall view of the brand too.
Arguably, it also has a knock-on effect on a competitor’s brand; we tend to make judgements partially based on comparisons that we can make with similar situations. If I deem Brand A’s advertising campaign to be near perfect, I am more likely to also view Brand B slightly less favourably, as in this particular situation, I believe it has effectively “lost” to Brand A. Of course, this sentiment is likely to be stronger where homogeneity between brands is perceived to be higher.
But how do you determine how strong a brand is, and does this reflect its resistance to reputational damage?
Ultimately, strength equates to awareness; awareness of both the brand itself and also what it stands for. As a metric, reach is important here. Awareness within the target audience must be compared with global reach. While it may be tempting to consider only reach within the target audience, brands are also built on what other people say about them. If Brand A is unknown outside of its audience, but Brand B is known, it is the latter that will be stronger – the awareness from outside the segment will only have an amplifying effect on the audience.
Yet “brand love” is also important. Difficult to measure, it is probably this that enables differentiation between good brands. One way of looking at this is by understanding the positive level of investment that an individual has made in a particular brand – e.g. by evangelising it to others or by physically buying into its products or services (owners of an iPhone, MacBook, iPad and iWatch seem the obvious example to cite here).
In response to this, many organisations are increasingly seeking out ways to permeate additional areas of individuals’ lifestyles, through both diversification into new and related market segments, and through greater vertical integration. To continue using Apple as an example, it is following both options simultaneously; diversifying through offering additional music and health products, and creating an unrivalled in-store retail experience to control more of the supply chain than its competitors. When done well, it can increase “love.”
With brand strength and love in mind, how does a brand withstand reputational damage?
Brand resistance to reputational knocks
Ultimately, it could be suggested that just three elements are required to strengthen a brand’s resistance to damaging issues or incidents. Firstly, there must be a strong awareness of what the brand stands for; this voice will be consistently developed across all of the brand’s channels and touchpoints. Alongside this must also exist a large customer base that is already highly invested in the brand. The role for corporate communications here will be to, as always, ensure that the right messages reach the right people at the right time.
Finally, the third element – and this will be critical in responding to reputational knocks – will be how well the brand is perceived as responding to a crisis or disaster. If the brand can demonstrate that it is doing the best it can in a given situation, those that have invested in the brand will have less of a reason to devalue their investments, and thus brand strength will remain largely intact.
Customers and consumers understand that there are occasions when things go wrong for an organisation but it is the response that can ‘make or break’ a brand’s standing. This will be assessed predominantly by speed, tone and substance. What’s more, it is this reliance upon relationships between a brand and an individual that causes, in the age of hyper-transparency, individuals to demand that the brand owners stand up to what they are communicating. Any failure to do so can have a huge reputational impact.
A strong brand can deliver competitive advantage and this must be reinforced at each and every given opportunity – it has the power to turn a good product or service into a great one.
Communications is a key vehicle for achieving this and, particularly when viewed through a long-term lens, has the power to improve a brand’s immunity to setbacks.