Branding Alchemy

We already know that these gestures are created by many marketers, merchants, creatives, and customer care folks, who all contributing actions on a daily basis that, hopefully, serve to create a memorable experience for their customers.

But who exactly in your organization is conducting this ongoing brand symphony of promotional campaigns, “purple cow” products, engaging selling environments, and positive service conversations? Who is minding the brand and mending the brand when it goes astray?

Certainly, in some companies, the president/CEO serves as the chief branding officer. In other companies, that role is taken on by a separate individual. And yet, in many more companies — if not most — that title and role often go unfilled.

Or, it is filled and fulfilled in a true “catch as catch can” way. The creative director may be the “brand police” on catalogs and printed pieces and Web design, but who is minding how the various promotions and campaigns and cross-sells are affecting the customers?

Sure, that may be the marketing director’s job, but who told the merchandising director that her top-three products are now on sale? As you can see, these are just a few of the “thousand small gestures” that have high visibility to your customers and affect their perception of your brand.

Positive or negative, a brand is indeed the sum of its parts. Someone in your organization best be paying comprehensive attention to these matters — and close attention at that!

Andrew Rolfe, senior managing director of TowerBrook Capital Partners and former president of apparel giant Gap’s International division, believes “one of the biggest responsibilities of management is to look after the corporate DNA.” Like an alchemist, management must transmute the “thousand small gestures” into something of lasting value. This is the brand leader’s full-time job.

Howard Schultz, entrepreneurial founder of Starbucks, comes to mind as a modern day alchemist who transmuted basic black water into an international crave-worthy experience. He minded every aspect of Starbuck’s DNA, from the actual coffee size names (grande, venti) to the look and feel of the coffee cups to creating a mystique out of the coffee serving experience with “baristas” who remember their customers names and their favorite customized concoctions.

These “little things” were deemed by Schultz as not too little for his attention. He masterfully transmuted them into the elixir of the Starbucks experience.

Companies such as Disney, L.L. Bean, Patagonia, Garnet Hill, American Girl, and Levenger have also made an art out of brand alchemy. Like Schultz, the founders of these companies also cared — and still care — about the elixir of the brands they created. They’ve sweated over the details of a thousand small gestures in order to give their customers brands that many consider “lovemarks.”

Yes, they’ve also sweated over the big stuff: their companies’ long-term strategic directions, potential licensing partnerships, and possible acquisitions. They’ve sweated over emerging competitive prowess and analyzed their brands’ merchandising gaps. But it’s the little things that endear brands to customers’ hearts — and wallets.

Little things — such as offering your customers the opportunity to buy posters of uber-cool adventures (Patagonia), or giving your customers free desktop wallpaper of their favorite catalog covers (Garnet Hill), or asking for their vote on your three Christmas catalog cover options (L.L. Bean).

Small gestures like inviting your preteen customers to take a quiz so that they can discover their “daring quotient” (American Girl), or helping little girls learn everything they can about their favorite princess (Disney), or inviting your bookworm customers to learn a new word or quote a day (Levenger).

Each of these little things links back into their brand’s respective DNA and gives their customers just a bit more than they expected. These brand alchemists took the time to care about the things that matter to their customers.

Small companies sometimes bypass their larger competitors in achieving brand alchemy because they have not forgotten the “power of the personal.” Here’s an example: My husband and I often frequent a small Italian bistro in the foothills of Colorado. The owner greets us personally at the door and asks about our day.

The wait staff know us too and remember our wine and food preferences. Just as important, they don’t “overconnect” and intrude on our quiet evening out with too much interaction. If friends join us, they, too, are treated like long time customers.

All of these things matter to us. All of these things matter to most people. Customers want the companies they do business with to “get them.” Like an alchemist, this bistro owner knows the power of mixing all of the right ingredients to create a magical experience, over and over again.

So whether you are your company’s official brand alchemist or not, it pays to think and act like one. Here are a few ideas on how to conduct a periodic brand audit to be sure you are delivering a consistent, positive, and engaging brand experience:

  1. First, ask yourself if you and all your fellow employees truly understand what makes your brand unique and different in the marketplace. What is your brand’s special ingredient? This brand specific DNA should permeate all you do both inside and outside the company. Make sure it is known and fully understood. This brand promise drives all other activities and becomes the blueprint for each of the thousand gestures — both large and small.

  2. When is the last time you examined all your brand touchpoints objectively? It can be hard to grade your own corporate efforts, especially if you are directly involved in them. We all just want the ease of a pass/fail grade. But like your college chemistry professor, customers are demanding graders. Grade your touchpoint through the lens of a customer. Better yet, get real customers actually involved in this process. Tell them to be ruthless; you are here to learn. Take their grades to heart and look to becoming a better student.

  3. Review the basics — the four Ps: product, price, promotion, and place. Product: Are your products fresh and innovative or are they “me-too” replicas of your competitors’ goods? Are you giving your customers something conversation-worthy to purchase? Pricing: Where is your value-added-ness? Do customers feel they got more for their money with your company? If not, how can you fix this? Promotion: What are you doing to entice your customers now? What are you doing to reward your brand ambassadors? Is it something they care about? Place: 360° brands travel with their customers — at home, at work, at play. Where do you need to be to meet your customers’ needs?

  4. Add three more Es: empathy, edit, and experience. Empathy: Are you doing all you can to make your customers’ lives easier in some way? Edit: Have you worked through all the needless brand clutter (redundant messages, product cannibalizers, unnavigable product searches) and simplified all the decisions your customers need to make on your behalf? Experience: What is the holistic impact of your brand experience? Is it more than customers expect, or does it fall short? Management expert Peter Drucker always believed in serving customers and in delighting them with the “power of the unexpected.” What is positively unexpected about your customers’ experience?

  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Bring your merchants and marketers and customer care and creative folks together weekly. Discuss the alchemy of your brand. Be together, be honest, and then be of one mind. Better to solve these issues around boardroom tables than in front of your customers and competitors.

Branding alchemy, even if it is led by the CEO or the chief branding officer, is still everyone’s job. Do your part to make magic for your customers!

Andrea Syverson is president of IER Partners, a branding and merchandising consultancy in Black Forest, CO.

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