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Competitive Branding Strategies
by Linda Fisher


Today, we are standing at a threshold in the business world, fraught with peril, yet, full of possibilities. It is a time filled with challenges and uncertainties. Business has already passed through a fundamental, paradigm shift. Those of us who are global marketing strategists, have been called on to become the pioneers of new thought processes, insights and problem solving in the creation of new business development opportunities.

The key to business development in today's world, lies in the profound understanding that there are no time zones. Nor are there any national boundaries. Marketing is now being done on a global scale.

You might rightfully ask yourself how this can be? If you are the principal of a small to mid-sized business, in Anywhere, USA (Canada, France, England, China, etc), how can you possibly market to the whole world? The answer? Technology. Virtually every business has a website. That means that anyone, anywhere in the world, can look at who you are, and what you do, at any time.

Electronic marketing is a fact of business life. While it has not supplanted traditional marketing activities, electronic marketing has served to augment them and bring them to a world-wide audience, filled with potential clients. If a business's underlying marketing strategy is focused, and its message on target, electronic and traditional marketing complement each other.

In my capacity as a high-level consultant offering business development planning, marketing and PR services to the design industry, I am constantly confronted with firms who continue to maintain the narrow view that they are marketing their creative services to businesses in their own cities, regions and countries. This is simply not so. Witness the fact that U.S. based corporations are purchasing creative services from design firms all over the world. Likewise, European and Asian companies are interfacing with U.S. design firms, as well. Consumers for products and services comprise a global audience.

All of this begs the question: how are businesses from all over the globe connecting?

In this presentation, we will examine several key points that businesses must implement if they are to succeed in this new global world of business. There are five keys that will unlock your firm's potential:

Key #1: Creating a Brand Strategy
Key #2: Managing a Brand Image through Marketing
Key #3: Differentiating from the Competition
Key #4: Creating Added Value Perception for the Service Marketed
Key #5: Maintaining a Client Base while Attracting New Clients

Creating a Brand Strategy.

Marketing on a global scale begins with the decision a business makes to position itself with a mission statement, followed by a thorough, sustainable brand strategy. Each and every business must position and brand itself. It must also make the commitment to manage its brand, thus, securing its image. Absolute consistency is required from the outset to clearly represent the characteristics of the brand on an on-going basis. In this way, the business's brand image is best managed as part of it marketing strategy.

Scott Bedbury, Senior VP of Marketing for Starbucks, strategized for his first great brand, Nike, when he joined them in 1987. He gave the world "Just Do It," and turned this $750 million dollar a year business into a $4 billion dollar business in 7 years. Before Nike, there were sneakers.

When I was coming up through the corporate ranks, the whole idea of developing and maintaining a corporate image rested in the hands of the graphic design department of many firms. Businesses concerned themselves with naming, logo design, color, typography and collateral marketing materials. It was felt that consistency in the usage of its graphics secured the image of the firm. There was a zealous guardianship of all of the visual representations of the firm. Now, business thought has progressed, and we realize that this is the manifestation of brand identity, not brand image.

In a press release dated July 25, 2003 titled: "Samsung Named the Fastest Growing Global Brand Second Year in a Row by Interbrand," we find some amazing statistics. Jan Lindemann, Global Managing Director of Interbrand, says of Samsung: "The continuously strong rise of Samsung's brand value reflects the company's commitment to invest in its brand on a global scale and make brand value a key corporate target throughout the organization, including the CEO and all employees. Samsung has successfully made brand building the key focus of its marketing strategy". . . .

How effectively has the focus on brand management transformed this Seoul Korea based electronic giant? Samsung brand value is US $10.8 billion, a staggering 31% increase from 2002!

Managing a Brand Image through Marketing.

Corporate or brand image encompasses so much. We must understand that everything a company does, or doesn't do, creates a public perception of its products or services. Sergio Zyman, former CMO, Coca Cola stated exactly that, when he said: "We know everything we say and do communicates the brand. And for that matter, everything we don't say and don't do communicates the brand."

Michael Eisner, ex-CEO Disney, stated that: "A brand is a living entity - and it is enriched or undermined - cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures."

Perceptions affect the firm's ability to develop and grow, attain its goals, and ultimately sustain itself. Image begins with a vision of the business's executives, starting with the CEO and president. It filters down to every employee of the company. When properly integrated with the firm's mission statement and a strategic marketing plan, it encompasses every visual, verbal and behavioral element of the business. It must be woven into the marketing efforts, traditional and electronic, of the firm.

Timm F. Crull, former Chairman & CEO of the world's largest food corporation, Nestle, stated that: "Long-term brand equity and growth depends on our ability to successfully integrate and implement all elements of a comprehensive marketing program."

The unique culture of every business must be factored into this equation. It is the role of management to provide the leadership, communication and training to instill the firm's brand message into the hearts and minds of its staff; thus forming a culture unique to that business. Businesses should think of each and every one of their employees as brand ambassadors. Employees are the corporate brand to the clients, thus, they are constantly communicating the values of the brand in one way or another. This is a tall order, and requires unflagging work and support. Yet, a cohesive brand/corporate image makes a huge difference in the firm's perception, (inside and out), performance, and ultimately, success and sustainability.

Professor David Aaker, from U.C. Berkeley's Haas School of Business, states in his book, "Building Strong Brands," 'The culture of the organization, more than the procedures or structures, is ultimately what drives the attainment of sustainable (brand) advantage."

Today, we realize that, ultimately, all businesses must manage their corporate images and their underlying brands, from a marketing perspective. This may sound like a simple, logical concept, but in many cases, it simply isn't being done. In fact, we have witnessed deteriorating brands all over the world. Many of these examples include, unhappily, some very large, publicly traded corporations. And many businesses as well as design firms have never sought out or embraced these concepts, at all!

There are a variety of reasons for brand failures. Some brands have caused disillusionment with the public; they represent unfulfilled promises. Others do not fit today's consumer's needs or concerns, because they haven't stayed abreast of current consumer values. Still others do not seem to represent a real value to the consumer or client, at all.

The fact is that brands must continually reinvigorate themselves if they are to remain relevant in an overcrowded marketplace full of sensory bombardment in both B2B and B2C situations.

McDonald's represents a great example of what happens when a huge global brand appears to lose some of its relevance. In a Brand Channel article, dated December 22, 2003, author A.K. Cabell states that: "The effects on McDonald's of changing consumer tastes, nutritional-themed lawsuits, and anti-globalization protests have been well documented, but what are the brand owners doing to counter this?"

Hence, the new "I'm Lovin' It" campaign was born. And a new strategy. One based on current tastes and trends. Cabell says: "As for menu, attempting to recapture the market share of a consumer base that has essentially changed its taste from burgers and fries to neatly packaged store-bought sushi is not going to be an experimentation for McDonald's; it is now an expectation. Accused of implementing overly aggressive brand strategies by 'training' its customers to eat fatty foods, McDonald's is not only fighting to maintain brand power in the vast pool of competition, but also to dispel notions that its previous brand strategy was improperly planned for the next five to seven years down the road."

The rising perception is that there is more and more parity among product lines and services. With increased competition in every category of products and services offered, wouldn't you think that businesses would more assiduously guard their brands? Wouldn't you think that businesses would position themselves and market themselves in such a way as to be differentiated from their competitors? In fact, I can tell you that the opposite is true. Many businesses see increased competition pop up on their radar screens, or see new business fads, so they scramble to initiate something "exciting and fresh."

Worse still, companies bring new talent into their executive pools who want to make their own marks, so they seek to "update" or "contemporize" the image of the firm. That's when everything begins to unravel. Again: when the brand is not being guarded, not remaining consistent, and constantly subject to change - the business presents a confusing, unfocused image to the world. Small wonder the firm begins to fail!

Remember, before there was a powerful brand like Coca Cola, there were soft drinks. Before Nike, there were sneakers. Before Starbucks, there were coffee shops. Before Microsoft, there were software applications. Before Nokia, there were cell phones. On and on.

The Sustainability Factor.

So what will clients respond to today? What are those intangible values that will bring the global marketplace to respect and trust a firm's products or services? Besides a consistent brand image and brand message?

The old adage to Think Globally / Act Locally has never had more impetus. Companies carry the onus to not only take dollars and profits from the communities where they do business, but to give back to those very communities. There are profound challenges and global problems that can be addressed if a number of corporations with global roots choose to practice sustainability. No longer do we see this as the sole province of national, provincial or local governments. We now understand that every organization, and every business - large and small - has a role and a responsibility in this endeavor.

What does this have to do with the average business? You must become aware of this huge international trend for two reasons. Firstly, because many of you are doing business with global corporate entities, or seeking to do business with them. Secondly, because many of you, in smaller, less dramatic ways can have a positive impact on sustainability. In fact, I feel along with many other experts, that many businesses, large and small, will play an integral role in solving global issues and problems over the coming decades.

Local, social and environmental responsiveness should come from the core mission of companies if they are to be perceived as truly committed to the practice of sustainability.

Corporations can, and must, create value to the global community in which they do business. They must think in terms of respecting local populations, and adding to their quality of life. They must do business ethically. They must try to minimalize their impact on the environment and protect natural resources. They might try to assist in local economic development.

As the world shrinks and becomes a smaller and smaller place in which to operate, we have learned a valuable lesson in business. We are part of this new world society. We can either choose to spend money to expand and create prosperity for ourselves, while we are perceived as destroying other parts of the world, causing distrust and disdain, or, we can create a truly sustainable society, in which business leaders strive to create prosperity for everyone. Remember what Tom Peters has always said: "Perception is reality."

So why do global corporations practice sustainability? To make their brands viable and vibrant. More importantly, because it's the right thing to do.

A great example of a global corporation with a simple mission statement that resonates with the consumer is IKEA. IKEA's strategy is to offer basic, relatively inexpensive home furnishings to consumers around the world, which represent quality and value for little money. IKEA consumers know exactly what they're getting as part of the IKEA brand experience: self-service, good quality, KD furniture, good prices.

IKEA gives back by supporting numerous charities around the world, and by supporting lumbering in areas that are not endangered by the over-harvesting of endangered forests. A direct and honest message is the mission of this large corporation: and it is carried out at every level, resonating with consumers the world over. This is a perfect example of the successful marketing of corporate image. IKEA is so unique that I would challenge anyone to come up with another company who does what IKEA does in its niche category.

In fact, I would say that this is a perfect illustration of marketing points of differentiation from the competition. IKEA thinks globally, and acts locally. The corporation not only preaches the need for sustainability, it acts on it. In this regard, the company continues to build its credibility, wherever in the world it is operating. And while IKEA sustains the global community, it sustains itself and its viability as a corporate entity.

Differentiating from the Competition.

In his landmark book, "Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition", author Jack Trout states quite emphatically that, "If differentiation is about the life and death of a brand, we feel it's worth your while to explore this subject in depth." He is quite right. Business executives who feel that they have successfully differentiated their firms, must take a good look at how their marketing efforts have achieved this "differentiation."

By touting the superior quality of your product or service? Which of your competitors doesn't do that? By extolling the virtues of your superior service to clients? Which of your competitors doesn't do that? By pointing out the speed of your responsiveness to clients? Which of your competitors doesn't do that?

So what is differentiation? What makes it such a powerful tool? How is it best utilized? Simply put, differentiation is that thing which every design firm has, that makes it stand out from its competitors in a meaningful way. Every business has some kind of unique proposition, some kind of proprietary process, some kind of additional benefit or some kind of augmented service offering for its clients-something that must be marketed to take the firm out of the realm of being just another commodity to being a firm which is perceived as offering a unique value proposition to its clients, its B2B or B2C base.

The design arm of BMW, Designworks/USA clearly differentiates itself from its competition. Collaboration is a crucial part of the design process at BMW. In a 2002 interview, Chris Bangle said of his design team: "The key here is diversity. If our people all thought the same way, we wouldn't have a design culture; we'd just have mass opinion. That's why internal competition is a fundamental premise of this organization: it gives us this dynamic exchange of viewpoints. The outcome is far more powerful than what a single person could produce."

Marketing guru Martin Brandt says: "Branding is about differentiation. Companies are becoming increasingly differentiated by how well they build and manage their brands.. . Companies make products but customers buy brands."

Entrepreneur, and billionaire businessman Warren Buffett stated that: "Your premium brand had better be delivering something special, or it's not going to get the business."

This takes work and real strategy. In my own business, I assist design firms in the creation of viable, living marketing plans. A large portion of my time and effort is spent in searching for the very assets these businesses have, to help them differentiate themselves. I continually stress how important it is to focus, specialize, differentiate and build credibility with their key publics. I am convinced that each and every business has a way to differentiate itself. This is more than a concept; it is a matter of survival for any business. No business can sustain itself if it is perceived as a commodity.

Today, more than ever, differentiation is the difference between success and failure for a brand. Or, as Jack Trout says, between "life and death for a brand." Competition is stiffer than ever, there's more of it, and it's smart. It's also global. I contend that any business, small, mid-sized or large, can make it, and can carve out a niche for itself in spite of this, if it has a reason for being. If it has that unique attribute that drives business away from the commodities of this world, and into its direction!

Creating Added Value Perception.

Value creation must be real, and tangible to a targeted audience. Client perception must align itself with the reality of a true value proposition as a further point of differentiation for every company - design firms included - that want to sustain themselves. The recognition of added value to the product or service marketed by any company, further differentiates it from its competitors. Improving the quality of your product offerings or services, or adding new features gives your firm an advantage over the competition.

Can you offer an additional service for your customer that is not offered by your competitors? And keep the cost of the product or service to the customer in line with competitors' offerings? Now, that is value! Again, these intangibles become tangible features, that, when strategically marketed, differentiate these companies from all of the competition out there.

Many businesses offer their clients great value, and do not even capitalize on that fact when they market themselves! For example, I have personally worked with mature design firms who have very high levels of expertise, born of years of experience in specific industry sectors, and never use this as a point of differentiation for their firms. Many industrial design firms integrate engineers with designers on staff - a huge value to their clients - and never advantageously market the fact! Yet other firms have highly specialized areas of expertise, or they've worked with major corporate clients, and never differentiate themselves by employing this as a marketing strategy.

Perhaps the creation of added value comes from your ability to be a strong innovator. Innovation always acts as a powerful differentiator, as well. A great corporate example of value perception vis-à-vis innovation is Nokia, the Scandinavian mobile phone giant. In an industry where the product becomes dated and old after six months, Nokia continues to move faster than all of its competition in launching hot new products. Even though Nokia's competitors - Motorola, Samsung and Siemens, among many others, continue to innovate, Nokia continues to do it faster and more brilliantly than any other company. Why? Because it has made a commitment to lead in this competitive industry sector, by design. Also: a staggering 40% of the company's 52,000 employees are involved in various R&D functions. That's focus and commitment.

Value added, though? In June 2002, when Nokia introduced its 7650 handset, the first phone with a built-in camera, Nokia had the European market all to itself for the first six months! When Nokia then launched its 3510i color screen model in September 2002, this handset could display 4,096 colors. The product's closest competitor, Sony Ericsson's T300 only boasted 256 colors. Value added perception? YES!

Whether a firm can dramatically upgrade customer service information systems, strengthen its B2B or B2C communications, shorten its turn-around time to ship its product/service, or offer a premium service - making the necessary financial commitment necessary to do so - your unique product attributes and additional service capabilities are hard for your competitors to replicate in a short period of time.

Your product or service is less susceptible to price; because it represents tremendous value. Best of all, it makes your business more sustainable, and less vulnerable to increased competition and an up and down economy.

Maintaining the Customer Base, and Adding New Customers.

Nothing is more exciting to most businesses than attracting new customers. Yet, one of the greatest assets of any firm, is its existing client base. Unfortunately, many companies take their existing customers for granted. The ones that do recognize the value of their past and current clients, realize that real growth potential comes from this very source. The key here is to foster respect in your client relationships, and as you build your business, they will continue to come back. CRM is a huge area of business concern, and rightfully so.

Existing clients are the most profitable since they do not have to be sold on the value of your service. They are also a tremendous source of information, and often point the way to additional services you can offer to satisfy their needs. Responding to those needs, in turn, will push your company's business development further along. Many small to mid-sized companies have grown to the next level by letting their clients point out where their opportunities for expansion were! Past clients have made valuable observations, asked relevant questions, articulated marketplace needs, etc. Have you done your R&D by polling your past customers?

Doesn't it make sense to develop and market new services that are already being requested? Furthermore, doesn't it make sense to ask them for their input on the current services you offer? Interview them and let them give you a frank assessment of your firm's strengths and weaknesses - so you can make adjustments and fix problem areas. This is some of the most valuable information your business will ever receive! Perform this function on a regular basis - and act on the information to grow your company!

Without bombarding past, present and prospective clients with sales pitches and annoying telemarketing calls, you can keep in touch periodically to let them know that you value their business and their relationship with your company. You can and should share information about your firm's latest projects, awards and successes. A well-orchestrated, periodic mailing or e-mail, will keep your firm top of mind with all of your clients: past, present and prospective!

Michael Dell, founder and president of Dell Computer has stated that: "We believe that the quality and nature of the customer relationship and experience is going to be the next competitive battleground."

If he is right, and I think he is, then we have to think that many corporations are doing more than paying lip service to the idea of improving their relationships with their customers. They are upping the ante on building positive customer perceptions and brand loyalty.

You can't buy good will. You have to earn it. The perception that good will adds to a business's value is an intangible that adds to the differentiation of that business in a profound way.

Bottom line: past clients and new clients all deserve superior service. Be true to your word when dealing with clients; strive to deliver more than promised. Treat your clients in a professional and respectful manner. Let them know that you appreciate working with them; that you appreciate their business. The marketing satisfied customers do for any business is astounding! Keeping past clients happy makes them want to talk about your firm to everyone they know in glowing terms. Past clients can be one of your best marketing tools! They will actually bring in new customers!

Some Final Thoughts. . .

Thinking in the terms that I have laid out here, today, creates a "can't fail competitive marketing strategy." One that succeeds in the new global marketplace we are all operating in. Whether your firm is small, mid-sized, or fairly large and mature. . .basic, sound marketing principles apply. Today more than ever, business survival depends upon the factors I have brought out in this presentation.

This is every industry's opportunity to embrace the challenges they are faced with, and to rise to those challenges with courage and confidence. It is industry's opportunity to extend itself globally, and meaningfully, to make a difference in this world. I am optimistic that business can and will, answer the call.

These are the real competitive strategies in a global marketplace for the 21st century!


The Author

Linda Fisher is a brand and marketing consultant. She has taught executive programs and seminars around the world. Ms. Fisher is president and founder of Design Management Resources, a consultancy that focuses on design for global competitive advantage. Her ground-breaking, three-year research study: "Corporate Perspectives on Design Consultant Marketing" divulges corporate inefficiencies regarding the outsourcing of design services, as well as design consultants' strengths and weaknesses regarding marketing methods, creative capabilities, and corporate collaboration for the purpose of attaining corporate goals.

Many more articles in Branding in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2005 by Linda Fisher. All rights reserved.

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