The power of five: Promoting confidence in your brand

John Nishimoto

Right now, every business has felt or continues to feel it: Spending is down. Skepticism among consumers, employees and shareholders is high. Marketers are unsure how to best leverage the limited resources they have, but they recognize times of uncertainty are opportunities to increase market- and mind-share. Where to start?

Let’s assume that brand = the promise of a differentiated experience, and image = the external perceptions. How does one impact the other? Brand experiences trigger either positive or negative perceptions among audiences. That means that every interaction, be it an in-person, online or offline communication, can build on or diminish a company’s reputation.

Here are the five key actions a company can take to bolster its brand and image that will build trust in its products/services as well as its culture.

ONE: Look at brands from the outside in.

So what if you think your company’s products and services are great? That’s not what counts. What matters is how others perceive your company’s brand. Decisions should be based on an honest assessment of what the marketplace thinks.

To look at a company from the outside in requires external audience research that spans qualitative, quantitative and social media insights from customers, prospects and analysts. Then, fold in frontline sales and support staff insights, competitive intelligence, and perception surveys to achieve a well-rounded view of how outbound messages and actions are being received. Couple this external view with a brand experience audit, and you have a comprehensive picture of both sides of the relationship.

An example of a company that took this approach is HP. At a time when competitors like Dell were looking at improving internal efficiencies and managing operating costs, HP made the PC personal again based on the insight that customers wanted the ability to humanize and personalize what had become a utilitarian digital tool.

TWO: Empower your people to drive your brand.

With many companies cutting jobs, it’s easy to forget that people are the key to delivering real and perceived value. Make sure your people are prepared to deliver the right brand experience. Give them the right tools and messages in helping them understand what’s important to the customer and, ultimately, what’s in it for them.

For NFP (formerly National Financial Partners), a financial services company built through the acquisition of more than 150 insurance, benefits, and wealth management firms, this meant gaining the insight and trust of internal audiences in reshaping a more unified story.

In addition to providing sessions for listening, senior executives used the opportunity to help employees understand the value of brand and the potential strength of a more aligned organization. Once the new brand platform was developed, a road map that consisted of presentation and communications tools, sales FAQs, CEO webcasts and in-person roadshows set a path forward toward empowering the field force to own and activate the new NFP brand promise.

THREE: Deliver the right insight, at the right time, to the right people.

With companies shedding personnel and acquiring or inheriting new capabilities and businesses, it’s become more challenging to retain and grow customer relationships. To succeed, it’s critical to know your customers and deliver messages that are relevant to them.

The days of “spray and pray” campaign delivery are over. Targeted messages have more cost and customer efficacy than a blind mass-market approach.

For Boost Mobile, a unit of Sprint Nextel, building loyalty with independent retail dealers was about knowing that they were looking for a mobile carrier to be a partner, not just a provider. By giving independent retail dealers timely access to their own store performance, increased efficiencies around customer transactions, and educational experiences that helped them build their business, Boost became more valuable to their bottom line, not just the dealers’ product lineups.

FOUR: Change perception by doing good things.

For your brand to win, it’s essential that your company get ahead of the issues — and avoid letting analysts and the media define your brand story. As with anything else, actions speak louder than words. The best way to succeed is to demonstrate that your company truly looks out for constituents’ interests. Public relations and marketing aren’t Band-Aids; companies need to “live it.”

Corporate reputation and social responsibility initiatives enhanced perceptions for brands like JetBlue and Bank of America. In February 2007, when passengers were left for hours on the tarmac, most airlines took a beating. JetBlue, anticipating Congressional action, introduced a passengers’ bill-of-rights.

During the financial crisis of 2008, with Lehman, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual disappearing almost overnight, customer fear, uncertainty and doubt were at an all-time high. Brands like Bank of America, with its Clarity Commitment program, launched in April 2009, demystified the lending process in an effort to empower the consumer to make informed decisions. With its Assurance Program in early 2009, Hyundai took meaningful steps to respond to customers’ concerns in considering a big-ticket purchase, thereby accruing positive associations for its brand.

FIVE: Leverage quick wins.

Whether you’re improving results, or customer service, or righting an environmental wrong, make it clear that your company is serious, not just sitting on its hands. Remember, the narrative about your company is yours to shape. If you hesitate, you lose the moment and leave it to others to shape stories about you.

In 2004, CA (formerly Computer Associates) was in the midst of a criminal investigation for corporate accounting fraud. By the second quarter of the following year, new leadership had been put in place, and the tarnished public image and low employee morale had hit bottom. With solid customer insights and the foundation for a new positioning under way, it would have taken eight to 10 months to move from the idea to a fully realized rebranding program. In the fourth quarter of that same year, CA used its biggest annual customer conference as the stage to introduce the new vision for the company, manifested in the new brand platform and a refreshed logo.

Implemented only across the basic business tools (stationery, presentation tools and the corporate website), this important but incremental step signified a sea change to the existing customer base, the 15,000 employees and Wall Street, and set the tone for a full rollout of internal and external communications milestones throughout the next 12 to 18 months. This represented an unconventional approach to a brand launch, but was a necessary step in garnering the confidence in the eyes of key stakeholders that progress was being made.

Although the cloud of financial uncertainty continues to be cause for cost-cutting or worse, business leaders should see these times as a moment of opportunity to align, improve and grow their business. Those priorities, done well, will provide tremendous possibilities to gain market share and enhance stakeholder confidence in your business and your brand.

John Nishimoto is creative director and practice leader for brand development at Sequel, a branding and marketing consultancy based in New York. An executive with a wealth of branding experience, he is responsible for turning client objectives into strong platforms and strategies for creative execution.

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