Jul 04 2008

What's Your Brand Essence?

Published by at 11:56 am under Idea Driven Marketing

Imagine if you could express or describe your company’s/product’s brand in just a couple of words? Even better, just one word? Well, the most successful and powerful brands do exactly that, boiling down their narratives to a simple and succinct word or two.

At my firm THUNDER FACTORY, we call this the “brand essence.” The brand essence simply represents the “essential” meaning and value of the brand. Of course, building that brand essence is not so simple. It takes strategic discipline, forethought and creativity to build a strong essence for a brand, an essence that people understand, appreciate and remember. Frequently it also takes time to create and nurture a brand’s essence. Remember, a brand is a promise made and a promise kept, consistently over time. The essence does not just come out of thin air.

We spend a lot of time working with clients to help them distill their brand essence. And this is not just for large companies with big budgets and established brands. Small companies and even start ups benefit just as much as large corporations from the ability to communicate what their brand/company/product is and represents and how it is different and better than anything else out there. Again, the best brands always have a clear and memorable brand essence that they rely on, protect and promote.

Since I am a long time “car guy” I love analyzing how the automobile companies have done over the years in building their brands and communicating a consistent brand essence — or not! For purposes of better understanding the brand essence concept and how you can use it to strengthen your marketing, let’s examine a few well known car brands and how they have succeeded (or failed) in developing and sustaining their brands:

  • Chevrolet — Brand Essence: All American. In the GM stable of brands (a shrinking stable, I might add), only Chevy has done a consistently good job of building and maintaining their brand essence. I wish I could say the same of Chevy’s model sub-brands. Only the Chevy Corvette, a powerful brand unto itself, has really been successful in staying true to its essential brand attributes since it was launched in 1953. Probably the only other Chevy brand that continues to have life is the Silverado truck. The famous Chevy Impala was brought back in recent years, but it was just a shadow of its former self. Can you name one other Chevy car brand today? And that is after Chevy spent a few hundred million on launching the Chevy Malibu, a perfectly competent new sedan but totally devoid of any personality or distinguishing characteristic at all.
  • Cadillac - A quick commentary on GM’s constantly seesawing Cadillac brand: Historically known for power and American style, Cadillac deteriorated into an old-guy’s brand that exuded more of a bloated, end of empire vibe (not cool in a world of BMW M5′s). The Cadillac designers made a risky bet a few years ago in developing an edgy new look for the brand; In a previous post I described the grille of the new Cadillac sports sedan as looking like Sylvester Stallone’s “futuristic” uniform in Judge Dredd (I kid you not!). Actually, I give Cadillac credit for at least trying to inject some life back into their classic brand. I think the essence they are going for these days is Edgy Techno Prestige, but I am not really sold. Are you? As a brand, Cadillac is a little like John Travolta — an icon that is always looking for its big comeback.
  • Chrysler — Brand Essence: Who Know’s?! If you pushed me I probably would say Design Innovation. I am guessing that is what Chrysler would like to be known for today, but it is a stretch. When I was a kid, Chrysler was known for its cutting edge auto technology and affordable luxury. Even worse is the Dodge brand. Another iconic American car brand like Chevy, Dodge is today a brand in name only. It really has no identity anymore. Only Chrysler’s Jeep brand still has a clear brand essence (Off-Road Fun), but as I have mentioned previously on this blog, Jeep is in danger of killing its hard won brand essence with cheap, uninteresting products that don’t live up to the essential Jeepness that built the brand.
  • BMW — Brand Essence: Driving Pleasure/Excitement. Probably more than any other car brand, BMW has done a superb job of creating an almost unassailable brand essence/position, and sticking to it over the years. In addition to the company’s brilliant design, engineering and brand management, BMW has also benefited from great advertising, especially the early work from Ammirati and Puris, the agency which created the truly memorable and differentiating tagline: The Ultimate Driving Machine. Nothing has done more to differentiate BMW from its German competitor Mercedes than that line. Mercedes has not done an especially good job in recent years in nurturing and maintaining its brand essence (which traditionally was Advanced German Engineering). The brand’s recent troubles with quality and reliability have not helped. Mercedes’ “merger” with Chrysler seriously dented the German brand. The best thing they ever did was getting rid of it — notice I didn’t say sell it, as Mercedes actually paid Cerberus Capital (the big private equity firm) to take Chrysler off its back. That is how far Chrysler’s fortune’s have fallen in the past decade or so.
  • Nissan — Brand Essence: Not Sure. Nissan is a bit of a head scratcher. I think the essence is probably Affordably Fun. But, the company has really failed in recent years to come up with a clear brand essence that breaks through. The long running Nissan advertising under the tagline “Shift” has not helped in clarifying and communicating the brand’s essence. And, neither has Nissan’s mediocre and reliably unexciting product development in the past 10-15 years. Only recently is Nissan coming back to life, especially due to some interesting new cars with good quality and styling. The skyrocketing gas prices have also helped Nissan a lot, since the brand has a large selection of nice cars that get good gas mileage. The arrival of the famous and incredibly powerful Nissan GTR (known as the Skyline in Japan) will also bring some needed cache and brand character to Nissan. Of course, Nissan has also had to compete with Toyota (essence: Reliability and Quality) and Honda (essence: Value and increasingly Energy Efficient), two of the most successful and powerful auto brands in the world.
  • Land Rover — Brand Essence: British Tradition and Adventure. Another venerable brand that has had its ups and downs in recent years. The brand seems to be on an upswing recently because of some interesting new products. Land Rover has done a good job of keeping the Britishness (tradition, bespoke quality and elegance) in its brand, but that cuts both ways, unfortunately. Britain also has a reputation for building poorly made, woefully unreliable cars (think Jaguar in the old days, MG, etc.), and Land Rover carries on that tradition. Hurting the Land Rover brand has been the fact that their cars consistently rank near the bottom in quality control and reliability. The various Land Rovers/Range Rovers also get terrible gas mileage, which is doing further damage to the brand in the current era of $4.50 a gallon gasoline. All of that said, however, I just rode in a year old top of the line Ranger Rover, and it was a delight. You sit very high in the saddle with a commanding view of the road and other cars. It has a solidity and elegance that even a large Mercedes or BMW SUV cannot match.
  • Volvo — Brand Essence: Safety. In a list of automobile brand essence’s, I would be remiss if I did not include Volvo and Safety. Whenever we discuss brand essence with clients, we always use Volvo as the paragon of how a car brand can and has done such a superb job in sticking to its brand essence guns over the years. Volvo is not a particularly distinguished car, other than its reputation for safety, which is an incredibly compelling brand narrative for the company’s primary target: upper middle class families. Everything Volvo does, from its product development to technology and advertising, always comes back to safety. You may not even be able to remember the name of a Volvo model or if it gets decent gas mileage or even if it’s ranked high in reliability by JD Power & Co. You do remember that Volvo’s are known for being safe. That is brand essence at its most effective.

As you can see from the above automobile examples, building, nurturing and sticking to a strong brand essence pays huge dividends. It is not easy to do. It takes strategic foresight, and a lot of courage. But the results can be enormous.

Let me quickly comment on one more brand essence category: politics. In this presidential campaign season, a truly historic one on many different levels, the brand essence adopted and communicated by the two presidential candidates will have a lot to do with the eventual outcome.

  • John McCain — Brand Essence: Trusted Experience. This is a powerful essence for McCain, whose many years of generally distinguished service in the Senate, and long military career before that, are strong differentiators from Barack Obama’s very different resume and comparative youth. It goes without saying that McCain’s personal story of courage and steadfastness as a POW who was tortured over five years of confinement duirng the Vietnam war, also contributes mightily to his brand essence as a presidential candidate. These brand attributes will certainly help McCain at a time of great uncertainty (including the continued threat of terrorism and nuclear proliferation) in the world.
  • Barack Obama — Brand Essence: Progressive Change. This is also a compelling essence for Obama, who has done a masterful job so far in positioning his candidacy and vision for America around positive, progressive change. A brand narrative needs to meet the needs, hopes and aspirations of its intended audiences/buyers, and Obama’s certainly does that with the American electorate today. Liberals, moderates and conservatives alike are hungry for change. They may be looking for different kinds of “change,” but it’s still change they seek. That is why the political pundits have called this year’s presidential race a “change election.” Naturally, that benefits Obama, whose personal and political brand is founded on change. History is also helping Obama this year. In the US, very seldom does one party win three presidential elections in a row. After eight years of one political party occupying the White House, the American people have historically voted for a change in parties. That does not bode well for McCain, no matter how effective he is in communicating his Trusted Experience brand.

I hope I have offered you some insights into how a differentiated brand essence can be a truly winning asset for you, your company and your brand. If you can express your brand’s essential attributes in just a word or two, you will usually have a major leg up over the competition. And, in the competitive global market that we all face today, a consistent brand essence can be a very potent advantage.

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