In the Mind of Your Customer

For a business to be viable, it has to do something as well as its competitors; to win in a competitive market, it has to do something better than its competitors.

Recent research by global marketing firm, Young & Rubicam highlights the fact that 80% of new businesses and brands fail. Lack of differentiation is cited as the major reason for business failure.

In order to ensure that your product is preferred over those of your competitors, you must consider the complete brand experience and how that experience will contribute to consumer perception. Your brand isn’t what you think it is – it’s what your customer think it is. Your brand isn’t your logo, web site design or tag line – it’s a research informed strategic premise that is designed to deliver competitive advantage and grow market share.

As a bit of a brand refresher and value add to customers, ThinkTank decided to take a peek into what really goes on inside the mind of your customer.

The product is not the brand

Brands are arguably the key assets that a company possesses and they should therefore be a top-priority for senior management and not seen as something left solely to the marketing department. They represent the embodiment of a company's differentiation and positioning and are in many ways the public face of your company’s business strategy. Brands are not only for big companies. In fact start-ups and SMEs can use the power of branding to catapult themselves into the market place and B2B businesses can use branding to stand out in industries that are ravaged by sameness. For this reason it’s important at the early stages to invest in understanding what’s going on in your market as well as in the mind of your customer.

Often clients get stuck on the idea that their product, service or technology is their brand. They go through a linear process of developing all the individual components. Product. Tick. Features. Tick. Logo design. Tick. Web site. Tick. Brochure. Tick. In most cases marketing is conducted from the view of the company and not the view of the customer. Bad mistake. Compiling all the elements doesn’t mean you have a brand or that you are creating any kind of meaning with your target audience. You don’t have to create meaning with everyone but you do have to mean enough to enough people – so that you generate a critical mass of the right customers.

In their ground breaking book ‘The Battle for your Mind’ Al Ries and Jack Trout define a brand as “A singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of the prospect." In more recent times strategists have defined it as an experience that lives at the intersection of promise and expectation. In a nutshell here’s how it works. A business communicates its brand as a promise through various messages and touch points. The brand promise lives inside the hearts and minds of consumers as an expectation. When brand promise and consumers’ expectations reflect one another, the brand holds tremendous value for both parties. It is through this co-creation (consumer and brand) that true brand value is created.

Cutting through the clutter

If you think about it, the average Irish consumer is bombarded by 1000s of marketing messages every day. From the time we wake up to the time our head hits the pillow we've been exposed to an avalanche of advertising.

People's ability to sit up and take notice has become impaired. Most advertising messages contain way to many elements all competing with one another for our own understanding. In fact today's competition doesn't come from our competitors - it comes from the extreme clutter in the market place. With an explosion of choice people have so many options that it's becoming exponentially difficult to figure them all out.

Effective businesses use brand as a differentiation tool that allows their messaging to cut through the noise of an overcrowded marketplace. Strong brands express their brand’s position through carefully crafted Brand Cues that simplify and clarify what the brands stands for while at the same time conveying meaning. These cues reinforce the position that the brand has taken, persuading consumers to consider, prefer, and ultimately buy their offering.

On a hot day, if you walk into a shop to buy a cool drink your brain is simultaneously and subconsciously translating and evaluating a multitude of Brand Cues: brand name, product shape and size, logo and label design, colours and possibly even nutritional value.  You recognize your favourite drink and open the refrigerator door to reach for the can that can quench your thirst. So using this example brands create a short cut for identification, evaluation and differentiation between different alternatives. Branding also reduces anxiety for customers making decisions and reduces the real cost of ineffective marketing or selling.

Choice and Meaning

Human beings are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. People need the symbolic power of brands in their lives because it turns their connection with products into something with cultural meaning.

People don't buy what you do but why you do it. Some of the strongest brands understand this truth and work from the inside out. They focus first on the Why (purpose, core beliefs, values) then the How (Business Model, Unique Selling Proposition) and finally the What (Products, Features, Benefits) Marketers that get it wrong invariably work back to front, starting with the What and then getting that ‘deer in the headlights look’ by the time they get to the Why. The goal is ultimately not to sell what you have but to sell to people who believe what you believe.

To a large degree the non-rational or emotional parts of our brains drive consumer behaviour. Our limbic system controls all human behaviour but has no capacity for language. That’s why we often talk about our ‘gut feel’ or ‘something doesn’t feel right’ – we can’t use language to translate what we feel – but we still know that we know that we know. Purchase and behavioural change in organizations and is driven by how people feel and not by the presentation of complex facts, figures and features. Brand is often used as a catalyst to drive this change both inside and outside the organization.

Unlike many retailers Ikea has developed an emotional connection with its customers. It’s brand positioning is built around the simple idea of creating a better everyday life for ordinary people. The offering is elevated above the mundane and functional while being competitive on price and selection. The shopping experience is highly customer-centric and personal. Most large retail environments are confusing, noisy and impersonal – yet Ikea has managed to personalise the experience even though their products are mass-produced. The ability to deliver a wide range of well designed functional products through a branded experience has paid off. Ikea’s now has 301 stores in 36 countries worldwide with a turnover of €21.5 billion in 2009

Future Direction

At the end of the day customer perception is more important than product superiority. It’s not so much about being different but being different for the right reasons. If you base your brand positioning on what you believe in everything else will flow.

When brand meaning and relevance are clear, the brand will hold a stronger position in the consumer’s minds and they’ll be more likely to choose it. Once you understand what your brand is all about, it gives the business purpose and clarity of direction. You know what products you’re supposed to make and not make. You know how you’re supposed to answer the telephone, how you’re going to package things and how your people need to deliver on your promise. Get this right and your brand will become a powerful business resource and the central organizing principle around which your whole company is based.