Is Your Brand Keeping the Right Company?
By Stephen Dupont, APR
Consider, if you will, two, seemingly unrelated trends in brand building — and what they might have in common.
First, personal brands. More and more professionals think about their careers in terms of branding, and take seriously the concept of building a brand around their own name and expertise.
Second, co-branding; in other words, connecting a brand with other brands to leverage of each brand’s core audience and elevate each brand by association, thus, driving sales. It’s a strategy that every brand manager needs to understand and be prepared to address should the opportunity present itself.
It’s not a stretch to say that if you aspire to be perceived as a person with a sophisticated sense of style, you will surround yourself with brands perceived by most people, especially those you’d like to impress, as sophisticated and stylish; for example, Chanel, Versace or Maserati.
Likewise, those individuals who seek a more altruistic vision for their lives, more than likely, will associate with brands such as TOMS, Ben & Jerry’s or the Nature Conservancy, which reinforce that outlook.
So it is with corporate brands.
Every day, big, well-known brands as well as small, little-known brands become associated with other brands.
In that process, corporate brands, like our personal brands, experience transformation as the brand user reacts to those relationships, much like my friends would react if I switched my allegiance from the Minnesota Vikings to the Green Bay Packers.
Many of these brand choices are intentional (co-branding has been recognized as an effective marketing strategy for some time) and others happen unintentionally or even organically, where brands become associated with one another through a common issue, cause or value.
Regardless of how these relationships form, the brand owner (CMO, marketing director, brand manager, communications director, etc.) counts on an association or a partnership with another brand (or a celebrity or cause) to elevate the brand and, as a result, generate more awareness, credibility and ultimately, more traffic, leads and sales (or votes or donations).
For example, it’s why a McDonald’s only serves Coca-Cola products in its restaurants. Or why professional athletes woo big sports brands to sponsor them (or vice versa).
On the other hand, some associations can have negative consequences. We’ve recently witnessed, for example, a number of companies disassociated themselves from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham following the Parkland school shooting in Florida.
Which brings us to the well-known adage: You are the company you keep (or in today’s world, you are the brands that you “Like”).
Brand Values Inform Brand Associations
When you’re absolutely clear about what your brand stands for, making the call about whom your brand should associate with is easy.
After all, that is the point of branding. When your branding is crystal clear, it makes it easier for a consumer to choose your brand.
Likewise, if it’s clear that it’s not a match – when the values of two or more brands are not in alignment — brands break up. An example of this is the recent decision by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) to end its 100-year relationship with Scouts BSA (the new name for Boy Scouts of America), which decided to welcome girls to participate in scouting along with boys, as well as gay scouts.
However, if you’re not clear about what your brand stands for, or if you put the goal of more sales ahead of your brand’s integrity, you risk winding up in some bad company.
If you have anything to do with defending and promoting a corporate brand, what should you consider in determining whether another brand (or celebrity or cause) benefits and strengthens the identity of your organization’s brand? Here are eight thoughts to consider:
1.) Visualize your brand — In building or refreshing a brand, consider visualizing the attributes of your brand to focus it better. If your brand is known for its reliability, what does that mean? Reliable, like a well-trained golden retriever? Like granite? Like the color royal blue? Take this further: If your brand were a car, what brand would it be? If it were a cereal, what brand? Or a material, such as oil, gas, concrete, or steel? Or a particular type of design – modern or craftsman? This exercise can help the brand owner understand how to appeal to both the senses and emotions of the brand user, and it can help you connect with other brands that have similar attributes.
2.) Ask your customers – Recently, for a branding project that our firm conducted for an outdoor apparel manufacturer, we asked more than 50 customers about other brands they use based on a dozen categories (trucks, clothes, sports optics, etc.), while using our client’s product. The results provided us the insight to see the affiliations between our client’s brand with other brands. This insight will enable us to create more authentic, relevant marketing communications (for example, what brand of pick-up truck to include in a brand video) based on what our client’s customers actually drive.
3.) Look at your brand’s values – In deciding to affiliate with another brand or to seek a celebrity endorsement, carefully look at your brand’s values to determine whether your brand aligns with the values of the other brand or celebrity. There will clearly be some brands with which you should not align your brand, and there will be some that are clear examples where both brands win through a closer relationship. But there are many brands that are in the middle, where it’s not so clear. Those are the brands for which you need to do your extra due diligence to determine if a closer partnership will elevate your organization’s brand as well as the other brand.
4.) Build a brand constellation – In reviewing current relationships with other brands and looking ahead to new relationships, build a diagram that can help you visually see the brands or logos that are currently associated with your brand. Likewise, identify brands that you want your corporate brand to have nothing to do with or which you have already rejected. Having this tool at your fingertips will help your organization see if there is room for other like-minded brands within your constellation and/or if you should prune some brand relationships.
5.) Curate your brand identity – As you go through the process of determining your brand constellation, it will soon become clear that your brand interacts with dozens and dozens of other brands. Of these, which brands (as well as influencers, cultural causes, etc.) do you want your brand to be identified with? Some brands, for example, choose to associate themselves with specific sports teams. Or, a city; can you imagine Hershey, the famous chocolate maker, not being associated with Hershey, Pennsylvania? Others formalize these relationships through long-term partnerships. The key to curating the brands with which to associate with your brand is: “Does a relationship elevate your brand? Does it move your brand’s story forward?” Look beyond the marketing potential (such as how many customer emails or Facebook fans another brand has) to this question: “Will a relationship with another brand make my brand more authentic and deepen the relationship my brand has with its customers?”
6.) Take a stand – At some point, your brand may be forced, through public pressure, to take a stand on a specific issue, such as gun control, gay marriage, birth control, equal pay, workplace harassment, or even its support for a political candidate (through campaign donations). With your mission and values guiding you, be proactive and determine where your brand stands on these issues. These decisions can help you determine, for example, whether you want your brand’s products sold by a retailer who has made public statements opposing same-sex marriage. It’s better to understand your risks upfront than one day being the target of a boycott or a social media smear campaign.
7.) Dump toxic brands – If you have a friend, co-worker or family member who is bad news, you can either put up with him or her, avoid the person, or eventually sever ties with him or her. Likewise, if another brand with which you’ve associated with (such as in a loyalty or rewards program) is not elevating or enhancing your brand, move on. The earlier you do this, the better, especially if that brand becomes the subject of toxic news.
8.) Design a better brand experience — Ultimately, the purpose of selecting other brands to associate with your s brand is to create a better brand experience for employees, customers, vendors and investors. At some point, your organization needs to ask itself not, “Is our company better for this relationship with Brand X?” but, “Are consumers of our brand having a more positive brand experience because of this relationship?” Or, “Does this relationship add more value to the brand experience?” If that added value is not initially evident, then you need to measure it, and/or ask your customers directly. For example, there’s a little local ski resort at which I like to ski. If they were to ask me my opinion about their relationship with a much larger ski resort in the western U.S., my response would be, “Of what value is that relationship if: 1.) I wouldn’t go to that ski resort out West, and 2.) I can find much better deals at other ski resorts that are equally as good?”
The bottom line: All brands, like people, identify with other brands. You can allow this process to happen unintentionally, or you can choose the company you keep and leverage those relationships to strengthen your organization’s brand. As with our personal lives, I believe it’s up to the brand owner to carefully curate these relationships to deliver exceedingly higher levels of the brand experience for their customers.
Did you find this article helpful? Check out other articles about branding by Stephen Dupont at his blog, stephendupont.co.
Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a creative brand powerhouse based in Minneapolis. He is a frequent contributor to PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics and Forbes.com. Contact Stephen Dupont at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at www.stephendupont.co.
© Stephen Dupont, 2018