Want to build a more powerful brand? Think small.

October 17, 2016

Every day millions of dollars are spent by millions of companies to promote or support their brand. Meanwhile, individual customers’ decisions to buy or not buy (or recommend or not recommend) a particular brand are often based on nothing more than a “gut feeling” and a few limited facts. Even for big purchase decisions in which lots of facts have been gathered by multiple stakeholders over many months, the final decision is usually made by a single individual, in a brief moment, acting on far less logic and more emotion than he or she would be willing to admit.

It is amazing to think how much money and effort goes into trying to influence the outcome of such a small, ephemeral and sometimes downright fickle moment of decision!

So what makes a brand powerful enough to tip those decisions in a positive direction more often than not? Is it the size of the budget and effort poured into promoting and supporting the brand? No, size doesn't guarantee effectiveness, which is all about what happens in that small moment of truth in the mind of the individual prospect or customer.

Those of us in the business of designing brand touchpoints - whether through marketing, sales, service or product design – often get so caught up in our efforts to build a powerful brand that we forget what a brand really is. It is not a logo, color palette, style guide, personality or tone of voice. It’s not a collective global reputation. It’s not a promise or a value proposition. All of those things are a part of creating and nurturing a brand but they are not the brand itself.

Customer Spark

A brand is actually a very tiny thing. It's a spark that flashes in a moment of time in the mind of the prospect. And, frustratingly, whether that spark creates a flame of desire during a purchase decision or merely smolders and dies out is not something we can control very well.

Even the biggest, most powerful brands are no more than tiny sparks that become flames at certain moments and then disappear from the customers consciousness for the rest of the day. We call them “big” and “powerful” because those sparks are happening more frequently in more people and the average flame is not easily extinguished by the competition or circumstances. But they are usually only a tiny part of the totality of any individual customer’s daily thoughts and feelings.

For most companies, even with good “brand awareness” (a reliable spark), the brand flame is not only small but often quite delicate. The slightest puff of wind (new competition, changing circumstances, a poor service experience, etc.) can snuff out that flame in an instant.

It can be disconcerting to think about how small and fragile our brands are in the minds of our customers. We spend a lot of time and money trying to adjust the sparking mechanism and fan the flames but there are so many variables that are so hard to predict that it’s easy to get overwhelmed when thinking qualitatively about these individual moments of decision.

So, instead, we often launch our marketing campaign or put our new product out there and then run and hide in our quantitative data. We stare at our big data dashboards, wringing our hands and waiting hopefully for the new (and better!) purchasing or recommendation stats to emerge. But even when everything is trending upwards, there is that nagging question in the back of our minds: Why? Yes, there are more sparks which correlate with the new campaign or the new product launch but what is really fueling those flames of desire?

Our quantitative bias is understandable. We are all drawn to the apparent safety in numbers and away from the uncertainty of human cognition and emotion. The answer to “why?” often seems either too difficult to discover or, once discovered, too complex to translate into an actionable strategy. Interpreting qualitative data requires judgement, which implies risk. There is not only the risk that you could get it grossly wrong but also the uneasy knowledge that you will never get it exactly right for any specific customer.

However, if you want to build a more powerful “brand engine” – one that continuously multiplies your efforts to acquire new customers and inspires greater loyalty in existing customers – there is no avoiding the question of “why?”. After all, that spark has to connect with something flammable, right?

The most typical response to the question “why?” is to guess. In fact, lacking sufficient qualitative data we feel compelled to guess because our brains are literally wired to always be trying to explain other people’s behavior by telling ourselves stories. Making up stories about why things happen is how we humans deal with uncertainty and try to predict the future.

But there are two big dangers with this guessing game that we play.

First, we tend to fill in the blanks in our understanding with our own imagined responses. “If I were faced with that decision here is what I would think and feel and do.” That may or may not be anywhere close to what your customers are thinking and feeling. More likely not, simply because you know too much inside information and cannot mentally recreate the customer’s context – the circumstances, goals, motivations, expectations, hopes, and fears – that provide the backdrop to their purchase decisions.

To make matters worse, your insider’s view is probably further biased in the direction of your specialty. Your guess about the customer’s story will likely be colored by whether you spend your day thinking about marketing, engineering, support, or some other part of the value chain.

This functional specialization also contributes to the second big problem with guessing: it is typically done privately – and differently – by each individual stakeholder. Since each individual’s guess is a personal interpretation, often just a gut feeling that they have never tried to articulate (even to themselves), most people are reluctant to share too much with the team. Even when some of the bolder team members put their version of the “why story” out on the conference room table, it will usually be met with resistance because it doesn’t align with someone else’s private interpretation.

Shared or not, these guesses will affect the brand touchpoints and therefore the customer experience. A marketer may shape the brand messages to resonate with their own customer story guesses while a designer is targeting a very different customer story. Then later, the designer feels betrayed by the implementation decisions of multiple engineers who are all laboring under completely different customer story assumptions.

But let’s be real: sometimes guessing is all you can afford to do. Conducting thorough qualitative research, such as ethnographic studies or deep-dive customer interviews, can be very expensive and time consuming. And even if you do that work, interpreting the results of such studies and arriving at a consensus is still a major challenge. Not to mention by the time you think you have the “why stories” nailed down, something changes – the competitive landscape, the economic influences, or maybe just customer moods.

So, is it hopeless? Far from it! There are ways to cost-effectively gather useful qualitative data, making those guesses more educated. Also, there are ways of making those educated guesses more brand-coherent, more effectively shared across functional disciplines, and more adaptable to change.

These are some of the things I hope to talk about in future posts. Meanwhile, remember your brand’s power all comes down to that small moment of truth when the value of your product or service is weighed in the mind of the prospect against their current goals and the context of their story. Creating the spark of awareness at least ensures that the moment will happen. But building true brand power requires that you get inside your customers’ experiences and truly understand why some sparks ignite into a long-lasting flame and some just seem to fizzle.

Michael Dennis Moore
Michael is the principal marketing and innovation consultant at Likewhyze and the creator of the Value Story Mapping process.