Successful brand building – like life – is a game of inches (Part 1)

Fourth and Inches _P9S9278 by Mike O'C, Flickr

Fans of sports movies will recognise that the title of this post borrows from Al Pacino’s famous coach’s speech in the American football film, Any Given Sunday.

“You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football.  Because in either game – life or football – the margin for error is so small.  I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it.  One half second too slow, too fast, and you don’t quite catch it.  The inches we need are everywhere around us.  They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second”.

The same notions apply to successful brand building.  Marketers and their agencies like to talk big – big promises, big ideas, big campaigns, big data, big shifts, the next big thing.  But in many cases it’s in the details where brands succeed or fail, or – more commonly – simply stagnate.

(Arguably this applies to all aspects of marketing.  The difference between good, average and poor can often be small: getting a new product to market first by a few weeks, hitting a price point just below a competitor, or the phrasing of a call to action on an online banner).

In terms of how people relate to a brand, the gap between interest and indifference, or between trust and cynicism, can also often be narrow.

To illustrate these points, this post will briefly discuss the challenge of executing one of the most powerful options for creating brand interest.  A following post will then examine focusing on the truly critical moments of truth to establish and protect brand trust.

The trick of ‘owning’ a basic human need

Brands can be built in many ways.  One approach is to link a brand to a basic human need.

This means looking beyond product features or category benefits to one of the fundamental motivations that drive people.  There are various lists of these, but commonly they include independence, control, belonging, achievement, and so forth.

Identifying the right need to be associated with is not a straight forward exercise.  But there are techniques for interrogating a brand and its category, competitors and customers to accomplish this.  This said, there are just so many basic needs to select from.  So the strategic options available to any brand are finite.

Often more challenging is finding a distinctive way of communicating a need that sets a brand apart.  Not just from its competitors, but also from other brands that are tapping into the same need.

In short, the trick – to paraphrase UK brand strategy consultant John Grant – is to find a unique expression of a universal need.

This is the domain of creativity and lateral thinking.  Where such things as tone of voice, visual style, an unusual metaphor, or a turn of phrase, can be the difference between success and ‘me too’ mediocrity.

Consider how brands across various product categories claim in some way to reflect motherly love.  What will probably come to mind is a blur of cute kids, small hands in big hands, hugs and cuddles, stereotypical ‘Kodak moments’, and soft focus imagery.  Now think about how many brands immediately come to mind that you strongly identify with maternal caring.  Johnson & Johnson? Huggies?  The chances are it won’t be a long list.

‘Me-too’ brand expressions are everywhere.  From the multitude of food brands trying to inspire creativity in the kitchen to the plethora of youth brands championing carpe diem hedonism. They are the stock-in-trade of the ‘average’ brand.  The needs they convey resonate with people but they fail to engage the imagination.  As such their impacts are short-lived. They don’t make people look or think twice, and they don’t fundamentally add to the brands employing them.

In contrast, it is no coincidence that brands that strive for each extra ‘inch’ of distinctiveness are often market leaders.

The case of leading underwear brands: Breaking away from shades of grey sexuality

Take for instance the underwear and lingerie category.   Globally it is populated by dozens of brands.  Many position themselves on category benefits such as style or comfort and fit.  But a large number attempt to connect themselves to a broader need – sexual attractiveness; resulting in a sea of similar communications.   Yet amongst the alluring poses, inviting gazes and innuendo laden copywriting, a handful of brands have managed develop their own specific expressions of sexuality and separate themselves from the pack.

Consider Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, Wonderbra and Agent Provocateur.  All ‘sell sex’ in their own way, as shown by the following examples.

Calvin Klein underwear ad

Victoria's Secret angel

Wonderbra Hello Boys ad

Agent Provocateur 2011 Spring ad

There are big (or at least bigger) ideas behind the campaigns that these ads come from.  All these brands have courted controversy.  All have been provocative.  All have connected with popular culture.

But when seen side by side, what makes these expressions of sexuality different comes down to a few specific executional details.  Simplistically, these are:

Calvin Klein – a voyeuristic view and minimalist, black and white photography

Victoria’s Secret – angel wings

Wonderbra – a statement of confidence

Agent Provocateur – real life fantasy

Small things matter

Supported by commonly accepted 80:20 wisdom, it is natural for senior marketers to focus on the big things and let the details take care of themselves.

But when it comes to brand expression, there is ample evidence to suggest those that challenge themselves and their agencies to find the extra inches of difference will build stronger brands.

It is no coincidence that one of Disney’s core values is “Fanatical attention to consistency and detail”.

In a future post we will discuss understanding which details of what a brand does makes the most difference to its success.

Image Credits: Mike O’C, Calvin Klein Inc., L Brands, DB Apparel, Agent Provocateur Ltd

Our blog aims to provide thoughts and insights into brand strategy, brand management and brand building for navigating a changing world.

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