How do customers respond to your Brand?

I have always held a strong belief that Brands behave just like human beings do! As such an interaction of a customer with a brand follows exactly a similar pattern of interaction of one person to another unrelated person.

Let’s say a person X hopes to have a relationship with person Y. Every person does this from his own social behavior status, which could be broadly divided into 3 levels: (a) Acceptance (b) Association (c) Adoption

3 Response Levels (image copyright - one%inspiration)

Preliminary contact / hand-shake happen when each interacting person Accepts the other person’s invitation. This happens quite frequently, regardless of space, time or context. None of the participants have long-term intentions of carrying on; hence the relationship is superficial, and open.

When these persons meet again, there’s an existing element of recognition or identification between them, which breeds conversations, interactions and occasional dependencies. This stage is known as Association. There’s overt / covert liking of each other’s qualities, but linkages are not strong. There’s also a general agreement to meet / interact again, and often this behavior stays for a long time.

At the 3rd level the association solidifies into a firm relationship, which slowly gets deep-rooted. The belief and motivations of one person gets internalized in multiple ways into that of the other person, leading either of the persons to adopt the other’s belief, principles and attitudes. Strong and sustainable bonding is the outcome of such adoption processes.

Likewise, a customer’s response to a brand also follows a similar pattern:

Acceptance happens when a brand pulls a customer through instant promotions; e.g. “Buy One. Get One Free”; “50% Discount before 30th July”; “More you buy, more points you win.” etc. Garnier may launch a sachet pack of its shampoo variants, to woo customers into using the brand. Many consumer electronics brands also use the method to clear their inventories, by giving “Bundled offers” during festive seasons. Although behaviors vary from brand to brand, customers have a general tendency to claim these deals, with little or no regard to the Brand or its values. Additionally, customers tend to shift the moment another brand offers a better deal.

On a longer term this method follows the law of diminishing returns, and hence should not be used too often, unless the Brand itself symbolizes “Discounts” or “Value”. Many retail stores, have followed this method to great success – by making sure that returns are higher than the inventory cost.

Association happens when a brand pulls customers by appealing to their needs – whether emotional or social or rational. As a result customers start identifying themselves with the brands, and hence differentiation occurs between competing brands. When Garnier promotes Fructis shampoo, it’s appealing a customer’s rational need to have stronger hair. It’s not necessary that the customer, even after using the shampoo, will keep on using it forever. Needs might change, or another brand may offer the same need packaged with another one. The linkages here are not strong; therefore constant interactions and experiences are needed to sustain association and convert into long-term Adoption.

ADOPTION happens when the customer looks forward to the same brand to meet multiple needs. Let’s say that the Garnier Fructis shampoo customer had a few experiences with the brand, and has decided to use other variants of Garnier shampoo that meets her other hair care needs – e.g. shiny hair, damaged hair, etc. PLUS starts looking for Garnier for other grooming needs – e.g. skin care, hair color, eye care, etc. A combination of meeting needs in all the above cases, would makes her believe Garnier’s message of “Take Care”.

Adoption is a permanent and deep-rooted experience between a customer and a brand, especially since a customer’s belief about the brand strongly links with their own belief-system – emotionally, socially and rationally. If Innovation is what a customer looks for, repeated associations and interactions with Apple will definitely believe that the brand stands for emotion.

For a brand to be strong, a combination of all the 3 level processes is perhaps needed in some proportions.  Even though the first 2 levels are temporary, there are many ways to develop permanency through these stages. For example, while using Garnier for hair care, a customer discovers that the brand stands for “No Animal Testing”. This realization may motivate the customer to continue with not only the shampoo brand, but also with other Garnier products.

Therefore for a Branding effort to succeed, strategic efforts are needed to develop the relationship at each level, esp. since, like a relationship between 2 individuals, Branding also is a social process, where change is the element that keeps the relationship fresh.

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How the Luxury concept developed

Super Luxury and sporty Bentley Coupe in Dublin @ The Four Seasons Hotel - Wonderful handmade car! Jan 2010

A recent article in the Indian Business magazine Businessworld, started me thinking on the concept of “Luxury” – the perception and reality of it.

“Luxury” as a concept has been prevailing in societies since the beginning of the civilization itself. Ancient societies including that of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India, had clear-cut definitions of social classes, which barred one class from accessing the privileges of the other class.

For example, for Egyptian pharaohs, the very concept of luxury meant high pomp and splendor while living and then carrying it over to afterlife. As a result highly sophisticated and costly techniques were developed to preserve their bodies, which perceptually “guaranteed” the survival of the soul. Mummification, Pyramids, Tombs etc. resulted. The tombs were designed to safeguard their royal status and their journeys in afterlife. Needless to add, none of their followers, including their close confidantes could even dream of such luxury.

When subsequent classical societies were founded upon the debris of conflicts and wars, the military might of the victorious groups fuelled a certain kind of sophistication and opulence that generated heated debates and ideological wars. These debates helped further define the “exclusivity” of “luxury” – by arguing on decisions regarding wealth distribution and on the notions of “practical utility” and “waste”. Imperial societies of Rome, French, Japan and England are best examples.

During the early 19th century the above concept of Luxury started getting liberalized – as in “Luxury as a means of economic growth” or “Luxury as a legitimate means of gaining living standards”. The 20th century saw the disappearance of “social stratification”, from which “Luxury” concept took its birth. Further, increasing spending power, industrialization and globalization, resulted in making Luxury a “choice”, for those who have can now “afford” it. One of the most important aspects of Luxury products – the “culture” built around its place of birth – hence, is slowly disappearing.

This last piece of development has actually diluted the concept of Luxury – equating it with an offer in which is available in any product or service category at a premium price. As a result of rising income and affordability levels in societies of BRIC countries and Africa, many of the brands and product categories which were previously perceived as “Luxury” have all of a sudden become available to a large mass of customers. The primary perceived value gained by these customers is “prestige”. Armani, BMW, Mont Blanc, Dior, Burberry labels, Hermes, Chanel, etc. perhaps are good examples of this. These brands are “premium, but attainable”, and have been described as “Luxury for the masses” or masstige, by Michael J. Silverstein

Therefore, even though Luxury has the general perception of Exclusivity, the current trend towards luxury goods and retailing in India could be primarily labeled at best as “Masstige Retailing”.

Further Reads:

3 Essentials of Effective Co-Branding

One of the most visible tool of marketing we see today – esp. on an offline level – is Co-Branding. Whether it is for penetrating the market, extending the brand or for gaining a global foothold, we see that more and more brands are employing co-branding in their marketing activities.

There are four forms forms of Co-branding that co-exist within the marketer’s arsenal today – Ingredient, Same-company, Joint venture and Multiple sponsor Co-branding – and all of these are powerful to introduce the products / services of one company to the core loyal customers of another. In simple terms, one brand’s aura level is utilized by another brand to promote itself.

No matter whichever brand you’re working with or the categories you are involved in, there are always pretty many options and ways of devising co-branded activities.

The most important requirement of co-branding is “connection” within the brand pairs. For example, if you’re co-branding with a Bank, you need to see whether the elements of the bank’s brand personality, values, promise, benefit, etc., MATCH with that of the brand you wish to do co-branding with. Without a common platform of connection – and that should be very strong and understood easily and recognized well by the customers stakeholders.

Second most important requirement is “target”. For each co-branding activity, the target audience need to be defined very carefully – not just the demographics, but more importantly the psychographics. If for example, a retail outlet’s overall focus is upon mid-aged customers who wish to look good, feel confident and have decent spending power, it would be a nice idea to look for a co-brand which focuses upon the “young-at-heart” liberated audience. Some of the best examples of target based co-branding are found within mobile phones categories.

Third most important requirement is “Benefit realization”. You need to consider and ensure that the target customer for both the pairing brands have some common platform of interest. This platform need NOT be something which is blatant and utility oriented, e.g. An Oil company co-branding with the most popular bank in the city / country. This platform should rather essentially be looking at meeting some common need areas that promote long lasting relationship between the pairing brands. E.g. a bank taking the initiative with a local cab company, to help the senior and retired citizens travel within the city, go shopping and get banking services, comfortably.

Remember, to some extent, co-branding is risky too! Slightest negative swing in any of the partners, might affect both the partners adversely. Hence if you ensure that at least the above 3 factors are well attended while choosing a co-brand, I feel you’d definitely have a successful co-branding campaign.

More on co-branding:

  1. Wei-Lun Chang, “Roadmap of Co-branding Positions and Strategies,” Journal of American Academy of Business, Cambridge, Vol. 15, Sept 2009.
  2. The Pros and Cons of Co-Branding
  3. The ins and Out of Co-branding (Strategies)

Basic approach to position a Hotel Brand

  • How would your marketing strategy differ for launching and promoting a luxury city centre business hotel as a brand vis-a-vis a Destination spa? (LinkedIn question by: L. Aruna Dhir)

There are many angles to be looked into before we can really give a proper answer. However, in brief, the answer lies in the basic positioning and differentiation approach that would define the core strategy. The approach should be as follows:

  1. Where’s the property located? Is it within easy city limits or a bit on the secluded outskirts of the city? If it’s within city limits, “City Centre” business Hotel branding sounds good, while for a far-off location the “Destination Spa” would sound good. Premium destination Spa perhaps would have more appeal with an accommodation added in, if it’s located out of city – since possibility of promoting as “Spa and Resort” would have long term attraction.
  2. What’s the core benefit / value of your product for customers? Is it more towards the hassle-free stay / conference / meetings / banquets? Then positioning within the “City Centre Hotel” market would make good sense. Otherwise, if your core benefit / value on offer is “Leisure and Relaxation”, then it would make more sense in positioning it within the Leisure resort / Spa domain.
  3. What are the possibility of “packaging” the product and increasing its value? Once the above 2 fundamentals are decided, you’ll get a very clear cut core positioning of your product, which will define the next stage – strategy to promote in each case. However, it’s also important to note that it’s not the end of the other option , whichever position you choose. For example:
  • Once you have promoted / established your hotel as a Business Center, you can extend / branch out to the other offering as a part of the 24 hour package; e.g. Conference /Business, Dining, Pub, Spa, Relax… each at different time of the day. It also allows you to promote the Spa separately, and then adding up this sub-brand as a “total hospitality experience”
  • In case of promoting it as a Leisure Resort cum Destination Spa, you can take a similar approach too! Therein, to promote Conference /Banquet / Business products, you can just add: “Our weekend get-away package can also include your business seminars / conferences”

Therefore to answer the question in one sentence:

  • Marketing strategy in each of the cases quoted above differs in the basic orientation and approach one wishes to take in defining the core benefits and values of the brand, vis-a-vis competition (as pointed above).

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What Montblanc could do for “Gandhi”

Recently, Montblanc stirred a controversy in India, while launching the $25,000 worth limited-edition commemorative fountain pen in honor of Gandhi to mark the 140th anniversary of the birth of the Mahatma.

The decision to turn a man – who shunned foreign-made products and pushed simple living to new extremes – virtually into a “brand ambassador”, left some Indians puzzled and others angry. One group filed a lawsuit in India to try and halt distribution of the pen.

What went wrong? The BrandChannel labeled this move as “long on imagination but short on basics”. Montblanc intended to symbolize each element of the design as Gandhi’s life and achievements: e.g. The top of the cap and cone are inspired by the spindle which Gandhi used to spin cotton – one of the symbols of Indian independence.

Personally I feel that by doing this, Montblanc has overlooked 2 vital issues:

  1. Brand creation is not only about symbols related to a good idea – Just by gilding some of the symbols from the freedom movement, as well as imprinting Gandhi on the nib, doesn’t create a “Gandhi” brand! Even though the spindle, white and orange color, etc. do associate with Gandhi, doesn’t exclusively belong to the person or the personality of Gandhi fully. Rather these elements represent the freedom movement he inspired and led. Perhaps if there was a decision to commemorate Indian Freedom movement, these symbols would have been closer associations.
  2. Brand personality cannot be created without some basic values representing the brand – Even though the limited and mass editions were designed with some symbolic associations, they failed to capture the essence of Gandhian values, namely Simplicity, Satyagraha (resistance through mass civil disobedience), Swadeshi (self-sufficiency), Ahimsa (Non-Violence) and Swaraj (self-rule). What’s a brand without any values associated with it? Consider these: By replacing cotton thread with gold,saffron color with a saffron mandarin garnet and the white color with white gold, Montblanc has unknowingly demonstrated that they did not even understand Gandhi’s primary values of simplicity and opulence.

What could have Montblanc done to address its primary objective of raising its brand profile in a 1 billion populated country? There are plenty if ways it could have recreated Gandhi’s values. Some of the ideas could be:

  • Creating a simple pen design closer to Gandhi’s own pen design – by using mass affordable materials – e.g. Bamboo (??), Brass, Wood, Lacquer, etc.
  • Innovative ways of using the thread – not gold, but cotton – strengthened and restored by additional materials
  • Using Bamboo nibs perhaps?
  • Using a hand-woven cotton case for housing / packing the pen
  • Handcrafted pens for and from the masses – e.g. a design developed for mass production by the very people who love Gandhi in the land of Gandhi. (This would incidentally have given Montblanc a lot of exposure and increased its reputation in India)
  • Creating a limited edition out of the various prototypes that would have been developed to mass produce pens as described above

Yes, one final issue however lies in doing so – i.e. probable dilution of “premium-luxury” brand value. Well… this could be restored if Montblanc followed the above strategy for a year or two in some ways, and then released a design closer to the current one, but much toned-down in material and opulence, and with increased dose of donations (from the sale) to charity organizations and Non-Violence movements worldwide.

Do sensory brand experiences create brand loyalty?

Brand loyalty is a complex multidimensional subject. A consumer is said to be Loyal when he has established an Emotional Connection with the brand – after passing through the stages of Awareness, Consideration, Preference, Purchase and Usage / Experiences. Several psychological processes and elements are involved within these stages, and Loyalty is established when a consumer decides to repurchase a brand due to its perceived value, trustworthiness, satisfaction and commitment.

The Sensory Branding theory (2003-04) proposed by Martin Lindstorm gave a lot of importance to “stimulation of relationship” with the brand. According to him, our entire understanding of the world is through our senses, and as such sensory experiences dominate our rational thinking, opens up a different level of creating an emotional relationship with the brand and creates a loyal bonding at a very early stage of a brand-adoption-loyalty process.

Lot of brands adopt sensory branding approach – using the 5 senses and their synergies – to create sensory touchpoints for the customers. However I feel that the approach itself could be seen as a subset of broader “Experiential Marketing” popularised by Prof. Bernd Schmitt in 1999. Further, a brand which is high on experiential levels but failing on value levels may still fail to garner loyalty.

With this perspective, I’d say that ONLY sensory brand experiences are not enough to create brand loyalty – even though these could perhaps stimulate the seeds of relationship with the brand.

Sensory experiences alone, do not create brand loyalty – but ease off / open up doors to connect with the brand easily.

Links: (1) Brand Loyalty: The psychology of preference (2) Experiential Marketing with Prof. Schmitt Bernd

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