Successful firms recognize new reality of ‘brand universes’

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Recently, I was invited to join a speaking panel at a marketing summit in Singapore to deliver on the theme: “Branding: How to Make Your Brand ‘a Verb’”. As an avid student of brand building, I leapt at the opportunity to take a stab at what seemed to be the Holy Grail of what all brands should aspire to.

In the early days of my career, I was fortunate enough to land work as a brand analyst, whose job was to do research around brand valuations and uncover gaps and opportunities for clients. Using my brand audits as a starting point, our team of consultants would guide these clients in developing their brand and arriving at a roadmap of activities either to reverse declining perception levels or to raise the value of their brand.

It was in that era when the gold standard in brand building was to turn brands into “verbs”, or shorthand references of their respective category. I still remember the times when we would take new clients through “best practice” slides, which evoked brands like Coke for colas, Brand’s for essence of chicken, and Maggi for instant noodles among other localized examples of how great brands were able to turn themselves into dominant category leaders.

Having personally led several brand transformation engagements, region-wide campaigns and launches for both the private and public sectors for well over a decade now, I’ve learned that for brands to be truly meaningful to the advocates and businesses they serve, they must go beyond becoming verbs and push beyond their USPs (unique selling propositions) to create brand universes.

From USPs to brand universe

BrandZ, a survey by research firm Kantar Millward Brown, shows that strong brands deliver superior returns over time, and regardless of market disruptions. This year’s analysis of the BrandZ portfolio saw these brands increase in valuation by 124.9% between April 2006 and April 2017, outperforming both the S&P 500, which grew 82.1%, and the MSCI World Index, which grew 34.9%.

A key driver of brand value was how these brands were able to meet the consumer’s functional and emotional needs in relevant ways that create affinity – “Consumers are unlikely to consider a brand unless it is perceived as meaningful” – and it would be hardly meaningful if a brand’s promise was estranged from how the promise was delivered through the universe of its product or organization.

Coca-Cola’s brand universe, which evoked “Open Happiness”, was a meaningful narrative for the times. The brand conveys that now more than ever, we need to come together as one world community instead of erecting barriers between each other as disparate societies do.

Building on its particular resonance with women, beauty brand Dove has reframed the elementary idea of “the rite of passage from childhood into adult initiation” into a compelling movement for the modern age. By making beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety, Dove has reframed this elementary idea into a global movement that co-opts partners, organizations, parents and institutions into its brand universe, beyond having a USP of “the soap with one-quarter moisturizing cream”.

Just as many mythologies of the past fail to hold sway in many modern societies because they do not reflect the science of the day, brands also need to evolve in step with the business models of their organizations. Today’s strongest enterprises have evolved from makers of products to become designers of platforms and creators of ecosystems. The business models of Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook – the world’s most valuable brands in 2017 – reflect this new reality.

Unfortunately, proponents of brands as verbs have not kept up. Brands today that still perpetuate ideas such as the “unique selling proposition” as the be-all of brand building – another Mad Men rubric from the 1960s – are akin to embracing the cosmography of a “flat Earth”.

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