A quick note about brand
For the sake of this blog, let’s start with a quick description of the term brand and how it will be interpreted – even before we get to brand communications and audience engagement. One of the easiest ways to go about it is to say what a brand is not. A brand is not your visual identity – it does not reside within your logo and end there.
A brand is the set of perceptions that your audience forms about your brand. They form these perceptions as they experience your brand – mainly a result of the brand’s behaviour but also thanks to the stories your brand tells in the form of brand and promotional communication, pricing, product offering, packaging, and all the other touchpoints your brand uses to come in contact with the world outside.
Of course, your logo and visual identity are essential. They are the quickest way of jolting an individual’s memory and call up all the perceptions that person has about your brand. They will recollect what they think your brand stands for, its reason for existence, its values or principles, and a clear understanding of its personality.
With a strong brand, one look at your logo and the person viewing it will recall a very defined set of recollections. Strong brands are consistent in their behaviour, have the ability to focus on what they represent and differentiate themselves clearly from the competition. They are charismatic to the point where they are believed to be unmatched in their category and their personality is unfalteringly clear and defined. They can change significant portions of their identity to suit the times they’re in without denting their brand value.
Apple is a strong band where consumer electronics are concerned. Asus makes an even broader set of devices than Apple does and competes in the same markets. The Asus brand is worth a respectable $1.7 billion. Apple is worth 154x that at $263 billion. Yet Apple’s products are not 154x as good as those made by Asus. And if Asus had Apple’s logo, I bet the figures would be exactly the same.
If we acknowledge the monetary value of brand equity, an even more solid argument in favour of a brand’s behaviour and personality is a comparison with Samsung, the electronics giant that produces a staggering spread of consumer devices.
Samsung, while undoubtedly manufacturing excellent products, has a deeply boring persona that’s punctuated by one or two very glitzy campaigns every year. Love it or hate it, you have a clear idea of what Apple stands for. Do you know as much about the story of Samsung and would you even care?
Brand behaviour vs Brand Communications
As humans, we decide who to trust based on people’s behaviour and not their words. When is the last time you believed a stranger who said, “Trust me.”?
When brands speak and when audiences listen are very often disconnected. Just as we gain significantly more information during a conversation from non-verbal cues than we do from the words actually spoken, our own personal relationships with the brands we know and love are built on our experience of the brand and not their overt communication.
It follows that brand behaviour is significantly more important than brand communications. A brand’s audience is, by definition, getting more savvy and better connected every day. One person’s experience with your brand can travel far and wide. And that experience is a well-informed one to begin with, with audiences making increasingly high demands of the brands they choose.
Luckily for the market, brands can no longer make claims they cannot possibly uphold and are called out for aligning with a cause that’s purely self-serving. Luckily for good brands, there is a very rewarding audience out there, willing to reward the brands that behave according to a sound set of principles with their cash or their crypto.
[Example: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency. It is built on one of the first blockchains that doesn’t support any of the fancy stuff that the new ones do. It is also an expensive one to run, with newer blockchains having significantly lower overheads. But Bitcoin has a strong brand. It is worth almost half the entire cryptocurrency market capitalization. One bit of advice to anyone with a good idea is that no matter what we say about brand, first-mover advantage remains one hell of a driver.]
In essence, brand thinking must originate from behaviour and brand communications should be crafted around this behaviour. This validates brand communications and adds significant value to them. The audiences that sit up and listen when certain brands speak are those that know the brand to follow through on their communication. This consistency of premise counts. Our audiences will forgive a font that’s slightly ‘off-brand’. I’ve looked at brand communications, horrified that the designer had used Arial instead of Helvetica. Seven other type nerds noticed. No one else cared.
Communication is, of course, part of a brand’s behaviour. The messages a brand decides to send, the way in which it reaches its audiences, the personality with which it communicates, and the values it upholds are all being assessed, consciously or unconsciously, by a brand’s audiences. The more behaviour and communication are one, the more likely an audience is to engage with the brand.
Why do brands communicate?
Brands communicate to inform. They use this opportunity to express their core beliefs and, while they do so, they inescapably betray their personality. If the personality is true to their fundamentals, then it is one we believe and engage with. So when brands inform us about something promotional, a new product offering or a pricing update for instance, the audience is also assessing the brand’s personality.
Whether we like it or not, we form an opinion heavily based on the personality of the communicator. Quite why brands separate ‘brand communications’ from ‘promotional communications’ is often puzzling. You’ve seen promotional communication that violates a brand’s core values for the sake of a quick sale. It is a wasted opportunity, a case of marketing spend that could easily have been marketing investment.
Very often, too often really, brands speak because they want to say something and not because they have something to say. These tend to be the ones that audiences stop listening to. They are the ones that complain about low audience engagement on their social feeds.
This does not always stem from a desire to be every-present. Many brands make the mistake of originating communication based on their activity rather than on what audiences want to hear. It is easy to assume that if you’ve spent a lot of time, money, and effort doing something, then your audience wants to know about it. Sometimes, all it takes is to ask an appropriately cynical audience about whether the public will care about this piece of communication before spending a ton on spreading the word.
There are exceptions of course, those brands that are so innovative (or traditional) that their process is an integral part of the story. It takes cunning or humility to know whether the brand you represent is one of these or not. For every story told that we don’t want to hear there is probably an interesting story that the brand hasn’t thought of telling.
“We’ve spent a million refurbishing your favourite clothes store.” No one cares.
“Now even better tasting.” One should hope so.
“We understand that you want [this] so we’re giving it to you.” Mildly condescending, wholly untrue, and no one cares.
We’re all guilty of this behaviour. We’ve all had budgets to spend, campaigns that must go out by a specific date because it’s back-to-school or just-before-summer or those awkward shoulder months. It is an inevitability but one that can be mitigated by a degree of empathy with our audiences.
Brands that see most reward from their communication, the ones that drive sales through deep audience engagement, do so by cleverly putting themselves in the shoes of their audiences. They take the time to understand the specific profile of their carefully defined audience. They are ruthless at eliminating all the stuff that audiences don’t care about. Even if they are itching to scream about some obscure feature because it took them two years to get it right.
These are brands that don’t sacrifice their ideals because of the nature of the opportunity to communicate. A 2-for-1 sticker at point of sale is as important as any other piece of communication and it deserves to represent the brand with respect. In the eyes of your consumer, how a brand does anything is how a brand does everything.
What kind of communication do audiences relate to?
To answer this question, we need to ask ourselves the same question about a brand that is very far from the one we’re working on. We need to find a brand from a completely different category, one that makes us happy to be its audience, and analyse the nature of that communication.
If you were a member of that audience and were given a chance to ask a brand to speak to you in a specific way, you’d be well within your rights to tell the brand, “Tell me what I want to hear and not what you want to say.”
Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask yourself: “What will I feel as a result of interacting with your brand?”
Communication that audiences will listen to is:
Human. Brands are owned and run by experts in their specific industry. The people who own the brand know how their product is better than that of their competitor’s because of some obscure technical feature. They know the industry language. They know the internal politics of the company. And they make the mistake of thinking their audience cares. Communication that starts from the inside and works its way out is destined to fail. Every time.
Real. We allow brands a little wiggle room for overstating or dramatizing their products. We know the burger on a fast food restaurant photo is not what we’ll unwrap when we buy one. But that’s as far as audiences will forgive. Brands that make unlikely claims and that pretend to be something they’re not are inevitably called out. Sometimes a simple “Would I fall for this?” would suffice before approving that piece of collateral.
Relevant. Useless brands die. Useless products by useful brands die as well. Brand communication is relevant to the time, the place, and the audience that consumes it. Converse is irreverent, very street, and wholly of today. So they still sell sneakers from the seventies. They don’t speak about their heritage overtly and they are relevant to three generations of humans who are connected by little else than their desire to be of today. Even better, speak to me about how your brand is going to make my future better.
Ask: “How will my life’s story be better with your brand in it?”
Unusual. The creative conundrum is always where to err. Too close to what’s familiar, and it’s boring. Too far from what we know, and it’s detached. In between these is the playground of brand communication – unusual enough to stand out while retaining the right amount of familiarity to draw me in. Like every good creative endeavour, there is bravery involved, the potential for failure must be there as we release communication. If you feel entirely certain that it will ‘work’, it will do just that – it won’t offend and it won’t excite. And if it doesn’t excite, we relegate that communication to our working memory, the bit of our monkey brain that we purge when we go to sleep to make room for exciting stuff that’s about to happen tomorrow.
Mildly unpopular. If your brand is universally popular, your brand sucks. We are tribal creatures. We love to stand for something. “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC”, “Take the Pepsi challenge”. Even in products as generic as colas there exist fans. Brave brands behave in a way that acknowledges that they’re not for everyone. The brave brand that’s smart about its communication makes sure that it speaks the way it behaves. It identifies its audience and says, “This one’s for you. It’s not for everyone.”
Respectful. Don’t tell me too much. My most precious resource in a post-consumerist world is my time. I won’t grant you much of it. Just enough headline will intrigue me, particularly if it is slightly incomplete and can be completed by me and something from my life experience. If I care enough, I’ll dig deeper, I’ll look you up, I’ll follow your communication funnel all the way to ‘add to cart’.
Consistent. Once again, your audience doesn’t want on-brand communication to have the right colours and fonts. For an agency guy this might sound strange – what I’m saying is that if you have the right agency this isn’t something to worry about ever again. Your audience wants consistency of premise. Why does the brand wake up in the morning? What are its values or behavioural principles? What’s it promising me? What do I want to feel as a result of connecting with this brand?
In essence, do what helps you get to know your audience because it will enable you to craft the right message and use the right channels. And that’s the way you can speak to an audience and have them listen.
The benefits of relatable brand communication
Money can’t buy us love. The Beatles made that quite clear. But the goal of a brand is not directly to make money. Rather, the better a brand behaves, the more money will come in as an inevitable consequence.
[Money is the desired consequence only for commercial brands. Martin Luther King is an example of a strong personal brand that had a cause rather than profit as an intended outcome of that brand’s efforts. Analyse his brand in terms of focus, charisma, unwavering purpose, audience engagement, and many other brand performance indicators and the strength of the brand is undeniable.]
Powerful brand communication knows who it is speaking to and, just as importantly, who it is leaving out. It is better to relate strongly with your audience than attempt a weaker bond with a larger audience that will most likely never care about your brand anyway. An audience that knows it is being addressed specifically is much more likely to be properly attentive to messaging. Think of the tortuous path to accurate generational communication and you will see how hard work when addressing audiences the right way can pay off in spades.
Relatable communication tells its audience that the brand gets it, that while the brand could just get on with stuff and show us a product and a price it is willing to go a step further, speak our language, respect our time, and make the effort to earn my attention.
We all know one of these brands. They are the ones that, in our personal lives, reach for that magical bit of money we are prepared to spend irrationally out of love for that brand. They are inevitably the brands that have, over time, paid attention to our emotions and behaved in a way that earned our loyalty and trust.
Emotion in a single piece of communication does not do this. The brands that create a beautiful piece of emotional advertising once a year, for Christmas, become those brands that we can depend on for a beautiful piece of TV around Christmas. They do not weave emotion into their everyday behaviour and we don’t engage emotionally with them every day either. They remain brands that we are largely indifferent to. Coca Cola is the kind of product that has linked emotion to its product every single day for well over a century and it is one of the most loved drinks on the planet – so much so that we don’t stop to assess the product for what it really is.
In effect, brands that communicate in a way that truly relates to our state of mind are those that speak to us about an outcome, rather than a product.
“1,000 songs in your pocket” was the line that created the iPod
“Open happiness” doesn’t speak about the product at all.
“Because you’re worth it” places self worth above product features or benefits
These are the brands that realise that their audiences are made up of actual humans who will only lend a moment of their time to a brand that addresses their state as a person rather than a brand that is conceited enough to think a person cares about their product. Of course, the product is at the heart of brand communication but we are drawn in with a promise of an outcome to ourselves as a human rather than the specific action of purchasing a product.
Brands that understand their audiences and create relatable and respectful communication with relentless consistency are the ones that audiences grow to love and brand live runs rings around the spark that surrounds a single transaction. And brands we know and love for a long time are the ones we are prepared to forgive for an occasional transgression.
And soon, brand love turns into the profit margin we call brand equity – so perhaps love can earn us money, even if the reverse does not apply. One way of considering brand equity is the monetary gap between the price of our brand and its equivalent generic. Ask: “Do you want your brand to be generic, in nature and in pricing?”
In conclusion, brand communication that leads to deep engagement is led by behaviour first – it is the communication that is true to a brand’s purpose and values. It is also communication that understands an audience and relates to it by being respectful and promising a desirable outcome. If a brand’s behaviour and communication is consistent with these fundamentals it can build a life-long, value-based relationship with your audience. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of any brand?