There is a big difference between a great product and a great brand.
Let me explain.
I’m a coffee addict; no matter where I end up in the world, I will always seek out the best brew possible. I like to consider myself adventurous (at least within the realm of coffee beans!) and as a result have found some truly wonderful coffee, though I remember very few of them. On the other hand, should I not be able to source a cup of coffee that meets my expectations I immediately wish I could find a Starbucks. From that point on it becomes a quest to seek out the nearest available Starbucks.
Why is that you might ask? Because I know that once I find one, I am guaranteed a decent cup of coffee. Admittedly, it is not the best coffee I have ever had by a long way, but whether I’m in Kuala Lumpur or Mexico City I know that their quality will be consistent and at the very least, acceptable! Whilst I am not necessarily an advocate for Starbucks, it is the first brand that springs to mind when I think of coffee, regardless.
I must also admit that, by proxy, I associate any brand that has partnered their product with Starbucks to be of a certain standard of quality. Even if I’ve never heard of the brand, if they have managed to form a partnership with Starbucks then in my mind their product must at least be above average. This immediate brand-product and brand-quality associations are what in my mind make Starbucks a super brand.
So what makes for a super brand?
The first thing is time. Brands like Starbucks have been created over a long period of time. At the risk of sounding trite, building a great brand is a marathon, not a sprint. It took Starbucks 10 years to be profitable and then a few more years on top of that till they became a national brand. They didn’t open their first international branch in Tokyo until they had been in business for 16 years; the rest, as they say, is history. However, it has taken Starbucks the best part of 50 years to become the super brand that they are today, recognised the world over.
Great brands are relevant, not trendy. While these two attributes are not necessarily independent from one another, a brand that is only trendy will eventually fade. A relevant brand will know what people want, how customers expect it to perform and then deliver accordingly. It will always stay innovative and keep surprising its customers whilst staying true to its core values.
A great brand will create a sense of belonging for the consumers as well as its employees. It is nourished by a strong internal brand culture and passion from its team. If people love the brand they are a part of, this passion spills over into everything they do, say and touch. A strong internal brand culture will lead to consumer advocacy because every different touch-point will reflect the brand’s values. Coke is a great example of this; the people I have met who work there were all truly brand advocates. They passionately promote their brand and genuinely believe in it. I recall a time in a restaurant in Mexico when I was with the head of sales for Coke in a restaurant, when he realised that in this particular establishment they only served Pepsi Co. drinks. Settling on tap water because he refused to drink anything Pepsi produced, he then went on to set up an appointment with the restaurant’s manager to convince him to switch to Coke instead. He truly believed in his product and was happy to interrupt a leisurely afternoon to promote the unique qualities of his brand.
Another quality of iconic brands is that they know themselves; they are not dictated by what a board of directors may think (which can sometimes be very far from reality indeed!) These brands take into consideration how every member of the team perceives them, from top tier management down to the interns, but even more importantly they understand what consumers (their audience) think and feel. This approach is key to a brand truly unlocking its full potential.
Brands which know themselves know exactly what they have to offer and make sure that everyone else knows too. They will set the benchmark in their category and more often than not will redefine their own market segment; a brand only needs one differentiator providing it is a good one. Take Dominos for example. They may not have the best pizza around (in an American taste test in 2009 by Brand Keys, Dominos came in last place) but for many years you knew that if your pizza did not arrive in under 30 minutes, you were getting it for free; they made speed their USP. Even though they have done away with this policy now, people still associate Dominos with a speedy delivery.
Consistency across a whole brand - from the quality and service to the design, image and values - is crucial when creating a strong brand culture and brand advocacy. It reflects an attention to detail and implies a level of quality. However, a brand should also be consistently innovative. Take Nike, another global super brand, who have kept their tagline the same for 30 years and their logo for almost half a century. Whilst it has gone through some minor changes, the look of the brand has been consistent for a very long time, yet on more than one occasion Nike has set the benchmark in their industry in many ways. For example, they were the pioneers who repositioned sports shoes as fashion accessories rather than just part of an exercise kit.
Great brands are masters at exposure, they have the ability to reach their target audience using the right channels and get noticed. The internet has now levelled the playing field, whereas before bigger brands had the upper hand because they had the budget to utilise and dominate most channels. Smaller brands can now reach their audience at a fraction of the cost. I am not saying traditional advertising is obsolete – far from it! – but I do think the new variety of channels available to us marketeers today has made reaching your target audience a more accessible proposition.
Finally, a great brand will have the power to elicit an emotional connection; most of our decisions are still driven by emotion, so it is key for brands to make that emotional connection. No one thinks twice about the type of machines Starbucks uses to make their coffee, or the temperature at which they percolate the coffee grains. However, the fact they do use ethically sourced ingredients, that their coffee is fair trade and that the cups are recyclable does reach the consumer at an emotional level making the brand valuable to the individual.
So maybe next time I’m in need of a little pick me up I might not necessarily jump into Starbucks for my fix of coffee. But believe me, next time I can’t find a decent cup of coffee, the green mermaid will be singing her siren song, and I will be listening.