Nicholas Di Cuia, CPM, CM, CAAP, RGD


For as long as I can remember—and I’ve been in the industry for 30 years—branding has been misunderstood so often by so many—at all levels. Many believe branding is about designing a logo, a visual identity, or refreshing a current logo by adding a new colour. Whatever the case, branding encompasses a lot more than a logo.

Since we’re on the topic of logos, visual identities, indeed, are an important part of branding, but it’s not entirely what branding is about. With this approach, coupled with the misunderstanding of the concept of branding, many may approach their branding process—whatever that may be—in a fragmented manner. For example, they develop a logo. Then, perhaps, they design their store décor, then a shopping bag design. These are all very important, disparate “elements” of branding, with a fragmented, incoherent approach.

Evidently, branding is a marketing concept that’s a bit vague and confusing—even for some who have studied marketing. Let’s start from ground zero, and let’s first define what a product is: A product applies to physical goods, experiences, organizations, events, persons, places, properties, information, services, and even ideas. And in most, if not all, cases, you start with a product, then graduate to a brand if done right—and if you capture customers’ hearts on various emotional levels.

Now let’s define what branding is: According to The Branding Journal, “You can consider a brand as the idea or image people have in mind when thinking about specific products, services and activities of a company, both in a practical (e.g. “the shoe is light-weight”) and emotional way (e.g. “the shoe makes me feel powerful”). It is therefore not just the physical features that create a brand but also the feelings that consumers develop towards the company or its product. Further, a brand is the idea or image people have in mind when thinking about specific products, services and activities of a company, both in a practical and emotional way. This combination of physical and emotional cues is triggered when exposed to all the touch points between a person and a specific brand. These can be the brand name, logo, products, visual identity, staff, or advertising – amongst others.”

According to the American Marketing Association, ” Brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those other sellers. This combination of physical and emotional cues is triggered when exposed to the name, the logo, the visual identity, or even the message communicated. A product can be easily copied by other players, but a brand will always be unique. For example, Pepsi and Coca-Cola taste very similar, however, for some reason, some people feel more connected to Coca-Cola, others to Pepsi.”

According to The Branding Journal,  branding can be done through the use of different tools. Some of the elements that are used in a branding strategy, for example, are:

  • Brand definition: purpose, values, promise
  • Brand positioning statement
  • Brand identity: name, tone of voice, visual identity design (which includes the logo design)
  • Advertising and communications: TV, radio, magazines, outdoor ads, website, mobile apps…
  • Sponsoring and partnerships
  • Product and packaging design
  • In-store experience
  • Workspace experience and management style
  • Customer service
  • Pricing strategy

This is where differentiation, part of branding, plays an important role. Coke’s brand also extends itself to its packaging: Coke’s iconic glass bottle and unique shape and mould, make it special. Imagine walking down a pitch-dark laneway and stumble across a piece of glass. You pick it up, still in the dark, and quickly know it’s a Coke. The thickness, the curvature—all these characteristics are associated with the Coke brand. You can say the same thing about Oreo cookies: They are very unique to the touch—yes, even in the dark. These are extrinsic characteristics. And they are part of branding.

When a brand creates a story, it can evoke emotion. Carefully crafted and consistent, with a sustained approach, like Coke and Pepsi did, you build brand awareness and brand affinity—to the point where customers begin to take pride and develop trust in your brand. And tampering with it, like Coke did with its “New” Coke gaffe in 1985, that was tested among 200,000 consumers, but failed miserably, can prove costly. But in Coke’s case where their following was widespread across the world, created over many generations, customers protested to protect their brand. Coke conceded, and consumers forgave them because the love for their (consumers) brand, was immense, profound and emotional. This is how powerful a brand in the minds of consumers can get.

Let’s consider water for example: It’s a simple product that’s sold everywhere. With today’s consumer choosing healthier options, marketers thought to find a way to monetize it. Fast-forward to where we are with water today: It’s become a ubiquitous product sold by many: Evian, Perrier, Fiji, Dasani, a Coke brand, Acquafina, a PepsiCo brand, and many more. So how does any one of these brands convince consumers to purchase theirs over competitors? Each one of these brands provides a different meaning for what water is. For example, Evian makes you feel young, whereas Perrier is positioned as refreshing. Fiji, on the other hand, pushes purity. And this is how they position their brands. To help them do this, they develop ad campaigns, create visually appealing packaging, tap PR and social media, engage in OOH, TV, digital, radio, events and experiential, to further drive home what their brand means and represents, including its benefits.


Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay

One must define how they want their brand to be perceived, and how it’s translated and interpreted—and if it resonates. During the customer journey—from discovery, to exploration, to consideration, to purchase, to usage, to post-purchase, and follow-up stages, customers’ feeling toward your brand will dictate if it survives. It’s a continuum—with no end. And the CX (Customer eXperience) at each stage of the journey has to be positive. Every. Single. Time. Perception is reality: It can work for you (brand asset) or against you (brand liability). As mentioned earlier, branding ought to be something that represents and creates a meaningful and emotional connection with the customer. And, again, let’s make sure we understand who owns your brand: The customer. Full stop! Today, unlike yesteryear, there are media choices we can use for each stage of the customer journey. And they can be measured to provide you with metrics you can leverage to prove campaign success or failure.

A sound, well-planned, ongoing and personalized and integrated marketing communications (IMC) plan to support your brand story, is germane to its success, and to it remaining top-of-mind. Before promising something about your product or service, make sure your promise can be consistently delivered. In retail, for example, ensure you have the customer journey recognized and planned for, including front-end CX, merchandising and product availability, store environment (including ambient music and air quality or scent—think Tommy Bahama), e-commerce and frictionless transactions, to efficient and competitive delivery options, to favourable return policies, etc. And beware of any unintended messaging in your communications. Test. And test again. Many marketers make this mistake: They don’t evaluate or properly market-test their campaigns before going live—think fast-fashion giant, H&M, who, in 2018, posted an image on their site of a young African-American boy sporting a green sweatshirt with a slogan that read, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Of course, customers were outraged with the company’s lack of cultural sensitivity. Or Heineken, with its TV spot that landed them in hot water: The ad showed a bartender sliding a beer past three people, all of whom are black, to a lighter-skinned woman. The tag line read, “Sometimes, lighter is better.” It was called out as “Terribly racist.” Unintended messaging, no doubt, but the consequences can be dire. There are many, many more—from Target, Domino’s Pizza to Estée Lauder, etc.

But if the message is relevant, timely, and the promise is delivered, then you’ve potentially discovered the customer’s “sweet spot”, and they will “start”—a delicate stage—to build a bond with your brand. Continue on this trajectory, and they will love your brand to a point where you will become part of their mental real estate. Top-of-mind is a great territory to be. And it takes a lot of work to get there. And staying there takes a huge commitment.

This is ultimately what a product or service needs to achieve. Once customers’ hearts and trust have been captured, they simply cannot be let down. If they are, depending on the severity and the timing, they may not fully forgive you. How and how quick you respond, is key. And it needs to be the CEO who takes the stage when things go awry. Your brand may temporarily lose some loyalty and customers may or may not return. It’s tough being at the bottom trying to climb up to be top choice; it’s just as tough being at the top and staying there. Remember, routine breeds complacency; don’t get caught in this easily attainable trap. If a brand is to remain number one, the CEO, CMO, their brand managers, and everyone else, ought to think like number two. I.e. they need to have the hunger and appreciation for what it takes to get there. The CMO needs to constantly re-assess the plan to ensure it is on track with customers’ ever-changing wants and needs. It is an emotional bond that needs to be created, grown and nurtured. And always keep an eye out for new entrants and category disruptors. They’re always lurking! And they’re ruthless.

Before embarking on developing a brand, see what great brands use as a framework.

Great brands know or identify what’s missing in the marketplace. And if there’s nothing obvious, they will create a need or want; they identify what’s missing in the hearts and minds of consumers. What’s missing that identifies with social causes that matter. Knowing and capturing these subtle below-the-surface insights, pain points or voids in consumers’ lives, is key. According to  great brands design the ideal customer experience (CX). What Great Brands Do, a book written by Denise Lee Yohn, provides seven brand building principles:

  1. Great brands start inside. – E.g. G Adventure Travel Company gathers its tour guides from around the world to celebrate Changing People’s Lives.
  2. Great brands avoid selling products. E.g. lululemon decided to focus on building community by offering free yoga classes in its stores.
  3. Great brands ignore perceived trends. E.g. Southwest ignored sophisticated rewards programs in order to offer fares to its passengers.
  4. Great brands don’t chase customers. E.g. Harley-Davidson embraces its identity as the vehicle embodiment of ‘freedom’, ‘individualism’, and ‘rebellion’.
  5. Great brands sweat the small stuff. E.g. Disney recognizes that in order to deliver a great experience, small touches can make a BIG difference.
  6. Great brands commit and stay committed. E.g. RAD Power Bikes continued to offer its popular ebikes at pre-tariff prices to fulfil its purpose of making its ebikes accessible to everyone.
  7. Great brands never have to give back. E.g. Patagonia asks you to repair your torn jacket rather than buy a new one. Or choose to trade it in or sell it at special Worn Wear website.

Building a brand doesn’t happen over night—if at all. But chances at success are greater if the marketer understands what’s required in developing a brand, and what’s also needed to maintain it. Step back from the picture before getting caught up and excited about an idea that may not be clear just yet, and ask yourself a few key questions, not in any particular order:

  1. What’s your reason or motivation for trying to build a brand?
  2. What are your business objectives, and what is ultimately your goal?
  3. Would customers perceive your product or service the way you would want them to?
  4. What is your current market share, and is there room for sustained growth?
  5. Who are your competitors?
  6. Do you know your customers better than your competitors do?
  7. In what markets or sectors do your competitors serve?
  8. What’s the target audience for your product?
  9. What is your plan’s critical path?
  10. Any other options you have?
  11. Do your CEO and CFO understand what’s required, and appreciate its significance and risk, and therefore, approve a workable budget that’s not merely one or two years of funding support, but an ongoing investment?
  12. Do you have the right leadership and culture within your organization to undertake this challenge and embrace such a goal?

A clear understanding of what your business wants to achieve—at the outset—and what your position in the marketplace is to be, are key. But as mentioned earlier, you start your process, but expect it to never end. If the market has been properly assessed, and business expectations realistic, then an informed and appropriate decision can follow. To assist in succeeding with this undertaking, a culture needs to be created from top down and back up again (a living and thriving organism), embracing the objectives, strategy and tactics of your brand plan.

Challenges with managing change

Internal buy-in is critical to the success of a brand. In fact, culture has become an enterprise problem; it is probably the biggest hurdle encountered when engaging in branding—or change, in general. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an Italian writer, said, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Change is good. Change is needed. Change is growth. Generally, people are averse to change. Newer generations will, and do, embrace the concept of change more acceptingly. It all lies in how a business implements change. I.e. Inclusion of staff on how the brand plan is being rolled out. Do they understand why this change is happening? Is their buy-in respected? In fact, since staff will be the ones carrying it out on a daily basis, they ought to be included in the process so they feel they’ve contributed to it. With this approach you develop brand ambassadors with infectious enthusiasm and pride—internally, where it all should start.

Proper steps need to be taken for the plan (which should have a built-in degree of flexibility), to nimbly respond to unforeseen environmental factors and challenges such as competitive landscape shifts. Of paramount importance, executive, senior and middle management must buy into this effort in totality—and lead by example. The CEO’s responsibility is to be the evangelist and storyteller of the brand. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, because branding and its importance, are misunderstood and underappreciated; and oftentimes thought of as an expense rather than part of the core of the business—and its role in surviving.

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

Senior management need to instil the message organization-wide. Once this is done, what would have otherwise been a bumpy road to potential success, becomes a smoother one. A unified support team is required behind the brand across all points of contact with the internal customer. This is where it all starts. If you don’t succeed within your four walls, in all likelihood, success with your paying customers will be met with resistance, indifference and apathy. Everyone needs to be on board and take ownership of the brand they love, and show this in everything they do. Everything! It’s kind of like a cult, really. Employees need to behave like owners of the company. It’s a cultural point I’m making, and it’s a critical one. These are the “intangibles” of a brand. It makes it much easier to proudly get behind a brand when a company’s owners, senior management and employees are whole-heartedly behind it.

You need to really get to know your customers with the goal to create a lasting bond or relationship. There are parts to a brand that cannot be touched, such as “values”. Such a characteristic is what customers will either connect with or reject. With today’s demanding consumer, especially those that fall in the Gen Y (a.k.a. Millennials), as well as Gen Z (the younger cohort after them), with a splash of Gen X, which today—2020—comprise approximately 68% of the world’s population, brands and their CEOs, must—and are expected to—take a social stand on issues that are relevant to the consumer, but that the brand truly lives by. I asked industry colleague, Ron Tite, Founder, Church+State, a Toronto agency that works with many well-known brands such as Walmart, Microsoft and Lexus, recently wrote a book titled, “THINK DO SAY,” that speaks so eloquently to these three key factors.

One example in his book, is about REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.), a “[…] co-op retailer with 6 million active members. They buy tents, kayaks, mountain bikes and other outdoor stuff in over 150 retail locations. It also has REI Adventures, a global leader in active adventure travel, which also teaches courses on outdoor activities. Every year, on Black Friday, REI closes its doors, processes no online payments, and pays its 12,000+ employees to “opt outside” with friends and family, while other retail staff are facing life-threatening injuries from deal-hungry crowds stampeding through doors like bulls from Pamplona. But REI staff are enjoying tranquillity of taking in a hike or a paddle.” “REI believed something beyond their merchandise. The consciously took actions to reinforce that belief. They said it in a simple and memorable way.” THINK DO SAY. So you can see in REI’s case, they’re not just words, or a mission statement no one really lives by, let alone recite it; they actually live it.

A brand must be true to itself and to its customers, in a transparent, honest and consistent fashion, using a THINK DO SAY method or framework. And I believe this particular order, makes all the difference, as per the REI example. A brand needs to walk the talk—and so much more. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, said, recently, via LinkedIn: To paraphrase her, […today’s CEO role is different than in past: They need to take a leading and prioritizing role—a stance—on social issues, as well as becoming part of the fabric of society.] Failing this could result in brand erosion and declining consumer trust.

The only true asset marketers can earn is that of their audiences’ hearts and minds. This is why emotional connections, (whether they remain emotional through the transaction, or they become rational during the customer-experience journey), wherever the “moment of truth” or the “tipping point” lies along the spectrum, are key. As alluded to earlier, owners don’t own brands, customers do. Customers need to be offered something they really need: something relevant; something timely; something personable; something meaningful; something that will improve their lives. Sometimes you strike a big win, sometimes a small win. They’re both good. But the latter’s scalability is more manageable. These positive, rewarding and emotional experiences that are created, make customers happy to part with their money. They will influence others to buy your product, too. This is part of the recipe in developing a brand. In so doing, your product, no longer part of a landscape of competing commodities, becomes a premium brand; and with that, premium pricing. It’s all about them. If they like it, they’ll take ownership of it. Connecting with your customers periodically to see what their needs are and where the trend is going, and be first in line for them, is part of the relationship. It’s an ongoing partnership. Stay tuned in!

There are three key Moments of Truth:

  1. Awareness (consideration stage)
  2. Decision (decide)
  3. Delight (retention & loyalty)

These three Moments of Truth apply to all of marketing’s 4 Ps: Product, Price, Place, Promotion. At this juncture, is where your positioning statement should work from, and from which your answers are based. I.e. The answers you provide during this exercise/chart, will help you in developing your positioning.

Let’s funnel the three Moments of Truth through marketing’s 4 Ps, lens and also see how AIDA, (somewhat scrambled here), a concept I will mention again later, will emanate

  •  In the Product quadrant, for example, within the Awareness axis, (see above), how do you build interest for your product, and create Desire?
  • Still working across within the Awareness axis, comes Price: How can your pricing strategy Attract your target customer?
  • Next comes Place: How can your chosen channel of distribution evoke Interest in your product or service?
  • Last, Promotion, along the Awareness axis: How do your marketing and advertising strategies convey your message in a way that creates Action by your customer?

You can use the above format to chart the next two Moments of Truth (MoT), across marketing’s 4 Ps.

Brand, emotive experiences and motivations

For example, customers don’t buy Michelin tires, they buy safety; customers don’t buy Disney tickets, they buy fun for the family. Consumers don’t buy cellular phones, they buy mobility, safety and independence. What’s the meaningful promise your brand offers? What makes it different? How does it improve or change someone’s life? To this end, for example, a retailer needs to get customers to plan their trip to your store because they see it as a destination—a purpose to get your product—otherwise, your product quickly becomes part of countless other products to which customers become desensitized. I remember an excerpt from an article I read years ago:

“Think of it this way: The Brand is the theme park and the product is the souvenir.” Brilliant!

Brand attitude

This refers to target audiences’ evaluation of a product or service in relation to a product’s perceived ability to satisfy the reason why a customer wants the product in the first place—the motivations behind it. A customer’s reason for buying a product may differ from time-to-time which is why the motivations behind customers’ decisions to act, or even enter, the category in the first place, must be understood. Where a product—which could become an emotional brand—lies in the hearts and minds of customers, must be understood. I.e. Is the product low-involvement-informational (negative motivations), or low-involvement transformational (positive motivations)? An example of a low-involvement product could be toothpaste, since there’s not a lot of thinking involved in buying this product because of its low- risk and low-cost factors. Conversely, it can be a high-involvement informational (negative motivations), or high-involvement transformational (positive motivations) product, such as an appliance, furniture or an automobile, where the stakes are much higher and the purchase cycle is a lot longer.

An industry colleague of mine, Graham Robertson, Founder and CMO of Beloved Brands, succinctly states in his new book, there are seven types of B2B brand models. With permission from Graham, I listed the seven types below, with the first four being the primary ones:

  1. B2C through B: Sell your products through a third-party partner, whose reps then sell your brand to consumers;
  2. B2B Products: Sell your products as an ingredient or component your customers will use to make their brand better;
  3. B2C Services: Your brand > Your People > Customers;
  4. DTC: Sell your products directly to specific B2B customers who are using the product in their jobs or companies;
  5. B2C: Your Brand > Retail > Consumer;
  6. B2B Services: Sell your services to companies or individuals at the company who want help to achieve success;
  7. Retail: Their Brand < Your Brand > Consumer.

Choose your business model based on how your customer wants to buy, nit how you want to sell. Understanding these models and associated purchasing behaviours, can assist in understanding customer purchase cycles; some reasons behind why people buy what they buy, and the motivations behind these consumer-behaviour phenomena. Not getting this right, especially for higher-priced, longer-purchase-cycle products, you miss the boat on customer engagement and patronage, resulting in lost sales and lost longer-term loyalty, potentially leading to brand erosion, equity, and perhaps even demise. You must understand that, as Graham Robertson of  puts it, “There’s only one source of revenue out there: not the products you see, but the people that buy them.”

Customer insight – Learning about the customer

One big and unfortunate error I see marketers frequently make is they never step back to see or ask what customers think about their product. Needless to say, there are many forums to use and gather information. We’re all proud of our product ideas, but if there’s little or no need for your product, never mind trying to turn it into a brand, over time, it will most likely fail. A commitment to proper research, starting with your company’s own buy-in, can cure any misunderstanding about what can go wrong, or could have gone better regarding your product’s launch or eventual brand’s success. But collecting key data, from which distilling such information to find insights to help you figure out what motivates the customer to buy—or to find out what the interest is—can be the building blocks to developing an understanding, and ultimately, a bond.

There are a number of ways and methods to carry out market research. Generally, there are six techniques:

  1. Secondary Research;
  2. Observation (also known as ethnographic research);
  3. Focus Groups;
  4. Surveys;
  5. Interviews;
  6. Experiments or Field Trials.

Engaging in one or a few of these methods, affords you greater intelligence and, ultimately, key insights—those little, yet subtle, salient eye-openers that lie beneath the surface of collected data, that lead you to understanding customers’ wants, needs, beliefs, desires, motivations and preferences. And VALS (Values and Lifestyles). As a result, it ought to be at the outset that should determine what shape a plan should take, and thereafter, expectations set. This is paramount to your marketing, communications and promotion, and advertising plans. One key thing to remember about the role of research: It should never be tapped to prove one’s hypothesis—that’s not research; it should illuminate only what one does not already know. That would be called insight.

Further, a brand should never lose sight of who tomorrow’s customers will be. You need a visionary to know and lead this process. We tend to keep abreast of new sales techniques, new technologies, new media forums, new distribution channels, etc., but we overlook consumer changes: Their needs, preferences, wants, attitudes and values constantly change, and you need to be ahead of these changes to remain relevant as a brand. This is why staying connected to your customer is vital to longer-term sustained growth of your brand. Trends and landscapes change constantly, especially in today’s cutthroat marketplace. The position a business expects or intends to hold and claim in an ever-changing and competitive marketplace must follow. Research shows that, albeit dependent on various factors, if your caregiver used Tide detergent, in all likelihood you will, too, barring any significant market or brand changes that would challenge that notion, which does happen. Consumer behaviour and its dynamics need to be understood. Psychography is also important in helping a business understand customer motivations. But you shouldn’t base your decisions on demography alone; it’s incomplete and potentially misleading.

Brand position

What position do you want to own in the marketplace? Brand position is the consumer’s mental real estate you want to enter—and own; and the features, advantages and benefits (FAB) you want them to know about when they think of your brand. Developing an effective brand positioning strategy can, and will, maximize customer relevancy and competitive distinctiveness, in maximizing brand value. A company needs to have something unique to offer: a void to fill a consumer need—an emotional connection to help them ignore other brands, and buy yours, instead.

A Value Proposition…

Assists in bringing clarity to your product, and help further convey and support your message or product claim. The Value Proposition is the value a company promises to deliver to customers if they consider buying their product. It introduces them to prospective buyers and helps them make a sticky first impression. It should describe how your product or service solves customers’ pain points, or improves their lives in some special and unique way. It identifies what benefits customers can expect, and why they should buy from you vs. your competitors. Here’s a Venn diagram to depict how the elements come together toward the sweet spot—the Value Proposition:

Lyft, Uber’s archrival in the ride-sharing space, carefully and simultaneously targets two different personas with two distinct value propositions. Both clear and concise, one speaks to who want to get rides, and the other to those who want to give them.

Here are three great examples of Value Propositions well-known brands have:

  1. Uber – The Smartest Way to Get Around
  2. Apple iPhone – The Experience is the Product
  3. Slack – Be More Productive at Work with Less Effort

Something to consider when thinking about your target market: First, a business shouldn’t think it could be all things to all people. For example, Fedex’s primary service is logistics: They deliver packages across the world—every day. Simple! And they do it well. More specifically, FedEx reigns supreme in the air, while UPS, a key competitor, has an expansive ground fleet, and DHL, another key competitor, specializes in international shipping. As you can see, each of them is a courier company; but they specialize in areas they’ve become known for, and branded as such. They carved out a niche market and created world-recognized brands, which have become top-of-mind, whereby consumers have come to trust and depend on for their shipping needs.

Trying to be unique or even first-to-market: Assess the market and see if there’s an untapped source in a segment or category. Select a position that ideally no one has claimed, exploited, or improved on. Or even something that does exist, but further build on it, and do it in an impactful, emotional and meaningful way.

When communicating or writing your value proposition, your positioning statement—even your tagline—choose your words carefully. When generating content for online or offline purposes, write in a manner that will optimize your content to create interest and spur action. A word alone—in isolation—means little. It’s the people who use such words in context, inflection, emotion and expression that ultimately give meaning to them. Choose the words in your positioning statement, for instance, with appropriate tone and voice. Even the spokespeople you hire to represent your brand, need to understand your brand personality and pitch. So remember, words need to resonate with people. Make sure they’re relevant and meaningful enough to attract the buyer’s Attention, pique their Interest, create Desire and ultimately, provoke Action (AIDA). Always ensure your brand visual I.D. is omnipresent; it’s your sign-off, your signature. Your brand identity is the connective tissue for customers’ moments. Carefully curated words that are relevant, meaningful and emotional, that best represent and identify with your brand, that prospects and customers will retain. Or not!

Launching a campaign

Contrary to popular belief, advertising is not the last step in the process: Advertising is not an end; it’s a means. It’s axiomatic in advertising that increased exposure as well as increased impressions of your product or message can—and do—create or improve top-of-mind awareness. It is a cornerstone in developing customer preference, which can increase your chances of becoming a stronger brand. Or even becoming one in the first place.

You need to figure out who and where your product wants to be, and how it wants to get there. You also need to understand how, where and to whom you are going to communicate your message. Cultural sensitivities in all marketing efforts for a business and its reseller or third-party channels, are critical, too. Local customization of a brand’s marketing efforts is paramount to a brand’s success. DO NOT create an English campaign and merely translate it into another language for another country or target segment. Consumers are way too smart for that, and will not be amused by this perceived money-saving—and quite offensive, actually—tactic. The message needs to be meaningful and relevant to the local audience. An English-written ad needs to be re-written, with the main message in mind, but with a Glocal approach: Global in scope, Local in application. Heed this advice!

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

But before engaging in an ad campaign, conduct situational and SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analyses to get a good sense of what’s going on, where you want to be, your goals, who your competition is, your strengths and weaknesses, etc. As you progress through the stages, it will ultimately lead you to a “creative brief” document, which will need to be carefully—and very honestly—crafted. This exercise should illuminate key messages and elements of the campaign, along with target audience, company overview, project goals and, of course, brand positioning. The brand position needs to be probably the most important paragraph of your brief. Here you will answer a simple question: How is your brand different from your competitors’ brands? Before we move on, please know the difference between strategy and tactics. It’s fitting that I mention this because of the blurred lines between logo design and branding now have. Years ago, I read an article that spoke to this. Knowing the difference, myself, I still had to write it down because I love the analogy, and how succinct it is:

“The difference between strategy and tactics: Strategy is the art of war; tactics is the art of battle.”

— Carl Epstein, Managing Director, Halston

The uniqueness of your brand image is directly influenced by how good you are at identifying the differentiating elements and explaining how they make your brand unique. This will be a part of an integrated plan that best addresses your strategy and goals. As well, ensure an effective SEO (Search Engine Optimization) strategy is mobilized so your search finds appear before the fold (i.e. on the first page – ideally the top) during an organic search. As well, ensure your website is being constantly optimized so it, too, can be found easily by ever-voyaging consumers. Of course, when planning your media strategy and buy, media objectives and considerations need to be factored into your plan. Regarding traditional media, look at what the current population base is, and how you may want to grow that particular segment. Look at the advertising’s and promotion’s reach and how they fit into geographic areas. Break out costs by region and by medium, and by month and season.

Social media engagement is also a channel that needs to be considered. For example, Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok, among many others, are social channels that big-name brands leverage to connect with customers and consumers. About ten or so years ago, a new role (Community Manager) was created to monitor media coverage and consumer brand reviews. Many, today, believe digital, such as web or e-mail, and social, such as Instagram and Facebook, are the only way to go. Consequently, they put their all their money toward digital and social—or just social because they’re told that’s where the results are. It’s a fallacy! It’s myopic thinking! And you’re running a campaign that will yield inaccurate and misleading results. Further, running an advertising campaign on the belief that a one-to-one targeted approach, only, simply will not work. It can be part of a comprehensive plan, but not stand-alone.

The challenge with 1:1 is that it is not scalable or sustainable. As industry colleague, Jay Chaney, Principal, Chief Strategy Officer at Ad.Vice Inc., says, to which I agree, “You can’t realistically create an emotive campaign delivered on a 1:1 level; this is why it is mostly relegated to email and digital direct—low impact methods.” Know your options, and understand their ability to reach your audience in the most effective way. Pure metrics shouldn’t be the only driver for campaign success; I believe gut ought to play a role, too. Too many marketers believe in, or are motivated by, this hugely inaccurate method, and the results they bring. I strongly recommend hiring a strategy professional who can, and will, ensure optimal planning—and results.

Consumers being in the driver’s seat and equipped with many forums to either cherish or complain about a brand, waste no time—especially since they can perform this from their mobile phone. This role, whether in-house or through your agency partner, is key in helping you address any consumer concerns or shortcomings. But you need to answer their concerns or questions. Merely inviting them to post with no fairly immediate response is akin to talking to a wall. Create a dialogue with posters. Correct, even apologize, if necessary, your apparent shortcomings, whether from a CX perspective, website UI (User Interface), or other touch points.

Given today’s variety of media options, including programmatic buying, you can target consumers 1:1 based on historical data, recent site visits and product searches. According to Adjust Mobile Marketing, “Programmatic is defined as the use of automated technology for media buying, as opposed to traditional (often manual) methods of digital advertising. Programmatic media buying utilizes data insights and algorithms to serve ads to the right user at the right time, and at the right price.” There are myriad ways to reach consumers exactly where they are—in real time. Personalization, especially today, is a key part of your promotional strategy. And it’s expected.

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

Customer touch points

A customer touch point is any moment or point of contact your customer has with your brand. It’s a journey! And it’s not a linear one, either. Before, during, and post-purchase, are macro touch points you must make delightful for your customers to continue their path to purchase—and repurchase, potentially leading to brand love and loyalty. Your goal is to make sure your customers are happy every step of the way. Ensure all touch points with your customers are positive. Complete, consistent and personalized customer service, whatever the point of contact is, must be favourable. Don’t fail here!

As well, all of your suppliers and merchandisers must be aligned with your company’s brand values; and they must understand what your company’s brand success model is. They need to understand your company’s culture, customer-experience framework and what your customer-commitment promise is. In other words, in the context of selling your product, your third parties need to conduct themselves in the same manner as your employees do—on a daily basis. Have you ever been to a retailer and you had a question about a product? You saw someone stocking the shelves and approached them, and they said, they don’t work there; they’re merchandising reps, not employees. Well, this is a touch point for your brand. They, too, need to be primed on your brand’s overall customer experience. A rude reception makes customers associate the CX with your brand.

To further drive home the concept and understanding of the customer journey, and the special touch points imbedded, noting it is NOT a linear journey, and not all touch points are created equal, how do you orchestrate this experience so customers are positively impacted?

Brands win in customers’ moments. The journey, which is a work-in-progress, and all touch points along the way must be realized—and personalized. Again, here are three macro touch points:

  1. Pre-transaction
  2. During transaction
  3. Post transaction

Once these are recognized, step back and see how, and if, they all integrate with each other. Then see if there is any friction the customer might experience along the way. And are any of the touch points underserved? It’s the moments-of-truth, where the consumer—not necessarily a customer yet—will decide to move along their journey. It’s up to the marketer to understand MoTs—on-line and off-line—and when and where they can occur. As mentioned above, the journey is not linear; but it is fluid, and it can go forward, which is the goal, or backward, due to friction a customer may have experienced somewhere along the line.

Internal buy-in

A brand’s culture must be such that all staff are treated well; are treated in a fair and respectable fashion; and diversity and inclusion are exercised. They need to have an understanding and a deep appreciation for customer satisfaction and ROI (Return on Investment). In fact, it should be customer jubilance vs. customer satisfaction; satisfaction connotes mediocrity.

Brand activation…

Is the art of driving consumer awareness, consideration and action through brand interaction and experiences. It’s a seamless integration of multiple communications channels funnelled through a creative method. The key focus of these campaigns is to evoke or activate consumer interest > trial > loyalty; it’s about bringing brands to life via real-life, real-time experiences, and creating emotional connections, with the goal to develop sustained buy-in; sustained trust; and sustained love for your brand. Brand activation is recommended reach to consumers when introducing a new-product release, or to increase awareness surrounding an entire brand. The aim with this model is to shift the focus from the sales process to stimulating the buying process.

The activation phase typically comes after the planning phase. This is when brand managers plan their marketing activities, and then is followed by a customer feedback phase whereby the results are evaluated with marketing metrics and analytics.

Engaging in brand activation is a decision marketing managers make in choosing between traditional advertising campaigns or brand activation. If your budget allows, you can mix the two and create a powerful campaign across multiple touch points. But experience is where brand activation focuses on: Of course, the goal in using the brand activation model is to create a positive brand experience. This is brand activation’s most powerful instrument.

It’s well known people think advertising lacks credibility. And when an ad campaign is launched, consumers are wary of the brand’s truth, claims and intentions. This is where brand activation comes in. Its role is to prove the unproven—to shift consumer sentiment and trust. Trying to get attention in a sea of seven-thousand-plus messages each of us is exposed to, daily—conscious and unconscious—through brand messaging via traditional campaigns, including communications and PR, etc., is becoming increasingly more challenging. So how does a brand go about getting its message effectively across—and proving it? One method that works, is the Brand Activation model, which makes the message credible, creates a lasting impression—then and there, in real time.

A great example of brand activation: Starbucks Sparkle Shop

Partnering with YouTuber LaurDIY, Starbucks Canada opened a pop-up “Sparkle Shop” in a Toronto café to promote their new Teavana Sparkling Tea Juices. By collaborating with, and aligning their release with a niche influencer, Starbucks was able to create a unique, in-store environment to introduce consumers and fans to their newest product. Experiential? Again, a real-time, emotion-evoking experience. One could also say this is a form of guerilla marketing. To which I would agree.

Brand management and maintenance

Controlling and managing brand consistency is an enterprise problem. Mechanisms need to be in place to ensure adherence and consistency of brand across all customer touch points—be it print, broadcast, in-person, social, digital, experiential and events, OOH (Out of Home), etc. A style-guide or set of brand standards for reference by internal and external parties is be very helpful in ensuring brand tone, voice and visual consistency. If resources allow, a brand warden/officer to advise and assist on the proper use of your brand’s visual representation and its various applications, would be ideal. All employees, especially front-liners representing your brand, need to have an infectious enthusiasm and a sheer passion for what they do. This is a critical zone where brand reputation and equity (financial) can be gained—or lost. A brand needs constant coddling. Branding, and its framework, ought to be looked at as an opportunity rather than a restriction. Unfortunately, the latter prevails in many organizations because the concept of branding is misunderstood, or even underappreciated.

According to a Lucidpress 2019 study on brand consistency, they said, “Inconsistent brand usage speaks volumes about a company and undermines your brand’s trustworthiness. As a result, this can negatively impact customer opinions and their decision to do business with you. Damage, while notable, is not irreparable but it will require diligent effort to recoup lost or confused customers.”

Off-brand messaging or promotion, from an insiders’ point of view, confuses staff. Further, it hinders their ability to generate leads, interrupts or slows down the sales cycle, increases costs, damages reputation and credibility and creates confusion in the market, among other things. And when things are fragmented and inconsistent, and your customer becomes disoriented, as the old adage goes, a happy customer tells 2-3 friends about their experience, whereas an unhappy customer will tell 8-10, especially in today’s viral environment, where those numbers can get exponentially worse, in short order.

Investing in innovation, CX and relevance.

Such brands are always at the wheel thinking of new ways to entice consumers. Look, brands that are memorable are yearned; they’re unique; they’re relevant; they’re emotive. There are many brands that capture customers’ hearts. Part of this success lies in keeping true to your brand promise; keeping the emotional connection alive; and tapping and implementing innovative ways to keep your brand alive and well—at every touch point.

Image by Toby Parsons from Pixabay

For example, during the 80s and 90s, Michelin positioned itself as a premium product for safety. And Volvo, still today, prides itself on a stellar record of driver and passenger safety. In terms of tires, apart from the fact that Michelin had a 19.6% market share in the world tire market, any tire company could have claimed or positioned themselves as, “Because so much is riding on your tires”, (Canadian campaign), but Michelin thought of it first, and ran with it. And they delivered on their promise. In terms of brand equity and brand attitude, Michelin earned the trust of their customers who felt a sense of safety and great quality when they were riding on Michelins. It’s this top-of-mind association that breeds a brand’s success—gives it oxygen. The brand needs to be unique—or at least first to this base—to claim their top spot in consumers’ minds, therefore, reducing competition and “tefloning” its brand from ongoing competitive forces from new market entrants, or even existing brands looking for the top spot.

In a fiercely competitive market, other established tire brands did steal part of Michelin’s market-share—who currently have revenues of $25.40B—such as Bridgestone, now in top spot at $27.22B, and others, like Goodyear at $15.37B and Continental at $13.11B, who are now breathing down both Michelin’s and Bridgestone’s necks. But each of them, as in the Fedex case with its competitors, have shrewdly carved out a niche market. For example, Goodyear focuses on aviation, commercial truck, racing, off-road and RV; Bridgestone deals with passenger cars and light trucks, specialty tires for earth-movers and agriculture, two-wheelers and aircraft; and Continental focuses primarily on cars, vans, 4X4s, trucks, buses, motorcycles and specialty tires. And within those segments, their brands have flourished.

Disney, another well-known brand, is positioned as great entertainment for the whole family. From theme parks, restaurants and hotels, to interactive games, entertainment, retail outlets, parties and mascots; and just recently, the addition of their streaming service, Disney+ to combat Netflix, Disney has a plethora of options for any type of person or family to enjoy. And they deliver! A repeat customer (loyalty), needless to say, is what business—a brand—is about.

Image by HenningE from Pixabay

Disney and its theme parks, for example, want all of its customers to leave as happy as they arrived. It needs to be an end-to-end positive experience! We all know how frustrating it can be not easily being able to locate your car after a full day of fun in the sun—to a point where it can dampen your day’s experience in a matter of minutes. Well, worry not! Disney wanted to ensure that your memorable stay at their theme parks remained just that.

They realized a growing number of patrons were unable to locate their car after their extended visit. This was quickly recognized as a sustained issue that Disney set out to efficiently and effectively solve. They created a system of chronology that worked by one’s arrival time, which determined what lot your car was parked. So, if you’re lost in what is an expansive, sprawling parking lot, simply look for help from the very many conspicuously attired Disney staff, tell them when you arrived at the park, and you’ll be at your car in no time. Disney understood that the total customer brand experience needed to be positive at every stage. Now that’s listening to customers and immediately addressing their changing concerns, preferences, wants and needs.

Image by Bogdan Korneker from Pixabay

Coca-Cola, similarly, has a very deep connection with its customers—built over many generations. Coke has become more than a drink; it’s become an emotional part of one’s day. It’s how it makes them feel; it’s how it quenches their thirst like none other. There are a lot of soft drinks on the market, but millions around the world have chosen Coke as their choice, and so have made it their brand. So much so, that when Coke introduced “New Coke” back in 1985, there was immediate and swift protest, resistance and boycott. It seemed Coca-Cola failed to see the deep-rooted emotional connection and proud brand ownership its customers had of their then $70 billion-value brand. It was an unfortunate decision they made. Initially, some thought it was a publicity stunt, but not so. However, there was a silver lining, and was crystallized by the backlash itself. Coke realized their brand had an unwritten DO NOT TAMPER rule within their consumer base. Wow! Not many brands have this sort of protectionist commitment from their customers. Coca-Cola had learned a costly but good lesson: deep insight before action. Stay in touch and always know what drives or motivates your customer—their preferences, wants, needs and emotions.

Image by oberaichwald from Pixabay

Starbucks is another huge global success story. They created an ambience and style that has infused a fresh breath of air into this age-old beverage, and all of a sudden making it the hip drink for many an age. Starbucks essentially changed the corner coffee-store concept into a place to meet people over a cup of latté, do your homework, make some calls, etc. Retail design and packaging, along with knowledgeable, upbeat, friendly people-oriented staff, make for an overall pleasant experience, replete with comfy chairs. Remember the days when we weren’t allowed to do this? It was viewed as loitering. And more recently, they started personalizing their CX by putting their first names on the cup so they can call out your name when your order is ready. That’s a warm, personable reception, I would say. And it adds its own piece to a great brand experience.

Backstory: How did Starbucks, the biggest coffeehouse chain in the world, get to where they are today? Starbucks set out, using the ethnographic research method, to see how serious the Italians were about their espresso break (or should I say, breaks). So in 1983, they went to Milan to observe this national custom. They quickly realized the importance to Italians of not only having an espresso, but how the café became a social meeting place. It was, essentially, after home and work, another place for them to meet and greet, to discuss the day, the soccer game and politics. But way before that, back in the 16th century, Venice was one of the first European ports to import coffee beans. And during the 19th century, men sporting bowler hats, would meet in Turin’s cafés to discuss the planning of Italy’s unification—over an espresso. Long story, short, cafés sprung up across the country, and the concept imbedded itself into Italian culture. Today, Starbucks can say the same thing for North America—and well beyond. What’s more, competition has taken note. Ethnographic Research: Watching people on their turf doing their thing with a given product, evidently, goes a long way in terms of consumer insight. And it did wonders for Starbucks and then CEO, Howard Schultz.


Perhaps the 21st century’s most disruptive player, affecting pretty much everyone and anyone on the planet—from retailing, to logistics and delivery, to e-commerce, to supply chain, to product availability, to pricing—you name it, Amazon has caused it. And dominated it. Amazon has, in many ways, shaken up the industry to a point retailers are forced to go well beyond their comfort zone. They were essentially pushed to innovate and better compete with Amazon. All the while, customers flocked to their site—which operates in three general segments: media, electronics, and other merchandise—to purchase anything from socks and scarves, to TVs, stereos and streaming services, to batteries and phones, to pots and pans, and literally everything in between. What’s more, they created Amazon Prime for shoppers to subscribe with great member benefits such as free fast shipping for eligible purchases, streaming of movies, TV shows and music, exclusive shopping deals and selection, unlimited reading, and more. The Amazon brand and customer experience have become synonymous.

Right now, Amazon (I’ll include Netflix, too) is perhaps the most dominant player when it comes to collecting customer data and intelligence (so much so, some don’t like it because it gets freaky, and their personal data is at risk), from its customers, so it can further personalize the shopping experience. Amazon invests heavily in R&D and innovation; and customers are reaping the benefits.

However, one key factor Amazon trails, is the in-person customer experience. Amazon is a virtual e-commerce giant. This means it can’t compete on an in-person-experience level, to the extent their bricks-and-mortar counterparts can. Amazon’s customer experience and relationship is purely transactional; whereas, other retailers like their archrival, Walmart, for example, can offer a personalized experience. Transactional vs. experiential? In today’s marketplace, striking a positive balance between the two, is critical, but experience is where the biggest opportunity lies, and where the brand can emotionally grow in customers’ minds. It goes way beyond transactional; it can be a differentiating factor when it comes to brand affinity, experience and value. Walmart, too, has a robust e-commerce site, and competes directly with Amazon—as do others, including Costco and Target. And Google is their direct competitor in the virtual space. And Alibaba, based in China, is the world’s biggest e-commerce company by market cap. They are an e-commerce giant among giants.

Amazon also entered the smart-speaker market a few years ago, with its Alexa brand, which powers Amazon’s Echo. With Alexa, Amazon collects data so that it can help and predict what you will need in the coming days and weeks ahead. But it can also provide you with weather, flight delays, restaurant reservations, movie reviews and what temperature you want the room to be. Alexa is always ready and there for you, as your virtual Assistant.

So what’s Amazon’s brand promise? Being the Earth’s biggest selection and being the earth’s most customer-centric company. In Bezos’s Letter to Shareholders, he humbly stated why Amazon continues to be so successful: “Our focus is on customer obsession rather that competitor obsession, eagerness to invent and pioneer, willingness to fail, the patience to think long-term, and the taking of professional pride in operational excellence.” So there you have it. And they deliver! Need they say anything more?

Best Buy…

Knows all too well the importance of customer satisfaction. Just a few short years ago their revenues were lacklustre and showing further signs of fiscal erosion—perhaps even demise. They needed to regroup, and fast. With new leadership, they turned around the ship and became one of the most successful retailers in Canada. But six years earlier, as CEO, Hubert Joly said, “[…] focused on the basics. In this new phase, our purpose as a company is not to sell TVs or computers. It’s to enrich lives through technology by addressing key human needs—entertainment, communication, productivity, security, food preparation and health. We want to go beyond just selling products through transactions to selling solutions and building relationships.” Brilliant!

Best Buy also was shrewd in taking advantage of environmental factors that were occurring, such as the impending demise of both Sears and Toy R Us, competitors on some levels. As such, they moved into appliances and started selling toys like Lego. This afforded Best Buy to increase its offering, making it easier for customers to make Best Buy their one-stop choice for many products, some of which they would not have available had they not made the shrewd move they did. There’s a Darwinism about this story: Survival of the fittest. And Best Buy was floundering, so it reinvented itself. Brands need to reinvent themselves, especially when they see shifts or seismic changes occurring.

To help it achieve its new course to brand-darling status, Best Buy created an in-store experience consumers were yearning for—and couldn’t ignore. And to help make this a success, it re-trained sales workers, front-line staffers—the ones who make the real difference with customers—so they could offer better advice to puzzled customers deciding which model TV, camera, printer, phone or appliance to buy. The brand experience created Best Buy as a renewed destination for many.

And to add to their stable of products and services, in 2003, they acquired all of Geek Squad shares to make it fully their own. Geek Squad is a member-based service that customers can subscribe to for varying price points. Geek Squad is a 24/7 /365 support partner, ready to assist you online, in-store, at home or on the phone. So when you buy a brand, including Best Buy’s house brands, Insignia, Dynex and Rocketfish, you have the option of buying technical care, too. This gives the customer piece of mind when buying a high-risk, high-involvement item.

And on the price front, Best Buy, simply won’t be beat (sorry, that tagline belongs to No Frills, another great Canadian success story I had the pleasure of working for), will match your price if you found it cheaper elsewhere. How can anyone lose?


Image by Michael Gaidas from Pixabay

Apple Computer, with its MacIntosh brand, has revolutionized the way computers look in every sense. Aesthetically, they revolutionized the way computers look, but also how they feel—and operate! They are iconic pieces of art for the everyday desktop. By the way, have you ever noticed that computer prop on TV shows or big-screen movies that weren’t an Apple? The Apple icon is widely recognized. With the introduction of the iPod of the day, to the iPhone, iPad, Air Pod, Mac Air laptops, and who knows what else they’re working on, over time, Apple will most likely further induce market shift in their direction, as a result of its continued uniqueness and paradigm-shifting innovation. Apple is a premium-priced brand. Their product line is not for the cost-conscious. But they do buy iPhones—and they love them. Apple knows they’re trailblazers in their space. Now having a market cap of one trillion-plus dollars, and about $500B dollars in cash, the sky’s the limit. And innovation is at the fore.

Unfortunately, with the passing of Founder, Steve Jobs, consumers, as supportive and patient as they’ve been, constantly waiting with bated breath on Apple’s next phase of innovative products, have been somewhat disappointed. They, including me, are especially waiting for a newly designed iPhone with revolutionary features, like they did with their first model. But because of Apple’s strong brand presence and brand equity, they somehow continue to lead in this space. The emotional attachment still keeps them strong, and customers coming back. Remember the passing of Steve Jobs? Apple, knowing how they, and their customers felt about him and his extraordinary ability to foresee the future, used their website landing page fully dedicated to remembering Steve Jobs. What does this tell you? Like Harley Davidson and Coke, for example, brand affiliation is so strong, so cult-like, it becomes much more that the actual product itself. It’s becomes a part of your life.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

For other brands the connection can be so strong, they, the customer proudly—and organically—create a cult or club to symbolize unity and loyalty. Harley-Davidson is a good example of this. H-D call their customers HOGS: Harley Ownership Group. The Harley-Davidson buyer is typically over fifty, wealthy, many are executives, and they buy such an expensive bike not for transportation but for recreation. The Harley became an American icon; but it has exploded into the international arena as a symbol of free-spiritedness and sheer love for the open road. However, no brand is immune to adversity and changing consumer sentiment. Harley, for the last decade or so, has also been experiencing a decline is sales. Motorcycle interest, it appears by some sources, is in decline. This could be a temporary cycle (pun intended), but I’m inclined to believe Harley-Davidson will resurface as the reigning North Star in the bike space. H-D will need to regroup to figure out a new plan of action—one that will spark deep interest among both Millennials and Gen Z; these are the groups that will determine a brand’s success for the next 20 years. H-D has a great history to build its story on, but it will need to reenergize, perhaps resuscitate its appeal to consumers.

A sales decrease, according to a July 2019 Forbes report by Trefis Team, is mainly due to the global auto market slowdown, and the shrinkage of the heavy motorcycle market in the U.S., its main source of revenue. One area H-D is seeing potential, however, is in ASEAN emerging markets, like Thailand. At a crossroads, Harley-Davidson, evidently, needs to move forward, setting their sights on new segments and geographies, to have a chance at surviving this new trend in bike interest affecting the bike sector. H-D has a strong brand world wide; and it can    re-create itself.

Part of the H-D brand, aside from its widely recognized trademark visual identity that appears on everything from the bike itself, apparel, to merchandise, etc., is the bike’s exhaust roar. As such, H-D attempted to patent its distinctive roar, to no avail. But they’re trying to obtain a patent-like monopoly on the engine technology itself. This is how far a strong, committed company will go to protect its brand. As they should.

BMW created a brand experience and promise to be reckoned with. And they deliver! BMW’s tagline was originally, “The Ultimate Driving Experience,” but has since changed to, “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” How your product makes your customer feel, is a key ingredient to succeeding as a brand. This is a great example of establishing an emotional connection with your customer. BMW has become synonymous with luxury, success and youthfulness. So much so, Mercedes, whose brand image and market position is based on “fascination, perfection and responsibility”, about twenty years ago in the early 2000s, had lost interest to BMW for years, because it was perceived (remember, perception is reality), as a mature driver’s car, woke up and repositioned themselves by introducing racy-looking cars styles with throaty-sounding engines. This, to compete head-on with BMW, with the goal to recapture market share in the luxury-car space. As a result, it’s become a level playing field between the two rivals. Again, it’s about the customer, and you need to align yourself with their ever-changing wants, needs, preferences, emotions—and perceptions, in this case—on an ongoing basis, to survive.

Canada Goose

Metro Sportswear Ltd. was founded in Canada, in 1957 by Sam Tick. At the time, it was known for its woollen vests, raincoats and snowmobile suits. But their story really started in 1982, when Laurie Skreslet made history as the first Canadian to summit Mt. Everest, wearing a custom parka designed and made by Metro Sportswear. So you can see where this is going.

Generations came and went. And so did its name: Metro Sportswear became Snow Goose, later changing to what we know today as Canada Goose. But during the 1990s Dani Reiss, grandson of the founder, Sam Tick, joined the company and elevated its status. The first thing Reiss did was to preserve “Made in Canada.” This was key.

Everyone around the world perceives Canada to be an Arctic-like place where it snows a lot, and where the mercury dips well below zero. Canadians know snow, and they know how to stay warm. Fast forward to today, where Canada Goose, is now an international company that makes the warmest parkas on the planet. Everyone, including celebrities, flock to their conspicuously branded stores to buy one. Canada Goose has come a long way in the last decade. It has also changed ownership, so it could obtain the capital to more easily expand internationally. It has since opened a European office in Sweden. They also introduced knitwear—a new line of premium-priced apparel.

But Canada Goose know its their parkas that are their mainstay product. And even though they’ve introduced new lines of clothing, parkas are at the fore. In-store marketing experiential tactics have proved fruitful for the now-iconic brand. According to Fast Company, Canada Goose’s Cold Room was the best retail experience of the year. Elizabeth Sagran’s post in Fast Company on December 11, 2018, said, “The Cold Room, which opened in Boston during the summer, has been a big attraction for Canada Goose fans. The brand has already opened Cold Rooms at five of its 11 stores, including in Beijing and Montreal. On weekends, I’ve seen long lines of people lining up to have a turn inside.” Here’s the article at

Canada Goose knows how to capture the consumer’s attention; pique their interest; create a desire; and evoke action. And what better way to do this than in-store. With their world-famous parkas, their growing line of products, and their experiential in-store tactics, have further elevated the brand experience, the brand love, brand awareness, and brand equity. It’s also become a status symbol for many. In that vein, Canada Goose has had to deal with copycat parkas that people were buying—at a much lower price. Some knew they were fake, while others did not know they were counterfeit. Canada Goose caught on and created a sort of what-to-look-for campaign to educate Canada Goose consumers so they wouldn’t get fooled by online merchants. This was to protect both consumers who bought from Canada Goose, and those who were about to be fooled by fly-by-night merchants. The key take-away, here, is those consumers wanted a CG parka so badly, they did whatever they could so they wear a one and be a part of this worldwide phenomenon. This is how strong and emotional a brand can become among consumers.

Image by purplegillian from Pixabay

At one point, during the 90s and part of the 2000s, Mac Cosmetics was the retail leader in the cosmetic space. Consumers flocked to their stores and lined up to be served, no matter how long it took. It was THE place to be and get your latest-and-greatest cosmetic products. Less than a decade ago, that all changed. Mac’s space was disrupted by newcomers. Enter Sephora. As a result, in short-enough order, the once great cosmetics brand, Mac, was relegated to the basement sections of malls where the rent was cheaper.

Dominique Mandonnaud founded Sephora in France in 1970. In 1997, a year later, it was acquired by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. A year after that, in 1998, it opened its first North American store. Today, they employ 20,000 people, in 2500 stores, in 32 countries. Talk about bursting onto the cosmetics scene. And in terms of beauty sales, Sephora is the No. 1 retailer in the world.

As Sephora started to grow over the years, they had a plan as to how they wanted to attract the new-age, uber-connected and young mobile consumer:

  1.  Make digital an executive priority
  2. Enhance the physical store
  3. Integrate in-store technologies to engage clients
  4. Personalize product or service recommendations based on customer data
  5. Build partnerships
  6. Cultivate robust loyalty & rewards programs.

These six key factors are what would separate Sephora from the rest—by a country mile! Sephora knew they had to disrupt the industry by changing the in-store dynamic and, consequently, the CX. They pioneered the concept of try-before-you-buy in the cosmetics space; it has since been widely copied across beauty retail. But for the followers, they’re just that: Followers. The first to market usually wins. Sephora had to create a new set of expectations for the customer.

They knew that prior to their entrance consumers had to tolerate what they’ve been used to all along: Walk into a cosmetics store with shelves and displays of make-up and perfumes, including aisles of beauty products; but no tactile experience—you couldn’t touch anything. Well, thanks to Sephora, shoppers no longer had to face a bland, boring and one-dimensional in-store experience. This, alone, differentiated them from the rest. And it was a winning formula! The Sephora brand became synonymous with beauty, ease of shopping, virtual-reality experiences, and a CX like none other. And they are able to sustain premium-brand status with premium-brand pricing. When shoppers reach an emotional high, attachment and affiliation with your brand, you’ve created a strong, long-lasting bond. When walking through a mall with hundreds of shops, from a distance you notice the iconic Sephora black-and-white stripes. You know that’s a key identifier—without their logo—that you’re reaching your destination for a one-of-a-kind beauty experience.

Image by 1150199 from Pixabay

Oreo is a well-known brand in the confectionery vertical sold in over 100 countries. Dating back to 1912, the same year the Titanic sank. A cookie so intrigued by many, they find ways to analyze it. Many test their hypotheses to see how long it takes a classic Oreo to sink. Is there a correlation to the Titanic? I don’t think so, but it is interesting!

Oreo has become THE cookie for many a generation. In 2014, Oreo brand, alone, had $2.5B in annual sales. The two-wafer-ended and creamy centre cookie, take a simple twist to pull apart, and eat. And fifty-percent (mostly women), of Oreo Cookies are pulled apart. As you can see, there’s so much that happens with Oreo Cookies that make them special. This effortless twist action became part of the Oreo brand experience, too. Its taste, colour, shape, size and smell all contributed to its brand identity, making the largest cookie brand in the world so recognizable.

Every single classic Oreo cookie has a ratio of 71 percent cookie to 29 percent cream. And each cookie takes fifty-nine minutes to make. So, sure, go ahead and down a row of five cookies in a matter of two minutes, knowing it took almost five hours to make them. And according to a number of sources, Oreo is the best-selling cookie brand of all time. Backstory: In 1982, consumers spent 10 percent of their cookie dollars on Oreos, according to the 1985 Guinness Book of World Records. And there’s speculation the name is a combination of taking the “re” from “cream” and combining it—like the cookie—between the two “o”s in “chocolate”, making “o-re-o.”

These are all statistics and stories that are readily available. Why? Because the Oreo brand is so ubiquitous and so delicious, many create new experiences to eat them. And when they do that, questions and statistics of the cookie surface, making its ingredients and characteristics fun to know. Can you think of any other cookie brands that do this because of consumer curiosity? This is all part of Oreo branding, folks!

Whole Foods…

Purchased by Amazon in June 2017, for $13.7B, has big plans by taking this new retail infrastructure beyond groceries—organic or otherwise. Whole Foods is taking a strong stand on issues of the environment, employee ethics and sustainable growing practices, according to President and Chief Merchandising Officer, A.C. Gallo, who says, “We believe we can take our Whole Trade program and expand it significantly to other parts of our supply chain, and to move it into other categories[.]”

Image by conceptroof from Pixabay

But before the acquisition, for many years, Whole Foods had an edge over all other grocers in the healthy-eating space. Their brand was rooted in better health and organic options. For years, the Whole Foods brand was top-of-mind. And they charged premium pricing for their products because they were a leader in the “organics” space. Until they weren’t. They didn’t look over their shoulders; they thought they were the lone healthy rangers in a forest of other grocers who didn’t offer what they did. But other grocers like Loblaws and Sobeys built their stables of organic products—to the point where they started to catch up and compete toe-to-toe with Whole Foods. Customers, soon enough, realized they had other options with competitive, often better, pricing. So they tried them out. They switched—partially or entirely, temporarily or permanently. Soon enough, Whole Foods’ bottom line started to show signs red ink; and their market value started to downward-spiral, becoming an attractive takeover target to lurking sharks. Amazon was such shark.

Whole Foods was lucky they were acquired by a powerhouse brand who has the capital and resources to further build what they have, compete directly with Loblaws, Sobeys, and now with Arch rival, Walmart, who has entered the grocery space—with vigour! In this instance, even as the healthy-eating edge was key to customers, with all things virtually equal, pricing became an increasing concern and comparative factor.

Whole Foods is closing some stores and opening new, smaller-format ones in the greater Toronto Area, for instance, to compete in the changing grocery shopper landscape where consumers want fresh, daily options with quick in-and-out check-out, or even delivered to their home.  The Whole Foods brand took a bad hit when organic options became more mainstream, driving down pricing in the sector. We haven’t witnessed yet what Amazon’s greater plan is for Whole Foods, but I’m sure they will leverage the existing infrastructure to help with their supply chain and logistics capabilities, especially in exurb and rural areas where incomes are higher than the norm and the brand has longer-term sustainability in such markets. Time will tell.

Image by freestocks-photos from Pixabay

Personal conveyance has been around for a long time. Those without their own transportation, or those who used taxis for personal reasons, always knew they could hail a cab and get to their destination. Pricing was monopolized by a few players who made protecting their space, a priority. Then the industry was disrupted by start-ups like Lyft and Uber. They sprung onto the conveyance scene by storm. Before long, they started poaching market share from traditional taxi cab companies, with their lower pricing, app-based ride-hailing convenience, tracking ability and ease-of-use right—from the palm of your hand.

Ride-sharing drivers work as independent contractors, and essentially run their own quasi-franchise businesses. Traditional taxicabs mainly focus on urban areas where ride requests are many, and arrival timeframes to pick-up zones are shorter, keeping driver’s cars populated vs. empty. This greater-frequency goal positively affects revenue and profit margins. Until Uber and Lyft entered the fray with their algorithm-based formula that works wherever the rider is situated—urban or suburban.

FUSE, an online forum for igniting conversations and objective commentary, Fuse states that “[…] Uber and Lyft drivers report experiencing significantly less “down time” than a traditional taxi driver. The app-based ride-hailing algorithms seem, anecdotally, to ensure that the driver can usually find the next ride near where she or he has dropped off the previous ride. This minimizes non-revenue-earning time, instead enabling the vehicle to spend more time in motion with a fare-paying passenger inside. According to many drivers, Uber ride requests are often either continuous or separated by less than five minutes. Many Uber drivers commented that they notice very short wait times between rides. For example, an Uber driver in the Boston metro area, who picked me up at a city-center location for a trip to a suburban location half an hour away, indicated that it is rare that he has to wait more than 15 minutes for his next ride request in the Boston metro area.”

This changed everything. There were protests by conventional cab companies, and the government got involved to help itself understand this new cab-and-rider dynamic. In the end, needless to say, the Ubers and Lyfts won the battle. Pushed to change its ways and better compete, traditional cabbies developed apps similar to theirs, and pushed for reform in the new space so there could be some semblance of fairer competition. It worked, partially. But it wasn’t nearly enough. Uber, which by one source, translates to Universal Binding Energy Relation Community, works by this positioning: “Doors are always opening.” We are about moving people to where they want to be. In their day, in their lives, in the moment. And their mission: “We ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion.” This is exactly what they do every day. They do it well. They do it effectively. They do it efficiently. It’s easy to use. It’s easy to pay. It’s convenient. Full stop!

This is their brand story. This is their raison d’etre—their justification for existence. For being. Both Lyft and Uber brands have created an ecosystem where riders are in control of when, where and how they move from A to B. This is why they’re both so successful. Their brands are synonymous with independence, accessibility and affordability. The emotional connection is apparent, and the brand (service), make customers’ lives easier. An unrecognized or unconcious pain point, fixed.

On the flip side…

There are many brands that have unfortunately gone awry—by the thousands! Some of those brands are multinationals in various sectors with billion-dollar budgets and highly paid, highly educated CEOs. Evidently, even they are not immune to failure or demise. Today’s retail landscape is very unforgiving. So many brands over the past five years or so, have gone silent—for myriad reasons, and branding, in all of its ways, is always a part of that equation.

Image Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

Hitting a wall…

Large-format bookstores like !ndigo Books (largest chain in Canada, and have also entered the U.S.) with its Coles Books, Chapters, SmithBooks and The Book Company brands, want you to stay in-store for as long you need—or want—to browse, read, and even enjoy a latté from their in-store café. They have a grand selection of pastries, dozens of varieties of coffee, tea and syrup… And now they’ve introduced more non-literary merchandise such as candles, pillows and baby toys to tickle your fancy, and hopefully to keep customers interested in !ndigo. But in the last two years, they’ve been feeling the pinch—or should I say, punch—from direct competitors like Amazon. Amazon started off selling books, and grew to selling pretty much everything, including candles, pillows and baby toys.

But !ndigo is not alone in its space, that have encountered marketplace challenges: Borders, the No. 2 bookstore chain in the U.S., closed in 2011. And Barnes & Noble, sold to a private equity firm for $683M, recently, was also in trouble—for the last decade! It shuttered 150 outlets, as a result. Amazon is being blamed for their quasi-demise. B&N tried to keep up with Amazon, to no avail, especially after Amazon started opening their own bricks-and-mortar stores.

At !ndigo’s 2019 AGM, Founder and CEO, Heather Reisman told shareholders, “There’s a real need for newness on a continuing basis and that’s our job,” she said, adding the company wants to put its efforts this financial year into the overall evolution of its general merchandise and lifestyle products.” They hired a Chief Creative Officer to help them with this transition and resuscitation process, if you will, with the goal of keeping !ndigo from losing marketshare, and remaining relevant. Just before time of publishing, !ndigo announced a new service called Thoughtfull, an e-commerce platform based on year-round personalized gifting assistance. According to Strategy Magazine of Toronto, who interviewed !ndigo, they said the dedicated e-commerce site would allow users to [“…enter information about a recipient to receive a personalized gift list and related articles. Shoppers can browse through a traditional ecommerce interface, but even there, products are grouped into categories like “foodie,” “self-care” and ‘creativity.’”

Years back, !ndigo were a top-of-mind brand when thinking all things, books. But, as mentioned earlier, it’s a fluid and dynamic market, and customers are always introduced to new ideas, products, services, and experiences—from competitors or disruptive newcomers. Retail MUST be at least one step ahead and ready for action, to have any chance at surviving in today’s cutthroat marketplace. And this is evident now more than ever. Time will tell.

Victoria’s Secret…

For decades, a darling in the affordable lingerie and sleepwear market, including its Pink sub-brand, and its world-renowned annual runway fashion show, held in various parts of the world, including London, England, Miami, Los Angeles, Cannes, Paris and Shanghai, among others, and featuring performances by Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Ariana Grande, to name a few, has hit a wall with changing consumer sentiment. Victoria’s Secret has been criticized for a lack of inclusivity, and not reflecting today’s consumer’s body sizes, but also in part because of comments made by their CMO in an interview with Vogue last year, where he said he had plans to keep the skimpy-sized models. Further, the LGBTQ2+ community were firing back asking why transsexual models were not being used. VS’s promotions featured photo-manipulated photos, as opposed to natural-looking ones like Aerie is using—to great success and reception. And last, apparently, there is consumer perception that product quality has slipped, too. So there’s a lot Victoria’s Secret is dealing with, all at once. They need to re-group. And fast!

Meantime, big-name celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna, to name a few, who have fuller, shapely bodies, and who appeal to millions around the world, sparked an organic shift in how consumers look at themselves, and how they shopped, going forward. As well, such groups started to take offense from retailers who didn’t adjust to today’s reality of consumers’ body shapes and sizes. Based on my research from various sources, in the U.S., for example, for women aged 20-plus, the average body size is 14. (Some sources such as say it’s now between 16 and 18), five feet, 4 inches tall, and weigh 170.6 lbs. If you look at what Victoria’s Secret portrays in their promotions, merchandise and shows, you quickly see the disparities.

Consequently, since 2018, Victoria’s Secret has so far, closed 83 stores. Staying relevant and ensuring you represent and reflect society and its changing preferences, wants and needs, gives you a better chance at survival. As a result of Victoria’s Secret’s lack of vision and relevance, it may just cost their band to be relegated to product or commodity status vs. their once- reigning brand status.

Other examples of brands that have gone silent, or are experiencing significant market-share declines, include Sears, Forever 21, Barneys New York, Diesel, Payless, Gymboree, Toys R Us, Target Canada, Aeropostale—the list goes on. And more retail carnage will follow. There are many reasons for their demise: lack of relevance, lacklustre e-commerce capabilities, supply chain issues, culture, M&As (Mergers & Acquisitions) not properly executed or not culturally aligned, CX, UI (User eXperience), high turnover, complacency, and sleeping at the wheel, etc.

These are all directly attributed to what today many call the retail apocalypse, which is an overly dramatic way of viewing things, in my opinion. There’s no apocalypse! And there’s certainly no complete supplanting of bricks and mortar by e-commerce. That’s an impossibility if you think about it—for just a second, I would hope. The age-old bricks-and-mortar concept is alive and well—at least for those who understand today’s customer; understand the brand concept, and truly understand their role in the marketplace, and how their product fills a void, adds to an experience, adopts the relevant technology, and creates a sustainable desire among consumers and customers, alike. Sadly, many still blame their failure on Amazon. Sure, initially, perhaps, as their assault was huge and unexpected; and many were regrouping and adjusting to Amazon’s disruption. But it’s been a while, now. Amazon is only a scapegoat for the inexperienced CEO and brand leader. Evidently! So for the record, the bricks-and-mortar concept is here to stay.

In sum, do your research, accurately assess, plan accordingly, and take it to market once all your ducks are in order, and your fiscal footing is sound. Whether you have seed money, angel investors, capital infusion or shareholders who believe and trust in your brand, always remember to hit a home run with your customer. It never ends. Until you do. And what you get in return, apart from earning a living, is the greatest satisfaction in knowing you have positively affected someone’s life where they show you loyalty and ongoing patronage. Branding: More than meets the eye.

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  1. Nicholas has share a succinct essay about branding and the marketing essentials that tie into the notion of a product/service/corporate/personal brand. In my opinion as a CPM, it is as valid for a micro business as it is for a transnational with thousands of employees. Since most businesses in Canada are small businesses, this article is extremely valuable to the owner of a small business and its employees. It just might trigger actions that would deliver goals and objectives of the enterprise to “build a better world through marketing.” I for one will be sharing the article.

  2. Thank you, Grant, for your kind words. Appreciate getting feedback from a fellow, seasoned marketer. It was a long one this time around, but I really enjoyed writing it. Onto the next. Stay tuned!

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