In the midst of a market crowded with brands aiming to establish themselves as socially and environmentally conscious, it can be nearly impossible to analyze genuine value. Modern brands that hope to achieve lasting success must create brand value at the heart of differentiation and stakeholder expectations, writes Daniel Allocca, managing director of marketing and communications firm Prosek Partners.
“A genius is the one who resembles him the most. “ -Moine Thelonious
The famous pianist Thelonius Monk was one of the most influential founders of bebop jazz – no doubt a genius, having learned to read music before taking his first lesson and won the Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater so many times in Harlem that he was ultimately banned from participating in the competition as a whole. And that’s exactly what he accomplished at the age of 13. Ultimately, it wasn’t Monk’s exceptional abilities that made him famous, it was his inventiveness. After all, there is no shortage of talents in this life – there is a lack of originality.
Enter: the great brand identity crisis
The past 18 months have been like a coming-of-age story for many professional service brands. We’ve seen so many brands become clones of each other, ultimately doing each other a disservice and obscuring their narrative and focus.
Let me demonstrate my point through a quick exercise… name a professional services brand that wasn’t endlessly passionate about ESG, a champion of diversity, a supporter of the climate change agenda and just a general advocate of all good things over the past year? Can you remember one or two of them and describe some specific actions they take? Do you remember it in detail? Or can you remember a purchase or financial commitment you made as a result?
If you’re like most of us, you don’t remember much. Just not because these topics don’t matter – they are, in fact, the greatest opportunities and responsibilities of our time. But brands missed the opportunity to differentiate themselves in a way that was authentic to their offering and in a way that met customer needs and expectations.
Finding your brand value takes discipline
Make no mistake here: companies that take responsibility for the advancement of the good of society are an incredible thing. Our world will undoubtedly be a better place. But as communicators and brand builders, we need to be disciplined to frame our narrative in a way that builds our reputation and generates revenue through long-term brand value creation. The fundamentals of the company and the brand still apply, perhaps more than ever:
1. Differentiation. Why does our company exist? And what does our company do better than the rest?
2. Expectations. What do our customers need and expect from us?
At the intersection of these two points is your economic lever, your brand value.
Developing and protecting your brand is the same as developing and protecting your business.
Whether you are a small law firm, a hedge fund, or a global investment bank, the fundamentals of branding are the same. Brand value allows you to charge a premium over your costs for services that would not otherwise be possible with a lower brand.
As a result, brands with high brand value retain the highest gross margins – due to their pricing power – and the highest loyalty – due to consistently meeting needs. Brand value is what your organization does best and what your customers love you the most for. And that should be sacred to your business; without it, you become a commodity, or worse, you might cease to exist altogether. When you deliver messages to the market that don’t reinforce your brand value, you are diluting value, by definition.
I had an MBA professor who kept shouting, “Don’t cut prices, add value!” Like most deep nuggets of knowledge, the sentiment is short, sweet, and memorable. If nothing else, endlessly obsessed with improving your brand value and how to consistently communicate that value to the market.
Focus, then focus a little more
Trumpeter Miles Davis once said, “Sometimes you have to play for a long time to be able to play like yourself. Finding your identity – and maintaining it amidst competitive forces, changing societal expectations and customer needs – requires relentless focus.
The advent of modern digital marketing – especially social media – has provided remarkable scale and targeting capabilities. But it also made for really poor marketing. And it has allowed many brands to lose their narrative, which really is their identity, too quickly. The ability to be responsive and move quickly has reduced much of the discipline that once existed in a slower world. When print ads, TV spots, and the daily news cycle were the primary means of marketing, brands had to be methodical planners and take focused bets on the future.
So while our extensive and seemingly endless modern marketing tools are incredible catalysts, we need to approach them with the same traditional marketing rigor as before. As such, breaking out of the current cycle of identity crisis will require brands to establish a long-term messaging strategy and focus intensely. Dare I say that we need to create messages like we did before. To slow down; your brand is meant to last for years – maybe even forever – so take the time to get it right, and remember to be authentic and original. After all, “a genius is the one who resembles him the most.”
Daniel Allocca is Managing Director of Prosek Partner.