A friend who is a Fortune 500 exec asked us recently, “What really makes a brand?” We knew he was an experienced and knowledgeable guy, and we owed him a thoughtful reply. What initially came to mind were all the elements that affect a brand: its logo, its catch phrase, its positioning, and so on.
But after really thinking it over we came up with an answer that seemed to be the bottom line: A brand is the consistent delivery of its promise. A brand without a following is really just a logo. As long as your consumers’ expectations are consistently met, they will generally remain loyal and increase your brand value.
At first those expectations are based on your claims as the producer, then the experience of family, friends and professional reviewers. But once your customers have a positive personal experience with your brand, they virtually stop shopping. If the brand continues to deliver over time, they become loyal to the brand. That repeated experience results in an expectation or brand promise.
You may think you are formulating your brand promise in your marketing department, but its true promise is created by your consumers and their perception of your brand. In effect, they own the brand. If you are sensitive to that ownership, you will meet their expectations year after year.
In our experience, we have found that the Brand Promise stands on 4 important pillars:
1. Availability. No matter how good your brand is, they can’t buy it if it isn’t there! When your customers can’t find your product where they shop, they don’t complain. They don’t special order. They just buy a similar product that is there! Even when your product comes back in stock they are hesitant to buy it again because you broke an essential part of your brand’s promise, to always be conveniently available.
2. Value. Also known as value for money, your brand’s positioning relative to the other offerings in the market sets up an expectation. Price changes, repositioning, and other inconsistencies can be fatal to brand loyalty. Your brand’s real or perceived value must live up to your customer’s expectations. Don’t let your bookkeepers and your production departments inadvertently “cheapen” your brand to “save” money or increase “profits”. These tactics can break the brand promise and lose you loyal customers.
3. Advertising. How you get the word out about your product or service sets up an expectation in the minds of your consumers. When you suddenly change advertising venues or techniques, you risk breaking the brand promise. This is critically important when you rely on networking, referrals, or word of mouth. If you suddenly go to commercial advertising, you risk offending and silencing the very word of mouth advertising you have enjoying.
4. Packaging. Everything from your logo to your catch phrase, from your packaging to your signage must deliver the reliable message of consistent dependability. Packaging produces a perception of value that can trump even price. So when it comes to changes or “improvements,” use evolution, not revolution. When sales are slow, the temptation is to change the logo or the package. Many times this prescription breaks the brand promise and has the opposite desired effect.
Most consumers don’t want to shop. They want to be rid of the anxiety of not knowing what they will get. They don’t really want to waste precious time and money in trial and error, looking for a new brand that may or may not deliver. It’s easier to stick with a brand they have grown to rely on.
Once you discover your customers’ perception of your brand promise, deliver on that promise consistently and dependably. Remember, honoring your brand promise is not what you say; it’s what you do – and don’t do.
Who Are We.
Having built and sold a bestselling national brand, we appreciate the value of brands and everything it takes to make them successful. Companies are valued by their brand equity. Achieving and maximizing brand equity requires tremendous respect for all your customers, from your wholesaler to your end user.
Starting in our laundry room with no money and no knowledge of the industry, we built the famous Barefoot Wine brand. We learned a lot they don’t teach in school and much of it the hard way. Although our success was in consumer products, our real world experience will be helpful to anyone looking for information and advice about brands.
We have written the New York Times Bestselling Business Book, The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand, which chronicles the history of the famous brand from its inception through its acquisition. Our book is now required reading in schools of entrepreneurship across the country. We hope this book will provide inspiration and encouragement for all those contemplating starting a brand or wanting to improve their existing brand.
Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey
-Barefoot Wine Founders