Where's the Love? Sustaining Brand Value

The challenge of sustaining brand value in the 21st century

Man and Dog
In his film “Enter the Dragon,” martial arts master Bruce Lee critiques a student’s technically correct but lackluster kick. Lee remarks, “We need emotional content.” The student tries again, and the master intones, “Don’t think. Feeeeel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.”

Marketing isn’t so different. A marketer informs, inspires, and motivates consumers to act. Emotional content is essential, yet business conditions make it increasingly difficult to convey. Media consumption is fragmented. Consumers are bombarded with messages. And commerce itself is changing as businesses automate, consolidate, globalize, and outsource customer service to faraway lands.

Even though they know more than ever about their customers, sellers have fewer opportunities for meaningful interactions. Consumers share personal information when shopping online. e-tailers use profiling and data mining to discern individual and group behaviors. Traditional sellers use loyalty and membership programs to collect reams of data as well. Yet the customer experience is increasingly depersonalized, whether the customer buys online, uses self checkout, or shops at the big box. More importantly, while the seller may know everything about a customer, the customer may feel nothing in return. Emotional content is missing.

This is an obvious business risk, especially when the cost of switching to a competitor is low. A Web-savvy buyer can use the Internet to scour the globe for lower prices or better terms. But the risk runs deeper because when we talk about emotional content we’re really talking about brands and the brand experience. Without emotional content, a brand is just an expensive logo. Brand strength has a direct impact on a company’s ability to support higher margins, introduce new products, or break new categories. (Think Rio vs. iPod). Over time this depersonalization of customer interaction erodes brand value and ultimately corporate value.

Counteracting this effect takes time, both in the frequency and duration of customer interactions. With the pace of business accelerating and more customers served with fewer resources, it may seem impossible. A few keystrokes, a click of a button, and the customer is gone. Yet some companies manage to succeed, and they do it by focusing not just on their relationships with customers, but on the relationships among customers in their brand communities.

Starbucks is one such company. A coffee purchase takes just a minute, yet the customer may remain for hours chatting with friends while enveloped in “the Starbucks experience.” Apple is another. According to the NPD Group, iPod holds a 61 percent share of market versus 7 percent for #2 Rio. Apple achieved this dominance with the help of brand loyalists who amplified Apple’s emotional content throughout the population.

Starbucks and Apple use different techniques. Starbucks elevates mass customization to an art form. (That’ll be a Double Tall Low Fat Half-Caf Latte Extra Hot for Dave.) Apple infuses consumer electronics with equal parts high art, whimsy, rebellion, and desire. What both companies share is the recognition of the communal aspects of the customer experience. Starbucks satisfies its brand community’s desire for social interaction by providing a kind of urban oasis. Apple satisfies its brand community’s iconoclasm by including it in collective resistance to the status quo.

While marketers may know more than ever about customers, modern commerce demands the extra effort to restore the emotional content that sustains and increases brand value. A brand community framework, which considers the social interactions beyond the business transaction, provides the perfect place to start. END

David M. Kalman is the president of Terrella Media, Inc.