By Taylor Preston
By Taylor Preston
2020 is finally over (phew!), and as we dive headfirst into 2021, it’s a good time for businesses to begin gearing up for the “next normal.” Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a polarizing political climate, left many businesses hanging on by a thread as they were suddenly forced to navigate through lockdowns, tight health and safety restrictions, a struggling economy, and a newly supercharged cancel culture fueled by social media.
Some companies succeeded, while others fell flat on their faces. And there were countless businesses stuck somewhere in between, just riding out the storm. But with a new year comes new hope, opportunities and a chance for businesses and their brands to evolve. According to the insiders at McKinsey, “2021 will be the year of transition. Barring any unexpected catastrophes–individuals, businesses, and society can start to look forward to shaping their futures rather than just grinding through the present.”
As marketing experts, we’re always really into understanding the power that a brand can weild. And since 2020 was a bit EXTRA when it comes to what makes or breaks a brand, our crew is geeking out a little more than usual as we lean into 2021. From the local pizza shop that kept customers lined up for takeout to the big, national consumer brands that won big in 2020, consumers made it clear (and loudly) who their favorite brands were.
So it got our team thinking–what really makes a brand worth fighting for? And what makes a brand the last one picked (aka the stuff of middle school gym class nightmares). Was it their branding? Their customer service? Products? Backstory? Value? Something else? Or all of the above? Over the next couple of months, our team is going to dig into some of the lessons winning brands taught us in 2020 (and continuing to teach us in 2021), and together we’ll explore how your business can piggyback on their successes in 2021.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes a brand worth fighting for
Your company’s brand is one of your most important assets. It can give you an identity in the market, help make your business memorable with consumers, encourage purchasing, support marketing efforts, and even be a source of employee pride. And in 2020, we learned that consumers tend to gravitate toward brands they feel an emotional connection to…big time.
In 2021, brands that are authentic, are winning. In fact, according to Hubspot, customers that “have an emotional relationship with a brand have a 306% higher lifetime value and will recommend the company at a rate of 71%, rather than the average rate of 45%.” Customers are also opting to “vote with their dollars,” with 60% of consumers choosing to buy from or boycott a brand solely because of its stand on a social or political issue.
Your brand’s story is at the heart of your brand identity and is the secret to connecting with the right customers. Just like people, brands each have a unique personality, voice, and look. And this is often what makes a consumer choose one brand over the another, even when the products are similar. (Think iPhone vs. Samsung Galaxy: Similar product purpose and quality; totally different die hard, loyal customer bases.)
Finding your brand’s story is about putting your finger on the pulse of what makes your company tick and finding what makes your brand uniquely you. It’s about finding your ‘why’. As 2020 has shown us, customers are tired of doing business with nameless, faceless brands. They want to know not only how your product or service can make their lives better, but what your brand stands for, even when no one is looking.
Real-World Example: Farm Girl Flowers
Floral industry disruptor, Farm Girl Flowers, took hit after hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, causing a 60% dip in revenue, major layoffs, the forced relocation of their San Francisco warehouse, and the loss of more than $150K in flower inventory. But when the company struggled, like so many other small businesses to secure a PPP loan, their founder worried they might not make it through Mother’s Day, their biggest holiday. So Christina Stembel, founder and owner of Farm Girl Flowers, took to YouTube and email to openly share her business frustrations and challenges with their customers. The result? An outpouring of support, love for the brand and record-breaking sales.
When defining your brand personality, it’s OK to let your freak flag fly and even buck the system. In fact, rooting your brand story firmly in what makes you different from your competitors might just give you the edge you’ve been looking for. Give yourself permission to let your brand feel like it fits your personality. It’s even OK to evolve it right in front of your customers. But remember, transparency and authenticity are key. According to Forbes, customers can easily sniff out a fake, and more than half of consumers believe that there are too many brands taking a stand on issues simply to sell more products.
Real-World Example: Budweiser
For the first time in almost 40 years, there weren’t any Budweiser Clydesdale ads during the 2021 Super Bowl. Instead, the beer giant donated its campaign spend to the Ad Council to help get the word out about the importance of the coronavirus vaccine. Budweiser CMO, Marcel Marcondes explains: “We don’t want to go back to normal. We want to get better, we need to keep the learnings, and we need to evolve.” And Marketing VP, Monica Rustgi, added “…we knew we had to do something bigger than beer. We realized we needed to lean in a bit more with heart.”
The way you portray your brand is just as important as its personality. After all, it’s how you make a first impression. And consistency is key. In other words, don’t look like a hot mess. From your tagline and logo to your colors, font and other key branding elements, such as packaging and collateral, your brand has to walk the walk and talk the talk. This is how you build awareness and trust. If your customers can’t recognize your brand when they come to your website or engage with other key touchpoints like your social media or a tradeshow booth, then how can you expect them to remember you, let alone continue to engage with your brand? Odds are, your competitors are doing a really great job with brand consistency and wow-ing their clients with every brand engagement. Don’t let your brand get left behind.
If you can’t remember the last time your brand went through a visual refresh or everything is mixed and matched and feeling a little ad hoc, it might be time for a brand makeover. Before diving in, it’s a good idea to take a look at how your brand image is currently resonating and how it jives with your brand story. What’s working? What’s outdated? What could use a little spitshine? What areas need a complete overhaul? Does your tagline still make sense? Does the brand still feel like you? What’s the competition up to? And what do your customers really care about?
A lot may have changed since you first started your company, particularly as you try to navigate a post-2020 world. Now is a great time to think about why your customers and future consumers should choose your brand. How are you reaching them and communicating why your products, service or experience are worth fighting for? And is your current brand on point or a little bit stale and in need of a refresh?
A brand refresh isn’t just swapping out colors in your logo and slapping on a new tagline, it’s about understanding how your brand needs to play across multiple touchpoints. Are the assets you currently have working hard enough for your brand? Do you need to add something new? Maybe you’re an eCommerce brand that has just opened up a brick and mortar storefront and now you need signage. Or maybe you’re a B2B manufacturer that suddenly finds themselves with a need to have a website where customers can order direct. Are you looking to amp up the volume on social media and considering what channels to add or how to make your content more engaging? Does adding TikTok make sense? Or should you focus more time and energy on building your LinkedIn? Make sure to intentionally strategize about platforms that are right for your brand’s personality.
Take a look at all of the places your brand lives now and give some serious thought about what needs to be updated, overhauled, scrapped, or added. Remember, consistency is key, so if you update your logo or company name, you’ll need to make sure that your new look is carried across all of your assets. This might mean a new website, adding branded video content, new packaging, or even an outgoing voicemail that reflects your new brand personality. You might also need to meet new compliance regulations, such as the ADA compliance rules for website accessibility.
And whether you’re a big, nationally known brand or a local brand well-loved in your community, there’s always room for improvement to refresh your brand, connect with new audiences and get back on track.
Real-World Example: Burger King
In 2021, Burger King went through their first major brand overhaul in more than 20 years. Staying in touch with their irreverent personality and tapping their past for inspiration, the fast food giant unveiled new branding that is a giant nod to their iconic 1960s logo. The new bold look can be seen across the brand’s logo, signage, food packaging and in-store graphics. It even extends to their social media along with the aprons and uniforms restaurant workers are now wearing. The result? An entirely new brand experience for Burger King’s customers that touches the past, but sets up the brand for success today.
Thinking about changing your brand? While you can probably jot down a few good ideas, it might be helpful to call in a branding pro to handle the heavy lifting. Not only can they bring in some outside perspective, which is really helpful when you’re too close to your brand, but they also bring expertise to the table. Think of a branding pro like you would a mechanic. You may be able to sense that something is wrong with your car or even be a great backyard mechanic yourself but might not have the know-how, tools, or time to get the job done right. Working with a brand expert can help your brand get back on track and ready to battle the competition more quickly.
So how does it work? An experienced brand expert may start with initial discovery workshops, designed to dig deep into your brand and help understand how you stack up against the competition. From there, they’ll likely put together new brand positioning and give you a new look. As part of your refresh, expect to update things like your logo, website, marketing collateral, and your social media. Remember, consistency is key! You can also usually expect your brand expert to provide some ‘how to’ tools to help you keep your brand in check moving forward, such as style guides, brand look books, and key brand messaging. Make sure you receive proper design files for any new logos and templates. And it’s good to also talk to your brand expert about any legal concerns you may have such as trademarking your new brand identity or website ADA compliance.
It can be argued that communication is perhaps the very essence of what we think of when we refer to marketing. Professionals in the biz study it, earning degrees in various kinds of communication — ranging from marketing and advertising to graphic design and public relations. Getting a clear message out to potential customers in order to sell your goods or services is at the very heart of what good marketing is all about. In fact, the American Association of Marketing even defines marketing as such:
“Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”
So, how do you form a coveted emotional connection with your customers? And then, how do you make it authentic? We know it begins with building a strong brand foundation, but what comes next? And how do you keep customers coming back time and time again?
The answer: COMMUNICATION.
Let’s take a closer look at why communication is so important to the success of a brand.
Did you know that as part of the customer buyer journey, prospects generally go through 3 critical phases when considering whether or not to buy your product or hire you?
Communicating what your brand has to offer is a key part of getting in front of the customer during their buyer journey. Yet so many brands miss the mark. In order for a prospective customer to even consider your brand, let alone decide that you’re their number one pick, you first have to be on their radar. And yes, this starts with clearly communicating who you are, what you do, and how you can help.
Sounds simple enough, right? But here’s the thing–not only do you have to be clear, you have to be consistent. As well as demonstrate your value and form a relationship with prospects and customers. That’s the emotional connection factor we mentioned before.
As with people, brands can (and should) have their own distinct personality. How you choose to express this personality can play a key role in why someone might choose your product over a competitor. Although you may have exactly the same thing to offer on a fundamental level, most likely you have some key differences from your competition. Just like Coke and Pepsi. Or McDonald’s and Burger King. Maybe your company has been around longer so you have more expertise. Perhaps your value is delivered with your employees because of how you treat them. Or maybe your features and benefits are apples to apples with the competition but you donate a percentage of your sales to a cause that your competitor doesn’t.
Whatever the case may be, understanding what makes you different and communicating these points of differentiation to potential customers is a vital part of any successful marketing communications strategy.
And bonus points if you’re also able to communicate why you do what you do. In fancy marketing terms, this is called your brand proposition or unique positioning statement.
Once you know what your brand’s main differentiators are and have the proof points to back them up, it’s time to start crafting your messaging. Think about your company’s who, what, where, how, and why and start jotting down some of the things you’d like your customers to know about your brand, people, products, or services. A great question to ask yourself as you’re writing key messaging is “Why does my customer care?” It’s important to keep them as the “hero” of your story because after all, you wouldn’t be in business without your customers. Start with some simple bullets bucketed into those who, what, where, how, and why categories and later refine these starter thoughts into copy that can be used in your marketing materials, on your website, in sales pitches, or in simple sales conversations, and even when you answer the company phone.
Once you know what you want to say, it’s time to figure out how you want to say it. It’s a good idea to try and have your words and your brand’s voice mirror who you are as an organization. If you’re a super tech-forward company, but the content on your website reads as dated, your customers will notice the disconnect. The same goes for your personality. If you have a really hands-on team that’s approachable and friendly but your marketing materials come off as dry and brash, you won’t be communicating your true value clearly. You’ll also want to think about the types of customers you want to attract and how your tone matches. Think Madewell versus Ann Taylor. They’re both women’s clothing brands, but with very different personalities. Madewell’s tone is friendly, curious, casual, and cheeky to attract the Gen Z to the Millennial generation. While Ann Taylor is welcoming, sophisticated, graceful, and secure to attract an older audience of women–Baby Boomers to Gen X.
A big part of forming a lasting bond with your customers is earning their trust. Mean what you say and say what you mean. And most of all, be consistent. Switching things up too often can cause confusion to the consumer and may make you look wishy-washy as an organization. It’s OK if you evolve your messaging or even your expertise, but always try to be transparent about why things might be changing. Customers that have trust in a brand tend to stick around longer and are even willing to ride out the lows (and fight for you during those lows), so it’s a good idea to keep them in the loop as things change.
Just like any strong personal relationship, asking for feedback and being open to constructive criticism is an important part of communicating as a brand. There are many ways you can seek out the opinions of your customers to learn what you’re doing right and where you could use some improvement. You can use public-facing tools such as Google Reviews or Yelp. Tools like these allow you to not only build a solid reputation online (which is great for SEO, too) but will give you the opportunity to engage directly with customers, responding publicly to their concerns and inquiries. Another great way to get honest customer feedback is to offer a chance for customers to share their thoughts privately. Consider emailing a survey after they’ve visited your place of business or ordered a product.
After you’ve received feedback you can use what you learn to help improve your processes, customer experience, or products. And you never know, a customer’s bright idea or even a complaint may serve as inspiration and open up new opportunities for your brand.
Perhaps the most important part of communication is deciding where you will share your message. There are many ways to spread the word about your business and brand. It’s a good idea to weigh your options against your objectives when creating the best marketing mix or campaign. And don’t forget to consider your budget. Some tactics, such as a website, collateral, or social media, might be part of your marketing fundamentals, while advertising, digital marketing, or videos might be tied to a particular campaign or initiative.
But whatever marketing projects you choose to take on, it’s a good idea to gut-check them against your audience and goals. You have to ensure that you’re meeting your audience where they already live. If your audience is on TikTok, there’s a good chance they’re not using LinkedIn as often. So lean into short-form video content. But if they’re on LinkedIn or Facebook, there’s a good chance they’re probably not using the latest cutting-edge app. Stay true to your personality and the right customers will find you.
While there are absolutely some things you can do in-house, mapping out a marketing strategy and executing materials can be a heavy lift–especially if you don’t have an in-house marketing team or graphics department. If you need an expert eye or just an extra set of hands to help with specialized projects, consider partnering with an expert. A tried and true marketing firm can not only help you identify your brand positioning and key messaging, but they can also help you maximize ROI by creating a marketing road map and developing professional-looking assets that are sure to stand out.
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