Ten things great brands do

What do great brands do? Great things! But in this instalment of Karl Treacher’s Brand Talk, you won’t only get that contrived answer, he’ll let you in on the principles that define great brands.

I’m in a tall building in Melbourne talking with a group of senior leaders about their brand. Outside rain pelts the windows, as we sit comfortably ordering a variety of coffees from an in-house waiter. A scene from a medieval king’s court fleetingly pops into my head and I await the predictable command, ‘Off with his head!’. At that moment I feel a strong hand on my neck and turn to see the CMO excited to share their latest brand plans and social media strategy. Returning to reality, I make a mental note to stop watching Game of Thrones.

Within a matter of seconds, I am asked a familiar question: ‘What makes a great brand?’ The answer to this question is simple: Great brands do great things. Great things for their customers, great things for employees and, as a result, great things for their shareholders. As contrived as that sounds, it is the simple truth. This is the basic strategic objective of all great brands, and there are a series of observable traits that hang off these goals. Some obvious, some less so, and all poorly attended to by the majority of large Australian organisations. Yes, Australian organisations in particular.

The definition of a ‘great brand’ is a contentious point, and one that I won’t be tackling in this article. Let’s assume, however, I mean category leaders. Brands that in some way consistently and exponentially benefit humanity, lifestyles and society as a whole.

So what are the common actions and behaviours of the great brands of our time? There are many observable traits. Humans are attracted to lists, however, so here are the Top 10 Secrets of Great Brands (humans also love ‘secrets’). [Ed’s note: Karl, if this brand thing doesn’t work out, there’s a job for you writing headlines for Marketingmag.com.au.]

1. Great brands know you

Great brands don’t shirk research and behavioural insights. In fact, they usually invest above the market average in research, monitoring and customer insights. Understanding the human condition and customer behaviour helps brands find valuable opportunities to be useful and relevant to their markets. In a world filled with brands competing for market consideration and preference, it’s the brands that know how to stay relevant that end up on top. A good example is Amazon, which built a formidable customer-centric brand experience piloted in publishing and then turned up the gas to, ‘build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online’. (Amazon’s mission statement).

2. They know who they are and why they exist

It is well-known that we now live in an ‘experience economy’. Today, leading brands are demonstrating their purpose and value through experiences, with a high degree of authenticity. As recently as 10 years ago it was very common for a brand’s identity to comfortably live on pages in a brand or guidelines book. Many incomplete or outdated. Consumers today are more brand loyal than ever, and expect to see ‘under the hood’ in order to best understand a brand’s value and how it aligns with their values, lifestyle and ambitions. Energy, investment and integration of a brand’s identity is now a business performance must.

3. Great brands are meaningfully different 

Great brands develop tangible differentiation through deep customer and market insights, not simple creative ideas. We all know brands that have been so determined to be different (no pun), that they either deviated from their core brand image or went places they had no permission going. For instance.

Exhibit A: Adidas ‘Shackles’. A basketball boot with plastic shackles that attach to the wearer’s ankles. Purpose? None. Market? Basketball players in the US. See any problems? Reverend Jesse Jackson did, stating, “The attempt to commercialise and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation, where blacks were considered three-fifths human by our Constitution is offensive, appalling and insensitive.” Aside from the reference to slavery, the concept did nothing to bring ‘meaning’ to the Adidas product or brand experience.

Exhibit B: The i.Beat Blaxx music player from German company TrekStor. No commentary required. Exhibit C: Panasonic’s mascot choice. On launch into the competitive consumer PC market, Panasonic selected Woody Woodpecker as its primary visual asset. In line with the image, it named a flagship touchscreen product ‘The Woody’, with the tagline ‘Touch Woody’… and a web browsing feature, ‘The Internet Pecker’. Different? Yes. Porno? Also yes.

4. Great brands operate end-to-end, inside-out and outside-in

Great brands invest and work tirelessly to make sure the brand is understood and lived inside and out. Making it on the inside is the only way brands ‘make it’ on the outside. As the former CEO of IBM, Louis V Gerstner Jr, said, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.” Employee and customer touch-point engineering may sound like jargon, but it’s one of the most important ways great brands build advocates. Omni-channel marketing is one thing – great brands aspire to be omnipresent.

5. Great brands are driven and hold their course 

Ford, Nike, McDonald’s and Apple are all examples of companies that stand behind their brands. Branding is the marathon of business activity. It is the long game and, as such, requires tenacity. Great brands understand ‘brand image creep’, meaning how far the brand can flex, adapt and morph before it becomes off-brand, irrelevant or perhaps even worse, a commodity. The key to holding course is understanding the primary or core market and not being romanced by trends or short- term growth opportunities that interfere with brand relationships. Holding market position means broadening value for market segments, not being the brand for all.

6. Great brands put brand at the heart of their business 

Business leaders that learned their trade in the 80s and 90s are at risk of underestimating the return on brand investment. The 80s are recognised as a commodity era where many brands focused heavily on their bottom line at the expense of committed brand differentiation. This led to a ‘greying’ around market positioning and consequent commoditisation. Some 30 years on, we still see leaders demanding strategy that is short-term, purely product-led or, in some instances, entirely off-brand.

7. Great brands have a great story, and employees that are well – cast characters

Every great brand has a story, and often a great story. Possibly the most famous of all brand stories delivered two great brands: Adidas and Puma. In the 1920s in the Bavarian enclave of Herzogenaurach, two brothers, Adolf (Adi) Dassler and Rudolf Dassler, began making hand-sewn athletic footwear. However, like many siblings, after a time they drove one another insane. After 20 years, Rudolf got tired of the constant references to his big red nose (may have my great stories confused on this point) and left, setting up a rival business across the local river. Adi renamed his brand Adidas and in 1948 Rudolf registered his new company, Puma. (I’m relatively sure Adi, like the rest of the world, would have been horrified by the 2012 Adidas Shackles.)

People like to know why and where brands began and who created them. It satisfies our judgement habit, and helps us assess how well a brand meets our values and self-image. Employees that work for brands are in essence ‘organic billboards’ for their employer brand. Intentionally or not, employees (particularly customer-facing employees) personify the brands they represent, almost as ‘characters’ in a brand production. More studies than I care to reference indicate that an experience with an employee from a service brand is the most significant influencer of brand loyalty… and don’t even start me on business productivity as a result of brand-aligned employee engagement.

* Did you spot that there were only seven points in my top 10 list? What do you think should be the last three? Email me – karl@thebrandinstitute.com.au – and I will publish the three most popular suggestions in next issue’s article. (Hint: ‘Great brands make and own great promises’.)

Karl Treacher
BY Karl Treacher ON 12 November 2013
Chief executive of The Brand Institute of Australia, a behavioural analyst
with more than 15 years of brand consultancy experience and a pioneer of organisational branding and culture alignment. Tweet at him using @treacher.