How would you know you were in a country music bar if you couldn’t hear? Let’s look around for clues. You can see they serve beer on draft. There’s an American flag hanging above the bar. You’re sitting on a wooden bar stool. The bartenders are wearing cowboy boots, hats and jeans. Suddenly you regain your hearing. There’s music playing – it’s Nelly’s 2002 smash hit “Hot in Herre”... Are you surprised? If you’re a die-hard Willie Nelson fan you may even walk out disappointed. Those clues were supposed to mean something. The music you heard didn’t match the expectations you formed from the visual cues you observed. The jarring experience of seeing country music but hearing hip hop makes the bar unappealing to fans of both genres.
A businesses that gets the combination wrong, fails to attract the right customers, and disappoints the wrong ones. There’s value in making sure you’re communicating the right things. If you’re in a rock concert, you expect loud music. If you’re getting a massage, you expect something more relaxing. If you’re eating at a nice restaurant, you’d expect dim lighting. If you’re at the dentists, you expect it to be brighter. Every industry has its own set of memes that customers expect, and that’s something you can systematically audit. Record enough examples of the visual, audio, and other sensory cues you find when visiting competitors (or complements) and you’ll soon spot gaps or differences with your own offering. You can then choose more intentionally on what to differentiate, and what to keep familiar.
It’s important to distinguish between brand management – what marketers are cultivating about the brand in order to drive positive associations in the minds of consumers – and what the brand really is in the marketplace. As Jeff Bezos says: “your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Quite often what consumers think and what the marketing team hopes is out of sync: large strong brands can be poorly managed, as can small weak brands be doing the right things to move up in the world. We have less control over our brands than we think: external factors can significantly impact the relative importance of our category in consumers minds, and therefore the amount of brainpower they allocate to remembering something about us. You’re lucky if they can remember more than a handful of brand attributes, and they’re likely to be whatever is most obvious, or most often repeated. Since brain-computer interfaces are still mostly in the realm of science fiction, in order to extract this information from the heads of consumers, we must ask them.
Brand tracking surveys are a flawed but useful method for tracking key metrics about a brand, and the associations consumers hold. Before you can think something about a brand, you must first be aware of it, so the first question most brand tracking surveys ask is something like “Enter the names of [category] brands you are aware of”. If your brand comes up this is ‘unaided’ brand awareness, and if it’s the first one mentioned, then your brand is ‘top of mind’: the best place to be. There’s also ‘aided’ awareness, where you list your brand plus competitors at random, and see how many pick you. If you’re selling bottled water this is likely enough, but if you’re an innovative startup you might also need to check if they’ve heard of your category of product too. Unless you’re the market leader, you’ll have eliminated most people when it gets down to the few that can recall you: then it’s just a matter of getting them to list their associations. Good luck changing them: brand advertising is expensive, and bad reputations last longer than good.
Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room