By Dave Gardner
No matter how you create it, a company’s or product’s identity, known as its brand, is a work in progress that must be thoughtfully crafted.
A brand is like a unique personality, explained Paul Sevensky, assistant professor and director of the advertising/public relations program at Marywood University. The branding process produces an identity perceived by a consumer and creates a message that is consistent without mixed signals while projecting what the company represents.
Corporate branding is a relatively new phenomenon within commerce, but shifts within branding are normal, according to Sevensky. He pointed out that, during the 1970s, American automobile brands suffered as they painted themselves as living rooms on wheels.
Meanwhile, as the gasoline crisis of 1973 to 1974 exploded, Japanese brands were small and tight with greater fuel efficiency and mechanical reliability. A massive shift in consumer demand followed that is still going on.
Sevensky also explained that consumer opinion data is priceless when creating or evolving a brand, making traditional focus groups an effective, but expensive, information gathering tool. Today, businesses may find it more economical to use Internet data while measuring consumer attitudes, especially social media posts, with software instantly performing all of the monitoring.
“At the very least, Internet data provides a valuable start when branding,” said Sevensky.
Crisis management is another segment of branding and Sevensky teaches that a company must have created and practiced a management plan, like a fire drill, before an attack on the brand occurs. This plan must be complete, detailed and forecast possibilities for brand attack, with the recognition that personal, safety and environment problems all can become corrosive issues.
Branding defense should utilize a designated company representative and pre-established media contacts who can distribute information quickly after an incident is assessed and a response begins. As an example, Sevensky points to the uproar created when a gorilla was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo, where an established and detailed response limited long-term brand damage to the facility.
“The millennials present branding challenges because they are typically loyal with social issues,” said Sevensky. “This is making sustainability with an established brand very important as news headlines change.”
Catherine Bolton, co-principal with River Rock Communications, identifies a brand as a promise of an experience that will feature visual, auditory and other components. The brand must be consistent at every location a business offers, as the company tells its story with a key message.
“Branding utilizes a well-defined plan, and all employees and clients must buy in,” said Bolton.
She is a big fan of focus groups to gather information about markets and to identify target audiences which will lead to a strategy that creates a brand. When the brand has been established and adequate funding designated for delivery, tools that include advertising, public relations and specialty operations such as a speaker’s bureau can be employed to spread the brand and its message.
“The company must be careful to accurately analyze what works and what not so,” said Bolton. “This can be a tough process, and successful brands are often updated for consumer relevance.”
Bolton agrees that brand protection, as well as defense, must utilize a pre-plan. The source of the threat must be identified and a decision made whether to respond or not. Spokesperson training is vital because a powerful CEO can be taught to publicly quell a restless situation.
Bolton also agreed that the nation’s millennials present branding challenges to traditional business leaders. She pointed out that, according to Edelman Intelligence, at least 57 percent of consumers will now boycott a brand based on social political positioning, and the boycott total for the millennials is higher and still increasing.
“Timing is also vital with a branding response, which makes it even more vital to have a plan in place before the attack occurs,” said Bolton
Mary Kay Warner, co-principal with River Rock, emphasized that most brands are emotional in nature and usually create select feelings within potential buyers. Nonbranded buys are usually performed by consumers who are logical and analytic, making them resistant to the emotional appeal of a particular brand.
The mechanics of the branding process are also evolving. A system called sponsored placement can create opportunities, with specific products deliberately placed, after a payment, within a TV or movie scene.
Millennials also are on the mind of Warner.
“These kids, unlike their consumer predecessors, trust their friends above all else for information exchange,” said Warner. “This makes branding that can be spread person-to-person vital.”
Warner clearly supports the concept of crisis pre-planning and spokesperson training, before a brand attack occurs. The designated communicator should have been put through the “ringer” to prepare them, with the company’s marketing and legal teams all in pre-agreement how a defense will occur within various scenarios.
“When you realize what is at stake with a brand defense after an incident, it becomes obvious that a plan must be constantly updated as business conditions change,” said Warner. “This, plus the necessary spokesperson training, can require professional help.”
A successful brand is a living entity that never can be ignored, especially by small business, according to David Gargone, Ed.D., assistant professor of business at Misericordia University. He also warned that a perception of a brand by the consumer often may not be what a company desires.
“Consumer education may be necessary to change this,” said Dr. Gargone.
He urged businesses to think about branding differently than in the past, when a simple logo and slogan may have sufficed. Business now must interact with consumers through technology, develop constant connections with the consumer, and understand that the Internet, social media, surveys and direct communication all will impact a brand 24/7.
“Effective digital versus traditional marketing requires investment of both time and expertise,” said Dr. Gargone.
Market changes are another matter. He commented that no one could have predicted the basic act of sipping coffee in Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts would be linked to the social lives of millennials, creating a huge and sustainable outlay of millennial dollars.
McDonald’s, once the king of American food stops, has also used this millennial demand to rebrand itself with McDonald’s McCafé as a transition company from fast food to salad and beverages. Hungry patrons can still buy a Big Mac and fries, but the McCafé brand is expanding.
“This is an example of a partial brand redo, while leaving the core brand still in place,” said Dr. Gargone.
The identity of Cabot Oil & Gas took a hit courtesy of Pennsylvania’s unique forest history and geology after the company entered the Marcellus Shale region and began natural gas (methane) recovery operations. George Stark, Cabot’s director of external affairs, admitted that company made a crucial mistake when they set up shop without a brand, and then made no attempt to explain to the community what they were doing and how the gas operations would unfold.
Pennsylvania’s unique rain forest environment and geology then intervened, as shallow methane pools that existed throughout the region due to the decomposition of forest deadfall for eons appeared, potentially migrated into the local aquifers, and often exited the ground. Charges were made that Cabot was bringing the methane up from miles below surface due to subpar well construction, even though many local residents had been experiencing the shallow methane appearance naturally for centuries.
“These shallow pools of methane were new to Cabot, although the locals certainly knew about it,” said Stark. “We made matters worse by performing no baseline surveys in the ground before drilling of surrounding shallow methane to measure this gas and what was already in the aquifers, which we should have done before every well was begun.”
Cabot had come to Pennsylvania with no brand because, according to Stark, the company had a history and a known presence in small towns where it had been drilling for years. These communities often had extensive experience with fossil fuel development and, as a result, Cabot expected the same in NEPA.
“When we stubbed our toe in the Marcellus region, we assumed people knew they didn’t need to worry,” said Stark. “We also wound up exploited by people, and the influence of opponents from New York was damaging as some people charged we had carelessly brought up the deep methane within the shale.”
According to Stark, Cabot learned from the debacle and moved forward. It developed a branding message which explained what they did, and located local people with the knowledge of the shallow methane’s historical existence. Although the company originally missed this opportunity, the testimony of regional people about the shallow gas pools became useful and the company opened the communication necessary to spread this information through an outreach program.
“We found we did have friends in the region, utilized their knowledge and spread their testimonies, and from there our brand moved forward with an organic development,” said Stark.
The branding program featured a Cabot meet-and-greet at a local hardware store, the use of the local PennySaver for three years with a center section spread and a Cabot picnic.
“Today, the uproar over the shallow methane has died down, and we’re known as a straight shooter and a gold source for accurate scientific information,” said Stark.
Fred Croop, MBA, dean of the College of Professional Studies and Social Sciences at Misericordia University, emphatically warned that it can be catastrophic for a company to unwillingly drift away, or deliberately steer away, from a successful core brand. JC Penny, according to Croop, has recently taken two abrupt branding turns, and in the process found it can be extremely difficult to get back on course.
“In most cases, the business should find its core and stick with it,” said Croop. “Then, evolve only as needed.”
Yet, ongoing market swings create questions about what a company should do when an icon brand must change. Legislative and regulatory changes can also kindle brand evolution, and as the public moves away from original demand, a rebranding can become necessary from the company core.
“On occasion, things just don’t work out,” said Croop. “Kmart and Sears became odd bedfellows though a merger, and both had deteriorating brands despite past success and well-known histories. A lot of people are skeptical how this is going to turn out.”
A big picture view of corporate branding was offered by Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. According to Barr, successful branding must now be international in scope, as opposed to operating tactics in the American post World War II economy when domestic business was self-contained.
Branding now must consider a global picture in which intense competition is the norm and traditional brands have been forced to evolve as markets around the world swing. Examples of branding swings include soft drinks because of public adversity to sugar, and the deterioration of retail brick and mortar units, which in some cases previously may have evolved from a catalog business.
“Global retail is now a diversity of experiences, and we’re seeing plush malls being torn down and replaced by strip shopping centers that existed in the past,” said Barr.
He also is receiving commentary from chamber members, and other peers on a national basis, that businesses across the landscape of commerce are being pulled into issues that once were solely the domain of politicians and social activists. Whether they like it or not, businesses now must recognize that consumers increasingly demand a social obligation, with shareholders looking to maximize returns by promoting altruism as part of their official brand.
“Companies must now make a statement on many tough issues,” said Barr. “This process becomes part of their brand, and every business must be resigned to the fact that this is happening.”