11th January 2016

Brand – always the real thing

Coca-Cola is a fascinating company for any brand enthusiasts.

Taken purely as a product, its offer isn’t unique. Indeed, cola-flavoured carbonated soft drink is essentially a commodity.

Yet Coca-Cola has a massively loyal global following. In fact, it’s the fourth most valuable brand in the world.

Why? Well, the answer lies in the strong brand proposition that Coca-Cola has carefully crafted and nurtured.

It has cultivated a brand identity centred around a unique set of universally-relatable values and characteristics – moving the conversation away from product itself and focusing instead on creating an emotional connection with customers, based on aspirational lifestyle ‘moments’.

Today, Coca-Cola stands for happiness, sharing and universal love every bit as much as it does soft drink manufacturing.

In turn, the company has come to command an astoundingly powerful brand affinity.

Fans arguably display symptoms of ‘brand addiction’ – they convince themselves they can tell the difference and nothing else will do.

Of course, this situation isn’t unique to Coke. Many other brands also offer consumers a similar experience.

In the main, consumers cannot tell the difference between leading lagers, for example. Researchers have actually concluded that “the products are interchangeable.”

Yet certain lager brands manage to command price premiums of more than a pound a pint over other, theoretically identical options.

Spot the difference

Success in such essentially commoditised industries is based upon building unique ‘points of difference’ through branding, even when no tangible USP naturally exists – creating a brand story that adds value and keeps the threat of commoditisation at bay.

But the idea of brand itself becoming a company’s chief USP is certainly not something limited just to commodity markets. In ‘How Brands Grow’ (a worthwhile read), author Byron Sharp argues that “branding lasts, differentiation doesn’t” across all sectors.

Sharp’s point is that, even if a brand identity is originally developed around a set of operational or product-specific differentiators, in the long-term it will surpass those tangible USPs to become the company’s most important differentiator in its own right.

And that is because a brand – purpose-built as it is to deliver subtle cultural metaphors and psychological triggers – is much easier to relate to on an emotional level than a technical check-list of product features.

Brand is what buyers remember at the crucial point of purchase.

Chip off the old block

The story of Intel’s meteoric rise to dominance provides a good example of this concept in practice.

It’s hard to believe now, but up until the 1990s Intel lagged well behind Texas Instruments in the microprocessor market.

However, Intel had one thing going for it – it was the microprocessor component supplier to IBM.

At that stage, few PC makers (or IBM-clone manufacturers as they were then commonly known) knew or cared much about one brand of microprocessor over another. In the main, they simply mimicked IBM’s choice of hardware components in their product specifications.

Indeed, processing units were still seen largely as a commodity product by manufacturers, and were a complete unknown to virtually all consumers and business purchasers.

Intel’s positon in the fast-growing PC market was a real opportunity, but certainly wasn’t guaranteed in the long-term. After all, IBM (and in consequence also the various clone manufacturers) could switch microprocessor supplier in an instant and no-one would notice.

To cement its positon before another competitor got in on the act, Intel realised it had to differentiate its offering – in a way that would appeal to a mainstream audience.

So, in 1991, the ‘Intel Inside’ marketing campaign was launched.

Suddenly, a previously unknown PC competent was promoted as being so valuable and important that it necessitated a unique stamp of quality wherever it was used.

Brand recognition jumped from 24% in 1991 to 94% in 1995 and people began to actively look for the Intel Inside logo when comparing new PC options.

Crucially, PC manufacturers happily co-operated in promoting the campaign. After all, the prestige of being able to claim they had ‘Intel Inside’ differentiated their computers too.

The campaign safe-guarded Intel’s dominant position in the PC sector and continues to provide a reassuring signal of quality and performance to this day.

Yet, for most people, the highly-technical differentiators behind Intel’s positioning never really mattered – it is the brand they believe in.

Can’t beat the feeling

So, what’s your company’s USP?

If it’s a brand that triggers a clear and unique set of positive perceptions in your audience’s mind – differentiating your business in a way that a tick-box list of features never could – you’re on the right track to building a lasting affinity that reaches far beyond your product and service offering.

By Barry Maginn, Senior B2B Account Manager