Reaching The Pinnacle Of Brand Resonance

Reaching The Pinnacle Of Brand Resonance

We don’t buy brands because of what they do. We buy them because of what they mean.

Managing brands is, in essence, about managing brand meanings. Advertising agencies, brand consultancies, package designers, naming consultants, identity firms, graphic designers, brand licensing brokers, placement agencies, and public relations firms are just some of the collaborators in a global industry devoted to the task of building and perpetuating brands that form the bedrock of our daily lives. This complex and synergistic network is based upon one simple but critical truth: strong brands are built upon strong meanings. The corollary also is straightforward: brands die when their meanings lose significance in consumers’ lives.

Today meaning is everything – including the bottom line. Marketers these days hear so much about ROI that this simple acronym probably haunts them in their sleep. Sure, short-term return on investment is important, but perhaps also a bit shortsighted. In the long-term, there’s another kind of ROI marketers should dream about: Return on Involvement. The biggest marketing challenge today is how to captivate the jaded or distracted (or both) consumer. Engagement is everything, but elusive in an environment where each of us confronts literally thousands of marketing messages everyday.

As my colleagues and I discuss elsewhere, the pinnacle is to create brand resonance where the product, service or store becomes part and parcel of the customer’s “life project,” i.e. it plays a key role that helps him or her to define some aspect of social identity. Sneakerheads who covet the latest Air Jordans understand this; as do iPhone aficionados, wine connoisseurs, MAC Cosmetics fanatics, Corvette collectors, loyal members of Beyoncé’s Beyhive, or hard-core Red Sox fans.

What is the path to the pinnacle? Actually there are several. Resonance describes the reverberation of a brand’s meanings within the contexts of the person’s life, the broader culture and the organization. This means we can embark on one of three routes:

  1. Personal Resonance is the fit between a brand’s claimed meaning portfolio and the consumer’s broader life context.
  2. Cultural Resonance defines the degree to which a brand’s claimed meanings reflect, echo, reinforce, and reshape the meanings from the collective social space that consumers access in defining and shaping their lives.
  3. Organizational Resonance refers to the alignment of the brand’s claimed meanings with the broader systems, structures, and behaviors of the firm.

When we look at successful brands, we typically see that they resonate with consumers because they claim a meaning along one of these paths. Each offers an assortment of possible brand/self linkages. Here are a few examples within each type of resonance:

Personal Resonance

Self-connection: Self-connecting meanings help consumers find the voice to express identity and navigate life choices. For example, a man negotiating the conundrums of a mid-life crisis may find increased value in the BMW Z3 brand, which signifies virility, versus the Lincoln brand, whose meanings are tied to a particular generational (and aging) cohort.

Interdependency: A brand can resonate because it facilitates habits, rituals, and routines that entwine the brand’s meanings seamlessly into the person’s everyday life. BBDO calls these fortress brands. Starbucks, for example, has perfected a product and retail strategy that encourages ritualized and frequent interaction with its brand (Even marriage proposals, see above.), thus increasing consumers’ interdependency levels, and hence the strength of its brand.

Cultural Resonance

Cultural Bedrock: The brand is strongly linked to an enduring value (Apple = freedom of expression) or epoch (Levi’s = the 1960s).

Role Resonance: The brand is emblematic of a social role. Thus, Birkenstock wearers get labeled as “tree-huggers.”

Organizational Resonance

Fit with the Business Model: The brand displays a coherent relationship to the company’s core competencies. Brand extensions like McDonald’s Golden Arch Hotel that overreach fail to resonate.

Intimacy and Shared Understanding among Employees: If the firm’s employees cannot accurately and consistently execute the brand, this failure of internal marketing will diminish captured shareholder value. Nike designates senior executives as “corporate storytellers” who explain the company’s heritage to other employees, from senior hires to the hourly workers at Nike’s retail stores.

These are but a few of the paths to resonance. More paths and examples are available here.

We can think of resonance as the apex of a pyramid; a rather magical place that relatively few brands reach. The base of the pyramid consists of simple awareness, and (hopefully) a brand can start there and steadily move consumers up toward higher levels of beliefs and emotions. It is at these higher levels where at least some modicum of brand engagement begins to kick in – perhaps not true resonance, but certainly better than street-level awareness.

But most metrics don’t capture what happens much beyond the lower levels of this pyramid. An emphasis on brand meaning compels us to expand the lens we use to look at brand equity. Most contemporary measures capture more superficial bottom-of-the-pyramid qualities, such as favorability, top-of-mind salience, and uniqueness.

In contrast we don’t see nearly as much discussion about the important roles that brands play in our lives as consumers scale these lower levels en route to the pinnacle of resonance. To be sure, branding research (at least in the academic space) is evolving to recognize this richer paradigm. We are starting to see a recognition that the focus needs to shift from:

  1. Brands as assets created and controlled by the firm, to brands as co-created entities that also “belong” to the people who use them and often modify them.
  2. Brands that exist in the minds of consumers, to brands that live in cultures. Many meanings reflect collective understandings that emanate from shared values and priorities.
  3. A focus on what brands mean at the moment in terms of dominant attributes, to an emphasis on how brands come to mean over time – again, a collective exercise that transcends the brand’s creator.

Many branding specialists intuitively recognize that they will not win on attributes, but rather on benefits. And these benefits go much deeper than simple functionality. The dual tsunamis of brand storytelling and content marketing that are currently engulfing the industry reflect the thirst for more profound brand connections. At the end of the day, resonance is everything.

We don’t buy brands because of what they do. We buy them because of what they mean.

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Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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