Do brands really differentiate?

Brands under the loopRecently I have been engaged with many discussions about company brands, and the questions that have been asked are “brands back in crisis… again?” Not because of the difficulty in competing for the consumer’s attention among the 3,000 new brands launched each year, without counting the Internet, nor because of the repercussion on the brand’s image of the unethical business practices of certain multinationals, but because of a problem that may undermine the foundations, the fundamental principles and the origin of the concept: Brand indifferentiation.

A recent study by consultancy firm Copernicus published and entitled The commoditisation of Brands which reached the conclusion that it was increasingly difficult for the consumer to perceive the differences between a certain brand and that of the competition. The study claimed that 86% of brands in multiple categories tended to have the same key attributes.

This distinction is now outdated and fairly inaccurate, because we all know the enormous success of some of these brands. Wal-Mart, in the United States, Sainsbury in England and Caprabo in Spain manage a portfolio of brands with a power of attraction and levels of quality that many manufacturers would like to have.

The problem is so important that even the branding gurus are beginning to use the term superbrand or powerbrand to designate the strongest or those with a greater power of attraction than others.

This is the living proof and acceptance that there is a hierarchy within brands, what we could call a level of branding, that is to say brands within brands.

As is well known, brands were created to be able to differentiate what we offer from what the competition offers. We “branded” it to avoid confusion and help people to remember, identify the manufacturer and aid the choice of purchase.

A strong brand should fulfil three basic goals: information, differentiation and seduction:

Information because it should tell us something about the product offered that is intelligible and decipherable: I have to understand the proposal of basic value or what the product offered consists of.

Differentiation because what it tells us should be perceived as different by the purchaser or, in other words: I understand what you are telling me and I think that it is something that the others haven’t told me.

Seduction because this is the raison d’être of any brand. The first two are in the service of the third: in the end a brand has to tell us something that we consider to be interesting and that ends up seducing us. And seduction is something very subtle.

There are many brands that have reached the first stage. They have succeeded in getting us to recognise their logos and we see their advertisements.

We should not confuse Communication with brand creation or management. The objective of Communication may be to achieve renown for what we offer, but we have to define the brand, to know what to communicate, what to say in our communication plan. In short, what meanings, values and personalities are important and distinguishing. The objective of Brand Management is to maintain the consistency and strength of the brand so that it can be adequately exploited. This should be the work of a good brand manager.

Following a brand’s Vision, Mission and Values, it is important that a brand is:

1. Emotional as well as a real offer

2. A feeling of community

3. The values within the consumer

4. A communication goes further

5. An obsession with small details

Before communicating and transmitting, however, you need to define. Three very important elements make up the product we offer: what it is, what it does and what it means. If we cannot complete and define each of these dimensions we do not have a strong brand. All products talk about what they are, and today we are rarely differentiated by what we do. To think about brand management is to consider the creation of meanings.

Therefore Actimel does not sell fermented milk but the ability to strengthen your defences against external aggressions, a VW Beetle is much more than a compact car, a Palm is almost like a Game Boy for adults, a Hallmark card is the possibility to communicate a feeling, Evian is the purest, most crystal-clear water in the world, Disney sells you eternal youth, and a BMW is for those who know how to appreciate the subtle difference between driving and ‘driving’.

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