With the volatile dynamics of a global economy ever more impactful, and the continuing, unpredictable transformation of competition, most companies are beginning to view branding as more than advertising, logos  and names -- branding now is seen as a tool to help bolster market position in the face of pressures that can otherwise erode customer commitment.

Today, BRAND building is a top priority, and many executives are searching for a thorough approach as they try to gain dominance in their industry, by striving for super brand status.


  It is easy to see how having a brand – not just a name that identifies you – is an advantage. McKinsey’s study "Uncovering the Value of Brands" showed that 18% of the purchase decision in U.S. consumer markets is due to brand. And, in studies conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide, the percentages of Americans (ranging from 30 to 50+% on average) who say that some brands in a category are "different and worth paying more for" are up an average of 7 to13 percentage points since 1994, across a number of diverse product/service categories from furniture to airlines to computers.

Branding battles are heating up as companies recognize this growing importance of brands and the fact that customers do not simply buy a company’s products or services – they buy the company and its people.

The changing face of competition also impacts branding dynamics. Companies can now move across traditional industry boundaries by basing their brand strength more on customer relationships than on product characteristics. In addition, new and unforeseen competitors can create brands rapidly through the Internet, direct marketing and strategic alliances., Costco, MSNBC, and are examples.

Forward thinking companies – like Gillette, Disney, Nike and Marriott – are leading. They are building, protecting and leveraging their brands in new ways: to rise above commodity status; grow market share; support premium prices; successfully launch new products; extend markets; and, enter new geographies.

Brand Building Discipline.

Clearly, no company should see its brand building efforts as complete. Companies must continually nurture deep connections with customers that transcend the actual product or service offered, to withstand competitors’ ongoing seductive appeals. To achieve super brand status, companies must leverage strong alignments between what the brand stands for and the values of employees and customers. Strong alignments = strong commitment.

The CEO as Super Brand Builder.

No longer satisfied with managing the brand as if it were an inanimate object to be pushed, pulled and manipulated into new forms and directions yearly, the CEO needs to redefine and elevate the branding challenge and vision. Super brand builders must manage three relationships...

between the company and its employees
between the customer and the company–through the brand
between the customer and the employees

...and the consequences of these relationships on three business activities

communications, both external and internal
operations enhancement
product development gain a brand which transcends products and services and stands for a lasting, deep connection with customers.

Super branding is a senior management responsibility
which can’t be delegated.

Super branding is a company-wide activity involving every employee. Only a CEO with this vision, and with the prestige of the corner office, has the necessary influence to change the attitudes of management about what brands really are, and the organizational prerogative to cross functional boundaries in order to gain the data about what is truly going on between the company, employees and customers.

Super brand builders see the branding discipline as dynamic and overarching – like great strategic planners who are always thinking about their companies’ next move, and great human resources executives who are constantly upgrading the internal environment.

But unlike strategic planning or human resources management, branding is also a belief. If the CEO is going to engage in super branding, he must believe that customers buy for a whole host of reasons, some rational (price, specifications, terms) and some emotional (honesty, partnership, trust). The CEO must champion branding as a top priority despite the impossibility of precisely quantifying its returns.


A Little Perspective – Every Brand Doesn’t
Need To Be a Supe
r Brand.

Some product and/or service categories simply don’t fit this model, such as simple, one-time purchase items with limited use-life, many commodity products and products that hold little possibility to spark consumer interaction. Purchasers in these categories often respond to little more than cues about cost-benefit trade-offs, and therefore, additional branding efforts would be wasted. For other categories there exists a sliding scale that reflects "what’s at stake" in the consumer’s mind. As you move up this "scale," underestimating the need for super branding can be costly.


The Brand Mystique.
We all think we know what brands are. We’ve seen them ...we recognize them. Names...logos... reputations... product identifiers. Brands are all of those things, and more. But, why are some brands captivating while others, although recognizable, seem to be superficial and forgettable? When brands work well, what is at the root of their success?

When viewed in a straight-forward manner, brands can be defined simply as "names or symbols which carry a positive meaning that people are willing to pay for." While most people would agree with this overview definition, there is much less consensus regarding how we get there...

While consultants and academics have shown how brands work mechanically, and what the benefits of a strong brand are, they haven’t shed much light on what underlies success, nor much about creating a plan for the strategy, management and maintenance of a brand.

When we ask the following questions about our definition , we begin to see how complicated it is to "get it right" when it comes to branding.

  • What kinds of symbols work best?
  • How does positive meaning derive from our
    customers' value system?
  • Where did all that consumer "willingness" or
    "motivation to pay" come from?
  • Is that all we want from a get people
    to "give us the money"?

As we will see below, the answers are multi-faceted.

The Basics are Still The Basics.
No one should ever underestimate the importance of the basics of branding. Companies still have to determine what niche they want to be in and what the customers in that niche want. They have to be careful about what product and service cues are evident in both the visual and non-visual representations of the brand that the customer and prospective customer gets to see and hear.

The brand name has to work. Logos need to make design sense in order to create the desired emotional response. Graphics have to be professional, and the communication and advertising themes need to resonate. No one disputes these basics. But, to enhance the brand and sustain it over the long term, there needs to be more – much more.

Super Brands are More Than Rational
Variables and Motivations...Values and
Relationships Underlie Brand Perception.

American business tends to be run by management professionals who love numbers, prices, quantities, specifications. These perhaps are unique American strengths and the source of our resilient economy.

But opportunities are missed when a purely rational philosophy is behind the branding process, because employees and customers act as much by their gut as their intellect.

Being able to step out of our rational comfort zone, into the world of values and relationships, is essential to start the super branding process. And this means a change in perspective. People’s values (such as their beliefs about what fairness and goodness look like) influence the expectations they have of others and, accordingly, how they view their relationships. In other words, their values provide a set of standards which they use to calibrate and hold their relationships accountable.

In similar fashion, if and when customers calibrate the relationship they have with a company and determine it is not aligned with their values, they will hold back their support for that relationship, and the brand it represents.

Executives must accept that while a brand is a symbol, it is not exclusively a rational symbol of a product or service. Rather, a brand is an emotional symbol of the nature and quality of the relationship that the values-based customer has with the very company providing the product or service.

Alignments among Brand, Employee
and Customer is Key.

Customer perceptions of how a product or service performs is a strong determinant of a brand’s stature. However, most companies underestimate the complexity of the alignments that are required to optimize that equation.

When alignment is present between customers, employees and brand promise, customers show supportive attitudes and behaviors.


And when it comes to companies that have a strong service component – those in which customer connections are ongoing and long-range in nature – it is this second-level relationship which primarily determines peoples’ attitudes, behaviors and support for the brand.

Over time, many customers of services will be in contact with the company and have an experience that goes beyond their direct interaction with the product or service initially purchased – where the nature of their contact is not an inherent part of the service being offered. It might happen when the customer and employee interact, perhaps to address a simple question having to do with billing. Although sometimes difficult to see as totally rational, what happens to the customer in this interaction is often a more powerful determinant of how that customer feels about the product or service than the inherent qualities of the product or service itself.

The common denominator among companies that establish "super brands" relates to their ability to manage the quality of this second-level interaction by establishing true alignments between the company and its employees around the qualities promised to customers by the brand. In order to do this, companies need research systems in place (i.e., brand promise, customer satisfaction and employee calibration) to determine where the gaps are in the equation.

The goal of such research is the key – to have both the things said about the product by customers, employees and management – and the company’s organizational qualities – be in-line with the values of the employees who represent, and thereby deliver, the brand promise.

Brand-Employee-Customer Interface Impacts Communications,
Operations & Development.

Accepting the full implications of this assertion is what separates the strong from the weak in the world of brands. While it is easy to see how the brand promise drives internal and external communications, fewer companies are ready to allow it to guide the company’s operations and development programs. When it does, the customer sees a golden thread woven throughout all that comes to him or her from the company, and this is branding.

The super branding process is like
solving Rubik’s Cube.

Rubik’s Cube is six-sided, with multiple facets on each side. The goal is to achieve simultaneous color uniformity on each side, the trick being that moving one facet on one side has consequences for the other five sides. All facets on all sides are connected. So too with building a super brand.

Each dimension of a super brand – whether it’s the brand promise, employee commitment, or the nature of customer interactions – effects every other dimension.

The challenge for the CEO is substantial, since most company cultures resist attempts to break down the walls between functional disciplines – silos that stand in the way of super branding.




Navigating through all the alignment permutations involved in building a super brand requires a data-based approach.


Find the values you want your company to
inject into every relationship.

Examine the history, mission and vision of the company. Include the unique aspects of what the company does and how it does it. Look at what the company says about itself in internal and external communications. Assess  what progress the company has made in its strategic business plan and any plans for change. Most important, find the management team’s values: how do they handle themselves and what kinds of behavior do they demand and consider non-negotiable?


Measure existing employee values and
relationships with the company and customers.

We have used a proven tool,
The Commitment Index
, to gauge employees’ values, their inclination to go the extra mile, communications flow, and understanding of the brand promise. Further, The Commitment Index provides an assessment of how well employees think they are serving customers, with reasons why.


Similarly, measure customers’ existing
relationships with the company.

How strong is their connection? How thorough is their understanding of the brand promise? How well do they believe the company is meeting the brand promise? In customers’ view, do employees have the ability and support needed to satisfy customers; do employees embody the brand?


Focus on a unique and emotional
brand promise.

Based on the values selected, and the data about the company’s existing relationships, distill the content down to a plain language statement: what will you deliver; how will you deliver it; how will you treat customers; and, what evidence you have to support your credibility.


Educate and infuse the company, beginning
with the management team.

Once the brand promise is established, get function and divisions heads, especially those in communications, operations and development, to derive the implications of the brand promise for their areas. At this stage, the management team must commit to new measures of brand and customer relationship strength with which to hold themselves accountable.


Communicate to employees and customers.
After the management team commits, long-range plans for internal and external communications to support the brand promise must be assembled, and often outside help may be needed to do so.


Re-measure and tweak.
About 18 months following the first communications about the new brand promise, the program calls for calibrating both the brand and the company’s relationship strengths in order to gauge progress, reward management, and identify any needed adjustments.


A company can get a good reading on its position by answering questions
at multiple levels of the organization.  On average, across all questions,
if 10 or more out of the 14 are answered "yes" then the company has a well-
planned and orchestrated brand building program in place.  Five or more
"no" answers generally means help is needed to get on the right path.





Is there a set of values – more than just apple pie – rooted in
the history, culture and performance of the company?



Has the CEO translated what those values mean for every
employee in their interactions with other employees and
with customers?





Does the Strategic Plan include a chapter on brand?



Is the management team held to specific measures of:


a. brand strength?


b. employee commitment?


c. customer loyalty?



Does the senior team refuse to support activities that are



Do customers report that their interactions with your employees
are consistent:


a. across lines of business?


b. across functions?


c. with the brand promise?



Are the company’s operations improvement programs lined up
with the brand promise?



Are product and service development programs aimed at filling
gaps identified by examining the brand promise, employee
capabilities, and customer needs?



Is there a clear and obvious connection back to the brand
promise among all forms of internal and external communication?



Are relationships with outside communications agencies
long-lasting with a long-term focus?



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Copyright 2001 Stephen A. Zimney. All rights reserved.