Brand Matters: Are You the Real Deal?
I have always been a cheerleader for the underdogs. They just plain try harder. This is why I favor companies like Caribou Coffee over Starbucks, Frontier Airlines over United Airlines, Ben & Jerry’s over Breyers and Chipotle over McDonald’s. Not only do these “underdogs” try harder, but they also seem more comfortable in their own brand skins. They are original. They are daring. They are independent thinkers. They are the real deal.
Is your brand the real deal? I bet your customers know the answer.
Stand Out from the Crowd
As you look at the vast choices of products and services customers have today, few truly stand out. What are the authentic differences between the many companies jockeying for customers’ minds and market share these days? I’m at a loss when I look at retailers like OfficeMax, Office Depot or Staples. What differentiates Northwest from Delta or American Airlines? Or Barnes & Noble from Borders? There is very little originality.
What is authentically different between your offering and your top two competitors? If your brand is sandwiched blandly between others, it’s time to rethink both your brand positioning and your merchandising concept. Don’t bore your customers with this sea of sameness. They deserve better.
As you might guess, there is no formula for authenticity. Either you are authentic or you’re not. Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to living in a faux society, where entertainment is disguised as news, celebrities are disguised as heroes and Internet connections are disguised as relationships. And, yes, there are faux brands or transaction-based companies focused on themselves and short-term profits.
In “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want,” authors Joseph Pine and James Gilmore propose that authenticity is a completely new management discipline, and they outline three axioms for authenticity:
1. If you are authentic, then you don’t have to say you’re authentic.
2. If you say you’re authentic, then you’d better be authentic.
3. It’s easier to be authentic if you don’t say you’re authentic.
This may seem simple, but it isn’t. Many brands fall back to being faux. It’s easier.
Authenticity in Action
Consumers crave the real deal. They desire companies that deliver on their promises and brands that listen and do what their taglines say they do. They seek independent thinkers, product creativity and originality in solving their problems. They want brands that respect their time.
With this in mind, here are some real-world examples of brands that deliver the real deal.
• Title Nine describes itself as quirky. A simple description of the company would be that it is a women’s sportswear company named after the 1972 legislation that enables funding to provide equal opportunity for females to compete in sports. But this description doesn’t convey its uniqueness. Instead, staffers composed the company’s description of “who we are” more than 10 years ago. It still stands true today. Here are a few snippets:
We are evangelical about women’s participation in sports and fitness activities.
We have opinions, and we act on them.
We don’t always wear shoes.
We like dessert.
Authenticity is woven into every aspect of this brand—from the real-life athletes that model the clothes in the catalogs to fun promotions like having its customers sing Christmas carols when they place an order to get a free gift!
• Frontier Airlines thinks differently and, therefore, acts differently than its competition. It still desires to make flying a pleasant experience for its customers. This attitude is best described by its mission statement:
“A whole different animal” is more than a catchy tagline. It’s a concept that uses one of our most recognizable features and ties it in with our ability to stand out from the rest. We approach our business with four key principles in mind: Affordable; Flexible; Accommodating; and Comfortable. These are the four “legs” we stand on. “A whole different animal” represents our commitment to do the little things that make a big difference to our customers.
• Ace Hardware calls itself “The Helpful Place.” The next time you are tackling a home project, check out the interactive project videos on its Web site and see if you agree that it takes its brand promise seriously.
• Boston Proper, an upscale, subtly sexy clothing company for women, prides itself on doing business “the proper way.” It backs up its promises with this guarantee:
We want you to love everything you buy from us. If you don’t, if it ever falls one iota short of fabulous, you can exchange it or return it for a full refund. No questions, no hassles. That’s our promise. That’s the PROPER way to do business.
• Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby founders answer to a power higher than Wall Street. As Christians, they feel strongly about giving their employees an opportunity to take a Sabbath rest. Despite walking away from millions of dollars of potential revenue, both companies take a bold position and close on Sundays. This action separates them from their competitors.
• Chipotle Mexican Grill purposely keeps its menu simple with four main dishes—burritos, tacos, burrito bowls and salads—that are freshly prepared in front of customers in open kitchens. It takes pride in providing “service that is honest, open and personalized.”
• Books & Books, a book lover’s paradise in South Florida, is one of the strongest independent bookstores in the country and goes toe-to-toe with the big chains. Founded more than 25 years ago by Mitchell Kaplan, a passionate and savvy bookseller, Books & Books’ customers consider it a “lovemark” in its literary community. While celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary, Kaplan was recently quoted as saying, “The way we do business is unique and expressive. It certainly expresses our own sensibility.” That sensibility includes hosting numerous author events, carrying a diverse selection of books (including those not on the best-sellers lists) and fostering community through book clubs, etc.
All of these companies have one thing in common: They are true to themselves. They beat their own drums. And, most importantly, their customers thank them for it.
Steven Covey, best known as the author of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” writes:
The more authentic you become, the more genuine in your expression, the more people can relate to your expression and the safer it makes them feel to express themselves. That expression in turn feeds back on the other person’s spirit, and genuine creative empathy takes place, producing new insights and learnings.
I believe the same is true of brands. Authentic brands are infectious. They draw people in. Authentic brands stand out. Authentic brands feed people’s spirits. They give customers what they crave today: realness.
So I ask you again, just how real is your brand?
Andrea Syverson is president of IER Partners, a strategic branding and merchandising consultancy based in Colorado. She may be reached at (719) 495-2354 or asyverson@ ierpartners.com.
Andrea Syverson is the founder and president of creative branding and merchandising consultancy IER Partners. For 20+ years, Andrea’s joy has been inspiring clients with innovative approaches to branding, product development and creative messaging. She’s the author of two books about brand building and creating customer-centric products that enhance brands: BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants and ThinkAbout: 77 Creative Prompts for Innovators. You may reach her at email@example.com.