Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Marketing Today: “What Works?”
Core Belief #1: Brand Is Foundational
Third article in our series Marketing Today: What Works. View our second article, Avoiding the Weeds.

My adventure pal, Wyatt
Modern marketers know we no longer “own” our brands. They live in our customers’ minds. So in a social media-driven world of high transparency, just how important is the concept of brand? Further, how important is your brand culture to your marketing success? To answer both queries in a single word, very.

Brand is foundational.

And brand culture is the internal core upon which smart, strong modern brands are built. It’s perhaps ironic that precisely because we don’t control the conversation, building an authentic brand culture and experience is more essential to brands than ever. Here’s why.

As the living, breathing soul of your company, brands must answer three deceptively simple questions. Who am I? What do I stand for? How do I make a difference?

In the past, it may have been enough for a brand to focus on creating external images—advertised images—which too often amount to little more than creative window dressing. Maybe connected to a brand’s culture or not. Campaign-oriented and occasionally brilliant. Also fleeting and easily copied. Worse, in an era of social media transparency, there’s nowhere to hide. Today, if your company and brand don’t know who you are—and live what you stand for—your hollow fa├žade will be revealed.

Brands create value many ways
Economically, brands provide utility (Cheerios satisfy my breakfast hunger) and convey status (Tesla says I arrived quickly and care about the environment).  

Brands also create value by providing meaning. Deeper than most storytelling, we’re talking about the myths and ethos that give us a sense of belonging. In essence, the culture behind the brand. (Creating Value: The Theory and Practice of Marketing Semiotics Research by Laura R. Oswald. And more immediately accessible, Signs,strategies, and brand value, Laura Oswald, Oxford University Press Blog, April 13, 2015.

We humans have a deeply-seated need to belong, to find ourselves among and share experiences with fellow members of a community.  

What’s leverageable as a marketer is the idea that the closer a brand’s culture aligns with the way our customers and prospects see ourselves, the more we want to be a part of that culture. To belong. To define our brand tribes. (Plural because luckily we can belong to many.)

Taken to the next step, this thinking tells a brand the more we can identify, nurture and drive a culture, the more we position ourselves as separate from competitors and the more we create a genuine sense of long-lived community. So what if we can’t “own” our brand. We can foster a community. And that’s a bigger idea.

A recent example illustrates
And because brand culture isn’t just for big brands like Apple or Coke or Harley-Davidson, I’m going to use a smaller brand. One whose culture I recently found to be no less robust.

Ruffwear dog gear.

The Ruffwear community enjoying their adventures.
To quote their mission, these folks, “build dog gear to enhance and inspire exploration for outdoor adventurers and their human companions.”

We recently experienced this brand first hand when, on a friend’s recommendation, we bought a harness at retail, and later a jacket and boots online, for our friend Wyatt. Those are his photos up front along the frozen shores of Lake Michigan on our everyday adventure to explore and play. Because I had questions about suitability and fit, I phoned and separately emailed Ruffwear for advice. In both responses Ruffwear’ “ambassadors,” as they call them, showed real interest in Wyatt and our together adventures. Advice was spot on as well.  

OK, Wyatt and I like their products and their service. We experienced their website. Putting on my marketer hat, I checked out the Ruffwear culture. Ruffwear staff lives the adventure every day with their canine companions. And so does the Ruffwear community. See for yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more.

Recently named by Outside Magazine one of, “The Best Places to Work" these folks truly live their brand and support their community.

Here's the punchline
Lots of businesses make quality products for dogs. Few have as meaningful a brand mythology. If you love dogs and you love outdoor adventures, the Ruffwear brand culture gives you a sense of community. A place to belong. And that’s bigger than just “owning” the brand.

“Nothing ever becomes real ‘til it is experienced.”
                               –John Keats

We’ve had the privilege of working as brand catalysts, helping organizations of all sizes think deeply about their brands and culture. So where do you start?
Step away from your data dashboards for a moment and get out of your office. Experience your brand as your customers and prospects do. Take their journey. Google your brand. Buy it at retail. And online. Really live your brand. Enjoy it. Hike it. Drive it. Bust it. Return it. Phone, text and Tweet customer service. Join your own community as an active member. See if you’d want to be an active, integral part of your brand culture—and why!

Smart marketers and great brands do this. Because brand is foundational.

Also view our earlier postings on the vital marketing topic, "What Works." and "Avoiding the Weeds."

Paul Hydzik
Brand Catalyst

Trust statement
The author is neither a paid nor unpaid endorser of Ruffwear. Prior to the publication of this article we have had no contact with Ruffwear other than as a consumer who has bought their products and enjoyed their brand.

Additional references    
·        The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers, Douglas Atkin
·        The Power of Belonging, Said Aghil Baaghil
·        A New Brand World: Eight Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the Twenty-First Century, Scott Bedbury and Stephen Fenichell

Wyatt images:  (c) 2017 Paul J. Hydzik All rights reserved. Ruffwear website and social media images belong to Ruffwear and their community members.