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Strike up the Brand
Branding and CRM go hand in hand, say experts. Successfully executing both in the Internet age requires a careful strategy that incorporates the latest technologies and a thorough understanding of your relationship with the customer.
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Brand awareness. Brand loyalty. We all know the feeling. We wouldn't think of drinking anything but Yuban coffee. Only Huggies can touch that little bottom. Olay is the cream to buy month after month to stave off the signs of aging. "Let's face it," says Andy Sargent, online branding expert at Watertown, Mass.-based strategic Internet services firm Primix. "You buy that BMW because you want a BMW, not because it accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in six seconds." Afterward, you can rationalize the purchase, he says, but you made it because of your attachment to the brand.

It goes without saying that lots of money is poured into creating this emotional--certainly not logical--attachment between consumers and their products. But though brand building has been around since the industrial revolution, translating brands to the digital world has not. The Web offers a new set of tools for branding but also requires new strategies to ensure brand consistency from medium to medium. And CRM has an important role to play in the new e-branding world.

The stakes are high. According to findings from Primix, one of the underlying reasons for the online failures of both dot com companies and more established bricks-and-clicks is that they failed to translate their brands digitally.

But before launching into e-branding, it's important to get definitions straight.

What really is a brand?

"A brand creates differentiation for a product that would otherwise be a commodity," says David Webster, chief strategy officer at the New York office of Siegelgale, a professional services firm that helps companies create new businesses and brands in the information economy. With products--for example, film or athletic shoes--which have little difference functionally, the goal is to create an awareness of differences, so that you can either charge a premium, so that customers will be more loyal and stick with you through bad times, or so that you can sell additional goods and services around the base product.

It is difficult to describe what a brand is, admits Jonathan Chajet, of Siegelgale's Los Angeles office. He warns against confusing the trappings of a brand with its true essence. He thinks marriage is a good analogy. "I see symbols of marriage," he says, "like the ring or the vows. But that isn't what marriage really is. For a brand, I see a logo and taglines, but that isn't the brand. Marriage is love, and brand is the value of the relationship between a customer and a company or product. It's about creating a preference or desire for that product."

Brand and CRM: Together Forever

As the definition of brand evolves to be the relationship between a product and its user, CRM becomes a critical contributor to brand awareness. "There are a lot of parallels between CRM and branding," Chajet says. "Each one supports the other. The brand sets expectations, and CRM reinforces the relationship."

A brand is the sum total of hundreds of small interactions between a company and its customers, say Primix's Sargent and Jennifer Fleming, director of experience design for Primix.

And as these little pieces accumulate, they can either build up or destroy a brand. Every time a customer touches your company--whether through a call center, on the Web or through printed materials, such as bank statements and marketing brochures--it is a "brand moment," Sargent says. How you manage the customer relationship is going to impact the customer's perception of your company and your brand. "Getting stuck on hold is a bad brand moment," he says. Likewise, when potential users test Web sites, Fleming says, if they have difficulty navigating, they automatically assume the company is inexperienced and amateur. "We know we have to pay attention to the details because of what we learn through user testing," she says.

A brand is made up of lots of little things, agrees Webster, and is built up over a long period of time. "Nordstrom stands for service because all employees make it their business to offer good service," he says. "Disney is synonymous with family entertainment. Did they run an ad saying, 'We're the family entertainment company?' Not that I know of. But they executed consistently over the years and were careful what they associated with their brand."

We're moving into an economy with so much communication between companies and customers that all companies are in the service business, Webster says. He gives Siegelgale client Caterpillar, the 75-year-old manufacturer of earth-moving equipment, as an example. Machines need to be serviced. Parts wear out. Caterpillar customers contact the company for service. In that environment, branding and CRM overlap very well, Webster says. "Why are customers brand-loyal?" he asks. "It may be the excellent quality of the product. They may want to associate with the brand's emotional aspect. Or it may be excellent service." CRM technologies that allow companies to cement relationships with customers by enabling such amenities as remembering past communications are a piece of the brand platform. "Now, excellent CRM is a way for companies to distinguish themselves," Webster says. "But in five years it will be the cost of entry."

Digital Translation

Analysts agree that the Internet is a new medium for brands and requires new tools and strategies. As Primix likes to point out, in traditional brand marketing, the audience, or target, was a passive recipient of the brand message. The brand builder--the Nordstroms and Disneys of the world--controlled both the content and context of the message. But the Web has changed the rules of the game by allowing the audience to take control and continually interact with the brand marketers. When using the Internet for brand building, the target is in charge, not the shooter.

"Taking a brand online is not just a matter of having the logo in the right place," Webster says. "The question is, 'Can you fulfill your promise online?'" Companies must do innovative things that take advantage of how people think about them, he says. Kodak, also a client, has a corporate position which is "Take pictures further." People already take a lot of pictures. So the goal was to encourage them to do more with the photos, like getting reprints, putting photos on mugs or making collages.

"The natural inclination would be to market their [Kodak's] products online," Webster says. "But we said, 'No. Don't say, do.'" So Siegelgale put functionality on the Kodak Web site that exploits the unique possibilities of the Internet, while at the same time capitalizing on the Kodak brand. Siegelgale helped Kodak develop a postcard tool to add animation and sound to photos and send them by e-mail. Other tools turn the photo into a cartoon and stitch photos together into a quilt. "Running banner ads is not what online branding is about," Webster says. "You have to create actual tools that reinforce the brand."

Siegelgale's Chajet came up with an equation that summarizes branding: Brand Value = Brand Loyalty - Brand Investment. "That's true whether the Internet is there or not," he says. "The Internet doesn't change the fundamentals of branding, but it gives a greater set of tools to maximize brand value."

According to Chajet, tools, such as personalization, are terrific for enhancing brand loyalty, as are the Internet's interactivity and pervasiveness. Users can access it no matter where they are via such devices as handhelds and cell phones. If a customer representative can see you on a screen, for example, or if you can pull down your frequent flier miles on your Palm Pilot and order a flight, you get a richer brand experience, and the brand loyalty portion of the equation is enhanced. At the same time, the Internet brings the cost of brand investment down, thanks to efficient targeting, tracking and the higher response rates of e-mail marketing campaigns. As Internet tools enhance brand loyalty while bringing the cost of brand investment down, Chajet says, brand value necessarily increases.

A Four-step Plan

Primix found that even with the huge variety of Web sites on the Internet, users return to the same sites again and again. Why? Because, when faced with a multitude of choices, users seek out the familiar, those sites which are easy to use and relevant. Last year, Primix inaugurated an e-branding discipline with the goal of helping companies take their brands online and create sites users will choose to visit. Siegelgale and other professional services firms follow similar brand-building procedures and offer services to help create meaningful online branded experiences for customers.

step 1: Brand DNA. The first step in creating a successful brand both online and offline, say experts, is understanding fundamental truths about how the company views its brand. "We're distilling the essence of the brand," Sargent says, "and getting down to its core values." A brand should be based on truth about the company, says Siegelgale's Webster.

At both Siegelgale and Primix, consultants interview employees at all levels of client companies. "With [oil company] Schlumberger, we flew to offshore oil rigs from Argentina to the South China Sea," Webster says. "With the Air Force, we visited air bases and asked service members why they joined." The consultants also audit company communications, including executive speeches and marketing pieces. "We're looking for two or more traits or characteristics of the brand. We want to know what it stands for," Sargent says.

"You have to define the client's value proposition," Chajet says. For Chajet, creating the brand involves answering the questions: What do we do? Who am I? What's my personality? What message do I offer? "We're looking for the core definition of the company," he says.

"Most companies have something unique," Webster says. "Either they're efficient, or they care about the environment, or they value employees, or they're good at customer service." Take German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, for example. When Siegelgale started working on the company's brand repositioning, Bayer was known for moving slowly. "We found that the reason they're slow is that they are careful," Webster says. "They know that what they do affects the health of patients. So we came up with the tagline, 'changing the world with great care.' We turned a weakness into a strength. We then proved this with statistics showing Bayer tests its products longer to be sure they're safe. You have to be able to back it up."

step 2: Brand Network Analysis. The next stage of brand building focuses on gathering information about constituencies outside the client company. "We're discovering key audiences," Sargent says. If the client is a retailer, the audience will be consumers. If the client is a B2B seller, the audience will be vendors. In the second step, Primix identifies and prioritizes target audiences and determines their relevance to attaining the client's business objectives.

A brand has to be relevant to the existing business climate in the client's industry, Webster says. Step two for him is talking to industry analysts, financial analysts, customers and business partners about the client's brand. "Sometimes the inside view of the brand and the outside view don't align," Webster says. "If you don't have a customer-centric organization, you can lose touch with customers." Siegelgale finds out the trends in the category. "The key is to align the basic truth about the company with a trend in the industry," he says. "You need to spend time understanding the audience and its needs," Chajet says, "to find out if there is an opportunity to create a unique message."

step 3: Brand Inspiration. After the information gathering, comes step three. This is where the client elaborates its brand promise. First, Primix plots the current state of the audiences--what they think about the client company now--against the desired state--or where the client company wants its audience to be in terms of changed attitudes and behaviors. You can't build IT solutions that are effective unless you are able to isolate what it is that you want to change.

"One of our clients is a start-up company focusing on the engineering community," Fleming says. "The current state of their audience was that the engineers felt isolated and not armed with the tools they need to do their jobs. The desired state was that the engineers would be confident and connected and empowered."

From this exercise comes the brand promise--or what the client company is promising it will do. Apple promises to help its users express themselves, Chajet says. For Microsoft the promise is, "We will raise your personal productivity." Although the individual customer's brand experience may vary slightly, depending on the audience, the simple promise at the core of the brand should remain the same, Chajet says. "Self expression is different for a soccer mom and a graphic designer," he says. But the base promise is the same.

Siegelgale then crafts a positioning statement for its clients. "It is one to three paragraphs and describes why you should care," Webster says. "It addresses all audiences and becomes a blueprint for building the brand." He says clients use the positioning statement as a litmus test against which they compare all their marketing pieces to ensure consistency.

Critical to this step of Primix's e-branding process is a tool it calls the "user experience matrix." To ensure that the core values and promise of the brand are carried out online, Primix makes a grid with the core values of the brand on the vertical axis and six factors that are elements of a Web solution on the horizontal axis. The six factors are navigation and architecture, content, look and feel, functionality, tone and voice and overall usability. "The User Experience Matrix is a bridge between branding and the creative side," Fleming says.

step 4: "Brand Operations Report." The fourth step is execution, or making sure that all aspects of company communications reinforce the brand. The report gives the implications of the e-branding exercise for other areas of the client's business, such as the call center, marketing materials, internal communications, corporate identity and sales strategies. "It's all about consistency," Sargent says.

In the execution phase, Siegelgale can do everything from changing logos and designing packaging and brochures, to developing an online strategy, depending on the needs of the client. The founder of Siegelgale, Alan Siegel, believes all great companies speak with one voice. You can't have such disconnects as zany ads, but rather, conservative corporate communications.

Webster says articulating a brand takes about eight weeks, but executing is much more complex. "With some clients executing takes years," he says, "if it involves such things as redesigning retail spaces and developing scripts for customer reps."

An important final step for Siegelgale is training employees at the client company to live up to the brand in all aspects of their jobs. Employees have to be empowered to become brand emissaries. "Companies must learn to make the brand their own," Webster says.

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