It’s commitment that drives the power that a brand has among people in a market.
According to InterBrand, the world’s most successful brand valuation agency, Coca-Cola and Microsoft were the world’s most valuable brands last year. Coca-Cola’s was valued at $70.5 billion, Microsoft’s at $65.2 billion. How did they get so valuable? Not many years ago, most marketers might have answered: By answering to people’s needs? But let’s begin this article by posing what may seem an absurd question: Are customers even relevant?
Some myths about how brands get strong
Most marketers suppose that they should try to meet peoples’ needs. Many devoted the decade of the 1990s to trying to measure customers’ needs; and then spent vast amounts on trying to satisfy those needs. Yet when we look at the history of great brands, we often find that key events behind their success had very little to do with what people wanted.
Take Coca-Cola: One of the things that turned it into the world’s most valuable brand was that it served as the preferred CSD (Carbonated Soft Drinks) of the American armed forces in World War II. The US army carried Coca-Cola into the world; and kept it there. And the key to the value of Microsoft, as most people know, was its choice by IBM to serve as the operating system for IBM PCs.
So let’s dispel some of the most important myths about how brands get strong. The first myth is the belief that the best brand in a market must surely win. In fact, history tells us that it’s not necessarily the best brand that wins – it’s the most powerful. When IBM moved into the PC market it spelt the end of a high market share for Apple. And when Microsoft moved into the browser market it spelt the end for Netscape.
Power comes in many forms. Sometimes it is represented by the ‘hold’ that a brand has on people. But often it comes in the form of superior resources, access to legal help, and so on. In the latter situations, brands, which are best but small, can easily lose the marketing battle and disappear forever
With the first myth goes a second, the myth of first-mover advantage. As the histories of Microsoft, Apple, and IBM tell us, being first into a market doesn’t guarantee success. Long before Microsoft there was the operating system created by Apple. Many still consider it to be better than Microsoft, yet it commands a tiny market share. The reason we think ‘first movers’ do well, is because we’ve forgotten about all those that subsequently got killed when more powerful rivals moved in.
Which brings me to the third myth: That meeting peoples’ needs is key. I’m not in favour of ignoring what people want. Yet there are plenty of examples in history where monopoly power has allowed brands to ignore their customers to a greater or lesser extent. If it weren’t so, we would not have anti-monopoly legislation on the statute books of most developed countries.
So, are customers completely irrelevant? Fortunately, the answer to that question is ‘no’. The world’s really great brands combine both great market power with great attention to what people need and want. What people want isn’t therefore irrelevant. To build great brands we must create brands to which people become attached. Commitment, in short, is key to strong brands.
What commitment really is…
The 1990s was the decade of customer satisfactions studies; and the decade of spending at trying to make customers satisfied. But the world has moved on since then and the new buzzword is commitment. But it’s one thing to use the word ‘commitment’ and quite another to know what it really is. So, what is it really…
Fact: People can be committed, even when they are dissatisfied.
I think of ‘customer satisfaction’ as a temporary diversion. For a short time, it seems to me, we forgot about things that we know from everyday life and poured our energies into customer satisfaction. Yet our everyday experience of life tells us that commitment is possible without satisfaction.
We should be grateful for this. Imagine what life would be like if it weren’t so. How vulnerable would personal relationships be if peoples’ commitment to them slumped whenever things weren’t going well. In fact, as personal relationships show, when satisfaction slumps commitment can actually increase as people become determined to save the relationship.
So too with brands. When The Coca-Cola Company got pushed into developing ‘new’ Coke by the success of Pepsi’s ‘cola challenge’ campaign in the mid 1980s, committed Coke drinkers in the USA insisted that the company bring back ‘the real thing’. They did this even though many were shown to prefer new Coke in blind taste tests.
The key ingredient – the factor that causes tolerance and drives commitment, is involvement. When people care about something, they will tolerate a certain amount of dissatisfaction. The more a person cares about their marriage, for example, the more committed they will be to trying to save it when things go wrong. So the key to real commitment, is involvement.
Fact: It’s possible to be committed to more than one.
I often introduce this point by asking people whether it’s possible to be in love with more than one person. The answer, again rather obviously, is ‘yes’. Think about people who have more than one child. Does the presence of a second child cut the amount of love available for the first? Obviously not!
The same can be true of products and brands – it is possible to be committed to more than one brand in a market simultaneously. I’m a wine enthusiast. As an enthusiast I’m committed to French, South African, and Australian wines. The fact that I’m committed to any one of them in no way subtracts from the enthusiasm I feel for the other two. I ‘overflow’ with commitment, if you like. Yet – and this is a paradoxical, but hard reality with which marketers seldom come to terms – I cannot be loyal to only one. Often, I will spend money on all three. My spending patterns would suggest that I’m fickle and promiscuous. In fact, if you asked me you’d discover that I spend as much as is sensible on each one of them.
The importance of this phenomenon – multiple commitment – tells us that we can only understand the behaviour of a person in relation to any one brand, by being sure about how they feel about all the others. So, commitment is not just about how well our brand fulfils someone’s needs. And it’s not just about how involved we’ve managed to make them in our brand. It’s also about how effectively other brands occupy the space that we hope our brand will occupy alone. And it’s crucial to recognize that the space available for brands to occupy is almost limitless, even if people’s budgets aren’t.
How do brands get strong?
The best definition of human intelligence that I’ve ever come across goes as follows: Intelligence is the successful pursuit of goals in the face of obstacles.
Now, to succeed in the pursuit of our goals we need to do two things – neither of them easy: first, we need to know what we want; and second, we need to know how the world works. The first has to do with organizing our desires, the second with organizing and checking the accuracy of our beliefs.
It’s a characteristic of belief – and hence, of brand imagery – that it builds up over time through experience. One of the hallmarks of a good brand is that it sticks to its brand promise. In other words, it delivers an experience which is consistent with what it stand for or represents. But what this means is that a brand’s image is accretive; and over time, the more experience a person has of a brand, the more entrenched its image will be. This means that brand images are hard to change.
When it comes to desire, there are no such problems. Human desires are multiple and fantastic in their scope and variety. Moreover, as all the great Far Eastern philosophers started to point out more than two and half thousand years ago, desires are unstable – and relatively easy to manipulate. In short, it is easier to change what someone thinks they want than to change what they believe.
There is no campaign that illustrates this better than the campaign that American marketers voted as the best of the 20th century. It’s the launch campaign for the VW Beetle in the USA. It dates from 1959, an era in which the average American aspired to big, powerful cars. Yet it turned what Americans wanted on its head and became an icon for the 1960’s.
Does that mean that brand images cannot be changed? The answer is obviously ‘no’. While it may be harder to change embedded brand images than to change what people think they want, examples abound of successful brand makeovers. There are a few keys to a successful change of image. The first is: Be patient and repetitive – it may take a long time for the message to get through. Marlboro took eighteen years to become the number one cigarette brand in the USA. The second is: Do not invite the consumer to argue with you – in other words, simply present the desired image in as disarming a way as possible. A great example of this is the way that Coca-Cola took control of our image of Father Christmas.
Finally, since involvement is so important in terms of commitment, an important question to ask is whether or not involvement can be created? The answer, of course, is ‘yes’. So long as there can be doubts about quality or authenticity, brand choices can be made to matter. I can think of no better recent example than the great ‘Intel inside’ campaign. No-one cared what was inside their PCs until Intel launched their campaign. Yet, within a few years, most people were nervous of machines that didn’t have Intels inside!
Commitment-led marketing is about recognizing that it’s commitment that drives the power that a brand has among people in a market. While it is essential to recognize that brands can become powerful without paying too much attention to people, the great brands combine both significant market power and significant power in the mind. And building commitment is what achieving power in the mind is all about.
But commitment is poorly understood. Without involving the consumer in the brand, it’s hard to achieve. Moreover, multiple commitment is possible – people have plenty of emotional space to be enthusiastic about more than one brand. When this happens, we need a portfolio to get their business.
Finally, while it may be hard to change what people think about brands, it is less hard to find creative ways to make brands wanted. If you must change what people think, then give yourself time, present the image you want in disarming ways, and above all, try not to invite too much thought.
Jan Hofmeyr and Butch Rice: Commitment-led Marketing, published by Wiley and Sons, 2001.
Jan Hofmeyr (Ph.D.)
CEO, The Customer Equity Company