The cradle-to-grave conundrum

To a brand manager, actual products can be so limiting.
That may be an over-simplification of the essence of building brand equity, but it does underline the new model behind successful brand development: Ideas are more likely to garner loyalty than products. At the same time, ideas need sustenance in order to survive, and for longevity they need to be passed on to the next generation.
Brand managers know this, of course - who doesn't want to have the power of Nike or McDonald's? - but few have the luxury of pursuing such lofty goals.

To a brand manager, actual products can be so limiting.

That may be an over-simplification of the essence of building brand equity, but it does underline the new model behind successful brand development: Ideas are more likely to garner loyalty than products. At the same time, ideas need sustenance in order to survive, and for longevity they need to be passed on to the next generation.

Brand managers know this, of course – who doesn’t want to have the power of Nike or McDonald’s? – but few have the luxury of pursuing such lofty goals.

‘A lot of managers don’t even have a two-year perspective, let alone a cradle-to-grave strategy,’ says Ed Freibauer, managing director at Toronto’s Futurebrand.

It’s obvious why a cradle-to-grave perspective is attractive, he says. ‘Brands are the articulation of habit. People use them passively to make choices.’ Visions of Stepford Wives passivity aside, it’s the reflexive choice, be it of cat food or car, that makes for a strong brand.

Ensuring that continuity – or fighting hard to rattle consumers out of their current reflexive habits so that they can settle into another – is the challenge.

Ideas first, products second

‘Ideas resonate,’ says Freibauer. Eyebrows may have initially risen when Nike made its forays into hockey or golf, but these days Nike is more an idea than a line of T-shirts and shoes.

Thanks to the success enjoyed by such multi-product brands, the fear of brand dilution – so common only a few years ago – has gone the way of Wall St. bravado. It’s sometimes evident, but nowhere near as overwhelming, Freibauer maintains.

‘Marketers used to worry about diluting the brand,’ he says. ‘We thought that brand was restricted by product parameters.’ That school of thought has changed as some brands prove that they’re less about positioning product than positioning ideas.

He points to some of the younger players on the brand stage – Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey in the U.S., President’s Choice and Roots in Canada – as examples of brands that are freestanding ideas.

While there are obvious limitations to this strategy – it’s not easy to find an idea that’s as relevant to a five-year-old as a 60-year-old – it has fewer limitations than brands tied too closely to their products or services, he says.

The problem with Canadian brands

Building strong brand ideas takes a strong budget, so it’s more challenging to build cradle-to-grave brands in Canada than it is in the U.S., says Philippe Garneau of Toronto’s Garneau Würstlin Philp Brand Engineering. Because of our smaller budgets, ‘you have to be smarter about how you brand because you won’t have as many opportunities to reach your audience.’

Beer and car companies may be able to afford multiple messages, he says, but not every company has that luxury. ‘The rest of the world had better tell the customer what it’s about and stick to it and be consistent in the delivery of that promise every time,’ he says.

The fact is, says Lynne Kilpatrick, VP strategy and planning at Spencer Francey Peters in Toronto, not all client loyalty can be equally meaningful. Brand relationships are as diverse as human relationships, with some being quite shallow, though consistent, while others forge deeper and more complicated connections.

A consistent core prevails

Still, the smart brands, according to Kilpatrick, are those that try to deliver a meaningful relationship that somehow surpasses the category of products or services offered. The brand then becomes a talisman of meaning.

Kilpatrick says that the two key ingredients for creating such a brand are absolute consistency and constant reinvention. ‘You want to constantly reinvent the way you market and the types of products you sell but you don’t want to reinvent the foundation of what the brand stands for,’ she says.

Take one of the most transient of consumer goods – fashion – and you can see that the successful players, such as Prada, take their brand-as-an-idea responsibility seriously, even while playing to the whims of a marketplace.

The danger befalling many companies that try to extend their brand is they become chameleons, shamelessly adapting whatever traits each segment desires. This is a huge mistake, says Garneau. ‘As long as they stick to their brand, they’ll at least preserve the right to win customers back.’

Data = loyalty

Jim Southcott, chief strategic officer at Bryant, Fulton & Shee in Vancouver, says he’s noticed that the brands that succeed at winning lifelong customers tend to be the ones that invest in data gathering and analysis. These are the companies, he says, that ‘go beyond thinking about transactions and think about the lifetime value of a customer.’

Car companies such as Saturn have been particularly effective at using data to prolong their brand’s relationship with customers. Every year the company leverages its database to invite customers to its family drive-in picnics, and its Saturn Playgrounds help build the brand with both current owners and those considering a Saturn.

Data can also sometimes indicate that a brand needs a facelift. It took Shoppers Drug Mart six years to move corporately from its old-school ‘get ‘em in the door’ tactics to a new and revitalized brand that focuses on health and beauty by targeting the high-value pharmaceutical and cosmetic customers, Southcott says. ‘Their customer count went down but their margins went through the roof – up to 30 or 40%.’

Cradle-to-grave starts with the cradle

With so much pressure on brand managers to show results yesterday, few Canadian marketers have the resources to start building brands in the minds of future customers. But it’s becoming standard practice for the larger U.S. brands to include kids in the marketing mix, and more Canadian companies are doing it today than five years ago.

Futurebrand’s Freibauer cites the President’s Choice brand as one of the few that will see its kid-targeting efforts pay off in years to come. ‘When you’re a parent and you remember Teddy’s Choice as a kid, you may feel comfortable [enough to buy President's Choice],’ he says.

‘Most companies strive for youth to make sure there’s continual new blood,’ says BF&S’s Southcott. But some companies also realize that the young are already making certain buying decisions.

When launching the Shaw@Home high-speed Internet service last year, the agency first created a mass campaign for adults. ‘Then we realized that the real driver was the teen in the household,’ says Southcott. Young teenagers were very much aware of their household’s connection speed, he says. ‘They were insisting that they have the latest and greatest and not get left behind.’

The campaign that resulted from these findings, launched in the B.C. and Alberta markets last April, targeted teen insecurities by featuring younger tweens catching on to the technology before the teens themselves. This was the first time Shaw used kids in its advertising and, since then, it has developed more creative with kids as the focus.

The fact that the company is also building goodwill among tweens that could last a lifetime? That’s icing on the cake.