Developing a strong brand is about creating an emotional connection with a consumer. Right? This brand axiom seems to be the first lesson that marketing professionals learn. How to get there and how you know when you arrive at that coveted relationship status is a whole other topic. To be sure, building a brand strong enough to fend off price pressure, or one that can act as a platform to launch successive new product extensions that keep competitors off-balance is not easy or quick. The advantages of owning a strong brand are clear; the path to building one is hardly ever clear and challenges ever present. Too often we look externally to assess the challenges and not enough attention is being spent looking internally. Consumers’ passion for a brand reflects the passion for the brand inside the organization.
Marketers can recite many legitimate reasons, like budget constraints, senior management apathy, and lack of new product technology as just a few of the reasons that are impeding their intentions and efforts in building a strong brand. Those and many reasons can be justifiable, but I believe there may be a more organic or essential element missing that is controllable by the marketer that lies at the heart of building a strong brand. I am referring to the emotional connection between the marketer and the brand.
Building and sustaining the level of passion that maintains an enduring, enrapturing relationship with consumers is a matter of culture. Igniting and nurturing that passion inside the culture is the responsibility of the brand manager.
A marketer’s relationship with a brand can be neither clinical nor mercenary. No matter how many brands a marketing professional may manage in their career, each brand must be managed with an ethos of authentic admiration for the brand’s legacy and possibilities. This must be true no matter if the brand is Ecumen, Farm Credit System, Fluke, IceArmor, Loctite, Nike or you name the brand in any category. True passion is heartfelt, enduring and unwavering. If we want that from a brand’s consumers we should demand it of the brand’s manager.
Writing on this topic reminds me of two different cases that can add clarity to the claim. A number of years ago I was on a speaking panel sponsored by public radio. One of the panel members was an executive from General Mills and we asked to share our viewpoints on the state of brand management. On one of the breaks we were kibitzing about the state of the profession and he shared a particular frustration he was experiencing with new brand managers.
He went on to tell me about how General Mills characteristically hired young, high- potential MBA graduates from a select set of graduate schools, with Stanford being the first choice. The best and the brightest would be hired and relocated to Minneapolis. These new hires arriving in Minneapolis feeling full of possibilities and flush with a first- quartile salary and signing bonus. Getting settled meant finding the “right” address in south Minneapolis and buying a BMW or their brand of choice of upscale car. Following their orientation they were assigned a General Mills household brand, like Hamburger Helper. The frustration he was feeling revolved around the apprehension or difficulty the new brand managers were having connecting with the Hamburger Helper and its consumers.
Compare that to my experience working on a project for Cabela’s, the outdoor sporting goods retailer. Our firm was retained to assess the retailer’s marketing process and organizational structure. Everyone’s passion for hunting and fishing became immediately obvious from the very first interaction when I arrived at the company’s headquarters in Sidney, Nebraska. Having a passion for one’s employer’s business is one thing, but what I experienced at Cabela’s was at a whole other level! It turns out that one’s level of passion for hunting and fishing was paramount. Competence always took second seat to passion for the brand.
I learned first hand the importance of passion over competence. It became evident when I was presenting the final recommendation of our study, which had been vetted by many on the marketing team, to the senior management team. At the conclusion of presenting our recommendation one executive responded, “That is an interesting and insightful recommendation, but how much do you fish and hunt”? He wasn’t kidding. To him and others on the senior management team the study recommendations from an established marketing consulting firm needed validation by our passion for hunting and fishing. I was impressed.
Marketing knowledge can be learned or purchased, but a passion for a brand and its targeted customers needs to be intrinsic and sincere. With employee engagement levels waning and young professionals’ serial version of a career, I am concerned that internal brand alignment may be our new brand management challenge.