Brand essence: Getting down to basics

In today’s business environment, everyone agrees branding is a necessary discipline. But I’ve observed that while company leaders are articulate about their business, many are not when it comes to their brand.

The two, of course are not the same. Most cannot answer the basic question: “Why does your brand exist?” except to say they want to stand out from the competition. They want to be more successful. That’s an excellent answer from a purely business perspective. But if the customer is asking the question, he or she won’t be so pleased with the reply.

After a few decades of contemplating brands and the entire branding process, I have concluded a brand is the proposition for forging lasting, personal relationships between a business entity and a group of people who can best support that business (even decisions for corporate accounts rest with people). So, if you’re responding to the question about the existence of your brand, wouldn’t it be more meaningful to those critically important individuals if your answer was about them?

Today, all consumers are invited to engage with brands that promise them product features with tangible benefits. Some of these brands are also clear that they exist for the purpose of connecting with people based on their needs. Human needs have been carefully and thoroughly studied revealing a hierarchy. These begin with Maslow’s long-accepted theory starting with basic physiological needs — food, water, shelter, clothing. Then they evolve to what one needs within a family or society that protects them against injustice and violence. The need for belonging comes next — to receive and give love, appreciation and friendship. Esteem needs follow — being a unique individual with self-respect and to enjoy general esteem from others. Ultimately the need for self-actualization is embraced so that one can experience purpose, meaning and realizing one’s inner potential.

If an entity exists for the benefit of a group of people and not for the purpose of making money for an individual, partners or group of investors, then the brand is by definition about people and about something that they value highly. Sounds like a good proposition for a lasting relationship. However, if — like a hotel or resort — an entity is dedicated to making a profit and its brand’s existence is purely business-centric, then chances are consumers are going to be much less loyal. They may visit that hotel or resort, but they may not stay with it.

I am currently helping a tourism destination define its brand. There is a wide variety of consumer groups needed to support the destination’s economy and the diverse interests that will benefit from successful branding. In searching for a compelling idea that will resonate with each audience we, of course, have looked at what the destination offers, but where we have found the power to be truly compelling is within the audiences, not the business entity. This particular destination is a region that offers year-round natural beauty among majestic mountains and pristine lakes as well as charming little towns. A dynamic brand idea has been discovered within a basic human need that is common among all the target audiences — the need to feel uplifted, elevated, inspired and part of something larger than one’s self. It has emerged as a natural, unforced connection between the benefits of all the features and attributes that define the region and the people who can support the local economy. It is also something valuable that can be shared by the target audiences and the brand.

The hospitality industry is rather special in that it can address perhaps the broadest spectrum of human needs. This affords branded hospitality companies that embrace thoughtful, highly professional brand positioning the opportunity to identify strong, compelling ideas for engaging customers — and with equally thoughtful brand stewardship, retain loyal customers and build an enthusiastic community around the brand.