For the past 20 years, our firm has helped leading consumer products companies, including Harley-Davidson, Coca-Cola, Whole Foods, Kraft, Cadbury, JM Smucker and many others, figure out how to manifest their brands in places, spaces and experiences. We've also had the opportunity to work closely with many impressive local and regional retailers, grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants as they try to build their brand empires and expand their reach.
During this time, we've witnessed a fair amount of change, but I have to say that the past few years, in particular, seemed increasingly turbulent. Starting with 9/11, the wars, the explosive growth of the Internet and, of course, the Great Recession, our society has headed toward a new order, which is not yet fully formed. What is certain, however, is that the ability of companies to change, adapt and adjust is more important now than ever. While most of our clients are surviving and even expanding, almost all of them seem cautious about the future. And they keep asking the same simple, but critical, question: What are today's new consumers looking for?
While there are countless studies, research reports, surveys, blogs and forecasts prognosticating what consumers claim they want next, we generally find chasing trend predictions is an elusive if not dangerous instrument for managing a retail brand or restaurant enterprise. Far too many companies integrate these trends in an ad-hoc manner, which rarely rings true with consumers — at least not in deep and enduring ways. Worse yet, trend-chasing tactics can take a brand way off track.
Our advice is to not chase trends, but to pursue values. In our experience, this is what matters most to consumers. Great brands like Apple, Starbucks, Harley-Davidson and Whole Foods didn't ask us, as consumers, what we wanted as much as they shared what they believed we needed. And we consumers appear to agree with them.
Tune in to Values
There is a kind of tuning relationship between companies with deep values and consumers who admire or aspire to pursue those values. You can see this kind of reciprocal tuning-in taking place with culturally resonant brands. This type of relationship's key characterization is a sort of signal-reception dynamic.
Establishing this signal-to-receiver system is not easy, however. It takes lots of experimentation and fine-tuning to lock in. And frankly, most companies don't have the patience, much less the key dials and instruments, to fiddle with and get the reception just right.
We suggest thinking of this system like three simple knobs on a stereo — say volume, treble and bass — or on the old TVs that had the vertical, horizontal and color knobs. Each "knob" works in a specific dimension and with a dedicated purpose. Only when they are all aligned and configured correctly is there a sense of brand definition and brand clarity that makes the overall picture quality clear.
This three-knob system helps companies get a clearer picture of what their brand stands for (the signal) in relation to what consumers are looking for (the receiver). These knobs operate as an assessment tool and a development tool for managing a brand. The key is to bring clarity and focus to the dimensions of the brand. Great brands resist chasing random tactics that would make it hard for consumers to understand them, and ultimately weaken their signal.
Here's a quick overview of the three knobs:
1. The Problem Knob
Humans have always sought out solutions to problems in their quest to make life easier, more convenient and more enjoyable. While a lot of companies talk in terms of opportunities and positive results, we encourage clients to view the world as a series of problems to solve: what to eat, how to get a good night's sleep, how to lose weight, how to celebrate your wedding anniversary, etc.
The best companies are exceedingly clear, internally and externally, about the problems they solve for customers and the solutions they provide society. And they're adept at finding new problems to solve, problems a lot of consumers didn't even know they had until a brand came along to solve it.
In the world of food and restaurants, the problems consumers have can be literal, such as, "Can I get a vegetarian option?" or, "Can you accommodate my brief lunch schedule?", or they can be more emotive, such as, "How can I impress a first date?", or, "Where can I entertain an important client?" Some consumers are asking even bigger, broader questions, such as, "How can I help the environment?" The key for food-based entities is to identify the types of problems they solve for consumers and to clearly present that capability in the brand and the environment.
2. The Meaning Knob
Humans construct and use meaning as a way to make sense of the world, to explain our pain, loss and tragedies while also giving us a sense of purpose, hope, direction and quest. Great companies don't create meaning out of thin air as much as they discover, adjust and tap into meaning that already exists in society. For example, Harley-Davidson didn't create the idea of personal freedom or rebellion, but it tapped into it in a deep and compelling way. Whole Foods didn't invent the natural and organic movement, but it recognized and uncovered a receptive market for it.
For generations, most companies avoided addressing the issue of meaning because it seemed too fuzzy and esoteric. But increasingly, companies must face the essential need consumers have for deeper meaning. A prime example: Walmart vs. Target. While Walmart has won on price perception, Target has carved out its strong market position through meaning. And you can now see a similar dynamic playing out with food brands such as Chipotle, Tender Greens and Veggie Grill in competition with traditional fast food concepts.
More than ever, consumers appear to be rewarding retail brands and restaurants that infuse a greater level of meaning into their brand value proposition. Many companies, however, aren't sure what their meaning is or where to find it. We suggest uncovering your values first and, from there, start to map out a "field of meaning" within which your brand is situated.
3. The Experience Knob
Humans have always sought out experiences that activate the senses in heightened ways. This is one of the reasons we like going to a farmer's market, theme park or Mongolian barbecue restaurant. These experiences can provide us with a sense of exhilaration and rejuvenation. The best companies create great experiences that not only manifest their strategy in clear, compelling ways but also stoke and evoke meaning with a certain set of customers. For example, Whole Foods has been a master at creating the perfect Mother-Nature-meets-agrarian-utopia theater. This is the scene where the world of organic and natural food now exists for many people.
Because our senses offer a direct portal to our perceptions, if you want to change the way your brand is perceived, change the way it activates consumers' senses.
While there is no perfect system or set of instructions for managing a brand, using these three key "knobs" can be a great way to develop structure, clarity and the best experiential representation of a brand. The system can help determine the signals your brand is communicating, purposefully or not, as well as how that signal is being received by today's new consumer.