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How Branding Really Works

"It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
—Abraham Maslow

Understanding why some branding campaigns are successful and other are not has been the object of numerous, unrelenting hours of research and debate. Many companies spend millions of dollars on advertising, yet get little return on their investment. This is essentially the same as lighting fire to a room full of money.

David Ogilvy, the famous advertising genius, once wrote about one such company that spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign…only to see it lower their sales. When confronted with this fact, the company decided to do nothing about it, as they were too afraid to stop the campaign in fear that it would further worsen the situation.

So how does effective brand building really work? There are four key principles that companies must first clearly understand in order to build an effective strategy:

1. The comfort zone. Everyone has a personal comfort zone in which they live their lives. It will regulate their average earnings, net worth, health and much more. We have to understand comfort zones will also impact consumers' purchasing habits and buying decisions. Based on personal comfort zones, each individual will have a perceived set of needs that they must satisfy in order to maintain their lifestyle.

2. Memory impact. With the vast majority of people, a simple rule applies: The more emotionally charged a person is during an event, the more memorable the experience will be to them. For example, very few people can recall what they were doing on September 11, 2000, but many people remember with amazing detail what they were doing on September 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Historically, many advertising campaigns produced ads that were funny, sexually explicit or graphic enough to stimulate heightened emotional responses from consumers, thus making their ads more memorable. Music has also been used as a mnemonic device to create an emotional response and increase advertisement recall.

3. Classic conditioning. Way back in the 1890s, Ivan Pavlov made an important discovery while conducting research on canine digestion. Pavlov noticed dogs could become conditioned to salivate not merely by the presence of food but by the presence of a neutral object or event that becomes associated with the food. In his experiment Pavlov discovered that the repeated action of ringing a bell prior to feeding dogs would cause dogs to salivate upon the ringing of the bell even if the food was not present. This is now known as classic conditioning and is use widely in major advertising campaigns.

People will innately build associations between things that may be completely unrelated if they are conditioned to do so through experience. This tactic is often used by beer advertisers. Often beer advertisements feature their brand with attractive females in social situations. With enough exposure to these ads, young males may start to perceive the increased possibility of meeting attractive females by consuming more of that particular brand.

4. Connection to human needs. If you examine consumer brands you will discover that the extremely successful ones all satisfy at least one of the five basic human needs identified by Abraham Maslow in his well-known hierarchy of needs. The bottom level of the hierarchy represents people’s most rudimentary needs, while the higher levels represent psychological needs:

• Self-actualization (self-fulfillment; doing what you are meant to do).

• Esteem (self-esteem; confidence; achievement; respect of others).

• Love/belonging (sexual intimacy; family; relationships).

• Safety (security; feeling confidence about what is in your life).

The following are some examples of extremely successful brands, each of which has been positioned to effectively satisfy one of the five needs shown above:

Mercedes-Benz. This very famous and successful brand perfectly satisfies one's need for esteem. It's a brand that symbolizes achievement, draws respect from others and bolsters self-confidence.

Toyota. Toyota effectively satisfies one’s need for safety. Their cars are known for reliability. There is little worry about untimely breakdowns and costly repairs. Toyota vehicles are a safe choice.

Molson Canadian. Molson's advertising focuses on the need for love and belonging. This brand positions itself as a source of relationships and friendships, especially with the opposite sex.

How It All Comes Together

The successful branding formula combines classic conditioning with heightened emotional experiences, consumer comfort zones and associations that imply that your brand can satisfy one of your customers’ basic needs. Please realize this is not easily done, as you must clearly understand your customer and which needs are most important to them. This is very challenging, yet critical, because higher-level needs appear when lower-level needs are satisfied.

Know that it is useless to appeal to a need for prestige if your customers are living paycheck to paycheck. They’re focused only on their safety and security needs. You must also determine what type of emotional response is best to evoke within your customers and how best to evoke it. Is humor, guilt, fear or some other emotion the best for stirring your customers, and how do you go about making them feel this way?

Advertising is a high-stakes game that can pay off extremely well…or can merely be an enormous, fruitless expense to your company. That is why it's strongly recommended to use professional agencies with a proven track record of success. Their fees are very small in comparison to the potentially large losses that can accrue from ineffective advertising campaigns.

Dan MacDonald is president of Business Improvement Solutions, a performance management consulting firm. He can be reached at dmacdonald@bisconsulting.ca.