Here’s How Brands Become ‘Sherpas’

It only works in service industries, though

In a new survey of consumers, Arnold has identified a need for brands to better educate and guide people through the maze of choices in their lives—and when they find their way, pat them on the back. In other words, in service categories like banking and healthcare, marketers have a chance to become “brand Sherpas.” The approach won’t work for every brand, however, as Neela Pal, Arnold’s global director of business and brand strategy, explains in her first interview about the survey findings.

What was the aha moment that gave rise to the phrase "brand Sherpa?"

Two things. Consumers are looking for more guidance from brands than we expected. Eighty-one percent of consumers today are looking for brands to provide some kind of guidance to them, especially in industries and categories where it’s a little bit more of a complicated, complex decision-making process. The second thing was that these brands are not only helping guide consumers along this path but are also enabling them and celebrating those achievements and accomplishments. So, they were more than a partner; they were enabling them and then they were celebrating their achievements. We felt like that is really what a Sherpa does for a mountaineer as they go up that mountain.

Are consumers expecting too much from brands?

I don’t think they are expecting too much. I think they are very cognizant of turning too much control over to a brand. What they’re looking for brands to do today is to share with them tools, make the process a little bit easier, to help them make the right choices. The key to part to it [though] is that they still want to stay in control.

How does Weight Watchers fit the mold of a brand Sherpa?

Brand Sherpas are especially relevant when people are on a path to some kind of goal that’s a little more complicated, that has a couple of different steps to it. Weight Watchers has … a great brand Sherpa role because not only have they provided information that’s very simplified, [but] they provide tools to help people figure out things like how many calories am I taking in, how many calories am I burning. They then also celebrate each of those goals and milestones along that path. That information now—when you achieve a goal in the physical environment—is celebrated if you’ve ever gone to a Weight Watchers meeting. And now it’s shareable: you can post it when you’ve achieved certain goals.

What brands seem ripe for this approach but aren’t really picking it?

Brands in the banking space, financial services, healthcare. Those are the kinds of categories that we found that people really need assistance in [to make] better decisions. So, brands that are in those spaces really have a lot of opportunity to be a guide, to provide that kind of information, to provide step-by-step tools to help better navigate—especially at critical junctures—and then to celebrate those achievements because that’s what builds the emotional bond. Fidelity is a great example of one of our clients that’s doing that well.

For what types of brands is the brand Sherpa concept irrelevant?

Maybe the beer category or even certain fast foods. They don’t really match the definition of the certain environment that we’ve talked about that would require a more Sherpa-like role.

Also, it would be rejected as a false note. You don’t want to be laughed at when you try to do that, right, like a couple of years ago when KFC tried to sell fried chicken as something healthy to eat?

That’s right. The brand Sherpa aspect should be something that is part of a brand DNA or brand value that the brand already has.

Is it somewhat surprising how much we expect from brands compared to traditional institutions like government and religion?

We participate with brands more than ever before. But I think all of those other institutions are still critical: people’s personal and social networks, their community networks, there’s governmental [bodies], there’s religious. … Brands today, though, have a place in the lives of consumers if they can do it in a very genuine, credible and additive way. They need to provide something of value to play that meaningful role like some of those other groups. So, this isn’t about brands replacing any of those. This is about brands participating in your circle of all the resources that you have.

This seems to cry out for a more long-term, nuanced approach to marketing.

I think about it this way: given the recession, what people are looking for is greater value and there are two ways that you can drive that value. You can have more sales and lower your price. You can make the denominator a little bit smaller so the overall value is bigger. Or you can add more to the top. You can add more valuable content, play a more meaningful role. And that provides more value to the consumer for the price that they’re paying. … So, it allows businesses, it allows brands to promote less, discount less and be more valuable in terms of adding meaningful benefits that are really relevant to the consumer.