Look at any of the best brands in the marketplace, old or new, and you can immediately tell what makes them different from others in the category. It’s also clear why this difference matters to consumers. These brands solve problems, or make life better in some meaningful way. (In many cases, consumers are aware they have these problems. In other cases, they may not be aware, but are delighted to have them pointed out and resolved.)
There is no long-term value in a brand if the product isn’t something people will use or find important to their lives. To achieve success in brand building, the first thing you need to do is identify a problem to solve, come up with a different way to solve it, and then determine if this difference will actually matter to anyone.
While this fundamental branding theory is easy to explain, the execution is obviously daunting. Why else would there be news reports of brands in distress on a regular basis? Most brands start out with a powerful combination of relevance and differentiation.
But, the reality is that the day after they launch, two things start happening: First, competitors jump in and start chipping away at the differentiation. They look at how you solved the problem, and then see if they can do it better. Second, the relevance starts to erode. Consumers slowly but surely start changing. Often, by the time a brand realizes consumers have shifted, its first-mover advantage is at risk and it’s too late to catch up.
Bottom line, relevance is essential to brand success. That said, staying relevant and evolving to meet consumer needs in a fast-changing world is the most, well, daunting challenge brands face today. With the pace of change accelerating at such a dizzying speed, only those brands that follow the three rules of course correction will be those that succeed. The rules are as follows:
1. Wake up every day assuming you are no longer relevant
Or, as Andy Grove, co-founder and CEO of Intel, famously put it, “Only the paranoid survive.” From the moment your brand first makes an appearance, assume its relevance is dropping. To counteract this, continuously look at the original problem you set out to solve, but from multiple perspectives and new angles. Expand your view of the marketplace and the category. Expand the range of customers you might be able to attract. Again, as Grove said, “Businesses fail either because they leave their customers or because their customers leave them.” Don’t give your customers a reason to leave.
2. Be a keen observer of human behavior
Ask consumers what they want and they’ll likely be unable to tell you. As Henry Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they’d tell me faster horses.” Being a keen observer of human behavior, watching how consumers interact with your brand—and with competitors’ brands—provides a much more reliable gauge of where your brand should be heading. Look for slight variations and subtle signs. Incremental changes become exponential changes seemingly overnight. Don’t be caught unaware.
3. Be ready to see and seize
To be successful in today’s fast-paced marketplace, it’s not enough to be able to see what’s on the road ahead, your organization must be flexible enough to react and seize the opportunity. You can never stop thinking about ways to improve your business and must be open to input and suggestions from every employee. Always on the frontlines, they are your eyes and ears.
Brand success has always been contingent upon establishing a differentiated meaning for your brand that the consumers you want to reach care about—and find relevant. This has not changed. What has changed is the pace of change. To keep ahead, to stay relevant, follow the three rules outlined above, advice more relevant today than it ever was.